Monday, May 14, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“A FIELD OFFICER’S NOTEBOOK – Selected Poems” by Dan Davin, edited with an introduction by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ29:95); “THE QUEST” by Yannis Kyrlis (English language translation by Maria Georgala) (Austen Macauley Publishers, no price given); “WALKING TO JUTLAND STREET” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ 27:50); “THE FACTS” by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC?” by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “WINTER EYES” by Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); "WHISPER OF A CROW'S WING" by Majella Cullinane (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50)


Dan Davin (1913-1990) was best known as a novelist, short-story writer and academic publisher. He had only a few poems published in his lifetime and was not primarily known as a poet. Nevertheless, he did fill notebooks with poems and ideas for poems, none of which have hitherto been made public. Robert McLean has selected, edited and written a very informative introduction to A Field Officer’s Notebook, presenting what he sees as the best of Davin’s published and unpublished poems. The title was one which Davin himself considered for such a collection.

As McLean’s introduction explains, Davin wrote poetry in three periods of his life only, marked in this collection by the headings “Before”, “During” and “After”. The “Before” was in the late 1930s, when Davin was a young man in England, remembering New Zealand and considering a career. The “During” was the Second World War, probably the pivotal period of Davin’s life, when he served with the New Zealand Division in Crete, North Africa and Italy. The “After” was years later, in old age in the 1980s and in retirement from the world of publishing.

McLean speaks of Davin’s “inescapable minor key” in that so many of these poems are wistful, lamenting, accepting of death without eternal rewards and only occasionally finding pleasure in nostalgic, fragmented memories of childhood. In McLean’s view the poems written during the war are Davin’s best.  McLean characterises the poets of the First World War as moving from “idealism to cynicism”, whereas the poets of the Second World War moved from “cynicism to nihilism”. This, he says, was Davin’s course. Though inflected with classical allusions, the poems Davin wrote in North Africa are ironic and raw. They are, says McLean “insistently negative”. He contrasts Davin’s war poems with those of New Zealand’s two best-known servicemen poets of the Second World War, M.K. Joseph and Denis Glover. Davin, he notes, wrote his best wartime poems while the conflict was still in progress. The other two poets wrote in postwar recollection.

This is all the framework of A Field Officer’s Notebook, but what of the poems themselves? We cannot escape the fact that they are poems of their time. Many of the later poems are free-form – perhaps in an “unfinished” state – while the earlier ones tend to be in stricter traditional metres. It is impossible to ignore the dated diction that the younger  man often favours (“ponder” “chide” etc.)

The poems of the “Before” section present a young man’s anxieties, not just in having left comfortable childhood behind, but in the sense of having so far achieved nothing in his life (see especially the poem “In what diversity of sterile tasks”). Perhaps there is a touch of envy at those who got ahead of him academically, as in “Had I constrained my spirit then”,  written in 1937, where Davin claims to spurn Academe in favour of Bohemia. In its entirety, it goes thus:

Had I constrained my spirit then

To put on learning’s gown

I might have scorned the life of men

And walked with the scholar’s frown.

Well-informed I should have strode

Lettered and erudite

Subscribing to a college code

And mouthing maxims trite.

I might have lost humanity

And withered to a don

But I preferred profanity

Love and demijohn.

Well, perhaps Davin preferred cussing, shagging and drinking to scholarship, but the preference clearly wasn’t unmixed.

The general tone of the “During” section is less defensive. When Davin writes of the dead under snow, he sees no consolation. His poem “Haunted by mysteries, life, time, and death” does not accept the concept (so much a focus for Wallace Stevens) that living joys and sensuality are made more precious and wonderful by the prospect of annihilation in death. Davin won’t accept even that apologia for death, because death haunts and pollutes the joys of life, as in the lines “Wolves exiled from the light / Their jealousies prowl still / About the brief campfires of our love, / Living a ghoulish life / within the echoes of our laughter”. Davin cannot write a poem about soldiers enjoying an evening boozing and having a knees-up. Instead his poem “Morning Fatigue in the Canteen” depicts the morning-after clean up of cigarette butts and slops.

The most finished poems of Davin’s wartime experience are, it seems to me, three of the most confronting. “Egyptian Madonna” is a poem of disgust as the poet describes in horrible detail the sight of an undernourished child being suckled by an impoverished mother. “Cairo Cleopatra” is just as explicit in its view of a prostitute – or at least of a prostitute’s body being used by many soldiers. As for “Grave near Sirte”, the harshest poem in the book, it concerns the complete anonymity of death and the way we inevitably forget the dead, regardless of what the monuments say.

The imagery of some of the poems in the “After” section clearly sets them in the London of the 1980s. Some, dare I say it, are trite aphorisms. There are memories of Davin’s Irish-New Zealand childhood, and he babbles of the green fields, perhaps covered in gorse, of Gore and Invercargill. Yet he is still frequently referencing and re-imagining the war, with fragments of a poem about El Alamein, and quoted snatches of an ironic song about Ravenstein (the German general who was captured in North Africa by a detachment of New Zealanders). His envoi to the war is “Why not be dead?” which goes thus: “Why not be dead? / 
The old dead soldier said.
/ It’s really far less trouble
 / And there are no orders, no jankers, here, /  To be carried out at the double.”

This is the best epitaph the unhappy ex-soldier poet could write for himself.

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It is flattering when a man on the other side of the world writes and asks me if I could review on my blog his collection of short stories. When the Greek writer Yannis Kyrlis wrote from Athens to ask if I would review The Quest, I readily said I would. This slim volume (138 pages) consists of twelve short stories, many of them very brief. The longest is the title-story “The Quest” at 32 pages, followed by “Just Don’t Forget the Way” at 30 pages.

Most [but not all] of the collection’s shorter stories are written in the detached third-person voice and most take the form of fables, parables or visions – more extended image than sequential narrative. The settings are often unreal – I hesistate to say surreal – being both everywhere and nowhere. In “The Threat” a man defends his house from men who want to destroy it – or do they? “The Sceptre” has lovers quarrelling near a rubbish dump, where a walking cane becomes a symbol for antiquated patriarchal authority. “Some Black Birds” is a simple shocker while “Confessions in a Café” presents a rather convoluted discussion in a café between older and younger people of artistic pretensions, ending with a reconciliation between the generations. Symbolism – or extended metaphor – hangs heavily over some stories. “The Stranger” presents a literal foot race as the epitome of the urban rat race. “The Painter of St George” shows a painter’s confidence ruined by a hostile review. “Before the Dawn” is a soul journey story set among street people. “The Little Girl with Cloth Legs” plays with very heavy symbolism indeed as an alluring childhood memory is exorcised by a Witch (or is that Fate?). “The Course of a Crisis” is most definitely a parable, about our need for enemies in order to sharpen our thoughts.

            Thus I have name-checked my way through nearly all of this volume’s shorter offerings. They sound at least a little like the shorter pieces of Kafka in their arbitrary conclusions and not-quite-diagnosed sense of menace. I would advise that they be read carefully, one at a time, or their simlarity of style could become oppressive.

Far more interesting, I think, are the two longer pieces, both written in the first person and therefore perhaps signalling a greater engagement on the author’s part. Oddly, one is a dreamlike, almost surreal piece, while the other is strictly realistic.

“The Quest” is the surreal one, of the Alice-in-Wonderland variety with its abrupt transitions. The narrator has literally lost his heart and is fishing for it in murky water. People incite him to suicide. He is set before a sort of tribunal, convened in a tavern, which accuses him of wilfully losing his heart. His friend and protector is called “the Illustrator”. At one point his heart is a leaf hanging on a tree. At another he is confronted by a powerful female figure who accuses him of throwing his heart away on her. It is hard to read “The Quest” without plucking out symbols – the dead tree, the tower, and perhaps “the Illustrator”, symbolising conscience or art – something that can put the narrator’s experiences into words and can rationalise them. But as to what it means…. like most surrealism, it simply is not reducable to a formula. Kafka’s K. really would be at home in its atmosphere of meaningless menace – a nightmare in images.

Personal taste leads me to relate much more favourably to “Just Don’t Forget the Way”, a realistic presentation of the childhood memories of a man who lived in an impoverished village – not that the poverty is played up by the narrator, who would have been too young to diagnose such things. Poverty is implied by the fact that the narrator’s father has had to leave for Germany to find work and it is implied by the bitter quarrels housewives have over nothing – that nothing being the meagre rations they have to feed their families. At one point, the narrator’s gang of kids find the corpse of  a man who has committed suicide, presumably from despair. This is a robust and straightforward child’s narrative, and it gives a kid’s eye-view of (Greek) political events that the kid does not understand. Only towards the end do we realise that it is set just after the Colonels have staged their coup.

But there is one snag in this story. It has to do with the uncertain nature of the translation from Greek into English. The matter is not as evident in the volume’s more surreal stories, where unrealistic flourishes of language are part of the territory.  But in a realistic story like “Just Don’t Forget the Way”, it is jarring to find a kid saying “he will bestow me his bicycle” or “a new kid who came lately to our neighbourhood”, or for one quarrelling woman to use the word “foolish” as a form of address, as in “What can you tell me, foolish?” rather than something like “you fool”. To me, this unidiomatic English suggests that English is not the translator’s first language.

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            I have to provide a collective apology to the five poets whose work I cover very briefly in what follows. On this blog, I try to consider collections of poetry in detail, but given that I am now posting only fortnightly, this is becoming harder to do, so – not for the first time – I am here providing “notices” rather full-length critiques. I hope this is satisfactory. 

This may be a brash thing to say, but Michael Steven’s debut volume Walking to Jutland Street fills me with an odd sort of nostalgia. It situations itself in a well-established New Zealand tradition – as the blurb says, it’s partly under the influence of New Zealand poets Olds, Orr, Johnson and (maybe) Baxter. This is the realist poetry of blokes in hard circumstances, in the workshop or in the grotty Dunedin student flat, sometimes among bums, beats, hopheads [cor! listen to my dated slang!] – in a word Bohemians, trying to find some sort of karmic truth. I like the plain statement of all this and I note there’s another layer of nostagia here in that Steven himself is clearly looking back on his life as it was and not as it is. The excellent descriptive title poem “Walking Jutland Street” says as much, especially in its closing line “I am writing these lines from another life.” In saying it’s realist, I’m not dismissing this very arresting collection as a series of literalist snapshots. Steven peppers his verse with unexpected jabs of telling imagery, and he has a wicked ironic wit. Check out one of his best, “Educating SR-3781”, which uses a funny-sad story to point up the difference between machine and human being. In an odd sort of way, Steven moralises, too. The opening poem might be a wild childhood cavort with an excited tone of whoop-de-do, and later ones have rich descriptions of travel in Asia – but as for the Bohemian ones, Steven often admits that there was a destructive side to the Bohemian life.

Therese Lloyd’s The Facts is a book of withdrawal, of unhappiness, of a desperate attempt to find something positive in life. A number of her poems are [to use a word she herself uses in her notes] ekphrastic – that is, they are comments on existing works of art or images, and there is a section which plays variations on the poetry of Mallarme. I think I am justified in saying that some of them are fairly opaque. Central to the collection, however, is the sense of aging and, apparently, an account of a marriage that didn’t work. So the tone is often very confessional. I found myself most absorbed in two poems. The first is the prose poem “On Looking at Photographs in High School Yearbooks”, which negotiates cleverly the task of being at once dismissive of, and nostalgic for, what is now dead and gone. The second is the eponymous nine-page poem “The Facts”, a consciously candid view of a failing marriage written more in lucid dissection than in anger. Its imagery is both complex and engaging, but also often bleak. I have to agree with Hera Lindsay Bird’s comment (quoted in the blurb) that this book “won’t make you feel better”.

I am going to begin by admitting a prejudice. I am prejudiced in favour of the poetry of Helen Heath. When I reviewed her first collection Graft on this blog in 2012, I praised her for her humane clear-headedness and her engagement with science. I find these same qualities in her new collection Are Friends Electric?, although this is a volume that heads in some new directions. The first section (also called “Are Friends Electric?”) is heavily footnoted as it contains many “found poems” and many allusions to, or quotations from, other people’s texts. Often I find the concept of “found poems” offputting. Too often they become exercises in isolating, and implicitly being ironical or mocking about, what somebody else has written. But this is not Helen Heath’s style. What she finds she transforms. The sequence about “Strandbeests” really does become an engrossing reflection on human-made concepts and imagined evolutionary processes. Even more arresting, the prose poem “The Anthropocene” connects us human beings with bird-calls in a most unexpected and refreshing way. If I do not connect as whole-heartedly with the poems, in this first section, on love and relationships, it may simply be that they reflect the mores of a generation different from my own. The second long section, called “Reprogramming the Heart” is more confessional. Most of its poems are in the first person, dealing with pregnancy, birth, motherhood and (apparently) widowhood among other things. The matter of technology and science is not forgotten, however, for Heath has a consistent train of images linking us [human beings] to the cyber world and to artificial intelligence. Once again, her style is polished and her expression is clear.

I can take Winter Eyes only to mean the eyes of somebody who is heading into winter – that is, getting nearer to old age. In Harry Ricketts’ latest collection, the words come from the last line of the poem “Sansibar oder der letzte Grund”, which asserts “Things look different through winter eyes”. These poems are indeed elegaic and backward looking in the main. Many appear to reach back to mildly-raffish student years (listening to rock music and taking hols on the Continent) and the years of being an aspiring academic. There are a number of anecdotes concerning well-known literary identities either met or talked about, and of course there are references to canonical literature.  Some poems seem to allude to a youthful love (or do they?) and some are certainly about a lost relationship with a stepson. Not that this is maudlin. The tone is more often jocular , knowing and perhaps resigned. I am not sure that Harry Ricketts would necessarily appreciate the comparison, but I read this collection with the same sort of pleasure I get from reading the chattier, more relaxed poems of W.H.Auden’s mellow years. They are urbane and often witty.

Majella Cullinane’s Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is an extraordinary book and unexpected in the sense that it is a type of poetry rarely published in New Zealand now. Suggesting a strong awareness of earlier forms, the collection’s epigraph is, fittingly, a quotation from Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”. An Irish expatriate now resident in New Zealand, Majella Cullinane combines a romantic sensibility with a modernist sharpness. Her poetry has much very Irish (Catholic) imagery together with specifically New Zealand imagery. (The blurb tells me it is being published simultaneously in New Zealand and Ireland). There is much reference to a deep past. The whole section “The Hours” links the traditional monastic canonical hours with present day urban life. Much of the final section “Cut Away the Masts” (including the surging and terrifying poem “A Woman Was Seen”) is based on materials drawn from letters written in the nineteenth century. In the poem “Displaced”, it is as if Cullinane has inserted herself into the spirit of an immigrant from earlier centuries. Nature is numinous in the world depicted here.  And it is easily anthropomorphised. There is “a gust throwing the eucalyptus on the hill into a quandary” in the poem “First Light”. Crows are portents of death in the collection’s title poem; or they are linked to the human skill of literacy, as in “the black letters on this page / as they move across the white space, which remind me / of crows stalking frozen trees” (in “Finale to the Season”). I do not wish to be reductive, but the general tone of this collection is a sense of longing. Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is fey in the original and non-pejorative sense of the word – it senses the presence of things not quite seen (see the poem“Seeing Things”). There is much mist, much fog, much sea-coast. Am I resorting to racial stereotypes if I say it is very Celtic? Yet it is also confessional. The whole section “As Good As” appears to refer to a miscarriage in mythological terms and includes the wrenching line “I would fashion the smallest gap you could sneak through” . I’m impressed.


  1. Thanks Nicholas! Only just spotted this.

  2. Helen, you are part of the [small] Pantheon I have erected of living NZ poets who actually write meaningfully.