Monday, August 6, 2018

Something New


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

“EDGELAND and other poems” by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “POUKAHANGATUS” by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $NZ20)

As I noted when I reviewed his expansive TheConch Trumpet three-plus years ago (March 2015) David Eggleton can be very careful about the way he organises a poetry collection. The Conch Trumpet was organised as a sort of chronology of New Zealand’s physical and cultural evolution.

 Decorated with line drawings by James Robinson, Eggleton’s new collection Edgeland is also carefully organised. Its 61 poems are arranged in five section, the first three of which refer to geographical locations  - “Tamaki Makaurau” (Auckland); then Eggleton’s home base “Murihiku” (Otago); then “Spidermoon”, being mainly poems set in Australia. The fourth and fifth sections move somewhere else. Poems under the heading “Scale” are mainly jocular and satirical comments on literature and popular culture; while the final section “Legend”, still with a satirical touch, is sometimes more personal in mood and feeling – not quite confessional but heading in that direction. Eggleton works more often in public statement that in private revelation.

Taking a closer look, in the “Tamaki Makaurau” section, some poems are almost rhapsodic obsevations of nature and society as seen around the great city of Auckland – vignettes of views of the gulf, of the Asian and Polynesian culture of South Auckland, even perhaps a sense of wonder in the early fencibles [pensioned soldiers] as they arrived in the nineteenth century. “The Floral Clock” has a melancholy tone. But as he views Auckland, Eggleton often adopts a satirical or commentarian voice. The title poem “Edgeland” is essentially a swipe at Auckland’s perceived rapaciousness and materialsm (“land sharks”, “real estate agents” “shoebox storerooms of apartment blocks”).  The poem “Maunga” presents Auckland’s volcanoes as they once were; but its companion poem “The Sleepers” laments how many volcanic cones have been flattened or shifted as European settlement expanded (“Villages were brought closer to Queen Street, / and each other, by dynamited volcanic rubble / crushed from a base layer of basalt chips over / a sub-base of aggregate – all topped with tarseal.”).

In the “Tamaki Makaurau” section, Eggleton is very aware of Maori culture, Maori belief systems and names. Ironically, in the “Murihiku” (Otago) section, the Maori references almost disappear. As an Aucklander, I am reminded of that tired old joke that a Dunedinite once told me – that Dunedin’s Maori Hill is so called because once, a Maori was actually seen there. What is consistent, however, is Eggleton’s concern with landscape and especially with ecology (not as insistently as his fellow-South Island poet Richard Reeve, but insistently nevertheless). While “Tuhawaiki: The Caitlins” is almost sheer delight in the coast and its people, “Spinners” comments on the impact of wind turbines on Otago’s wilderness.

            As for the Australian-set section “Spidermoon”, the emphasis is on heat, heat, heat as it is so often experienced by New Zealanders who venture across the ditch.

The poems “New Year’s Day at Byron Bay”, “Moreton Bay” and “Spidermoon” are the harsh-sun-struck tourist’s view of Aussie beaches and their culture and sapping heat. “Melbournia”, a somewhat ironical view of the city, is again, the heat, the heat, the heat. There is a series of six loose sonnets in this section, which were apparently written as responses to specific art-works. Their meaning I find somewhat opaque – but that is often the case with things written about art which one has not seen or experienced.

In the section called “Scale”, Eggleton loosens up even more than he usually does and enjoys himself taking the piss. He plays literary games. From its very title, I realised that “Moa in the Matukituki Valley” was a cut-and-paste of poetic quotations from others – a cento – but I’m bemused that the end-note concerning this does not acknowledge all the many poets who are plundered. “The Smoking Typewriter” is an ironical reworking of William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” and celebrity chefs and some pop culture get a once-over in “Jamie Olver’s TV Dinner”. Yet “Obelisk” is a little more sombre - a poem of nature mutating while monuments moulder.

The title poem of the “Legend” section is, in effect, a “progress of poesy” piece. There are personal poems, but the first three are written in the third-person, perhaps to create a distancing effect. One of the collection’s best poems is “The Great Wave”, an image of Fiji which is a major part of Eggleton’s background. As for “Orbit of the Corpse Flower”, at first glance it is a loose fantasmagoria of Dunedin, certainly sensuous and vivid – but then we notice its discreet references to Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Marcel Proust et al. Even when he is being demotic, Eggleton shows he can mix it with High Culture.

Are you getting tired of this plodding review now? Yes, so am I. I have so far given you what I would call a bibliographer’s review – a mere cataloguing of what the collection contains. Time for a little thought and judgement.

First, David Eggleton is not only a prolific and fertile poet, but he is also a very inventive and ingenious one. While his voice is usually and very distinctively his own, he is capable of literary ventriloquism. One of the tenderest and most delicate poems in this collection is “Distant Ophir” written in the first-person, but, as I read it,  from its John Masefield title on, it is clearly a dramatic monologue rather than a confession. It is the wistful view of a Pakeha pioneer woman, whose hopes for New Zealand have been formed from a very English perspective and whose imagination has been shaped by English literature. This perspective is treated with sympathy, even if it is shown to be unsustainable.  In a totally different key, but just as unexpected, is “Escapologist” a sheer fun poem about Houdini exposing a fraudulent medium. I can imagine this holding a classroom of schoolkids rapt.

Second, part of Eggleton’s talent is his ability to fire out brilliant individual lines and images. I relish in the poem “King Tide, Northside” the image of pohutukawa that “cliff-hang like trapeze artists”. From the poem “Day Swimmers”, there is the sight, at once gorgeous and daunting, that “burgeoning meringues of cumulus will darken, / rococo cream puffs dunked in thunderheads”. Then there’s that vivid observation that  “Rusty prayer wheels of seagulls turn” from the poem “Southern Embroidery”. So I could witter on for a few more paragraphs with many other specimens, but that will do.

Third is a little more problematic. I read “The Wilder Years”, a general satire on – or possibly rant at – all of New Zealand’s tawdry self-esteem. I read “Methusalem”, a rhapsody in its panorama of one sort of Auckland experience. I read “Poem for Ben Brown”, essentially an ironical chant; likewise “The Age of the Anthrocene”. And in all cases I think these poems would work a lot better if we heard them from a living voice rather than reading them cold off the page. “Mission Creep”, with its quick and almost Skeltonic rhyming couplets, is closest of the bunch to the rhythms and structure of rap. Add to this the many poems in Edgeland that rely on repetition of either key words or grammatical structures. “Thirty Days of Night” is a “list” poem where the word “night” is repeated insistently to produce a series of vivid images. “This Gubberment, Bro, This Gubberment” aims for satire but hits it, after a list, only in the last line “The lunatics have taken over the asylum-seekers”. “The People-Smuggler’s Beard” and “Identity Parade” are also “list” poems, as are “Heat” and “Mullum Rain” both of which work in part by insistently repeating and redefining the key words “heat” and “rain”. In all these cases, I would have enjoyed them more had I heard the performance poet live.

Any hesitations over this collection? A small, philosophical one, and not related solely to David Eggleton. Some poems, such as “Two Takes on the Waitakere Ranges”, present and lament a presumed pristine nature that had been despoiled and shattered by material “progress”, the building of a city, the spread of suburbs etc. Fine. We all feel some sorrow for the loss of an imagined pristine…. But then we also enjoy the benefits of what has replaced it. I suppose what I’m saying is kin to my reservations about Thoreau. It is wonderful to lament what came before human habitation – especially human habitation en masse -  but some lamentations too easily become a contempt for our fellow human beings who live [just as we do] in suburbs and cities. That lovely old stone cottage stands where a might totara once stood. So did that pa.

Enough. Enough. Edgeland is a very fine collection.

Impertinent and totally egotistical footnote: In the poem “Maunga”, concerning Auckland’s volcanoes, David Eggleton makes a slightly dismissive reference to the pine that once stood on the summit of Maungakiekie, or One Tree Hill. We can have different perspectives on the same things. This poem is not a “reply” to “Maunga”, because I wrote it about seven years ago, but did not include it in either of my two collections so far. Here ‘tis:


All childhood, seen through a picture window,

beyond the Panmure Basin and railway,

beyond suburbs, she was an umbrella

to a spike, arm to an upright, shelterer

of birds too distant to see, disrupter

of neat verticals, a swaying wind trap.

To us, sunset was her special time, when

she melted into the unviewable,

a twig in the blinding gold,  or was crowned

by rays from heaven through dramatic clouds.

That was when the birds flew past us to her,

the named One Tree, their day’s end destination.

She grew from the hill and was shaped by wind,

graceful beside the stark stone phallus, part

of the scene like clouds, sheep, birds or sunset.

Permanent as God. And now she’s gone, cut

for show, executed as an alien,

the hill reshaped to baldness and a pencil.

This is not your country, says the chainsaw.

You have no right to see, think, dream, be here.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            Poukahangatus, the debut volume of 23-year-old poet Tayi Tibble.

I  think I get it as soon as I look at Xoe Hall’s colourful and loud cover. A Maori chick with really big eyes and really straight long hair and a cut-fringe, lying in a bath like a porn star, hiding her boobs but showing her thigh, with a bottle of vodka on one side and a porn magazine on the other and her hair ending in snakes like Medusa’s. And there’s the name Poukahangatus above her hear, spelled out in snakes and obviously a riff on Pocahontas.

So I get it, even before I read the title poem “Poukahangatus”, which has some of the imagery depicted on the cover. This is going to be a sassy collection about cultural appropriation and attempts of non-European women to conform to European ideas of good looks and hair straightening and the shoving aside of culture and in general the culturally-confusing mess it can be to be a young Maori woman in the city and in the country and partying and sometimes having to deal with elders, not to mention the hell of high-school.

And thus it is – at least in part.

Many of the pieces in Poukahangatus are prose poems and some are closer to rap, like “LBD”, which is nearest to the heart of the book’s meaning with its opening “there is a dark-skinned darkness in me / I wear it like a little black dress / Gucci / velvet-pressed….” Race and culture as fashion statement? There’s a slice of self-consciouness here, perhaps of trying too hard, as there is in the poem  “Identity Politics”. As for clubbing , there’s a serving of young hip cynicism, as when “I Wear Aviators to the Club” tells us “Every relationship leaves behind a sticky residue, hard to wash away without chemical help.” The poet talks tough (or maybe tougher than she is) in  “Red-Blooded Males” and “wtn boys”.

But here’s the problem. I am talking about a lifestyle and a perspective quite a few compass points away from my own, and therefore hard to relate to. For me, at any rate, the best poems were the understated ones. Oddly enough, they are the ones that seem to relate to childhood or schooldays. “Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside” is poignant because it deals with death in such a matter-of-fact way. Death is almost black farce in “Nobody in the Water”. Its obviously a city kid’s reaction to a country situation in “Tangi In the King Country”; and “Shame” conveys effectively moments of being intimidated or embarrassed before elders, tutors and teachers. “Vampires Versus Werewolves” boils down to the discovery that high school can be a sexual battleground. And “Scabbing”, in its rough way, is almost nostalgic for the way heart-throbs felt when you were still 12.

For the second time in this posting, I have to say that much of the contents of Poukahangatus might work better in live performance than on the page. All that rappy rhythm. All that prosey story-telling. All that bump and grind.

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