We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“WANTING TO TELL YOU EVERYTHING” by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (Caselberg Press, $NZ24:99); “NOWHERE IS TOO FAR OFF” by Peter Bland (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “MY HONEST POEM” by Jess Fiebig (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “THE SAVAGE COLONISER BOOK” by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ25)
Occasionally a collection of poetry, published by a small press, falls into your hands and suddenly and unexpectedly you realise that you are reading very good poetry. “Who is this poet I have never heard of before?” you ask. So you read all the notes surrounding the poems and you find out.
This was my experience when Elizabeth Brooke-Carr’s Wanting to tell you everything, a collection of 36 poems, was sent to me by Caselberg Press. As it turns out, this is not only the first published collection by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr, but it will possibly also be the last. Brooke-Carr died in 2019, aged 79. She had been writing poetry since the 1980s and some of her work had appeared in newspapers and magazines. Friends expected a collection to appear, but it was only after her death that a group of five women friends and fellow-poets got together, searched through her poetry folders, and assembled the poems that make up Wanting to tell you everything.
What is the special impact of these poems? At the very least, they all present a mature and experienced view of life, bearing in mind that Brooke-Carr was already in middle-age when she began writing poetry. As far as I can see, the women who edited these poems arranged them in three broad sections.
The first eight poems deal with childhood and family.
The opening poem “Upright” is one of the poet’s very best. In six blank-verse stanzas it represents vividly a way of life now gone, depicting specifically a child doing homework at the bulky, square family table, but with the child’s mind wandering and seeing images in surrounding furniture. It is the precise observation of the child’s surrounding that makes it the powerful poem it is. There are childhood memories of the poet’s father ( “Many breakfasts since”, “Take as required”) and an attempt to reconstruct her brother as a child (“Memory of snow”). There is a childhood car journey and the dislocation of moving from one house to another (“A spot on the map”) and an affectionate memory of an old Clydesdale pulling a single-furrow plough, but years later replaced by new technology (“Nobby and Joseph”). “Geometry lesson” is a severe memory of high school. But “When bright red was eclipsed by silver shoon” is a more tender memory of the classroom. Brooke-Carr’s younger self is enchanted by hearing a teacher reading Walter de la Mare’s poem about the silver moonlight. Perhaps I am partial to this poem because, although considerably younger than the poet, I am of a generation that still heard regularly de la Mare’s poems recited by English teachers. I warm to the detail in Brooke-Carr’s poem where she admits that her young Kiwi self did not recognise all of de la Mare’s English vocabulary: “Your teacher is swaying a little, peering this way / and that as she reads. You know she’s walking / with the moon, and soon you catch up. / You’ve never heard of shoon, or casements, / but now you see them, glistening, reach out, / touch silver fruit on silver trees, step around / the sleeping dog, look up to doves.”
The next twenty-one poems concern art and the poet’s grown-up experiences.
There are reactions to a famous painting by Goldie (“Monday afternoon with Ina”) and to a famous sculpture (“Pieta”) and to classical music (“Bethoven’s ghost”, “Demidenko’s fingers”) and to playing croquet (“Croquet”) and to romantic meetings with her husband or maybe with earlier boyfriends (“Out of the glare”, “Bannockburn sluicings” “Sparrrow antics in Arrowtown”). Often she reconstructs journeys through a precisely-presented South Island landscape with a glimpse of the Remarkables (“Thank you, fog”) or southern landscape seen from the air (“Whisky Echo Tango”) or the burial of culled wild geese (“All that remains is pressed flat”) or the straightforward image of “Quoin Point Road”. For some readers, the best sense-of-place poem will be the prize-winning “All this”, depicting a wild sea shore. Even in these poems, however, there is a strong sense of old age catching up. “Poolburn” is about visiting their “crib” (what most New Zealanders would call a bach) in a remote part of Otago. Brooke-Carr declares “All the days of our youth are behind us, / dust spiralling back along old roads / traversed; beneath seat belts clicked / across our chests there are years / we carry close”. Interestingly, this second section of poems includes a touching vignette of woman in decrepitude, suffering borderline senility (“Harsh Light”).
The final seven poems deal with the cancer that was killing Elizabeth Brooke-Carr and the death that she knew was approaching inevitably.
It is amazing how she can almost be witty while facing this situation in “On discovering your oncologist is a travel agent”. This poem, like “Upright”, the opening poem of the collection, in structured in neat, four-line, blank verse stanzas [or paragraphs] giving solidity, even solemnity, to statements even as the poet jests. The poems about her final experience in hospital have a hard realism to them in “Exhibit ABH1615”; or “The vein whisperer”, about an efficient nurse, or “Buzz cut”, where she feels the anguish of having her head shaved. In “Black beret” she turns herself into a machine where “In High Dependency, dual wheels turn / and turn, labouring. A needle wavers, / traces an arc across the speedometer dial / on my brain’s febrile dashboard; / pumps deliver oxygen through slack fuel lines; / tubes loop to and from this bed / where I binge on bags of saline.” The title poem “Wanting to tell you everything” is the very last poem in the book, symbolically admitting the impossibility of saying everything before one dies.
Not only is this a very impressive collection, but it displays extraordinary nerve in the poet to be able to face debilitating disease and death with such clarity and imagination.
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Peter Bland, the poet who has spent half his life in New Zealand and half in England, is now in his late 80s. His trim new collection Nowhere is too far off is the latest of the 21 collections he has produced since the early 1960s, not to mention his Collected Poems 1956-2011 (reviewed on this blog 21 January 2013). Bland here favours lean, short poems (one phrase per line) but also produces four prose poems and a few in more traditional forms.
Peter Bland is an old man. It’s not surprising that so many of his poems are about age and transience. The opening poem “Starting out” (p.10) is almost optimistic as it speaks of bright beginnings that happen again and again; but the very next poem “Holes in the story” (p.11) tells us of “Those journeys / that come back / to haunt us, / those settings-out / without a map. Such / urgencies! But why / the panic? It was / always in the grief / of our pauses / that something more / was going on…” The course of life is uncertain, and as one ages, one perhaps recognises opportunites that were missed.
Of course there are many poems here verging on the elegaic. Three poems are dedicated to Bland’s late wife Beryl. The poem “The visitor” (p.47) is about his deceased 1950s fellow poet Louis Johnson. Old friends are liked for their familiarity even if their jokes are corny (“Help” p.12), but they are a dying breed. The chimes at midnight are heard in poems like “The roadside camp” (pp.18-19) where “There’s / a hint of thunder / not too far off / as if the gods / are quarrelling again / or armies gathering. I suspect / it’s almost time to move on.” But as death nears one is “Beyond regrets” (p.29) where “It’s / like living in / an abandoned movie / full of lost horizons / and old hotels…”
I’ve laboured this point a little too much. Peter Bland is not full of lamentations. Age and death are accepted and there’s room for wit and fond reminiscence. A clutch of poems, beginning with “America”, reflect a love-hate relationship with the USA where Bland can see all the huckster crassness, but is still half-besotted with the myth of the wide-open Wild West and a ghost town in Nevada and the sunset in Orange County where he embraced Beryl. Then he digs deeper back to his English roots and Fulham and Putney and later three poems, vignettes of being a child in England in the Second World War.
Of the prose poems, “Walkabout” is a comprehenive account of being old on Dominion Road and some of its indignities. But the real gem is the quietly happy one “On turning into a tree” which calls unobtrusively on mythology to illuminate that sleepy back-porch moment when you feel as fixed as a tree, as resigned and as blessed.
This collection is as familiar as household words and as comforting as a favourite old coat.
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“My Honest Poem” is the poem that closes Jess Fiebig’s debut collection, listing facts about her 28-year-old life. But choosing My Honest Poem as the title of the whole collection suggests that this book is going to be a candid, truth-telling work – an account of personal experience unvarnished. And indeed a superficial reading might suggest that it is just that. But when read more closely, it is perhaps not as candid as it appears to be.
Jess Fiebig’s poetry is very much in the genre of confessional verse. Nearly all poems are narrated in the first-person, and in loose free-verse, as if being wrenched from a mental diary of personal experience. She divides the collection into three parts.
Part One, titled “I have no sense of direction”, opens gruellingly enough with “Maternal Distance” where, aged 9, the poet watches her mother drinking to the point of vomiting. Her mother is described (p.3) thus: “Life adorned her body; / stretchmarks creeping silver vines / around her abdomen, / freckles on her back / from too much time stoned…” So we are at once in a dysfunctional home, with threat of abuse from single mum’s partner. This is the childhood section of the collection, and it is not all dismal and negative. The poet remembers some tender things and writes a wistful poem “For Kelly” (p.15) about a girlhood friend who is also the dedicatee of this book.
Part Two, titled “I get lost in lovers” moves into much upset in adolescent and young adult years. There are some references to a lost father and easy lyricism in poems about beach and caves and rendezvous and camping, and often a sense of relief at being away from home.. But there is also a coke-sniffing party in Riccarton and apparently a miscarriage and in “Saturday Night in the Emergency Department” (pp.63-64) self-harm or possibly attempted suicide . Boyfriends or lovers pass through her life or desert her and she experiences much depression. “Amitriptyline Dreams” conjures up visions brought about by taking a strong anti-depressant. At one point she suffers “Concussion” in the poem of that name. “Duck Hunting” tells explicitly how a lover cheats on her; and then there is “The Night I Knew I Had to Leave My Man” (which almost sounds like the title of a c.-and-w. song). Through many of these traumas, the milieux Jess Fiebig describes graphically tend to be mould-covered poverty-signalling flats and other grotty digs.
One theme that seems to run through all this is the lack of connectedness with family, or the reality of not having a supportive family. “What a funny thing it is / to share blood and not much else” she says in “Calling Hours” (p.54) while contemplating a physically-impaired aunt and remembering seeing her grandfather’s corpse in a casket
Finally Part Three, called “I enjoy listening to sad songs”. Most of these closing poems are a little calmer, more reflective and wistful. They are the domestic aftermath, sometimes (as in “Dead Man’s Point” p.87) morphing into a more traditional landscape lyricism, even if there is still a sense of absence. There are attempts to reconstruct the man who left her in “What I Would Say to Him, Now” (p.89) with its closing lines “How did I go from everything / to nothing at all?” So there is no solace, no closure. “Twenty-Seventh Christmas” (p.92) has her on valium and more-or-less thinking of suicide
After all this, how dare I say this collection is not as candid as it might first appear? Partly because of the emotive definition of poetry Fiebig gives in “This is Poetry” (p.12) : “This is poetry, to feel emotions like hot iron / pressing on my skin, / burning to decribe the most / complex parts of myself / as simply as I can, / that someone might understand / how scared I am to be alive, / how happy I am to be alive, how confused I am / when words fly out / of my head…” While it may sound visceral and spontaneous, the reality is that the poet (like every other poet) consciously selects and organizes the experiences she is putting on paper. Experience is not so much conveyed as interpreted. And in this case it often tends towards the pathetic fallacy of personal feeling. The poem “Waiuta” (p.48) opens with a convincingly bleak landscape and becomes a lament for the hard times that miners used to suffer long ago. But in a later poem “Panic” (p. 57) Fiebig uses the same imagery of mining as a metaphor for her own body. The external world becomes solipsism, being no more than an extension of the self.
After reading My Honest Poem, my most fervent wish was that the poet will be able to move beyond her unhappiness.
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As a white Pakeha male in my 60s, should I even be reviewing Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book? The last statement in the book, “Some notes for critics” (p.91) seems to tell me and others like me to back off – as well as assuming that we will say some ignorant things or talk in lit.crit. clichés. Still, I’ll forge ahead.
Award-winning Samoan poet Tusiata Avia has the wit to know that her title can be read in two ways. The “savage coloniser” can mean “the coloniser of savages”, which is what the coloniser probably thought he was; or it can mean “the coloniser who is savage”, which is more in the spirit of this collection. Much of The Savage Coloniser Book is diatribe against white colonisers of the Pacific. The poem “250th Anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand” has modern Pasifika girls saying to Cook “we’re gonna FUCK YOU UP FOR GOOD BITCH”. In “Burnt Australia Fair” the continent of Australia says “Cook, you bastard / we’ve been hungry and angry and murdered for a long time”. “The Pacific solution” is about white Australians putting refugees on Manus Island. “BLM” sees police brutality against blacks in the USA as the result of an ingrained white sense of racial superiority, so that “Crushing the head of a black man / This is my God-given white”.
One of the longer poems, “Massacre”, is a kind of chronicle of the Christchurch mosques massacre. All whites and colonisers are indicted and held responsible. Thus, when the moques massacre happens, “we, Queen Victoria – made of stone – who stares into the air / past every kind of massacre, rise / we, far right, we rise / we, skinheads, we rise / we, the white supreme, we rise / we are the white ghosts and we rise up out of the swamp.” Tusiata Avia pointedly rejects Jacinda Ardern’s statement that the terrorist who committed the massacre “isn’t us” and draws attention to Parihaka and Ruatoki and massacres committed by Pakeha soldiers in the nineteenth century.
It is angry and forthright statement.
This doesn’t mean that Tusiata Avia can’t also see the funny side of things. “Poly Kidz r coming “ is an assertion of the liveliness and creativity of Polynesian kids, but it’s written like a playground chant or the type of barracking you might get at a sports match. It’s more fun than warning. As for “How to be in a room full of white people”, one of the last poems in the book, is both rawly funny and very, very chastening. And there are the three repetitive and rhythmic “FafSwag” poems, more in the nature of insistent chants and written for a Queer Indigenious dance collective
Avia has other interests, including a group of poems about sex, beginning with “We talk about sex poems”. How confessional they are, I don’t claim to know. Likewise, are the poems about epileptic seizures autobiographical? One of them has a
strong surrealist content. They too segue into candid reflections on sex and, later, the sombre historical poem “How to get an abortion”. As for “Covid in the time of Priminiscinda”, it gives pretty much the same reflections on the inconveniences of lock-down that anyone of any ethnicity or social group would have.
The Savage Coloniser Book s a wild rollercoaster ride, with much deft wordplay. But it is the angry accusation that dominates.