NOTICE TO READERS: THIS IS THE LAST POSTING OF "REID'S READER" FOR THIS YEAR. I AM TAKING MY SUMMER BREAK. POSTINGS WILL RESUME IN FEBRUARY.
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ROOT LEAF FLOWER FRUIT – a verse novel”
by Bill Nelson ( Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ30); “HOOF” by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Te Herenga
Waka University Press, $NZ25); “GREEN RAIN” by Alastair Clarke (Ugly
Hill Press, $NZ30); "A LONG ROAD TRIP HOME" by John Allison (Cold Hub Press, $NZ26)
Many New Zealand poets have written about life in farming country, sometimes lyrically, sometimes critically, and occasionally brilliantly, as in Janet Newman’s UnseasonedCampaigner (reviewed on this blog). But few have tried to depict the rural life as seen by a townie when circumstances send him outside his urban comfort zone. Bill Nelson’s Root Leaf Flower Fruit has the audacity to do this – to intertwine the rural and the urban psyches. Divided into four sections, Root Leaf Flower Fruit is the length of a short novel and is a combination of verse and prose. Indeed in the last of its four sections, “Fruit”, prose almost completely takes over.
The narrator, who speaks in verse, has been damaged in a cycle accident. His grandmother, who has suffered a series of strokes, has had to leave the rural home she used to occupy somewhere south of Auckland. In a nursing home, she is angry, aggressive in some ways, and occasionally shouting very scatological things. She needs a lot of care. Despite his abiding twinges from his accident, the narrator takes it upon himself to tidy up and look after his grandmother’s house and fields in preparation for their being sold by auction. He is leaving wife, children and home as he heads for the farm.
The first section, ROOT, sets up the situation. The narrator has been psychologically damaged by his accident. He has a sort of brain-fog as when he says “The world is different but I can’t say / in what way, like someone moved all the furniture / and now I’m tiptoeing around, expecting / to crack my shins on a coffee table.” (p.12) As he cogitates on the damage that he has suffered, his wandering memories take him back to how his childhood was in a rural area which was becoming a suburb where “…like background noise, the grumbling of the families / who had been here for years, in every house, / at every chance meeting on the corner / or down by the dairy, walking the dog on the beach, / rage, assumption, the assumption of rage, everyone / becoming a foreigner, an intruder, before their eyes.” (p.18) He has memories of doing scientific research in Australia as he attempted to complete a doctorate. He has memories of his wheelchair-ridden and verbally abusive grandmother. He has things thrown at him by local yahoos when he’s trying to exercise… but he becomes attracted to watching nature and seeing plants grow as a source of mental therapy: “Oh, the bounty! With just a little effort for me in spring / and a water every few days, food would grow before my eyes. / Seeds into seedlings, seedlings into plants, plants into shrubs, / flowers, fruit, beans, nuts, tubers. Within a few months / I could watch the wonder of nature take over, leave me / to cheer it on from the sidelines.” (p.32) ROOT of course means the beginning of things, the essence of things, and this is the beginning of the narrator’s mental transformation. But at first it reveals a certain naivete as he has an idealised view of what rural work involves. Toil lies ahead.
The LEAF section is the beginning of something fruitful. The narrator has misgivings about leaving his wife Lakita and children as he begins to look after the rural property. But in the rural house he discovers his grandmother’s diary – prose written, years earlier, in the third person even if it is personal and confessional. And this is where extensive prose sections begin to take over. Reading her words, the narrator becomes more aware of the very different life and era in which his grandmother once lived. He can remember visiting her when he was a child but “mostly I remember her from photos, / lean arms, collared sleeveless blouses, / looking straight into the camera” (p.49) He makes good resolves to clean up the house and property to make them saleable…. But after his first efforts he admits: “I’ve barely dented the list, the farm / is nowhere near tidy, and next week an agent, a valuation, / but it’ll have to do. I’ll do what little I can / between now and then and it’ll have to do. / I pull out a large pigweed, careful to grab it low / and pinch out the roots, but the stem snaps near the surface / and I throw it on the pile. I turn round and see the hedge / choked in pink flowers and heart-shaped leaves…. Morning glory… almost impossible to be rid of…” (p.54) Curating a farm is hard work after all. At first he can’t even get the tractor going, although he manages to do so after much effort. But there is his grandmother’s diary to read… of a farm-hand trying to violate her; of her husband being absent; of her hardship and marital stress; of her later retreat to Birkenhead on Auckland’s North Shore and her isolation there. She remembers when exporting avocado was all the rage until the bottom of the market fell out… and her attempts to be fully vegetarian, hoping to have her farm certified as totally organic. The narrator also finds her collection of hats and some of her clothes. He begins to play with them, even wearing them for a lark as if he’s really taking her place. But still he works hard at farming, admiring some of his field work but aware that the weather will have its say: “I shut off the Kubota engine, slide the earmuffs / up to my temples and take another look behind me. / In a few days the agents and potential buyers / will arrive to inspect the farm. / and on display, the soil, turned, broken, / still rich and dark red, although at this time of year / a little pale and dry. But it’s done, and the rain is coming. / I’ve seen it on the news, over the Tasman. / The timing couldn’t be better. I wish / the sky would open up right now, right here / like in the movies, without warning, my hair and dress / stuck flat to my body, and me squinting into the heavens. / Bit it’s never like that. In real life the cloud has been / thickening all day, slowly, predictably. / The rain is supposed to continue for days, the kind / that only a farmer can love, or an unfunded physicist / wanting to do some reading and plug a few leaks / before he has to go home.” (pp.60-61)… but the rains wash away much of his effort to tidy the farm, what with mud pools and fence posts toppled.
FLOWER leads to some sort of achievement. The narrator remembers his lung collapsing and the medical help he required. Hardship had to be overcome. Grandmother’s diary also chronicles hardship when crop dusting [aerial top-dressing] planes threaten to ruin her effort to get her farm certified as totally organic. The narrator takes on the idea of being like his grandmother. He has a vision of his grandmother playing the small house’s parlour organ. On top if this, he says: “My thoughts disappear as I plough the top field. / I try to conjure up my grandmother / performing the same task, nearly unfurling / the rows, efficient, precise. And I realise / I only knew her as an adult, an elderly adult even. / Those earlier years, like crooked lines, a meandering / creek bed. When I’m finished, the field is a mess, / not a straight line anywhere. The earth ripped open / in large chunks, the field crisscrossed by tread lines.” (p.73) Now various potential buyers turn up to face an auction. Oddly, though, it is at this point that the narrator, now more attuned to rural life, feels annoyed to think that the farm might be developed as just another suburb, or a series of retirement villages.
FRUIT And what is the outcome of all this - the fruit? Could it simply be experience? Most of this last section is [though written in the third person] a long monologue, its only punctuation being commas and semi-colons every so often. It can’t help making me think of Molly Bloom, although the circumstances are very different. It is the thoughts of the old lady, the grandmother, on her own initiative leaving her nursing home, taking a long walk around parts of Auckland’s North Shore (Glenfield, Birkenhead, Onewa Road) and then collapsing on the roadside. Is this the moment of her death… or does her fall connect her definitively with Mother Earth? I believe this can be read either way. And the old woman’s self-willed final walk is in some ways heroic. A very ambiguous ending has the narrator heading back to his family.
Putting this whole saga together I see a deliberate linking of the urban with the rural; an awareness of a changing environment as towns expand and eat up the fruitful soil; but also the endurance of land and a respect for those who work it. Different generations (grandmother, narrator) are very alien to each other in some ways but very similar in others. But there is a sense of eternity in the turns of the seasons – root, leaf, flower, fruit. Some remarks in the closing “Acknowledgements” suggest that some of this verse-prose tale is based on the poet’s own experience, including the results of a major fall. Root Leaf Flower Fruit is a formidable piece of work and, in tone, very different from the satirical and sometimes comical poems found seven years ago in Bill Nelson’s earlier collection Memorandum of Understanding (reviewed on this blog).
*. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *
In contrast with Bill Nelson’s persuasive and detailed narrative, Kerrin P. Sharpe, in her fifth collection, writes poetry that is mainly pithy and brief – an assortment of various positions and landscapes rather than a saga. Kerrin P. Sharpe’s Hoof divides its 47 poems into three sections. Each section begins with the image of a train, a real train – though of course a train can also be connected with trains of thought. And in our trains of thought, do our thoughts not wander hither and thither? They certainly do in this collection. Sharpe addresses many different situations, many different ideas. Yet, in each of the three sections there does emerge a dominant theme.
The “train” metaphor is ignited by the delightful opening [and title] poem “Hoof” where “The train with the chest / of a horse and the traction / of old intelligence / turns from the power stations / and cooling towers / and heads for the trees. / Through his mane of rain / and nostril smoke / float poems of blocked arteries, / quadruple bypasses.” [I really wish I could quote in full this enticing opening poem, which manages at once to depict a real train and the manoeuvres of the human brain.] Once we are all aboard, we are taken through a blackbird becoming literary; a reference to Ted Hughes; the poem “more horse than castle” where her view of horses overtakes her visit to Dunedin’s Lanarch Castle; and the poem “ the weight of moonlight” which continues the horse imagery. Let’s say that the dominant idea in this first section is horses. But Sharpe has other interests, including nightmares. A poem concerns a retired air pilot having a dream of falling into the sea. I do so hope that somebody anthologises one of her best poems “the trumpet player”, which is both an elegy and a tribute for a [real] trumpet player and his father. It is beautifully crafted as is the following poem “on a night angry enough” with its vivid take on the wild sea near Hokitika and summoning up images of those who once toiled there. Some of Sharpe’s poems suggest an Irish Catholic background with its rituals and memories [the poems “sister”, “who” “instead angels” etc.]
The second section, while dealing with many and various things, is dominated by the sea. But it begins in a different key. The opening poem “sometimes she walks” is a delicate descriptive poem with a specifically Chinese depiction; but it is hard to decode how much of it is related to a personal situation. It is more-or-less confessional without quite being so. Two poems note events in her husband’s childhood in South Africa. There are various fantasies and a poem in which William Blake arises and seems to master the sea. Of the poems connected with the sea, I like best the pithiest ones, such as the witty poem “sculpture”, which is a dream of a statue taking on life. I quote it in full: “Two whale flukes / lit at night / escape their stone world, / pretend they live / somewhere else. / Leap like islands, / sing deep slow songs – where are / their babies? / Early morning they’re / back on the plinth, / breathless salty-dry, / so warm they wake / all of us.” There follows other sea-affiliated poems such as “the sea takes a wife”, not to mention verse concerning weddings and funerals, which are sometimes .
It is the third section, however, which sticks most steadfastly to a particular theme. She begins in the Arctic Circle, moves through many poems to Antarctica, and then deals with the shadow of climate change. First comes “sinew & snow” which places us in deepest snowbound Russia. Still in the Arctic, with suggestions of catastrophic climate change and the melting of ice, there follow “never”, “instead of travelling north”, “a road falling away”, “blue” and “from letters to Johanna” in the same very northern climes. Then she flips the globe and presents a series of poems set in Antarctica. The poem “map ice show” begins “Antarctica – a bold footprint / on a picture atlas, / so magnetic nothing moves. / The huts like nests. / The scientific research / is close-lipped. / Deep marine life fears no ill, / ice is trapped in sculptures, / never to rise or drown”… but the poem goes on to suggest that chemicals and human interventions are degrading submarine life. Then there is “the sorrows of ice” a sequence of five poems related to Ernest Shackleton and early exploration of the Antarctic. Her whole collection finishes with a real flourish – her longest poem in this collection “te hau o te atua / the breath of heaven” – her most detailed descriptive poem about Otamahua, also known as Quail Island, a small island in Lyttelton Harbour, which was used by both Shackleton and Scott as a place to train huskies. The wind blows over the island, those glory days of exploration are long gone, there is a sense of chilly desolation, even if the dead can be honoured. Things pass, things change… and not always for the better.
In praise of Sharpe’s work, I have to say that she ranges through many ideas of interest, she expresses herself in a pithy but understandable way, she is astute at conjuring up fantastic images [fantastic in the original sense of the word] and even while she is dealing with serious matters, she knows how to be funny. A great gift.
*. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *
The blurb the publishers of Green Rain sent me tells me that Alastair Clarke returned to New Zealand after living for many years in Britain; and he settled in Wairarapa. He is advanced in years. It is clear in much of his poetry that he revels in returning to the New Zealand environment as the greater part of his poetry collection is concerned with New Zealand landscapes, seascapes, places and settlements, as if he is re-embracing – and seeing with a fresh eye – the country he originally came from. As is now the custom with most poetry collections, he divides his many [short] poems in separate sections.
The first section is called “Dance” and the poem “A Different Dark” gives the reader the poet’s sense of alienness in settling once again in New Zealand, thus :“Driving through is reading a geology primer. / It is here our forebears came hoping, ship-worn, walking-wondering / through bush, to cross ranges under a different dark, / an unfamiliar sun.” He equates his return with the country’s first [Pakeha] settlers. There is much reference to coming into Wairarapa by train, as if piercing a new land. But some of Clarke’s allusions are clearly inspired by older literature, as in the poem “From Cold” where “…our vision disorders, like / the awkward completions in myth. / We reach out to touch meaning. / Like man on a wire we want balance. / I think of Mulgan’s outsider, / his single obsession breaching / community; of how we shun / wild to come in from the cold…” Looking at the hills and mountains that separate Wairarapa from the rest of the North Island, he recalls visiting Tararuas.
“Churning”, the second section, moves away from terra firma and into vignettes of the sea, the sea shore, creeks – a different landscape [or seascape] from the mountain barrier leading into Wairarapa. The poem “Churning” charts “how waves fall / from sea’s body / there is no clear / agreement in the spilling / we see or drawing back / in this division in things / in this grabbing together / of particles / each wave thumping / negating swamping reason / in perpetual undertow…”. Again harking back of older literature, there are references elsewhere to Curnow’s verse. Some poems, like “Scripting”, refer back to his sojourn in Australia. The poem “Viewing” embraces the Romantic idea that the beauty of nature uplifts us, as does the poem “Evening, Waikanae”
Having dealt with
land and sea, oddly enough the third part, called “Seeing”, deals with clouds,
with philosophical thoughts squeezed out of the seen environment, and with the
mountains of the North Island’s Central plateau where great mountains loom, as
in “High Country” with : “These
volcanic extrusions / scarring the high plateau, these / (it is mid-winter)
under snow. / Passing through is passing through / a geology primer - / the
road descending now to Taupo’s / solipsism – its lonely vacancy. / Here we
answer to mountains - / Ngauruhoe,
Ruapehu, / Tongariro – to powers ungraspable.” The mountains belong to the
clouds, confirmed in a poem about driving the Desert Road.
We are presented with animals and human activity in the fourth section called “Hedging”, such as brown rabbits lurking on the roadside and the poem “To the Animals”. And related to this are the actions of human beings. The poem “From the Rural” deals with different ways of raising crops and making gardens – the natural way or slathering the earth with chemicals; while the poem “Hedging” is literally about “This ordinary / suburban ritual: that growth must / be tamed.”
As for the fifth and final section, “Crossing”, it’s a bit of a potpourri, for having dealt with Wairarapa, the sea, clouds and mountains and animals and human activities, we are presented with a variety of interests. Some are primarily about people arriving in New Zealand in earlier times, such as “Scots” in the nineteenth century, travelling in steerage class and trying to escape poverty. There are also poems about art work and an awareness of how the country has changed in the poet’s lifetime, as in his view of the Auckland suburb “Ponsonby” where “Ponsonby once was workmen. Then / grunge. Glitter’s now Go. Now Audis / and Porsches casual the strip.” He describes a visit to Rotorua and speculates on Covid 19 and foreign affairs, with satirical poems about Putin and Trump, ending with a “Letter from America”
As you may be aware, I have quoted here only a small number of Clarke’s poems, but having read them all I think I can take the measure of the man’s achievement. Clarke is very capable in presenting a scene, but sometimes he attaches philosophical concepts to scenes. They come across as a little strained. Indeed his approach often feels somewhat old-fashioned – not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with being old-fashioned, but seeing nature as a force that uplifts us really does come from an earlier era. Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed reading Green Rain and think it could speak to a mature audience.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
John Allison is also a mature man who is aware that life is irreparably connected with death. After all, his opening poem "How to Go On" is a laconic, almost stoic, account of a brush with cancer. Some of his poems in A Long Road Trip Home are elegiac in tone as in his poem "Southland Elegy" with its presentation of bleakness; or again with the implied elegy connected
to children's bedtime stories in the poem "Lupus in fabula". "The send-off"
is literally about a funeral and the distorted ways the deceased is
remembered. And "What is lost" is certainly about ageing. But Allison cannot be pigeon-holed as a man of withering regrets. He can also gear himself to childlike joy, as in "Singing the Blues" and "How to Sing Sunlight". The fact is, this poet is more aligned to presenting philosophical ideas and social contact than with lamenting loss.
Consider his take on a degraded environment in his "Letter to Tony Beyer" where on the shore-scape he is "stepping in amongst the wrack / of last night's storm - a dead shag / tangled in a shredded web of fishing net / a knoutted condom / and a blue bottle-top / so much brighter than it needs to be." Consider "Father's axe, grandfather's machete", a complex reflection on the beauty of what can be destructive or lethal - an awareness that there are more ways than one of masculine thinking. Though it is on a completely different topic, "A faux-naturalist considers a ginko" has a similar idea - in this case the poet sees something that is externally very beautiful but that is capable of being very destructive. Sometimes things can at once delight and appal us. Phenomena are ambiguous.
Allison is at his best when he is writing discursive poems, divided into sequences. "Cedars of Lebanon" is a five-part sequence not only evoking Biblical times but once again wedding it with memories of father's skill with wood. The best word I can conjure up to suggest its impact is "stately". "Karst mountain journey" in five parts is partly a delicate sequence about a trip to Chinese countryside, but bearing an idea of the suppression of ancient antiquities and poetry.
Most impressive, though, is "Another Direction" - really in seven parts but not numbered that way: The title refers to one of this country's best-known poems, Allen Curnow's Landfall in Unknown Seas which begins "Simply by sailing in a new direction / you could enlarge the world". Allison refutes this at once beginning his own sequence with "Landfall brought its tribulations, ask those already here. / With the centrttifugal force of colonial ambition / flung out across limiitess possibilities of time and space." The idea that colonisation and "discovery" were destructive for Maori is acknowledged, but most of the sequence deals with the mundanity, boredom and perhaps philistine-ism of the unhappy Pakeha farmer. This is not the promised land and yet the farmer is intrigued by it even if he is not of it.... nevertheless, now speaking in his own voice, the poet says "When I turn away from the city lights / something warm and wild comes up behind me / taps me on the shoulder, and without a fuss / slips under my skin into those ridges..." The land is still alluring. We Pakeha may not be indigenous, but we are still intrigued with it.
There is in this collection one "rogue" poem which I can't easily categorise: "It can be lost just when you notice it" is a neat presentation of how human awareness often prevents us from being able to simply sink into un-self-consciousness. We cannot mould into an environment and lust live in the moment, as other animals can. Consciousness often deprives us of joy. (dare I say, in its idea, it's almost akin to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"). It is a poem worthy of reading again and again.