Monday, June 27, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ARO VALLEY” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

Reviewing Danyl McLauchlin’s Unspeakable Secrets of theAro Valley nearly three years ago, I did note its witty and playful tampering with the Gothic horror genre, and its sharp evocation of a dusty and fusty corner of Wellington; but I also registered my view that its pratfall-laden fun-and-games did go on a bit. For all my misgivings, I was chuffed to receive a nice note from the author saying that he enjoyed the review and thought I’d picked up on points of the novel other reviewers had missed.
Now with the sequel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley to review, I almost feel that I’m going to repeat the same praise and the same misgivings. From the deliberately inept title onwards, you know that this one is as much founded on gigantic leg-pull as the first novel was. It’s great fun; it shows great skill in the telling; when it wants to do moments of Gothic fantasy “seriously” it does them as capably as the experts do…. and at 370 pages it does go on a bit. One more chase through a threatening tunnel, one more dorkish mishap, and my patience would have snapped.
For the record, the set-up has Danyl McLauchlin (yes, the hero has the same name as the author) released from psychiatric care, returning to Wellington’s faded bohemian enclave the Aro Valley to find his missing girlfriend Verity, and in short order discovering a dark and daunting secret that threatens the entire universe, no less. Danyl is an unreliable narrator, a loser, a bit of a twit, paranoid – in other words, more than a little like the heroes of conspiracy novels that take themselves seriously. Little does Danyl know that, independently, his old mate Steve (who coincidentally has the same name as one of the author’s best mates) is delving into the same dark and daunting secrets as Danyl is, but coming from an entirely different direction. Inevitably their paths will cross – and their parallel delvings give the author the chance to show his narrative skill by sometimes interlocking the same events as seen from different viewpoints.
In we plunge to a world in which apparently harmless archivists are really agents of demonic power, and ancient second-hand bookshops are portals to a hellish underworld, and an uncompleted real estate project is the refuge for malign destructive forces, and running under the Aro Valley are huge tunnels which either could lead to universal enlightenment or could enable huge forces to break through and destroy our cosmos as we know it. A Spiral-shaped symbol warns our intrepid (and idiotic) hero of the extent to which the other world has impinged upon the Aro Valley. Well you always do get dark portents and “codes” understood only by initiates in Gothic horror, don’t you? Said idiotic hero is often chased by a giant capable of tearing him limb from limb. There is a drug called DoorWay, which zonks out unsuspecting citizens who wander into the nether world, allowing them to enter into the Real City (which may not be real) but also making them manipulable by malign cosmic forces. A group called the Cartographers are apparently at war with something (or someone) called the Gorgon, which may or may not have supernatural powers. Mind you, the Gorgon at one point gets voted onto the Te Aro community council.
And this reminds you that it is all going on under the streets of a Wellington suburb. As an early declaration warns us: “Te Aro, where nothing was as it seemed. Beneath the city’s quirky superficial charm lurked depths of madness.” (p.29)
I admit I enjoyed most the parts where the author makes satire out of the Wellington suburb and its bohemian pretensions, in such phrases as:
Rush hour. Even in the depths of winter there would have been people getting up and going out to teach yoga classes, or to beg change from commuters in the Capital.” (p.56)
He made his way over to the shelves on his hands and knees and examined the record player. They were a dead technology everywhere else in the world, but the subculture of Te Aro had formed a deep emotional attachment to these devices and they were standard issue in most homes.” (p.85)
Or (referencing student radicals and alternative lifestylers):
Anarchist cells were broken up and revolutionary demagogues returned to their anxious parents. Much-loved tenement buildings were deemed unfit for human habitation and condemned; their inhabitants were dragged blinking and screaming from their lightless interiors by child welfare agencies. It was a disaster for the culture and economy of the valley.” (p.145)
Or the point where the fictitious Danyl declares:
People see the residents of Te Aro as pot-addled, new-age dreamers. But that’s just a lazy stereotype. Only about sixty or seventy percent of the population falls into that category.” (p.286)
When a community archive is run by people who never, ever, ever want anybody to access its contents, you understand that this is only a smidgeon away from the reality of many community services, the obstruction of petty bureaucrats and so forth. So Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley has its quota of deadpan satire.
There’s another interesting level to it.
Danyl, just out of psychiatric care, not sure whether he should go back on his medication of not, is really like the Sleepwalker Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and this is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury”. For at least the first half of Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, it would be reasonable to read it as the distorted hallucinations of a troubled (or post-medicated) mind misinterpreting harmless reality. Only later (once the narrative of Steve gets going) does this fruitful ambiguity dissipate.
Once past the unreliable narrator aspect of it, the accommodating gormlessness of Danyl is engaging. Pick him out in this scene where he is in danger of being beaten to death by his nemesis the giant, and note his attitude:
Danyl lay on the concrete and the giant lay on Danyl, a vast warm bulk pressing down on him. It felt quite nice, actually: being pinned to the ground, face down, completely powerless. Not in a sexual way. It was more that while he was trapped beneath the giant Danyl didn’t have to make any decisions about what to do or say. He felt safe.” (p.117)
As for the chase-and-slapstick element of it (a very large part of the novel consists of either Danyl or Steve pursuing or being pursued by enemies), it certainly has its high points. As a piece of clever imbecility, I relished the sequence when the idiots make their escape from a bathroom using a bathtub for protection, and then having to hide beneath the bathtub when they attract the unwelcome attentions of a savage dog. This has the same sort of surreal inevitability as the ancient movie sequence where Laurel and Hardy try to carry a piano over a rope bridge and meet a gorilla halfway.
Ah yes, but there is quite a lot of it, and it will be entirely depending on your own taste whether you can take a great deal of this.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ: A LIFE by Gerald Martin (first published 2008)

Twice before on this blog I have waxed eloquent about the difficulties involved in writing biographies. (Look up the posts WhyWrite a New Biography? and The Toilof Biography). My most consistent theme has been that, once a good biography of somebody has been published, it is pointless to write a new biography unless important new material has come to light or unless the new biographer has a radically different interpretation of the life under review. Another issue I should have dealt with was the question of how close the biographer is to the person being examined. This is a special problem when we come to the biographies of the still-living or the only-recently-dead. The biographer may be a friend, colleague or frequent companion of the person being written about. Immediately we have the problem of “objectivity”. How much can we trust the word of somebody who may have the inside goss, but who doesn’t have the distance to deal with it rationally?
I think a good (or bad) example of this is Gerald Martin’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life. I have already told (see the posts on The General in His Labyrinth and Autumn of the Patriarch) the story of how the Sunday Star-Times commissioned me, seven years ago, to review this huge volume. I accepted, and I then went into a crash programme, over about seven weeks, of reading all Garcia Marquez’s major novels and some of his reportage. This was because I hadn’t hitherto read his works. When I read Gerald Martin’s book I found it fascinating, but was troubled by the lack of distance between author and subject.
Anyway here, unaltered from its original appearance, is the review I wrote for the Sunday Star-Times (1 March 2009).
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How prudent is it to write a man’s life when that man is still alive? And how much is a biographer compromised if he is also a friend of his subject?
These two questions began buzzing through my mind almost as soon as I started reading the nearly 600 large pages of this blockbuster.
That Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s life is worth telling there can be no doubt. Now in his 80s, the Colombian novelist is one of the world’s few genuine literary superstars. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, it was a rare occasion in the history of that contentious award, because the win was universally applauded. Although I’d personally beg to differ (I’m not the greatest Garcia Marquez fan), many have cited his One Hundred Years of Solitude as the most influential Spanish-language novel since Don Quixote. Rare for a Nobel laureate, his huge international readership consistently makes him a bestseller. In Latin America, he’s famous enough to be universally recognised by his nickname “Gabo”. His political pronouncements, hobnobbing with the great and the famous, and deliberate clowning for the press are as well known in that part of the world as his novels and stories.
A former journalist himself, Garcia Marquez is always good for a headline and treats journalists with the type of deadpan wit I’d associate with Alfred Hitchcock’s press conferences. He once impishly told an audience that he preferred to read his own novels in their English translations. Later he claimed that his wife Mercedes really wrote all his books, but thought they were so bad that she let him sign his name to them. Apparently some listeners were dozy enough to believe him for a while.
But here’s the rub. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is still alive, and much that is most intimate about him cannot and will not be told until he’s safely dead. Think of all those inaccessible files of letters by enemies, friends and former friends, like the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Mario used to be Garcia Marquez’s best buddy, but ended up thumping him in the nose when he thought Garcia Marquez had been fooling around with his wife. The two men didn’t speak for 30 years. The biography of a living person will always be a provisional record at best.
Gerald Martin has been actively researching his subject for 18 years. He has been admitted into the Garcia Marquez family circle, where he is known as the gringo “Yeral”. He has interviewed nearly every living person who has known Garcia Marquez, from Fidel Castro to obscure drinking mates from his apprentice years. He regularly socialises with Garcia Marquez’s friends. His documentation is both scrupulous and copious. Martin aspires to be Gabo’s Boswell, recording all the things the great man has said or done. In a preface he disconcertingly tells us that this very large book is only a smaller version of a work that will eventually run to more than 2500 pages. Presumably this will be published when Garcia Marquez is in his grave.
Yet the tone is far from consistent.
Martin is a respected academic, and does offer fruitful insights into the genesis of the novelist’s works. They range from the straight social protest of In an Evil Hour to the modernist experimentalism of The Autumn of the Patriarch (in my view Garcia Marquez’s best book) to the severe historical reconstruction of the Simon Bolivar novel The General in his Labyrinth. The great turning point was, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Martin smartly reminds us that although its “magical realism” is the best-known thing about it, “magical realism” was a short-lived phenomenon both in the novelist’s oeuvre, and in Latin American literature as a whole.
When he chooses to play Freud, Martin also offers worthwhile analysis of Gabo’s life.  Deserted by a feckless father, and with a mother who had a large family to raise, the novelist as a boy bonded most closely with his crotchety old soldier of a grandfather, who was his role model perhaps in more ways than Garcia Marquez ever realised.
So far, so enlightening. But then there are those cringe-worthy moments when Gerald Martin introduces himself into the narrative in the first-person, and tells us about the gatherings of glitterati, honouring Garcia Marquez, that he has attended. The book ends with a “Bradford’s Hollywood” account of Gabo’s 80th birthday party. It leaves me with the heretical thought that if Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey both gush over a writer, then there really must be something seriously questionable about him.
What is being played out in this book, and in Martin himself, is the conflict between the fan and the scholar, the buddy and the sober biographer. There are time when Martin seems to wilfully soft-pedal his hero’s faults. The worst is his long account of Garcia Marquez’s long pre-marital affair, in the 1950s, with a young woman whom he then abandoned and yet who later became a sort of unofficial mistress. Clearly, Martin hasn’t been able to get all the facts of the case (again the problem of writing about living people). But reading between the lines, the young novelist seems to have been more of a swine than Martin wants to admit.
Most interestingly, Martin’s own patience begins to wear a little thin late in this narrative. In the last 100 pages, he does actually question some of Gabo’s political statements. The Latin American’s resentment of interference by the United States is fully understandable, especially in the light of the horrendous recent history of Colombia, which Martin gives us in detail. But Gabo’s dogged defence of Fidel Castro has led him to make some decidedly dodgy judgements of his own.
Martin also gets to criticise the macho sexual element in Garcia Marquez’s work, especially in the overrated Love in the Time of Cholera and in the silly old goat’s fantasy Memories of my Melancholy Whores.
Frankly, Garcia Marquez’s inability to differentiate love from sexual fantasising is what most repels me from some of his work, and I sense that Martin unwillingly comes to the same conclusion.
Let’s be fair about this, though.
The tone is uneven, the evasions stick out like a sore thumb and the fandom parts are obnoxious. But there is enough solid scholarship in this biography to make it indispensible to interpreters of Garcia Marquez. And the entertaining anecdotes make it a page-turner, despite its formidable length.
It’s the first draft of an important life.

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Up-Date Footnote: Obviously the above review was written five years before Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death (in April 2014). Though Gerald Martin (an expert on South American literature, who has written books about other authors including Vargas Llosa) has produced The Cambridge Introduction to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2012) he has not yet produced the 2500 page work he promised in his 600-page biography of Gabo. Perhaps it is still in progress.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


Many years ago, I heard a whimsical fellow on the radio declare that he had a watertight scheme to prevent himself from getting too upset about current affairs. He subscribed to a daily newspaper, but he would never read any issue until two weeks after it had been delivered. Then he could rest easy about the crises and upheavals, which were trumpeted on the front page. Usually, they had already blown over and had proven to be of no great moment a mere two weeks later.

It’s just a matter of perspective. What appears to be extremely important while it is happening proves, upon later reflection, to be of little account and no lasting significance. And often, when we are absorbing in such small beer, we miss the really important stuff.

I had a good lesson in this phenomenon a couple of weeks back when I watched two contrasting documentaries on Netflix.

One was a rather unsatisfactory and (as far as political substance was concerned) shallow piece called The Best of Enemies. It was about the series of ten television “debates” that were staged in 1968 by the ABC network between William F.Buckley and Gore Vidal. I put the word “debates” in inverted commas for the obvious reason that little real debating took place. Buckley the conservative commentator, and Vidal, the “libertarian liberal”, spent most of their time insulting each other and trading witticisms what sounded both arch and rehearsed. They were supposedly there to provide opposing political comment on the Republican and Democrat parties’ conventions, which were busily choosing their presidential candidates. Down in Florida, the Republican Party decided on Richard Nixon without much fuss. Up in Chicago, the Democrat convention (which chose the bland Hubert Humphrey) was overshadowed by a city-wide riot as police rough handled anti-war protesters who were shouting “The whole world’s watching!” as they spotted the television cameras. This was the “siege of Chicago” that was written up in a number of breathless reportages (I still give shelf-space to Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, published in 1968). It was played out against the backdrop of the continuing Vietnam War. 

The Best of Enemies was such a superficial thing, however, that it skipped the real issues of the day and concentrated on the personal enmity of the two “debaters”. As far as the film was concerned, the punch line [pun intended] of the debates was when Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and in reply Buckley lost his temper and called Vidal a “queer” and threatened to punch his face in. My own impression was that both men were equally smug and self-satisfied, with Buckley a little more boorish than Vidal (but not much), and Vidal a little more suave that Buckley (but not much). Their affected voices and mutual pettiness were not things to enlighten or inspire anyone, apart from those who think being snide is wit. Perhaps the fade-out of the film was right in suggesting that their exchanges were really the template for the new school of mutual shouting, screeching and insult that now passes for current affairs debate on television.

But here was the interesting thing. Ignoring the fact (never mentioned in the film) that both Democrat and Republican candidates were equally hawkish about the Vietnam War, the film showed Gore Vidal excoriating Richard Nixon as an extreme right-winger who would ruin the nation and lead it to financial and social ruin. Nixon already had the reputation as “Tricky Dick”, although all this was years before the Watergate Affair that really destroyed his reputation.

Now for the irony of all this, and the proof of how necessary a long perspective is. A few nights earlier, I had watched Requiem for the American Dream, a sort of primer of the basic political thought of Noam Chomsky. Many people had urged me to watch this because they found Chomsky’s ideas provocative and interesting. So do I (Chomsky is a commentator always worth listening to), but this particular film struck me as basically a compression of things that Chomsky has said elsewhere, and in more documented detail, in such documentaries as Manufacturing Consent. Even so, it was a good primer.

Having excoriated the neo-liberalism that has eaten away at America’s wellbeing for the last 30+ years, Chomsky mentioned Richard Nixon as “the last New Deal President”  - that is, as the last president who operated under the assumption that social welfare was desirable, that a large tax-take should underwrite public services and that it was good for wealth not to be concentrated in too few hands. Some of his social policies might have been conservative, and his rhetoric was conservative, but in real terms welfare benefits were increased under his presidency more than they had under the two Democrat presidents who preceded him. None of this absolves him from his unlovely personality, the disgrace of the Watergate Affair with all his “expletives deleted” and so forth – but it is still the hard economic fact of his presidency. Further, declared Chomsky, all American presidents since Nixon, whether Republican (Reagan, Bush senior, Bush junior) or Democrat (Carter, Clinton, Obama) had ploughed ahead with what amounted to an anti-New Deal, anti-welfare state, programme, for all their vacuous slogans about “new hope” and “vision”.

Considering the two films side by side, I though how ironical it was that a very left-wing commentator was able to take this long view of a conservative Republican president. It certainly put into perspective the chitterings of two preening peacocks, which the other film recorded. Inasmuch as they were debating anything, Buckley and Vidal were debating the immediate, grubby and ephemeral workings of politics. The long view that Vidal claimed to see was nothing more than an extension of those immediate workings. Neither he nor Buckley really foresaw what was significant in America’s future, although Buckley was to be one of those who applauded the onset of neo-liberalism.

In comparison with the long-term process Chomsky outlined, how utterly trivial, how completely missing the main point, seem the dated squabbling of two men who thought too highly of themselves.

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All readers of this blog are most welcome to attend the launch of Nicholas Reid’s second collection of poetry, Mirror World.
It is being launched at the Gus Fisher Gallery – top of Shortland Street, Auckland – on the evening of Thursday 14 July.
Be there for drink and nibbles at 6pm with the formal part of the launch at 6:30.
Dr Iain Sharp will act as MC and a good time will be had by all.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THOUGHT HORSES” by Rachel Bush (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING” by Bill Nelson (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “RABBIT RABBIT” by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

            Reviewing collections of poetry is the pons asinorum of short-form reviewers.  Unless you are going to give a detailed exegesis of each individual poem, which would exceed the length available, the best the reviewer can do is to indicate the general nature of the collection’s contents, and quote some things that seem effective. I make no apology for, in the following, quoting in full a poem from each of the three new collections being discussed. This seemed an economical way to indicate what was best in each. There is no real reason to yoke these three collections of poetry together, except that they all happen to have been published recently by Victoria University press. So here they are:

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            As soon as I read the opening poem – also the title poem – of Rachel Bush’s Thought Horses, I knew I was going to enjoy the book and was completely prejudiced in its favour. “Thought Horses” is about insomnia. As a long-term insomniac I identified immediately with the free-form poem in which the poet declares:

You think of the poem you wrote about leaving a house, and how houses we have owned will come back to us in dreams.

You think about taking your computer into the next room.

You think maybe you ought to try to sleep.

You think you should just think about your breathing. You do this for several breaths until the thought horses ride over and look at you and you turn to them with their big protruding eyes and you forget about the movement of your breath

“Yes, yes, yes and check, check, check!” I thought, as I both remembered and recognised those sleepless nights when the overstocked, overstimulated brain goes chickety-boom chickety-boom with all those thought horses, and resistance is impossible. This is the best insomnia poem I have encountered since the piquant (and painfully funny) “Sleep-Talking” in Emma Neale’s fine collection Tender Machines.

When she wrote these poems, Rachel Bush (who died a few months ago) was a woman of mature years and of settled domestic habits and observation. And as soon as a male reviewer says that sort of thing about a woman who is a poet, you almost expect some following patronising slap at poems about domesticity.

Not a bit of it.

I found Thought Horses a stimulating and enjoyable collection.

There are recurrent images in these poems of beds, sleep, noises in the night and the creaking of a new house. There is recurrent imagery of gardens (feeding sparrows in “In My Garden”) and the annoying-ness of being taken over by home appliances (“All my feelings would have been of common things”). And there are birds singing at dawn.

The delicacy of Rachel Bush’s approach to the last theme is found in the poem  “Early”, which I quote in full:

The darkness wears a quiet sound

of tires died down and people who stir

in sleep. Soon they will slip on

their daily selves, button them up.

A rooster knows the time, says

it out loud when day is less

than a light line above the hills.

A car hitches its shoulders,

decides to keep going.

Its lights make holes in the night.

One ruru calls

its own name.

Its wings are invisible.

They make no sound.

There are also many recalls to childhood. “It Ends with Forever” recreates the lost cosiness of being a child. “Not Seeing the Lady from Spain” conveys a sense of disappointment at a lost childhood opportunity – the type of small thing that still looms large in adult dreams. “Four Elephants”, a somewhat whimsical poem about a stuffed elephant, resonates with children of my own baby-boomer generation with its reference to Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. I wonder if Rachel Bush was thinking of Mumfie?

This might suggest that the world Rachel Bush conjures up is altogether too comfy and ladylike. And indeed I did find one poem, “Made of Myrrh”, with its series of fantasticated images, to be verging on the precious.

But there is a hard edge to Rachel Bush’s domestic view. Check out the pair of poems “Anne Carson Until I Fall Asleep” and “Five Answers for Anne Carson”, and you find an acute intellectual querying of clichés. There are always the unsettling intimations of ageing and mortality, with a blunt poem about a medical procedure (“After ORIF”) for a fractured leg. The cycles of poems “Seven Visions” and “Hands and Birds” show the careful plotting of particular lines of thought. And under much of the collection is the determinism of the unconscious mind, nudging us along in sleep and in unbidden dreams and butting in, in the most unexpected places. Read the daytime poem “Quick and Good” and those nightmarish thought horses (night mares?) intrude in the form of Ovid’s line (later filched by Christopher Marlowe) “Lente, lente currite noctis equi”.

The scene might often be the settled house, but the thoughts are grown-up ones. This is a very satisfying collection.

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Do men think and write differently from women? Or is it just a matter of the things men like to write about?

The world of Bill Nelson, presented in his debut volume Memorandum of Understanding is very different from the world of Rachel Bush. Nelson’s poems are sometimes shorter and more abrupt, allusive rather than contemplative, and frequently drawing on the public life rather than the private one.

He imagines he is the ageing body of the great jazzman John Coltrane (“Giant Steps”). He witnesses a public suicide (“Battersea Bridge”). He creates a biting satire on rich money-movers and their toys (“The race plan”). And, most spectacularly, he creates a sequence of poems with an incredibly long time-frame. The five-part sequence is called, with clear irony, “The pigeon history of New Zealand”. Its vision goes from the prehistoric to the settled and almost blasé, taking a glance at the origin of religion en route. In poems with a clearly New Zealand setting, Nelson’s imagery is equally of Wellington (rain, Brooklyn) and Auckland (Victoria Park, the Harbour Bridge). We are looking at the big outside world, not the private dawn-chorus garden.

But there is an intimate emotional life suggested. Sometimes with hesitation and qualifications, Bill Nelson writes of love of a sort. There is an aching for somebody else at the end of a rainy walk (“Pronoun rain”). A carnal love is apparently preluded in the poem “Pins and Needles”, with its physical account of the uneasy movements of intertwined bodies as they get tired and cramped. Nelson sometimes writes in large blocks of prose-like print, with diagonal slash breaks (thus: / ) to separate the “lines”, as if this were signalling breath pauses. This is the technique he uses in “All the love poems”, “In geological time” and “Pattern #176”, all of which constitute a slightly sardonic take on love poems. They are dissections, rather than declarations, of erotic love. In the title poem “Memorandum of understanding”, this same technique presents us with a very tentative declaration of love as set in the context and idiom of legalistic business negotiations. Perhaps this is the love of a young man not quite sure of himself.

The collection ends with a very long (22-page) sequence “How to do just about anything”, mainly conveyed in active verbs, partly based on “found” text, and providing a surreal mix of activity with dreamed impossibility.

From everything I’ve said, then, this is clearly a book with a very male sensibility. And in this vein, I find one poem a real treasure. I love the dead-pan maleness of the poem “Charlie’s shed”, especially with its wonderfully contrived final lines, speaking eloquently of what endues and what is ephemeral. I quote the poem in full:

He hoarded screws

in peanut butter jars,

slotted oars and fishing rods

into the rafters, walked every day

on the beach. He told me

he couldn’t see my face

any more. I spent three months

in his tiny house of photographs,

bundled with rubber bands,

potato sacks stuffed

with potato sacks,

Time magazines

in unlabelled boxes.

I drank red wine

and listened to the clock

click its thin metal parts

into place, each second

finding its home

and then leaving it.

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Then again, the domestic and the public are neither of them the provinces of only female and only male. They cohabit in any of us, and they certainly cohabit in the bouncy poetry of Kerrin P. Sharpe. She deals with both the private or intimate; and the public world as seen in her poems of travel.

The title poem of Rabbit Rabbit is the first poem of the book – sixteen succinct lines of a fantasy about a woman keeping a frisky rabbit, which could easily be read as making comment on the organising woman and the adventuring male. A theriomorphic impulse leads Sharpe to give human beings animal shapes (“rabbit rabbit”, “I never asked to be a reindeer”). Hares run meaningfully in a number of poems late in the collection.

There are no organised “sequences” of poems in this book, but there is persistent imagery. A mother is the heroine of the first four poems. There is much medical imagery (brain surgery; gynaecology). Poems reference family and funerals, sometimes suggesting a Catholic background (“talk about Knocknagree”, “the morning of my mother’s funeral her cup is sober-minded”, “in any language we think of him” and “what was going on was the Cross”). Later poems appear to reference trips to Poland, Russia and Scandinavia with some side-glances at Ireland. One or two reference the New Zealand seashore. There is also the occasion mention of a son, in poems which may (or may not) allude to a private tragedy.

This uncertainty points to a little difficulty I had in reading many of these poems. While they are always pithy and lively, their frame of reference is often obscure. It is fun to read a surreal narrative like “whenever I pass the woods a wolf fastens my coat”, but even after repeated readings I am not sure what it means and I am left wondering if it means anything at all – apart from slightly nightmarish random images.

Yet I unreservedly admire two very accomplished poems. “A language goes silent” conjures up in very few words the early Chinese-New Zealand experience. And there is a wonderful war (or is it anti-war?) poem presented in the same surreal images Sharpe deploys elsewhere. It is called “on this day the hawk in battle-dress”. This is the poem I choose to quote in full:

on this day the hawk in battle dress

praises the textile of fields

where soldiers fall

he shadows their boots

their gas capes their Lewis guns

and fills their eyes with his

it no longer matters

if they gambled if they

forgot themselves if they

spent money like fire

here on linen snow

the hawk demonstrates

the fellowship of death

how it is dimly lit