Monday, June 20, 2016

Something New

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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

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