Monday, July 10, 2017

Something New

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

“THE ONES WHO KEEP QUIET” by David Howard (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “AMBIENT TERROR” by Victor Billot (Limetone Singularity Media, Dunedin $NZ19:99)

I approach a new colletion of poems by David Howard with something like excitement. Back in August 2012, I had the privilege of reviewing David Howard’s In-Complete Poems for Landfall Review on Line. That large collection was the poet’s complete poems up to that date. The poet (who at the time was 53) called it “in-complete” because he knew full well that a poet’s works are “complete” only when the poet is dead. I noted the consistency of many of Howard’s preoccupations – sex, cultural dislocation and religious enquiry – from poetry he wrote in his twenties to poems he was writing in middle age. While there was a certain opaqueness to the poet’s earlier work, there was in his more mature poems intellectual robustness, wide cultural reference and what is for some poets now a lost art – the sheer craftsmanship of rhythm, rhyme and stanzaic form. Particularly I praised Howard’s ability to write long poems that cohered as ongoing argument and observation.

How many poets now can really write long-form poems, as opposed to the “concept albums” (short poems arranged around a theme) that sometimes seem to dominate the poetry market?

All Howard’s skills are on display in his latest volume The Ones Who Keep Quiet. The blurb helpfully reminds us that “the ones who keep quiet” are the dead, but we would soon infer this from the collection’s contents. ALL the longer poems in this collection are, in effect, dialogues with the dead. All are portraits or reveries of either the dead or of the worldviews of past ages. Death hangs over them. God flashes through them in small shards, not fully revealed but piquing the quest of the spiritual (but undecided) poet. It is quite clear that David Howard has spent many years working on this collection – through a Burns Fellowship and three other residencies, including one in Prague. It should also be clear that the poet knows the full irony of his chosen title. The dead may keep quiet in a literal sense, but they still shape us, buzz in our minds and memories and force us to see the roots of our culture.

Let’s look at this volume’s longer poems in order of appearance.

The Ones Who Keep Quiet opens with the12 pages of “The Ghost of James Williamson”. It is a ruminative poem split in two. The first part is the monologue of the 19th century trader and businessman James Williamson himself. The second part is a monologue of….who? Or what? The ghost of Williamson or the poet? For the second part references the present age and the art exhibition for which this poem was written. There is here once again a long wrestle with God – does he or does he not exist or is he our plaything? And what of the afterlife and the fate of the dead? The very last line of this sequence is bathetic – perhaps intentionally so. Perhaps the narrator is an unreliable narrator. But there is the sure and certain weight of the past and the awareness that a maker of this country (even if a flawed one like Williamson) is in part the maker of us and of our environment. As always, this poet is a determined craftsman, forming the whole of “The Ghost of James Williamson” out of six-line stanzas with the rhyming scheme abc-cba

Though it is shorter, the poem “The Speak House” (ten pages) is built on a larger scale. Dense with literary and historical alusions [there are four pages explaining them at the end of the volume] “The Speak House” situates itself in the two last two hours of Robert Louis Stevenson’s consciousness as he faces his relatively youthful death in Samoa. Stevenson remembers, regrets, fears, exults – there are here the smells and sights of the Pacific island, but also those of Stevenson’s unco dour childhood in Edinburgh. There is much reflection on the inadequacy [or deadening effects] of words (as there is in “The Ghost of James Williamson”). There is a strong sense of God, but of God as shattered into different creeds and in the impact of Europeans upon the Pacific. This is a remarkably rich and evocative poem as its rolls from one reflection to another through its five-lined stanzas.

I am in two minds about “The Mica Pavilion” a  12 page poetic drama. It is moonlit and it has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice. In 19th century Otago, as the (Chinese) moon goddess directs them and the (Maori) goddess of death confronts them, a Chinese miner woos a Maori woman against her father’s wishes. As in “The Speak House”, there is a sense of the fuidity and cultural formation of God; and the different conceptions of heaven and hell that are seen when diverse cultures meet. But is the poem in the end guilty of chinoiserie? Is this a European fantasy of two alien cultures? Read it and decide.

I feel a curious connection with the seven pages of Howard’s “Prague Casebook”. This is a poem about  the New Zealand academic (suspected by some of being a spy) Ian Milner, who spent some of the Cold War years in what was then Communist Prague. In my own first collection The Little Enemy (2011), I wrote a poem about Milner called “The Student of Prague”. I interpreted the man as a self-justifying ideologue who knew he had taken a wrong turn but was too proud to admit it. I think Howard’s interpretation of Milner in “Prague Casebook” is rather more forgiving than mine; but even so, the first section of Milner’s sickbed reveries comes through as the sophistry of one who hides behind tautology and musings on the power of language – but beween two musings by Milner, Howard sandwiches some of the unpleasant realities of the Communist state wherein Milner chose to live. Frankly, I think Howard is taking Milner down in a rather more subtle way than I did. Again I note the craftsmanlike care with which Howard presents Milner’s thought in 4-line stanzas of crossed rhymes.

The last of the five long poems that make up the bulk of this collection is the eighteen pages of “Because Love is Something Left”, about the nineteenth century naturalist and taxidermist Andreas Reishek in New Zealand. Most impressive is the central  section of this sequence entitled “apostrophe”, again written in abc-cba rhymed stanzas, expanding on the central image of a taxidermist as one who seeks perfection by trying to stop time and flux.

I would warn readers of any of these poems that David Howard’s work has to be read slowly and carefully. His poems are not “raves”. They are carefully structured and make demands upon the reader’s cultural capital. How easily can you recognise all those literary and historic allusions?

I would fail to present a clear view of The Ones Who Keep Quiet if I did not note that, while five long poems dominate the volume, there are many shorter lyrics.

“The World of Letters” is like an acount of the insufficiency of words to capture (or replicate) lived experience. “The Vanishing Line” is in effect a series of aphorisms, such as  “each perception is private, essential, isolating / like a poem.”  Or “A love song is a child climbing a tree / for the first, the perfect time / until the missed foothold.” “Family Secrets” presents a jaundiced view of (nuclear) family life forty or fifty years ago; and in the second of its three sections uses very unnerving imagery related to [but not explicit about] sex and reproduction. These are three shorter poems that stood out to me.

I grant that there are here some very personal poems that are opaque for the unintitiated – meaning for those who are not au fait with intimate details of the poet’s life – such as “The Impossibility of Strawberries” and “Being Prepared”. In many there is a recall of childhood and the sense of “instant eternity”, in that the recalled and preserved moment is the only possible eternity and the finality of death looms. You will note this tendency in  the pattern poem “Venture My Word”, where “I thought / the known world / at my disposal / … / it disposes of me / and you, the reader / we both go west / with the sun, another / /symbol of the centre / where every thing / made sense for one day.”

This is an intellectually challenging collection by a master poet who knows exactly what he is about.

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As I have noted before on this blog, if I review two collections of poetry one after the other in the same post, I am not implying a comparison between the two volumes. It is simply that both have come to my attention at about the same time. I can note, however, that Victor Billot is a very different sort of poet from David Howard. Committed politically to left-wing and working class causes (he has for years worked in a clerical capacity for a trade union), Billot in his collection Ambient Terror practises poetry as provocation, as direct social, political and historical commentary, as satire and as protest. This is not the poetry of dense cultural and literary allusion (like David Howard’s).

And that is the last comparison between these two volumes that I wish to make.

If I were at a poetry evening in a pub or city bar, I think I would enjoy listening to Victor Billot reading his poetry. The alcohol, the cameraderie, the desire that is always there to like what one is listening to, would all make me enjoy his angry diatribes against life’s and society’s injustices. Victor Billot presents poems of global ecological disaster (“Ocean of Tentacles”, “The Earth From Space”).  He writes an angry protest poem on the death of a young Vietnamese crew member on a non-unionised rust-bucket Korean fishing vessel (“48 14.5S, 168 18.76’ E”). In “The Prince of Darkness Attends a Work and Income Interview” he creates a nice piece of satire mocking the tone of such interviews. The long poem “Meat City” (apparently written twenty years ago) is a fun specimen of bohemian or old “Beat” blank verse, taking down the city of Auckland from a worm’s eye view. Billot also gets some mileage out of wistful descriptive poems like “Port Chalmers” and “Polar Flight”.

As performance pieces I think these would be great.

But here’s my problem (and, dare I say it, the problem of most performance poetry). Once you see such poems in cold print on the page, they often fall apart. Their populist rhetoric, their tricks and their political appeals lack nuance or (in many cases) craft.

Experienced from the page, an anti-Donald Trump poem (the “pussy grabber in chief”) called “Beast of the Hour” tells us “The old it is dying, the new cannot be born, / and shadows stalk through this night before dawn.” Oh dear! These lines sound like a socialist chant from c.1910. Rhyme requires great skill, but in “Heat Death of the Universe” or “2016, the Unauthorised Biography” or “The Walking Dead”, the rhyming couplets come too close to sheer doggerel. The same is true of “Trans Pacific Express” and “FVEY” (about the “five eyes” spy system). They would probably get cheers at a poetry slam or rap competition, but witty they ain’t. “New Year’s Eve 2015” is a great rant about bad media and New Zealand going down the gurgler, but it is already dated in its very perishable topical references. When I read “Brexit” I am basically reading a rant which tells us the poet doesn’t like the smelly English working class; and there are a number of “poor lonesome me” poems like “Christmas Rain”.

I would like to make it absolutely clear that I do not disagree with Victor Billot’s politics or his desire to satirise some things. But no matter how much I sympathise with his rave against electronic and social media “The Oversharing Economy”, the poem itself remains a rave.

I guess I’m experiencing Ambient Terror in the wrong medium. Perhaps I should go to more pub readings to get into the spirit of this sort of thing.

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