Monday, October 23, 2017

Something New


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

“FLOW – Whanganui River Poems” by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “ALZHEIMER’S AND A SPOON” by Liz Breslin (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “BAD THINGS” by Louise Wallace (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

As a reviewer, I pay more attention to New Zealand poetry than do most other reviewing platforms, apart from those that are specifically dedicated to poetry. I always treat new collections of poetry with care and respect, and it is only very occasionally that I feel the need to rebuke a current poet for sloppy writing, cliché-ridden ideas or unthought-through concepts. There is much good new poetry out there. Even so, it is only occasionally that a new volume of poetry has made me sit up with admiration and pure delight. To give a (partial) list of the best volumes of poetry I have had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog, I would name Richard Reeve’s Generation Kitchen, Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse, Sue Wootton’s TheYield, David Eggleton’s The ConchTrumpet, David Howard’s The OnesWho Keep Quiet, and  Ian Wedde’s The Lifeguard , not to mention an excellent volume selected from a poet’s published works so far,Vincent O’Sullivan’s Being Here.  

Apart from my personal taste, what is it that makes me list these particular collections? I think it is the fact that all these poets have a strong sense of form. They all understand what the shape of a poem should be, and they know how metre and (more occasionally) rhyme can be used to best advantage where needed. In other words, they know about the poet’s craft.

I am very happy to add Airini Beautrais’ Flow – Whanganui River Poems to this list. Flow is Beautrais’ fourth collection of poems, but it is certainly her most ambitious so far. As in her third collection (reviewed on this blog), Dear Neil Roberts, Beautrais displays the welcome gift of accessibility. Some of her allusions may make a few readers scratch their heads, but she is never wilfully obscure and her thematic intentions are always clear. Again as in Dear Neil Roberts, Beautrais’ focus is on the part of New Zealand she inhabits. As she says in her Dedication, she is a Pakeha whose family have for six generations lived near the Whanganui River. Flow, she says, is a “collage” or “polyphony” as the many and diverse stories it tells about the Whanganui region cannot be welded into one single narrative.

This very generous collection (nearly 180 pages of text) is divided into three sections – each almost as long as many complete collections of poetry.

The first section, “Catchment”, covers the whole region and all the tributaries that feed into the Whanganui River as it flows north-west from Tongariro, then turns south at Taumarunui and heads towards the sea. A few of the poems in this section present a modern viewpoint, presumably based on the poet’s own experience. But most convey, in the first-person, the experiences of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century Pakeha explorers and settlers – surveyors, tree-fellers and loggers, labourers, farmers, and folkloric figures like the multiple prison-escapee George Wilder.

The second section, “A Body of Water”, deals with the river itself and the settlements upon it. More of the poems in this section are pure “nature” poems, descriptive of the river and its surrounding landscape.  There are fewer poems in the first-person and a clutch of poems about the non-human life in the river (poems about trout, graylings, freshwater crayfish, eels and eel-traps, lampreys etc.). There is an awareness of both the messiness and the otherness of nature, as in one of Beautrais’ best poems “Seed” (pp.82-83), with its catalogue of

Red grain of wood, wet oozing sap,

domatia where the tiny leaf-mites sleep,

ripe pulpy humus dropped and mashed

by rotting rain, the orange berries flushed

on twigs of foetid plants, the swoop

of water black with tannins in the deep-

cut stream. All live things spill your smell,

all death exudes your taste, and in your fist fits all.”

Even so, the Pakeha pioneers loom large (poems about cartographers and bridge-builders) and there are poems about specific individuals – a long poem called “Fire” about the Anglican missionary and explorer Richard Taylor, and a poem called “Foundlings” about Mother Mary Aubert at the Jerusalem settlement.

As for the third section, “The Moving Sand”, it focuses on the city of Wanganui itself, where the river flows into the sea. Once again, reflections on the current scene mix with 19th century testimonies from “lieutenant” or “constable” or “Mrs Field” – the voices of early Pakeha settlers adjusting to the fact that the large, unruly, black-sand beach, where winds whip the sand about, is not the same as a polite English beach where one can picnic sedately. There are a couple of poems (“Eunice”, “Stormbird”) about ships that were wrecked on the harbour bar, and there is certainly room for Airini Beautrais to go political or satirical – a poem (“Meat Workers”) about meat workers protesting at a lock-out, and a poem (“Dead Port”) ridiculing repeated attempts to turn Wanganui into a major port. For those who get the allusion, the poem “Glow in the Dark” is a sad reflection on Iris Wilkinson (“Robin Hyde”), who spent a short time as a reporter on a Wanganui newspaper.

All I’ve done so far is to walk you through the contents of this expansive book. I have not said anything about its quality, and why it is the engaging thing that it is.

Here are some ideas.

In the first place, Beautrais (despite often writing in the voices of others and occasionally sounding like a descendant of Edgar Lee Masters) really does write within her own experience, never pretending to be other than a Pakeha, never claiming to channel the perspective of the region’s indigenous ancestors. She has the wonderful ability to turn very personal experience into something much greater. Take the last two stanzas of the poem “Plotlines” (pp.23-24) where the concept of “story” segues easily from a domestic situation to the longest earthly time-scale:


My son always wants a story. Tell me a story about a T-rex

who was far away. Tell me a story about a spider

 who was lonely. And if the plotline doesn’t develop:

‘That wasn’t a story! I want a proper story!’

Obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, solution.

Even a three-year-old knows the basic devices.

Obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, attempted solution, failure.

The greatest stories of all time are geological.

            A truly great poem like “Roads”, dated to a visit made in 2013, works by using a present experience to show the impossibility of re-capturing the past.

            Then you note the care she has taken to shape this whole collection. The first section, for example, both begins and ends at Cherry Grove, Taumarunui. The last poem in the book, “North Mole” drags a modern perspective back to primal origins by presenting Kupe as a surfie.

            Most impressive, though, is Beautrais’ facility with form. In both “Clear Away” (pp.25-26) and “Flood” (pp.126-129) she takes on the type of multi-directional conversation that was a favourite with poets of the Romantic era. Some poems are a celebration of pure sound, as in the title poem “Flow” (p.84), which follows the whole course of the river from the mountain to the sea in insistent anapaests. Formally-structured and rhymed sonnets are within her range (see pp.172-175). Indeed rhyme is a major device in her arsenal. This can lead to some problems. “Into the Ground” (p.35) and “Only Dancing” (pp.43-44) read very much like doggerel, but this is probably intentional – both poems are meant to be rough working-men’s ballads, and doggerel was the norm in such.

            Flow is an ambitious and impressive collection from a poet who is immersed in her chosen subject and knows how to make it sing.

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            No disrespect is meant to two other good collections of poetry if I deal with them more briefly.

            Liz Breslin’s debut volume Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is exuberant, witty, great at wordplay and delightful to read. And this is very odd because the poems (most written in the first person) are about serious matters that could easily have become the occasion for solemnity. The poet’s aged grandmother sinking into Alzheimer’s. The older woman’s distant and garbled memories of surviving Nazi-occupied Poland. The way Alzheimer’s eats away at vocabulary. The crushing banality of the internet and the way nonsense goes “viral”. And yet here these matters are accounted for with a lightness of touch that (not to get too solemn about it myself) suggests a resilient human spirit unwilling to be crushed. Breslin creates collages from found materials – such as her “Lifestyle Creed” - and challenges us with “riddle” poems, using a variety of verbal techniques to draw us into her worldview and empathise even as we laugh. God gets a look-in with a certain wariness, only on the edge of mockery, suggesting the uncertain soul. There is that old paradox that wit can be a serious business, and it certainly is here.

            In her third collection of poetry Bad Things, Louise Wallace (“poet, not celebrity housewife” as the blurb helpfully says) goes for free verse, prose poems, aphorisms, pithy and brief observations and a few truckloads of irony. A clutch of poems reference Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Redford and other such Hollywood icons, usually in the form of personal encounters which read like the poet’s dream diary. The prose poem “The olives” is a sophisticated take-down of a certain sort of self-indulgent pseudo-art film. The poem “Constellations”, on conceptual art, is as near as well-bred poet can come to saying it’s bollocks, but the statement is carapaced with irony to cushion the blow. And there are poems on food, on middle-class domesticity, and on clothes. The most affecting are the most personal – familiy relationships. As for the poem (well, letter really) about the “other” Louise Wallace, it clearly reflects a great annoyance in the poet’s life and comes out as the letting-off-of-steam.

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