Monday, September 17, 2018

Something New


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

“POETA – Selected and New Poetry” by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, $NZ39:95); “THAT DERRIDA WHOM I DERIDED DIED – Poems 2013-2017” by C.K.Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99); “POEMS FROM HOTEL MIDDLEMORE by Michael Morrissey (Cold Hub Press, $NZ19:50); “LAST OF THE HALCYON DAYS” by Julie Ryan (Steele Roberts, $NZ19:95)

            Two-and-a-half years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Cilla McQueen’s poetic memoir Ina Slant Light, taking her life from her birth in 1949 to the 1980s, when she felt she had established herself as an independent voice in poetry.

Now that she is nearly 70, McQueen is rewarded with a large (nearly 300 pages), handsome hardback selection (with ribbon bookmark) of her work. As her preface says, Poeta selects poems from her 14 previous collections, but they are only loosely arranged in chronological order of publication. The eleven sections that make up Poeta are organised thematically, so that poems from earlier in her writing career sometimes appear side-by-side with poems from much later. At the foot of each page, however, the date of first publication or composition of each poem is noted. And this arrangement does allow us to see what Priscilla Muriel McQueen’s most consistent preoccupations have been. Each section is prefaced with a line drawing by the poet, reminding us that McQueen – long associated with Ralph Hotere and other southern artists – is artist as well as poet. McQueen tells us that her selection was made with the help of another very good poet from the Deep South, Richard Reeve.

            Now that I’ve given you the bibliographic orientation, let’s consider the poems themselves, the earliest, as far as I can discern, dating from 1982 and the most recent from 2017, so covering 35 years.

            There is great difficulty in “reviewing” what amounts to the life work of a poet. For earlier ham-fisted attempts by me to do so, see on this blog reviews of Collected Poems ofAlistair Te Ariki Campbell and CharlesBrasch Selected Poems and Being Here (Vincent O’Sullivan’s selected poems from 1973 to 2013). A poet’s style changes over the years and, as a reviewer, it is hard to corral his or her meaning and style into one neat formula.

            Reading McQueen’s earlier poems, we at first think the poet is matter-of-fact and giving us snapshots of landscape and domestic life. But we quickly discover that McQueen has strong strains of playfulness and genuine surrealism in poems such as ”Living Here” (sheep turn into hedgehogs and vice versa) and “Timepiece” (time stops still, just like a science fiction story) and she can express angst about identity in lines such as “there’s a point past which I must suppose / the world exists, but I’ve no guarantee” (“Listen”) because “The hardest thing is seeing / straight and saying plainly” (from “Vegetable Garden Poem”).

            As an artist, she also gives us studio scenes of the artist at work, and hence poems about fellow artists and poets such as Hone Tuwhare.  But there is that strong rationalist (as opposed to empirical) awareness that everything is processed by the brain and that all friends are known through perception. Recalling friends in “Evocations”, she concludes “They appear as a radiance in my nerves”. McQueen favours loose stanzaic forms and much (perhaps most) of her poetry is written in the  first person as direct address to the reader.

            The section called in this collection “Quark Dances” has its moments of surrealism (a poem about the whole world becoming naked and experiencing Dionysan joy; a poem about a bishop being pulled underground) but some of it has – dare I say it – a touch of the Edith Sitwells and verges on whimsy, especially in the performance poem “Lady Alice the Incredible Lady Gymnast” who, according to the opening lines “constructed a flying machine / of surpassing grace and lightness / out of shells and feathers and fishing line / which made a fitting carriage” even if she is defeated with a clump by gravity. It is in this section of Poeta that McQueen asserts ironically her own poetics, satirising “male” ideas of what poetry should be (“Wacky Language”) and current poetic norms that run against her natural exuberance (“Soapy Water”). One gets a mental impression of a very lively person waving her arms, declaiming with a laugh in her tone and not caring too much where the chips fall.

With an extract from her poem “Bump and Grind”, her predilection for onomatopoeia and non-verbal utterances comes to the fore: “Heavy and hot after rain the crossing bells ring, / tangtangtangtangtangtangtangtang  (bird whistle) and here / comes the train, a big one, grinding along all on one note, / tooooooooot / the train is present (a close bird sings) and past, a red light / shift, clung, clung, clung, clung, over the / sleepers (a close bird sings) and brakes, wheeeee wheeeee, / /till the bell stop, the bird continues, low rumble, fade out, fade out.” Of course it is illustrative of the fluidity and constant movement of reality, but it is the noises themselves that most beguile the poet. And for its equal as a cheerful nonsense concatenation of sound, look out for “Dogwobble” later in this volume, or her 2018 poem “Bird Text” which is simply a series of notated bird sounds.

            To judge from this volume, it was a trip to (still-divided) Berlin and other parts of Europe in 1990 that first sent McQueen on the path of historical recollection and reconstruction. Here the Berlin poem is linked to poems written much later in the 2000s, like the long discursive poem “Ynys Elen” (Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel), written in stricter stanzaic form than is her wont and reflecting on her Celtic heritage. Or “The Spectre” about colonising English admiral Sir Richard Grenville. Or “The Fuse” about Te Whiti’s followers being imprisoned in Dunedin after the suppression of the Parihaka community.  Later in the volume “The Glory Track” links New Zealand coast with earlier historic memories; and there is a whole sequence on the island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides, whence the poet’s forebears came.

I do not think anyone would ever accuse Cilla McQueen of being wilfully obscure (remember, this is the woman who wrote in the early poem “Kids on the Road” that “I would like to kick / t.s.eliot in the head / because you shouldn’t have to pass / english exams to love poetry” – a manifesto for accessability and simplicity). But I would judge the least obscure, most accessible poems in this volume to be those in the section titled “Foveaux Express”, mainly written in the 2000s, stately and affecting poems about Bluff,  Southland, and animals (cat and sheep dominate some poems) written with real lyrical flair. This is maintained in the following section “Notes for Moths”, where there is often the chillier side of the south reflected in high winds and a tragedy at sea.

            Inevitably aging creeps into later poems. The nearest McQueen comes to a protest poem is the long discursive poem “Tiwai Sequence” (dating from 2000), which brings in scientific and historical knowledge and minute detail to paint an unflattering picture of the smelter not far from McQueen’s Bluff home. In this and in other poems from the 2000s, the ecological concerns are more overt. Consider the opening lines of the poem “Frogs”: “The atmophere is thinning - / the world is getting dirty / as the outer epidermis eats itself.” Sheer autobiography is featured in three sections from In a Slant Light. Many of McQueen’s most recent poems are cast in a quizzical mode and the whole volume concludes with that most opaque form of writing – a response to works of art which the poet has seen but we haven’t.

            I’ve really messed up this review, haven’t I? By giving a once-over-lightly of the contents, I’ve done no real analysis. I enjoyed reading Poeta very much and note that on the whole, Cilla McQueen is more oriented to things that are to be celebrated rather than to things that are to be deplored. There’s a joyful buzz to most of this representative collection, despite the moments of satire and angst. I think McQueen is at her best when referring most closely to her own southern region and its [domesticated] beasts and I do think that her active aesthetic is one that sees poetry mainly as a form of play.

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Goodness but some alliterations are dead obvious, aren’t they? For years, whenever I heard the name Derrida my brain automatically said “deride”, which is how I felt about the chap. I’m sure legions of others did the same. (We had equally obvious alliterations for Foucault). So let me make it clear that I enjoyed the title poem of C.K.Stead’s latest collection That Derrida Whom I Derided Died.  The poem begins “Derrida, enemy of plain sense, my enemy too / determined not to be grasped since understanding / was the first step on the road to control”. This is indeed a fair summary of the French literary theorist and his approach. And now, of course, being dead, Derrida is himself “deconstructing” literally, leaving only a faint stink, as the last line of the poems implies.

I don’t think I’m being unpleasant if I state the bleeding obvious: That Derrida Whom I Derided Died is an old man’s book. Stead is now in his 86th year and the chimes at midnight are clanging furiously. The last of this collection’s six sections is titled “Nocturnes” and is quite specific about the nearness of closing time. “Death was everywhere” says the first poem in this section. There’s a “knock on the door of death” in the second. The poet dreams of his long-gone father in the third while the poem “Those difficult Russians” appears to be a reverie mixing in youthful elements and babbling o’ green fields. “Unusual obsequies” concerns the death of Prof. Nicholas Tarling and in case you don’t get the general drift, the last poem in the book is “Ten minutes to midnight”.

            The nearness of the Big Sleep evokes various responses in Stead. It sometimes leads him to affectionate or wistful memories of people living and dead, so there’s an Horatian ode to Fleur Adcock, poems about Kevin Ireland and the widow of Allan Curnow, not to mention a couple referencing Peter Porter and others from Oz. “The year was ‘69” is basically a nostalgic recreation of friends and associates from fifty years ago. It has good lines (“the inner Manukau stillness / sliced by cicadas”) and reproving ones, like David Mitchell’s “scent of the dope that would drain / his Keatsy brain”. When he recalls lost loves (adolescent or student days or later on), Stead sometimes puts on his Catullus persona.  With the help of a spirit medium and a ouija board, I spoke to the shade of Catullus the other night, and he said he thought it’s an awkward fit when a nearly-nonagenerian pretends to be a poet who died when he was 30, but there it is.

The sheer skill of Stead at his best is found in the section labelled “Laureate 2015-2017”, where he shows that he can turn an assumption upside-down if necessary. Commissioned to write a poem celebrating a significant anniversary for the New Zealand Navy, Stead, a committed non-militarist, produces a poem which navigates the topic very cleverly by being a salute to all the sailing and seafaring, military of otherwise, that made New Zealand what it is. “WW100”, on the centenary of the First World War, decries war and the pity of war as Owen did, but with specific New Zealand references. Catullus pops into this one too, presumably countering Horace’s “dulce et decorum est” line.

I’m cherry-picking what I write here, of course. All reviews of collections of poetry do this. If a serious collection were analysed as it should be, then each poem would have to be scrutinised closely and at length, and this would produce a very long review. So, regrettably, generalisations are inevitable.

It is quite predictable that Stead bares his claws and lashes his tail over religion, with various poems telling us that the people of Genoa are superstitious and that the laws of physics bring a spacecraft back to earth and not people’s prayers. God's "divine and eternal love" is questioned in a poem about a funeral. Okay, I prefer Stead's honest atheism to the watery agnosticism of another poet who opted for a funeral at Holy Trinity Cathedral, so this is to be expected. But, as daylight fades, Stead’s hit-backs and point-scoring over literary opponents or rivals can become oppressive. These attempted last words on old quarrels are the least lovely part of this opus. Parthian shots from aging fingers. Pre-emptive epitaphs before his own epitaph is written. Some nice chatty things are said about “intolerable Lauris [Edmond]” but Stead’s verdict is that, for her, “when backs were to the wall and guns blazing / truth was a stranger”. “My contemporaries across the Ditch” works its way through five Aussies of Stead’s vintage [mainly poets, but including Barry Humphries] concluding with Ern Malley who would “kill and give life to two pedestrian pens.” Really? This revives the argument Stead made in his review of Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair, and it’s still a wonky argument. In “A flash in the pan” Stead hits back at an easily-identifiable author and critic who reviewed him negatively. I suppose I should admit that I gave an approving snigger to some of Stead’s hit jobs. Of course C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” deserves a kick (the poem “A Matter of Time”). Stead is probably right to see Janet Frame’s novel The Memorial Room as being a product of  “her own / inner / culture of complaint” and to ask “is this ingratitude / or only / the solipsist’s / sad and solo canto? ” But, for all my approving sniggers, there’s an awful lot of dyspepsia in this book.

And does Stead, being cerebrotonic, sometimes censor or rope in his feelings, for fear of being seen as a sentimentalist? Watching sunrise in Christchurch he says

 “I see the sun truly is / that boring old / ball of bullshit fire / in all its gold glory.” The lines give and take away at the same time, don’t they? “See,” they say “I’m admitting the sun’s glory, but I’ve also got to tell you it’s bullshit and boring, otherwise you might think I’m a romantic dullard. Oh and by the way – it’s ironic, so I have an out-clause in all contingencies.”

            Ah yes, irony. That’s the word I forgot to use in this review. It’s all over the place in That Derrida Whom I Derided Died, poised, baited and ready to snap at the reader. Walk carefully through this volume. It has much intellectual meat and quite a bit of snark. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging, it has a nice poem about being treated by women doctors and other felicitous things. How contradictory. Going gently into that good night is not on its agenda.

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            My scrapbook tells me that a bit over seven years ago (5 June 2011, to be precise) I reviewed for the Sunday Star-Times Michael Morrissey’s Taming the Tiger, his autobiographical account of the time he was hospitalised when his bipolar affliction turned into paranoia and complete madness. What made that book work so well was Morrissey’s complete candour about his madness and yet the rational way he wrote about it – lucid prose delineating the experience he had been through. Morrissey sane was writing about Morrissey insane.

            Poems from Hotel Middlemore, a modest, stapled volume of poems, revisits the same experiences in another literary form. Here is Morrissey in the psychiatric ward on the 5th floor of  Block 35E of Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital. Some poems report on the company he keeps. Psychiatrists drug patients and act like God. Most patients don’t know why they are there, or firmly believe that are sane. One Kurdish fellow inmate can hardly speak English. Another is a guilt-torn woman who thinks she’s let everyone down. Another urinates copiously and craps his pants. There are fights over who controls the television set. Morrissey stays awake all night when he and another inmate are in the mania phase of their affliction. There is similar straightforward (and sane) reportage, in one of the opening poems, where Morrissey outlines his hard life as a child in a transit camp and his mother’s being committed to a mental hospital while he was sent to a boarding school.

But the dominant tone of this collection is not reportage. I am tempted once again to use the term “surreal” as Morrissey’s wild imagination gushes out demented, but oddly fruitful, images. He compares the place of his incarceration to the land-locked Kurdistan or declares “cosy in my psychiatric ward / I felt safe from savannah lions and marauding golfers / composed as a patient can be / they call them clients now.” (“Savannah Lions”). A poem like “Chilly Theology” is at once mad and compelling – maybe God has been dethroned by the Devil? The poem modestly titled “Unwell’ begins “I’m in the best hotel in the world / grandest view / hot and cold running / but it’s a psychiatric ward / everyone mad except me / and I am mad too / as a butchered snake / ram-raided by delusion / I have bipolar delusion which comes / and goes / of its own free will”. It’s even bleaker in the poem “I’m crazy and I can prove it”, which includes “darker than indigo a mood arrives / my mnd devouring itself / a corpse in an acid bath”.

I have rarely come across a New Zealand poet who so completely acts out Roy Fuller’s description of poetic inspiration as “fertile lack of balance”. The poems reflect bouts of insanity, but they are sane themselves. Join the train of exalted madhouse poets – Smart, Collins, Blake. All aboard!

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            Karl Stead is 86. Michael Morrissey is 76. Cilla McQueen is 70. Old farts all (like the only-slightly-younger reviewer whom you are now reading); but all experienced poets, each with a long back-catalogue. Julie Ryan is also a senior citizen, but Last of the Halcyon Days is her debut collection of poetry. As the back-cover blurb tells us, she is the widow of the late Frank Ryan, who was mayor of the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert, and some of her poems reflect their travels and life together. She is also the mother of actress Lucy (“Xena the Warrior Princess”) Lawless, who has made enthusiastic Facebook posts about her mum’s poetry.

Now that I’ve got this gossip out of the way, may I say how much I enjoyed this unpretentious and delightful collection? Julie Ryan may be approaching old age, but her poetry is neither quaint nor old fashioned. Certainly she chooses traditional metres and regular rhyme in a few of her poems, like the opening jocular survey of Doubtless Bay. She even gives us one regular sonnet, concluding Shakespeare-style with a rhyming couplet. But these poems are the exceptions. In style, Julie Ryan shows she is completely au fait with current poetics and she is not squeamish about the imagery she uses. I note here the incredibly violent imagery of her poem “Dr Tom in the Red Shed”, the meaning of which I cannot quite grasp. She can also do what the best poets do – create memorable images in the form of metaphors. I love her characterisation of passing vineyards as “green corduroy for miles” in the poem “Poetry homework on the train, Picton to Rangiora”. And, to turn my praise in a different direction, I like the straightforwardness of some of her statements, as when she closes the poem “The pay-off”, a  paean to family, with the words “we / luxuriate in progeny, / all beautiful, / all good.”

As I often do when reviewing poetry collections, I try to work out why the work has been divided into distinct sections. As I read Last of the Halcyon Days, its three sections run thus:

The first, called “Haul Another Anchor”, is like a ramble through Oz and Europe and parts of New Zealand which the poet visited with her late husband. It contains an ingenious poem about ‘Alice’ [the huge machine which dug the Avondale tunnel], connecting it with the psychiatric hospital that was once in that area. There is some nice satire in this section, on the new internationalised eating habits of Aucklanders (the poem “Word of mouth”) and on the way indigenous fauna itself changes (the poem “Tui at four o’clock”).

Ironically titled “Homesickness”, the second part has at least some focus on the sickness of home – that is, what ails Auckland. Do not be surprised to meet a poem about homeless people; a poem about the annihilation of old houses by the building of the University of Auckland’s business school; and a poem about the travails of an Iraqi refugee hairdresser. More than one poem references godwits (a well-established New Zealand poetic image fo the restlessness and wanderlust of our population); and there is an ironical reference to war in Iraq in “Aunt Daisy, 2010” which reads in its forceful entirety: “Bricks sundried from mud / of any country with two rivers / make an excellent base for soup, / well saturated as they are with blood / and bone fragment shrapnel.” All I query about this perfect little jab of conscience is how many New Zealanders – apart from us old farts – would now know who Aunt Daisy was.

Finally, and more tenderly and personally, there is the third section “Secret Women’s Business” – not a feminist rant but poems mainly about friendship, motherhood and memories - a jingle about learning science at school ; reflections on a durable alligator-hide handbag ; imagery of children in the poems “Adora – mouth to mouth” and “Out of her element”; a sequence on women playing tennis; a couple of poems about visiting old women in hospital; and, of course, in the poem “Dust” an image of death itself in the form of a dying bird. With great self-deprecation, Julie Ryan acknowledges her own old age in the poem “On visiting old ladies”, which concludes “I’m limited now to those over ninety / or better, over a hundred, but / I notice young ladies are visiting me / to borrow old hats and bobbins.”

I say of this volume what I thought when reading Cilla McQueen – it is mainly engaging and fun, for all its satire and sombre moments. Last of the Halcyon Days is so well pointed that, unless you were told otherwise, you would not know this was the poet’s first collection. It’s the work of a very capable poet.

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