Monday, October 15, 2018

Something New


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

“FIGURE AND GROUND: POEMS 2012-2018” by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ19:95); “LUXEMBOURG” by Stephen Oliver (Greywacke Press, $NZ29:99); “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE THE INTERNET IN SPRINGTIME” by Erik Kennedy (Victoria University Press, $NZ25);

Five years ago on this blog, I considered three volumes by one of New Zealand’s most underrated poets, Robert McLean (look up the 2013 posting Robert McLean). I find myself quoted on the blurb of McLean’s latest publication Figure and Ground, but I don’t mind in the least. As I’ve said before, McLean is an erudite poet with a wide knowledge of Western culture. He writes on the assumption that his readers share, or are able to access, a similar knowledge. Unlike most other poets who are his contemporaries, he provides no explanatory end-notes or footnotes when he deploys a literary or historical reference. Apparently he is well-versed in postmodernist literary theory, but I would describe his preferred style as High Modernist. He works hard at the form of his poems, often using traditional metres and rhyme, but he is no blind traditionalist. History and received culture are quarried stone to be whacked and shaped into something significant for us here and now.

In Figure and Ground, McLean sometimes makes specifically New Zealand scenes his topic. “The Terminal” is a sad, elegaic poem about flying out from Christchurch; and “Autumn, Island Bay” is a kiwi paysage moralise. But two other poems referencing New Zealanders place them in exotic settings, to wit the two poems about New Zealanders who fought in Europe in the Second World War,  “Indexes and Libations” written in memory of Dan Davin (whose poems, collected as A Field Officer’s Notebook, were edited by McLean) and “John Mulgan in Greece”. 

Most often, however, McLean’s inspiration is far from home. In “Jacopo’s Vision”, Dante’s son explain the origins of his father’s work. “Alberti’s Complaint” has the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti considered the pressures of patronage and hardship of building. “Housekeeping” comments piquantly on the nunnishness of Emily Dickinson. There is a poem on the heterosexual chauffeur and secretary whom Marcel Proust adored.

None of this is mere dabbling in High Culture, however. Where he comments, McLean questions, and at bottom his questions are searching ones about faith or no faith; aesthetics; the making of legends, and the paradox of the simultaneous necessity and mendacity of legends. “Lines on Tarkovsky” references the Russian director’s film Andrei Rublev, about the medieval icon-painter, and exhorts a boy to  “Embrace your absent father / in light of celluloid. / To salve the aching void / embrace your absent father. / You’ve got no other.”  There is a whole tension between types of literature in the poem “Lie Easy, Walter, or Lie All the Same”, concerned with Walter Savage Landor’s place in Italy. It is ostensibly an anti-romantic poem, telling us “Sightseers swarm Barrett - / Browning’s chintzy resting-place, / love’s stronghold. Landor’s grave / sinks deeper: this terminal garret / where the stoic saved face, / whom playful souls never forgave.” And yet it relents to suggest there is a form of idealism that is not to be disparaged. Quite brilliantly, I think, “In Memory of Anne Sexton” manages at once to celebrate the suicidal, confessional poet while undermining any glamourised ideas of Anne Sexton as prophet. Suffering is suffering – it is not pretty or to be emulated. There’s a simlar two-edged swing to “Hell on Earth” in which McLean is emphatically not debunking the legend of Troy (he wouldn’t be involved in such a foolish and obvious game) but is cautioning us about the blood-soaked truth that lies behind the legend.

I will now do the forbidden thing in reviewing a collection of poetry and nominate my favourite. “The Discovery of Pluto” is dedicated to the British poet Geoffrey Hill, who was deeply enmeshed in philosophy and Christian theology. Here the poet stands against the universe, knowing that it can be perceived only through our limited consciousness, and taking as his inspiration the recent “demotion” of Pluto from planet to large asteroid. “It was a planet. Now it’s not. In / our strictly unblinking cosmos, / thick with dark matter, to be forgotten / is never to have been…/”. Given our serial fallibility about the universe, it is fitting that the next poem is about Giordano Bruno.

Challenging but stimulating – a fine collection.

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I admit that I came to Stephen Oliver’s poetry late. I was first aware of him four years ago, when I guest-edited Poetry New Zealand in its old format  (issue #48, March 2014) and enjoyed writing a brief notice on Oliver’s collection, Intercolonial – a kind of loose epic linking Australia and New Zealand, where tales of discovery jostled with vivid childhood remembrance. This is significant because the blurb of his latest [of nineteen!] collections, Luxembourg, describes Oliver as “Australasian”. Born in Wellington, the man has lived twenty years of his life in Oz before a recent return to Newzild, and he is happy to identify with either country. Or both.

Luxembourg is a capacious collection [nearly 100 pages] of what Oliver has been writing in the last four years.

Much of it references specific New Zealand landscapes. “Tracking Rupert Brooke” is a fantasia set in an earlier New Zealand, about what the Georgian poet might have written has he not been so coy about expressing passion. The poems “El Nino”, “Dilapidated Dream” and “Green Asterisk” comment on Te Kuiti, the King Country and the central North Island. The sequence “Road Notes” is a long collection of short stanzas following the Waikato. Sometimes the attitude to this country is jaded. “Undercover” tells us “Absent twenty years, I left a country of sheep,  / returned to a country of cattle; rivers / wheeze through an iridescent landscape, / gorged on nutrient-rich run off.” It sees the King Country as “run-down rentals / and mouldering hatreds, hobbled by small / town boredoms

Oliver also references topical or longstanding political situations, sometimes with the eye of a satirist, as in “The Great Repression” or “Scarecrow”, which is more-or-less an anti-Anzac Day poem. “Streets of Kiev” is specifically an anti-Vladimir Putin poem. (“His favourite cocktail, / Polonium-210, he serves up to those who dare oppose.”). “Impress” concerns refugees, and has the same sort of resigned melancholy tone that Ewin Muir used to strike in the 1950s, with such poems as “The Good Town”

What seems to concern Oliver more often, however, is an apocalyptic collapse of poetry and sense into tribalism  (“The Map”) and an apocalyptic collapse of belief systems into anomie (“Testament”). This sense of desolation is also found in the portrait of a single woman in a tumbledown house (“Lace”). There are in this volume so many poems about mental disintegration, unease, and the inability to articulate something meaningful, as in “Nocturne” where  “There is nothing but grainy silence. / A hissing sound, and the darkened objects of the room / surounding me.” The three prose poems “Dark Matter”, “Domes” and “Choristers” are attempts to fit human beings into the universe, given what we now know of its immeasurable vastness, and attempts to harmonise our moden knowledge with ancient, mythic views of  the universe. While Oliver often tries to consider things on a vast, cosmic scale, this can lead to overblown rhetoric, as in the poem “Titan Love Song”. Could this overstatement indicate real insecurity on the poet’s part? Often Oliver’s uncertainty [about self; about time] is palpable, as in “The World’s Basement”, “What Angels Throw” and “Breaking Straws”. Nadir of not really knowing what he values must be the poem “Worry Beads”, where he wants to pray to something or someone, but in the end affirms only the sound of his own words.

Oliver’s attitude towards women is strangely Romantic. “Sister to the Sphinx” comes across as an overstated tribute to a former model, but then one remembers that even the likes of Yeats could go silly and gaga over a pretty face. The later poem “Stone Lintel” is almost as embarrassing from its opening lines’ assertion that  “The gift of slowing time belongs exclusively to / beautiful women and the space they inhabit…”  For the record, seeing good-looking women as beacons of inspiration seems to be part of this poet’s modus scribendi. As best I can decipher it, the title poem, “Luxembourg”, was inspired by the sight of a model on a billboard. She graces the cover and is obviously deemed important enough to have a German language translation placed next to the English language original in this book. Yet these elements of unlikely romantic worship are atoned for by the hard veracity of “The Lost German Girl”, concerning refugees. It has the same sort of straightforward truthfulness as “The Journey”, about a minor poet’s dedication to his work; or as “Broken”, a factual trbute to a trusty old typewriter the poet once cast away. It is when Oliver is not striving too hard for the Grand Gesture that he is at his best.

If I picked a highlight for this book, it would be the six-page tour de force called “Open-Learning Workshops” in which Oliver lays down ironically “rules” for poets, publishers, novelists, academics, book-festival organisers etc on how they should go about their business – and in the process, deflates their pretensions and displays a great deal of worldly wisdom in these fields. This is satire which, an opening notes tell us, is influenced by Auden and Cyril Connelly, but none the worse for that.

Annoyingly necessary footnote: As I have explained before on this blog [see the posting Who is This Ghost Who WalksBeside Me?) I am not the only person from New Zealand, with some literary connections, who is called Nicholas Reid. There is another Nicholas Reid (no relation), an expert on Coleridge and romantic poetry, who started an academic career in New Zealand and has now relocated to Australia. It is this “other” Nicholas Reid who is referenced in Stephen Oliver’s poem “Building Code” and [at least according to one of the publisher’s websites] it is this “other” Nicholas Reid who had a hand in editing Luxembourg. He appears to be a fine chap of good taste, but then so am I, so doubtless the confusion will continue.

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Is whimsy the thin cloak worn by despair?

I’ll leave that conundrum hanging in the air while I perform yet another manouevre forbidden in academically-respectable (i.e. dishonest) poetry criticism. I am going to divide Erik Kennedy’s debut volume There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime into the good and the bad. And because I want to end on a positive note (there are many, many good things in this collection, after all), I will begin with the bad.

It’s this ironical whimsy stuff.

Take the title poem – the very first in the book -  “There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime”. It could be understood (as I understand it) to mean that springtime is not a place like the internet. Therefore it could be taken as a criticism of the internet. But the poet commits himself to no clear viewpoint – so ambiguous whimsy it becomes. A companion poem “Uninstall Your News App and Join a Hiking Club” could be read as a straightforward exhortation to do just that, but again the tone the poet strikes is laid-back hipster irony. Selecting other poems in this collection, I note that “Mailing in a Form Because There’s No Online Form” sees bureaucracy as the new means to confuse and control people as was once the role of war (getting close to conspiracy theory, folks). “You Can’t Teach Creative Writing” offers its title ironically, but then says nothing to refute the title statement as literal truth. Even a straightforward story about the poet’s great-uncle’s footballing career has to have a title that belittles it -  “The Family Lore Poem” – as if to say the poet is sick of family lore poems. Less evasively, “Poem in Which, in Which, in Which” is a harmless bonbon in which the poet ridicules the pomposity of chapter headings in many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels.

Here’s the whimsy-irony thing in relatively innocuous form, but it skirts close to despair in other poems – hence the question with which I began this critique. “Four Directions at the Beach” uses the imagery of a beach to suggest there is no truth in any direction, and the best one can do is to abandon any search for truth and surrender to idle contemplation of the sky. “I Am an Animal Benefitting from Climate Change” is intended as cool irony, but reads as a surrender to the inevitable. In “I Can’t Even” we are schooled with the idea that human creativity is built on sorrow and disaster and may simply be a survival mechanism. “I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are” has a bit more heft, saying that any form of categorisation is provisional and our tastes change.

I hear your objection to what I have said so far. I appear to be criticising the poet for the What rather than for the How, and we all know that great poems can be made out of very dodgy philosophical ideas, so the What is often less important than the How. But I am considering the How, namely the tone of irony that so often reads as affectation.

Right. I’m glad to have got all my negative comments done with. As I said, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime has many very good things in it and I’m happy to note them. Rather than poking the ironical borax, “Your Grandfather’s War Stories” gives a larger and more thoughtful possibility of the repeated cycles of history. “Public Power” is a vignette of the first town in the world (Godalming in Surrey, England, in 1881) to have a public electricity supply; and “The Great Sunspot of 1947” is another vignette, this time about how people once interpreted things.  In these three poems, Kennedy sets aside arch irony and looks at things compassionately.

Quite wonderful in this respect is “An Abandoned Farm Near Lockhart, New South Wales”. Like the world’s best poems, it lets its ideas creep up on you rather than bashing you over the head with them. On a superficial level, it is simply a description as its title declares – but note how the poet lets those matters of time, utility and decay enter into it, unforced and unironically.

I have used the term “irony” in a such a negative sense that you may assume I dislike irony in any circumstance. Not so. When it pairs with real wit, irony can work wonders. Take Kennedy’s witty “Georgics” which are , after all, satirical, as they produce such couplets as “A lambent light it is that fill the pastures, but it’s too dark to read. / The wise farmer rises early  to get the best broadband speed.” And “You can ride a tractor from, as the Italians say, the stable to the stars. / The tractor’s GPS is more powerful than the computer on the ship that, some day, will take men to Mars.” Yet also, in a non-solemn way, this witty sally comments on the hardship of farming in a dying economy, even if the farming is industrialised.

Much of Kennedy’s political satire is transparent, clear and pungent, such as  “The Paris Agreement” concerning prevarications over the climate change accord. Sometimes, though, the targets are unclear and the meaning opaque, as with “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”. It might have had some immediate topical application as, according to an end-note, it was first printed in a Poets for Corbyn pamphlet. Without such context, its meaning is very unclear indeed.

And, showing how well irony can be used, may I commend the amiable, easy, ironic canters of “Love Poem With Seagull”, the wired couplets of “Amores” and the particularity of “How a New Zealand Sunrise Is Different from Other Sunrises”. As for complete laid-backness, “The Contentment Poem”, about leaving lawn-mowing incompleted, takes the prize. It’s hard not to notice, too, that Kennedy, an expatriate American, in the poem “Remembering America” is very ambiguous about his country of origin, but comes down on the side of rejection.  

Lawks a mercy, but I’ve been very contradictory about this one, haven’t I? This thought occurs to me – often the best volumes of poetry, and the ones you remember longest, are the most provocative. There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime certainly provoked me and annoyed me at times – and at other times made me admire the poet’s skill and insight. This is a way of saying that it is very uneven and that it will probably affect you differently.
What an interesting collection.

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