Monday, February 17, 2020

Something New

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

“SOCIAL MEDIA” by Mary Macpherson (Cuba Press, $NZ 25); “WE ARE TINY BENEATH THE LIGHT” by Heidi North (Cuba Press, $NZ 25); “FAMILY INSTRUCTIONS UPON RELEASE” by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod (Cuba Press, $NZ 25); “MICHAEL, I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD” by Michael Fitzsimons (Cuba Press, $NZ 25)

            Reviewing New Zealand poetry not only on this blog but also for the New Zealand Listener, I often find that the publishing of poetry seems to be dominated by the university presses, especially Victoria University Press, Otago University Press and, with a smaller poetry catalogue, Auckland University Press. [Canterbury University Press seems to have given up on poetry.] There are, of course, a number of independent presses, such as Steele-Roberts, Makaro Press and Cold Hub Press, which soldier on publishing poetry. But it is still the university presses that dominate. So, if only for the sake of variety and so that other poetic voices can be heard, it is good to welcome another independent press ready to take a punt on poetry. Cuba Press, based in Wellington, has been in business since mid-2018 and has so far published poetry, non-fiction and children’s books. The publishers were kind enough to forward me the four most recent volumes of poetry in their catalogue, so here I am reviewing them.

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Mary Macpherson’s Social Media is her debut collection and its title is a conscious pun. “Social media” immediately suggests the likes of Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and all those other electronic apps. that currently dominate many people’s patterns of thought. And indeed electronic gadgets and their social influence are considered directly in some of these poems. But pick apart the word “media” (plural of “medium” remember, folks) and it can refer to means of social interaction, electronic or otherwise. So Social Media is also about the way people try to relate to one another in everyday life and how, as often as not, real communication does not happen. Which raises the question of how each of us constructs the identity of others and how often we misperceive that identity.

Macpherson chooses to divide her collection into three sections. As you will probably know from experience, the way collections of poetry are divided up can often be purely arbitrary or merely designed to give readers a break. In the case of Social Media, however, I sense a shift of tone in each of the three sections.

In the first section are poems of uncertainty about others. The opening poem “Smoke” is about NOT engaging with other people, while “Inventing a Person” suggests that we make up the identities of people we think we know from fragemtnary memories. Even the adult brain persists in interpreting reality – and other people – in ways learnt in childhood. In “New Zealand Holiday”, for example, the persistence of childlike perception is expressed thus: “It was like / seeing myself as a child hot and blinking / in front of a hedge… / …Was that still me, in spite of the journeys / and grown-up body?” Of course there are places so lacking in human personality that it is hard to relate to anyone. For evidence of this, see the poem “Ode to motels”. Then there is that matter of self-consciousness, the “What will they think of me?” syndrome, which abashes us and blocks real connection with others. Though they might use imagery of dogs, “Dog mask” and “Dog” are really about this sort on inhibition.

            The second section, making more use of prose-poems, concerns people identified by letters,  X, Y, Z, R and so forth, as if personality has been stripped away. Again the themes of self-consciousness, uncertainty, and how one is presenting oneself seem to dominate, for in one poem “R worries about the plants” and in another “X believes he lives inside the TV” and in yet another “Y worries a lot about snipping off the satin straps / that keep slipping out of her T-shirt”. In the poem  “S imagines R” there is raised that familiar epistemological problem that no two people will ever look upon, or interpret, the same thing in the same way, as “S wonders how R can look down a path / and see a cathedral in the trees. What looked / like shitty branches, arch over gravel / and it’s pleasant that birds visit often / with the seeds of even more trees.” Can we ever, then, justly assess, interpret or understand one another?

As for the third section, it takes an unexpected twist. The imagery of electronic media has been used earlier in this collection, but here it is addressed directly, as in “On being unwilling to click ‘I forgot my password’ ”. But despite some allusions to electronics, “Touch phone” is a poem about a daddy-longlegs spider, and quite a descriptive one too. As for “At Moeraki”, it uses the fate of a struggling bird as an analogue for a human relationship. Turning back from the unanswerable problems of human connection, Mary Macpherson returns to the simplicities of non-human nature. Perhaps the other creatures are happier than we are for not having to sort out the problems of consciousness and being.

Thus for my bibliographical walk through this collection. But before I move on, I’d like to commend three poems that really appealed to me. There is sharp wit in Macpherson’s “Litter”, her poem about all the things in life which we have but either don’t use or don’t know how to use. The media-savvy “R channels David Attenborough”, could be read in two main ways – as a man seeing himself as a worm; or as a man considering the underlying animality of human beings. Either way, it is a good reflection on our place in the order of things. And then there is “Bees” – a haunting longer poem in some ways about the persistence of life.

All in all, a very satisfying debut.

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Heidi North’s We are tiny beneath the light, her second collection, is a very different volume from Mary Macpheron’s Social Media – more personal, more confessional, more emotional. The poet’s private life is none of my business, but all the indications [in the blurb, in the poet’s dedication etc.] are that this is an autobiographical account of a marriage that broke up. Yet it is not all heartbreak as there are clear moments of hope and renewal. This seems to be symbolised in the cover photograph, which shows a leaf flourishing on a branch that has been newly cut.

Unlike many collections of poetry (see my comments above) the three sections into which this collection is divided represent three separate phases in an ongoing narrative.

The first section, “Devon Street Songs” concerns a young couple (“we”) who rent a run-down house, neglected by their landlord. But things get tough, and they hear the neighbours quarrelling as if a marriage is falling apart. Their own marriage may be on the verge of failing, but they’re only beginning to sense warning signs. Though presented deadpan, the decaying house seems a metaphor for this – a fragile protection in a cruel world: “We clung tight in the dark chill nights / but mid-winter you put your fist / through the bedroom wall / and found nothing there / except weeds and air.” It can be chilly outside a loving relationship.

The second section, “Bone to Bone” consists mainly of direct address by wife to husband. The poem “Easter” reports the chilly cliché lines the husband hands to the wife - he still loves her, but he is no longer in love with her and he wants them just to to be friends. Rebuffed, the wife, in the poem “For that girl you once loved”, can’t help thinking about the earlier girlfriend the husband had and where she might be now. In “The moment is gone”, she looks wistfully at old photos of happier times.

Heidi North’s most skilful poem in this sequence is “The chickens”, where the aching sense of loss in separation is transferred to the loss of a cage of kept chickens. Smaller sorrows can trigger once again the bitterness of real sorrows. But the most resonant phrase in this whole collection comes in the poem “Little by little”. The husband has gone for good. Now that she doesn’t have to share wardrobe and drawer space, the wife can more easily accommodate her own clothes. But “everything fits fine now / everything fits wrong now”. A perfect couplet.

The last, brief section, “Two Suns’ comprises poems about the birth of a daughter; about enjoying a scene of children at play; and in praise of her daughter and step-daughter, who are addressed by their given names. Depending on taste, you will appreciate the reproduction of one of the young girls’ pictures, which is given in full colour.

Now where does this leave me as Mr Assessing-The-Merit-Of-This-Volume? I admire Heidi North’s candour. I also admire her straightforward style. This is not a collection of dense acrostics, but clarity itself; and she can produce the ringing phrase. On the other hand, I do feel I am eavesdropping on somebody else’s life, and I am not sure I like the experience. It’s very raw.

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            Turning to Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod’s debut collection Family Instructions Upon Release, we come to a very different sort of poetry, yet it too is triggered by a traumatic experience – probably even more traumatic than the marriage-breakup recorded in Heidi North’s We are tiny beneath the light. In 2012, Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod’s father killed himself. Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod also suffered a miscarriage before her first child was born.  So Family Instructions Upon Release is, as the blurb says, a “response to grief and loss”. But the poet’s technique is not heart-on-sleeve. It is more analytical, more willing to deploy linguistic games and to re-purpose “given” texts. To put it simply, as a sane but feeling person, the poet attempts to work out what it all means.

The text of Family Instructions Upon Release is divided into “acts” like a well-made play. There is a reason for this. One of the poet’s seminal experiences was being taken as a teenager, by her father, in 1998, to an Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Reginald Rose’s jury-room play, Twelve Angry Men. Inevitably the play turns on whether the jury will vote “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” (People of my generation remember this play best for its first movie version, in which compassionate juryman Henry Fonda squared off against rational juryman E. G. Marshall, bigoted juryman Ed Begley and vindictive juryman Lee J. Cobb.) The poet is, among many other things, working out how much “guilt” should be assigned to somebody who commits suicide and leaves a family bewildered and grieving. She also deliberately appropriates some of the text of the play, as well as some of the text of official statements about suicide in New Zealand.

            As organised, the first “Act” of this collection deals with the experience of seeing the play, and the father’s attempted suicide. The second “Act” handles the after-effects of the attempted suicide, and how the daughter tried to deal with it. And in the third “Act” there is the aftermath of the accomplished suicide.

There are many powerful moments in this collection. One is in the poem “Two tickets to Twelve Angry Men” where both the actors on stage, and the father and daughter watching them, are in a sense playing roles: “”The twelve on stage will move around, debating / drama and the dead, yet our tragedy stars those / two, so watch them determinedly.” After Twelve Angry Men, she sees her life in terms of the plays or movies she’s seen.

The father’s descent into deep depression is captured in this description of the symptoms, in the poem “After”: “tossing and turning in bed, / he begins falling each night / into strange, shameful feelings./ Sleep’s now only for those / whpo deserve peace, / /who aren’t phones pretending.” Anyone with personal experience of clinical depression knows about sleep interrupted by the heavy knot in the stomach, and a sense of shame, always accompany the “black dog”.

When the collection moves into its second act, the poems become more frantic, more experimental, but always expressing the hope that the father will live.

The starkest poem in the book – dare I say the most gob-smacking one - is “Why?”, where the poet ticks off the reasons that did NOT drive her father to suicide, and nails clinical depression as the culprit. The poem that condemns the impersonality of institutions – even an institution that try to be helpful in traumatic situations – is “Wellness”; while the title poem “Family Instructions Upon Release” reveals the banality of good advice given to people in a traumatic situtation. And “Preventable”, even if expressed in easily cracked code, shows the poet’s love for her father.

After reading this gruelling text (and it is gruelling), I would say to Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod: “You’ve honoured your father. You’ve expressed your grief like a compassionate person. Your feelings are strong, you have shown us your grief, but you have not made your feelings an excuse for self-display and you have not seen yourself as the centre of this tragedy. I salute you for your intelligent understanding of how devastating depression can be.”

A well-conceived and impressive debut.

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I hope this does not sound repetitious, but like both Heidi North’s and Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod’s collections, Michael Fitzsimons’ Michael, I though you were dead is a collection of poetry founded on a traumatic experience. Actually, it’s a collection of poetry and prose. The first 40 pages, titled “Lifeboat”, are short lyric poems. The next 30 pages, titled “Markings”, are pithy prose reflections. And in both sections there are stark and evocative landscape drawings by William Carden-Horton.

What is the traumatic experience? It is being diagnosed with cancer, living through the experience of having cancer and contemplating the probable end. The title, Michael, I though you were dead, comes from the cheery greeting Fitzsimons was given by a fellow poet at a book launch.

The refreshing thing in this collection is the way Fitzsimons (like Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod) writes completely without self-pity or self-aggrandisement. Are there feelings of sorrow? Of course. But more and more, the collection emphasises the idea of impending death as part of the human experience, and the simple joys one derives from nature, made more piquant by the realisation that life is short. The poem “The real thing” most succinctly encapsulates this impulse: “I want to hug the world, / ready or not. / I want to hold my breath / above the water. Is it the drugs talking, the morphine dream? / How much did they give me? / Or is it the real thing discovered / by my shaken self after all these years?” [Emphasis added.]

From this perspective, there is even room for a dark sort of humour. What could be more inappropriate, yet more funny, than this gem from the prose section? : “Over a bowl of Sultana Bran, apropos of nothing, my eight-year-old grandson says he would rather be shot than get sick and die slowly. What do you think, Grandad?”

In a way, both the poetry “Lifeboat” section, and the prose “Markings Section”, chart the development of the disease from unawarenss to first warning to treatment. It is more matter-of-fact in the prose version. Thus: “I see one oncologist and then another and they disagree, politely. Numbers are not my friend, the odds have plummeted since last year. I choose the heavy-duty option”. Or “I read poems every day, looking for what it means to be human. I don’t finish a lot of them. The chemo is unforgiving. I make my mind up early.”

In the poetry section there is, understandably, more lyricism. Fitzsimons remembers happy events in the past. The poem “Russian Department” appears to be about the day he proposed to his wife. He recalls the hardy joys of walking the Heaphy Track (in “Life on the Heaphy”). But in “How the Mind Travels”, the happy memories are modified when “The odds are laid down / by a pregnant oncologist.” There are many paeans to the delights of nature before the bad news arrives. When it comes, the poem “Consolation” tells us, even the ministrations of the gentlest of nurses still spell something terrifying. And then, as in “Aboard the Lusitania” the diagnosed condition is represented as approaching doom. But ahead lie days of reflection, and of the warmth of family, even if the poet rebukes himself a little for not mentioning them often enough in the poem “Where are the people in your poems?”

Much of Fitzsimons’ world view is underpinned by a clear religious faith. The collection is prefaced by a quotation from Thomas Aquinas (“Courage is not being the prisoner of your fears”). The poem “Forget-me-not” concerns flowers and its main point is that the wonder of life is life itself: “There is nothing to them. / Their lives last no time. / Their splendour is ridiculous”. It begins “Creator God is having fun”. “Revive me, your Lazarus” he says in “The party” where he is now among health professionals. He takes comfort from a quotation by Teresa of Avila in “Let nothing frighten you”. And in “Waimarama seminarian” he is recalls a time when, as an adolescent, he considered becoming a priest: “We think so much / about the next life / when we have hardly / begun this one.” The last words of the collection are “O bless the Lord my soul”.

Do these religious references put anyone off from this engaging collection? I hope not. Fitzsimons’ religion is broad and he embraces more than one faith. And, as I’ve already noted, there is no whining or self-pity.

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