Monday, April 27, 2020

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ENDURING LOVE – Collected Poems” by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ 40); “WALKING HOME” by Michele Amas (Victoria University Press, $NZ25; “TWO OR MORE ISLANDS” by Diana Bridge (Otago University Press,  $NZ27:95); “HERE WE ARE” by Graham Swift (Scribner, $NZ32:99)

Nearly seven years ago in late 2013, I reviewed on this blog under the heading The Poetry of Robert McLean, three collections of the poet’s work, For Renato Curcio ( first published 2010), Goat Songs (2011) and A Graveyard by the Sea (2012). Later, in 2018, I more briefly reviewed McLean’s collection Figure and Ground.

Enduring Love is subtitled “Collected Poems” of Robert McLean, but the word “collected” does not mean complete. Enduring Love gives a selection from McLean’s works, but with the addition of 30 new poems under the heading Postcards from Atlantis. Presumably McLean has gathered here what he now considers the best from his earlier collections. For example Enduring Love includes only 5 of the 17 poems in For Renato Curcio, only 5 of the poems from Goat Songs, and a more generous 19 of the 26 poems in Figure and Ground. If you wish to see my views on these collections, look up my earlier postings.

A Graveyard by the Sea is published in Enduring Love in its entirety, except that McLean has revised the earlier version, rewording some sections and dropping four of the original 62 stanzas. Reading this recension, I am even more impressed than I was in my reading of the first edition, and I herewith withdraw a few slightly carping comments I made in my 2013 review. A tour de force, at once an hommage to Paul Valery’s Le Cimetiere Marin and a very New Zealand poem, written strictly in the same metrical form that Valery used – sestets (six-line stanzas) with a regular a-a-b-c-c-b rhyme scheme – but more discursive than Valery. McLean’s A Graveyard by the Sea is now 58 stanzas compared with Valery’s 24. The sheer compositional skill impresses as much as the sentiments and the wide-ranging imagery.

So in this review, I will look only at those of McLean’s works which I am encountering for the first time in Enduring Love.

To begin with, one very obvious point has to be made, as it is always made when McLean’s poetry is discussed. McLean, running against current fashion, is a Modernist. He may, as I said in an earlier posting, be fully au fait with Postmodernist theory and practice; but he takes it for granted that his readership is literate and will be comfortable with the many cultural references he makes, and with his many allusions to canonical (or non-canonical) writers and their work. There are no end-notes or footnotes to help the reader along. As the back-cover blurb of Enduring Love correctly puts it “Robert McLean is a defiantly modernist poet who often uses traditional metres and rhyme to explore the complexities of history and selfhood.” It is appropriate that David Howard provides a back-cover endorsement to Mclean’s work. Howard (whose The Ones Who Keep Quiet I reviewed on this blog and whose In-Complete Poems I reviewed for Landfall Review Online in August 2012) is one of the few New Zealand poets who writes with the same intellectual intensity as McLean, although their philosophical stances and choice of thematic matter are quite distinct.

So to those sections of Enduring Love which I have not reviewed previously.

For the Coalition Dead was one of McLean’s earliest productions, appearing in 2009, before all the later collections mentioned above. Nine poems from For the Coalition Dead are included in Enduring Love. Some of McLean’s persistent preoccupations are already here – his admiration of another modernist poet (“A Valediction for C.N. Sisson”); love and the course of a relationship read in the sky and harsh weather (“Appassionata”); a very stark and pared-back poem confronting mortality in the carcass of a dead seal (“Inexorable, Thus”); and mental disorientation (“Lunatic”). Written in nine neat quatrains, “The Second Life” is one of McLean’s stateliest poems, distinguished in its brilliant opening:

Animated by wisps of zephyr,

wind-chimes clatter pentatonic Zen.

My presence is de-emphasised: just

a plastic chair on the veranda

contrived to hold opinions

Superficially, it is little more than reveries while seated in a backyard (“My universe is shrivelled - / it’s compacted into my backyard”). But the inevitable, slow tread of nature, the flourishing of weeds, entwines the present moment with a vaster time-scheme. It becomes a genuinely philosophical piece. Time and eternity are here together.

It is clear that much of For the Coalition Dead was a response to current events at the time it was written. McLean dwells on war and some of its horrors in a number of poems. For a soldier, killing can become a numbing, boring, perfectly routine job (“A Norse Assassin Struggles with Ennui”). A captive in a torture chamber is mentally as well as physically tormented, in a poem whose hysterical insistence is underlined by its drum-beat rhyming scheme, with just one rhyme for each of its nine-line stanzas. (“The Patriot”).

What war has inspired such poems? The six sections of this collection’s title poem, “For the Coalition Dead”, give us the answer. This is a response to the war in Iraq which the United States was then waging together with some allies. Rather than being a direct critique of the conduct of that war, “For the Coalition Dead” is an analysis of the American psyche, or at least the psyche of American elites that seek self-aggrandizement on the world stage. It is hard to believe that McLean was not at least in part inspired by Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”, which is similarly written in quatrains and offers a critique of American mores.

And what of the 30 poems collected together for the first time in Enduring Love under the collective title Postcards from Atlantis?

I admire the persistence of McLean’s thematic interests – his dedication to a particular vision and a particular version of what poetry is. He will always deal with history, Western culture, and poetry itself in a critical voice redolent of Modernism, even if his techniques sometimes revert to other styles. In a set of “Epigrams” given here, he declares his aesthetic with one called “On Conceptual Art”:

Its imposition fades on second-thought –

I’ll take the urn: cold, empty and well-wrought”.

Consider the poems here on ancient wars and violence. “Three Views of Agincourt” is a poetic tryptich which gives a very un-Shakespearean view of the late medieval battle, stripped of rhetoric and seen in a wider perspective. “Terror” indicts terror both Biblical and revolutionary. In “Marmont Dying”, one of Napoleon’s marshals takes a pragmatic, resigned look as his own life as a warrior, speaking (as some others of McLean’s personages do) very much like a dramatic monologue of Browning.

Consider other eminent persons from the past. “Machiavelli in Hell” again has a resigned, world-weary tone like a Browning monologue. “Schweitzer’s Progress” uses the term “progress” with a degree of irony, given that motives of the Alsatian philosopher-missionary are held up to severe scrutiny. “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” has the ballet dancer torn between impulse and social constraint. Some eminent – or notorious – figures from the past take some time to declare themselves. Who is the subject of “A walk around the world”? Only an O. Henry-like punchline tells us at the end of a long poem.

Consider poems on art and architecture. “Failure” gives only two cheers for Andrea del Sarto (a reprodction of whose “Head of a Woman” adorns the front cover of Enduring Love). “On Carolingian Sculpture” senses cultural decay in its view of early medieval Europe.

And, of course, consider all the poems about poets. “The Afterlife of Drummond Allison”, about a promising young English poet killed in the Second World War. “Sapience Angelical”, with the Earl of Rochester poised between libertinism and repentance. “Exiles”, which yokes together Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and Henry James.

“Last Visit to Mallarme” captures perfectly the detached, non-materialist, linguistic idea of that poet in this stanza:

Flooding back into my mind

came all those precious evenings,

soirees during which I ceased

entirely to believe in things,

even in ideas. Qualm and scruple

were Pentecost to this Priest

of the Absolute.”

In matters of both history and High Culture, however, McLean often digs deepest when he is looking at New Zealand. It is fitting that this volume ends with “At the Sign of the Packhorse I Stand Like a Tree and Sing My Song of Joy”, a discursive poem on the history of Akaroa, its settlement and its French connection. There is a ten-part sequence of poems “The Passion of William Colenso”, viewing from many perspectives the Anglican clergyman, printer, explorer and controversialist, with his initial loyalties, demeanour and faith undermined by the call of the erotic. In a way, I wish this sequence had more to say about Colenso’s ripe crankiness (well documented in his letters to the press – see Give Your Thoughts Life, reviewed on this blog), but at least McLean does give us some disaffected witnesses who describe the older Colenso (in section 9) as “a testy gadfly in minor office” and “tactless, prolix and obscure”.

As for New Zealand poets, “Here and Now” is an elegy for the late Allen Curnow, with a final line that could be a fitting epitaph. Rather more recherche is “The Apotheosis of Charles Spear” with its decorative vocabulary to present a poet whose thoughts were always in Europe. It is in some sense a jeu d’esprit.

Speaking of jeux d’esprit, and wondering if at least some of it is tongue-in-cheek, there is “A Fantasia in the Voice of D’Arcy Cresswell”. Presumably from the grave, Cresswell bemoans his soiled reputation, he being an eogtistical chap who, in the judgement of his poetic New Zealand contemporaries (Curnow, Fairburn et al.), had a much more modest talent than he thought he had. More recently (see the writings of the late Peter Wells) he is the gay poet who is hated by gays because, in the 1920s, he dobbed in the covertly-gay Mayor of Wanganui. McLean’s Cresswell says “my efforts got disparaged as claptrap, / charlatan doggerel” and “my verse earned brickbats from the status quo”. Again, McLean displays a complete mastery of traditional form. “A Fantasia in the Voice of D’Arcy Cresswell” is a sequence of 15 sonnets in the Shakespearean form (i.e. ending in a rhyming couplet), but sometimes borrowing Samuel Daniel’s trick of linking the last line of one sonnet to the first line of the next.

You have by now, I hope, read enough to know that Enduring Love is an outstanding collection, the best single-volume of a poet who runs vigorously against current fashion and scores more hits than misses.

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            You are probably aware that in the midst of the Coronavirus lock-down, the German-based Bauer Media Company decided to pull the plug on those very many New Zealand magazines which it owned. Among other worthwhile publications thus killed was the New Zealand Listener, for which I had been a frequent freelance contributor for well over 15 years. For the last two-and-a-half years, I had added to my other book-reviewing a column called Poetry Picks where, every three or four weeks, I would choose, as worth reading, a new collection of New Zealand poetry. I was allotted only 250 words for each of these columns, so I could do little more than signal my  pleasure for each collection in very general terms. When the Listener ceased to exist, there were two Poetry Picks columns I had submitted that had not yet run. So, in all their brevity and inadequacy, here they are:


FIRST, Michel Amas’ Walking Home:

This collection might sadden you, but not because the poems are sad. It’s the circumstances of their publication. Still relatively young, Michele Amas died of cancer in 2016. Her second collection, Walking Home, has been assembled from her papers by her husband, playwright Ken Duncum. In his foreword he suggests that Amas might have edited or altered some poems had she lived to see them published.

In the poem “Standing”, another poet tells her “You can disguise the autobiographical / in the third person”. This is advice that she resolutely ignores.

Her poems are first-person and unashamedly confessional. They read like good spoken monologues, fittingly as Amas was an actor. Some are lightly ironical, like her view of the city where she lived, “Wellington’s Running Late”. Some recall childhood, as when she notes you really can’t go home again in “Home Town”.

            But her main interest is the immediate family. The excellent monologue, “Morning Noon and Night” has an anxious wife telling her husband she’s not perfect. “Oestrogen Makes a Break for it on Thursday” is a wildly comical vignette of a mother running after a daughter who is developing too quickly. The centrepiece is the loose cycle in three parts, “The Tender Years”, which gradually becomes a reflection on Amas’ relationship with her own daughter.

Then comes the sad part – the cycle “Walking Home”, where she confronts her cancer. “I want to read this disease / backwards / to get back to the top” she writes. But there was no going backwards, and going home meant something quite different.

THEN, Diana Bridge’s Two or More Islands:

            When some poets make references to mythology or high culture, I feel they are faking. Their erudition means they’ve looked up a Wikipedia entry or two. Not so with Diana Bridge. In her seventh collection Two or more islands, she shows that she knows intimately Chinese and Indian mythology and culture as well as Classical western mythology. Not only that, but she can make meaning of these things. Two or more islands is not a display of learning, but a book of poems that show us how ancient concepts still have resonance for us.

            Poems take in the I Ching; women from Greek legend like Antigone, Penelope, Ariadne and Demeter; the bloody mess of Shakespeare’s history plays; and, in a closing eight-part sequence The Way a Stone Falls, a long reflection on Angkor Wat and Hindu sites in India. We are enlightened, uplifted and feel solidarity with ancient times.

But there is another side to Bridge’s achievement. In a section of pithier, shorter, specifically New Zealand poems, she gives more colloquial motherly and grandmotherly advice, especially in Pierced Ears and the delicate balance of A pounamu paperweight.

Any future anthologist if this decade’s great New Zealand poems would have to include Among the stacks, about the obsessions of bibliophiles; Light came from the other side, almost a philosophical warning against taking a superficial tourist’s view of things; and Was there ever an Avernus?, which modernises Virgil’s underworld and becomes a lament for the great Seamus Heaney.

I can only give superlatives to this sane and satisfying collection.

There now. That is what I wrote for the Listener. To Diana Bridge and (the estate of) Michele Amas, I can only apologise for the brevity and terseness of these notices. There is much more than could be said about each collection.

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And now for something more bizarre. A couple of months back, a publisher generously sent me a copy of the English novelist Graham Swift’s new novel Here We Are. For a number of reasons I was not able to read it until very recently, which is why I am only now considering it on this blog. I am fully aware that it has already been reviewed by every other reviewer in this country, with particularly perceptive reviews by Siobhan Harvey for the Stuff network and Anna Rogers in the (now gone) Listener. So here I am coming up the rear and I will say only a few things.

Here We Are is about magic, time, getting old and regret.

At the end of the 1950s, Ronnie and Evie, a magician and his “lovely” assistant, are the star attractions on the Brighton pier during the summer season. Ronnie and Evie are engaged to be married. Compere of the show which they headline is Jack, or “Jack Robinson” as he bills himself, with his well-rehearsed cheery patter and singalongs and eye for the girls. More than one reviewer has already noted that he and his style of entertainment are very reminiscent of John Osborne’s Archie Rice in The Entertainer, and that is part of Graham Swift’s design. The tawdry glamour of the Brighton pier and cheekie-chappie comperes were forms of entertainment that were already dying in the late 1950s as television moved in and the little box at home killed variety shows and magic acts.

We’re not far into this short novel (Graham Swift’s novels tend to be lean) when we learn that Ronnie’s and Evie’s engagement goes wrong, and Jack moves in on Evie. Indeed the events of 1958-1959 are only one part of a complex story, for much of it has the aged Evie looking back with regret fifty years later in the 2000s, and much of it concerns Ronnie’s formation as a young magician. As a Cockney kid he was evacuated from the Blitz, taken out of an awful East End home and boarded with a loving middle-class couple in rural Oxfordshire. His life was changed. His loyalties were changed. He discovered the power of magic. Like many evacuees lifted out of the slums, he didn’t want to go back home.

I could dig for all sorts of profundities in this novel, even though I enjoyed it mainly for its power as a story, its ability to make us wonder what will happen next, its clear and clean prose and Graham Swift’s pitch-perfect dialogue, appropriate to the times and places where the story is set. This is a story about retrospection and regret. It is about the social disruption in Britain, and for some, shifts in class-consciousness, brought about by the Second World War. It is about a dead world and about nostalgia and about the delusions of nostalgia that are exposed when the past is truthfully examined. And it is also about love and how it can be derailed. I flinch a little at the denouement, which I think pushes credibility near breaking point and strives to make magic a metaphor for the mystery of life itself, but I’m not the chap to provide spoilers about this.

The tone is elegaic, as it often is in Swift’s work. Swift is now in his 70s, but this tone cannot solely be a sign of his age. Remember, he was only in his 40s when he wrote his best-known (and Booker Prize-winning) novel Last Orders, which is about old men looking back on their imperfect lives. As for that title Here We Are – as is pointed out a number of times in the novel, it’s a standard English colloquialism, uttered when something is proferred (“Here we are – your tea”, that sort of thing). But as a title, Here We Are points to the human condition. Here we are, here we end up, here we can’t help being, after all our experience of life.

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