Monday, June 22, 2020
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“UPTURNED” by Kay McKenzie Cooke (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “FRAGMENTS FROM AN INFINITE CATALOGUE” by John Tane Christeller (The Cuba Press, $NZ30); “HOW TO BE OLD” by Rachel McAlpine (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “THE WANDERER” by Ron Riddell (HeadworX, $NZ25); “THREE POETS – A HEADWORX ANTHOLOGY” by Marion Rego, Alex Jeune and Margaret Jeune (HeadworX, $NZ@%)
There’s a section in Kay McKenzie Cooke’s new collection Upturned where the poet writes about her visits to Berlin and the alienness of that city. The language is different. She has difficulty communicating with Germans in a bakery (the poem “Tough light”). Her little bilingual granddaughter shows more confidence in German than in English (“Foxes or squirrels”). In a stately sequence called “Baltic Coast in autumn” she is aware that the very rhythm of that northern sea is different from the rhythm of the seas about New Zealand – “a wide and flat ocean, no breakers, / any wildness held / behind horizon lines, / contained by distance, / a motionless tideline.” Yet with strangers and with German-domiciled members of her family, there is still a warm fellow-feeling.
But this excursion into the great land called Overseas is the only section of Upturned where Kay McKenzie Cooke is an alien. For most of this collection she is very much at home, dedicating some poems specifically to places in the great New Zealand South - Gore, Balclutha, the Maniototo and locations in or around Dunedin like Caversham, St. Kilda and Mount Cargill, where the winds whistle up from the Antarctic.
Cooke is more concerned with (modified) nature than with the city, but her landscape poems are not idyllic dreams. Many are situated in the present world where the bangs of hunters’ guns and the noise of traffic are heard (“Inlet”, “Bucklands Crossing”). There is also the strong pull of the past in her poetry, and the influence of whakapapa, with poems honouring her late parents, her great-great-grandmother, her great-grandmother and a much-loved Maori grandfather Reg Lee “our grandad / who always wore a hat, / cut the kindling, kept a good garden, / shovelled coal into the fire.” The past also means childhood, where sitting at a grandmother’s table gives comfort when a southern storm is brewing outside (“Two tables”); or where children at primary school, seated at their teacher’s feet, make local interpretations of the songs from faraway that they are singing (“On a mat at the bottom of the world”). Not that childood is entirely innocent, especially when sibling rivalry creeps in (“Being there”).
As a reviewer of poetry-collections, I have the very bad habit of nominating poems as favourites – even suggesting that some future anthologist might embrace them. But I can’t resist indulging the habit.
In Upturned, two poems grabbed me for their fine quality and acute observation.
“Monkey Island shadows” is a joyful and detailed recall to a family mussel-collecting excursion on the shore facing Foveaux Strait, where “all the gathered mussels are clattering in a tin drum / over an open fire, shells opening into grins, / and flounder too from nets our uncles hauled in”. Such abundance! – and maybe a reminder that such days are now gone.
“Full pardon” is a poem celebrating summer, but even as she celebrates, Cook insinuates subtly an awareness of transcience and the brevity of the warmer season.
Perhaps I shouldn’t single out two poems this way. Upturned is a fine and well-crafted collection – the product of a mature and thoughtful mind.
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Kay McKenzie Cooke is Ngai Tahu and Pakeha. John Tane Christeller is a New Zealander of Kiwi and German-Jewish descent. This may seem an odd way to begin a notice about his debut collection of poetry Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue, but ethnicity is relevant because, the blurb tells us, Christeller has learnt te reo and this collection contains some poems in the Maori language, not all of which are presented with English-language equivalents. I do not profess to be able to comment on the poems in Maori only.
It’s also important to note that Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue has to be judged as an objet d’art as much as a work of literature. The text is accompanied with 24 colourful images in a variety of styles, reproduced from Christeller’s screenprints and woodblocks. Some draw on Maori motifs (the curled red taniwha on page 73). Some are in the tradition of naturalists’ drawings (the cicada on page 46) and some combine naturalist sketch with Maori style (the owl on page 70). A young child’s drawing appears on page 29 and there is the influence of ancient Greek art on page 14. It makes for a varied and intereresting gallery.
But what of the text?
Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue is a collection of poetry, prose and brief gnomic statements. The term “fragments” is apt. Here, titled “Odyssey:19”, is the reflection of a patient Penelope in its entirety: “Trust in my fidelity and in the threads I draw, / trust in your desire and in your taut bowstring, / for two millennia or twenty years / or the lifespan of geese.” Certainly Homer inspired it. But is this a pithy aphorism in the tradition of Martial or Propertius? Or is it an isolated image? You decide.
In extreme contrast “Old Songs, Summer Songs” is a naturalistic memory of summer as experienced by the handyman Kiwi bloke a couple of generations back, and there are other poems on the New Zealand scene, on dragonflies, irises and blackberrying, some couched in nostalgic terms.
And in further extreme contrast, there is the prose statement “On a Flyleaf” about the poet’s relatives who were killed in the Holocaust; and a prose poem, “The Fence” about a fictitious journey involving James K. Baxter and Kendrick Smithyman; and the prose statement “ATTRwt Amyloidosis: An Aquatic Timeline” about respiratory tests. Herein the poet, a DSIR scientist by profession, uses precise scientic language mixed with the colloquial.
So through a section drawing on Christeller’s experience of Japan; and finally the poems relating to Maori culture. The poem “Te Poho / Fronting Up”, published in both Maori and English, calls upon Maori gods as it reconstructs the poet’s experience in undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. In other poems, afflicted cabbage trees, a dying red beech and a stripped kawakawa are seen as images of human mortality…. And there is a prose poem in which the old man recalls his rugby-playing days on the Petone Rugby Club grounds. Almost inevitably, the last two poems in the book refer to death, the unavoidable end of old age, with their reference to piwakawaka and Cape Reinga.
What I have done here is to report on the contents of Fragments from an Infinite Catalogue without passing any sort of critical judgement upon it. I enjoyed reading many parts of this very varied collection. I enjoyed the colourful artwork. But I could find no consistent tone or thread of thought to fully engage me. A matter of pure taste.
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“I’m 80 and it’s getting late / so I’m rushing at this like a bull at a gate… I could be arcane, I could be smart / I could crochet the strings of your heart / I could be subtle, I could be wise / sprinkle my lines with splendid lies / but now that I’m staring at my own demise / I don’t have time. So here’s the deal. / I’ll stop talking to myself / and talk to you.”
Thus speaks Rachel McAlpine in the “Forward” to her collection How to be Old, and it is a forthright and honest introduction. These are poems about being old, the consolations and pains of old age, the delusions younger people might have about what ageing is, and the changed status in society that old people now have.
The first section “Not a Memoir” gives us these lessons: Getting old is not something other people congratulate you on (the poem “Getting old is not like getting pregnant”). As you get older, you realise how much like your parents you have become (“Voices”). Old people are aware that they can be a burden on their younger relatives (“The burden”). And what other people think of as old can almost be the prime of life (“Templates”). Your body decays (“The body singular”). Your libido dies – but you can enjoy remembering it (“Lust”). And if you have children or grandchildren you are increasingly protective of them, believing that by rights you should die long before they do. As the poem “A family secret” says, “if that bastard Death / should cast his bloody eye their way / I will always bellow, ‘Look at me! / I’m old. Pick me. Pick me.’ ” Also, though the clock may say you are old, you don’t necessarily feel that way (“Epic”)
The second section “Boot camp for the bonus years” turns to the fact that, at least in our society, people nowadays tend to live longer and it is harder to remember a time when people died routinely in their 60s or 70s. Are you in your 80s or 90s or knocking 100? No problem. There are plenty like you. The old are a growing part of the population. But living longer means often missing a routine of work. As “What is your job?” says “work gave you friends, a schedule, a label / a space and a fable / a reason to get out of bed / a dress code and your daily bread /and at your very core / a sense of who you are / and what you’re for.” And people put in handrails for you (“A safe home”) And you worry that make-up may not really disguise your age (“Beauty tips for older ladies”). And you know that younger people patronise you, think you have slowed down and can’t find the right word quickly enough (“Slow”).
The third section “The gentle narrative of happy” is not quite count-your-blessings territory, but it centres mainly on the quiet pleasures of ageing. As for the coda “Elsie’s Tactics”, it records the darndest things a young grand-daughter says to he grannie.
Old (elderly/ senior?) people are often accused of babbling of green fields and indulging in nostalgia. Of course Rachel McAlpine has a number of poems referencing her childhood as a member of a vicar’s large family; but this is simply a point of reference, and not her focus, which is very much in the present.
Most of these are poems of clear statement and simple syntax, accessible to a wide audience, imagery never obscure. At her best, McAlpine is bouncy and buoyant and cheerfully ironical, putting in rhymes when it will help things jingle along, both realistic and optimistic and never maudlin. In her weaker moments, she can sound a mite admonitory, like a visiting district nurse giving good advice. But those are the weaker moments.
How to be Old succeeds in what I believe it set out to do – to appeal to a wide audience.
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Ron Riddell’s The Wanderer is a long, discursive poem of spiritual intent. The poet’s own introduction tells us that this is just the first instalment of a longer work, and a second instalment will appear in due course. It presents itself as a journey in search of the self. As the journey unfolds, titles of successive sections indicate that we are passing through towns and cities in Colombia, where the poet has spent much of his life. But some of the landscape is dream landscape of a surrealistic sort, and there is one section set specifically in New Zealand.
The desire for fulfilment, the desire for oneness with other human beings, and ultimately the desire for a soul at peace are the goals of the narrating voice. This appears to be the “wanderer” himself, although another “wanderer”, so-called, is introduced at a certain point as a sort of guide to the journeying soul. Occasionally – but only occasionally – there are specifically Christian tropes.
In the book-length poem’s structure, there is much inversion and repetition, and allusion to other texts, as in:
“In my breath is my breath
the breath upon the water
the breath in every step
the step in every breath.”
And as in:
“In my end there is no end:
acting out of the back streets
from the dim recesses of memory.”
There is a general sense of goodwill towards others, guided by some form of benevolent unity, expressed thus:
“There is a common note that runs
through eveyone and everything
don’t miss that music
that sustains us
with its secret swell.”
And as we near the end of this first instalment of The Wanderer, there is a sense of achievement that the journey has been undertaken, even if it is not yet completed:
“We’re getting near the mountain top
getting near, not giving up
getting near and reaching out.
With startled cry, with joyous shout
We spy the summit looming up.”
Short lined-meditations with much repetition often have the effect of incantation. It can become hypnotic (or lulling) and its structure means that it is probably best read aloud, like a sort of running chorus. While the intention is admirable, there is one major stylistic flaw, however, which weakens the overall effect. There are repeated images of river, mountain and road but, even if geographic indicators are given, this imagery is altogether too generic. We miss the detail of specific landscape. We miss the sense of real people being encountered and understood in a real world. The Wanderer, far from being a plausible human journey, becomes aetherial, theoretical, detached from the world in which any of us live. An ideal that is not given human flesh.
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One of the best things about Three Poets, the HeadworX anthology is that the three poets are of different ages – Marion Rego in her 80s; Margaret Jeune in her 60s; and Alex Jeune in his 30s, thus offering a spectrum of viewpoints from different generations. Yet, as both Mark Pirie’s Foreword and a biographical endnote point out, the three poets also have much in common. They have, we are told, all performed in the Kapiti “Poets to the People” readings and at other venues. I asume too that Margaret and Alex Feune are related (mother and son?). Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Published together as “Windows on Life”, Marion Rego’s verse references childhood accidents, work done for children, the love of grandchildren and the frustrations of having to exchange inanities with check-out operators. A very impressive, well-structured poem called “Choices” contrasts regimented and silent church services in the old days with more noisy and boisterous services now, and asks provocatively “What would you rather have/ A church full of quiet people / who may or may not have wanted to be there? / Or a half-empty church of people / who are there because they want to be?” In fact, the image I am getting from these poems is of a granny who really does not wish to be patronised or treated like a senile person, whether by local councils or insurance companies or well-meaning juniors. Not that this is a grumpy old lady out of touch with the world. The poems about rising sea levels show that, as does her well aimed swipe at having to uproot non-native species of plants when you don’t want to (“Native Species?”). And they are ‘poems for the people’ because they are expressed as simple declarative statements.
Alex Jeune’s poems are titled “Images of Time”. They are more terse, gnomic and philosophical than Marion Rego’s cheerful garrulity. In its entirety, the verse given as “Untitled” goes thus: “I ought to be / More than I am / I need to be / What I felt to be right / The space between / The hopes and the hoped for / The real and the ideal type.” Other examples of similar tentative existentialism are found in statements called “Compulsion”, “Credulity”, “Strength” and “The Dark Night”. However this is not the only key in which Alex Jeune plays. He can wax positively lyrical about physical realities of nature or human habitation, as in “Springtime” or in “Petone” where “Pohutukawa blossoms red / And evening stretch across the blue suburban skies / Light pouring through this valley of green.” Perhaps this is the key in which he should play more variations.
Margaret Jeune positively embraces human society and the natural world, which makes the title of her section particularly apt – “The Natural Landscape”. She chronicles in detail a trip to Auckland (“Auckland 2019”) and to its suburb in the Waitakeres (“Titirangi”), and she rejoices in summer’s chirping insects (“Cicadas”). Regrettably, while it might work as oratory, too many of her poems are prosey and end with a piece of neat moralising which is usually a dull commonplace and with which nobody would want to argue. Thus “Time for Tolerance” (written in response to the Christchurch mosque massacre) ends telling us “New Zealand is now home to many nationalities and faiths / Perhaps it is time for tolerance of our difference / and an understanding of each other’s cultures.” This is not poetry. It is editorial. Thus too with the endings of “The Natural Landscape” and “Christmas Time 2019”. There’s nothing wrong with saying what everyone is already thinking, but I’m reminded of Alexander Pope’s line that poetry is “what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”. These offerings need to be expressed with more flair and originality to avoid the editorial trap.