Monday, December 7, 2020

Something New

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

“ESCAPE PATH LIGHTING” by John Newton (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ30); “FANCY DANCING – New and Selected Poems 2004-2020” by Bernadette Hall (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ30); “WOW” by Bill Manhire (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ25); “NOUNS, VERBS, ETC.” by Fiona Farrell(Otago University Press, $NZ35)


            John Newton, literary historian and poet, has produced that very rare thing, a novel in verse. The back-cover blurb calls it “a throwaway epic, a romp, a curmudgeonly manifesto.”  Yes, I suppose it is all these things, and certainly not to be taken too seriously in every part of its being. Its eighteen chapters are a jumbled tale with a large cast of characters, dutifully listed at the beginning in two pages as “Dramatis Personae”.

            The setting is Rock Oyster Island. I spent some time speculating on what the inspiration for this island was. It’s a ferry-ride from a major city, so could it be Waiheke Island or Little Barrier Island or some island further south with which an Aucklander like me is not acquainted? Anyway, its inhabitants are a mixture of the middle-aged wealthy and what would once have been called “alternative life-stylers”.

When they gather at a store on the island John Newton says they are there “to hang out / and gossip, to smoke weed and strum ukuleles, / to play petanque in the parking lot. / … Hipsters pretend to be / tightrope walkers and generally ‘make sport’ for / their neighbours. Olive enthusiasts / pretend to be farmers, propping themselves / against dusty utilities, grousing, / wrinkling their crows’ feet, masticating grass.” (pp.42-43) There is a cohort of “prosperous late middle-lifers” (p.48) and those who attend a poetry reading are described as “Air-kissing socialites and high-fiving / hipsters, dope fiends and oliver growers.” (p.164). You get the idea – people who think they are not the norm but are actually living their own sort of conformity. Lots of drug use, lots of sex, lots of pseudo-philosophising. I won’t use the antiquated term “hippie” because Newton never does. And besides, moneyed hipsters are more powerful than hippies ever were.

            Now what’s the main narrative thread in this verse novel?

            It has to do with a poet called Arthur Bardruin (okay – obvious moniker, and also the ironical anagram that ARD Fairburn made for himself “ARF Bardruin”) who has escaped to the island because his modus vivendi has been condemned by “Continence Police”. Arthur swims ashore naked. Later in the tale, Arthur gate-crashes a dance naked. Arthur links up with Marigold, “herbalist” and seller of weed and other stuff. Marigold takes Arthur Bardruin on a fishing expedition and there’s a moment of cunnilingus before the priapic action. (You don’t expect me to quote this do you? Look it up for yourself on pp.104-105). Again I think you get the idea. Arthur seems to represent an older concept of the poet as inspired, rhapsodic, and often sex-driven, bard. Think Dylan Thomas or J.K.Baxter or some of the Beats. Or maybe think ARD Fairburn or Denis Glover. Arthur Bardruin writes “wreathed / in a thick fog of weed and cigar smoke, / stripped to the waist and dripping sweat, / he’s driving the poor old Smith Corona / like a coalkminer wrestling a pneumatic / drill.” (p.88) This is an older-school poet, folks – even the heavy typewriter tells you so – and for God’s sake, he’s writing his verse in what amounts to a boatshed as Dylan Thomas did.

            Arthur is encouraged to write his great epic, which he calls “Escape Path Lighting – A South Sea Fantasia”. But when he has finished it Joe Bravo, the retired “scholar” who encouraged him to get on with it, advises Arthur Bardruin that he likes his poem but “I’m / just an old man tending his cactuses. Gone / in the taste buds. / Truly – if it were up to me – your transports, / your side-spin, your middle-aged priapism…/ mate, you’re speaking my language here! But / nobody else is, you see, that’s the problem; it’s / called history, Arthur; you can’t argue with it.” (p.128) Which is the rub. When a great poetry reading is organised, it’s the creative-writing-school students, their academic promoters and the mongers of new poetic clichés who dominate… and Arthur Bardruin resigns himself to giving poetry up and just living a life of the senses without writing about it.

            The big cock, big action, big statement poet is gone. What is “escape path lighting” after all but what is needed when a plane is crashing? Maybe this whole poetic tale is about the crashing of poetry – or at least of a certain type of poetry. I note that in his “Acknowledgements”, Newton lists poems and poets he has quoted in Escape Path Lighting. Dare I say that he has a preference for the traditional and the Modernists? And in one sense this tale could be a lament for the death of such poetry.

            Or maybe I’m dead wrong. Maybe Newton is ridiculing the old-style bard and saying that his demise is inevitable. Judge for yourself. Newton is a literary scholar who is on the path to dissecting the whole of 20th century New Zealand literary history (I enjoyed reviewing on “Landfall-Review-on-Line”, 1 December 2017, his Hard Frost on New Zealand Modernists, the first part of a proposed trilogy.) Maybe he sees Arthur Bardruin as a fossil.

            But I’ve cheated so far in this review, for while the Arthur Bardruin story is this verse novel’s backbone, there are many other narrative threads. Most prominent is the parallel tale of the sometime musician Frank Hortune (another clinker name – he used to prostitute himself literally and by writing advertising jingles). When he was in Australia in the 1980s, Frank Hortune got “Scads of money. Heaps / of blow – I got myself completely fucked up.” (p.81). He’s been addicted to sex and to every drug from cocaine to meth. Now he’s in therapy with a Lacanian psychoanalyst. There’s a heap of satire here. At one point the cynical, rich architect Simon Richwhite (will these clinker names never end?) lectures Frank on how psychoanalysis is just another scam like the way Simon strings along clients by getting them to pay great fees for architectural designs that will never be built. The analysand is hooked on the unattainable perfection of himself while money is extracted from him. Richwhite is clearly a crass customer, but this could well be Newton’s view of Lacanian analysis as seen in what transpires.

            By now you are asking – “But what about the poetry?” Patience please, I’m getting there . There is much descriptive lyricism, especially when Newton is giving portraits of the many characters and their surroundings. There are some moments of what I can only call reverse lyricism, as when a character called Bridget O’Dwyer “rolls down the windows to drink in / the breeze; the smell of the mudflats, of seagrass / and cockles, ti-tree and diesel and garbage / and cabbage trees in bloom. Why does it / claim her, this skanky old swamp, with its / muddy life scuttling and gurgling / and farting?” (p.17) There are also moments when characters say what we’ve often thought, as when Bardruin’s squeeze Marigold notices “Lately, rainbow lorikeets / have been coming each morning to the blossoming / flax – interlopers, the purists tell her, but honestly, can you have too much / colour?” (p.22) But there are also long prosey stretches, especially when Frank Hortune, in a number of chapters, is pouring out his confessions to his shrink. I’m terribly sorry to use a cliché – especially one so often rebuked by current literary theorists – but so much of this really does read like “chopped prose”, with no music or rhythm therein. Perhaps at such moments, remind yourself that it is a novel after all, even if a verse one.

            Enjoy it for its fecundity of images, its unbuttoned activity, and its satire thrown in about twenty different directions.

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            With ten earlier collections of poetry to her credit and public honours given to her, Otago-raised, North Canterbury-resident Bernadette Hall is now a well established figure in New Zealand poetry. Fancy Dancing – New and Selected Poetry 2004-2020 is by no means a survey of all her writing career, but it gives a good retrospective of what she has been up to in the last two decades. The first four sections of this book present selections of her work between 2007 and 2016.

            The poems selected from Ponies (2007) reflect on landscapes, of course – and especially those of Antarctica which she visited as part of an “Artists in Antarctica” programme. There are some poems of childhood and elegies for a niece who was killed in a terror attack in London. Selections from The Lustre Jug (2009) present poems inspired by a visit to her ancestors’ homeland, Ireland, and by art works. The opening poem in the selection from The Lustre Jug, “Rathcoola rain”, delights me with Bernadette Hall’s skill in piling simile upon simile to describe rainfall: “The rain is like mice scrabbling on the ceiling. / It’s like the crackling of plastic, / the first licking of flames in a handful of wood shavings, / the complicit turning of pages in hundreds of Mass books.” The selection from Life and Customs (2013) (already reviewed on this blog 11 November 2013 ) gives more attention to childhood and to New Zealand landscape with a greater awareness of the Maori presence. Re-reading these poems I revise an earlier opinion and see “The day Death turned up on the beach” as one of Hall’s best. From Maukatere, floating mountain (2016) we are given  evocations of a misty local mountain with the presence of ancestral ghosts in Maori lore.

            And then come the 30 pages of New Poems, followed by some prose reflections on fellow writers and friends of Hall. 

            Reading the first seven of these new poems, and especially “The Perfumes of Arabia”, “Actaeon”, “The Seafarer” and “I give thee the sun as guarantee”, I felt a sort of Ezra Pound influence. Most of them are first-person statements related to – and often quoting from and adapting – ancient texts. The Classics (i.e. of Greece and Rome) are frequent points of reference and sources of imagery for Hall, and these poems are like the insertion of self into the ancient, giving personal experience a mythical resonance.

            Which brings me to the 25 sonnets collectively called “Fancy Dancing”. Bernadette Hall stays with the 14-line sonnet form, but makes it (unrhymed) blank verse and does not go for strict rhythm. These free sonnets are the most engaging, most varied and most interesting poems in this whole collection. They represent first-person experience but it is wound into myth and Phaedra is a recurring figure. Scenes shift freely, there is much reference to dreams and to what are apparently symbolic representations of events in the poet’s life. Often, in reading these vigorous poems, I found myself most engaged by the images rather than the structure or the train of thought. What a pleasure to find, in a sonnet about an art exhibition (Sonnet v.), the intrusion of a hungry dog: “Sally, the black Labrador, / is the first art critic to arrive. She lollops down / the corridor gulping up the crackers”... but then isn’t that what all culture-vultures do at art exhibitions, metaphorically speaking? Sonnet vi is a bracing piece on both the callouness of historical judgement and the need not to be too soft and vulnerable – certainly one of Hall’s best.

            I do admit to puzzling over the meaning of some sonnets, especially when the first-person voice addresses a younger woman and appears to be exploring intimate things. I suspect that Sonnet x is about a miscarriage, but I can’t be sure. When Hall revisits Ireland in her verse (Sonnet xiv) the tone is as daunting as it is celebratory for “The people are bulky and cautious. At the Sign / of Peace they avert their eyes, they touch their fingers / to your fingers in a way that shows they are terrified… / ... I crossed the border, North to South, in a bus. / The soldier who checked my papers had eyes as hard / as stone…” But then there is the serene and cleansing sonnet (Sonnet xvii) in which it is found that a quiet walk on the beach not only calms the spirit but puts in perspective the muddle of writing poetry. And in a Wellington poem (Sonnet xix), there is the blustering, confident figure of “the crazy lady, how she strides / down Cuba Mall in full combat gear, / her face streaked with charcoal, how she barges / through the casual crowd, the coffee drinkers, / the eaters of sweet biscuits. ‘All clear,’ she shouts, / ‘I’ve got it sorted, you may all stand down.’ ” She is worth the price of the book.

            Incidentally, the text is illustrated with the non-representational art works of Robyn Webster.

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            Are nursery rhymes the most profound poems in the world? They use a simple vocabulary. You rarely have to look up a strange word. Yet they create a fantastical world of their own and, as with all fantasies, not everything is good in this world. Ogres, monsters and evildoers live there as well as golden lads and lasses – “here comes the chopper to chop off your head” as well as “Little Boy Blue”.

            Arguing along these lines, there’s quite a bit of nursery rhyme to the poems of Bill Manhire – and I do not mean this in any derogatory sense. Simple vocab, few recherche words and the creation of an alternative world, which isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. At least so it is in much of Manhire’s latest collection Wow.

            Often, the world depicted is a world in decay and a place for lamentation. The opening poem “Huia” (p.13) is about the extinction of a bird (written in a simple rhymed form which makes me wonder if it was one of the poems Manhire first submitted to the School Journal). The theme of extinction continues in the next offering “Untitled” (p.14). The world that Manhire presents can be a threatened and decaying world. There is a house in decay and in a desolate place in “Letter from the New Place” (p.21) It is a world of regrets and farewells. In “Woodwork” (p.24), children are making a coffin for their teacher. “Discontinued Product” (p.61) seems to use the conceit of a toy, robotic mannikin running out of power as an image of disintegrating human memory and culture. One of Manhire’s longer and more discursive poems “Warm Ocean” (p.26) could be read as an apocalyptic piece about global warming, but it does have its fairy tale ogre when “The huge man carries his tiny candle / he stumbles forward picking people up / then yes tossing them aside / his hand is huge, all handle…” The forces of nature can be anthropomorphised, as in “The Sky” (p.76). The mood of many of these poems is not horror or despair, but a kind of pervasive, moody melancholy.

            As you would expect in a postmodernist work, there are a number of sour ironies. “Noah” (p.37) ends up eating the animals in the ark. “The Lazy Poet” (p.52) lies around getting nowhere. Naturally there are literary jokes – note the discreet riffing on Wordsworth and Tennyson in “The Armchair Traveller” (p.16). And there’s “Reverse Ovid” (p.83), which presents in backwards form what could otherwise be one of the Roman poet’s metamorphoses.

            While such things can be diverting, there is a downside to this collection. Take what can only be read as pointless anecdotes, not carrying the charge of irony they were presumably meant to ignite. There is, for example, “Breakfast” (p.41), which I quote here in its entirety: “I had no trouble with anything / till he started making the toast.” To which I can only reply “And…?” Or something considerably cruder. So little depends on a toaster not glazed with rain or anything else. For further pointless anecdotes, see “Earthquake Practice” (p.48), being more faux irony; and see the random collection of cryptic statements called “Isolation Notes” (p.44), which leave one (i.e. me) wondering whether they mean anything at all. Call them tired hipster graffiti. As he showed in the The Stories of Bill Manhire (reviewed on this blog 30 November 2015), Manhire can too easily take the linguistic turn by playing word games and self-consciously showing his cleverness by asking us whether we understand that he is writing a text. (Answer – yes, we already knew that… so no point in asking). “The Deerculler’s Wife” (p.54) and “The Smile” (p.79) are examples of this particular literary rabbit hole. More coherent, but also concerned with language itself, is the title poem “Wow” (p.80) which suggests that in the end, articulated speech is little more than the extension of a baby’s cry. After such productions, I found it a relief to read poems like “The Sailor” (p.70) and “Exhibition” (p.72) which, despite some fantastication, at least seem to address real people in specific times and places.

            I do not want to attach a glib, summary punchline to this notice of Wow. It is a varied and variable work and you can understand my verdict on it by what I have already said. The court is adjourned.

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            Fiona Farrell writes in many genres – fiction, non-fiction and poetry  - but I have known her mainly for her non-poetic work. On this blog you will find reviews of her 2009 novel Limestone; her 2011 non-fiction  essays The Broken Book, inspired in part by the Christchurch earthquakes; and her 2016 The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, a polemical reaction to the post-earthquake re-building of Christchurch. It should be noted, however, that 21 poems are interspersed among the prose of The Broken Book.

            Subtitled “Selected Poems”, Nouns, verbs, etc. gathers together what Farrell considers the best of the four collections of poetry she wrote over 25 years, Cutting Out (1987), The Inhabited Initial (1999), The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007) and the poems from The Broken Book (2011). However she also gathers together 27 hitherto “uncollected” poems. Some of these have appeared in magazines, and some are presented here for the first time.  In her preface, Farrell discusses some of the autobiographical circumstances that led her to write certain types of poetry. In passing this involves noting that, once upon a time, poetry written in New Zealand was overwhelmingly written by men. There’s a feminist undercurent to much that she writes. More essential to this volume, she also notes that the “uncollected” poems “are not presented in the order in which they were written, but loosely as they seemed to echo one another or share a common theme.”

            So I’ll discuss the four sections of “uncollected” poems first.

            The first eight uncollected poems hover around the themes of sexual love and/or marriage and its perils. Interestingly, Farrell here sometimes uses what could be called fairy-tale or medieval imagery. “The Castle” begins like a ballad, but its fable of three knights wooing a maiden develops more along the lines of a Freudian dream, with knights and wooing symbolic of modern sexual realities. The same is true of “The Bird” where images of falconry are signalling the nature of dependence or dominance in erotic pairings.

            The next ten uncollected poems appear to be grouped around the idea of New Zealand landscape and nature with a conservationist tone. The prose-poem “Once”, for example, presents a kind of imagined Kiwi paradise, while “Eel” is an exact account of an eel’s migratory path. Among these poems, however, there is one that made my wife laugh out loud when I read it out to her, so much did she recognise the reality that it expresses. This is “The Thread”, which basically tells us that a mother who has freed herself from household cares and is seeking a freer life will still instinctively respond to any child who calls for help. The next four uncollected ones focus on the men in women’s lives – brother, husbands fathers – but the last five uncollecteds plunge into large public affairs. After “The old woman’s story”, which appears to be a rebuke to men who “mansplain” or appropriate women’s stories as their own, we are confronted with “Terror”, a poetic critique of the so-called war on terror; and “Instructions for the Consumption of your Humanitarian Food Package”, which calls out American military behaviour in Afghanistan. These are straightfoward protest poems. But the cycle of poems “Myth and Legend” is more oblique in its protest. In one of her long explanatory endnotes, Farrells notes that “Myth and Legend” is a work still in progress. It appears to be working towards a condemnation of commercial materialism imposing itself on a colonised country, but perhaps we will have to wait for the finished form of this work to see where Farrell is going.

            Of the selections from Farrell’s four earlier collections, I will be brief as they have already been available to the public for some years. To give a handful of generalisations, Farrell is most often concerned with three things – the condition of women, ancestral history and language itself. It is understandable that Cutting Out (1987) combines childhood memories with imagery of sex and childbirth as experienced by women. But there is also a cycle of poems, “Passengers”, dealing with impoverished, and sometimes abused, Irishwomen who arrived as unuspported immigrants in 19th century Dunedin. This is the first of many nods that Farrell has made to her own Irish ancestry. The Inhabited Initial (1999) gives a whole medieval alphabet of short poems, echoing the large, illustrated capital letters that appeared in illuminated manuscripts. Digging deeper into language and its origins is the cycle “Words, War and Water” which goes back to a description of language in ancient (Hittite) times. (Confession – I would have found parts of this poem quite impenetrable if it were not for Farrell’s endnotes.) The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007) deals in part with ancient Irish history. “Genealogy”, one of Farrell’s rawest poems, is a rebuke to those who ridiculed the poverty of Irish emigants driven from home by famine. Most remarkable is “The Lament of the Nun of Beare”, in fact a loose tranlation of an ancient Irish song, which Farrell brings off with great aplomb in traditional rhyming form and neat stanzas. This poem nests together an ancient time and a woman’s specific perspective of things. And of course the selections from The Broken Book (2011) deal with the big public event of the Christchurch earthquakes -  sometimes in satire, like “Panegyric”, which ridicules a politician (a very well-known one I think) who claims to be rebuilding the city; and sometimes in implicit lament like “The poem that is like a city”.

            Read all together, this is an outstanding retrospective.

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