We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THINGS OKAY WITH YOU?” by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ25); “THE MERMAID’S PURSE” by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ25); “LETTERS TO YOUNG PEOPLE” by Glenn Colquhoun (OldKing Press, $NZ35)
I am going to avoid a cliché as I consider Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection of poetry Things OK with you? I am NOT going to say that this is an “old man’s poetry”. True, O’Sullivan is now in his 84th year, but unlike some other poets of his vintage, he does not focus on old age, infirmity and impending death to the exclusion of other things. The volume’s title comes from the last line of the last poem in the book – a defiant decision not to dwell on these things. Naturally, among the 75 poems presented here, there are a few that touch on old age, such as “How to shame a family properly…” and “End Game”, which presents an almost cosy image of a contented old woman, undercut with wry wit. When O’Sullivan deals with graves and worms and epitaphs, he does so with detached irony, as in “Poem with five plots” about imagined visits to the tombs of Proust, William Faulkner, Yeats and Harry Lime.
In Things OK with you? O’Sullivan is still exploring new concepts. This is his first collection since Being Here (in 2015) and And So It Is (2016) [both reviewed on this blog] and he has clearly thought through a number of philosophical ideas which he has not approached so insistently in earlier works.
Satire there is. The opening poem “After Lucy Tinakori’s famous party” takes a slap at what might be called “coddle culture” where every kiddie at a party is given a prize regardless of merit or lack of it. “Southern pastoral” scorns the pretentious rich, who imagine they are living the simple country life when they move into mansions some way out of town. And “Lines from way back” must surely be about the unnamed Donald Trump when “Pussy and circuses stake out their claim” and “Maggots exult that nature bred them white”. As satire, “Well so I’ve heard” and “Late Night News” could easily be taken the wrong way by those who read things literally… though the latter could be an admission of fierce forbidden feelings.
O’Sullivan also has some literary amusement commenting on the illustrious. “Late note to Iris Murdoch” suggests elegantly that philosophy is only one mode of thinking and it is devised in the context of other events and contingencies. “For the Time, Being” deals with paradoxes in the life of the philosopher Martin Heidegger (incidentally, this is the only poem in Things OK with you? which is accompanied by an explanatory note – O’Sullivan usually assumes that his readership will understand his allusions without explanations). “Ms Dickinson, Mr Whitman” deals with fastidious Emily and booming Walt in terms of the convergence of two such different people.
But after the satire and the literary figures, what are these philosophical ideas that I found in this collection?
More than in earlier collections, O’Sullivan is interested in the whole field of epistemology – how we know (or think we know), understand (or think we understand), perceive and communicate (or try to). In “What to look sets off”, a simple sensual experience (watching fireflies) triggers a whole train of thoughts about perception. “Thinking the shark tank” depicts the human desire to be free of words. “I gotta use words when I talk to you”? Often we wish it wasn’t so. In “The Scar” we are reminded that one childhood incident can affect the whole way we interpret the world thereafter. For the record, O’Sullivan is honest and unsentimental when he reconstructs childhood – there is no babbling of green fields. ”A story from the Forties” would in no way induce soft nostalgia, but it isn’t dismissive of earlier generations either.
Some poems are very direct in addressing the problem of how we understand and perceive. In “Epistemology, Standard Five”, the problem of the nature of Being is resolved by experience of the present moment. “Class outing, even now” suggests that certain individual words bend the way we understand the world. “Signify” is certainly a poem about epistemology, asking how “real” the physical world is and banging rationalism against empiricism. It is interesting that some of O’Sullivan’s trains of imagery are at the service of this philosophical exploration. There is the image of the changing and on-flowing river in the Joyceian titled “Riverrun”, and in “Soon enough, then” and “What river means”, in each of which the mutability of a river challenges our understanding of what a river essentially is. Then there are poems when the sensual experience and mentality of dogs lead us to question our human sensual experience and mentality – poems like “If you don’t have a dog yourself well you’d hardly know”, “At the city pound” and “Dogspeed”. As to whether our perception is based on fear or delusion, consider those poems that deal with nightmare (and old age!) “Late shift” and “The story of Born Again Brightly” .
As I too often do in reviewing collections of poetry, I have here been your friendly neighbourhood bibliographer, tiresomely listing for you some of the contents of the book rather than assessing the quality of the verse. (Jaysus! I’m getting to be Joyce’s Shaun the Postman!). So what can I say about O’Sullivan’s poetry, which is at once sensual and cerebral? I could note that O’Sullivan often makes the title of a poem the poem’s first line, as he has done frequently in the past. I could note that there are outstanding poems that do not conform to the neat thematic lines I have suggested above – such as “Depression Villa”, which comes very close to being about haunting. I could say that that the imagery is vivd, as with the image of a dying fish “like threshing diamonds” in the poem “Once”. And I could say that the rawest, most desolate and most sad poem in Things OK with you? is “Festival highlight” – the commonplace agony of those who feel but cannot express.
But there, you see – all I am doing is listing more poems, trying to convince you that Things OK with you? is essential reading.
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Here’s an interesting point for you to ponder. When publishers’ publicists write blurbs for collections of poetry, they give a general (and of course very positive) account of what the poet is up to – usually in terms of his or her main thematic interests. But for the back-cover blurb of Fleur Adcock’s latest colllection The Mermaid’s Purse, all the Victoria (of Wellington) University Press publicist can do is to list a whole series of diverse things that Adcock deals with, rather than noting anything dominant. In her 87th year, Fleur Adcock here gathers up and presents new poems on so many different things that it is not easy to categorise her interests and inspirations. In her long and much-applauded career as a poet (look up Fleur Adcock Collected Poems on this blog for a brief account of her writing career) she has written about so many things. And she still does.
Dutifully, however, I’ll do my boring bibiographical thing and try to corral her poems into thematic types.
First, though, let me note that it is the first 39 poems in The Mermaid’s Purse that deal with many and varied things. The last 12 poems are designated “Poems for Roy”, and are dedicated to Fleur Adcock’s late friend, the English poet Roy Fisher (1930-2017). These are very personal poems joking with, celebrating with, recalling mutual experiences with the deceased, and I have no intention of intruding on something so personal. So I will pass them by with no further comment.
Despite the sexy 19th century painting of a mermaid on the cover, the opening and title poem “The Mermaid’s Purse” reminds us that a real “mermaid’s purse” (actually the protective cover of a tiny baby shark) is no magical thing, and the sea is deep, daunting, dark and dangerous. As opening poem, this seems fair warning that Fleur Adcock is not going to dwell on the fanciful and the pretty. She expands the image of the sea in one of the most skilful poems in this collection, “The Teacher’s Wife”, a kind of bricolage combining couplets with triplets. It draws on a story she pieced together at second hand, but related to a traumatic event in her childhood. It involves attempted suicide by drowning. Of such suicides she notes “Have you noticed they’re all women? / I would cite some men if necessary, / but we are the sea for men to drown in, / the ravening tide. No wonder we scare them.” The deep, daunting, dark and dangerous sea is women, penetrated by, but never fully understood by, men. Thus says a very knowing woman.
This collection has some expected concerns. There are poems recalling childhood, but not many of them and never maudlin (“Island Bay”; “In the Cupboard”). There is a fond poem addressed to her son (“A Bunch of Names”) and two poems about pet cats (“The Fur Line”, “A Feline Forage in Auckland”), although Adcock sees them for the destructive little beasts they can be. Memories of exotic travel are reconstructed (“Giza” “Siena”) with, apparently at least, memories of a casual affair in one case. Literary figures make their appearance, “Peter’s Hat” (about Peter Bland), “A Small Correction” (about Mike Doyle) and “Kathi Bowden in Bavaria” (an imagined version of the young Katherine Mansfield in Germany). But a hard reality is her approach to the literary world. One of her best poems, “The Annual Party”, gives a true, but satirical and very negative, view of the writing life – or at least of the way ageing writers are regarded and treated. Dare I say it is almost as devastating as Vincent O’Sullivan’s poem “Festival highlight” in his most recent collection? Both are the product of poets who have seen literary gatherings too often to be starry-eyed about them.
As an expatriate New Zealander who has lived most of her life in England, Fleur Adcock inevitably writes much that has an explicitly British setting. This is particularly true when she deals with birds, animals and nature itself. Thus “Berries”; “This Fountain”, “Magnolia Seed Pods”, “Bats” (about her personal engagement with bats in her English back yard), “Novice Flyer” (concerning a dead robin), “Wood Mice”, “Sparrowhawk” and “The Old Road”. As always with this poet, nothing is approached with a Romantic eye – she sympathises with non-human animals but does not sentimentalise. Her encounters with birds and beasts are matter-of-fact ones.
Having glibly ranged Adcock’s poems into categories, I admit that in The Mermaid’s Purse there are also poems that are unexpected. Consider the three epigrams “In the Cloud”, “Election 1945” and “To Stephenie at 11 PM”. Enjoy the bemused and ironical account of a London location “Amazing Grace” or the eccentric poem “Divining” about water-divining (and, I suspect, intentionally ironical). Then there are unexpected excursions like “The Little Theatre Club”, expressing a sort of nostalgia for cheesy English pantomime in the 1940s; or “The other Christmas Party” about adults stripping off and boogying when the kids are asleep or the poem “Victoria Road”, referring to “Alex and Meg” and working as an elegy for them.
Of course I have listed for you what is in this volume. In doing so I have to admit that I found some few poems cryptic and perhaps assuming an intimate knowledge of the poet’s life which most of us do not have – thus “Berries” and “In the Cloud.” But to conclude, I can only repeat what I said in reviewing Adcock’s Collected Poems. It is a pleasure to read somebody who writes so forthrightly, who has a sense of appropriate form for each poem, who lays her heart on her sleeve without forgetting her functioning, rational brain – in short, somebody who writes like a modernist rather than a post-modernist. Floreat Adcock.
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A handsome hardback of some 175 pages, Glenn Colquhoun’s Letters to Young People is a book with a mission. Colquhoun is a doctor of medicine by profession. He currently works as a GP in Levin (Horowhenua). But he is also a poet, with five collections so far to his credit. Two of them – The art of walking upright and Playing God – won prestigious literary prizes. In his introduction to Letters to Young People, Colquhoun explains that all the poems in this collection arise from his work in the Horowhenua Youth Health Service. Most are addressed to young people he has counselled or otherwise helped. As many as possible of the poems have been checked and approved by the indivduals to whom they are addressed.
But what is the mission of this book? Colquhoun says he wants to celebrate the honesty of young people and their uninhibited colloquial expression, but also to show their strengths and vulnerabilities and their need for help. Addressed directly to a particular young person, each poem offers advice, but usually in an oblique way, in the form of a story or of a detailed metaphor. Each poem is, in effect, a part of the healing process.
So to the text itself.
With few exceptions, all the poems in Letters to Young People are lean, with short lines sitting like columns on the page. (Written in unabashed prose, the poem “To a young person finding the journey difficult” is one of the few exceptions.) Erudite language is avoided and Colquhoun sometimes employs forms that will appeal most to a younger readership. Comic book heroes are invoked in “Mud Cake” basically to tell young men to curb their tempers. Comic book heroes mingle with other heroes in a number of poems. One item is written in the form of a text (“IOW”) and another as rap (“Eruptions”). Sometimes (as in a sonnet which is also presented in English) the Maori language is used. If Colquhoun’s preferred vocabulary is usually simple and direct, the trains of imagery are often quite complex. Sometimes they imply details about the addressee to which we readers will not be privy.
What sorts of advice does Colquhoun offer? To Anna he gives, in a non-coercive way “An attempt to prevent the suicide of a young woman”. In “Heart murmurs” he lightens Zoe’s mood by saying her heart “is telling you / there is no one else / exactly like you. ” Addressing Ethan in “Supernova”, he suggests the beauties of a vast universe are like the powerful possibilities that the young man has in him. Kristian is advised that even though his kidneys are not functioning properly, he will find a way to live with this defect. “The far paddock” tells Bree to face the day boldly. Bree (presumably the same person) is also addressed in the 13-part sequence “Via Dolorosa” which presents the travails and wonders of life in terms of a journey – especially mountain climbing. “A song sung sweet to greet the dead” is written as solace for young people grieving the death of their grandmother; and “Madonna and child” basically says fathers can be loving and caring parents too. In all these cases there is an attempt to restore a sense of self-worth and responsibility without guilt.
Colquhoun is a great believer in the idea that people (his patients) will learn most and heal most if they are presented with stories rather than abstract concepts. He also takes it as an axiom that most of us construct stories about ourselves to explain who we are. The long 12-part sequence “Once upon a time” begins “Sometimes getting / better is about / finding out what’s / wrong with a story”. The sequence proceeds to tell stories from literature and comes up with “You probably think / when I listen / to your chest / with my stethoscope / I am listening / to your heart. / But I’m not. / I am listening / to your stories.” This idea of healing narrative is also in the poem “The three sisters”, where Colquhoun imagines Chekhov (who was doctor as well as playwright) healing people by telling a story. Only a handful of poems are a little difficult to interpret. “To men who steal the bodies of women” is ambiguous. Is it counselling young men not to harrass women? Or is it reminding young men that they owe a debt to women as we all began by living in a woman for nine months?
Quite distinct from the others, and scattered through the text, are eight poems framed as “Letters to a young nurse”, all addressed to “Jess”. I will brutally summarise what these eight poems are saying thus: (1.) Respect the human body and how it has evolved. (2.) Advice is given mainly in the form of an examination of conscience – the nurse is asked to consider all her faults and then to realise that she, like everybody else, is a flawed human being who can do good to others of her kind. (3.) The Earth itself is the greatest healer and in the right circumstances natural processes heal us. (4.) The quest for medical knowledge is historical and we should respect those who came before us. (5.) You have to respect the stories your patients tell you. (6.) You need to see the world – indeed the cosmos – through more than the lens of your own particular metier. (7.) When things go wrong, accept that your imperfections are shared by all human beings. (8) “This last thing I have to say to you. / At the end of the day the most / powerful medicine I know is love.” Even if you don’t recognize this when you encounter negative things in life, love is still there and is the force that drives the world.
In dealing fairly with Letters to Young People, I do not want to be accused of being a cynic. I am aware that Colquhoun’s intentions are good. I understand that part of the royalties from sale of this book will go to the Horowhenua Youth Health Service. The poet is obviously on the side of the angels and there is doubtless therapeutic value in these poems for the people addressed (although I do wonder how helpful the poem “To a young woman raped by a friend” would be.)
But there are many imperatives, many exhortations and much didacticism in this collection. Though dressed as “stories”, these poems do preach to us. It may be wise not to read Letters to Young People in one long sitting, as a sense of sameness takes over. And though Colquhoun is insistent on the place of nature in our formation, it is odd that his descriptions of nature tend to be generic textbook representations rather than things felt or observed in detail.
To conclude on two personal observations: (A. ) “Things remembered and dreamed” - one of Colquhoun’s longest and most discursive poems - seems to me to come closest to being sheer autobiography. (B.) The one poem I found most impressive is “One that got away” – a sustained image of a tortured deep-sea fish presented as metaphor for the human will to be free. This poem sustains its imagery without being as discursive, and wandering away into other topics, as so many of Colquhoun’s poems do.