Monday, March 1, 2021

Something New

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

“READING THE SIGNS” by Janis Freegard (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “THE SETS” by Victor Billot (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “SHAPE OF THE HEART” by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ 24:99)


            I’ll do what I should never do in a review, and begin with my conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Janis Freegard’s Reading the Signs. I enjoyed the clarity of her writing, the precision of her descriptions of nature, the candour about her feelings and above all the way she was able to convey exactly what she believes without mystifying readers in a recherche vocabulary, as I have found other bards doing. It was a pleasure to read Reading the Signs. I say all this clearly to begin with, because I do not necessarily agree with all the poet’s views on the world and on human nature – of which more later.

A few quick words on the format - Reading the Signs consists of 75 items, most being prose-poems. Often they are unashamedly jottings about daily events and experiences. The text is illustrated with six not-exactly-representational art works by Neil Johnstone. Acknowledgements and the cover blurb explain that Freegard wrote much of this sequence when she was in a writer’s residence in Wairarapa. Freegard herself explains she wrote while going through a “difficult time”; and near the end of her residency, her sad mood was compounded when her mother died. Hence there is often a sense of loss in Reading the Signs. But it does not overwhelm what appears to be Freegard’s essentially optimistic philosophy. These prose-poems are mainly in the first-person and hence confessional, but much depends on the potency of dreams and the ability to see symbols in everyday things.

The sequence’s opening poems are dream-like, situating the poet first in the vast context of the ecological creation of this country, then in the forest, then in a reflective mood and at last finding an anchor in the serenity of drinkng tea in the traditional, leafy way. She finds herself working in the room once occupied by the poet Ema Saiko, who remains a strong presence. Tea becomes an important part of her environment. She writes: “In the kitchen at Kaiparoro House, I pour in the water and the leaves spill over themselves like spawning salmon. I taste tall trees, mountain streams. Below are the shoals, the swarming, swimming shoals, the single intent of the group, the single passion.” (page 14) Reading tea leaves become the sequence’s central motif as she sees animals and numinous creatures in her cup, and interprets their significance.

In an important way, the sequence is therapeutic. The serenity of the setting and the ritual of reading the leaves are healing. Figures who appear in her dreams and imagination are guides, gurus, interpreters of signs. They gradually morph into The Interpreter, who is (I surmise) Freegard’s own subconscious and imagination. While the poet and The Interpreter deal with weighty matters, they sometimes stop to look at immediate domestic arrangements, as when we hear about the poet’s neighbours Lydia and Vladimir, intent on making an icosahedral dome, resembling a cross between Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and a wool-covered Mongolian yurt. More often, however, there are conversations on primal fire and ice and the interconnectedness of nature. Of course this has a strongly ecological theme as The Interpreter frequently produces lists of animals that have recently become extinct and of glaciers that are melting away. Entering the forest and reading the behaviour of animals and plants naturally leads to daunting thoughts on climate change.

And where, in all this benign commentary, do I differ from the poet’s worldview? It is in her frequent references to the modish subject of what the blurb  calls “gender fluidity”. Scattered through the text you will find The Interpreter lecturing on frogs and mites and insects that are either hermaphroditic or can change from one sex to another in the natural course of their lives (see, for example, pages 21, 36, 49, 60, 69, 75, 80 and 87). I do, of course, find this very interesting as all biology and zoology are. But I do not think the sexual nature and habits of less-evolved creatures convey any message relevant to human behaviour, such as is implied in this text. In the natural course of things, more-evolved creatures, including all mammals and us, do not change sex. Further, if we are to see less-evolved creatures as the paradigm for human behaviour, then why be choosy? Let us imitate the black widow spider, and eat our mates for protein, or follow the cannibalistic tuatara and eat our young. These are ridiculous suggestion of course, but then so are all exercises in anthropomorphism.

            Enough of this objection.

            Often what I find most endearing in Reading the Signs are jottings which are based on physical observation, as in: “Bellbirds call from the trees above me. A fantail pops over to say hello. I wonder if it’s hoping for a moa and gets me instead., or maybe they hung around moa to eat some tasty insect that lived in moa fathers, like oxpeckers on giraffes.”( page 41)

            I endorse Janis Freegard’s comment on freedom [reproduced as punctuated in the text]: “the wild the glorious the free you have forgotten what freedom is it does not mean doing as you please with no regard for others it does mean doing more of what you want but everything in harmony as far as possible if I had more faith in human nature I might be an anarchist.” (page 59)

And, if only because as a child I hated those fairground open-mouthed clown things,  I like this statement from a prose-poem called “Clockwork”: “I’ve always liked fairs, says the Interpreter mildly. Except for those open-mouthed clowns whose heads move perpetually back and forth. I’d like to smash the mechanisms that have trapped them in the one repeated movement and set them all free. It’s the same with those wretched Santas in shop windows or the endlessly waving Chinese restaurant cats.” (page 84)

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I understand that in maritime talk, “sets” refers to currents, and such sets certainly play a role in Victor Billot’s collection The Sets. But there are currents other than the literal ones running through this collection – currents of fashion, currents of change in society and currents of passing time, all of which get a hearing. The collection’s Prologue “The Sets” presents the sea as daunting and as the centre of Billot’s own personal mythology, the place to which he returns for many of his most significant images. This opening poem places human beings in the context of nature that is wild, fearsome but oddly beautiful.

Unlike many collections of poetry, the four parts into which The Sets is divided do actually mean something, for each part plays in a different key.

The 22 poems of Part One are in the key of melancholy and loss. Poems consider the cold distance of the stars and the extinction of dinosaurs. The care of children is clearly a worry and a burden. In the poem “The Boy” are the lines “My heart is scratched by love’s sharp claw / as I watch quietly from the shadowed door.”). The poem “602” implies the poet’s major alienation from city life; and a clutch of poems (“Facebook Sends a Memory”, “Collection” and “Caput Mortuum”) suggest the disintegration of a domestic arrangement, as does the even fiercer “On the Run”. All of this indicates somebody ill at ease in the world and wary of relationships.  When we come to “Litany” we find an expression of self-hatred when the poet (or at least the persona he is adopting) looks in a mirror and curses himself… or is this an exercise in the grotesque, a deliberate attempt to be shocking? Put simply, there is an awful lot of self-laceration in these poems. In “Straight and Clear”, which begins by remembering early, innocent love, we are told “Love became a rusted claw to snare. / In unlife we snarl, tear and bite / on a road that once ran straight and clear”. Even a poem like “In the World”, which seems to be celebrating carnal love, ends with “gentle pain”.

            The 17 poems that comprise Part Two are more in the nature of protest and satire, taking many swings at neo-liberal NZ as it now is, and sometimes adopting an apocalyptic tone, especially when Billot confronts climate change. The long blank-verse poem “How Good is This?”, for example, which apparently has an Aussie setting, is a vision of climate-change-end-of-world as seen by a complacent narrator. Brisker is “Phoning it in”, a satirical swipe at a crass cartoon, with racist overtones, that appeared in a Dunedin newspaper. Another longer poem is the series of surrealistic couplets called “The National Conversation” which knocks at modish fragments of neo-liberal speak and technospeak. When Billot presents one of his “list” poems ,“Alternative Book Titles For an Imaginary Airport Bookstore”, I admit I sniggered happily along with such imaginary titles as Rich Wankers Posing on Third-World Mountainsides and Authentic Insincerity. Billot is not the only satirical poet in New Zealand whose diatribes can sometimes curdle into incoherence as he plays with so many concepts that they do not focus on any particular target. It is as if his exuberance in creating images leads him off theme. As I noted when, in  2017 I reviewed on this blog Billot’s Ambient Terror I made it clear that, while I enjoyed his populist and politically charged raves, I felt they would have been more effective in life performance than they were on the printed page. Mercifully, as he shows in The Sets, Billot can also write carefully structured, and deeply ironic, satires like “The Prince of Darkness Attends a Work and Income Interview”.

Again, there is a change of tone in the 19 poems of Part Three. Much of it calls on nostalgia. “Esplanade 1979” recalls the seven-year-old Victor Billot’s encounter with the seashore and after this come pastoral poems like “Living in the Maniototo” and “Selene” which, despite some harsh things, are almost lyrical childhood memories… but in due course these poems give way to more eco-conscious laments for the depredation of the landscape such as “Central Redux”; and “Great South Desert” is another post-apocalyptic vision of ecological destruction.

The five poems of Part Four return to imagery of the sea, now in most savage form, with a poem about a Vietrnamese man swept overboard from a fishing rust-bucket and drowning; and another apocatlyptic vision of cephalopods prolferating in warming oceans and taking us over.

How do I sum up the work of this poet? Billot sometimes stumbles over an erudite – or strained - vocabulary. His satires can become raves. There is much anger and alienation in his work, sometimes almost self-loathing. But the repeated image of the sea does provide a convincing background to his world view – a sort of wild music against which human endeavour is judged. At his best (as in his opening “Prologue”) he is masterly and The Sets is one worth re-reading. 

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            Let me begin with the bleeding obvious, which is always the essential truth about anything. Kevin Ireland’s Shape of the Heart is an old man’s book. This is not stated with any derogatory intent. It is simply stated as a fact. Kevin Ireland is in his 87th year and Shape of the Heart is his 46th collection of poetry. Fittingly, he dedicates it to other octogenarians who are his surviving contemporaries among New Zealand poets and novelists (Adcock, O’Sullivan, Gee, Bland, Stead). He also dedicates specific poems to some of them. All 56 poems are in clear traditional stanza form and very occasionally (oh the heresy of it!) Ireland even uses rhyme.

More than once, Ireland suggests that this will be his very last book. In the opening poem “Tidying up last items” he declares: “The page you are now casting / an eye over is number one of the very / last items of evidence I can be bothered / to offer on the many matters before us…” Later he begins the poem “The cost of calamity” thus: “At some time or other it crosses / the minds of poets I’ve spoken to, / usually over a drink and late at night, / that possibly the time has come / for them to put a stopper on it all.”

None of this means that Ireland’s powers of observation are fading. In the poem “Mr Forgetful Recollects” he makes a sturdy defence of the minds of the aged: “Failing memory comes in for too much blame / as you pass the limits of the average lifespan - / and, by the way, it’s nowhere similar to going mad / for that’s an aberration in the patterns of the mind. / What happens is your head gets overburdened - / there’s no more room for storage and retrieval.”

What you get in this collection is the same sharp, bloke-ish, ironical, no-nonsense voice that we have heard in so many of Ireland’s earlier tomes – it’s just that the topic is more insistently on old age.

So on come well-crafted poems in which he gives his best wishes to absent friends (some dead); visits a familiar town in the deep Southland; lunches with an old friend; enjoys sleeping in without guilt; puts up with bad weather by grinning along with the weather gods (“A civilised response” – one of his best poems); looks at old photographs and finds it hard to recognise himself; and enjoys the consolations of drinking red wine.

Of course there are intimations of the chimes at midnight. “Something Beyond All Grasp”, maybe the saddest poem in the book, suggests a loss of relish for life. Poems record problems with heart and feet and the annoying trauma of having a fall. There is a rueful recognition that there is no such thing as Utopia in the poem “Something went wrong”, which seems a firm farewell to naïve youthful idealism; and the the physical degeneration in old age  is charted without sentiment in “The True Facts of Age”.

There is an interesting string of imagery in Ireland’s late poetry. There is much consciousness of foul weather but there are also many poems about sunrises. In Ireland’s aged vision, however, optimistic sunrises tend to be blotted out by unwanted clouds. The reaper advances.


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