We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“GHOSTS” by Siobhan Harvey (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “THE WILDER YEARS – Selected Poems” by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ40); “BURST KISSES ON THE ACTUAL WINDS” by Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Publishing, $NZ30)
I rarely comment on the covers of books; but the cover photograph (by Liz March) of Siobhan Harvey’s Ghosts is so striking, and so faithfully conveys the mood and feeling of the text(-s), that it deserves a mention.
In subdued lighting and black-and-white, it shows a fireplace and a large mirror, both of a design from many decades ago, probably mid- or early-20th century. And to one side of this composition, head bowed, eyes down, is the poet. But she is dressed like a child in a very short shift and carrying a very small case. A double exposure makes her transparent and insubstantial. Is she a ghost? Is she, with regret, leaving behind the solid house of her childhood? Has she been cast out of it? Or is the ghostly image suggesting the persistence of childhood in the adult?
From this image, we could make up many scenarios, but a mood is conveyed. Sorrow. The weight of the past. The things that stick in our memory and shape us, whether we like them or not… My literary mind immediately summons up Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, with its depiction of an unhappy family inheriting the weight of sins bequeathed them by their elders. These are the ghosts that really haunt us, and these are the stuff of this collection.
Ghosts is a symphony in four movements, with prologue and epilogue bracketing four distinct sections.
Harvey’s Prologue, “Night, a Place of Regeneration”, might at first lull readers into thinking it is an idyll of night and nature… but it segues seamlessly into comment on what is lost as generations come and go, what homely and familial values disappear, and how. When houses cease to exist, communities cease to exist. This is a major theme in what follows.
The First section, All the Buildings that Never Were begins, in the poem “Ghosts” by defining what “ghosts” means in this text: “still our ghosts / exist for what is and what remains, their disembodied / faces watching over us from pictures of prize-giving, / childhoods gone and funerals as we drift through / our thin lives, as if they’re illusory, as if they’re real.” Ghosts are both what we remember and what we misremember. Is this collection therefore going to move into studied wistfulness? No. Bit by bit poems in this first section become laments for loss of family homes in New Zealand. Of course there is a protest element in this, including verbal castigation of the prime minister who started selling off state houses, but the protest is in elegies for houses that have been demolished, tenants who have been uprooted, and property developers giving priority to profit rather than community. This is not sloganeering, which is never Harvey’s style, but analysis worked through piquant imagery.
The Second section, Ghost Stories, takes a more cosmopolitan view. In “The Evicted”, Maori and Pasifika communities are moved on in the different dwellings they have had, uprooted from traditional lives but also, the poem suggests, uprooted from suburbs that have gentrified. (At least this is what I infer, but I may be wrong. I think of Ponsonby.) Other poems in this section reflect on Manus Island refugees, on thousands of graves in Singapore that have been removed for development, on closed railway stations in old East Berlin, gradually suggesting a universal malaise – the burial of the past. Then, shockingly, the poem “My Ghosts Rise Up in Lockdown” puts us in the present, “ghosts” becoming memories we have to conjure up of other places when we are forced to stay in one place.
The Third section, My Invisible Remains, brings us into very confessional poetry, mainly in the first person and in many ways revisiting more forcefully the themes Harvey raised in her 2011 collection Lost Relatives. It begins with a six-part sequence “Building Memories”, which replays the poet’s sad – sometimes traumatic - memories of family relationships in her English childhood, physical abuse and her rejection by her parents, all of which left lasting images. This sequence most closely relates to the collection’s cover image. A separate poem, “My Mother is a Ghost Living in My Mind” speaks of “her silence and haunting / judgement born by me as eternal cut.” Here, as in other sections of this collection, there are suggestions that memories of the past can be more worrying when one is (as Harvey is) an immigrant from far away. “Ulysses Syndrome” suggests that the “ghost” lives of immigrants and refugees are really symptoms of dislocation; and in “Someone Other Than Myself” the poet suggests that she had another self in another country. It’s also fair to note some poems in this section hint that sometimes a past is well lost.
Yet there is some resolution in the Fourth and final section Safe Places for Ghosts. Poems here suggest in a more antiseptic, machine-controlled future, where the familiarities of older homes are no longer present. Only memories, dreams and “ghosts” will be what keep human beings truly human. Memory and “ghosts” are both a blessing and a curse; doing something to cement the continuity of human being; in a way, a sort of dark nostalgia. And perhaps in all this there is a desire for things to have been other than they were.
The Epilogue “Poem, a Place Where Regeneration is Complete” echoes and answers the Prologue with the suggestion that we resolve our past in art.
Appended to all the poetry, however, is an Afterword, the essay Living in the Haunted House of the Past in which Siobhan Harvey contrasts and compares the process of her house in New Zealand being renovated and made brighter with the grim English house she lived in as a child, where she was physically abused and rejected by very unhappy parents – a situation addressed less directly in the sequence “Building Memories”.
I have, in this review, fallen into my tiresome habit of giving you a bibliographic survey of the collection without analysing in detail any of the poems, and I have said woefully little about the poet’s style. I apologise. This is one of the most fully-felt and carefully-structured collections of poetry I have read this year. Its subject may be regretful, even melancholy, but it is good at both direct address and sustained imagery which implies much. It is also accessible, and sometimes even funny in its satire. It gave me the uplift of real poetry.
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There’s a problem which has vexed me more than once on this blog. It is how extremely difficult it is to survey the whole career of a distinguished and very capable poet in one brief review. I struck this problem when, for example, reviewing Fleur Adcock Collected Poems , Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011 and even when reviewing the selected poems misleadingly called Collected Poems of Alistair TeAriki Campbell . I shipwreck on the same rock as I set about assessing David Eggleton’s The Wilder Years – Selected Poems. And I fully understand Eggleton’s satiric ire at the glibness of book reviewers, vented in his poem “The Book Reviewer” (p.158).
The Wilder Years is a handsome be-ribboned hardback, admirably presented with wide and generous margins. It gathers together the poet’s own selection of his work from the nine collections he has had published between 1986 and 2018, with eight new poems added at the end. The title The Wilder Years at once suggests an older man (Eggleton is now in his 69th year) looking back from the vantage point of more-settled, less-wild years. “The Wilder Years” is also the title of a poem (found on p.269) from Eggleton’s 2018 collection Edgeland; a poem which is deeply satiric about (Pakeha) New Zealanders’ shaky sense of identity.
While volumes like this are produced only when a poet is both well-known and well-established, it is to Eggleton’s great credit that he has not used the occasion to write some sort of explanatory Foreword or Afterword, as other poets have been tempted to do in similar selections. The poems can (as they should) speak for themselves. I must admit that as a reader, I was late in discovering Eggleton’s poetry. Indeed, he was well into his prolific career before I read and reviewed any of his work, but I have had the pleasure of reviewing The Conch Trumpet (2015) and Edgeland (2018) on this blog.
It is important that the Auckland-born, now Dunedin-resident, poet is of mixed Tongan, Fijian and Pakeha heritage. A concern with the viewpoints of different cultures and ethnicities in New Zealand has consstently been one of his main themes.
And now, after all this throat-clearing, here are my brief and inadequate comments on what is selected from each of his collections, as read by me over a week.
In his first collection South Pacific Sunrise (1986), nearly all the poems are Auckland-based and and present themselves as celebrations of different ethnicities. “Wings Over Ponsonby” depicts a suburb in early stages of gentrification (would that he could see it now!). “Painting Mount Taranaki” is this first collection’s “epic” poem, long and and rattling with a profusion of diverse imagery.
In People of the Land (1988) satire is more to the fore, but there is also more formal structure and deployment of rhyme. The “Meditation on Colin McCahon” is a solemn, rhymed elegy, published the year after the painter’s death and one of Eggleton’s poems of undiluted seriousness.
Empty Orchestra (1995) yields, among much else, one of the best pieces of practical criticism in the form of a poem, “Death of the Author”, a cutting statement on literature as social game and on literary pretensions. As an Aucklander, this reviewer declares confidently that Eggleton’s “I Imagine Wellington as a Delicatessen” is very much the Aucklander’s view of Wellington – the capital city is a mixture of the chic and the quaint with a faintly musty odour. Moving further from Eggleton’s home base is “Waipounamu: The Lakes District” in which, judging only from these selected poems, Eggleton for the first time takes, without irony or condescension, a Pakeha view of history and culture.
It is notable that the selections from these first three collections are relatively few, whereas selections from the following collections are very generous, sometimes reproducing over half of the original volumes.
The poems of Rhyming Planet (2001) again show respect for traditional stanzaic forms, though free verse also persists. Given that Dunedin has becomes the poet’s chosen home, it is ironic that “If Buccleugh Street Could Talk” takes a chilly and somewhat negative view of the city. There is much disquiet in this collection. The form and vocabulary may be far from it, but the dyspeptic tone of “Poem for the Unknown Tourist” is like Baudelaire in his “Spleen” moods. It is in this collection that Eggleton becomes more international, with poems (usually rather scathing) based on visits to Australia, iconoclastic about Anzac Day etc. Yet “Republic of Fiji” is one of his best poems for conjuring up a particular milieu while giving it an historical and political context.
In Fast Talker (2006), one sometimes feels that Eggleton’s love of the land and of landscape strives to be purely celebratory, but he is pulled towards some strand of satire to balance his view and ward off the conventions of traditional pastoral poetry. This is certainly true of poems in this collection related to Auckland and its environs. The free-form poem “The Bush Paddock” has a go at Pakeha rural traditions, with each line ending “down the back of the bush paddock”. It is one of the many of Eggleton’s poems that would probably work best in live performance. In fact, to state the very obvious, the great majority of Eggleton's poetry is designed for the ear rather than the eye, bouncing along with enough alliteration and assonance to make Dylan Thomas envious. “Golden Boomerang” is condemnatory satire on Aussie habits and manners and “In the Godzone” has a similar tone as it launches into New Zealand politics and mores.
Time of the Icebergs (2010) has much more Dunedin and Otago imagery. “The Harbour” is almost pure celebration, and “Dada Dunedin” appears to shadow Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno with its anti-strophes. “Ode to the Beer Crate” is pure nostalgia for a time of practical carpentry and blokey blokes knocking it back, and “Spent Tube” (on smoking cigarettes) has a similar nostalgic tone – perhaps symptoms of an older man looking back
Quoting my own earlier review of The Conch Trumpet (2015) I noted that “Eggleton is working from the primeval, the landscape at first untouched, though seen in terms of Maori mythology, then touched by the colonial experience, then developing some sort of Pakeha culture and finally in collision and collusion with the greater world of modern global politics and media.” Much of this schema survives in the generous selection of 36 poems given in The Wilder Years. As for the selection from Edgeland (2018), it includes 41 of the original 61 poems found in that collection. Again, I lazily, I refer you to my review of Edgeland.
Finally, there are the the eight New Poems (2020), which are inevitably more topical. “Two Mosques, Christchurch” is a stately elegy, condemning the terrorist but giving the foreground to the dead and in the end sounding like liturgy. The tone of “The Burning Cathedral”, about the burning of Notre Dame, is hard to determine. Is it written in mockery or regret? “President Fillgrave” is direct satire on Donald Trump. And appropriately, The Wilder Years ends with the purely playful “The Letter Zed”.
In this ramble I have name-checked a small fraction of all the poems selected in The Wilder Years, and have doubtless distorted the main course of Eggleton’s poems over more than three decades. Sometimes I have been caught up in his wonderful profusion of imagery, scattering like spring rain. And sometimes I have thought this profusion shows a loss of control. In the blurb of The Wilder Years, Nick Ascroft is quoting as calling Eggleton’s poems “word-blasts”. This is both Eggleton’s glory and occasionally his weakness. I read his poetry out loud and then wish I could hear many of them performed live by the poet himself. That way, I think I would like them even more than I already do.
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And here is a study in contrast. Courtney Sina Meredith works in the form of concision rather than profusion. Her poems are short, lean and cut to the bone. Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind is not a “selection” of her published work, but it is clearly the work of a number of years. (It re-prints a few poems which appeared when she was “featured poet” in the March 2013 number of Poetry New Zealand, which I guest-edited.)
Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind begins with an introduction by the poet’s mother Kim Meredith, expressing first her bemusement then her pride in her poet daughter. As she is of Samoan, Mangaian (Cook Islands) and Irish descent, Courtney Sina Meredith has a strong interest in Pacific ethnicities and how they fare in New Zealand. In her poem “How about being a woman?”, she describes herself “a young brown queer single educated professional creative woman”, and that identity is essential to her work, although the “single” part might be redundant as she now has a partner and children. The title poem “Burnt-kisses-on-the-actual-wind” appears to express the need for caution she sometimes felt about openly expressing her sexual orientation; and “Aroha Mai” appears to be addressed to her partner.
The poet likes shape poems (“How about being a woman?” ), list poems (“Honolulu”), poems set out like official directions (“Magellanic Clouds”) and poems fragmented into short phrases (“Shower head / Drip drip drip”).
But more than these she likes confessional poems in the first person (“I”), or direct address in the second person (“you”). However, sometimes the “you” is a reference to herself, as if she is addressing part of herself to jog her memory. Thus it is in the poem “Remember when you were with a woman?”
Many things pass through these terse texts. Love and broken relationships are presented in the form of a cowboy movie (“Cowboy”). More poignantly, in “Love is a resurrection”, she visits Ponsonby and declares “my blood is in the soil / my elders have a pact with this land” as this was where her family and parents lived. There is a strong contrarian streak in “The internet told me to go for a run”, an assertion of self and of confidence, but then “November in New York” and “I was having a conversation with you” suggest unease with foreign cities. That everything cannot be resolved in words is confirmed by this collection’s longest poem “STOP SENDING POEMS”, which ends abruptly or rather which does not end at all.