Monday, August 2, 2021

Something New

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

“BRASS BAND TO FOLLOW” by Bryan Walpert (Otago University Press, $NZ27:30); “THE LITTLE ACHE – A German Notebook”  by Ian Wedde (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30); “SEA-LIGHT” by Dinah Hawken (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ25)


I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”. Tom Eliot’s lament is not quite the meaning of American-born New Zealand poet Bryan Walpert’s latest collection Brass Band to Follow, but it does sound a similar note. Walpert is now in his early ‘50s and Brass Band to Follow deftly and relentlessly pursues the theme of what it is to be middle-aged, with its regrets and awareness of lost moments. The title poem (the very last in the book) “Brass Band to Follow” is ostensibly a precise and accurate description of a Santa parade,  but it ends with the desire “for all that has been forecast to be fulfilled” - that awful middle-aged ache when all that was promised in life has not yet happened.

Similar melancholy haunts the opening poem of this collection “Begin with” in which a married man, with children, hears the sound of mundane domesticity, while looking at the (unobtainable) moon, implicitly realising that by middle age his youthful ambitions are now unobtainable. Thus too “Prompted”, an autumn poem (the season when vigour is lost and things are dying) and “Relativities”, which focuses on the loss of memory that comes with age and sports such lines as : “This is not going well at all. / The speed of light, where you put the phone, / the lyrics of a song you can nearly recall: / these are things you know that you’ve known. / the long-dead stars, the setting sun.” “Transporting”, using the imagery of physics, conveys the poet’s sudden awareness that he and his wife are no longer the people they once were and  “Orb to be Named Later” considers lost opportunities when a youthful encounter “still… bounces in the rear-view… it hovers like a bad idea, / like what you once said you thought / I was going to ask and nearly did…”

Thus in the first of this collection’s three sections “Prompted”. The second section is called (referencing Ben Jonson) “Only Thine Eyes”. Here Walpert, while covering similar thematic ground, essays a little literary pastiche. The sequence called “Micrographia” draws on the formal language of the 17th century scientist Robert Hooke, who was one of the first to conduct research using a microscope. Walpert mimicks at least some 17th century argot, but uses it to his own colloquial purposes. Microsopically-seen phenomena in nature become imagery commenting on human interactions – in this case between a man and a woman in everyday things like having a shave or reading a book in bed. And here, too, there is the sense of time’s winged chariot stealing the years. Similarly the sequence “Experiments Touching Cold” draws on the formal language of the 17th century scientist Robert Boyle and uses early scientific observations on the effects of coldness to talk about current interpersonal realities. In both sequences it is interesting how often the word “bodies” turns up – bodies being, to the scientist, any physical entities that react in phyical and chemical ways; but being to the poet human bodies. The very fact that both sequences hark back centuries implicitly emphasises the idea of time lost.

The third and final section “Brass Band to Follow” returns to the more obviously personal tone that opens this collection. Two poems, “1974” and “Infinities”, again deal with the pull and waste of time by setting the poet’s own experience next to the experience of his young son, asserting that nothing is infinite and therefore nothing lasts forever, “Editing” speaks of life in terms of the editing of films, with only some things remembered and others reshaped or discarded. In “Snapshot”, time is made up of fleeting moments only. Life becomes ephemeral. Where are the big prizes we were promised?

So far, my clumsy synopsis of a collection of poetry name-checks only about half the poems Walpert includes, and I have dealt with his essential ideas in a fairly un-nuanced way. Brass Band to Follow is a more subtle piece of work than I may seem to imply. Even so, I have suggested accurately what ideas interest Walpert. However, at this point, I take on board David Eggleton’s admonition that a poem should not mean but should be.

So what is the quality of Walpert’s verse? What is his style?

Often he is ironic, sometimes writing in the second person, but more often writing in the first person. He identifies with his persona. But there is an odd tentativeness in much of his self-expression.  Often his ideas are shaped in the form of questions. He often writes in dense and long, thin soliloquies but less often in more terse style. Occasionally he adopts more traditional form, like the almost-triolet that is “Migration”. Another quality is Walpert’s self-referential style, in that he often comments in the first person not only about himself but upon the poem and how he is writing it. Epitome of this tendency is the poem “Drink to me only with thine eyes” where he tells us that sometimes he’s unsure of the quality of poetry he is writing. And of course, he is not as solemn in tone as all this might suggest. For light, almost jocular, irony, check out the poem “Laundry”. In short, he’s a poet who knows the ropes. 

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Now aged 75, Ian Wedde is a well-established and much-reviewed New Zealand art-critic, novelist and poet. (Three times on this blog I’ve reviewed his work -  the novels The Catastrophe and Trifecta and the poetry collection The Lifeguard). As Wedde tells us in a preface, he wrote The Little Ache, subtitled “A German Notebook”, seven years ago in 2013-14 when, thanks to a Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency,  he was in north Germany researching a novel and seeking places related to his German ancestors. When I see the term “notebook” inserted into the title of a collection of poetry, I think I know what I’m in for – a discursive series of poems tracing various events and visits to places that have had some powerful emotional impact on the poet. I think of things like Arthur Hugh Clough’s witty and epistolary Amours de Voyage or of Louis MacNeice’s melancholy Autumn Journal. But Wedde isn’t into quite the same territory. True, The Little Ache is discursive, is based on a journey, and does take us to various places, landscapes and cityscapes. But it is more like an investigation of the past rather than an account of any major emotional upset in the poet’s life. He is exploring and broadening his experience, but not changing his essential outlook on life. Much of The Little Ache reads like relatable anecdote and much has strong and dark historical resonance.

To give you the general flavour of the text, let me tell you what I encountered in the first 40 pages of this 130 page collection:

Wedde writes of hunting for ancestors (“the ancestral dissatisfactions to which I owe my existence” as he puts it in Poem 16) and finding one who was related to the sentimental nineteenth century poet Klaus Groth, one of whose poems was set to music by Brahms. He writes of finding places where his German great-grandmother lived and of the runaway sailor she married and of how they came to New Zealand. He vists a prison where there now is a memorial to an anti-Nazi writer who was murdered by the SS. He also writes of less fraught things like coming through customs and being able to answer a customs officer’s German wisecrack with a German wisecrack of his own and of, more embarrasingly, asking directions to a toy-shop but inadvertently using a German word which suggested he was looking for a rent-boy. He tries, unsuccessfully, to eavesdrop on a conversation somebody was having with Angela Merkel at a restaurant table next to his. He watches the weather change and compares a pigeon trying to woo another pigeon with Goethe’s soppy Werther pointlessly pining for Charlotte. (These two pigeons become a sort of Leitmotiv in some poems that follow.) And, sensitive to the seasons, he tries to get used to Berlin, its architecture and its climate, yet sometimes still finds it alien.

It would be tiresome if I were to thus synopsise the other three-quarters of this extensive text, but a few observations will show the general preoccupations Wedde has. Of present-day Berlin, he notes both its pleasures and its tattiness, especially when he looks as what was once the separate, walled-off East Berlin. He touches fleetingly on tensions concerning immigration. In one section he notes the snobbery speakers of standard German express towards those who speak regional German dialects.

More than anything, though, he is concerned with Germany’s historical past and its ongoing effects. One of his ancestors, Johannes Wedde, was a radical 19th century Sozialdemokrat who corresponded with Engels and wrote a panegyric on the Paris Commune of 1871. Ian Wedde gets deeply immersed in this and other left-wing history. He refers repeatedly to his great-grandmother who left behind 19th century German radicalism and settled in Wellington. More than once he wonders wistfully how she weathered the cold of Wellington’s Bute Street and how colonial New Zealamd would have seemed to her after revolutionary Germany. The weight of the past dominates The Little Ache. Two images of this burden stand out. In poem 56 there is “the crazy guy in a yellow visibility jerkin / who read aloud from his manuscript novel / hundreds of pages / on which he’d typed / ‘It’s over… it’s never over’ over and over”. The past is never over.  Then there is poem 66 which refers to “the mad ontological ranting of what’s always coming to an end but never does”. Of course the heavy weight of Germany’s past hits Wedde as he and his family explore Berlin and its environs in three consecutive poems. In Poem 58, the family walk around the Wannsee where the Nazi “Final Solution” was planned. In Poem 59 they visit the Stasi Museum, remembering the Communist secret-police of old East Germany. In Poem 60 a trip to Potsdam brings them to the palace of Frederick the Great who sought the “Germanisation” of Poland, a project which Hitler admired.

It is interesting that many of the later poems have an autumn setting which, with its sanglots longs des violons, always suggests a certain melancholy and perhaps in this case a sorrow for Germany’s depressing history. But in the last poem (Poem 76), Wedde flies back to an Auckland spring, and then attempts to make some sort physical memorial, and amends, to the first of his German ancestors who settled in New Zealand.

One obvious point about The Little Ache is that it is very readable and leavened by Wedde’s small domestic asides as he goes about his explorations. But I can’t help citing a comment (in Poem 25) by a critic of Wedde’s ancestor’s poems. The critic said that they “didn’t sink in with the wider public on account of the scholarly ballast with which they were packed.O me miserum, but this is how I felt about some of The Little Ache’s more obscure historical allusions. Often one must refer to the end-notes to understand the German phrases and longer quotations that pepper this text. Perhaps it could be most appreciated if the reader knew German. 

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Sea-light is Dinah Hawken’s ninth published collection of poetry. I admit that only once before on this blog have I reviewed the Paekakariki-based poet’s work, namely Oceanand Stone which appeared in 2015. In that collection her ecological concerns were a major theme as well as her rather stoical attitude towards nature and especially towards the sea.

The same themes are the backbone of Sea-light.

Hawken sometimes works on detailed observations of human behaviour. In “The girl on the train” she observes intently a young woman putting on makeup, and tries to decide if the young woman is unselfconscious or is giving a performance with the rest of the passengers in the train as audience. “Body Talk” deals with old age as Hawken (in her 70s) compares herself, now that she is an old woman who has had a masectomy, with the almost breast-less teenage girl that she once was. In terms of old age, this poem could be paired with “A small woman returning in a blue urn”, a sort of elegy for her deceased sister, who is also referenced in two other poems.

Most often, however, Hawken observes the big forces of nature, especially the sea. There are five poems called “The Sea” and another called “Today the Sea”. The sea is at once “an expert in erosion” but also “it is the sea we are filling up with acid”. All of her sea poems are brief and aphoristic. Hawken clearly likes the sea in its quieter moods, as in “I love you like this, Pacific, when you come bearing your name.” There are no decriptions of storms here.

“Leaving Hauparu Bay” has her leaving behind the noise of traffic for quiet reflectiveness near a body of water, while simple rejoicing in nature is expressed in “Growth”, wherein a man comes to appreciate the structure and beauty of pohutukawa trees. But “Growth” has a weak hortatory ending where we are, in effect,  incited to join the conservationist movement. It ends “He joined the resistance, the one / under the country repairing the damage.” Undertones of ecological concern are also found in “Faith” which presents an apocalyptic vision of a depleted Earth., and “Doing the numbers” which ticks off ironically those who cause natural systems to die.

Only a very few of Hawken’s poems are cryptic or symbolic, such as “Snow”. 

Hawken writes mainly short and lean poems, and they are easily accessible.

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