We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SPARKS AMONG THE STUBBLE” by John Weir (Cold Hub Press, $NZ28); “SLIPS – Cricket Poems” by Mark Pirie (HeadworX, $NZ30 paperback; $NZ45 hardback); “SHELTER” by Kirsten Le Harivel (Cuba Press, $NZ25)
John Weir, priest and poet, published four collections of poetry between 1963 and 1983, but then his interests turned elsewhere. He has spent the last two decades editing the Complete Prose, Letters and Complete Poetry of James K. Baxter, his friend in earlier years. Sparks Among the Stubble is his first collection of poetry in nearly forty years. Let me say at once that I am very at home with it. Weir is a modernist who writes in a style that is instantly recognisable. His poems sit on the page in neatly-organised stanzas, his concerns are with literature… and eternity, and he is very accessible. No writing-school gimmickry here, thank you. And I settle in and read with both attention and great pleasure.
The title of this collection is found in the dedicatory quotation from the Book of Wisdom which tells us that when the Last Trump sounds, some will “run to and fro like sparks among the stubble”. We are tested and we die, some of us spectacularly, before eternity takes us. These themes hang over much of this collection.
Sparks Among the Stubble is arranged in four sections, which are not arbitrary but which strike four distinct notes
The first tranche is very much preoccupied with imagery of gardens – where things grow – and simultaneously with images of the weight of age. In both “The Farm” and “Spring Day” there is a vivid but also wistful and slightly bittersweet recall of childhood. In “The Trench”, a wartime memory from schooldays conjures up a trench which grows over – in death we are in life. There are poems about the sea seen at twilight (the long day’s dying); and an earnest sequence called “In the Courtyard” which is not just about the perceived moment but which becomes a detailed reflection on ageing, lost dreams of youth, and (even in advanced age) the uncertainty of what’s to be. “I do not mean fate… that word which never had a meaning, / but the endless refining process / which fashions the true self out of what / we imagine we would rather be.” This sequence also remembers lost paths of youth when “smiling friends… urged us with deadly eloquence / to strive for what we never wanted.” The weight of age bears in on “A Visit to Cousin Jane”, which is almost a period piece about visiting an elderly cousin, having tea and sandwiches and remembering the dead. It is also felt in “The Rite of Spring”, an ironic survey of the things, accumulated over the years, which come to clutter a house. Poems like these are weighty and detailed. In contrast, there is the ironic vignette “The Patriots”, on American over- enthusiasm, a poem which leads into other reflections on a visit to the USA.
The second tranche gathers together poems with a broader social perspective – they are nearly all written in the first person, “I” or the collective “we” which implicates all of us in history, dreams and personal mythology resonating over the years. Consider the sense of a whole family ageing and dying and the persistence of one odd anecdote (“One of the Family”) or a moment of quiet personal reflection (“The White Yacht”) or what is clearly a nightmare (“The Dream”). Then come the more public ones – the ones about history, like “The Negotiations”, where bureaucrats and statespeople huddle over plans that will probably accomplish no good; or “The Letter”, a vignette of an ancien regime cracking up; or “The Ambassadors”, an account of ambassadors from the colonial era who try to maintain an opulent European way of life in the midst of what they clearly regard as uncouth and barbarous countries. Perhaps the most wrenching poem for a priest to write would be “The Immigrants”, which considers both the way a new country gradually changes them, and the way, for good or ill, they have changed the country where “we taught them about the real God / who was a lot like us / but loved them just the same,” but who later have second thoughts about their missionary endeavour as they themselves are absorbed into the country and its culture.
The third tranche is, dare I say, where I am most at home – a collection of poems making critical or ironic or (less often) celebratory comments on well-known writers. Charlotte Bronte faces death and the loss of her siblings. John Ruskin is a riot of suppressed impulses. Ezra Pound and D.H.Lawrence are each summed up in a dismissive sonnet. Evelyn Waugh is a facetious young man filling his diary with airy gossip. Sinclair Lewis was an embittered literary bully. Edith Sitwell prepared for her death in a seemly and ceremonious way. Ernest Hemingway was a desperate and self-destructive man, playing a charade of manliness. Robert Lowell was an even more self-destructive (and mentally unbalanced) man. Thom Gunn’s (homoerotic) verse about bikies got damped down to sludge when California caught him. (Dear me, John Weir, you’re showing your age. Who nowadays has even heard of Thom Gunn?) No – I’ve been far more glib in this summary than John Weir is, but essentially these are his verdicts. I remember years ago having a bald, whiney-voiced tutor who hated W.H.Auden and made chastising comments about the way that poet filled in the moments when he lacked inspiration by writing sonnets about literary figures – Rimbaud, Edward Lear etc. This, apparently, was a very naughty thing for him to do. But I disagree. Criticism-as-biographic-poetry is a well-established genre. John Weir’s gallery of literati is a stimulating read, a charivari of biographical and literary criticism. I loved it. And I have to admit that in my own poetic practice I’ve written more than a few such literary side-bites.
The fourth and final tranche reverts to the personal. Much about death and memory. The death of an elderly friend (“At the Hospital”); memories that stretch back to childhood (“Grandmother”, “A Place by the Sea”) ; visiting a grave (“Too Late”); the death of an old man who had survived the First World War (“In Memory of Alfred Jenkin”); The death of a woman who collected stuffed toys (“The Toys”) and a more public poem on the glitterati funeral of Yves Saint Laurent
The whole collection closes with an oddly tender poem dedicated to the inspired and demented Antonin Artaud. It reminds us that “In due time everything will become something else / because things are born not to be but to become.” A fitting envoi. See this as the launch pad to eternity if you wish.
John Weir writes with the authority of experience and the maturity of age. This is a solid and fruitful collection.
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Let me be quite honest about this. Sometimes I read collections of poetry for their sheer eccentricity, and sometimes I read collections of poetry that are aimed at a very specialised audience. Mark Pirie’s Slips – Cricket Poems meets both these criteria. It is aimed at lovers of the game of cricket – and I immediately have to admit that I am not one such. I think I saw part of a cricket match when I was at school. I can’t remember ever seeing the game again, apart from brief, unavoidable clips shown on the evening news. For the last 13 years, Mark Pirie has (as well as being a prolific publisher) contributed poems about cricket to a cricketing magazine, edited an anthology of cricket poems, and followed matches ardently. He is apparently besotted with the game. He would have to be, to produce the 130 pages of cricket that make up Slips.
Knowing virtually nothing about the game and its history, I enter this territory cautiously. Will I miss the arcane details of the game known only to cricketers? Will I fail to get the jokes about certain cricketers of whom I have never heard? Yes I will. But I soon find out that I’m not as ignorant as all that. Even I understand the technicalities outlined in the poem “Eleven Ways of Being Dismissed”. And though I have to take on trust poems about cricketing stars like Ben Hollioake, Michael Clarke, Martin Guptill and others, I do know who Don Bradman, Freddie Trueman and Richard Hadlee were and – ahem – eons ago I did teach the late Martin Crowe at secondary school and occasionally saw what the press had to say about him. These players all feature in Slips – Cricket Poems. Mark Pirie is courteous and precise enough to offer footnotes to some poems, telling us which test-match and which teams he is referring to.
Let’s admit that some things in this collection would have been topical once to followers of cricket, but are now dated. One example – Pirie’s poem that comes nearest to a journalistic report, on how an international team fared, is “To McCullum’s Thirteen” which also (probably intentionally) reads like cheerful doggerel. At his best, though, Pirie can weave cricket into general concerns of human life. Where failure and disappointment are concerned, he brings into the poem “The Pavilion” the memorable lines “even the best of us / spends their time stuck in the pavilion”. Sometimes, too, cricket is simply the background for other reflections. “At Brown’s Bay” is a poem of remembered love, where cricket is mentioned only because the lovers walk past cricket pitches. “A Boy’s Song” uses cricket to echo (or parody) a poem by Ruth Dallas. Then there are wild flights of fantasy, such as “Space Cricket” (literally about extra-terrestrials joining in the game) and “Ice Cricket”, which sounds like a cricketer’s nightmare.
Pirie’s wittiest poem, “Islands of Cricket”, considers how cricket caught on with Indians in India in colonial times, but did not catch on with Maori in New Zealand. He manages to turn this into a cunning comment on colonialism as he does in the poem that immediately follows it, “The Reverse of Imperialism”. The final poem in the collection, “Cricket and Writing”, displays the same sort of wit.
There are a number of poems that have a nostalgic tone, such as the elegiac “Uncle Warwick” about an uncle who encouraged his interest in the game. “The Streaming Room” is nice mixture of nostalgia and modernity as he considers how scorecards used to be tabulated and how the new world of electronics does it. One poem now is now unintentionally ironic – indeed horribly ironic. This is “Cricket in Afghanistan”, which celebrates seeing cricket being played by Afghan children now the Taliban have gone.
As you can now see, there are many things in Slips – Cricket Poems that will resonate with non-cricketers such as I. But the core of it is detailed accounts of plays, their scores and the game itself. It is really for the specialist reader.
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From two seasoned campaigners to a newcomer. Shelter is the debut collection of Kirsten Le Harivel, Glaswegian-born and now, says the blurb, living on the Kapiti Coast (Gad! It seems that half our more offbeat poets live on the Kapiti Coast.) The 66 poems that make up this collection come in various forms – prose poems, poems short enough to be aphorisms, poems written in more traditional stanzaic forms. Very few stray beyond the single page. Kirsten Le Harivel likes to make it snappy, likes to stick to the point, likes to deal with the immediate moment, maybe even the epiphany.
Le Harivel has some major preoccupations which are the dominant themes of the collection. One is travel to foreign countries, seen in the poem “Volcanoes have the shortest names” which compares Scottish, Japanese and New Zealand volcanoes; or the anecdote that is “Digha, Bay of Bengal”; and towards the end of the collection a number of prose poems that also recall India.
Another theme is the condition of being a migrant, as in the prose poem “From One Migrant to Another”; or “When we came here”, which speaks of the quietness experienced in a New Zealand domicile in contrast with the constant noise of relatives back in Scotland. “From Loch Fyne with love” turns on a witty conceit of a Scottish fish-monger sending his wares to New Zealand and “Watermarks” is basically about years of adjusting to this country.
As one might expect, there are poems dealing with the perceived lot of women. “Submission” is a prose poem suggesting the inferior role women sometimes have to assume before men, while “Feminista” recalls a forceful woman of many skills who could act as a barista. Of course considering the sexes can also involve the subject of sex. “The bedroom” is written with a modishly assumed world-weariness as a list of bedroom behaviours including the words “fuck” and “fucking” more than any other text I’ve seen. (Sorry, luv, but the shock value of this has long since dissipated and it’s now a little passe ). The nearest Le Harivel comes to love poems are “If I could make a list” and “Pillow talk”, both of which are presented ironically, the standard stratagem of young people who cannot frankly admit their love.
It is understandable that there is at least some youthful angst in this collection, notably in “Butterflies”, a very sad first-person fantasia of self-denigration containing lines such as “I am a cement frog sculpture, / my legs dangle into this abyss, / a pond, full of water and plastic fish” and “I am a damaged buoy, floating in a turgid sea”. It is understandable, too, that there are some moments of social activism, as in “Kerikeri waterfall” which chastises locals for not knowing a Maori name.
Le Harivel generally writes with great clarity, whatever her guiding ideas might me. Only one poem is opaque and difficult to decode. This is “National identity project”, wherein, through four stanzas, she brings together various scientific concepts, extended imagery which apparently is designed to classify a certain sort of national chauvinism… or is it? An end-note says it was inspired by looking up the various definitions of “development” in the OED. Such concepts are usually a puzzle for the reader. This one certainly is. As for the totally unpunctuated poems, sans capital letters etc, “It runs through trees” and “You are an elegant thing” I shall pass them over as a current format.
I save the best for last. Le Harival excels in poems of childhood recall. Her most exuberant and relatable poem is “A Weegie lass”, a long-ish discursive account of being a young school-going, street-exploring, chips-eating Glaswegian girl. It is mainly a poem of raw remembrance and some joy, and I hope someday somebody has the wit to include it in an anthology. “After-school mothers” also remembers Glaswegian days. Her prose poem “The houses on our street are stuck together” is a rather more dispiriting account of re-visiting Glasgow as an adult. Many other poems turn on a Scottish childhood – and “Kilchattan Bay” is a more carefree adult return to Scotland.
As you might infer from the above, I am of two minds about this collection. While some poems work excellently, others seem more pedestrian or driven by current fashions in style. Even so, this is a very impressive debut and is, I hope, the beginning of a formidable career in poetry.