We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HOUSE & CONTENTS” by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $NZ 29:99); “SUPER MODEL MINORITY” by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99); “FORMICA” by Maggie Rainey-Smith (The Cuba Press, $NZ 25)
Gregory O’Brien is both poet and visual artist, the two roles having equal importance in his work. Like his Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (reviewed on this blog in 2012), his new collection House & Contents is as much visual images as words. And like his Always Song in the Water (reviewed on this blog in 2019), which was his prose text accompanied by other artists’ images, House & Contents looks at landscape, urban dwellings and sometimes the sea with a strongly spiritual perspective. What we might consider inanimate things do live. The world O’Brien sees is always alive.
In some concluding notes to this new collection, O’Brien separates himself from purely topical or polemic statements, declaring that poetry “can’t simply reflect its times – it has to radiate on its own terms, within and beyond that darkness [of modern times]”. He also notes “I’ve used drawings or paintings to illuminate poetry. And I’ve used poetry to converse with, and maybe shed light upon, painted images. This book gathers together these two endeavours in a co-equal arrangement. While the words and paintings echo and overlap, and occasionally coincide, the paintings are not illustrations…” The artworks displayed in this new collection were produced between 2014 and 2020. They are in what has become O’Brien’s distinctive style, representative but not photographic, images painted with broad, dark outlines of shapes, enfolding bright colours with much use of burnt sienna. Landscapes and seascapes often involve mountains, sometimes including men and women (and horses); sometimes including text. In one case (“The Uses of Fondness”) the text almost dominates the image with brief anecdotes. Collectively, the images create a mood – in this world but not entirely of this world,
And what of the poetry? The title of the poem “House and Contents” is a phrase found in insurance policies, but references those uncertainties in life that make insurance necessary. It begins as a prose account of enduring an earthquake in Wellington, but in its gently ironic way, it comments on what we do and don’t value during such experiences. Continuations of this prose statement are scattered though the collection, time of day being duly noted in each case, and with aftershocks suggesting the unstable element in which we live. The scene of this fragmented statement shifts from Wellington to Christchurch to Chile and other earthquake-struck locations. O’Brien finds an odd music in earthquakes, where lower tremors produce sounds like “an acoustic effect. A variation upon J. S. Bach. A well-tempered something”. This device – a prose statement threaded through the text - is like the bass accompaniment to a song, an undercurrent of uneasiness even when O’Brien is rejoicing in the natural world.
There is an element of whimsy in some of O’Brien’s poems. I confess to getting lost in the short takes corralled together as “Sixteen Things”. They are mildly satirical, but it’s hard to see the referents of some of them. “Two burning cars one afternoon” seems a jocular expression of an odd mishap, but its last stanza suggests tragedy. Two poems about the Styx stream in Otago, which flows into the Taieri River, take the stream’s name literally and become a descent into the underworld. Sometimes O’Brien draws on family memories (an epitaph for his father and his beliefs; memories of being asthmatic in childhood; a visit to cousins in Cork in Ireland) and sometimes on travel (visits to Valparaiso; a hat store in Santiago) and in considering wild nature, he sometimes hits on an ecological theme (a reflection on nature and exotic plants in New Zealand called “The Spaniards of Italian Creek”; poems on Captain Cook and early scientific explorations).
And the poems in which O’Brien excels?
The collection’s opening poem “Mihi” begins with the lines “The birds and animals of our mother’s land greet / the birds and animals of your land” and continues in similar vein. It could be referring literally to the poet’s late mother but becomes a mother image of the land itself and how its realities are perceived differently by different generations.
“A genealogy” is a sequence of related poems which tells us “We are injured; we hurt / easily – our genes / decided that…” explaining how he became a poet, but also warns us that there are “the minutiae of us: / genes, cells, chromosomes, DNA / rattling like heirlooms on an unstable / mantelpiece”. He speculates on whether there is an order in the way we grow and develop as individuals or a species; or whether human development is random. Determinism or free will are balanced carefully here… with references to Irish relatives.
Then (O’Brien’s greatest work in this collection I think) there are poems that give personality to things. In “House” the house is seen as an extension of the human body – in a way anthropomorphised, but anchored in the reality that houses are, after all, created by us. Similarly a personality is granted to what is non-human in “Ode to the water molecule”. Best of all in this line is “Conversation with a mid-Canterbury braided river” – a tour de force and a very beautiful poem. The river’s personality is not human, but it reflects and in doing so it reflects us. It is a sustained piece of imaginative observation.
O’Brien’s world is often numinous embracing the magic of seeing what is inanimate as living and sharing the universe. It dances.
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Chris Tse’s Super Model Minority is a very different proposition. Much of it is written directly in the first person, sometimes confessional and sometimes raw polemic and protest. A publicity sheet I was sent describes it as “spirited and confronting”. Back in 2014 there appeared New Zealand-born Chinese Chris Tse’s How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (reviewed on this blog in 2014), in which he dramatized his Chinese forebears and related stories of Pakeha prejudice towards Chinese in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Later he produced a collection (which I have not sighted) called He’s so MASC, apparently concerned with his coming out as gay. Super Model Minority combines the two dominating themes – racism and sexuality.
A proem called “Utopia? BIG MOOD!” declares that history repeats itself in dismal ways every time we head for a Utopian future, but it’s all still worth the struggle. And struggles takes up much of the three sections into which this collection is organised.
First comes the section called Super Model Minority. Its opening poem “Wish list – Permadeath” begins “I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write about racism, but there it is / patrolling my everyday thoughts like a mall cop drunk with power”. It continues suggesting how wearying it is to confront endlessly the same problems. It is followed by “Version control” and “Karaoke for the end of the world” which add homophobes to the roll. And then into “Super model minority – Flashback”, a title which at the very least is ironic, for the racial minority is revealed when “It has been decades since I claimed my place but they still insist I drape my motherland’s loose threads around my neck” and the poem becomes a long lament at, and anger at, the fact that his ethnicity and queerness mean he is too often still not seen on equal terms as a fellow citizen. “I’m sorry I’m a Chris Tse” carries the sage statement “There is no reason you can’t / crave both a very specific future and / a past you wish you could call your own”, a statement anchoring him in both history and the present moment. “Mike & Karl & Duncan & Martin” makes fun of white men who proclaim their miseries while he himself feels “strapped to a torture rack because no one trusts a gaysian / with a Kiwi accent and a creative writing degree”.
Much of this is directly satirical, but there is a welcome ambiguity in a poem like “The Magician – Notes on Distraction”. It could be interpreted as charting a coping mechanism by ignoring hard reality OR it could be an account of how reality is blocked out or ignored, especially as the following poem is called “In Denial”.
While the first section is often angry, rebellious and exasperated, the second section Vexillology – in more stately, calmer and reflective – indeed sometimes a little ponderous. These poems are built around the colours of the LGBT Pride flag, going poem by poem through the usual colours, and then some. Pink is sexuality, red is life and courage, orange is healing and so on through yellow, green, turquoise, indigo and violet, each signifying as moods and self-identification of the queer.
Finally there is the section called Poetry to make boys cry which draws very much on adolescence, parents’ and relations’ reactions to his emerging gayness, clubbing and fumbled affairs. That, at least, is how this section first declares itself, but Tse is aware that self-pity can be destructive, and his perspective widens as poems like “Geometric Growth” strike a philosophic vein in looking at the consolations of art and the ability to see things in perspective; and “Portrait of a Life” declares “There’s something at the end of every road, even if you can’t see it with the naked eye: it’s knowing that one man’s fortune is another man’s motivational poster. As much as I’d like to build something permanent I know I have only so much to give away.” “Photogenesis” deals with almost metaphysical concerns – what about the past that controls us? What about after we die? And in the end it might be enough to “look up at a sky blushing red and / see possibility – to not worry how the end will reveal itself.” There is a sort of conciliation there, after the storm all passion spent. But not quite, for the after-effect of this collection is still mainly anger and protest.
Many poems in this collection are packed with so many images and concepts of discontent and critique that they cannot – and should not – be synopsised. A snowstorm of imagery beats at the same themes. Super Model Minority should be read one poem at a time as to read it at one sitting is both exhausting and overwhelming. It is very angry and funny and anarchic and sorrowful at the same time, perhaps wishing for a Utopia which will always be unobtainable.
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And I have to repeat myself by saying that Maggie Rainey-Smith’s Formica is a very different proposition from the two collections you have just been reading about. Its 42 poems are written by a woman of an earlier generation and in large part dwell on domestic things, personal feelings and the world of the past, even when it is contrasting the past with the present. Although she has written in other genres (as novelist and essayist), this is Maggie Rainey-Smith’s first collection of poetry. She composes mostly in neatly-structured stanzas, presenting us with only one prose poem.
Her opening poem “Jogging” situates her thus: “I’m invisible typing / my life into the baby boomer abyss / privileged by association a post-war / baby” and “it seems my voice is now irrelevant / the story done and dusted years ago”. This signals her awareness of the dismissiveness, not to say contempt, that younger generations in New Zealand sometimes have for older generations (as in the inane parliamentary taunt “Okay boomer”) no matter how many interesting stories and observations older people have to offer. But Maggie Rainey-Smith is defiant in asserting the interest and importance of her life. In the earlier poems of Formica she discusses such vanished childhood things from the 1950s as watching a mother prepare home cooking; listening to radio serials; going to the matinee movies; children’s fears of what they rudely called a “loony-bin”; young women having children out of wedlock and then adopting them out, with families and the community disguising the fact; old-time courtship in a fairground; the awareness of the recent world war and how it affected her soldier father; having to visit the “murder house” for rotten teeth to be fixed; in adolescence the shame and surreptitiousness of learning about, and learning to cope with, menstruation; first sexual gropings; and the tedium of training as a typist, which then was regarded as an appropriate career for a young woman.
There is some nostalgia here, but as you can see, this is not a nostalgia-fest.
Even so, the poet defends the dignity of people in the past who by and large lived by the accepted mores of their time. The title poem “Formica” is a survey of what would now be regarded as obsolete, unfashionable home appliances and fixtures as they were in the 1950s. With all their shortcomings they had a status and the family built legends and anecdotes around them. But says Rainey-Smith “now my middle / – class bookclub / friends laugh / the very idea / of kitchenware / for Mother’s Day”. Women now being presented with kitchenware as a present might regard this as a unsubtle hint to get back into the kitchen. This ignores how much labour-saving devices were welcomed by women some decades back, and how they made their domestic work easier. Perhaps the poet, now in old age, still feels some affection for her home appliances as in the poem “Ode to my Kenwood”.
Rainey-Smith sometimes corrals together poems on similar themes. Two poems reference Katherine Mansfield. Beginning with “That summer” there are three sequential poems about suicide: first the unawareness of the girls that something tragic has happened; then an account of the suicide itself; and finally the unsatisfactory “wake” and the aftermath of a suicide. When she does bring poems together like this, she puts them in conversation with each other. “Autumn and Anzac” gives us, with apparent disapproval, the boozy, lachrymose destructiveness of 1950s Anzac Day commemorations, something which would now be condemned as pointless macho displays. But the very next poem “Seventy years on” deals sombrely with the loss of Crete in the war, the carnage and her father’s capture and years as a POW. Distasteful or not, there are reasons why men of that generation got drunk and cried over lost friends.
Though they don’t sit side-by-side in the text, “The Saturday Matinee” can be paired with “A musical OE”. Both touch on the growth of American cultural influence. “The Saturday Matinee” tells us of the Hollywood fantasies that bewitched New Zealand adolescents in the 1950s and 1960s until they went blinking out into the sunshine. “A musical OE” tells us of the emotional effect of American pop music, with the poet cleverly winding into it fragments of songs.
Later in this collection, Rainey-Smith begins to focus on being old and how memories of earlier days are curated. There is “He can cook” on how mores have changed (how many men did the cooking in the 1950s?) plus the funniness of sex in old age. There is “Menopause” and there is “Fresh” about falling and breaking a wrist, a common occurrence for elderly people. “Swiss Ball” rather awkwardly shows what it is like to be fifty and realising that all the other women in the gym are younger than you are. (Regrettably an element of self-praise mars this poem.) “Learnings” contrasts memories of harsh schooling in the 1950s with the enlightened way she has taught adult ESOL to adults (not a fair comparison I’d say). Then there are poems noting her role as a grandmother as in “Lockdown villanelle”, “Halmoni at the park” and “Turning thirteen”.
As for the preservation of memory, “Where were you” is a poem about her childhood and adolescent experiences in Richmond, again calling on a later generation to understand the ethos of an earlier era. And of course there is a kind of revision in the book’s sole prose poem “Changing course” about the inevitable disillusion of visiting a childhood and adolescent haunt and finding how it is changed beyond recognition. It ends “All my secret roads are gone and our river’s changed course”, which is naturally a definition of her life.
As envoi to this collection, she gives us “Who am I?”, a life assessment running through all her experience and a robust self-assertion. Perhaps we could say this is critical retrospection rather than nostalgia.