Monday, May 23, 2022

Something New


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

“NEXT: Poems 2016-2021” by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, $NZ 27:50); “ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL DAY INDOORS” by Erik Kennedy (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ 25); “MEAT LOVERS” by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99)


Alan Roddick is a unique figure in New Zealand literature. Now well into his 80s, he was born in Northern Ireland and has lived in New Zealand for the last 70 years. By profession he was a dentist. Well-known as the literary executor of Charles Brasch (whose Selected Poems he edited), Roddick has produced just three collections of poetry since the 1960s – The Eye Corrects (1969), Getting It Right – Poems 1968-2015 (reviewed on this blog 2016) and now Next – Poems 2016-2021. No irony intended, but I like the speed with which he has written his poetry. All power to the poet who thinks long and carefully about what he publishes instead of churning ‘em out every second year or so. Roddick is thoughtful and witty with a keen eye for the natural scene. This collection’s title Next derives from a quotation by Allen Curnow “…so long as there’s a next there’s no last”. Alan Roddick might be an old man, but he’s not giving up on life. As long as he breathes, he sees and lives and looks forward.

Roddick has organised Next – Poems 2016-2021 into four discrete sections, each of which is dominated by a distinct theme.

Poems recalling childhood and the immaturity of young manhood dominate the first section of eight poems, and naturally most of these poems reconstruct remembered life in Northern Ireland. There is a Belfast childhood memory of Christmas carollers coming to the door in snow (“The Waits”); a sequence of memories involving his father’s disorientation in coming to the other end of the world (“Five Ways to Go”) ; a little boy’s view of his mother buying him new shoes (“Because”); an awkward memory of an American soldier in Belfast during the Second World War (“Captain Conroy’s War”);  and the memory of being a child giving a recitation as part of the entertainment at an adult meeting (“On Mr Sherman’s Agenda). In all these poems there is the inevitable tension between experiencing events as a child would have experienced them and reassessing those same events as a very mature adult.    Greater tension comes in adolescence with “In Memoriam” concerning sexual overtones when watching monkeys behaving as monkeys do in the zoo; and especially “What Happened”, a memory of being a young man shut out of a vital conversation and revealing his more callow state of mind. In this first retrospective section, Roddick’s most perfectly conceived poem is “First Crossing of the Southern Alps” , which yields not only a clear narrative situation (a family awkwardly acclimatising themselves camping in wilder New Zealand terrain) but which gives us a clear understanding of a father’s anxiety - a poem not merely of physical detail but of psychological insight.

The nine poems that make up the second section of Next – Poems 2016-2021 turn firmly to the New Zealand scene. They are concerned with New Zealand landscapes and seascapes, but to see them as mere pictorial displays is to under-rate them. Roddick feels as well as sees the scene. The section opens with “Under Pahia Hill”, a gem of a poem. In its three stanzas there is a clear evocation of a specific place but also of a mood. Read this first stanza: “Cosy Nook. A sudden whiff of seal / sharpens the wind. / You watch from the crook of the hill / seas upon seas hit / the harbour entrance. / To make a home here takes practice.” Now dare to tell me that you don’t want to read the two stanzas that follow. Another fine poem is “Southerly” with its conceit that a house battered by the wind is really a ship sailing through rough seas. “Anticrepuscular” is a precise reflection on the phenomenon of seeing the sun’s setting reflected in the eastern sky; while “Midnight at Mt John” is more than stargazing, again playing with the idea that the skies are seen differently in the Southern Hemisphere from the way they are seen in the Northern Hemisphere. Roddick dedicates two poems to Karl Stead, who has apparently mentored him in his poetic development. His shift from Belfast childhood to being absorbed in the New Zealand scene is complete. But there is old age to contend with. His wittiest poem – as unnerving as sprightly - is “Further Reflections”, when seeing multiple images of oneself in a lift raises the question of where life is leading.

I confess that I was least engaged in the third section, comprising literary witticisms and comments on the writing scene. Vers de societe, perhaps. Polite amusement made out of some meetings with Charles Brasch, a critique of a poem by Yeats, and Roddick’s own version of two Russian lyrics among other things. Very civilised, very discreet.

I was happier in the fourth and final section where Roddick faces old age full on. There are some valedictory poems for deceased friends. “Our Last Meeting” is perhaps wistful about the withering effect of time. A chance meeting with a woman he has not seen for decades has him reflecting “The lights changed, and yet again we learned / how old age can make us look invisible / to the young who thronged the crossing there / around us, between us, submerging us / in rapid, bright-voiced conversations, themselves tomorrow’s ghosts.”  Three poems reference fishing, with “Catch and Release” likening death to a caught fish being released into the stream of… what? Eternity? Oblivion?.  There is an awareness that time is short time, best expressed in “Lockdown: Hold it!” where taking a family photo is always an attempt to freeze time. But childhood memory persists in old age (“The Bagatelle Board”). Beloved landscapes are spoiled by time (“The End of a Road”). And we dream of people long since dead (“At Bluecliffs”). The relentless passage of time – and its implicit destination – is best expressed in “At Last – Level Two” where the clanking of a passing freight train at night picks off the minutes.  It would again be misrepresentation to see all Roddick’s poems in this section as being haunted by old age and decay. One string of images speaks of the poet’s great admiration for practical skills – the fisherman’s steady hand which is able to cut out a dry fly that has wounded a lip; the plumber who has the skill to install a tap properly; the skill needed to use an axe. To be is to do.

Roddick doesn’t rage about not going gentle into that good night. He accepts age and death, but insists that his perceptions are sharp and his observation still keen. And life lasts as long as these things are so.

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            And so to another poet who was born elsewhere. American by birth but New Zealander by choice and based in Christchurch, Erik Kennedy is of a younger and very different generation from Alan Roddick. Kennedy is deeply concerned about climate change and its dire consequences. He co-edited a book on the subject. Kennedy is a polemicist, provocateur and po-faced wit. When I reviewed on this blog his first poetry collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime ( 2018) I couldn’t help dividing it into what worked and what didn’t, or the good and the bad of his verse, noting the way his hard irony sometimes turned into whimsy. But there was much real wit and vigour to his work.

            Does his second collection take us down the same paths? Again, we have an ironical title Another Beautiful Day Indoors, and the poetry is preceded by epigraphs condemning capitalism. He nails his colours to the mast at once. And so to a generous collection of 52 poems – or at least 52 offerings, for the second section of this collection, entitled “notes towards a definition of essential work”, is what a publicity sheet calls “a sequence of magical realist short fictions”.

            Let’s look at the poems first.

Climate, conservation and ecological matters still tend to be major concerns for Kennedy.  “Studying the Myth of the Flood” allows him to compare the Biblical flood of Noah with possible inundations brought about by climate change, and to implicitly rebuke us for our complacency.  “The First Plant Grown on the Moon” chides that “The moon is full of foreigners, / with our stiff flags and our left-behind shit. / Some corner of a foreign field will be forever / Earth. Let us tend to it.” “Phosphate From Western Sahara” chastises New Zealand for still extracting Saharan phosphate with negative effects on the environment. These jeremiads can be bracing to read, but there is a downside to Kennedy’s style. It can easily turn to rant and exhortation, and the sensitive touch flies away. Consider “Microplastics in Antarctica”, which deals with an insidious form of pollution. In one stanza, Kennedy likens this phenomenon to global dandruff, with the lines “Scratch the scalp of civilisation / and bits of it go all over the place.” On its own, this is an arresting statement But Kennedy immediately follows it with “Concerned about those embarrassing flakes? / You should be” and we are brought down to the level of an harangue in a demo.

Allied to the ecological themes, there is Kennedy’s ridiculing of business, of capitalism, of our present social and economic set-up in general. “Satellite Insurance” ridicules insurance policies and false hopes based on them. “Open-Plan Office” is a deadpan critique of such architectural designs and the deadening conformism they impose on employees. Deciphering its somewhat surreal imagery, “An Interesting Redundancy Package” appears to be the revenge of somebody who has been fired by an unjust boss. “The Dead Men of 2012” is open-ended in that it appears to be about homeless men made so by the social system. When Kennedy puts together his “Composite Sketch of My Enemy”, he shovels together a mass of things he doesn’t like, such as arrivistes, wine snobs, and those who suck up to powerful bosses. This has the cumulative effect of telling us that the poet himself is a far more principled person than such as these.

Some of Kennedy’s work has the effect of placing two bob each way, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. “The Please Stop Killing Us and Destroying Everything That Sustains Us Society” is ostensibly what its title says, an oration in which somebody pleas for a better world. But the audience that listens to this oration are depicted as comfortable, self-satisfied dreamers and the implication is that such pleas are merely a form of entertainment for the well-to-do. “The Black Friday Elegy” concerns a man complaining in a shopping centre. He appears to have a real complaint, but the poem ends “at least he died doing what he loved / complaining about capitalism”, again suggesting that activism is just a game, or that it is an amusement for the poet. Such pieces come across as resigned hipster irony, capped by the title poem “Another Beautiful Day Indoors” where staying indoors and doing nothing is not only a display of lethargy but a way of life. Sheer whimsy comes in a poem about couple having a drone to deliver the rings to their wedding. And sheer sour-puss-ery comes in Kennedy’s dyspeptic moods. Read “Lives of the Poets” and you are told that poets are either ruined by success or they become too comfortable and conformist. “All Holidays Are Made-Up Holidays” sneers at holidays, while “Young Adult Success Stories” ridicules the whole idea, telling us all successful kids have rich parents and that’s all there is to it.

What do I miss here? I miss any introspection or self-assessment. For Kennedy, the rest of the world is at fault and he alone is clear-sighted. This sort of bashing-the-world may work wonderfully with a full-on, no-holds-barred satirist like Swift or Juvenal. But Kennedy’s stance is more often peevishness than outrage, not helped by the laid-back hipster tone which suggests none of it matters anyway. The wit and (sometimes) the skill are there, but the reader gets battered something awful. Not always though. “Cemetery-Going” is a poem that rings true for me, maybe because it matches my own graveyard experiences. And I give credit to Kennedy for his very nuanced “We’re Nice to Each Other After the Trauma”, a reflection on how people felt in Christchurch after the 2019 massacre. It’s insightful and better than most editorials on the matter.

And what of those “magical realist short fictions” gathered together under the title “notes towards a definition of essential work”? Some are sardonic tales of break-ups and improbabilities in unreal settings. “The Planned Obsolescence Rhapsody” is as obvious a tale as its title – a long joke about deliberately making things that don’t last. “Official Printer to the Government” tells us that bureaucrats quickly become executioners. In another ecological ram-raid, “Early Evening at the Coal Plant” eventually equates coal with people making biological weapons. The title story of this section “Notes Towards a Definition of Essential Work” suggests burglary is as honourable as barbering or any other sanctioned occupation – which, come to think of it, is more an anarchist concept than a Marxist one. At least some of Kennedy’s prose productions are as enigmatic as a Kafka sketch.

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I’ll begin by admitting a prejudice. I first looked at the cover of Rebecca Hawkes’ Meat Lovers and then flicked through the text, noting two art works. Cover and artworks are by the poet herself – and with their naked human beings and fantastical beasts, I saw them as quasi-Hindu images, especially the cover with its blue goddesses sitting on a holy cow. “Is this going to be a work of belated hippie-ism?” thought my suspicious mind.

Then I started reading the poems and at once realised how wrong I was.

Meat Lovers is not only the fruit of close and critical observation, but is also one of the most forceful and accomplished debuts I’ve ever read. Hawkes is an inspired and skilled poet and Meat Lovers is both intoxicating and challenging. The blurb tells me that Hawkes grew up on a Canterbury sheep and beef farm and the country scene is one of her main preoccupations, but this collection is no pastoral idyll. Having been deeply immersed in farm life, Hawkes often presents it with merciless reality.

The collection is divided into two parts. “Meat” deals mainly with the animals that become meat, and “Lovers” deals mainly with the poet’s emotional and love life, with some lesbian overtones. Put together, the title “Meat Lovers” is ironical as the poet’s ongoing carnivore-ism is paired with her deep knowledge of how messy the production of meat usually is.

In the “Meat” section we encounter, among other things, sanitised and wrapped meat in the supermarket and the lure of nearby sweets; childhood memories of the tar on the road to school; the awful demands made by a pony club; the tailing of lambs ; following her mother through a blizzard for special farm work; coming across a lamed sheep and trying to put it out of its misery by killing it; contemplating killing a kitten from a feral pack; and assisting in the slippery blood-wet birth of a calf. In all these cases, Hawkes presents specific details of discomfort. Her wonderful fecundity of imagery is built on real things, not on abstractions or fancy. The effect is visceral. We are placed so close to the things Hawkes describes that we feel the sweat, smell the smells and hear the baaing and snorting.

There is compassion for the animals, but no sentimentality. In “Flesh tones”, the poem about tailing lambs “The lambs hop back into the flock to greet their mothers. They are the future of meat.” In “The Conservationist”, concerning feral felines, a feral kitten is “this soft furred vermin / flawless awful / psychopath in waiting”. There may be tenderness towards animals, but the slaughterhouse is never far away. The poem “Waif & stray” has her feeding and nurturing lambkins who have been separated from their mothers, and for a moment feeling sentimental “But for now… It is just her & the lambs / while all things birth & butchery happen somewhere else.

While such scenes dominate the collection’s “Meat” section, Hawkes does play some different tunes. The sequence called “Hardcore pastorals” romanticises a little as Hawkes wittily deifies a cow and reveals her sapphic longings. “Petri dish of lab-grown meat” gives us a possible meat utopia, but implies a complex and justified irony by measuring the natural against the synthetic. And “Noonday gorsebloom” is, quite simply, a masterpiece of identity, shape, imagery and history – the type of poem that should appear in all future New Zealand anthologies of poetry.

By now you will have noticed how enthused I am by Meat Lovers – but here I have to put the brake on a little. For whatever reason, I did not find the “Lovers” section as engaging or skilful as the “Meat” section. This is not a prejudice against the subject matter. Hawkes does not stick completely with the vagaries of her love life, although she does chronicle, in “I can be your angle or yuor devil” [misspellings intentional], what appears to be an affair that went badly wrong; and she does reveal some of her interests in “Lesbian vampire film theory”. She also, in “Denying that it was a phase”, gives us some social satire. It is essentially about growing up a bit, when she went to “a dismal fetish ball” and “it turned out celebrating hedonism was / quite boring actually. The display / of everyone’s subversiveness / in uniform corsetry.” How conformist the non-conformists often turn out to be.

None of this rattles me, but the poetry in “Lovers” is limper, less forceful and lacking the energy and dense imagery of “Meat”. It’s almost as if it were written by a younger and more callow poet.

Having said this, half a book of brilliance is still a work of brilliance. Vivat Hawkes!

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