We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“A LACK OF GOOD SONS” by Jake Arthur ( Te Herenga Waka press, $NZ25) ; “LETTER TO ‘OUMUAMUA” by James Norcliffe (Otago University Press, $NZ25)
Jake Arthur’s A Lack of Good Sons is a very impressive debut, with its fifty poems touching on many psychological states, and its imagery hard and appealing. Arthur can convey solid physical reality with precise observation in poems like “Hockey” where we are presented with the hardness of wood and the sweat as women play; or the note-by-note reportage in “He in the harp” as a harpist plays, each plucking of the strings dramatised. But more often, Arthur’s tone is one of chronic mental discomfort. The dominant persona is somebody uncomfortable in his skin, ill-adjusted to the world, constantly trying to work out who he is and very aware of the smallness, and perhaps insignificance, of humankind in the vastness of the universe. We cannot assume, however, that this is all, or even mostly, confessional poetry. Jake Arthur writes with many different voices, many different characters, even if most speak in the first-person. For example, it is quite specifically a woman who is speaking in the poem “Eclose.”
Yet it is this tone of discomfort and maladjustment that dominates.
Often Arthur confronts the burdensome weight of childhood and early experience. His opening poem “Jim Nevis” is apparently a disturbing childhood memory – almost, but not quite, traumatic – with the boy disturbed by the sight of a naked man in a neighbouring field, exposing himself and possibly triggering the young boy’s awareness of his own sexuality. “Doze” is also an unnerving child memory, hearing adult things while he is in bed. An adolescent memory in “Young Waverer” has the narrator partially schooled in sex by his older brother. And there is awkward adolescence in “Hair” with its self-conscious: “I was the school pariah and ate my lunch with the weeping willow”. “Lads” deals with a late adolescent-early adulthood experience of having to witness the rough, brawling, pub-going lives of jocks. The very confronting poem “Duelo a garrotazos” begins “I killed my father / in a meadow turned to mud / by our brawl and blood”. Is this the wish-fulfilment fantasy of an unhappy son?
Moving into adulthood come the poems about alienation. “Space”, a sequence of poems ostensibly set in the Christmas season, dwells on the vastness of things, loneliness and the sense of being insignificant. “Damage Limitation” is really a poem about the sense of guilt and how one copes with it while modifying behaviour and keeping a low profile. “The Great H-Goat” is a description of a witches’ sabbath, but as so often in this poet’s work there is the self-consciousness of being watched and judged. It can only be read sanely as metaphor. There is a very strong sense in so many poems of a lack of confidence and self-deprecation, as in “Peregrination” which begins “I cavorted through the Gobi Desert / I fell in love with a camel in Saudi / I poured pints in Karkow. / If anecdotes are life, I have lived. / Otherwise, I’ve urgently wasted my time.” Thus too in “You and the view” where “I ask myself if I am a boring person. / Sometimes I think I may never again / have an interesting thing to say.” Even a poem like “Fatal familial insomnia” – concerning prions (mis-formed proteins that cause some neurological diseases) – ends up with people separated and facing their own existential crises. “Call time” has the speaker’s tastes being broken down as he becomes physically disgusted with coffee. As for “The stones”, it which ends with the words “Beware of the mind, / that it reasons unreasonably, / that the stream may run empty / and flow with rocks and stones”. Human consciousness dissolves into the inanimate. “Spear” gives us the full disjunction of mind and body… with homoerotic overtones. In so many of these poems there is that sense of not having found an endurable place in the world.
In this vein, Jake Arthur’s master-work is “Bare Choirs”. It takes the image of the mast of a sailing ship and frames it as lonely for the branches and foliage that has been stripped from it… and also upset to be thrust among alien things. Do trees have consciousness? Probably not. But this is still a powerful image of something ripped out of its natural environment. All of which adds up to a metaphor of human alienation.
By this stage in my analysis of A Lack of Good Sons, you may think that I am presenting the poet as a chronic depressive. Not so. His humour (in the modern sense) is also on display. The very best example is “Grizzly, adj.”, a poem about a bear and its natural, impulsive life set against the pedantic cogitations of human beings. There is a kind of melancholy whimsy in “King of collisions”; while “Encounter” is a wry parody of narratives about abduction by extra-terrestrials. Note, too, that there is a strong strain of satire. “Springer Motors, 1976” takes on slick salesmanship, cars, and their inevitable obsolescence. And “So says Ophelia” mixes the language of Shakespeare’s character with modernity, signalling the shift of mores over the centuries.
In Arthur’s poetry there are many mythological and classic tropes. I Congratulate the poet for not cluttering up his collection with explanatory notes. If you read the poem “So says Chiron”, you have to know that Chiron was the centaur who tutored Achilles – Jake Arthur is not going to tell you. Underneath this poem, there is yet again a tone of loneliness, a fear of growing up , a sense of being insignificant in the vastness of things. As Achilles grows, Chiron gives this concluding advice: “There’s going to be a moment when / you remember how we used to play, / and it’ll feel as remote from you as the spheres. / Best stay here with me.” Further interest in Greek mythology (the poet had a doctorate in Renaissance literature and translation) is found in “The Fates” in which he presents the three mythical sisters as straightforwardly as any poet could. And – similar in inspiration, but not ancient mythology – “Bluejackets” sounds like an ancient seafaring tale. Two nightmarish poems are inspired by paintings of Goya: “Saturn devouring his son” and “Asmodea”.
The mental discontents suggested in this collection come from a whole and well-explored tradition.
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Back in 2019 I reviewed on this blog the seasoned poet James Norcliffe’s collection Deadpan . Among many other positive things I said about Deadpan, I noted that unlike some poets, when Norcliffe divides his collection into separate sections, the sections actually mean something. And the same is true of his latest collection – his eleventh – Letter to ‘Oumuamua. Read this work carefully and, with some few exceptions, you will find that each of this collection’s five sections has its own focus, its own tone, even if Norcliffe is consistently humane in his viewpoint and always ready to present humour and levity in the midst of more serious reflections. He is a humanist in the true sense of the word – one who examines human beings without assuming that he himself is exempt from human follies and weaknesses.
It’s worth stopping and considering carefully the four poems that open Norcliffe’s eleventh collection. Corralled together under the title “Four Letters”, each of these four opening poems is framed as a direct address. The title poem is addressed to ‘Oumuamua, an object that passed over Earth and that some astronomers think could have been an extra-terrestrial vehicle checking Earth out. Norcliffe’s response to this possible interstellar visitor is to describe human beings in benign terms even if we sometimes go wrong. The poem ends “I’m not saying come back, dear ‘Oumuamua, we know what / we’re doing. We’re not all bad. We just can’t help ourselves.” And that sets the tone for Norcliffe’s whole outlook. Human beings are not all bad, but can’t help doing bad or foolish things. So we are flawed. Following comes “Dear Valued Customer” which is essentially satire, with the request for a wonderful morning being replied to in formal business language. The same goes for “Dear Contributor” which is a most eloquent rejection slip sent by a publisher to an inept aspiring contributor. Again, humanity is gently chastised. And for relief, and reminding us that we are not the only creatures who inhabit this planet, there is “Dear Kereru”, which is sheer fun in its description of the elegant bird, while at the same time putting us human creatures into perspective.
From this we know that Norcliffe is immersed in how we human beings think and perceive, how we react to the other creatures on Earth, how we often go wrong, how we age and decay and - as a corollary – how our flaws are often embedded in our past and our memories of the past.
The second section “The Museum of Unnatural History” takes on the more serious problem of human perception. After a poem about mishearing or misinterpreting events in a train, there is the psychological reflection “Art and Confusion” in which a visitor is both alienated and confused in what is apparently the lobby of a picture theatre. Is the visitor taking in what is really there or is he only misled by fiction? Says the text “You are in, you suddenly realise, a scene from a movie, a scene that must feature in a poster somewhere and you look around the walls again.” This can be read a number of ways. Is it simply the feeling of awkwardness one gets when one is on display in a public place, making sure to put on politeness and manners which are, in effect, putting on a performance? Or is it a genuine crisis of mind? The fruitful conundrum makes this one of Northcliff’s best poems.
Not surprisingly, given the fragility of human thought and body, there follow a clutch of poems with intimations of mortality and the misuse of the body. “Pink Aspirin for the Heart” makes black comedy when old age thickens arteries. “Then Dr Salk”, on the polio vaccines of the 1950s, slyly satirises the anti-vaxxers of our own times. “Rage” is a coded account of death and the end of rage. “#A.M.” and “Insomnia” are both about sleeplessness and all the thoughts that beset you in old age, often filling you with regret. And spilling out from reflections on human mortality where follow poems with bleak imagery in presenting the physical world. ‘The Museum of Unnatural History” gives a bleak and wintry image of a decaying urban scene, urban scenes always being unnatural. “Looking for Novels set in Vienna” and “Scandinavian Noir” and “We Come Easily to the Language of Horror” are like imagined nightmares. In a way, so is “The Search Party”, where one searcher gets lost in the mountains and finds himself unsure about the aim of the search party is anyway. This image of being lost and directionless chimes with the psychological state presented in “Art and Confusion”.
Although this second section closes with a jeu d’esprit, “Hoopsa Boyaboy Hoopsa” - a light and witty poem written to celebrate Venice, Vivaldi and the four seasons – Norcliffe’s mood is summed up in another of his very best poems “Penguin Modern Classics”, winding together age, solitariness, the meaning of literature and the possibility of misunderstanding. A single or solitary person observes and reads; there is here a subtle critique of the art of reading. When texts talk back to the solitary reader, they say, in the closing words “You must forgive us for reminding you / of this. We cannot help being dog-eared, / fly-spotted and ever so lightly foxed / as you are, dear reader, as you are, even as / the fire goes out and the coffee grows cold.” Chimes at midnight for the bibliophile.
How different Norcliffe’s preoccupations are in the third section “Really Hot Soup”! Having already noted the fact that we share the Earth with other creatures, Northcliffe looks at the state of the planet we inhabit. “Living in the Entropics”, “Lambton Quay” and “Ocean View”, even if partially jocular, all refer to rising tides and climate change. “Really Hot Soup” discusses directly human impact on climate and the earth warming, as does “Living in the Goldilocks Zone”, serious even despite its semi-ironical tone. As for “Kotuku” , the poet voice feels “swirling like guilt” as he reflects on the human degradation of nature while contemplating the innocent purity of a white heron.
It's odd to point out that “The Coal Range” – another of Northcliffe’s very best – is at once about memory and a sort of nostalgia, but also, given its coal-mining setting, an example of environmental degradation. It has a (presumably West Coast) New Zealand setting but its family are Scots immigrants. In describing a miner’s home of perhaps a century ago and its routines (starting the fire; getting breakfast) it is at once a severely realist poem relaying family memories while at the same time avoiding sentimentality for “Sentiment sweetens distance, as drop scones, ANZAC / biscuits and peanut brownies sweeten the sour / pervading presence of damp coal, smoke and tea-tree.”
The fourth section “The Unnatural World” ramps up concern for the creatures that share our world, with poems (some written in jolly rhymes) of a one-legged blackbird and another about an arrogant brawling cat. “Duck Mousse for Breakfast” allows an apparently idyllic morning breakfast scene to fade into a sharp reflection on humanity’s cruelty to animals. But “The Goldfish” and “Rabbits” and “Mr Fizz” have a more ironical approach to animals.
The final Section “The Granity Museum” draws Northcliffe into his childhood roots. “The Granity Museum” itself is a wistful recall to his childhood in the West Coast mining town, always vulnerable to the sea and land slips in the rain-battered region. “While the rain fell / and the surf roared / my childhood / swept away.” It is as hard and bitter environment, as the one depicted in “The Coal Range”. Hardness of the West Coast is also found in “Deacon Brodie” where the poet reveals the precarious lives of his mining uncles, their lungs permanently contaminated with coal dust. “Vertigo” is a very effective poem, poised between nostalgia for the coast and resignation to its loss.
Ah yes. We close with old age knocking. “Reflux” is… a poem about mountaineers caught out by burpy belching reflux. Old age? Certainly. “The Body in the Bed” – one of Norcliffe’s most cleverly devised and thought-out poems – conveys the sense of how two people – presumably old people - when they interact in effect make up a third entity… in this case a couple in bed. “Life After the Diamond Harbour Ferry” is this collection’s fitting envoi or farewell – life nearing its end in the image of a ferry crossing water. Charon will take them soon.
James Norcliffe can write in formal stanzas, but often prefers free verse or prose poems. Letter to ‘Oumuamua is a formidable piece of work. If I were an anthologist, I would consider earnestly putting in an anthology Norcliffe’s “Art and Confusion”, “Penguin Modern Classics”, “The Coal Range”, “The Granity Museum” and “The Body in the Bed”, all displaying the skills of a very perceptive poet.