Michael Jackson’s latest collection of poetry is titled Dead Reckoning, a navigator’s term for estimating one’s location based upon extrapolations of distance and direction from one’s last-known position. The eponymous poem cements the metaphor’s connection to personal identity:
I try to recall
the currents, compass
errors and storms that took me
off course, asking
whether, and for how long
one’s initial bearing lasts.
It is not, perhaps, surprising that personal identity and the divagatory course we take to construct it should be on Jackson’s mind. Everyone I know seems to be reading his recent memoir, The Accidental Anthropologist, which traces his fieldwork among the Kuranko of Sierra Leone and the Australian Aborigines, and the various twists and turns of a career that has seen him produce novels, books of poetry and works of ethnography that are lyrically self-reflexive explorations of cultural and personal identity. Recently, he has become a professor in the Harvard Divinity School, and before that he taught at the University of Copenhagen, the University of Indiana and elsewhere.
Many of the poems in this collection seem to be part of a general project of taking stock – finding bearings. It’s a project made all the more difficult by the shifting landscape we find ourselves in as we grow older:
On a bitter Saturday
I travel east by train,
one of my oldest friends
this morning dead
I covered his swollen hands with mine
and said goodbye,
this shipwreck of a man, this effigy
(“South Coast Journey: Bill Maughan 1940-2002”)
At least four of the poems could be fairly described as elegies, two – like this – explicitly so. Other poems trace genealogies, heaving the lead into the waters of the past:
Auckland way back when.
I came upon the scene
without a history,
solely and unrepentantly myself,
death a conceit of poetry,
knowing no sudden loss
or slow decay,
as if I owned the present, no one else.
(“Clifton Firth’s Photographs”)
“A Genealogy of Poems” reaches back with witty irony to the material history of the poet’s tools of trade, from a simple pen to “a screen that hums” as he writes the very poem we are reading:
I wrote my first poem about the rain
in longhand at a school desk, lonely.
First one I typed was on a Remington.
It gave me confidence.
And then that portable whose name
I’ve forgotten, and the midnight poems
of unrequited love
or the longing to get away.
This is an uneven collection. Many of these poems read more as sketches or drafts than finished works. In part this may be the effect of a life of such restless movement. With poems set in Beirut, Sierra Leone, Denmark, New Zealand, Harvard, Dubrovnik, Egypt and Sweden, the collection comes to seem like a series of snapshots, the only subject rising into more than two dimensions being Jackson himself: “this is me in Sierra Leone; this is me in Harvard; this is me and the Great Pyramid of Giza”. Jackson finds it hard to let a scene or an image speak for itself, or let the reader come to her own conclusions.
Still, there are real rewards in this volume. Jackson’s mind is always busy, and if he doesn’t seem to let the reader get a thought in edgewise, he has many interesting things to say. Perhaps most admirable, in a volume that casts an eye backward over a long life, is his resistance to sentimentality. Is there another expat-Kiwi poem which resolves that New Zealand is all very well, but …?:
We exiles miss its landscapes most.
1? in Copenhagen and I count the cost
of having no hills to walk on
or an ironsand beach, that mystery
of the physical – four elements
rather than ruins or runic stones –
but would not want its emptiness again,
that unflagging sense that one is not oneself
with wilderness, and needs the depths
of history to fathom where one stands
and still may go. (“Living Abroad”)
David Beach has just published his first collection of poems, but his future literary fame is secure. Don’t take my word for it, though; here’s the word from God Himself:
I don’t want to hurt feelings but haven’t
much time for human poetry. But there’s an
exception, the work of David Beach. This
guy is amazing – some of his poems I
might have written myself. Naturally
there’s the profundity, while he even
has my sense of humour. I could almost
take offence that his work doesn’t receive
more recognition. In fact I’m not sure
that I’m not offended. (“God 3”)
What can a lowly critic say in the face of a plug like that? This perfectly represents the mood and tone of Beach’s remarkable volume: the flat-footed language and the uneasy “is he (entirely) joking?” irony reign throughout.
His topics range from the utterly impersonal (“Baldwin the Leper King’s reign saw the rot/setting in at Outremer” – from a series of poems on the Crusades) to the queasily self-regarding (“I am an exceptionally but not an/invariably honest person. I lie/like hell in other words. No, really, I’m/a martyr to honesty”).
The poems are all “sonnets” – that is, they have 14 lines. There is no evidence that the lineation corresponds to any formal (or other) principle; these are short prose-poems that happen to have been arranged into 14-line chunks. This is poetry as arte povera – acknowledging its links to grander and more self-confident aesthetic practices of the past, but working improvisatorially with whatever everyday materials happen to lie at hand.
The effect is deeply disconcerting (and at times merely annoying), but, collectively, the poems in this volume stake out new territory in contemporary New Zealand poetry and make a powerful case for further exploration. One poem from a major sequence of 10 sonnets on “Literary Immortality” may give some indication of the volume’s rewards. Beach picks up a theme as old as Horace’s Exegi monumentum aere perennius (“I have made monuments more lasting than bronze”), and central to the English sonnet tradition since Shakespeare (“And thou in this shalt find thy monument,/When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent”). But the overstrained and self-conscious language of Beach’s poems nicely registers his own uncertainty that such a thing as “literary immortality” still exists, or is quite what the literary market place thinks it is looking for:
The royalties will pour in when I am dead
and naked young women will throw themselves
upon my tomb. I can only envy
what my corpse will be heir to in the good-
career-move-hereafter. Meanwhile I’m doing
the hard miserish yards, imagining
what I hope won’t prove an illusory
hoard. It makes posterity a tyrant,
this striving for posthumous clout, and life
a purgatory, sweating out ideas like
sins. Yet incontrovertibly silly
though this might be the glamour of pages
seduces me, those book-thighs which it is my
ambition to labour between forever. (“Literary Immortality 10”).