Poetry aspires to the condition of the aphorism, to charged observations, preferably offered with a musical lilt. As in conversation, tone is everything: it’s all in the way you say it. Eleven collections by 11 New Zealand poets, published during the latter half of 2004, demonstrate this. Self-dramatising, these bards offer us angles, selected excerpts, edited highlights on themselves that help illuminate the world, or possibly interchangeable worlds. These are poets as moral actors voicing concerns and dilemmas; they are conscience-stricken purchasers, harassed homemakers, debonair lovers, anxious motorists and old grumps. And their homing instincts, even as they travel, are trained on New Zealand, which they turn into a source of pure exoticism – its time-worn strictures and disciplines giving rise to paradoxical freedoms that the bard within is ever-ready to exploit.
The Merino Princess, a selection of poems from her five previous collections all published since 1989, is triumphant evidence that Bernadette Hall has arrived on the local version of Mt Parnassus in style. Yet her approach has been quiet, oblique, controlled – and somewhat belated. A poet of the Otago and Canterbury regions, a sometime Latin and classical studies teacher, playwright and editor, Hall writes poems that are rather feathery and fine – ruminations and disquisitions expressed in no more than a handful of images. There are journeys “down the soft underbelly of the island”, and through “the island-shaped-like-a-cello”.
“Golden fur down the black/spine of the headland” catches the poet’s eye and speaks to a fragile emotional state. In “Cairn” a simple image of pioneer settlement is perfectly pitched: “Rusty knuckled iron remains/the paddock cleared of stones.”
The need for compassion, a celebration of ordinariness, the humorous acceptance of life’s disillusionments are the themes of poems that embrace weddings, bereavements, a Catholic upbringing, trips to Iowa and Ireland, and a kind of perpetual quest for a state of grace. Hall’s work succeeds by being ultimately tough-minded and wary, as in the emblematic “Mayday”, which deconstructs the scenic: the “rapturous clapping of rain” is an image put in its place by the succeeding line “[a] stagy day”, then, “the man in the truck/has a rifle across his knees”. The hint of threat, then, can materialise from nowhere. The title poem “The Merino Princess” is both a kind of prayer and an example of grim Southern Gothic: “I recognise her … We don’t speak of the abortion but there is between us/the cautious kindness of the war wounded.” Searching for epiphanies and sometimes finding them, Hall sails up like the Flying Nun, a “persistent levitator” buoyed by her own lightness of being, and her linguistic felicity.
Affirming the value of the provincial is an objective Hall shares with another poet who draws his inspiration from Canterbury and Otago — Owen Marshall. The much-decorated fiction writer’s first collection of poems, entitled Occasional, is unmistakably elegiac in tone: poetic salutes to events drawn from the relentless flux of time. The preoccupation with mortality becomes overwhelming – not just poems on the deaths of figures such as Janet Frame and Bill Sewell, but also a fond farewell to an old car – “I rubbed/your flanks with turtle wax”; a plea to the Almighty not to let the poet “die in Auckland/Rotting in the heat”; and constant invocations to “life”, that fickle force that seems as eager to abandon us as we are to cling to it. The poem “Advertising life” even proclaims life as subject to market forces, along with everything else.
This obsession with decay and decrepitude, though, is delivered with characteristic good humour. Marshall’s genial persona wins you over to what are after all reasonable sentiments, often thought but rarely so well expressed. Sounding at times like a fount of received wisdom, Marshall weighs his words as if regarding you with a raised ironic eyebrow. The poems employ the same bluff, resilient, yet harmonious language as Marshall’s prose – which makes them less gnomic than, say, Bernadette Hall’s, but also makes them sometimes heavy and ponderous-seeming within contemporary poetry’s fleet-footed and anorexic-form-favouring scene.
Yet, despite the unfashionable, clomping metres, the poems are highly enjoyable – from the remembered climbs with “the fiction writing class” up a particular hill, to acknowledgements of his Welsh heritage, to boyhood in Marlborough, to university days in Christchurch, to the rediscovery of sets of old keys whose purpose is now forgotten, and so on. Above all, the poems are redolent of the South Island – all wild winds and dry hills, sleepy summer afternoons, the shimmer of light on lakes, snow like whitewash on the Alps.
Christchurch poet Jeffrey Paparoa Holman spent his formative years on the other side of the Alps in rough-and-tough Blackball, then left as a teenager with hardly a look back. Decades later he revisits his old stamping ground in The late great Blackball Bridge Sonnets, which is his second book of verse. Within its pages he becomes a kind of soapbox orator, expressing an almost evangelical enthusiasm for the West Coast – its seasons, its myths and its features – above all, the now demolished Blackball Bridge over the Grey River. Blackball is a ghost town, full of memories – memories of “the town’s great footy heroes and plain hardcases”, memories of schooldays in the 50s and early 60s. For Holman, as for Marshall, adolescence is about discovering females as the bewitching other.
But the real centre of affections on the West Coast, you sense, was the mateship among the workers: the strength of the unions, especially the coal-miners’ union. Miners are celebrated as “the earthworms’ brothers … coal-black/gnomes listening to the tide going out in 1960”, as mine after mine prepares to close down.
Holman affirms the working-class spirit – stoical, proud – and its masculinist ethos on the Coast: grog’s own country, where blokes were always up for a bit of a biff, on the field and off. His poems are vivid with imagery – a possum up a telegraph pole caught in a spotlight and brought down with a rifle shot; “[the river] torrent … in high spring flood, bearing away/in the darkness cattle, willows, the nests of birds” – and offer witness to place, kinship and belonging. This is poetry as local history and vice-versa: “in the house of my body”, Holman writes, “I carry that river.”
His sonnet sequence is supported by archival photographs obtained from assorted historical collections, moving the book itself towards the status of an art object, strong on design. Hall’s book also acknowledges or contains the work of artists – in particular two longtime collaborators, Joanna Margaret Paul and Kathryn Madill; while a Grahame Sydney painting glows like a beacon on the cover of Marshall’s Occasional.
These South Island poets are laureates of landscape: it almost seems to grow through them, but for Diane Brown in Learning to Lie Together, the South Island is about adjusting to transplantation. An Auckland poet living on the North Shore, she relocates to Dunedin and has to begin a process of adaptation, wandering through vistas and getting acclimatised, both physically and -spiritually.
But, as the title poem suggests, Learning to Lie Together is essentially a comedy of manners. In semi verse-novel fashion, it tells the story of a relationship break-up in Auckland and a new relationship being formed with someone else who lives in Dunedin.
Teaching creative writing to prison inmates in Auckland helps hone Brown’s fine sense of the ridiculous as she describes extricating herself from entanglements and obligations, and the cultivation of a long-distance courtship that eventually finds her driving south to live.
If one relationship has ended catastrophically, she’s still prepared to take on another – especially when the Kiwi male makes gallant attempts at chivalry. Brown’s scrupulous, almost forensic eye and ear – and her plain-speaking – can be disconcerting in the context of Kiwi Blokedom as Brown fossicks around, moving in the process from being needy, to a point where “the levels of happiness” are “80 percent good”.
In today’s post-therapy culture, relationships are a procedural minefield: men – and women – must perforce tread carefully. If Bernadette Hall decodes the Catholic ideology of free will and determinism and ends up ambivalent about it, Brown seems intent on revisiting a kind of 70s feminist determinism and being ambivalent about that. Luckily, ordinary home truths win out on the domestic front, as, for example, the absence of an automatic dishwasher in the kitchen and the presence of a strange bra in the kitchen are topics canvassed, worked through and resolved. The result is an engaging poetic journal about trust, intimacy and affection.
One of the great lone wolves of New Zealand poetry, Apirana Taylor, formerly of the Kapiti Coast, moved south to become writer-in-residence at Canterbury University, and from that stint has come his fourth collection of poems – Te Ata Kura: The Red-Tipped Dawn (“tiny bud/on slender/stem/shine and grow/before/the red-tipped dawn of war …”).
Poems are mysterious entities; compounded out of sounds and rhythms and images, they transcend these materials to become magical incantations, force fields, sources of replenishment. At least that’s the impression you get from Taylor’s woven patterns of words. Stark and often blunt, his poems about Maori urban alienation, daily living and travel in Europe resound with emotions ranging from the base to the exalted. As the title poem intimates, this is a book written in time of war, specifically the Iraq war, but that phenomenon also creates a sense of oppression that suffuses the politics of other poems. Pathos, anger, scorn, and sometimes joy, generate verses whose subjects range from Palestinian suicide bombers, domestic abuse, the sadistic horrors of Nazi death camps, to watching a girl gather petal blossoms in a park (“she presses them into her book”), to a friendly acceptance of the poet – a stranger in town – by people on the East Cape.
If sometimes Taylor’s poems, especially the typographical jokes, seem scrawny, not up to much, taken in concert they all lend their energies to the drive to make fire-in-the-belly verse, working together like a committed haka party.
Hinemoana Baker, too, in her debut collection Matuhi: Needle plucks at the plangent chords of biculturalism and its discontents. Based on the Kapiti Coast, Baker is something of a global nomad – she’s been around – who is now digging deep into a bedrock of Maori fundamentalism. Matuhi: Needle is a joint publication with actor-poet Viggo Mortensen’s California-based Perceval Press, and is impressively outfitted with a set of reddish-toned paintings by Ngai Tahu artist Jenny Rendell.
Baker, it transpires, came to Mortensen’s attention at a Wellington poetry reading, and a CD recording of Baker reading a few of her poems is pocketed in the back of the book. It reveals that she has a remarkable voice, velvety and musical, cool and laconic all at once. This sensuousness is reflected in the verse, but in a more conflicted way – undercut by a sense of smouldering emotion (resentment perhaps), as though an earlier vulnerability has left the poet bruised by experience. There’s a jabbing, needling quality, too, as if responding to the ripeness of things has left the poet feeling tainted rather than wholesome, thus the pregnant imagery in “Fruitpicker”: “fat strawberries … at night//we pick them by touch/listen to the flesh/release the stem”.
The lines, often constricted as if in corsets, offer nuanced, enigmatic snatches of autobiography: the lines tease you and then distance themselves, as if waiting to see what the effect will be. Baker is attuned to the arch, knowing humour currently fashionable, but she’s inventive enough to add her own spin and keep you amused by the way she reconjugates the obvious, making it surprising all over again.
C K Stead, of course, is far more forthright, positively pugnacious, clearing away the brooding tension by acting as a lightning conductor for it. Prolific – he’s up to his 13th book of poems – Stead unveils in The Red Tram a daunting array of topics: spinning straw into gold (his maxim), nothing is too small or trivial not to end up somewhere in a poem.
The Red Tram contains several poems about early youth, a time when he eagerly anticipated the whole wide world (symbolised by the bright red tram he sees from a childhood tree-top look-out “clank off into the future”). His mother, a piano music teacher, had ambitions for him to be a concert pianist. He thwarted her: “Never mind, Mum/you trained my ears./They’re listening still.”
These days, though, it’s all curdled idealism and cold-eyed truth, whether it be the “Oilman Caesar” unleashing American firepower in Tikrit, or the fate of Iris Murdoch whom he met before and after the advent of Alzheimer’s disease. Writing on the death of Janet Frame he recalls an encounter with her that evokes W Somerset Maugham’s piercing observation: people ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.
Stead, a kind of magnificently misplaced Shakespearean, the literary lion in winter, tweaks pieties as if they were a parson’s nose. Bulking in some ways too large for New Zealand’s tiny literary scene, he produces poems that function as self-advertisements to leave us goggling. Take his punch-up with a neighbour, after he takes shelter under that neighbour’s tree. It winds up with Stead in court, then set free – exonerated, but not, he tells us, in the eyes of the police. The poem “The Tree: a Story”, told from different viewpoints, is very funny, painting Stead as the wild colonial boy who never grew up, or at least someone not prepared to take an insult sitting down.
Other topics lofted into poems include his lean, lanky and leggy legs, a canon of classic English poetry pitched as caustic concepts for cynical Hollywood movies, and his adventures on the overseas celebrity poet circuit – the whole desultory gaggle of five-finger exercises held together by sheer force of personality.
Waiheke poet Sue Fitchett goes the other way, almost effacing herself in favour of her subject – Auckland, city of volcanoes – in her first solo poetry outing Palaver Lava Queen. It’s a long sequence made up of little bits of this and little bits of that – free verse, found texts, research material, cut-ups, quotations – which transcends its higgledy-piggledy origins to become something exhilarating: a sky-dive over Auckland that ends up as a cave-crawl through fissures.
The volcano is at once existential abyss and the savage god, grumbling in slumber. Ranging from upliftingly lyrical (dinky steam ferries with their white wakes plying the harbour, “[the sea’s] eyes a kiss-hungry blue/green”) to the ploddingly literal (lotsa facts about geology and Maoritanga), Fitchett hymns the “queen city of a hundred lava-lavas” the way Holman hymns the West Coast. You sense a wistful search for ancient sacred mysteries amid the gritty truths of scientific positivism. The fantasia finally grinds to a halt with the provision of a comprehensive – and somewhat distracting in a poetry book – reading list.
West Auckland poet Paula Green is, on the evidence of her third collection Crosswind, another splendid rhapsodist, soaring like a kite to bob and weave. In her book’s first section, “Famished for the Land”, she is rapturous in Italy, a favourite haunt, and ecstatic on Auckland’s West Coast beaches, another favourite haunt. In the second section, “Lounge Suite”, Green turns from drinking in scenery to wringing out responses to specific artworks by 15 artists (Denis O’Connor, Sofia Tekela-Smith) whose pieces have been encountered casually, then meditated upon at length. In the third section, “Westbound and Floating”, she’s inspired by dust-gathering vinyl 70s rock albums, first heard in adolescence, to rhyme and chime fragments of the lyrics of favourites and make them resound with her memories. New poems are formed from old refrains, and thus done and dusted, they go on playing in the mind in synaptic flashes and bursts.
Green is a knockout poet of great mellifluousness; she has a need for verbal magnificence, and she makes us feel that need, too.
For North Shore poet Sonja Yelich, in her debut Clung, poetry is all about connection. When she is stuck at home with four young children, various electronic devices, especially her “small Sony transistor”, become a lifeline to elsewhere, and radio announcers and commentators – Mary Wilson, Nicola Wright, Jonny Diamond – become familiar friends. Nowadays, collecting media feeds is a kind of sweatshop activity as we hunch in front of our screens or clamp up inside our headsets, and we are atomised and made frantic by it.
Yelich is the media consumer as clever hijacker, taking over “infotainment” and brilliantly empowering herself by reworking what she picks up: “War is a 30 second commercial/made in the Philippines from the fingers of kids.” Her vocabulary pulls apart bits: “al jazeera”, “sky dish”, “cellphone”, “text messaging” “the old apple mac” “google.com” – and status:
some blonde chic was picking off her kid from the school gateway – the green forest SUV pumped in idle …
Her radio to her “lonely ear”, her eye on “the busy cities/of t.v.”, Yelich probes the creepy emotional exploitation implicit in all this market forces gadgetry by tabulating the days and their frenetically trumpeted news hours, her own mounting resistance – “you can turn wellington/off with your thumb” – alternating with a jokey go-with-the-flow acceptance: “we empty our bladders the same all over the world”.
Subversion is in her nature, from her slightly skew-whiff take on English (her background is Dalmatian) to an anarchic ability to play the new technology like toys (for which one suspects she also gives thanks to her lateral-thinking children).
The last-mentioned four poets – exuberant users of language, while being sceptical of its premises – are all published by Auckland University Press. So is Murray Edmond, who with his latest volume Fool Moon confirms that he and Michele Leggott constitute figureheads of what might loosely be termed a carnivalesque school, whose manifesto might be an Edmond line: “inside the dictionary at night the words come back to life”.
Poet and Auckland University drama lecturer, Edmond combines a hypersensitivity to the ambiguous music of language with a well-honed sense of theatre. His poems are like stage displays, special effects whose trademark is their author’s wizardry, his ability to demonstrate “pure language power”.
Building on the shifting ground of philosophical uncertainty about language, Edmond constructs crazy edifices that ring true. Schooled in surrealism’s tenets, he knows, for example, how to make Romanian dictators Nicolae and Elena dance to his tune, and gets Imelda counting the cost of her infamous shoes.
At his wittiest Edmond is very witty indeed, as in “Ballad of 1984”, where he tells us of one who “only went to the shops for milk/and when he came back his house was gone”. This poor sap ends up auditioning for the role of himself when his life is turned into a reality TV show, but ends up fobbed off with a minor role as the milkman. In “Mitimiti”, Edmond proves himself a clear-sighted imagist of the first order: “dawn dawned cream and blue/you could stir it with a stick.”
Words have their own animism, their own life. Edmond sets out to catch that life on the wing and often succeeds. Sometimes, though, his showboating – the long lists of phrases saying the opposite of what they mean – can grow wearying. Better to remember the beauty Edmond conjures up, a flow of imagery that leads, for example, from Tucson, Arizona, to Warsaw, to Kuwait, to Dakar and back again to the tidal rip at Whaainga-roa “weeping” for that exemplary voyager and fallen comrade-in-poetry Alan Brunton. Poems are shuffled like cards and placed in sections, then linked with photographs by Joanna Forsberg.
And, to crown his enterprise, in the Douglas Wright-inspired “Inland”, Edmond reveals the poet as soul-navigator, navigating language and finding landfall there, or at least comic relief:
attempts to spell god variously foundered
bog and gob and dod and gog and famously dog
there came a time when
the farmer had to shoot his dog for worrying the sheep.
THE MERINO PRINCESS: Selected Poems, by Bernadette Hall (VUP, $29.95); OCCASIONAL: 50 Poems, by Owen Marshall (Hazard Press, $25); THE LATE GREAT BLACKBALL BRIDGE SONNETS, by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Steele Roberts, $24.95); LEARNING TO LIE TOGETHER, by Diane Brown (Godwit, $22.95); TE ATA KURA: The Red-Tipped Dawn, by Apirana Taylor (Canterbury University Press, $24.95); MATUHI: NEEDLE, by Hinemoana Baker (VUP $29.95); THE RED TRAM, by C K Stead (AUP, $24.99); PALAVER LAVA QUEEN, by Sue Fitchett (AUP, $24.99); CROSSSWIND, by Paula Green (AUP, $27.99); CLUNG, by Sonja Yelich (AUP $21.99); FOOL MOON, by Murray Edmond (AUP $27.99).