Sunday, April 15, 2012
JUST THEN - Harry Ricketts' latest collection reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith
Published by Victoria University Press
Harry Ricketts has an irreverent conversational tone to his poems and when I read them, I can hear his voice. It is this aspect of his poetry that I particularly like. There is no big poetic artifice and his topics are frequently personal, often very tender, and usually laced with a mischievous irony. The collection opens with a poem about a visit to the El Prado museum, looking at religious paintings and what they portend, with the witness being the poet as an adult, looking with a critical eye at the whole religious context but remembering too his callow young self, with a head full of ‘the Velvet Underground’.
The first stanza of this first poem ‘El Prado’ sets the tone rather well:
‘A damp morning, just a touch nippy
for January. You’re here
in this indoor meadow, this art-house barn,
randy for epiphany,
or at least hoping to be surprised.
I love the line ‘randy for epiphany’ and it is this sort of irreverence that delights and too, surprises.
And of course, I have to give the usual pre-amble (disclosure), that I am a fan of both the poet and the person and this harks back to being a newbie writer in the undergraduate Short Fiction course that Harry Ricketts ran through the now IIML and at which I was one of his disciples. Of course I like the man. He is so unerringly kind, generous and affirming, and a man without pretensions. He likes to poke a gentle stick at pretensions, both academic, religious and poetic I think. One of my favourite little poems of his, not in this collection, is his response to Philip Larkin’s ‘This be the verse’ titled ‘Footnote to Larkin’. It’s fun, but somehow it both laughs with Larkin and nails the reader at the same time.
So, back to this collection. The cover is St Raphael’s transfiguration – a very colourful and slightly comic cover replete with speech bubbles and an entree to the first poem where the focus is not on Christ (he’s not on the cover), but on the fairly famous young possessed boy, eyes wide and starring. The poem asks ‘why does that boy a-goggle at Christ levitating’ I’m not sure, but I think the lad is seized by demons more than excited about Christ, but who am I to quibble and it works for the poem. Further along the poem describes St Barbara by Parmigianino as knowing her fate (something in the curve of her lip), and suggests that perhaps Mary “A nice girl lost in a book” (Robert Campin’s Annunciation) is apparently “unaware of the heavenly rays around her head...Gabriel patiently kneeling, wings half-furled, with some pretty big news.”. I so like the under-statement of pretty big news. And as a reader of these poems, you don’t have to be fully aware of the paintings to engage with these poems, you can guess at the images with some knowledge of the themes.
I like ‘Quarantine Island’ (ouch it’s a wedding poem) and it is a version of a villanelle I think, but not a strict villanelle with the recurring and lovely line ‘Love is and is not the point’ and this
‘Tempests, typhoons, the taniwha stowed away
in the hold: all can be weathered
Love is and is not the point.”
It seems to have been written especially for friends at their wedding, and I’m wondering did they marry on Soames (Matiu) Island, or is the poet being mischievous imagining marriage as a Quarantine Island (or indeed both of these).
There are some very personal friendship poems and the one I really liked is ‘Dear Nigel, 10 things I never got to say to you’ a list poem which reveals the tenderness of both the poet and his poetry. There’s another list poem, ’Seven things Nigel told me about Bruce Chatwin’. Having only just discovered ‘The Songlines’ myself this year, I was intrigued.
And there’s a short little joke-poem called ‘The Poetry Slam’ which made me chuckle, and reminded me of the Ballroom Cafe on the third Sunday of each month, many of us clutching our scraps of poems - some great and some awful, but yes, as Harry writes “The next line, it’s true, makes a mention of you; after that, it’s all me, me, me, me.”
I attended the launch of this collection which was quite a flash affair, hosted by VUW in The Exchange, Atrium, with very yummy food and lovely wines. Harry read a humorous poem about a second-hand book from Arty Bees ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ awarded to Anne Falkner in 1957 for third prize in attendance. Of course it provoked plenty of laughter, the idea that one could be a prize winner for such an achievement, as intended, but the poem moves from this slightly mocking tone to a gentle enquiry of the original owner, as to the circumstances of her surrendering this book “clearing up before the final move your children insist on...”
The poet is unafraid of rhyme and that’s something I rather like. There are rhyme poems, love poems, personal poems, and of course a cricket poem or two. I say of course, because Harry Ricketts wrote the delightful and highly successful Awa Press essay on ‘How to catch a cricket match’. Indeed the collection ends with a glimpse of cricket on Kelburn Park, friends on the shaggy grass. (Hmm, Wellington being the small village that it is, I think I know one of those cricket players.)
The collection has a sort of framing with the second to last poem titled ‘At the Getty’ with more musings on the annunciation, saints and sinners, and nice wry look at St Ursula who is “quite charming”; a mention of “foppish youths” and delightfully, the bonking of Bathsheba, and this time the poet finds something very personal that stops him in his tracks.
How fortunate are we in New Zealand to have such a wide range of poetic voices and beautiful poetry collections that reflect both our local and our not so local. Harry Ricketts is an expat Englishman, someone who is both at home here and who was once at home in England. This brings a particular texture and flavour to his writing where the past is indeed as they say ‘a foreign country’.
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.