Tuesday, June 04, 2013

NZ Poetry reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

Great South Road and South Side 
Tony Beyer
Puriri Press
$25 (+ $2.50 postage)

Auckland poet Tony Beyer’s latest book of poems, Great South Road and South Side is, at once, lyrical examination, memento and homage of place and space – namely, the South Auckland of the writer’s past and present. The first part of the book is devoted to the ten part poem, ‘Great South Road’, a literary and figurative crossroads of history and remembrance, 

the road was
            built to visit war
upon Tainui
paved to transport
shitting cattle
to the works
but succeeded
            by the motorway
to Drury
            boasts no more
vineyards or
            market gardens
and few
            shaded groves
except the one
            at Papakura

            Description and language, evocations of the inhabitants, are down-to-earth, factual and frank. While the form (left arranged line followed by indented line) reinforces the fundamental poetic premise at work here: that the landscape voiced and depicted is a layered amalgam of the previous and the present. This is a motif which Beyer extends in the second part of the book, ‘South Side’ as poems such as ‘the depot’, ‘the centre’, ‘the remnant’ and ‘the city’ illustrate:

the city

i suppose a city built on an isthmus
was always going to be a bottleneck
all roads and all manners of transport

the place everyone wants
something those of us who were born there
sometimes resent
as when I lived in lower Parnell
and infill throttled it….

The poet as voyeur of changing times; the poet bearing witness; the poet as political and social commentator: these descriptors have never been truer where Tony Beyer and Great South Road and South Side are concerned. These rich poems, imbued by knowledge, vision and belief, are made the more enjoyable by Puriri Press’ fine book production, utilizing a stark but redolent image by Whanganui artist Catherine Macdonald as cover art. Wonderful.

this hill, all it’s about is lifting it to a higher level
Vaughan Gunson
Steele Roberts

As the title infers, landscape, its illustration and iconography, also underpins Hikurangi poet, Vaughan Gunson’s first collection. An early poem, ‘the olive tree’ gives a taster of the ornate language, imagery and themes to come:

the olive tree
the olive tree given to us after the war
never looked like those of Greek verse
which English poets went looking for.

what sorrows? & how could a tree be
deathless? useful I understood,
to make oil for food, warmth & light.

not until I pruned the lower branches,
the gnarled trunk of the maturing tree
revealed – giving it that classic look

& room enough to sit in the afternoon
under its lacework of silver green,
breathing ten thousand years of memory.

            If the poems in this hill, all it’s about is lifting it to a higher level are born of authentic place and space, they are also formed from creative soils – literary and musical reverence, political critique, the toil of young people’s lives. Poems such as ‘before the music starts’, ‘after reading Sam Hunt’s poem ‘Better than this?’ (or why poetry is worthwhile)’ and ‘Parisian backstreets are not here’ remind us of this. As does perhaps the book’s finest poem, one used for study in Level 2 NCEA English exams, ‘fastfood workers’,

they burst from the paper bag
running like salt from shaker
scattering flecks of taste

they gush like soft drink
push the button & they gurgle & froth
with youthful bubbles over the rim

they burn & sear like burger patties
on the grill, hot anger spits
from their mouths as they yell

they ooze like ice cream
filling every corner, every gap
compact with cold determination

they have sizzled in the fat
crisp as you like, now they’re
blocking arteries in the street.

The inversion of meaning and idea; the sumptuous, colloquial lexicon; the cadences evoked through repetitions and word plays: Gunson offers us young, rural, subterranean topography and mindset. The result gives us windows in worlds not often traversed by contemporary New Zealand poetry, as well as the promise of exciting work to come.

The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker
Bernadette Hall (Editor)
Canterbury University Press

Another poetry collection concerned with landscape, this one the terrain of the forgotten past; for The Judas Tree is a long overdue gathering of 55 poems by, what editor, Hall describes as, “New Zealand’s first woman war poet”, Christchurch’s Lorna Staveley Anker.  Anker, born on the day when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo (28th June 1914), and conducting marriage and motherhood during the Second World War wrote verses and essays concerned with the personal and cultural impact of war. The work Hall collects here confirms this, including poems such as ‘V. E. Day...and Neenish Tarts’, ‘Featherston’, ‘The Scent of Hay’ and, most redolently, ‘There are Degrees ...’, which runs:

            The troop train moves
                        rivets you,

            goodbye’s are tame
without war’s shadow
when senses will not die,

you are still aware
see hear touch pain
taste the raw salt.

From moving carriages
            as faces shrink
the universe stalls,

nameless you become dumb,
            without breath
inside the black membrane
to suffocate
            before paralysis.

            you will learn
                        how to pray.

            As of their time and about time as this poem and others, such as ‘Breasting a Thin Wind’, ‘Winter Gold’ and ‘Vision of Escape’, are they are also alive with such freshness of perspective, word choice and authorial control that we’re continually reminded of how contemporary – how relevant – they remain.

In The Judas Tree, the editor does a fine job of recognizing the numerous writers (Pat White, James Norcliffe, Michael Harlow....) who contributed to the literary development of Lorna Staveley Anker, and therein of contextualizing the vibrant literary scene evident in Christchurch in the 1970s and 1980s, of which Anker was a key part; but ultimately it is to Hall herself that credit must fall for returning to our attentions the work, life and import of her subject. 

About the reviewer
Siobhan Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts NZ, 2011), the book of literary interviews Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion (Cape Catley, 2010) and the poetry anthology Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals (Random House, 2009). Recently, her poetry has been published in Evergreen Review (Grove Press, US),Meanjin (Aus), Penduline Press – The New Zealand Issue (US), Snorkel (Aus) and Structo (UK). She’s Poetry Editor of Takahe and coordinates New Zealand's National Poetry Day. She was runner up in 2012 Dorothy Porter Prize for Poetry (Aus), 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Prize, 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems, and shortlisted for the 2012 Jane Frame Memorial Award for Literature. A Poet’s Page containing a selection of her recorded work and texts can be found on The Poetry Archive (U.K.), directed by Sir Andrew Motion.

Siobhan Harvey is a regular poetry reviewer on this blog.

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