Thursday, December 19, 2013

NZ Poetry reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

One Human in Height
Rachel O’Neill
Hue & Cry

Missing Someone or Something

My grandfather never met his father, except perhaps the
one time at a train station. When the old man brushed past
his shoulder, my grandfather hurried after, but no one he
knew was anywhere waiting. Sometimes by missing someone
or something, we don’t even know we have met ourselves

Unarmed is the perfect word to sum up the sensation generated by reading Rachel O’Neill’s clever, thought-provoking first book, One Human in Height. Paekakariki writer and visual artist, O’Neill offers a collection that mixes her writings and artistry and, like Sarah Jane Barnett’s 2013 New Zealand Post Book Award finalist, A Man Runs into a Woman, was innovatively published through the fundraising scheme, PledgeMe.

A series of 40 prose poems, One Human in Height’s focus is the family, their interactions and communications. In this, unsurprisingly, the author evokes her own relatives as characters in the fictional interplay and discourse, as in poems such as ‘Cracking up’, ‘We follow him around’ and ‘Homecoming’. The real becomes the imagined, the confession the invention. True experience, then, acts as a starting point, the inspiration for O’Neill’s generous creativity and word-play. We see this artistic resourcefulness at work in a poem like ‘My father’s memories’ which offers the following narrative:

I sat for a while on the dry stones, then headed home along
the beach. The sea’s pale back was turned to me and curved
up onto the sand. All around, the echo of skin on skin, the
lapping and ending of it. Turning, I saw a man drag a regular
garden barrow from the sea. He shunted past me muttering,
‘My father’s memories,’ as if each year he bore them on that
stretcher down to the water.

Like Sisyphus bearing the boulder to the top of the hill only to see it topple down once more to the base, this story, borne of remembered experience, turns – at O’Neill’s hand – into an elaborate, intimate epic. Other verses which portray a robber who plays an oboe between their stealing, a parachutist who free-falls into a family get-together and a talent show named Wicked Witch Idol further foster the sense of elaboration combined with intimacy.
Interspersed with authorial images taken from her ‘Love Letters to Barbara Cartland’ series, One Human in Height is an imaginatively rendered collection. The prose poem, that tricky mix of plot and music formed wondrously here to establish and promulgate a set of surreal existences that reach their innovative zenith with the sequence, ‘Students of Galaxies’ which concludes thus:

Geographer of Galaxies

His eyebrows were promising arches
His smile the universe as a whole
His nose contained an atlas
His forehead a galaxy of pictures
His ears pointed evenly towards the heavens
His teeth gleamed like astronauts
His eyes possessed long distances of dust
His pupils hinted at deep space, and with luck
His face was not a uniform expansion
but a safe place for ultimate questions.

Breath Dances
Peter Bland
Steele Roberts


First things first

Eyes open, breathe in, you’re
here again, with the sun
booming down and cicadas
stirring. Be still. Don’t
invent what doesn’t
need to be done. You’ve
lived too much of your life
in blind panic. It’s time
to leave that to massed ants
on the porch, or bees
going mad among
ripe daffodils. What
a blessing it is
to always be given
as much life as one
can imagine!...

As this poem intimates there’s a certain feeling of re-engagement with existence and the exhilaration which comes from that in Peter Bland’s latest collection. At nearly 80 year’s old (he’ll become an octogenarian in May 2014) and having lost his wife (and muse) a few year’s back, Bland gives us a book which one senses is much shaped by age and authorial/ poetic release from the past, its burdens and bereavements. Take a poem like ‘Mr. Maui and the music of the spheres’ as evidence of this:

Of late I’m besotted
by old cosmic longings,
I’m tuned to the rhythms
of a turning world
and every living thing
that turns with it. Wars,
lovers, mothers, children,
fellow travellers, lonely roads…
try getting your head
and heart round that lot
as well as the music
of the spheres! In
my need to renew
this sense of belonging
and what, of its own will,
comes to pass, I’m
paying attention
to small scents and breezes
and exploring the deserts
between blades of grass.

This delight found in the micro moments of life is also present in a series of nature poems with titles such as ‘Feeding the birds at dawn’, ‘Earth notes’, ‘Welcoming the sun…’ and ‘Mr. Maui starts hugging trees’.  Of the latter, (“I do it in secret’, writes Bland) the tree-hugging narrator admits to visions (“naked nymphs”) and fixations (“ancient pepper trees”) which suggest Bland, irrespective of his spiritual rebirth, has lost none of his poetic intent. Indeed, the thematic obsessions which have long underpinned his work remain, particularly an engagement with what it means to be ‘home’ and what it means to be a migrant. ‘We call it winter’, ‘A nostalgia for paradise’, ‘Remembering England’ and ‘Close to home’: here and elsewhere, Bland, newly cloaked in mysticism, proffers, as he always has proffered, a world of connections confused and distorted by living between two residences, never truly belonging in either:

Close to home

Coming close to home
I laugh and cry
barely knowing which is which,
or why it is the last of the wine
never seems to run dry.

Oceans have shrunk
to a childhood pond
and the road to Samarkand
was never more
than a dream. Now
ends and beginnings

meet under this tree
where, as evening comes,
I await my love. Speak,
old poet, Let her know
I’m here. Light a lamp
to show her the way.

     Rich in environmental and spiritual detail and motif, Breath Dances is a wise manual in learning, post-trauma, to live again, in discovering that the beauty of existence can be ascertained through feeding wild birds or listening to Mahler. In this, Bland’s new collection adds fresh texture and terrain to his extensive writings about migrant existence. 

Leonard Lambert
Steele Roberts

With a stunning cover image of a kakapo drawn by his wife, poet-artist Jan FitzGerald, Leonard Lambert has produced a new book, Remnants that has something of the wander about it too, as the opening poem about an active somnambulist illustrates:

Extreme Sports

I go mountaineering every night,
I fight to keep my nerve.
Mountain ranges turn into waves,
black walls coming on & on.
I’m going to drown.
I explore cathedral caves.
They compress into tunnels.
I can’t move, don’t dare to.
I come through, I’m brave.
I dive from a plane, it’s kerb-height.
I shatter and bleed.
I wake flat in my bed,
adventured out. I’m up all night

Other verses such as ‘The View over Cardiff Arms Park’, ‘Harbour Thoughts’ and ‘Voyagers’ not only strengthen the notion of the journeyman poet in this work, but additionally, like Bland, offer a thematic premise about the mystical found in everyday  travels and details. These matters are nowhere stronger than in the lyrical ‘A Morning Walk in the Later Days’, where:

On the muzzle of the dog
the first of grey
so winter comes.

The silver birch –
O ever young!
has not seen the flattened land.

My friend complains
of hungry winds
that eat away at his store of days.

His daughter, poised to fly,
is breaking news
but the world is old.

And the garden chair I made
tells how the dead are raised –
was it six months ago, or years, or days?

And like Bland, there’s a distinct sense offered through the subject matter of Lambert’s collection, that here is a man caught between two places, two states of being – here-there; past-present…. The elegies to the author’s father, ‘A Sussex Man in the Southern Seas’ and ‘Curtain Call’ especially evoke this:

My father was always making weather vanes.
You had to get your bearings, plot a course.
When he died we scattered his ashes on the wind.
Westerly squalls. Dad, it was never a day to put to sea.

Still, it’s the flora and the fauna which dominate this dazzling collection, offering beautifully framed counterpoints to our finite existence. Poems like ‘Riders to the Shore’, ‘Evensong’, ‘Walking in Our Time’ and the titular work place mankind as a single component of a far wiser, perpetual Nature:


Night parrot,
            wings like ferns,
Gondwana-green – all of a piece,
            this bird,
with the great brocade of it,
   1200 miles north to south,
old yet new-born,
            one thread pulled
and the whole would unravel,
            and did and did
                 and does.
Now only these,
   remnants of the ancient fabric –
kakapo kea kaka kereru kokako –
            calls and cries of return,
scraps of forest, strips of wind –
            and kiwi,
this small bothered bird,
   in the recess of his longer night


About the reviewer:
Siobhan Harvey is a poet, non-fiction writer, lecturer and anthologist She is the author of the poetry collection, Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts, 2011), the work of literary criticism,Words Chosen Carefully (Cape Catley, 2010) and the poetry anthology, Our Own Kind (Random House NZ, 2009). Her poetry manuscript, Nephology for Beginners is shortlisted for 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award. While her creative non-fiction has been published in Landfall, was Highly Commended in 2013 Landfall Essay Prize and runner up in 2011 Landfall Essay Competition. Recently, she was a guest writer at Queensland Poetry Festival.
Siobhan Harvey is a regular poetry reviewer on this blog.

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