Thursday, January 22, 2015

Recent New Zealand Poetry Collections Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

Bullet Hole Riddle
Miriam Barr
Steele Roberts

The first collection, Bullet Hole Riddle by Auckland poet and National Poetry Day Coordinator, Miriam Barr is a powerful three-part narrative examining, amongst other things, memory, relationships, violence, secrets and catharsis. The opening poem landscapes the words and themes to come:

            At the time
            There was too much to say
            so she said nothing

            The words knotted their arms together
            all octopus and impenetrable ocean

            swam furiously
            but could not find the surface

            Silence; disclosure; Invisibility; exposure: these are the issues which sustain Bullet Hole Riddle. In the first section, ‘Bullet’, poems such as ‘Constructions’, ‘Paradox’, the titular poem and ‘Lesson’ enrich these matters and, in so doing, the overarching narrative of hidden abuse.


            At that age
            all you know
            is that this put stones
            in bellies

            I first learn the words
            at intermediate school
            and realise

            but say nothing

            The body worked
            despite me


            The legs did not
            run me away

Swallow all my voices

            This is my first lesson
in how secrets
            have teeth

            As in all violent relationships, admission and revelation are indirect acts; the same too in Bullet Hole Riddle. The second section, ‘Hole’ and the third section, ‘Riddle’ progress the story through implicit, impressionistic means:

            I am dry
            as a beetle



            to drink
            the water 

            Verses such as ‘Fox’, ‘Tributaries’, ‘Waves’ and ‘Storytime for Hans Christian Anderson’, tease out the intricate aspects of the plot through sharp, musical language and a sharper eye for imagery.


            A sparrow can live for sixty years
            in the right conditions
            at the top of the hierarchy
            in a predator-free place

            A person can live
            for a little over one hundred summers
            the sparrows in the flax
            teaching their young to fly
            low at first
            then higher and higher
            further away

            One hundred summers
            the tall grass in seed
pollen on the water
the little red rowboat
our path across the bay
            Barr’s career as a performance poet belonging to the likes of The Literatti is reflected in the crafted nature of her language, and the deep mood and atmosphere which results in her book. If abuse as a subject matter sounds distasteful, reality – as the recent case of The Roast Busters testifies – proves the ongoing need to examine, to voice and to understand topics which, if they go unspoken, continue to cause pain. In this, Bullet Hole Riddle is a brave, necessary, graceful example of which can result when honesty meets exquisite art.    


Bill Sutton
Steele Roberts

Hawkes Bay author and literary activist (not to mention former scientist, Labour MP, 1984-1990 and senior policy analyst) Bill Sutton offers a first collection which brims, like its originator, with activity. Science, politics, the family, geography, classical music, astronomy: Jabberwocky covers a lot of territory, personal and public; as the opening poem illustrates.


            Half way up
   I stop
to listen to the tui
weaving her notes –
each triple makes a stitch.

She twists and turns
to cover the tree
with birdsong
then flies to the next one.

Nobody watches her
marking her borders
but everyone
with feathers hears her.

I resume climbing
my favourite gully
step by

and nobody sees me
occupying it
but when I meet a dog
he knows.

            These are poems structured cleverly, dexterously to lead the reader through a journey of the mind and senses. In the collection’s first section, ‘Brillig’ (taken, like the other sections and, indeed, the title of the book from the Lewis Carroll masterpiece), poems like ‘Gods and planets’, ‘The moons of Jupiter’, ‘Unfathomable’ and the titular poem follow suit:


            They pictured me as a monster
            in that children’s story book
            but look at these beautiful toves –
can you honestly call them slithy?      
            Doesn’t a jabberwock have hands,
            eyes, a heart, like other creatures?
            If you cut him, does he not bleed?
            When the wolves and bears are gone
the great forests flattened
even the foxes hunted down
do you think I’ll be spared?...

I never expected justice.
My hope is someone survives
to see these man-things finally turn
their technology on themselves
cutting back the population
and giving the animals a chance.
That’d be my idea of a frabjous day.
‘Callooh! Callay!’ would be ringing out
from every unpolluted wabe
and the mome raths outgrabe.

Where the structure is tight and well-crafted, the layers seamed into each poem, and the collection as a whole, are deceptively immense. As the above poem symbolizes, this is a book built upon alternate worlds: literary, figurative, topographic, administrative, domestic. And yet, each poem being its own self-contained environ, they revivify, individually and collectively, the work of mirror-writing they homage. If, in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (Carroll, 1871) mysterious verse is given meaning and voice by holding it up to its own reflection, there is an ongoing sense in Sutton’s Jabberwocky of the poet holding a mirror up to subject and reader to disclose sense and truth. At times, such disclosure is deeply personal:

An inharmonious season

Vietnam pitched me into politics –
I listened to Holyoake and Marshall
argue for sending New Zealand troops
and promised to oppose it.

Next day a typed notice went up
on the student union noticeboard
We the undersigned support sending troops …
I spent the week fuming

until a second notice appeared
We the undersigned do NOT support …
signed by me and my friends –
a surprisingly large cohort.

Students were as divided on war
as the rest of the Western world
but for the next two elections
most New Zealanders voted National.

When I came back from Scotland in ‘72
the tide had finally turned
Labour was elected in a landslide
and our troops were brought home

no special welcomes for them
only looks that said ‘loser’
when they applied for jobs
or bought a beer at the local RSA.

Today on broadband I watched a woman
younger than me apologise
on behalf of all our people
for the treatment of those men

and later I went for a walk alone
in the cold autumn sunshine
telling myself the world has changed
there are new issues to fight over

and the yellow, red and brown leaves
from an inharmonious season
trampled into the mud together
will at least make a fertile tilth.

Such a confessional tone also frames poems like ‘Letter to a friend’, ‘Uncle Sid’ and ‘Wheelchairing’. Elsewhere, however, the expose offered by the poet is far more stridently global, as in poem such as ‘Coming to a theatre near you’.
            For this reviewer, though, the most luscious moments in Sutton’s Jabberwocky occur when the poet retreats into memory and confesses – some might say wistfully – a sense of place and time lost or imagined as idyllic in remembrance:

            The gliders

            One year we all made gliders
            I said to my friends from Queensland
and launched them from the playground
down that rolling grassy slope
to the bottom of the gully.

As we stood there looking
I felt again the trepidation
of that far-off ten-year-old boy
holding his fragile construction
of balsa wood and glue

and then the exhilaration
as it soared out of his hand
down through the shimmering air
weaving and bobbing like a dragonfly
all the way to the rushes.

Then as one the other boys
launched their own gliders
but like the volley of javelins
thrown by Penelope’s suitors
all of them fell short –
none of them found their mark

and there was no need for Telemachus
to bring swords or shields –
a few quick smiles from the girls
standing watching our contest
were the final seal of my joy.

The Night We Ate the Baby
Tim Upperton
HauNui Press

As his first poetry collection, A House on Fire (Steele Roberts, 2009) proved, Manawatu poet Tim Upperton is a rare writer, ably to evoke deep impressions and experiences in a few, cadent words. His track-record in recent years has only enriched his growing literary stature with wins in the 2011 Bronwyn Tate Memorial International Poetry Competition and 2012 and 2013 Caselberg Trust International poetry Competitions.
The Night We Ate the Baby adds to Upperton’s standing as an exceptionally gifted poet. The book is part of a triumvirate of works by Manawatu poets (companioned by Leonel Alvarado’s Driving with Neruda to the Fish ‘n’ Chips and Joy Green’s Surface Tension, printed collectively under the ‘Kete Series’ banner).
The first poem in Upperton’s collection, a caution to the poet’s daughter, sets the tone:


            For Ruth
Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
-          ‘The city does not sleep’

New Age mystics. Wave-particle physics.
Federico Garcia Lorca, that all-night talker.
The law. The rot inside the apple core.
All dawdlers. Power walkers. Tattoo
parlours. Death metal concerts.
Poetry readings that go on for hours.
Cigarettes. White-singleted men in bedsits.
Responsibilities. Provincial cities.
Representation on committees.
Bad sex. Rainforest decks. Sunday best.
Other people’s crises. Lychees. Waste
of breath. At all costs, avoid death.
Too much sun. Too much of one things.
Wagner’s Ring. Paintings of cows at eventide.
Cows in formaldehyde. Sentimentality
and cynicism. Literary criticism. Impartiality.
Anyone with a knife. The good life.

            Impressively, the power of the lyric drives the power of the message, a potent symphony. The same is true of other poems in The Night We Ate the Baby such as ‘Valediction’, ‘You Want the Truth?’ and the Caselberg competition winning, ‘Everything is possible’.
Form is also offered in multifarious, harmonious ways. There’s a sonnet, a ‘fonnet’, multiple prose-poems of various lengths, list poems and even this clever ghazal (definition from The Poetry Archive:

Obituary ghazal

I want to die like Vallejo, in Paris or New York or
Tokyo in the rain. but first I want a poem in The New Yorker.

We scan the menu. Beef, pork or chicken on rye.
We’ve become a bad cartoon in The New Yorker.

I consume films like wine. Cork or screwtop?
I sound like Anthony Lane in The New Yorker.

We don’t go to work. Or get out of bed. Instead,
we re-read ‘Shouts & Murmurs’ in The New Yorker.

Jane’s afraid of online stalkers. Me too, I say.
Jane’s not from around here. She’s a born New Yorker.

I call and call. I talk or leave my name on answerphones.
It’s Upperton, after Updike in the index of The New Yorker.

If death is an ongoing refrain in the poems in this collection (‘Small coffins’, ‘At the cemetery’, ‘Hey! Schapelle Corby attempts suicide’ …), it is balanced, indeed conquered by the exuberant life – of words, of experience, of advice – in the book. When the author dedicates the first poem to his daughter, what he’s really doing is laying the foundations for a rule book on survival, on poems that come thereafter which show us how to live gloriously, dangerously, uncompromisingly:


Goodbye, bagel, table for one.
Coffee, cigarette. Warmth of the sun.

Goodbye, sparrow. Goodbye, speckled hen.
Goodbye, tomorrow. Goodbye, remember when.

Goodbye pepper, goodbye, salt.
Goodbye, sour and bitter things. And honey. Malt.

Goodbye whiskey, cabernet, beer.
Goodbye, Christmas. Goodbye, New Year.

Goodbye mortgage, taxes, and bills,
renovator’s makeover, rotten windowsills,

lovers, hatreds, kid pen-pal from Mumbai.
Old body that I’ve come to know. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Siobhan Harvey is the author of 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award winning poetry collection, Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as co-editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House, 2014). 
She is a lecturer at The Centre for Creative Writing, Auckland University of Technology. Recently, her work has been published in Landfall, Pilgrimage (US), Stand (UK) and Segue (US). She was shortlisted for the 2015 Janet Frame Memorial Award and was runner-up in 2014 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition, 2012 Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize (Aus), 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition and 2011 Landfall Essay Prize, as well as being nominated for the Pushcart Prize (US). 
The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a ‘Poet’s Page’ devoted to her work. 

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