Thursday, January 22, 2015
Recent New Zealand Poetry Collections Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey
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
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
I first learn the words
at intermediate school
but say nothing
The body worked
The legs did not
run me away
Swallow all my voices
This is my first lesson
in how secrets
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
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
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.
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
to listen to the tui
weaving her notes –
each triple makes a stitch.
She twists and turns
to cover the tree
then flies to the next one.
Nobody watches her
marking her borders
with feathers hears her.
I resume climbing
my favourite gully
and nobody sees me
but when I meet a dog
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:
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
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:
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: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/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.