Blues in the night, John Allison

Late Love Songs
Rob Jackaman
Hazard Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1877161446

Music Therapy
Peter Olds
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $17.95
ISBN 1869420233

Night of Warehouses: Poems 1978-2000
Stephen Oliver
HeadworX, $26.95,
ISBN 0473073889

I’ve never written a locomotive poem; not even a train one. Probably Rob Jackaman has never actually written a train poem either, but still there are a lot of them passing through his poems. Or rather, he is often passing through his poems in trains.

The development of railways was synchronous with that of Romanticism. Turner was the first to paint a locomotive, Whitman the first to dedicate a poem to one. And Jackaman’s themes belong with trains in this regard; he is a Romantic, and a romantic – two reasons perhaps why his work occurs infrequently in anthologies.

My own association with trains has had three phases: a 1950s childhood riding the main trunk line; a student’s experience of the infamous “cabbage train” overnight from Christchurch to Picton; and mid-life journeys across Europe. It was this last phase that resonates most closely with the train-moods I find in Jackaman’s poetry: reflections on lost love, or late or last love – on exile from love’s country:

I’ve never known why (some) women find me
attractive. Certainly I’m not good
to look at: I guess it’s the kind of fasc-
ination you get for roadkill and other
fatal
accidents.
(“Proem/Coda”)

He has always done self-deprecation well. And that lingering emphasis on the first syllable of the split “fasc-ination” demonstrates his sure sense for voicing his poems. I have to read Jackaman’s poetry aloud to catch its cadences, to find my way through its field/form (which in his case is less rhythmic-visual than rhythmic-tonal). At times I’m reminded of e e cummings, not only by the shape but by the tone:

The man sees this and knows it (without
saying no) but how
sad his eyes are
the reader who
at a distance
seems to be me.
(“Towards the Midnight Sun”)

 

But Jackaman really admires Philip Larkin, and I sense that shows in the parts I tend to like least:

Then it was on the train back south I shared
a second-class compartment with three jocks
on the overnight to King’s Cross, up
to London for the funeral of a mate
who’d been working on the hard top.
(“Towards the Midnight Sun”)

 

It’s really unfair to excerpt such examples, as one quality of Jackaman’s verse is its apparent “prosiness”. (I mean this in the sense that we’ve been speaking prose all our lives.)
He does go on a bit. But it does sound like him. And then there are those nice turns, the cunning stealth of language in its lineations:

Travelling south (as so often)
by train I re-establish
kinship with the rails                slipping straight
and easy
down the map
(“Southbound”)

 

That parenthesis – south so often? by train so often? both? It’s good. There’s a lot of good poetry to be found in these Late Love   Songs, waiting to be freed by the voice. There’s a generational thing too – I know all the songs he quotes. My favourite poem is the sequence “Bare Wires”, too spread-eagled/tessellated to be effectively quoted from. The ironies, the puns, the anxious gasped rhythms, the shredded syntax of the last (lines? words?) – it’s quite electrifying.

2

In the mid-1970s, I studied music therapy with Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins. Paul’s empathy and piano skills were stunning, his interpretations of the pathos in Mozart, cathartic. One evening we went together to hear a famed filial duo play Mozart. At the end of a glittering rendition, Paul awoke from feigned slumber and clapped loudly. He then turned to me and above the applause spoke very loudly (as Americans can) to explain: “You must understand I’m clapping the composer! Mozart was an angel exiled to a human body – there’s real tragedy there, not the finger-exercises of these chattering monkeys.”

Amidst that austere Christchurch audience, I was a little embarrassed, and of course simultaneously proud. He was, after all, right; Mozart is not musical wallpaper. And, in the music therapy courses, again and again we heard through taped case studies how music can reach through barriers to engage both intellectually and emotionally disabled children. Such power!

As a hobbyist musician and vocational poet, I have always envied that primal power of music. It takes hold of people, whereas people have to take hold of poems. So when I came to Peter Olds’s new collection, Music Therapy, for a while I was wanting to be taken, looking for the music; and then I realised I would have to make a concerted effort to take hold of these poems.

They are poems about mental illness, and in a very real way about rehabilitation. The book is in three sections between institutional-green covers. The first of these, titled “Uncovering the Hospital”, is a particular kind of archaeology, an exhumation – in the 1980s Olds returned to Seacliff to live in a hut near the now-demolished mental hospital. As he puts it in his notes, “All of the Seacliff district is still littered with the hospital’s body parts.” Here, he rebuilds his life amidst the ruins. The poems feature that juxtaposition of simplicities and complexities characteristic of Chinese poems – the simplicities of rustic existence, living in relation to nature’s exigencies – and the complexities of our selves, living in relation to our multi-layered and peopled pasts:

plastic bags full of plums & wild apples – stories
of madmen full of goat’s head soup slitting
the throats of virgins – simple things
like chooks scratching in the compost
home-baked bread & elderberry wine
(“Uncovering the Hospital”)

 

The poem “Music Therapy” in the eponymous second section embodies the disturbed and sometimes disturbing catharses of therapy sessions, the theme throughout this part of the book:

When the needle finds the groove
there’s an awkward hiss, like blood,
like sex.
We remember
though we don’t want to remember.
(“Music Therapy”)

 

I’m not comfortable reading these poems, so I must concede they are successful.

The final section, “The Dead Woman’s House”, is set by the sea, with the particulars of fishing, locals, creatures, and the intrusions of progress providing the situations for Peter Olds’s reflections on impermanence:

ghostly laughter
colder wind
sound of water
going home
(“Night Fishing”)

 

It’s an uneasy mood, a conditional truce reached with existence. In one or two places (eg, the first stanza of “One Morning on the Jetty”), the writing could have been more tightly edited. But it works. Here, there is not much music, there are no angels (except us all); yet many who seem exiled to the human body, and tragedy, yes …

3

I reviewed Stephen Oliver’s last collection Unmanned for New Zealand Books (June 2000), enthusing about its diction and musical textures. (Some of my comments are pastiched on the back cover of Night of Warehouses.) This new volume, selected from books published between 1978 and 1999 and including a section of new poems, offers a timely opportunity to observe his development. Oliver himself, in JAAM 15, has said some things about this. There, in his biographical essay I find the following:

The first engagement in one’s writing apprenticeship is usually with the flare and brilliance of image: hopefully, and in the intervening years, the intellect and one’s ability to abstract and represent ideas constructs a superstructure out of the “small felicities” beyond metaphor. Personal vision must emerge from the image and not end with it.

 

I’ve acknowledged that “flare and brilliance of image” in the earlier review; now I want rather to consider that “superstructure”. Stephen Oliver has something to say and, although I personally disagree with the vision he arrives at, I celebrate his departures and journeys. He is a pessimist and existentialist, while I am not. In this regard he is fashionable, but modernist fashionable and therefore perhaps outside some of the current New Zealand fashions.

His early work suggests important lessons gained from the Imagists (lines such as “moving against the casement windows the sun is over / the house & with one slow bounce outside the macrocarpa”, and “The grey overcoat of the sky flung open!” stand with the best of T E Hulme). There are other modernist resonances in this first book & Interviews – with the early Eliot and Pound, for instance – and why not? They did mark out the English-speaking urban poet’s ground:

The bleep of lie detectors
on the branches
on the sonic trees
pressed out under an over/pass
(“epilogue”)

 

Meanwhile, the Welsh bardic voices of Hopkins and Thomas inspired his lyricism. Oliver has also named some of the earliest influences upon his thinking: Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson, F H Bradley, Thomas Merton… It’s an interesting list.

But there is something consistently present which constitutes the distinctive voice and mind of Stephen Oliver. It’s there in his excellent second book, Earthbound Mirrors, which reads so well as an extended sequence that I cannot quote from it. It is a way of seeing and saying. “If one can maintain and develop an informed belief in life then the lyric may give way to a sustained and original seeing”, he writes of his intentions. It is this voice and mind which intrigues me as it develops through subsequent books. I don’t know that his way of seeing is original, nor what he is saying: it conforms with that existential view of the human which M H Abrams describes as “an isolated being who is cast into an alien universe … possessing no inherent human truth, value, or meaning … an existence which is both anguished and absurd.” What is most original for me is the itemising of the seen, and the way of saying:

The clouds I spoke of, augmented, became italic
and passed through the stilled serif of the Acropolis
as did the kites that worked the air – bluish
like the freshly exposed socket of a bone.
(“Waltzing the Gods”)

 

It can be such beautifully articulated anguish, such evocative absurdity. And then sometimes, just incantatory beauty:

closed the theory of darkness we call the night
opened the small recognition we call the stars
parted the separations we call the winds
resolved the minute gravities we call stillness
(“Waltzing the Gods”)

 

In Guardians, not Angels, we find shapes which are the antecedent for many of the poems in Unmanned: a structure of continuous verse, and sharply ironic imagery and commentary twisted through its lines by a wiry syntax. Poems such as “As the Painter Moves Towards his Canvas”, “Nicholas Charles Boscha 1791 – 1856”, “John Keats Came On Too Strong”, and “The Decadeers” in this regard are notable (and also sometimes mischievous):

Stead’s skull hangs over the ripped off
limbs of embryo poets at El Academia.
Jacques Derrida signs up, notches
a trope on the butt of language
(“The Decadeers”)

 

Islands of Wilderness is ironically subtitled “a romance”; it is a bleakly pessimistic sequence of short poems, a collage of images from a world seen through despair. The tone is set in the first selected piece

her brow arched into a bow,
dismissively. His discoveries
sank, this in turn gave
rise to pity, and so on.
(“15.”)

 

And so on. The pathos plumbed in these poems gains effect from Oliver’s precisions in observation and language. Notably, in this sequence the sky is less obvious than in his other work. Perhaps this is significant in such sad poems. The sky and its features (especially clouds) are constant presences in his landscape; yet, for all his facility with images from nature, Oliver is not a nature poet. His sky is a billboard for the human condition writ large:

somewhere, the country breathes largely in the dark
behind the comfort-stop. Overhead, the tilting crater
lake
of the night sky, stars caught up on its black surface.
(“Copestone for a Nation”)

 

But there is no “comfort”, there is no “stop” (“Whatever passed this way, has past, passed away in the / direction you’re headed, finally”), and the stars are “caught up” in a sky that seems to be “tilting” towards apocalypse, towards that exile from comfort that is Stephen Oliver’s theme. Here, one just might “cope”. The last lines of the last poem are surely a coda for the whole book:

                      God himself rubs his hands
at sunset but you cannot get warm.
(“Wolfhound Century”)

 

John Allison is a teacher and poet now living in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne.

 

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