Steele Roberts, $19.95,
Hazard Press, $21.95,
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
David Eggleton, street entertainer, licensed to rave, appears in a surprisingly subdued pose on the back cover of his latest collection. He is seen in a tapa- styled shirt, facing away from the camera. The shirt’s intricate surface of repetitive lines and designs dominates, while the poet himself is reduced to blackened profiles of head and leg.
The poems in Rhyming Planet are designed the same way, as a series of patterned exoskeletons. Their relentless images – often morphed into bizarrenesses such as “paranoid
bizoids”, “biosoft ultraplus”, and “Tequila Sunrise eclipse” – seem designed to produce a condition in the reader that is very like one of Eggleton’s own phrases: “hardwired right-sized sensory flooding”. The words themselves are always intrusive, achieving this effect by a combination of repetitions, alliterations, outrageous allusions, and calculated
zaniness. Eggleton is seen at full throttle in “Electric Puha
In baroque burgeramas, rococo cola kids
engage in an orgasmic billion burger binge.
From shoe-lift to facelift, one triumphant
rat grows human ear; sticky-tongue tiki;
cerebral cortex rot;
dog’s leg cocked against the family tree; blind
of interchangeable identities; privatised
Like Walt Whitman, Eggleton is a register of experience, curious about almost everything and overwhelming his readers with the volume and energy of his observations. Because he lacks Whitman’s self-preoccupation, however, the poems are more impersonal, rather like the recordings of a mobile seismograph, the spurts and zigs of the language reflecting the perturbations of places as diverse as Manukau Mall, Brisbane, Mount Aspiring, and “Overseasia”.
It is possible to savour lines such as “but endless waves are curling in, lyrically, / and their blue fathoms are freckled with light” (“Six Snaps for a Glossy Brochure”). In “Dutch Mountains”, he controls this facility with visual images to create a subtle fantasy about Tasman’s past and the origins of our perceptions of landscape, “a relationship between earth and sky / which floated round the world to find us.”
More commonly, however, there is a maelstrom of puns (often designedly awful – yes, “Chairman Miaou” is a poem about a cat), internal rhymes that brazenly announce themselves through their absurdity (“pumpkin … bumpkin”, “paddocks … padlocks”), bits of songs, familiar clichés, and slang. Oedipus becomes “the good keen bloke with a possum on his back”, while the peak of Mount Aspiring “leaps like the stuck-out tongue of a kapa haka dancer.” This frenetic exuberance is such that if one image doesn’t appeal, it doesn’t matter, for others will follow until, often at some seemingly arbitrary point, a spectacular line brings the poem to an end. Eggleton is showing us just how much pleasure there can be in language itself, by presenting a set of sustained improvisations and derangements.
This is very much poetry designed for live performance. Poems like “Forever Barbie” and “Cutlets for King Kumara” provide the lighter satire, while a series like “Farms” is more serious, even though history here can find itself reduced to the “harrumphing catarrh-rah-rah boom-de-ay” of the colonial militia and the titivation of tablecloths by the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers. Amidst the incongruities and absurdities are cutting social observations. It is as if the Allen Ginsberg of “Howl” had somehow been resurrected, but without the litanies of humourless denunciation (or the prophetic beard). If we are indeed living in hell, David Eggleton shows us that we can still enjoy it.
Alan Riach presents a very different voice. It is more reflective, sometimes tender, with moments of personal experience given their resonance by being located in particular places – Wellington Harbour, a bedroom, the garden, and the bleak islands and Atlantic coast of Scotland. Sometimes the poems in this collection, his first since 1995, are made in that zone where remembered feeling can dip towards mere nostalgia, but Riach usually avoids this danger by his feeling for a trueness to the moment. In “Drinan”, for instance, he takes the simplicity of a new room as his image for a beginning. The pattern develops:
like something unravelling, yet fought for,
as salmon do, rock pool between torrents, to one other
new room, flashing suspended in sunlight, space,
between the bright bannisters, river and air,
where every room is sunlight, telling you to stay …
These beginnings with the everyday allow a twist to a more general reflection to emerge without breaking the sense of a conversation with the reader. This is particularly so in the shorter poems in the first section, “Capstan Bar”. A later poem, “Clearances”, the title work, shows the strength of Riach’s method at its best. There is just the lightest of references to the forced depopulation of the Highlands. The helplessness of the people, the rubble of the houses, and the memories are drawn into the wider mystery of births and departures, which each new generation will also experience. It is raining, and a baby is crying at the noise on the tin roof, too young still to be the inheritor of memories or know that the signal for leaving is the easing of the rain.
Some of the poems in the “Storm Warning” selection are less successful. They are more declamatory, more self-consciously concerned with big issues. In “The Castle” we get not only Kafka’s Joseph K, but Stalin, Sisyphus, Iago, and something called “ocivity”. This broadside at inanity and the emptiness of evil, “imagination’s leprosy”, has too much huffing and puffing in it to work. The same is true of the following poem, “The Knight”. When Riach returns to his exploration of the moment, as he does in the following poems, one set in train travelling south from London, the other on a slope in his garden with bushes and cabbage trees, there is a greater sureness and finish.
Riach, who was an Associate Professor of English at the University of Waikato, is now working in Scotland, where he is a Reader in the Department of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. Many of the best poems in Clearances reflect his absorption with the landscape to which he has returned, rocky, ocean-battered, and inhuman, but one where one can know, as he says in “Passacaglia”,
moves beneath, a movement going on, under
the pressure of that carapace,
to all the trouble there is
to come when it reaches the sea.
Geoff Cochrane’s new book Acetylene combines the tough piss-taking poem and fragment with subtler pieces that contain the jag of unexpected perceptions. This is one of his strengths, the ability to share his own almost involuntary observations, patched together to make something that works.
In “Settlement”, a poem which seems at the start to be a standard reflection of the transformation of Wellington by colonialism, there is a final image of “a cop with a dud swipe-card”, who can’t get into the police garage. The clumsiness of the cop derives from one of the technological devices that is itself a supposed source of settler authority, but Cochrane avoids such spellings-out and dullnesses. He just drops in the image and lets the reader get on with it.
Sometimes there is a deliberate banality about his endings, the mountains that seem “real as buildings” (“The Tararuas”) or the information that “At number twenty-three there lives a chap / who produces radio programmes in his bedroom” (“Kiloherz”). There is a celebration throughout of the commonplace, which makes the occasional lyrical heightening stand out. His “Sportsmen’s Bar” is in every small town – Feilding’s Denbigh, Masterton’s Kuripuni Tavern, and the various Horse and Hounds:
The jockey shouts the farmer.
At six o’clock a freight train pours through town,
distributing a hush in which a gin
is squeezed from a bowser.
What else is in this moment?
A sense of sunny distances brought inside.
From pasture to ocean, limitless contentment.
When Cochrane records the history of an attraction/obsession, there is also a toughness, an unwillingness to sentimentalise. “Misery is contemptible” is the conclusion of the poem “This Morning’s Viewpoint”. His roses, as in the poem “Consolation Prize”, are trimmed and put out in a pickle jar, not a vase:
They swell and fade;
each time I look
their petals seem
The central sequence of poems, “Whispers”, written in memory of his father, uses his sense of the significance of the mundane to convey the emotion and confusion of a death. It rains as he commutes on the bus, water gathers in the luggage-rack:
measures of water spill
when the vehicle corners.
Through all the commuting involved
in this long goodbye,
I’ve worn the one pair of pants.
The father himself, reduced, grows through the descriptions of his limitations such as the welt on his cheek and his yellowing legs. He has, as Cochrane says in “Effects”, “no taste for the part” of an old man; his role is a form of impersonation; the vitality of a past is constantly implied.
Living and dying are constant preoccupations. “Roadworks”, which starts with some musings about creation, the universe, and whether or not to give blood, concludes with the image of an asphalter. It is a typical Cochrane ending, startling, memorable, but never explicit in its
delivery of meaning:
I need all the blood I’ve got,
I don’t think my blood would be any good.
Beyond the streaming window,
An asphalter looms. An asphalter swings
his bucket of flames.
John Horrocks teaches in the School of Counselling at the Wellington Institute of Technology.