Here’s looking at you, kid, John O’Connor

Gallery: A Selection
Mark Pirie
Salt Publishing, $29.95,
ISBN 1876857242

Toku Tinihanga: Selected Poems 1982-2002
Michael O’Leary
HeadworX, $26.95,
ISBN 0473090066

Walking the Land
Kevin Ireland
Hazard Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1877270520

We live in the age of celebrity. This has its advantages. For instance, it allows us to drop a glittering name or two – over cahors and cassoulet perhaps – without fear of becoming involved in a discussion which will inevitably betray how little we actively, or actually, think.

Celebrity culture has two guiding principles: superficiality and conformity. The classic gambit reassuringly expresses both – a celebrated name is rung out, and a Pavlovian response returned. Simple and satisfying. For example, as it applies to literature: “Ursula Bethell” – “Ah! the chrysanthemums!”; “Robin Hyde” – “So tragic!”, “Karl Stead” – “PENETRATING!”, “Elizabeth Smither” – “Exquisite.” It really saves energy. Mark Pirie, I’m afraid, is fast becoming a celebrity. Like some of the above he deserves better; specifically he deserves to be read.

Gallery is a selection from Pirie’s earlier books and from uncollected pieces. Its first section draws on his debut collection, Shoot. This from the sequence “Gallery”, from which the selection takes its title:

you lean against
a doorway

& draw your cigarette
three times

before leaving
the frame

you’re now
located in a car

which screeches
round a bend

in a flash of silver

 

The interest in cinema is immediately apparent. In fact, the lines are so gestural and directive they could almost be described as film noir parody. We hardly need the more open expressions, such as “the James Dean comments/flake from your mouth”, to know that something has been overtly withheld/structurally implied here – that this is the poetry of the manipulated cliché. It is insistently two-dimensional.  (Its “missing” part both a negative presence and a tacit comment on the media-directiveness of our culture, including its obsession with celebrity.)

A second, related, innovation is the prioritising of the terminology of cinematography. To take another typical example, the sequence “Shoot”. In addition to the title we have four filmic sub-titles: “Tilt”, “Roll”, “Crane” and “Zoom”. (The virtual acting instructions “you tilt upwards / & begin // to notice”, “you roll back / & see”,  “you slip”, “you kick the door/open” immediately follow each sub-title.) It ends with “the camera//catching your legs/in mid-air”. All this in less than 30 lines, and all aids to reader involvement with the principal characters within an identification of their contemporary condition/conditioning. (As the title of another piece has it: “Placing the Self within the Scene”.)

It is this subversion of standard – substitution of unmediated – readings, whilst maintaining the emotional coherence/authenticity of the poems, which for me places Pirie among the most conceptually and technically interesting of our younger poets. When meaning intrinsically stimulates interpretation, this is the process we call poetry, in whichever medium it’s found.

No Joke (Pirie’s second book) is even more accessibly challenging than the first. I suspect that at this point the editors of Salt Publications (Cambridge) underestimated the UK and Australia markets for which this selection is primarily produced, and thus omitted what are arguably the best and certainly the clearest examples of this next stage of his development. Whatever, serious overseas readers have little opportunity to follow the progression from the prioritising of camera angles etc to speech bubble dialogue or its suggestion and something approaching character that is not simply the gross caricature of reductive satire.

We see it every night on television, of course; what we might call the subversive enhancement of normative viewings – in shows such as Just Shoot Me and Absolutely Fabulous – which exploit the psychology of popular culture by displaying consistent elements of simplification and exaggeration whilst remaining essentially empathic. It is not and was never meant to be taken literally, even in the earliest cinema: the girl is tied to the rails, the train is whistling and grinding towards her, she cannot free herself! But HE arrives in the nick of time and saves her – “My Hero!” We laugh with rather than at it, and its underlying seriousness is that we are also moved by it.

More of what Harry Ricketts terms “the encounter poems” – best represented in my view by titles such as “The Language”, “The Discussion” and “The Story” – would have added a closely related dimension – just change “laugh” to “smile ruefully”, above. This from the (also) omitted, “The Stages”:

At the bar, he tells them
about the stages:

denial, grief,
and acceptance.

And then later that night
he returns to her.

He positions her
against a wall,

and tells her how
he just ‘went and

got drunk’, and how
after each sip

he’d keep thinkin’ about
her …

 

Facile-sad. Hardly the sort of thing one expects in poetry, and the more welcome for that.

The rest of the selection moderates Pirie’s poetic profile by minimising extremes. Much of the lively juvenilia of The Blues, the lightness of Reading the Will and the mock irreverence of Dumber has been omitted. The selection is interesting, original and certainly of a quality to allow this. Nonetheless, as the selection progresses, new readers will gain the misleading impression of a young poet, attentive to etiquette, whose seriousness is often close to the surface, and who will no doubt develop into one of those sparkling fictions they so casually celebrate but seldom consider. Happily there’s more to Pirie than this. It will be interesting to graph his progress over the next few years. Particularly if he continues to experiment.

2

It’s timely that in mid-career Michael O’Leary should be represented by a substantial selection. The 160 pages of Toku Tinihanga (self deception) cover the years 1982 to 2002. While there is obvious development in such things as the counterpoint of (verse) lines to sentences, there are also relevant consistencies, particularly the search for love and the centrality of popular music. Yet, as with Dylan and Lennon, part of the stimulus is missing from the page. Not a negative presence, but a necessary complement. That, of course, is another way of saying that much of this book is performance poetry. As such, it can only be judged adequately in performance – one thinks of the early David Eggleton. The epigraph to the volume: “So mutherfucker kiss the ground” (Shane MacGowan). A sample from “Flip Side of the Ballad of John and Yoko”:

Give me a chance, brother
You have helped me understand this world
Now you’re dead, am I enslaved or
freeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!

Fuck the revolution, we have bred another generation

3

For 40 years now getting to know New Zealand poetry has necessitated coming to terms with Kevin Ireland’s contribution to it. Walking the Land is vintage Ireland – as identifiable as the All Black logo.

Despite this, my own difficulty in approaching his work has been prolonged and has to do with the nature and use of his poetic ego. By this I mean the subjection of experience to his personal – and arguably more than necessarily limited – linguistic frame of reference. Not society in/on its own terms, but typically through those of the poet. And while, for Ireland, this displays a convivial and ebullient self-confidence, it nonetheless empowers only a certain type of perception and wit, as in “Poor calls”:

It’s a poor call
when no one hears
you thump the bar
and it’s your shout …

 

This has little of the openness to possibilities – including the possibility of transcendence – that one associates with impersonal or, if personal, more inclusive, linguistic approaches. There’s a notably restricted space for the active reader here, for the interpretative process of poetry.

More positively, perhaps fortuitously, this approach, especially in its connotation of an address – talking to rather than with – encourages us to accept the occasional flatness and redundancy as part of the ambit of everyday, if somewhat declamatory, speech. As in “A school reunion”:

I was absent in another country
when my old high school held
its get-together. So I dipped out …

 

For the same reason we tend to excuse his preferences for the entertainer’s crescendo (as in, say, “The problem with poetry” or “Discover the rain”), for adjectival excess (“The hardest move on the worst journey” being the book’s first line), and for the “strong summative ending” (to quote Agnes-Mary Brooke) which, when less than well turned (as for instance in “Porno” and “A whiff of the old Adam”), merely repeats with a flourish what has already been repeatedly said or implied.

Nonetheless, there’s a bedrock to respect. Walking the Land has none of the sophistry and underlying duplicity of some linguistic frames of reference. If Ireland’s concepts are not usually open to interpretation, his ideas/ideals are correspondingly clear. It is often the poetry of opposing values, but – All Blacks versus Minnows – displays of apparently effortless virtuosity which inevitably lead to a touchdown, but just as inevitably leave the spirit and imagination untouched. This from “The shadows of pleasure”:

just as we veil the happy way we accept
the views of newspapers as facts,
the choices of those who rule our destinies
as balanced, and words without meaning
as actually having something to say.

 

John O’Connor’s sixth book of poetry, Working Voices, a collaboration with Eric Mould, was published by Hallard Press in 2003 and will be reviewed in a future issue.

 

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