The novelist as poet, Nick Ascroft

Lazy Wind Poems
Graham Lindsay
Auckland University Press, $21.99,
ISBN 1869402855

Moody Bitch
Stephanie Johnson
Godwit, $22.95,
ISBN 1869621050

Vanilla Wine
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734719

Summer on the Cote d’Azur
Alistair Paterson
HeadworX, $19.95,
ISBN 04730980244

The novelist who is also a poet puts big ideas into the novels, and leaves smaller ones to poems, often little autobiographical jots. You can see the logic: the desire to write isn’t diminished by the size of the intent, and a poem seems stock-built to house the more minor moment. But, if unambitious, the novelist who takes a poke as a poet is notably adept at poetic style. Novelists understand the importance of allowing a story to be followed. They have a well-formed notion of a reader (something many prospective poets, gridlocked in their solipsism, don’t). Most significantly though, they understand the art of putting together a good sentence. The defining feature of many good poems is exactly that – a series of potent, novel sentences that flow harmoniously from one to the next. This harmony is also within range of the novelist, its counterpart being good paragraphing.

I air these generalisations because Stephanie Johnson, Alistair Paterson and Geoff Cochrane have all dabbled, or waded, in fiction. Doubtless Graham Lindsay has too, I just haven’t come across it, but I’ll single him out as the most pure of the poets in this bunch. Single out his book also, as, subjectivity aside, it’s the best of the bunch.

I didn’t take much notice of his last, 1999’s Legend of the Cool Secret (Sudden Valley Press). The title put me off for a start, sounding like a bad teenage novel, and the thinner, more occasional poems didn’t draw me in. Rereading it now, I see the seeds of this book: his unique talent for imagery, an ease in the turn of phrase. Lazy Wind Poems, however, puts these abilities to work, sloughing the other’s lazy windiness. The catachresis of the title draws, in fact, from the longest poem in the collection, “the ballad of fanny grace”. One of a number of more ambitious and rewarding ventures, this is the story of the poet’s alzheimic mother-in-law, framed in a list of her many trying acts, pronouncements, and untimely excretions, each preceded with “Love your mother-in-law when…”. It’s undeniably entertaining if made slighter by its one-shot poetics.

But it is these sustained, more filling works that make this book; particularly the opening section “making love”, the book’s core, to which many of the rest of the poems seem like footnotes or appendices. “making love” sounds like material for an awful sequence: a new dad going googly-eyed over his bairn. There’s something terrifying in the hypnotised smile of a new father: the glazed eyes; the sing-song talk; the insane goo-gooing over endless photos; the photos themselves of some proto-creature, blistery, petalous, red, flecked in sick. Somehow Graham Lindsay makes absorbing poetry out of it.

Over the course of 10 poems, we follow, from an ultrasound, the panicked wend to the hospital and the birth, to the resultant obsession – eight more poems-worth, as if multiple photographs – for his little Bill. What is good about this sequence is just how deeply it submerges into its subject’s psychosis. Lindsay gives verbatim renditions of the songs and baby-coo he sings to his multi-named child: “ ‘What’s his name?’/Ko Hatupata. Pataputa./Abu Dhabi. Ali Baba” (“saliva”). (Of passing interest is his tendency to gush in Maori, finding in the language something more powerful, evocative.) He dwells in the pool of his Pataputa’s bodily functions: snot, drool, shit. Everything is viewed with a detached intensity, the mundane made novel, newborn. I guess that’s the strength this sequence exploits, Lindsay’s ability to strip away the crust of our repeated sensations to each’s inherent novelty:

sweet breath babbling
while I pour the tea,
watching beneath big

eyelashes it fizz
in the sunlight.
Back he goes,

Bill the baby,
back on his back,
the back of his head

flat on the shingle,
eyes sun-stung.
(“saliva”)

 

Of the poems in the later sections only one other can’t go without mention: the ambitious “cab dub”. Quite different in tone from the poems of “making love”, it features a series of voices heard on trips in the back of a taxi. It’s definitely worth the read, very verité, foul-mouthed, like a spycam in the backseat of Christchurch’s underbelly. I did find the drunken dumbness of some of the passengers merely annoying, though – probably the intent, but annoying nonetheless.

2

Author of the Deutz medal-winning novel The Shag Incident, Stephanie Johnson and her Moody Bitch – the best title on offer here – is a good example of the novelist’s poetics. What remains enjoyable about the book is a professionalism, a consistency, the ability to string ideas into crisp line-broken prose:

        a giant fly-eye trained

over the cliffs to the beach

where, on the flats, are the white trash baches –

peeling blue paint, clapped-out tractors for hauling tin
dinghies …
(“House Warming Poem for the Minister of the Crown”)

 

There’s more than that on offer of course. Although the poems are short – only five span a single page and none  more – they form, as a whole, a larger sequence, being Stephanie Johnson’s life. Not all are autobiographical, but as this collection covers poems written from 1987 to the present, from a 20- to a 40-something, this is a record of her poetic inspiration. It reads like a viewing of the British documentary series 7 Up (now nearing the 49 Up edition); we watch what in our subject changes and what is constant. I think that fans of Stephanie Johnson’s fiction will particularly respond to this book, getting to see something of the life behind the fiction.

The poetry, skipping through so many years and turns, is a little hard to describe. At times Johnson likes to play with rhyme, and in “The Eavesdropper” with consonance: “the physician perusing the politician’s polyp/and the bishop besmirching the castrato’s cassock”. Here it’s nice, but her rhymes are not always played with the best of ears, and can sound forced. The later poetry eschews it. During one phase, when Johnson’s young children take all her mental focus, the poetry is reminiscent of Anna Jackson’s, her Maeve and Willa becoming little stars of verse. Constant, though, is a kind of spirited lustiness, best seen in the final poem “I Don’t Understand Film Editing – a Love Poem”; my favourite line is more subtly sexy than the rest: “The hand that shifts the mouse/pangs a little at the wrist.”

3

In Geoff Cochrane’s latest, Vanilla Wine, I find a better example of my point. This guy doesn’t need to dip into rhyme to cook up poetry; his sentences are 11 herbs and spices. They make me gush: so evocative, such craftily crafted imagery, such a gift for a succinct turn. Very few poems in this collection fail to have a line that gratifies. The best review is a tiki-tour of quotes: “A rain I didn’t hear has inked the road” (“Aubade”); “How cold and wet the wounding scoria” (“Lillybing”); “Gelid chrome deflects the pinging hail” (“For Anne Carson”); “My flat becomes a speech laboratory‘*?!%!&” (“Vanilla Wine”); “Dwarves in silhouette/my problems snarl & fart” (“The Mind of Lester Knife”).

Yes, he’s good with words, wielding both sense and sound in a way that seems the definition of poetry. The only reason I privilege Graham Lindsay’s book over this one is girth. While Geoff Cochrane doesn’t entirely avoid the ambitious poem, too many come in morsels, a couple of sweet turns of phrase that go no further, leaving a reader feeling a little underfed. There are counter-examples: two six-pagers – one, “Erik”, basically a poem as chapter synopsis (of Satie Remembered by Robert Orledge), features a talent he often successfully borrows from fiction: an ear for dialogue (“ ‘It’s all very simple. You can see what I’m trying to do here – originality through platitude’”).

Better is the recollection “Our Slippered Nemesis” and its ambivalence towards an omnipresent Father Terrence O’Neill, a kind of spite-cum-grudging-respect. Again it’s the euphony of the lines that makes the poem (“Boozily abstemious is how he seemed”). Of these four poets, Lindsay and Johnson fall to either side, while Geoff Cochrane sits most happily as a member of both poetry and fiction camps.

4

Alistair Paterson would have to slot into the former category. He is someone for whom poetry truly matters. He has greater faith in it than in prose to carry truer clusters of associations, something that is closer to capturing human being, especially in its lack of strictures. This I get from the poetry here, but more so from his editorships, the always interesting opening essays for Poetry New Zealand. Thus in contrast to Stephanie Johnson’s, Geoff Cochrane’s and even Graham Lindsay’s line-broken prose, Alistair Paterson kicks at it, trying to push beyond it. In some ways because of this, I find much of the poetry in his Summer on the Cote d’Azur not good. The poems are too note-like, nebulous: they refer to great thoughts, ideas, intellectual theories (particularly semiotics) without discussing details, seemingly enjoying just that things exist. There is generally some grounded start, as in “A Woman who’s never been to Washington Zoo”: “Last weekend we were in Kaikoura,/looking at the sea, eating crayfish”, that then drifts into his thoughts and their private obscurity:

And the seals, the seals barking
In the zoo, saris from the embassy
Concealing what’s strange & beautiful

Or lies somewhere in a dark wood
Waiting for the unexpected:
clouds lifting, the moon rising,
a familiar human face & the words,
those words – change me, change me.

 

There is much more I could exhaust breath attacking, but I think it best to say simply: this isn’t my cup of tea. Contrarily – as in the above quote – Alistair Paterson occasionally exhibits his gift for the regular lyrical line: “the diurnal drift and sweep of clouds./They are the extensions of ourselves/travellers with the delicate/arms of girls.” (“Voyagers”), and moments of unhedged profundity: “The tide swings/out from the harbour, is a record/of history repeating itself, a frozen/swirl of water existing nowhere” (“On two Roman lamps …”).

I sound like the conservative trying to lasso in the radicals, but why not? If good prose at the core of a poem makes for satisfying and elegant writing – and whose so-called strictures, are surely, despite its handful of grammatical templates, as endlessly malleable as language – let’s not yet chuck the idea of a poem as high prose: euphonic, line-broken prose. But of course, to the hammer-handed cubists and experimenters: buen viaje.

 

Nick Ascroft is a Dunedin poet, author of two collections from Victoria University Press. He teaches a poetry writing paper at the University of Otago.

 

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