Apes Road: Poems Since 1997
Hazard Press, $21.95,
John O’Connor & Eric Mould
Hallard Press, $24.95,
In his essay “The Narrow-Columned Middle Ground”, Australian Les Murray explores a myth:
We tend nowadays to look back … with a squint caused by a great split. We see a series of struggling, under-appreciated literary poets trying to adapt a Northern European language and the fag ends of a classical tradition to a strange new continent … or else we see a succession of hard-bitten but basically heroic folk balladeers eschewing the effete and capturing the real life of a vastly oppressed under-class.
That myth is firmly ensconced in the Australasian psyche. I grew up with it. The view from the Cathedral spire revealed the class structure of Christchurch: to the northwest, large-sectioned leafy suburbs; to the south-east, industry and small cottages with tiny garden plots.
At first glance, these two new books of poetry reflect that division. Academic and intellectual poet Rob Jackaman, whose university is in the middle of those tree-filled suburbs, lives in Riccarton whereas John O’Connor lives in Mairehau and Eric Mould in Rangiora. Their book claims to represent working-class voices. The division serves as superficial shorthand: both volumes are more complex as are the suburbs of Christchurch.
Jackaman emigrated from England in 1968. His poems have always carried with them a large sense of dislocation. Unlucky in love several times, he appears never really to have come to terms with living here. However, there is a gentle and at times whimsical exploration of what is circling in his mind. Loss, the common theme, is linked with many personal memories. A poem with lines about the English summer weather, rain pooling on cricket covers ends:
Back here where Sky TV offers
the latest highlights the fantails flit
by warmth flirting together
in afternoon breeze in the wrong season
wantonly displaying themselves
in a way un-English as the day.
Fairly early on, Jackaman opted for open form and he has remained loyal to it. In Landfall 194, a reviewer criticised his use of it. But to Jackaman it’s more than literary theory – the stepped lines and open spaces reflect his musical interests. The form is consciously used to present his mental landscape and provoke the reader’s response. While it can be intrusive, on the whole it works well, sometimes very well. As in his previous volume, he wrestles with his mother’s death:
Suffolk wind harsh
I used to know: when I held
my mother’s ashes in my hands it was
blowing that day.
This may sound simple, but it’s more complicated than that:
My mother hums to herself as she wanders
puzzled through my mind saying “What am I
in this poem?” and I guess
there’s no answer (or too many).
In his introduction to 15 Contemporary Poets, Alistair Paterson said Jackaman’s poems are “offered in a form intended for the page rather than for spoken presentation or performance”. That’s still valid. It fits particularly the poem that made me most laugh, “Compu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-Com-pu-ter Games: The Keyboard Eve”. (This drove my spell-check crazy.) Using the name Superflirt, the poet surfs the net. This poem must be seen to be appreciated.
Working Voices could not be more different. Will Lawson has had few New Zealand followers – poets writing about physical work, especially in an urban context. John O’Connor and Eric Mould didn’t consciously plan to write a book of poems about working lives, but that emerged as one of their themes, hence the title. It’s not a class manifesto, nor are the poems the heroic material of old-time ballads. But they do reflect a way of life, of circumstances far removed from Jackaman’s book-lined study. Stylistically and contextually, they are miles apart from his poetry.
Mould goes first. I declare an interest. Although I’m considerably older, we both grew up on Banks Peninsula. He names people I know, and locations I know even better. The rattle of the cattle stop at the Devil’s Knob he describes so vividly is still locked in my memory banks. While my interests have taken me to the office desk, he writes about a world that I once knew well, and he captures it accurately – not through the nostalgic haze of memory as I do, but in its actual physicality. There is another distancing – a generational one: I do not understand his music but I recognise its influence on him, part of the energy and punchiness in many poems. He captures another mood well: that of blokes quietly yarning, reminiscing or blowing their own trumpets. The poems reflect the effort he’s put into capturing the essence of his own experience.
The opening poem “Finegand, Chain Three” sets the tone. The setting is a freezing works:
Perfectly aligned the trailer nudges into rubber buffers. … Shiny steel capped boots tread the clutch & stomp – the brakes snort. … Shepherd dogs’ bark, steel tubed gates rise & swing & fingers stab tallies in the air. Lambs leap imagined chasms. … Not one of Andy’s numbers was struck the other night. He pulls out the Lotto chit, gives it one last inspection; then it’s screwed up and falling.
Suddenly Mould adds a new dimension – the next three lines turn away from a prose poem style and form:
Above Crete –
the paratrooper shudders,
Violence is not just local, it’s universal. While the sheep are gutted, the loudspeaker belts out Led Zeppelin. The poem ends with the cocking of a gun in a Belfast street.
Mould’s poems record a world rarely visited in poetry – planting grape vines, digging nadines, (seeing a kotuku in the creek while doing so), shearing, rifle shooting, having a whisky with his father (Whyte & Mackay). While the particular is the starting point, it’s not just Canterbury country – Ovid and Ecclesiastes are as at home here as Meatloaf and Sting.
In contrast, John O’Connor is a city boy. The first group of poems is about his Catholic school days. He is forced to play rugby at seven, a very common rite of male passage:
Whether we won
or lost I don’t now
recall – distracted
at being the only
boy on the field
who had to contrive
to throw himself
in a patch of mud
to appear respectable
by the final whistle.
He stopped playing at 15, spending Wednesday last period in the library. (Again I empathise.)
Unlike Mould’s energetic poems, O’Connor’s are more reflective, exploring the lives of Christchurch working- class men and women, that group of people called “battlers” by political scientists. Spare, economical, coherent, his poems convey the dignity of these ordinary lives through war, work, marriage and retirement. They capture the feel of a vanishing way of life. The last poem sums up the experience. The poet has been invited to a school reunion:
the last generation
to share the parish before mobility &
Their convent schooling was part of that way of life – preparation for toil and trouble and the ever-present threat of Russian communism.
In the section called “Public Bar” there are large silences between the drinkers’ comments, oaths, opinions, arguments and regrets. The form is experimental, unlike the closed form of the earlier convent section. Scene and mood are well captured and presented.
Nearing the end, the elderly in their council flats look back over the struggles and changes. When they were young, “Everything/seemed like hope.” Now:
& on Sundays
I have a meal
with the daughter and her old man – never
did get on
with Dennis; but we try.
Making do is what working lives are about.
Harvey McQueen’s latest poetry book Recessional was launched in April 2004.