From the edges, Anna Livesey

It Was a Tuesday Morning
Peter Olds
Hazard Press, $25.00,
ISBN 187727075X

Natural Anthem
Leonard Lambert
HeadworX, $19.95,
ISBN 0473098032

Recessional
Harvey McQueen
HeadworX, $19.95,
ISBN 0476002710

Peter Olds published work in the iconoclastic literary magazine Freed in the late 1960s and early 70s before his first book appeared in 1972. Five more collections quickly followed. It Was a Tuesday Morning includes work from each of those books, as well as from Music Therapy (2001). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature describes Olds as “a central figure” for many emerging writers in the 70s, because of his “rebellious detail”, incorporating “music, drugs and the concerns and language of the streets”.

From the early Mandragorite (one who habitually
intoxicates himself with the narcotic mandrax) poems
to the recent work set in the grounds of asylums and
during therapy classes, Olds’s life on the edges of
mainstream society permeates his writing. He is often
at his best when reporting back about the experiences
of mental illness. In “In Hospital” (1972), a fellow
inmate:

shuffle[s] to bed
like a waterlogged
angel,

flapping his arms like wings
along the dark hallways …

The image is sharp and compassionate, the physicality of the description preventing cliché while the angel simultaneously invokes the tradition of sacred madness and the disempowering effect of mental illness. “Beethoven’s Guitar” (1980) is a ragged, disturbing monologue:

Dear Ragtime Ruth, I miss you.
What’s more, I wish you were here.

They’ve got me leather-strapped to this bloody bed,
Ragtime!
If you could see me,
stripped of my great piano!

 

Energetic and unflinching, the poem conveys madness and pain with equal vividness.

Some of the street-smart- young- man writing still hums; “Revisiting V8 Nostalgia” is a high-speed romp carried along by rhythm and cool lines: “the car becomes a/vibrating time machine”. However, other poems seem dated, failing to deliver either complexity or fun. “To a Crash-Pad” is a description of the happenings at a meeting place for druggies and party-people. For me, the writing is not strong enough to rescue the poem from its period tone, which now seems a little naive and out-dated. “The People of Spring Street” aims to be supportive of its “[h]alf-naked children”, men “young enough to work or old enough not to” and women who “will be trained to carry/supermarket bags”, but, 30 years later, it comes off as a little condescending. The message blurs the poet’s judgement, resulting in inconsistent writing that lacks excitement, despite its edgy subject matter.

The later work has a discernibly different tone, meditative without being complacent. “Music Therapy” (2001) effectively uses the idea of whiteness to create a physical and emotional landscape:

Walking through town this morning
on my way to the hospital
I was surprised by the amount
of white in everything. For instance
the people with their white eyes &
smiles & the white fumes
of the traffic …

 

The poem goes on to document the difficulties of healing, where “We remember/even though we don’t want to remember.” On the whole I prefer this later work, which is honest without the earlier bravado. However, there is insight to be found throughout this book. It Was a Tuesday Morning satisfyingly documents a life in which writing has played a valuable part.

It’s been 15 years since Leonard Lambert published Park Island, which itself broke a 10-year hiatus following A Washday Romance (both John McIndoe). It has been, as the publisher notes on the back of Natural Anthem, a long wait for his fans. Personally, I didn’t find myself warming to this new collection and, in particular, a poem like “Toyota Corolla”:

He went away with Summer and the sun,
my warrior, my chevalier.
We drove west, you and I, west as far as you can,
and found him there, your man, your first,
winter-lost in his surfie’s pad.
He shyly smiled, you cuddled, kissed,
and all was well.
I gotta getta life, he said,
and a car, Leonard, like yours. A Toyota Corolla.
Well he did, he did it all,
but the tides of my daughter’s heart
he could not read.
He came round home one day in tears.
There was nothing I could say.
But I cried inside for my warrior, my chevalier,
the day he drove away.

 

The subject has the advantage of originality; this is the first lament for a daughter’s ex I’ve read, but formulations such as “but I cried inside” should have set off the poet’s cliché alarm.

Syntactical inversion is a favorite Lambert poetical effect: “the tides of my daughter’s heart/he could not read”, or “nothing of our meagre wealth/has she spent, this woman/on herself” (“To market, to market”). There is also a fondness for tying off a poem with a rhyme: “say/away” (above); “known/alone” (“Pensez donc”); fall/all (“Rambler”); find/behind (“The Compound”) and so on. I’ve got nothing against syntactical inversion per se, and I’m a positive fan of rhyme, but these techniques are not merely flourishes to be attached wherever the poet can squeeze them in. For language-play such as this to be effective, it has to be structurally important to the poem, adding to the meaning, the tone or the sound in some vital way. It’s not enough to pop a rhyming couplet in at the end merely because it creates a finished sound.

Lambert’s politics too made me feel uneasy, especially the way women are portrayed. While I’m sure the intentions are good, I find something creepy in poems such as “The woman-thing”:

The woman-thing

is upon them, my daughters,
they sag
drag
through dark
through sluggish waters

 

If by “the woman-thing”, Lambert means what I think he does, the sagging and dragging through dark sluggish waters is an unfortunate image. Having a period isn’t always hilarious, but it doesn’t merit this level of misery. “Sonless Man” is another weird one:

Sonless man, soft murderer,
made of his daughter a loud
unlovely boy, as if a man should

swap yarns with a fern
or force a rough acquaintance
with the mysteries of the earth ….

 

If the fern stands for the girl, “swapping yarns” is surprisingly innocuous; surely the “soft murderer” has done something worse than telling stories? Although I don’t think this is a poem about lesbianism, its attitude towards gender roles seems, at best, old-fashioned.  It is clear from Natural Anthem that Lambert has things he wants to say. Unfortunately, neither the message nor the packaging are sufficiently attractive for me to want to listen.

Harvey McQueen is known as an editor and writer of prose as well as a poet. Recessional, his sixth book of poetry, demonstrates the quality of his life in letters – the poems are reflective and engaged, executed with an un-flashy appearance of ease. McQueen often uses an essay-like strategy, presenting ideas and argument, but also taking advantage of the form’s freedom to juxtapose narratives, images and ideas. The best poems manage this balancing act wonderfully well, held together by a deceptively plain tone and discreetly rhythmical language.

“The day after an organ recital for my friend Bill’s Sixtieth Birthday” displays sustained thinking mixed with personal anecdote and reflection. It opens with a quote from D H Lawrence’s “Piano”, a poem about the power of music to invoke memory. In Lawrence’s poem, the speaker is merely listening, but, in a manner characteristic of McQueen’s engagement with the world, his speaker is singing: “the first time I have ever sung/‘Happy Birthday’ to an organ”. The music catalyses a memory trail that loops through McQueen’s first encounter with the St Andrew’s organ – “to this impressionable/teenager the sound of paradise” – to his decision to train for the ministry and then to his Dunedin flatmate, an organist who “loved the Bach piece we heard yesterday”. Finally, the poem becomes a meditation on his present life and a refutation of  “Piano”’s slightly mawkish conclusion: “Lawrence got it wrong – sixty years is not a time for tears.” The poem’s 30 long lines are written with a light touch, avoiding both density and prosiness. It is a craftsman’s performance.

However, as the title of the above poem might give away, the other side of McQueen’s plain speaking is a tendency towards literalness. The section titles are examples: “Recessional” has a rich range of connotations that resonate with the poems it contains, but “Friends and Family” (II), “The Interior Mind”(III) and “Literary Life” (IV) represent opportunities that have not been exploited. Sometimes, as in “Little River Cemetery”, the urge to express an idea gets ahead of the poetry: “Every death/ends a unique combination of circumstances/prejudices, embraces & experiences” lacks the control and specificity that make McQueen’s best work thoughtful and affecting.

It is clear that politics, in the widest sense, are a vital part of McQueen’s life and writing. Poems such as “Safety” and “15 March 2003” are not meant as startlingly original conceptions of the world’s ills. Instead, they operate at the edges of the ungraspable reality gap that separates the goodness of everyday life for the few of us who live at the comfortable end of New Zealand society from the blatant, overwhelming horrors that affect so many others. McQueen is modest and sensible enough to write purely from his own perspective, not attempting to colonise the experience of those who live with the distress he only hears about.

Recessional is not a showy book, but I felt very warmly towards it. McQueen takes the risk of laying himself open without decoration, often with great success. Throughout the book there is the sense that poetry dignifies and explains McQueen’s life to himself. At its best, Recessional extends that sense of dignity to us all.

 

Anna Livesey is a Wellington writer.

 

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