Hearing the voice, James Norcliffe

The Singing Harp
Iain Sharp
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $15.00,
ISBN 1869420365

The Dwarf and the Stripper and other poems
Stephen Sinclair
Addenda, $19.95,
ISBN 095821865X

To …
Bill Dacker
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $15.00,
ISBN 1869420357

Many years ago, and perhaps still, the American jazz magazine Downbeat used, every issue, to conduct what it called the Blindfold Test. In this, a notable exponent of a given instrument was played excerpts from recordings of fellow musicians and was asked to comment. Reading these articles, I was struck by the unerring accuracy with which the musician was not only able to recognise the names of the anonymous players but also often the names of the accompanying musicians and approximate dates of the recordings. Each musician it seemed had a characteristic timbre, and invariably played with a pattern of licks, flourishes and mannerisms all of which to the attuned ear were a giveaway, a signature.

In literary terms, of course, this equates to the concept of voice – that idiosyncratic quality of expression that enables a skilled reader to identify a given writer from a few lines. I like this use of voice as it reminds us how the written word has its roots in the spoken word and how in turn those qualities that enable us to recognise instantly a familiar spoken voice have their equivalencies in the written voice. Each of the three books under review raises questions about the role of voice.

Poetry is a broad church. It ranges from the cerebral to the visceral, sometimes embracing both simultaneously; from the meticulously formal to the loosest of open forms; from the intensely personal to the raucously public; and from the privacy of the page to the display on the platform.

There can be a large distinction between page poems and platform poems. Often what works on the page may not work on the platform, and vice versa. Iain Sharp is well aware of this. In a forward to The Singing Harp, cleverly titled “A Quick Word”, he tells us how most of the 17 poems in the collection were the product of the readings at the Globe Hotel in Auckland he and Dave Mitchell set up in 1981.

At poetry readings, of course, the written voice and the spoken voice fuse. Once heard, the poet’s real voice will later speak again on the page. Years ago I heard the American poet Robert Creely read in Christchurch, and later still Galway Kinnell. Both were such superb readers of their own work that today when I read their poems I can still hear their quite distinct voices reading the words. I have not heard Iain Sharp read, so I must imagine his voice. To those who were present at the Globe readings, this book will resonate far more than it will for those who couldn’t make the readings. Despite that, there are ample satisfactions in these poems.

Sharp somewhat disarmingly says that “energetic crap delivered with a friendly smile and an attempt at soft shoe shuffle often pleases
the crowd better than ingenious stanzas.” Sometimes, perhaps. Quality, however, will out, and Sharp is a sufficiently skilled practitioner with an astute ear. The poems of course do have the qualities that please the crowd: accessibility, wit, the occasional glittering image and imaginative leap, a certain larrikin naughtiness at times and sometimes a deft use of rhyme and/or a straining for a punch line. None of these is necessarily to be despised, although in a few instances as Sharp admits: “You had to be there, though.”

Without the performance element or the resonance of memory, and beyond nostalgia, what do we have? Many of the pieces are self-referential (“The Poets”, “The Nevertheless Incredibly Happy Poem”, “Two Minute Poem”); there are prose poems, lyric poems, anecdotal poems, and there are virtuoso demonstrations of exuberant wordplay as in “Poor Child”: “Wonder. Wander. Near and yonder. Life’s more twisted than an anaconda. Yet it’s flatter than a flounder. Ponder that. Saunter. Swagger. Stagger. Spray your tag on a parked Jaguar.” (Throughout, there is Sharp’s voice: clever, demotic, quirky, clinging, as he says in “The Poets”, to the Muse’s toes. He is at his best, for me, in a poem like “Chet Baker’s Teeth”, but there is enough delight in this little book to make me wish, sincerely, that I’d been there.

Another take on voice is offered by Stephen Sinclair’s The Dwarf and the Stripper. Sinclair is better known as a playwright and novelist. With Anthony McCarten, he co-scripted the celebrated Ladies Night and he has worked on the scripts of such films as Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sinclair is also a sufficiently accomplished poet to have been published in Landfall, but this is his first collection of poetry.

The book is divided into two sections: the title sequence of 15 poems and a collection of other poems. It is not surprising, given Sinclair is a dramatist, that the sequence is largely a dramatic monologue based on a rather tawdry little story, apparently true, peopled not only with the eponymous dwarf and stripper but also with a “self-styled mercenary”, a contract killer and a wife-beater. The events took place in the 1980s in Auckland where the title characters worked in the Pink Pussycat Club on K Road. The voices in the poem are those of the personae, so the poetry is layered with both Sinclair’s voice and the imagined voices of the dwarf, Mandy the stripper, and the would-be assassin. Here a measure of the poem’s success is how persuaded we are by the voices of the poem’s mouthpieces. The trick for the poet is to reconcile the rhetorical demands of the poem with the characterisation of these voices, and it is a trick so difficult to pull off that in these prosaic times we have seen the almost complete abandonment of the verse play. The sequence opens with an interesting piece called “Deposition” which rather like a Shakespearean prologue is an act of self-defence, giving Sinclair permission to explore the material.

The fusion of poet and dwarf persona is hinted at on the cover where the author is photographed sitting at breast level between two near naked women. Are we convinced by the voices? When the stripper (as in “XIX”) and the assassin (as in “XVIII”) are speaking not directly to the reader but to an imagined interviewer there is no tension. However, in those sections where the dwarf is speaking to the reader and Sinclair is determined to establish the dwarf’s “otherness”, his sensitivity, the language becomes more lyrically exalted and the suspension of disbelief becomes more difficult. Does this matter? In the end, probably not, as the demands of the poem are not the demands of drama. The demands of the poem go beyond verisimilitude into areas of motivation, and into the tender eroticism that provokes the action:

thighs dough-
like as I lift her comfortably
upon me, knead her body
into edible confections
all firmness conforming, all delight
in her raisin eyes, lips moist, hair quite
crisp as icing crushed against the cheek … .

 

Bill Dacker’s book is relentlessly personal. The voice here is his own and the poems written almost invariably in the first person. The book’s title To… explains a lot. The book itself is dedicated to wife and family, and within its covers are poems dedicated to friends living and dead, and family. Many poems are occasional, but, as Ian Wedde has reminded us in The Commonplace Odes, we should not disparage the occasional poem.

The poems at their best are often closely observed, measured and at times lyrical; but sometimes Dacker gives way to bardic utterance, aphorisms and consciously “poetic” tropes. Here at times the observation wavers before the poeticism. For example, “Trilogy 1” opens with the image “The moon is white/Like a bleached bone”. This is simple and effective. However Dacker doesn’t let it alone and adds “as smooth as a mirror”. I can imagine the moon as one or the other, but not both.

Sometimes, the occasions prompting the poems and the accumulating references are so personal (as in “To You Wayne”) that the reader feels a little voyeuristic – it’s as if you had wandered into a private function where valedictories were being delivered to persons unknown. To have the reader peering over the poet’s shoulder and eavesdropping can be an effective enough device, and Dacker himself does it lyrically in “This compact” and elegiacally in “Aramoana, 1990” where in a long poem he reflects on David Gray and his victims.

These are solid somewhat old-fashioned poems deeply rooted in the South. There is a line drawing on the back cover of the book portraying the Dacker livingroom. I can best imagine these poems being read here by the poet to his whanau. The lights are low, the fire is flickering. I can almost hear his voice.

 

James Norcliffe’s new collection of poems Along Blueskin Road will be published by Canterbury University Press later this year.

 

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