Infinite last gasps in Niu Sila, Dougal McNeill

The Life and the Dark
Richard Reeve
Auckland University Press, $21.99,
ISBN 1869403126

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt
Tusiata Avia
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734743

Richard Reeve fits the definition: he is a man possessed of more than usual organic sensibility and, if the splendid, provocative poems in The Life and the Dark are anything to go by, he is in the habit of thinking long and deeply. One of the many virtues of this, his second collection of work, is the hair-raisingly unfashionable confidence Reeve displays making this process open in the works themselves.

These are poems about poetry, not in the boring, predictable way that all poems are nowadays, but in the far more frightening, and interesting, sense of that famous easy hard question: what is the point or purpose of speaking? Why “forgive/[t]his beast, contriving ape,/[i]n whom the poems live” and “[i]nvoke the brute Language” at all? The sense everyone must have had, at some stage, that language is just more effluvia as we try and think through what to make of these demented particulars, those “stunted boughs/[n]estled above a cold creek” and “[t]hose sloping stones/[t]hat litter hillocks” going about their business blissfully unconcerned at our rather shabby set-up, is intense and ever-present in this collection. This is a set of “sigh[s]/[a]t what will never change” and an ambitious, largely successful, reminder of the sort of arguments poetry can provide.

“The merciless slap of the lake has no significant rhythm”: Reeve personifies relentlessly, offering up a Nature that hovers somewhere between a total indifference and thorough, overpowering malignancy. The unspoken concern overwhelming all these works is what to do with our family friend Being or, perhaps more accurately, what Being is to do with us. “Our twittering blood mouthing the dirt’s blind rhetoric” is hardly in the habit of posing the question in simple terms but then, I suspect, Reeve is probably bad-tempered towards people like me (“sane” with loves “rational/Boring, unfashionable,/As the morning rain”), who reach rather too easily for sentimental consolation in that good old chap Literature.

It is a great joy to read the display of such obvious technical skill and bravado in The Life and the Dark; the incredible range of rhymes, careful and closely followed rhythms, marvellous uncommon words and verse forms gesture towards dazzling discipline and effort. The aesthetics of labour are at work.

That last paragraph isn’t true. Verse form and rhythm aren’t so much the technicalities of poetics in this book as they are profoundly ideological issues. The great strength of these poems is – in a dialectical twist they themselves are sometimes conscious of – at that same moment their contradiction. Reeve postures as one “tasting failure,/blank, drenched, and in awe of the world”, but what the very wonder of these poems displays is precisely the extent to which this “world” is itself constructed: “sodden branches” don’t do much and certainly don’t “hear” heater-elements any more than the sea is capable of a “roar”, and Reeve’s masterful, measured rhetoric exposes itself in these moments. His poetry, in these and so many other moments where the Thingness of this and that moment of empty and inert nature is worked through, is doggedly naturalising. The politics of these pieces are worrying in its determination to set down an inevitability to what are, in the end, human practices. Occasionally Reeve lets slip an aside to the “industrial loneliness” or the “ghost-emblem of something at its most ordinary and implausible” but these are, in this context, reactionary.

The problem in The Life and the Dark is us, and those “clots of hairy, thick, unstrung/[a]dolescents dodging cars.” Reeve’s solution is, in properly contorted fashion, precisely the problem itself. The limitation with writing around “an unconquerable structure” like “[t]he filaments of meaninglessness” is exactly that one can’t. Rather like having a conversation with a lion about life in the zoo, making meaning about meaninglessness defeats its own case at the very instant it seems most successful. Reeve’s case is so caught to itself as the very evidence of that argument it becomes impossible to follow through on its own claims: the complex, carefully patterned senses “caught amid those infinite last gasps” are, in their own odd way, what is the most comforting.

Occasionally the ex cathedra tone of Reeve’s pronouncements grates but, for the most part, this is an astonishing, beautiful and bloody-minded testament to why, even though we know there’s no real point, there are plenty of points in favour of reading poetry this good and, by extension, plodding along.

The literature of tensions in cultural encounter is a pretty sucked on fag-end to pick from the poetic gutter. So it is exciting and encouraging to read the effortless success with which Tusiata Avia gives the whole problem new energy in her first collection of poems, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. The usual pieties about an arresting new voice actually do apply. Avia’s work refuses the all-too-easy opposition between two monolithic images of different “cultures” and instead gets to work mapping out the far more fascinating mess of real divisions and uneasy outlines.

Personal, family concerns and wider political struggles merge into poems that are as much challenges, interventions into wider debates, as they are illustrations of the causes of these debates themselves. The label “performance poetry” is probably inevitable but, to my mind at least, is an injustice aimed against the way these strange collections of ink marks on paper conjure plenty unaided. A memorial to the poet’s grandmother evokes the Mau, liberation activists resisting New Zealand imperialism in Samoa:

You didn’t die on the road to Apia
when the soldiers opened fire
you hit the ground with your trumpet
you hid in the bushes in Lefaga
and your wife told them you were gone.

 

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt wanders between writing of this order and the rhythms of Samoan English. The written language of accent and ethnic idiom so often falls flat – think of Mellors’ incomprehensible gibbering – but Avia makes it seem like the easiest trick of all: “You wan da Ode?/OK, I give you/[h]ere my Ode to da life/[i]a, da life is happy an perfek.”

Of course, the life here is far from happy and perfect and Avia is uncompromising in her depiction of the nastier “Niu Sila”, the realities of sexual violence, bad grace and useless moralism. Those contradictory, caught moments when the casually cruel (“the dogs dribble inside/if we smell them we kick them”) collides with the wonderful (“Try ripping apart a steaming pig and tell me/that doesn’t feel good”) are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt at its best.

It is also a relief, after the Southern, sombre Reeve to realise that Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is also cacklingly, cruelly funny. Gary Cooper, broken hands and Lucky Strikes, “bad fings” and “a good life to live in Niu Sila”, smuggled (and delicious!) mangoes all get a mention in a range of poems aware of the sad, funny mistakes and misunderstandings we all bumble about in. In “Samoans are known for their hospitality”, the poet’s brother and sister tell her that McDonald’s is “usually against their ethics” but, in a lovely last line, “some of what they say is muffled by fries.” So much is nowadays and, following the food imagery Avia puts to such good use, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is a feast of such occasions: Fa’afetai mo mea ai (thank you for the food). Let’s hope for more soon.

 

Dougal McNeill tutors in the Department of English at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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