Smoking documents, Anna Livesey

Hypnic Jerks
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 08647350006

Milk & Honey
Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 1869403347

Cassandra’s Daughter
Michael Harlow
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 1869403320

Writing poetry – seriously writing poetry and expecting someone to publish it, and other someones to read it – is an odd, sideways kind of activity to engage in at the beginning of the 21st century. One might think that poetry faces unbeatable competition from a plethora of way cooler and potentially more financially rewarding art forms. So why do people write it, publish it, read it? These three books each offer different clues to the puzzle of poetry’s place in the world, what it can do and be.

Hypnic Jerks is Geoff Cochrane’s eighth collection. My favorite poems in the book – “Green Jesus”, “Worksheet #5”, “Two Moons” – are assemblage, the poet setting small word objects next to each other, then standing back to see what happens: “He suns himself beneath the English wall/a smug wee dick on him”; “The tops of certain pines/ward off a sticky mist”; “I can tell when a man’s been in the building./That would have come in handy in the old days” (“Worksheet #5”). These poems work because Cochrane is a master artisan; every fragment is as beautifully finished as a Shaker chair. Also, there’s something there: each fragment is an image, placing “the facts … before us”. For me, this open-textured approach is far more interesting than the slightly pre-recorded feeling of poems like “Bard” (about Sam Hunt) or “Fear of Flying”, which wear their world-weary morals a shade too smugly.

“Pieces of Harry” is a “story in verse”. The verse is sharp and sometimes pungent:

They stopped him outside the electricity park, that buzzing necropolis of cottage-sized transformers and giant porcelain peppermints.

 

or

In a grotty cabin charged with a greeny stench (some sturdy distillate of marine putrescence?), he gave her the business well and truly. “Great,” she said, “and you so long and thick! Do you always keep your shirt on?”

 

The problem is, in 13 short pages (with a lot of white space), there just isn’t time to do those things that make stories interesting: character development and plot. Instead there’s rather obvious symbolism – a wound that won’t heal on Harry’s shoulder (from what or why, the story doesn’t say), finally sealed with a kiss. I think the fault is as much in the form as it is in the execution. Good poetry offers mystery, the inexplicably beautiful; by contrast, stories need narrative, characters, explication to work their transporting magic. The story in verse sits uneasily between these different imperatives.

A “hypnic jerk” is that sudden jack-knifing feeling experienced occasionally in the liminal time between wakefulness and full sleep, when “our brains imagine our bodies to be falling from the primeval tree”. It’s a metaphor for the construction of the best of Cochrane’s poems: scraps from the edge of the brain, familiar but unnerving, maladaptation that momentarily shocks us out of the ordinary world.

Milk and honey. Paradisiacal, yes, but not simple. The achingly sad clowns’ faces under the delicious title suggest the tonal complexity of Michele Leggott’s new collection Milk & Honey. Concerned with love and fear, travel, history, and above all, the sensations and vulnerabilities of the human body, this is a deeply touching, emotionally resonant book.

The first poem “wilderness” frames what follows:

soon I’ll walk from the wreckage
carrying a small case of smoking documents
no more diamond body no wild goose
this is what was left after the explosion

 

There is, throughout the book, a sense of the preciousness and importance of each “smoking document”. These poems are perfectly pitched works of art, but they are also serious endeavors in the life of the writer; not merely records of difficulty and joy, but sites of engagement, where “reading must become life and writing/and all go wrong”. In many of these poems, words appear on the right margin: counterpoints or revisions, links to the main line that couldn’t quite be smoothed in; things going wrong, or at least in unexpected directions, right there on the page, drawing the reader into the action.

“cairo vessel 1” and “cairo vessel 2” are free translations from ancient Egyptian fragments. Spoken by two young lovers, they are passionate, sensuous and intimate: “I’d wipe my body with that party dress she wore yesterday to the lagoon,” says the boy; “if we have to be old/let’s laugh like candied hippos/up to our ears in mud,” says the girl. The final lines of “cairo vessel 2” are both the boy’s declaration of love and an artful, scholarly joke about the poems’ genesis in fragments: “I won’t [finish this line]/until we’re together again”. This delicate balance – emotion and intelligence, sincerity and humour – characterises the poems throughout the book. The tumble of thoughts and impressions, history and the present, wordplay and description, resolves again and again into poignancy, bringing the reader face to face with one of the big questions: “aorist, heart/what is this road we are on?”.

After the heady mead of Milk & Honey, parts of Michael Harlow’s Cassandra’s Daughter seem a little flat, a little earnest. For example, “The Undertaking” starts out:

My friend the undertaker is in such
a hurry-up to slow down, to discover
at least one good night’s sleep, he is I think
sometimes my twin.

 

It then goes through the undertaker’s loneliness and his inability to speak or hear, “especially here/in the blue air the silence itself wears”. This image floats, unconnected; I couldn’t decipher where “here” is, or what “blue air” describes or represents. The poem ends with the portentous (perhaps tongue in cheek?) lines “and I think that one day and soon/we will have to confess his darkness”. The undertaker seems to be a reflection of the speaker; the darker half he (and, by extension, the rest of us) harbour but are often unwilling to admit to. Like good plots, poems don’t have to have new ideas, but they do have to say things in new and engaging ways. The language in this poem isn’t fresh enough to keep me interested.

Cassandra’s Daughter does have some great moments of attention and description. On the sensation of holding a conversation in sign-language: “in the hollow/of my hand, the letters like syllables of running/water” (“Trees and Flowers and my Lady’s Eyes”). Or, in “The Haunting”, an image of grief (with its nod to early Eliot): “[d]ays on waking, I see your empty/blue hat wind-wheeling in vacant/lots”. However, several of the poems round off with abstract, “here’s something to think about” lines: “I can see that he is just beginning to know/that words can dream again” (“Taking a Dream for a Walk”) or “and I shall stop looking/for more truth than there is” (“La Trapeziste”). This is poetry as neatly-packaged homily, lacking concrete imagery to make it hum. “Zeitgeist Report” is perhaps the worst offender:

   We live in a time
when there are women
who do not know
the names of their children’s
fathers – who fugitive
fly from the child
they have never been;
when there are children
so fearful of falling out
of the world’s arms
in the unguarded moment
you can see in their eyes
the fear they may not
a single sound hear
when they hit bottom.

 

When has human life ever been different? The poor, the lost, the desperate are not unique to our time. And even if they were, what’s the point of regretting it in clichéd language inside a book that sells to the niche market of poetry readers?

As the best moments in these books show, there is a point to poetry, a reason to keep writing and reading it: because poetry still has the capability to surprise, challenge, be beautiful; because it can show what is overlooked; because it can be, in the best sense, a fine art. There isn’t a good reason for cliché nor for rehashing sentiments found on the letters pages of daily newspapers.

 

Anna Livesey is a Wellington poet and reviewer.

 

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