The Violinist in Spring
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Steele Roberts, $19.95,
The Devil in My Shoes
Auckland University Press, $21.99,
Poetry is an elastic genre; there are poems that work beautifully on the page, poems for the pub and others that perhaps should only have been shown to a few intimates. Reading Anna Smaill’s The Violinist in Spring, Sue Wootton’s Hourglass and Phil Kawana’s The Devil in My Shoes, I found myself stilled by the exceptional nature of some of these poets’ work but equally perturbed by the inclusion of other quite unremarkable poems. Possibly it is only very rare poets that accomplish a wholly compelling book first go.
The Violinist in Spring contains poems that are exquisitely balanced. Like Jenny Bornholdt, Smaill has a flair for graceful matter-of-factness, a deceptive simplicity, which makes her work seem somehow effortless. Her poems are both visual and musical but, with flashes of grit and humour, avoid simply being pleasing:
the kids tore round
and round the house,
and cheated death with fireworks and a noose,
fought with the kitchen knife on the fowl-house roof
So what are Smaill’s poems about? Tangibles like a fig tree, a tidal wave, a washing line, and those big themes of relationships, family, travel. But subject doesn’t hugely matter because Smaill’s deft ability with language, her concentrated care really means that whatever she writes about is illuminated in an extraordinary way. Many poems seem to speak from a particularly New Zealand aesthetic. Land/seascape is a strong presence, a reference point that Smaill frequently returns to, yet is never swamped by:
And the colour like the used
and muddy cream of the high-up sheep,
or the green of the hills
that is uniform and particular. Hidden.
(“Walking Back to Whakataki”)
The Violinist is also a meditation on what it means to be alive. It is, says Smaill, “braving the bewilderment of a story’s merciless onward bent/without letting story desert you” (“Manual”). This description could be applied to Smaill’s poetic. The Violinist is full of stories, yet there are no tidy predictable endings; Smaill is not frightened to let things fall away or end on a small detail. These are palate-cleansing poems for the jaded reader; one closes the book refreshed.
Hourglass immediately stands out because it does not have a Sarah Maxey cover. Much as I like her stylish designs, they have become ubiquitous; both Smaill’s and Kawana’s covers are by Maxey. Surely there must be other worthwhile designers in New Zealand? Luckily, Sue Wootton appears to think so.
Hourglass shows a Donna Demente sculpture of a ship’s figurehead surrounded by a sea of black – it’s a romantic cover that fits the intense, rather passionate nature of much of Wootton’s work. She shines when writing about strong emotions like frustration or grief. Take “Aubergine Season”, which is about the death of a family member; the way Wootton infuses domestic detail with feeling is very powerful, somehow just right:
In the burn of noon I pin tomatoes to the board
and slice, watch the spout of juices.
I char-grill aubergines, observe the blisters,
mix vinaigrettes, but cannot pour.
Am stilled, the loaded jug mid-air.
Other poems condense a potent narrative, and Wootton is good at channelling characters. I was drawn back and back to the desperation of:
Antonio, I am
your stupid rotten mother: my hair is lank, my eyes
are circled like mistakes.
I tell you for the last time, between clenched teeth, I
On the cover blurb Brian Turner writes that Wootton can be “several things within the one poem”. Certainly Hourglass is ambitious, trying for a whole range of tones, and, yes, Wootton’s work is both “sensual” and “punchy”. But I often found reading could be a wading process – there is much here obscuring a number of exceptional stanzas that are lyrical and beautifully spare. Overly cute humour forms part of this obstruction. “Moving in with Graham Thomas” is a gardener’s joke that relies on a plant with a bloke’s name: “And it’s true, Graham, you look great in my bedroom/where you strip slowly, smell sweet, never snore.” Poems like this are bound to have a few readers chuckling, but for me sit a little oddly with Wootton’s more soulful work.
The Devil in My Shoes with its jaunty bad boy, devil-may-care nuances is a terrific name for Phil Kawana’s first collection of poems, which bristles with energy. As the cover blurb claims, these poems are “engaging” and “readable”. Actually, this is fairly tepid praise for the best poems in The Devil, which are searing, especially those focusing on Kawana’s childhood. At a friend’s birthday party the poet is told: “We don’t allow your kind in the house”. The narrative unwinds thus:
His sister brought
out a disposable plate
with a saveloy and seven chips.
I said thank you and sat
in the garden. I fed the chips
to the sparrows.
There’s a hint of American poet Charles Simic here – the stark cruelty of the image, the baroque deprivation. Except that it’s not a mythological-seeming Eastern Europe, rather it’s a jolt back to an ugly aspect of New Zealand’s past.
In The Devil, sea and land are characters in their own right. “Ohawe”, one of the longest poems, tells of a rather grimy, tired sea: “This Beach/ain’t no resort, that’s/for sure”, and footprints in the sand “break the surface like/peeled back tops of/mince pies.” It’s a poem that tracks childhood, family and, again, a wider social history. “The kuia now/buy their clothes on special/from the Warehouse”. Along with “Self Portrait”, “Ohawe” is one of the hits of the collection – so much is communicated yet with a minimum of fuss.
But like Hourglass, The Devil is an inconsistent collection. There is a poem that serves up a joke even more uncomfortable to read than “Graham Thomas”. Kawana’s “How to Train Your Labourer” is that stale class/gender yarn about the snooty office lady and the hard-working, patronised bloke:
He looked at her for a second,
barked, then lay on his back
and waited for a tummy rub.
Similarly the sexual passion, a recurring theme, doesn’t add anything; it’s all warm thighs and nails down the back. A one-night-stand poem could have stopped at the title, “The French Woman with Ava Gardner Eyes” – the most evocative thing about it. Again I felt that I wasn’t the right audience – others will find these poems raunchy, and actually the lustiness in The Devil fits with a half-ironic poet-as- rock-star shtick Kawana has going. In the final pages the credits/acknowledgments appear as “Bonus Track”. It’s a gigantic thank-you list where the famous (dead and alive) sit next to whanau and friends, and I enjoyed scanning it for the seating arrangements: Diego Rivera next to Nigella Lawson and closer to home Kupe next to Lemmy. It’s a no-strings piece of fun you can take or leave and ends the collection on a fittingly exuberant note.
Paola Bilbrough is a New Zealand writer living in Melbourne.