Tousled and tart, Emma Neale

London Notebook 
Mark Pirie
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $24.95,
ISBN 1869420586

Wild Daisies: The Best of Bub Bridger 
Bub Bridger
Mallinson Rendel, $34.95,
ISBN 0908783973

Your Secret Life 
Harry Ricketts
HeadworX, $24.99,
ISBN 0476101300

Presenting Pirie’s new collection as “a witty artist’s sketchbook”, the publisher’s press release expands: “Hundreds of New Zealanders travel to London each year for a holiday or for their big ‘OE’. Written in the spirit of this social ‘pilgrimage’ is [Pirie’s] new collection.”  “OE” is in speech marks: it’s the authentic voice. Overseas Experience is real, valuable. “Pilgrimage”, however, is in scare quotes. We’re not to take it seriously. Instead, we should realise Pirie is aware of the term’s misuse in a secular, post-colonial context. He’s not on a spiritual journey to the land of his literary/cultural origins; the overseas voyage won’t yield the final maturation of the artistic self. If we accept the publicity puff, the notebook is a more consciously bathetic enterprise than it might seem.

Describing the collection as a sketchbook highlights incompletion, immediacy. A sketch is a rough, unpretentious outline, especially one intended as the basis for something else. The collection does have a dashed-off, diary style: it reads like a series of notes-to-self along the trip. As Terry Locke has said elsewhere, Pirie celebrates inconsequence. He catches the downbeat moments, the typical post-modern failure to achieve epiphany. See “First Glimpse” on seeing England from a plane:

have you been here before?
no, this is my first time
well, then, welcome to our country
we hope you enjoy your stay!

 

The language consciously avoids difficulty; it’s public and democratic in that sense. The effect is often of overhearing phatic chatter between people on a bus. These are poems of thinking aloud, of first undigested impressions, where irony isn’t so much the internal stance as the general spirit of the age, and so the tone in which we’re meant to read the works. It’s poetry about how little people have to say, when finally confronted with sites of cultural/artistic pilgrimage, as in these lines from “Visiting Graves”:

5 Apollinaire

well, Guillaume, this is nice!
most beautiful, well-kept

I think I like yours best

it’s no telephone box-tardis
but it’s nicely done

a quote from the poetry too,
always a nice touch […]

 

One angle on the banalities: they deliberately mock the varieties of “nothing” tourists produce when racing through a checklist of must-sees. A pitfall of this conversational, un-emphatic style, however, is that the poems might seem as off-the-cuff as the mutterings of their personae. (Pirie reworked the notebook in Wellington: the style aimed for, then, is artfully tousled/designer ripped.) There is humour in understatement, yes, or in undercutting grand gestures and impulses towards rhetorical flourishes. But if we always go seeking the bathetic, if every moment is underplayed … what are we building, separately or together? “Traffic jams – big ones!/Crowds – big ones!! (Discoveries”). Perhaps that’s Pirie’s point. The collection might be another warning – like Dumber  (2003) – against the idiocy of mass culture. For some poems do burn through the conscious numbness of the rest of the book. One example: “The Photographer” (from “Framing”) is intensely visual, and works as an intra-genre rhyme for its accompanying photograph. Another, “The Deadwatch”, shows a stronger sense of technique, using assonance, occasional rhyme. Its couplets step carefully down the page, much as the speaker navigates deliberately past the homeless. It bears the effects of witnessing misery’s erosions, despite the speaker’s attempts to avoid them:

You pass; you don’t look; it’s that simple.
I mean, if you look, you might catch their faces,

you might catch their sores, around their beards,
their shabby clothes. Usually they don’t look up.

Instead they sit for hours with their head in hands,
a note on the ground: PLEASE SPARE SOME
CHANGE

 

Pirie is astonishingly prolific, an enthusiastic performer, and a generous, inclusive editor. His best poems make me wonder whether he could be more generous to himself: allow more time to mull, and drive himself less furiously to publish.

Published with an accompanying CD, Wild Daisies collects poems, short stories and performance pieces. The poetry shows its roots in drama and song: there is imitation folk ballad; comic light verse that often deals impishly with an older woman’s sexuality; love poetry; poetry of mourning. All of it will delight those citizens who get through a morning’s indigestion by writing to newspapers, grumbling that in their time poetry rhymed; civilisation is in decline; and has anyone noticed the appalling state of footpaths in Morningside …? Which isn’t to say that the poems aren’t inherently fun. They are. Playful, jolly, easily absorbed, they appeal to a wide, general audience. On the accompanying CD, Bridger reads with humour and rich tonal colour.

Although there are elegiac pieces, the largest shift in tone is not from poem to poem, but from poetry to fiction. While the poems usually go for the crowd-pleasing joke, or the clinching tender sentiment, the stories are tricksier. They’re still often executed with a gracefully sly humour, but they aim to catch you unawares. They also record – with ease and a lack of clutter – several changes in the social fabric from the 1940s-1970s.

Bridger captures flickers of emotion that might be inexplicable to the characters themselves, as in “The Circus”, or “The Thirteenth Summer”, when a grandly self-dramatising sense of tragedy changes to the natural, animal ebullience of a young girl. Bridger also deftly pins 1970s society through its hypocritical centre in “The Girl in the River”, where a morally punitive married man labels the object of his desire as temptress. His own deceit brings him – in a tightly managed moment – to his knees, literally, in shame. This story evokes its riverside setting so well that it makes me want more fiction set in the same location. “Deceptively simple” is a phrase tailor-made for Bridger’s prose.

Ricketts has been a mentor of Pirie’s, and Pirie is his publisher – yet Ricketts’ collection, Your Secret Life, in some ways shares more with Bridger’s. For there is a more obvious grounding in musical forms – or at least, to my ear, it has a deeper sense of the techniques of timing and dramatic stress that poetry shares with song and performance.

The poems show wry wit and polish. Quiet irony is not the default tone; it’s the final push, the fillip, the moment where the poem tunes itself to a higher pitch. It’s where at least two meanings in a phrase or two angles on a situation are released: not the pose of distance (whatever; yeah right) or the shrug of bathos, anti-climax.

Although the humour is usually subtler than in Bridger, Ricketts knows how to entertain the punters with light verse. There are some tidy, tart poems here about the perils of reviewing or writing – and trying to do both – in a small literary scene. Yet Ricketts can do tenderness as convincingly as comically catty. The autobiographical poems lower the lights, stoke the fire: they’re restrained yet intimate.

Understatement resonates particularly in poems about being a son and a father. These touch on the unknown in even the closest of relationships, showing how the magic and mystery are interleaved with loss, longing. “The Necessity of Failure” is a stand-out poem; it combines Ricketts’ signature irony, humour, sombre tenderness, and control of form:

Why this obsession with success,
which brings so brief a glow?
Fading already: won it; done it;

gone. Afterwards, what then? What next?
With failure there’s so much
more to savour, so much more to feel …

 

Read it to your favourite, driven, A-type personality. I did, and it worked. He laughed out loud, then took a tea-break.

 

Emma Neale’s fourth novel, Relative Strangers, was published earlier this year by Random House.

 

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