Dwelling poetically, Dougal McNeill

Brainpark
Anna Sanderson
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 086473543X

After the Dance
Michele Amas
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864735421

Secret Heart
Airini Beautrais
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864735413

The Unbelievable Lightness of Eggs: Light Poems and Verse 
Bernard Gadd (ed)
Hallard Press, $18.95,
ISBN 0864770545

Overnight Downpour
Andrew Fagan
HeadworX, $19.99,
ISBN 0473113023

What Heidegger calls “dwelling poetically” is a practice, a sort of philosophical New Zealand House and Garden project that involves making places that give appropriate space for the non-human to be in their own particular method of being. This can only happen if somehow – and impossibly – we manage to give our tendency to technological “enframing” (the reduction of everything to a “standing reserve” for our particular needs) the slip. It’s small wonder then that, in New Zealand, this resolutely anti-historical sort of philosophising should eventually spill over onto the terrain of history itself. Part of the thrill and excitement of our history lies in how much it presses upon us: the brief span of human settlement on these islands makes history an immediate and occasionally shocking fact. When I lived in Wellington, afternoons spent drinking at the Thistle Inn offered that sort of startled recognition as I imagined Te Rauparaha pulling in to the shore to enjoy a dram.

But, if a whole daring strain of New Zealand poetry has long set itself the task of offering models for “dwelling poetically” with the natural world, can the concept be transposed to history and still make any sense? If history, as social as it gets, is to be given its appropriate distance, the danger is always that it simply fades from view. For some, this is not such a bad thing: as the National Party mantra goes, we’re all New Zealanders now. But for those with a commitment to the complexity of the past these are real dangers. The three most successful collections reviewed here all negotiate this territory with exciting results.

Anna Sanderson’s Brainpark is a cataloguer’s nightmare: is this an 823 or an 821? The less Dewey-eyed among us will recognise here a work of originality and power. Sanderson’s collection of essays borrows from the techniques of poetry and draws on the attention to detail which marks good art writing. The initial test of the essay has to be its ability to contribute to knowledge, and Brainpark passes: it’s stuffed to bursting with information on everything from religious history and ritual to the everyday of the Dutch sex industry, miniature introductions to contemporary art and skilful précis of architectural debates. Brainpark is a Rainbow’s End of the intellect: hyperactive, enormously stimulating, varied, and, eventually, exhausting.

Sanderson uses self-portrait as an opening manoeuvre into her primary obsession: whether the spiritual attaches itself to particular objects and spaces and, in the process, whether “dwelling poetically” (she does not use the term herself) is possible in human environments. The history of a former church is an excuse for all sorts of diligent research into Russian orthodoxy, the politics of consecration, death rituals and architects’ private lives. If this sounds like The Da Vinci Code without the conspiracies, the comparison isn’t all bad. Sanderson combines intellectual sophistication with the sort of tight narrative pacing one expects from the thriller. This is a thoroughly satisfying first collection.

Michele Amas’ After the Dance approaches the problem of dwelling through a series of ambitious poems taking as their starting point both family history and Erik Olssen’s Caversham project, the extensive documentation of the early history of the working class Dunedin suburb carried out at Otago University’s History Department. The results are engaging, and make me hope for more poems from Amas very soon, although some here strain under the vast weight of the subject-matter they select for themselves. She makes the family connections explicit, writing of how

She is me old
but dead now
sweet woman
of tiny detail.
(“Time and Space (i)”)

 

But eliminating mediations between us and the past doesn’t get us any closer to its full distance and strangeness; rather, it blurs this necessary space. Amas’ poems strain at the leash of representation, constantly threatening to dash off ahead into the objects of the past themselves. Her Caversham is one conjured by commodities (Smiths Crisps, a Morrie 1100, Truth, Tiger Tea). But this is a winner-loses logic: those who recognise the commodities won’t need the intervening magic of poetry to travel to Caversham, while those historically distant from the commodities or Caversham are bound to be left with little to give them any proper sense of the past. This is as much a methodological as a poetic problem, and one Amas never fully engages with or resolves.

Amas is disarmingly funny (the hilarious “Disclosure”, a pre-relationship warning note, lulls us into a surprisingly moving end) and has the sort of sharp intelligence that can transform domestic life into rewarding poetry without slipping into the traps set by sentimentality. She stretches personal experience until it can cover aspects of the social, and thus avoids the limitations of so much verse of this kind. “Tidy your room”, on a teenager’s bedroom purge, ends perfectly:

On my knees the way
I delivered her
I scavenge through
baby breath
the childhood
she hands me back.

 

“Our bodies are documentaries” argues the poem “Women Our Age”, and the line can be applied to poetry as much as to evidence of childbirth and ageing. After the Dance sticks in the memory and invites rereading while, at the same time, managing to offer opportunities for fun, surely a poet’s prime vocation. Amas has produced exactly the kind of first collection a poet should: the quality of the work already here displays her ample talent while its range suggests the possibility of better work to come.

If Amas’ project involves the imaginative recreation of a lost social world, Airini Beautrais’ Secret Heart carries out the urgent task of mapping one in the process of being destroyed by city council idiots and environmental vandals. Wellington’s Te Aro, a victim of the stupidity that is the Bypass, offers rich prospects for poetry, and Beautrais’ collection expands our images of the region. These prose- poem evocations of inner-city Wellington and loving portraits of Paekakariki filled me with nostalgia, only, in sharp but subtle moves, to deflate the very feeling evoked through some witty detail or sharp reminder. Beautrais’ deadpan style produces some excellent lines. My favourite is “Tandem”: “Fantasies never really come alive. There is always the chain catching your clothing, and the feeling that your feet are being turned by someone else’s pedals.”

At its best Secret Heart is a warm and cleverly organised set of representations of a whole set of group mannerisms, neuroses, distinctions and charms that have gathered, as these things always do, around a particular city location and milieu. The problem with this sort of project, though, is that it can trick itself into imagining its material self-sufficient. Beautrais is in a band, The Raskolnikovs, and her “Tales of a Road Tour” is endless Grime and Punishment, overlong and unrewarding. If Sanderson and Amas work through the problems involved in “dwelling poetically” alongside history, Beautrais’ subjects make the mistake of thinking they’re already doing so. Dumpster-diving (the individualist fantasy that eating other people’s rubbish somehow changes social relations) is a frequent reference, infecting the poems with its practitioners’ smug sense of superiority. At times it is clear Beautrais is gently mocking her material, as in “The Office”:

We were using buckets to collect donations on an anti-GE rally. We had a couple of volunteers to dress up as cows, and another to dress as a strawberry. “I don’t like people dressing as animals,” said a young Animal Action member. “I think it’s disrespectful.”

“I suppose dressing as a strawberry is disrespectful to fruit,” said my friend, who was writing “Koha” on the lid of each bucket, while I glued labels around the sides. The Animal Action boy picked up his bag and walked out.

 

While pomposity this crazy deserves ridicule, eventually some of the coterie’s less extreme pre-sentations begin to grate as well. These are, however, minor off-notes in what is otherwise an engaging and successful first book.

The Unbelievable Lightness of Eggs – a collection of light poems by Tony Beyer, Bernard Gadd, Frankie McMillan, John O’Connor, Joanna Preston and Barbara Strang – doesn’t work. This is no judgement on the potential of light verse itself – Ricketts’ and Roberts’ How You Doing?: A Selection of New Zealand Comic and Satiric Verse (1998) proves there’s a rich tradition at work in New Zealand – but there’s little in Gadd’s selection to justify spending such a chunk of one’s disposable income.

Joanna Preston’s contributions are The Unbelievable Lightness of Eggs’ stand-out moments, and her “Technically Obese” is a witty smack at the latest repackaging of the misogynist war on women’s bodies in the form of the so-called “obesity epidemic”. “Visit to Nicky’s House” is another funny piece and reinforces your mam’s message: always go out wearing clean undies because you don’t know what might befall you.

If only the rest of the book was that useful. John O’Connor tries parody but his target is unclear and the results confused. Bernard Gadd, New Zealand’s last surviving social democrat, is a writer whose work I’ve always admired but here he disappoints by attempting limericks and not even rising to the level of the obscene. Gadd is clearly too nice for this game: the digs are so tame (“I’m Kiwiland’s literary Tsar/you’re in if I choose that you are”) that I was left hankering after a decent scrawl on some toilet door. Worst of all, Tony Beyer plays the victim, claiming that “in certain suburbs folks get nervous/about a poet teaching their children”, believing that

poets are all right if unemployed or dead
or published by a university press
but not too close among us
where they might want us to read the stuff

 

The snobbishness of this pose is annoying enough (and probably surprises those parents who read poetry and subscribe to New Zealand Books) but is also annoyingly lazy in its target: what philistine distinguishes between the university and other presses?

If none do yet, any who stumble across Andrew Fagan’s Overnight Downpour may be encouraged to start. Mark Pirie has made a real contribution to New Zealand poetry in his generous publishing project, but publishing Fagan’s latest poems in this state was an error. Overnight Downpour is almost completely without interest. Mawkish where it isn’t aimless, repetitive, cluttered with tired images, clichés bleached of usefulness and rhymes which would make William Topaz McGonagall blush, the editor of Overnight Downpour (who, considering his own work and the gems he’s published, should know better) has done both his author and his audience a disservice.

 

Dougal McNeill is a postgraduate research student in the Department of English at the University of Melbourne.

 

 

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