Slurries of history, Hugh Roberts

The Year of Adverbs
Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, $14.95, 
ISBN 9781869403942 

Just Poetry
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
HeadworX, $19.99,
ISBN 9780473124982

The Pop-up Book of Invasions
Fiona Farrell
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9781869403881

Villon in Millerton
James Norcliffe
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9781869403836

Elizabeth Smither is one of New Zealand poetry’s reliable pleasures. Her latest collection, The Year of Adverbs, shows us the same high wit, supple intelligence and attentive ear that characterises her earlier works. This is work that is a pleasure to read, and to re-read.

Take, for example, “The death of old women”, one among a number of poems in this volume that meditate upon the death of the poet’s mother (throughout the collection Smither circles back on certain themes, ideas or images, a way of acknow-ledging that they exist in multiple dimensions, of refusing any one poem the last word on a particular topic). The poem recounts conversations with a friend about their mothers’ final days:

                                     I mentioned
 
a blue colouring like the shading of a lamp.
You described a fearful rattling sound.
Not all of these were shared. Death
is individually tailored, like all things.
 
A dusty angel, with heavy wings
and a pocket of tools, like a lock-breaker
but gentleness as well, a concern
to take each prize into his hands.

 

“Not all of these were shared”: there is a quietly devastating double-meaning in this line. If the poem in part celebrates the power of friendship to re-knit continuity in the face of death’s stubborn discontinuities, it also acknowledges the limits of that power. Death is a singularity that resists all recuperative narratives, even if for that very reason we endlessly attempt to narrate it.

Or consider “Boy’s Stuff” which begins by evoking the techno-war-porn drawings of a boy who could have stepped straight out of one of those brilliantly unsettling renditions of the brutality of childhood by the poet’s ex-husband Michael Smither:

On sheets of A4 he draws
a rocket, a transformer, a car
 
with speedy strokes and speedy wheels.
The rocket has a haze of flare
 
that burns up the paper atmosphere.
The rocket – Soviet parade-size –
 
rumbles past admiring lines
while from the transformer a dagger hangs
 
ready to strike between changes of form.

 

This is a vibrant sketch, sure, but we might wonder if we’re heading towards a paint-by-numbers “take the toys away from boys” moral. No such thing: the poem takes us to a quite unexpected conclusion:

Yet how prettily they hang in space
these dangerous toys, like poised portraits
 
of folded hands, academic robes, a skull
on a table by a globe which turns
 
as the world turns, on each blank day
until our deeds come into view.

 

The target has broadened suddenly, breathtakingly, to encompass the whole human belief in instrumental thought, that “academic” power of the mind that can reduce the world to a “globe” and thereby conquer it. Art itself, the power that paints the skull by the globe, or that animates this very poem, is now seen as complicit with the boy’s violence-obsessed doodlings. Smither’s refusal to smugly exempt her own art from suspicion is typical of the clear-minded intelligence that animates these poems.

Just Poetry, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s latest collection, includes work that could be slotted seamlessly into volumes from throughout Campbell’s long career. There are several of the short sweet lyrics familiar to any reader of his debut collection, Mine Eyes Dazzle (1950):

Summer dreams are what remain—
  All the laughter, all the pain.
Winter brought us two together,
  Winter lovers, winter weather;
Spring then took us by surprise,
  Spring that closed your lovely eyes.
Now autumn comes with autumn rain,
  Only to break my heart again. 
(“Song: Four Seasons”)

 

This is a beautiful, defiantly un-hip, piece that could as easily have been written in 1807 as 2007. Campbell is simply without peer in New Zealand poetry in this mode.

The “Utu” sequence, subtitled “A Legend of Pukerua Bay”, could be imagined as a supplement to his 1963 volume, Sanctuary of Spirits. As there, in “Utu”, Campbell turns to the spirits and memories that haunt the Kapiti coast area where he lives; rather than the historical Te Rauparaha, here he tells the mythological tale of Hainui, Weku and Wairaka.

In “Cook Islands Rhapsodies”, he returns to the territory that he first explored in 1980’s The Dark Lord of Savaiki, that childhood in the Cook Islands he had left behind when dispatched to wintry Dunedin as a seven-year-old orphan. Campbell’s palimpsestic identity – pakeha father, Tongarevan mother, orphanage upbringing, problematically “Maori” identity – has been both a complex burden to the man and an infinitely fecund source of material for the poet. If a poet with this background had not existed, New Zealand literature would have had to invent one, so perfectly does it allow him the insider-outsider’s equally privileged intimacy and distance.

“A Childhood in the Islands” is particularly moving. Written in the voice of the poet’s older brother who died in Italy fighting with the Maori Battalion in WWII, the poem could stand as an envoi to 2001’s Maori Battalion: A Poetic Sequence. This evocatively nostalgic piece of scene-painting is all the more moving when we consider that it must to some degree be a reconstruction, or a layering of reconstructions: the poet tries to recreate the memories his brother would have had of a childhood they both didn’t quite get to experience. This collection may be Just Poetry, but it is poetry that demands to be read.

The Pop-Up Book of Invasions by Fiona Farrell gives us another take on the complexities of cultural identity. Raised as a self-consciously “Irish” New Zealander – by a father who had been raised in England before emigrating to New Zealand – Farrell uses a six-month stay in Ireland (as the inaugural recipient of the Rathcoola Residency in County Cork) as a springboard to meditate upon history, culture, language and the weirdly accidental interplay of these forces that shapes, distorts, and fractures our sense of “identity”.

“I was born on a boat/that was rolling over” she writes, a reference to the South Island’s slow tectonic tilt. The lines take on a wider significance, though: how can we ever be sure of the ground beneath our feet?:

I was made of stone
born on the wreck,
of a black canoe
on an island
in an archipelago
in Oamaru
North Otago
Otago
South Island
New Zealand
The World
The Solar System
The Universe
 
Set like a white spud
in tarry soil as the
ground beneath our feet was rolling over. 
(“Rolling over”)

 

The widening gyre of the child’s address (“The Solar System/The Universe”) speaks to a desire for a clearly defined and certain “centre,” a place in the universe. But the “spud/in tarry soil” calls up atavistic memories of another “home” – and the reason it could not hold:

It’s all politics, isn’t
it? This patch of rough
ground where 9000
lie buried like spuds.
That’s politics.  
(“Politics and economics”)
 
My father planted his
quarter acre, dug the
ground in ridges, the
habit of farmers in a
boggy country, raising 
their seed above rot.  
(“Potatoes”)

 

Oh dear, you might think, not the old story again: perfidious Albion, bloody law, terrible beauty, black and tans, the sweet smell – can’t we sing this in our sleep? But among the many rewards of Farrell’s richly nuanced and intelligent poems is her refusal to rehearse anyone’s familiar nationalist myths. In “Ballad”, she tells that archetypal Irish story: the story of leaving:

Hero with his cardboard
suitcase. Bard with his
guitar. And Beauty in her
new shoes …
 
Waving from the rail as
they set sail on the third,
led by a leaping salmon
and a cunning little bird.

 

But a story of leaving isn’t only a story of loss and longing; it’s also a story of arrival and transformation:

And when the ship comes close to
land, they smash upon the reef:
not Hero, Bard and Beauty,
but Oppressor, Judge and Thief.
 
And the suitcase cracks wide open
to release its glittering swarm
of beads and seeds and cloth
too thin to keep a body warm.

 

The victims of one of colonialism’s narratives wash up half a world a way on the conqueror’s side of another. The poem’s form is perfectly married to its meaning, a stumbling approximation of a ballad, the line breaks don’t quite match up with the prosody (“too thin” in the last line above, for example, should be part of the third line of the stanza), and the prosody itself is often uncertain, incomplete. As Farrell writes (of Ireland) in “Midden”:

Words are piled deep
here. Middens of
language, dungheaps
of song, a slurry of
history spread thick
on every field.

 

Farrell’s richly resonant poems dig through the dungheaps of history, always aware a fertile cultural heritage implies the presence of plenty of fertiliser.

James Norcliffe’s surrealist, allusive poems tease us with the possibility of meaning but too often seem to stop short of providing any:

Oh God
 
before I become pluperfect
just pinchbar me
the hell out of here
but leave my nails
 
bent naked spiky
and dangerous
and never drive
them home again

 

Um … sure! There’s a lot of this kind of thing in his latest collection, Villon in Millerton, and after a while it just gets wearing. It’s a shame, though, because the volume contains at least two cracking poems. When Norcliffe deigns to actually write about something rather than just set the poetry machine on automatic the results can be powerful. “Samuel Marsden in Glory” – a sequence of poems dipping into moments from Marsden’s Australian and New Zealand adventures – conjures a world and a mind in confident, telling strokes:

my father was a blacksmith
who swung a heavy hammer
 
and raised a celestial din
through a glory of sparks
 
but iron is less obdurate
than the intransigent soul
 
my hammer was duty
and I swung it proudly

 

“The Indian Rope Trick” recounts the steps of that 19th-century mirage of fakir prowess. Perhaps because the trick itself is a myth, an illusion of an illusion, Norcliffe feels willing to take us on a conventionally linear narrative through the stages of the trick (rope-in-air, assistant climbs and fails to return, fakir follows and chops assistant into pieces, climbs down and magically reassembles assistant) with taut, and gripping, precision:

“the body parts”
 
this is the strangest rain
this pitter-patter of blood
clotting on the blotter
of the yellow clod this gift
of god these gifts this arm
this leg and boyish gigot
this splash and splatter
chops brisket & cutlets

 

No doubt for Norcliffe the big payoff is the “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” conclusion to the poem, but dreams are only interesting if we can – however temporarily  – imagine inhabiting them. That doesn’t happen often enough in this volume.

 

Hugh Roberts teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine.

 

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