From Pine Hill to elsewhere, Dougal McNeill

Geography for the Lost
Kapka Kassabova
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9781869403874 

Made for Weather
Kay McKenzie Cooke
University of Otago Press, $29.95, 
ISBN 9781877372490

84-484
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9780864735584

Cold Snack
Janet Charman
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9781869403805

Geography for the Lost, in an absorbing, moving concluding essay, offers a glimpse of immigrant misery: “Dunedin at the time struck me as Calvinist, provincial, and distinctly untropical.” When, in 1997, Kassabova read to my sixth-form English class, she seemed the exact opposite of provinciality. The experience of hearing her read – poems worldly, sophisticated and committed to language and philosophical speculation – turned my own attention to reading poetry with proper seriousness. It felt, to indulge this image of Dunedin by using a Calvinist term, like irresistible or efficacious grace. Much as the total depravity of Dunedin teenage culture might fight against the insights of the literary, these proved, in the face of Kassabova’s intellectual stimulation, impossible to resist.

I thought Kassabova was one of those writers who appear fully-formed; the debut poems had precious little of the debut about them. But, re-reading All Roads Lead to the Sea, I see now how the success of this early work lies in its estrangement effects, where English functions as a sort of Formalist “motivation of the device”, jarring against life experience and familiar ways of speaking. Her early poems, with their keen sense of how “on the edge of your newly/acquired otherness/linger heavily/the words” of “another world”, clatter around self-consciously in a world they’re not certain they can inhabit, and much of the poetry’s intellectual and lyrical delight is caught up in its equally strongly felt inhibition.

Geography for the Lost marks a decisive break with this phase:

It’s hard to say, the ink of years
is smudged by tears from nineteen thirty-nine.
Here, borders lift, the family meets
after seven years. Nervous smiles.
Their shadows stretch across the pier,
beach, veranda, cypress, pine. 
(“Our Names Long and Foreign”)

 

Inventive rhyme schemes, unusual and unexpected rhythms, even the odd joke: Geography for the Lost maintains all the moral seriousness of Kassabova’s earlier work but adds to it all this, and a sensuously detailed lyricism. The earlier work, with its subtle reflection on the difficulties of linguistic dislocation, is gently teased here as a way to “practise chronic longing” (“Mantra for Long-Distance Lovers”) and Kassabova, now a “happy tenant” in the “English language house” (“Skipping Over Invisible Borders”), can turn her extraordinary skills elsewhere. She claims New Zealand has “transformed [her] from a migrant into a traveller”, and these poems ignore the “tedious point about the virtues/of standing still” (“Postcard from Paradise”) in favour of ranging over the more difficult areas of the social, and sometimes of history itself.

None of this, though, should suggest a sudden burst of lightheartedness. The pleasure one finds in the company of her work is still that of being around intelligence strong enough to interrogate, instead of merely recording, its own melancholy:

Oh, it can take an age to know 
how finite continents can be,
how quick the future and how short the past.
Before we’ve found out exactly
 
what happened and what never will,
it’s time.

 

Geography of the Lost explores this dilemma with Kassabova’s characteristic precision and depth, and with a newly confident poetic range.

Made for Weather, Kay McKenzie Cooke’s second collection, also explores the difficulties in finding out what’s happened and what never will. “[R]emembering back/yields my only clues”, one poem announces, and much of Made for Weather works its way through the challenges of this process. Casual readers might mistake the project for nostalgia, were it not for McKenzie Cooke’s sharp eye, and wider patterns of social suffering the work gestures towards. Proper nouns are made to do a lot of work here, and it’s hard to offer a properly critical account of their impact. I found many of these pieces intensely evocative, but then I feel like I know Southland and Otago with the patience the poems demand. How would an Aucklander respond? I’m not sure, but they’re bound to be drawn to those carefully-rationed moments of luxurious excess which occasionally burst through otherwise extremely restrained verse. Here are some muttonbirds:

Then on our plates, a feast
of golden skin and underneath,
dark plum meat, the run of fat
down our chins. 
(“feast”)

 

McKenzie Cooke’s ear isn’t always as excited as this, and Made for Weather’s best pickings are the silent mind-games of simile and word-play: “hairy legs/as sweet as baby pungas”, wild mint “that might growl/or suddenly leap” and – my favourite – the Takitimus with a “blond shock/of snow.” There’s no particular development from Feeding the Dogs, but Made for Weather is very satisfying, sometimes unexpectedly moving, and occasionally exciting.

For all their terse and tough exterior, Geoff Cochrane’s poems – and, for that matter, his novels – have always had a core of intensely nostalgic attention to the past none too distant from McKenzie Cooke’s “remembering back”. Very specific sections of Wellington – the Willis/Boulcott intersection, with Saint Mary of the Angels to one side and the rooms of the George on the other, is one constant – conjure lost worlds and lost opportunities. But 84-484 adds to this conjuring a heavy sense of exhaustion and spent energy, an awareness that “anything/possessed by memory/is fiction” (“War Poem”) and, by implication, hardly helps. Death dominates 84-484 – lost friends, family members, chemotherapy – and, against Death the heady abstraction, Cochrane’s subject is the far more unsettling loss of everyday ageing and decay. “[B]oredom gives way to despair –/isn’t that what finally happens?” (“Christmas In my Mother’s Spidery Shed”): 84-484 seems uncertain what to do with this revelation, and works its way from nostalgic recreation to spent energy:

I can marvel all I like
at the fat white clouds of noon,
at the tall peach pomps of sunset,
but my wonder must remain
ignorant and sterile. 
(“Christmas In my Mother’s Spidery Shed)

 

I’m not convinced by the argument (and would produce the splendid “tall peach pomps of sunset” in evidence), and this awareness of sterility almost cripples 84-484. “Impossible/to really live, of course”; Cochrane assertively deflates his own faith in the act of writing (a “colourful felony”) with reminders of how “blemishes accumulate”. The cruellest trick alcoholism plays is its final one: giving up the booze may save your life, but that doesn’t transform life into anything particularly pleasant. There’s a refreshing order to alcohol abuse, and the self-loathing a hangover brings is a logically coherent and consistent event with both cause (the night before) and cure (more of the same).

That this way of living is disastrous doesn’t change what Cochrane dubs “the magic of alcohol … its heat and radiance”, as he recalls “HOW ABSORBINGLY INTERESTING IT IS TO BE DRUNK!” (“Taking Stock”). For all that it’s necessary to flee alcohol’s “smoke-blackened banner”, these poems make it clear that the interest and the “serious moral proposition” lie not with those that make it through but with “[t]he failed human being, with knobs on.”

“Failed” human beings – most of us, surely – deserve the sort of taut concentration and imaginative effort Cochrane’s poetry represents, but posing the choice as between “marvel” and “sterile” wonder unnecessarily lumps imagination and striving with comfort of a more ideological kind. Cochrane introduces 84-484 with a quote from the great Scots poet Tom Leonard: “I like those days when it all comes together/and you know your own history/and you know your own place in the world.” 84-484 has too much of the past and not enough of history, too much of where we’re placed in the world and not enough of our place in it. This chronicle of exhaustion turns more and more into the familiar case for exhaustion. Then, for all Cochrane’s skill, it’s hard not to put 84-484 down.

Readers who persevere with Cold Snack, Janet Charman’s strangely self-important and relentlessly tedious latest collection, will find occasional moments of real lyrical work and skill:

a hush
of rain
 
in the shiny
street
 
the wind’s
hollow song
 
listening
rain
 
not quite dawn
birds harping on
(“Wake Up to Yourself”) 

 

For the most part, though, this is a drearily prosy collection. It’s as if Charman’s method was to coarsely grate her working notes into shorter lines: the result is thin gruel. There’s something politically repugnant about the persona she creates, too. Flaunting her adherence to the most elementary tenets of 1980s left-liberal solidarity – Homosexual Law Reform badges, saying kia ora on the phone, going to an anti-Springbok tour march – she remains resolutely silent on the less comfortable class conflicts of that time. Calling herself a feminist (“Lord of the Rings”), she happily repeats the most tired right-wing and anti-worker images of youth (school is a “minimum security//prison” and teachers “those/large/worn/burned/persons”) without even adding new metaphors to the reactionary arsenal. When one recalls End of the Dry’s dexterity and reach, the degeneration is startling.

 

Dougal McNeill is a tutor in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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