In or out, Hugh Roberts

Dream Boat: Selected Poems
Tony Beyer
HeadworX, $34.99,
ISBN 9780473126520

Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins
Paula Green
Auckland University Press, $24.99, 
ISBN 9781869404024

Mr Maui’s Monologues 
Peter Bland
Steele Roberts, $24.99,
ISBN 9781877448270

In Continents 
Richard Reeve 
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9781869404062

These four volumes present contrasting positions in relationship to some real or imagined coterie. Tony Beyer has never been part of New Zealand poetry’s in-crowd, and presents himself selfconsciously as an outsider. Publishing with small presses, for the most part, his poetry collections have appeared infrequently and been hard to obtain even if you knew of their existence. Dream Boat, the new “selected poems” from HeadworX, makes a strong case for the coherence and value of Beyer’s oeuvre.

Beyer himself has expressed some exasperation with those who value his very first collection, 1971’s Jesus Hobo from Caveman Press, above anything he has produced since. He includes only a handful of poems from his earliest collections, eager, no doubt, to acquaint readers with the directions his work has taken since the days of flared jeans and ampersands. Not that the casual reader will be aware of this; the publishers have included no editorial information of any kind. HeadworX should consider correcting this oversight on their website.

Beyer’s early work has an earthy power that relies chiefly on visceral imagery and subject matter that compels an emotional reaction:

but there was no need
in that tall flickering
shed of bellows and
iron sounds to conjure
worse damnations
than the place itself
where hands were flawed
expendable parts that
 
served in paltry ways 
the cold machinery had
not stooped yet to learn
and those enduring
longest gloved in blood
knew less each day
the powers they once
held to mend and make 
(from “The Kill”)

 

A subject he returns to repeatedly, even more gruesome than this stint at the freezing works, is his father’s unhappy life, self-medicating with alcohol the unhealed psychic trauma of being badly wounded in WWII. Beyer’s baffled mixture of love, guilt, pride and pity makes these poems searing experiences:

we swung in turn from his blunt
warm thumbs and packed down
a scrum between his shins
while my mother stood facing
the bench and said nothing
then started slowly to unwrap
the crackling brown and blood-
edged parcels he had brought
 

 
after the light was turned out
I sometimes heard again
above my brother’s breathing
the desperate whispers
I still hope were dreams
 
what a fraud you are
acting the big man
in front of the boys
and you were drunk again 
and late
they waited hours for you 
(from “Coming Home”)

 

With time, Beyer’s subject matter becomes, for the most part, less thorny (the landscape, his happy and rewarding marriage) and his, and the reader’s, interest moves to formal challenges. Beyer is well known internationally among devotees of the tanka, one of the Japanese waka forms of which the haiku is the best-known. It seems only fitting that this “outsider” poet should adopt a poetic form from a foreign cultural tradition. The tanka, strictly speaking, has a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure, but Beyer does not keep fixedly to these limits, often stringing these loosely-formed tanka in sequences. The effect is rather like reading free translations of poems written in another language:

from the water’s edge
I watch you
in hat and dark glasses
basking over the pages
of a trite magazine
*
waves lift
the lace skirt
of the shore
a little higher
each time
*
constant small
fallings of sand
will by evening
have erased
our presence here
(from “Tidelines”)

 

There’s much to admire in the way the poem marries form to meaning. The images arrive one after another like waves on the beach, both marking and freeze-framing that storm of time which the poem both commemorates and holds its plea against. The more we return to the poem, the more care we see in the choice of images: the “trite magazine” that is itself a temporal tideline, reporting on the ever-changing tides of fashion or celebrity; the “lace skirt” of the shore that picks up on that language of fashion and transforms the waves’ action into a form of sexual advance; the “constant small/fallings” that sum up, at last, the poem’s own progressive deposits as both positive event and process of self-erasure. Dream Boat reveals a poet who has consistently produced thoughtful and rewarding poetry with little regard for the changing fashions of the literary scene. It is to be hoped that this “selected poems” will bring his work to a wider audience.

Paula Green, by contrast, stands firmly in the centre of the contemporary poetry scene. Her four previous collections of poetry were all, like the current Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins, published by Auckland University Press, and she was the 2005 writer-in-residence at Auckland University. It’s not surprising, then, that in this broadly autobiographical collection we find ourselves standing at Green’s shoulder as she works the room at the New Zealand lit-scene cocktail party. Verse letters to Jenny Bornholdt, Michele Leggott and Anne Kennedy provide plenty of opportunity for vicarious schmoozing:

I think the latest books
are divine
 
(Ian
Bill 
Michele
Greg
Anna
Anne
Robert
James).
(from “Letter to Michele Leggott”)

 

It’s easy to snark at this kind of thing, but the real problem isn’t the clubby name-dropping so much as the time-marking flaccidity of the language. It’s certainly true that Green has earned her in-crowd status. Her earlier collections have fully merited the high praise they’ve received, revealing a poet unafraid to explore a wide range of formal challenges and with an astute and original ear. There are real pleasures to be found in this latest collection as well, but often – too often – we seem to be reading jottings towards some future poem rather than a finished work.

In an endnote to the collection, Green informs us that the poems were produced in a period of convalescence from a long illness and intended to comprise an “autobiography in the light of art” (Green is related in some way to Toss Woollaston, had ambitions as a painter in her youth and is married to the artist Michael Hight). It’s a promising idea, but Green never seems fully to capitalise on it. There’s a self-consciousness in all her explicit references to visual experience that seems to be of a piece with her own self-doubts about her artistic career:

The hills of Toss are in my family tree
the brown earth upon which the clans buttered 
bread
the ochre clay from which he built the walls 
                                       of his house
the burnt sienna on the list of my brush 
(from “The Hills of Toss Woollaston are in my Family Tree”)

 

There is something clunkily programmatic in this enumeration of colours that has the opposite of what one presumes to be the intended effect, making the visual properties seem alien and unassimilated. That “list” may be a pun, because again and again Green feels compelled to produce lists of images in a kind of anaphoric frenzy:

love the flowers in your milky vase
love the trees in your patchy shadow
love the sky beyond your shorn frame
love my roots on the hallway floor 
(from “Berries and Laurel”)

 

The blocked artist can see the images, but can’t decide what to do with them.

Peter Bland has built his poetic career on a complex self-consciousness as the insider-outsider. Bland wrote poems and plays as a stalwart member of that “Wellington Group” of the late 50s and early 60s which argued for a new spirit of cosmopolitanism in New Zealand literature. A displaced Yorkshireman himself, Bland was keenly aware of the limitations of a strictly “nationalist” ethos in artistic creation. He began working on his “Mr Maui” poems at that time, and many of them were collected in his first UK poetry collection after he returned to England (Mr Maui, 1976) at which point the figure seems to have been adopted as a kind of alter ego for Bland, marking him as a man of no country – the identity of the Maori demigod a kind of ironic acknowledgement of his inauthenticity as “native” New Zealander while signalling his “outsider” relationship to his “native” England. His new collection, Mr Maui’s Monologues, collects those older poems and reveals that he has continued to produce poems in this voice up to the present day. The newer poems, not surprisingly, take on old age, the loss of youthful idealism and mortality. Bland returns to the myth of Hinenui-te-po, the goddess of death, who featured in the earliest of the Mr. Maui poems, but without undue anxiety:

Not, I admit, with that youthful savagery
that, decades ago, first led me here,
but with a long tenderness
that persists.                          
(from “Mr Maui returns to the Death Goddess”)

 

There is a remarkable consistency of voice and vision in these poems (and the Mr Maui poems make up only about a third of the total in the collection), and Bland remains the congenial, wry and perceptive companion that he has always been.

“Congenial” is the last thing that Richard Reeve aspires to be called. In Continents is his third collection of poems and it displays the same frustrating mixture of unquestionable gifts with a near-fatal predilection for portentous but empty phrase-making that marred his previous work:

               one evening led by her carrot
I entered that inscrutable pathology of desire, the 
                  unrequited stars. 
(from “Ode to Joy”)

 

You might think the problem here is that enticing crepuscular carrot, but just forget the carrot for the moment: why are the stars “unrequited”? Sure, it makes sense to think of the stars as symbols of the unattainable that we desire, but what do the stars desire that they cannot have? And how are the stars, whether requited or not, a “pathology of desire”? One can see that a pathology of desire might lead one to understand how the stars came to be unrequited, or that it might be the route by which the stars became unrequited, but that doesn’t leave much room for the unrequited stars being a pathology of desire – let alone an “inscrutable” one (it’s best not to even inquire how one might “enter” such a thing). In the end it seems that the only function of the phrase is to make a quasi-Freudian, quasi-pomo sort of noise and hope no hands shoot up at the back of the class and ask what it all means, exactly.

Reeve is clearly a library cormorant of the first order and he addresses an extraordinary range of subjects – the Hundred Years War, the emperor Tiberius, the Mermaid Tavern, global warming; not to forget good old Guthrum “Viking king of the Danelaw” (yes, it will all be in the test). But one ends up feeling more impressed at the scope of his research than by any particular insight he offers into these eclectic topics. And even the best (and most accessible) work in this collection – like “A Nothing”, a poem about having to kill a mortally wounded bird found in his garden, which contains some beautifully restrained passages of description – cannot resist the temptation to sermonise: here, bizarrely, about its very lack of a moral:

It did not speak. I heard no such thing, nor in the 
burr of flies that crashed 
senselessly through the jonquils, was there any 
notion of some impending 
significance, some revelation or lesson to be learnt.

 

I’m not sure a “burr of flies” can “crash through the jonquils” senselessly or otherwise but I am sure that this passage is hopelessly overwrought: he’s got all stops out on the organ when he wanted to play a simple tune on the penny whistle.

If Reeve could resist aiming for “revelation” (here, the revelation not of “a nothing” but of Nothingness: brush up your Heidegger), we’d be a lot more likely to find a lesson to be learnt in his poems. Reeve’s insiderism is of the anxious “Oh yes, I’ve read that too” kind that mars the prose of most contemporary PhD theses in English; but it’s an insiderism that has, as it were, no inside to it. Beyond establishing one’s credentials to “belong”, it’s not clear what rewards membership brings.

So, four poets, four takes on “belonging” – perhaps an inevitable subject in a post-colonial society. Bland is undoubtedly the poet who reflects most fruitfully upon his own insider/outsiderism, turning an accident of biography into an ironic remove that allows for a intelligently critical playfulness. Green also takes on her own insiderness directly as a topic, but lacks precisely Bland’s critical distance. Beyer reaches out to a Japanese poetic form to mark his own oppositional relationship to the mainstream of contemporary New Zealand poetry, while if Reeve wrote a tanka it would be to prove that, yes, he’s quite aware of the full variety of waka forms, thank you very much.

 

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

 

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