Museum of Lost Days
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $15.00,
My Iron Spine
Beauty of the Badlands
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
Auckland University Press, $24.99
T S Eliot in his essay “The Three Voices of Poetry” describes the lyric as the voice of the poet speaking to the self, oppressed by a burden that he (or she) must bring to relief. For the reader, the pleasurable shock of intimacy, of being afforded the illusion of sharing experience, is one reason the lyric persists as an attractive poetic form, despite the intellectually energising innovations of the avant-garde.
All four of the collections under review here have succumbed to the lyric’s ancient charms. Alexander’s Museum of Lost Days shows most clearly the influence of modernism: working through disjunction, the demotic voice, and a (democratic) lack of punctuation or capitalisation. Despite this less traditional style (although I suppose modernist innovations now seem like the poet’s equivalent of Bakelite jewellery: quirkily interesting yet also clearly period collectors’ items), the work is closely wedded to the idea of poetry as the voice of an inner self. The volume is a museum of memories; the strongest note is the long, tidal pull of regret. There are lightly sketched elegies for past loves and friendships; at times, the lightness of touch is lost, and the emotion so raw, the similes so obvious, that the formalities of aesthetic distancing we still require of the intimate lyric feel contravened: “I could be spread that thinly//… transparent enough already/for anyone to see what they wish” (“I could be made of glass”). There is relief in the bright comedy and highly-coloured imagery of a death-refusing poem like “yes”; there are also several moments where vivid organic phenomena offer a kind of salvation, as in “Amaryllis”: “a rescue of thick petals/pink-pinstriped white”.
Many of Alexander’s poems read like the lyric sheets from a pop album – strangely devoid of their music. Similarly, in Helen Rickerby’s My Iron Spine there isn’t much obvious sensuous orality to the language. Both authors write mainly by cadence: perhaps live performance would offer more sense of timing and sound-scape.
Rickerby’s style is simple, accessible; the first third of her collection gathers fragments of memory, of formative moments, in quiet poems of friendship and love. Here the most interesting poem is “Eleven Fragments of God”, which has a cleansing honesty in its record of the development of a personal faith. The remaining two-thirds of Rickerby’s collection take on the challenge of how to write a lyric while still engaging with a world beyond the self by adopting the voices of historic or literary figures. The most successful example is “Sylvia Fights off the Boys”. The emphatic repetition of the phrase “and the truth of it is” obliquely comments on the slipperiness of identity and an artist’s masks, and meaning is approached in a more subtle, sidewinding manner than in the other biographically inspired poems. In Rickerby’s other short dramatic monologues there is little variation in tenor or metre, or the colour palette of the language so that the various monologuists swiftly become indistinguishable.
With Cliff Fell’s Beauty of the Badlands, however, the inner ear is reawakened: all the pleasures of poetry’s oral music slip back into the room. In Fell’s work this is often inseparable from inventive yet startlingly accurate ways of describing the natural world: “Stars tighten/in the turning sky”. Like Rickerby and Alexander, Fell records childhood memories; in his paeans to nature he also sees the intricate connections between all human phases of life and the cycle of the organic world. A Romantic in temperament, he is haunted by the atomic age. The poems think over the connections between the nuclear era and the age of terror, the implication being that both arise from the same sickness in Western culture.
Many of Fell’s poems, traversing both New Zealand and the badlands of the United States, have “Blues” in the title. To my ear, the blues really only appear as occasional snippets or quotations, like someone trying to do an accent: the languidness and pain of the musical style are absent. His version of the blues is more like a muted, low-key lament: it has none of the hot, swaying pain, the agony of unrequited or bad love, the bitterness of a racist society, or the full-bodied sensual celebration of lust found in the songs. The tone is cooler, measured, refined. The sadness that lodges in these poems is at the passage of time; the deepest hurt the sense of injustice the reasonable man feels when seeing the earth and its fragile joys threatened by nuclear destruction. The “Blues” in Fell’s titles left me hankering after the belly-fire, heart-grit and love-sweat of the music; yet Fell is best when writing to “praise the passing moments/and name the fleeting shapes of life”.
Grimly, Fell’s and Sonja Yelich’s collections share a character drawn from the American war in Iraq. As its protagonist, Yelich’s Get Some has Edgar, a United States marine who suffers an amputation after combat. Like Rickerby, Yelich steps outside some of the solipsistic risks of the lyric by writing from the perspective of other lives.
Yelich chronicles the story of Ed and his family; Ed is the young, unthinking grunt with few prospects, who doesn’t make links between the comforts and conditions of his life and the conflagration in Iraq, until he is in the war zone: “Ed thought more about/the million ways to enlist than the price of gas” (“The Texaco Star”).
Ed has an obsession with cleanliness; it begins before he leaves for war, and it continues even after he kills. He speaks about the deaths he’s caused the way he might of hits in a computer game: “To clean off the sound/of a bullet & all the people I have whacked” (“One Small Cake”). Ed becomes an increasingly unlikeable cliché of brute masculinity: he’s dumb, he lacks imagination and a full range of emotions; he lacks any sense of higher responsibility or dedication to a cause, which might help us to understand his decision to join the military; he likes porn; he talks about good bagels and a good lay as equivalents; he can smell a woman is “up for it”; that she smells like Canada Salmon.
After the amputation and his return home, he seems utterly unreflective and unchanged – until the final poem, “T-shirts”. Here he at last thinks: “Ed thought in between thinking about what to do next”. The message is that as soon as he allows himself any reflection, life becomes unbearable, and he suicides. The ending is a shock. Everything we’ve assumed about Ed – that he is unfeeling, doesn’t see consequences, doesn’t seem to be altered by nor even fully to register battle – gets swept into disarray. Does he deserve our sympathy in this last poem? Is the ending amply foreshadowed, as we would require of narrative prose? “T-shirts” effectively asks us to reread the collection to trace more sensitivity and thoughtfulness in Ed’s character: but this becomes a fruitless, dispiriting quest.
The blurb says the collection offers us a “whirlwind of perspectives” on the war and contemporary American life; to my mind, there is a single, bleak, cynical and despairing point of view. Certainly it takes in the chatter and inanities of a particular family and their set, but overarchingly Get Some is an angry book: the implicit authorial perspective is one of being repelled. The collection is prefaced by a quotation from the American poet, Mark Doty: “We love disasters that have nothing to do with us.” Yelich does not love this war: the implication is that it has everything to do with us.
Get Some is a perplexing achievement. It is the most ambitious and thought-provoking of the volumes here, yet also the most troubling and unlikeable. I felt that I’d learnt little about the general psychology of war or the battle instinct after reading it; Ed – relentlessly one-noteish – is too easy a target for our scorn. Isn’t there a maze of feeling, inner conflict, division, in any state of crisis? The knotty, psychologically rich territory of ambivalence and paradox would seem a more bountiful lode for a collection. It would draw the reader to return to it, for fresh insight into the play of ghosts and shadows over the human mind, when the mind is subjected to an epoch’s extremes.
Emma Neale is a Dunedin-based writer and editor.
Get Some was shortlisted in the poetry category of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.