Green thoughts in green shades, Hugh Roberts

The Truth Garden
Emma Neale
Otago University Press, $30.00, 
ISBN 9781877578250

The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9780864737618

Warm Auditorium
James Brown
Victoria University Press, $28.00, 
ISBN 9780864737649

From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden
Albert Wendt
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9781869407342

Emma Neale’s The Truth Garden, the most recent winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry, is about as uncool a collection of poetry as one can imagine being published by a university press. Neale is unafraid to risk accusations of mawkishness in exploring her restrained territory of domestic emotions. A sample of final lines will give a sense of what I mean:

and stained wet with a spill of stars.
 
ghost of love’s last, awful weight.
 
against the heart’s anarchic tides.
 
leaping, like a heart.
 
a match that is struck against a deep-running 
                                                     dark.

 

Your average, jaded Post-Everything poetry editor might suffer permanent injury from the force of the eye-roll that a concentrated list like that would induce.

And yet, and yet. There’s a toughness in the subject matter of these poems and an insistently alert poetic ear forming their language that belies one’s first impressions. In “Seismograph”, we find the poet cleaning a sick child’s vomit off the car seat and, later, degenerating into an “adult tantrum” of “piss and fucks” when the bucket breaks and flings “a flood of sick-soaked water/over my hair, face, clothes,/the walls, window, floor and doors”, and she thinks back over the generations of parents who have performed similar acts for their children.

That “sick-soaked” is a small example of the constant alertness to sound-effects characteristic of Neale’s writing. Consider these lines, also from “Seismograph”:

I was thinking mothers, Nightingales, fevers, 
                                           night shifts;
fathers, forms haunch-hunkered, hands on 
                              scorching foreheads;
the shape of tenderness, a parent’s spine fern-
                  stooped in a darkened room ….

 

“Haunch-hunkered” is a nice piece of sub-Hopkins sound play in isolation, but look at how “haunch” reaches forward to “scorch” and reaches back (in the vowel sound) to “forms” and forward again to “foreheads”. Then notice how the insistent alliteration on “f” in that line condenses all those f-words (“father”, “forms”, “forehead”) into the “fern” of the following line – that “fern” which lends its coiled form to the stooping father. Or, again, consider the neat interweaving of the “s” and “p” sounds through that last line (“shape”, “spine”, “stooped”) which makes that father’s leaning form seem so organically inevitable.

Not all of Neale’s poetry is at this level, and one sometimes senses a straining after effect that feels a little forced; but enough of it is to offer real and sustained rewards to the reader.

I would not say that if you’ve read one volume of Geoff Cochrane’s poetry you’ve read them all, but if you have enjoyed – as I have – his previous work, I am pretty confident that you will enjoy his latest collection, The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow, and if not, then I’d be surprised if this was the work that changed your mind. Cochrane is an imagist and a collagist with a jackdaw mind and a low threshold of boredom. A series of poems in the collection titled “Pinksheet #1-7” are perhaps the most characteristic works: they read like jottings from a notebook collected almost at random: quotations, meditations, notes to self, trial drafts of lines or images. The effect is not unlike looking through an artist’s sketchbook where unrelated images – along with the odd shopping list and telephone number – can jostle together on the page in unexpectedly provocative ways:

The peppery scent of some crepuscular shrub
seems splashed across the footpath like a leak.
 
*
 
I wake up in the middle of the night 
and my first thought is,
Not more fucking consciousness, surely?  
(from “Pinksheet #4”)

 

Part of the pleasure here, and no doubt for some readers the frustration, is in our uncertainty about how much weight we can place upon the connections between these fragments, or on the individual fragments themselves. Are those first two lines an experiment in iambic pentameter? If so, do we read the first line of the next section as a kind of degenerating pentameter rhythm (i WAKE UP in the MIDdle OF the NIGHT), with its rare stress inversion in the second foot (UP in)? Is the protest against “consciousness” linked to a kind of protest against full-dress poetic form, against the English poetic tradition’s exploration and, some might say, invention of modern consciousness? Perhaps. Or perhaps the one is just an isolated, resonant image and the other simply an unrelated diary entry.

Not all the material is as gnomic as this; and even at its most hermetic Cochrane’s gift for the vibrant image ensures that his poetry continues to tantalise the reader’s imagination. There are straightforwardly autobiographical moments in the poems, many of them frank meditations on ageing, addiction and loss. A particularly winning example is “Summer”, a riff on the most famous work by another determinedly idiosyncratic poet, Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry”:

For summer seems always more or less sudden.
For the wild geranium is coral-pink.
For my little bit of a garden hasn’t flourished.
For monarch butterflies enliven the morning.
For they do this silently, but silently.
For the birds out there look angular and fell.
For I’ll be sixty next birthday.
For I haven’t stopped smoking yet.
For the tigers of wrath are wiser than the 
                             horses of instruction.

 

As always in Cochrane, though, there is more beneath the surface and we’re not sure where to stop digging. Is that “wild geranium” a reference to Curnow’s “A Small Room with Large Windows”? The “silently, but silently” is certainly from Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and the “tigers of wrath” from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. Is the anxiety about the “garden” that hasn’t “flourished” an anxiety about Cochrane’s place in the literary firmament, either in terms of his relationship to the canon of New Zealand Literature (represented by Curnow) or in terms of New Zealand Literature’s relationship to the great tradition of English literature that gives us Smart, Blake and Shelley? I don’t know, but I enjoy the teasing suggestiveness of Cochrane’s poetry that constantly invites such questions.

James Brown’s Warm Auditorium is a frustrating collection. Brown tells us in his notes that the poems were written in “fleeting slivers of time between 2006 and 2012” and that “many explore narrative and/or make use of various restrictions”. The “restrictions” he has in mind are various kinds of, mostly formal, generative rules. Many a poet has prospered by setting themselves formal challenges like this; the constrictions of the form force the poet to think in new ways about what it is they have to say. Too rarely, though, in these poems, do we feel that the intersection of formal constraint and the poet’s subject matter has resulted in any kind of genuine creative insight. Either the poem is mere formal wordplay (as in “I’m”) or the formal conceit is simply pasted on to a poem which seems satisfied to do no more than tick off the required formal elements without any payoff for the poem’s meaning (as in “My Special Skill”).

There’s something similarly half-baked about many of Brown’s “explorations” of narrative. A poem like “The Terrible Truth”, which starts off quite convincingly as an agonised first-person account of an addict attending some kind of 12-step programme ends as a weak joke:

“My name is James
and even though I love music I
don’t really like The Fall”.
A bad end? The audience stares at the floor.
I should have walked out in stanza four.

 

The problem here is that the “twist” – that the poet himself recognises that the joke is lame and offensive – is insufficiently interesting to justify the poem.

Brown is at his best, as he was in his last collection, The Year of the Bicycle, when he is engaged as simply and directly as possible with his subject matter. “Rock Climbing, Turkey Creek Canyon, Colorado, or Why I Climb Solo”, for example, has, even in its title, an immediacy and specificity which too many of these poems lack.

Albert Wendt’s From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden is really two volumes in one. The first part collects poems written during his sojourn in Manoa teaching at the University of Hawai’i; the second is an extraordinary 40-poem sequence, titled collectively “A Ponsonby Garden”, and written after his return to New Zealand. Artfully artless, these are poems that effortlessly turn us into old friends of Wendt’s, eager to catch up on the latest news of his domestic doings. The “Garden” series, in particular, develops a cumulative power which it would be impossible to suggest in excerpts. Wendt writes in a loose but always quietly alert manner which we might think of as intensified prose rather than poetry:

Even my study is luscious with the smell of 
                                   blueberry muffins
I eagerly await Reina’s invitation to come and eat
Last night on TV    I watched the Chiefs massacre 
                                       my team the Blues
Reina can’t stand my addiction to the game  
(from “Garden 18”)

 

But slowly, out of these small, unassuming details of daily routine something more profound emerges. Wendt tells us of his own hip-replacement surgery: the preparation, the painful recovery. We hear, too, of his wife Reina’s matching operation, and her startling determination to face rehabilitation without painkillers. Again and again, like a leitmotif running through the series, we get news of the deaths of old friends and colleagues: Terry Sturm; Akiogo, the poet’s brother; Alistair Te Ariki Campbell; Ron Crocombe; Martyn Sanderson. We hear of the busy doings of the poet’s children and the tentative explorations of his grandchildren. We hear of his fear and grief when the 2009 tsunami struck his native Samoa. And we come to realise that the “garden” these poems are set in is, yes, the actual garden in which Reina labours despite her aching hip, where their grandchildren play, and in which their cat, Manoa, establishes her kingdom, but it is also a cosmos, a world of coming-into-being and of passing away:

But since our return to Ponsonby    Reina has 
                                  cultivated this garden
in which insects    birds    worms    and other 
                        creatures    the light and dark
the warmth and cold    visitors Manoa    and I 
                                                    flourish
Out of it too has grown these poems in praise 
                                 of Reina’s gifted hands
And the friends and aiga who have died during 
                                 the circle of the seasons  
(from “Garden 40”)

 

And as we realise that Wendt’s disarmingly chatty style has brought us insensibly to a profound meditation on life, loss and continuity we also realise that these garden poems, all 14 lines long, ask – again unobtrusively – to be thought of in relationship to the great poetic tradition of the sonnet sequence and its capacity to compress “infinite riches in a little room”.

 

Hugh Roberts teaches at University of California, Irvine.

 

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