Under the Dundas Street Bridge
Steele Roberts, $20.00,
Chords and Other Poems
Craig Potton Publishing, $30.00,
Voicetracks: Poems 2002-2012
Puriri Press/Tranzlit, $32.50,
Like Paul McCartney singing “Remember” at the London Olympics, Sam Hunt and Peter Olds have reminded us that they are still working after 40 years or so. More unexpected is that they have both produced collections of poems that depart from their familiar stances as the troubadour/road trip poet, or the impassioned recorder of dispossession and craziness. Another well-known New Zealand poet, Jan Kemp, who started writing at much the same time, offers a different perspective, concentrating her perceptions through the prism of places she knows in Europe: Vienna, Potsdam, Menton, Port Lligat, Portbou and the Château de Lavigny.
Peter Olds doesn’t go much for arty poetry, which puts him at odds with the current nuanced fashion. His early poem “Freeway” was a long ampersand-riddled rant about thoughts of death in Auckland, misfits, police, drugs and playing Abbey Road until the record wore out. It had a demented energy that made it work, fierce enough that the recurrent capitals in “SICK, STINK, SAINTS, LOVE” were barely adequate to handle the emotional movement of his words along an “uncontrollable Freeway”.
Around that time Olds’s mentor James K Baxter was urging kids to leave school and run away from the cops. Although Olds joined Baxter at Jerusalem, the older poet’s venture into poverty beside the Wanganui River had a boutique quality wholly absent from Olds’s own experience of the underlife, which has included jail and mental institutions. The latter’s poems may sometimes be as raw and scrambling as their subjects, but there is no doubting their authenticity. It fits that Under the Dundas Street Bridge is the title of his latest collection, and the poem of this name is about the street people who live under the bridge. Spoken with their voices, it celebrates the paradoxical domesticity and fullness of their lives. Like anyone else, they have the usual bickerings and losses, their divisions represented by the floods that sometimes separate them:
the shock when the doctors closed
our case – and we, stranded on opposite
sides of the river
not talking; the river stripping everything we
had between us … .
These poems come from a calmer, more reflective Olds. Many are about his childhood in Dunedin, including two fine poems about his father, a Methodist minister. The gritty poet is still there as well in his memory of the visit of the cruiser Black Prince, his mother hurrying him past the sailors shagging local girls against a brick wall, with the boy wondering if he will ever grow up to be like them and see Suez. He also has time for irony in his poems about the commonplace activities of his current life, the “bourgeois shit” of doctors’ visits, meaningless discussions, trips to Video Ezy, supermarkets, and health activities like Tai Chi. When he visits Hone Tuwhare at the Montecillo Rest Home, he finds him lying in bed with “a woolly balaclava pulled down over … rissoled/boilermaker ears”. Their talk concludes with the unpoetic details of a squid recipe. Olds, his head still full of the music of his youth (Jimi Hendrix in this poem) and some of his old verbal pizzazz, is writing poems now that are less declamatory but have a mature finish that means nothing has been lost by the change.
In Chords, Sam Hunt has returned to poetry four years after his last collection, Doubtless. Like Olds, his lifetime of writing has refined away much of the looseness of his earlier poems. Chords takes on the hardest of all poetic ventures, simplicity. The poems in the “Tokatoka Chord” series nudge at questions about the “time to start dying”, with images such as crossings of the Haast holding together uncertainties about what might or what might not have been. Whereas Olds gives the reader plenty of crotchety details about life and the prospect of mortality, Chords is so allusive and pared down that sometimes it is doubtful whether the poems are saying anything at all. Some are more accessible, such as “Remember friend, your drive”, in which a person’s life journey is represented by the sustained image of accumulated dust on the bonnet of a car, surely one of the best poems Hunt has ever written.
In reflections about father and son (“11 Runes (for Alf, Turning 11)”), his mother, God, lovers, the explorations of relationships hold the poems together, though some of these are also so spare and fragmentary that they barely survive ‒ salvaged in “Jessica”, for instance, by the single image in which “the moon just sets its / spinnaker”. Other poems work better. Hunt’s experience as a lyricist and his typically easy use of rhyme or half-rhyme give him a light touch with themes as serious as the age gap between a father of 61 and a son of 10, with the promise of a rune a year until “one of us can’t make it”. “It’s All Okay” has the simplicity of a song, with its laconic finale:
The sun’s in my eyes,
you fade away.
No lies left.
It’s all okay.
There are some slip-ups, like the mawkishness of “Why can’t they speak?”, a lament in which the unheard are said to feel “no one sent word / that they loved them; that they cared”. The quality of this collection is very variable, and it could have benefited from tougher editing, but it includes several memorable poems.
Jan Kemp’s Voicetracks has a stylish cover photo by the author, as well as her own images of places to introduce each section of poems. Olds does the same. The photos thus become more than illustrations and are themselves part of the work. The cover of Olds’s book, published by Steele Roberts, shows him in beanie and dark glasses, reading The Otago Daily Times beside a makeshift fire. Kemp’s photos are more impersonal, and they are of beautiful places such as Port Lligat Bay and Dali’s house, or the Château de Lavigny, where she spent a summer residency in 2006. The production of the book has a similar finish, hand-sewn and bound by John Denny at Auckland’s Puriri Press.
In the cover photo there are shadows of two elongated figures on the steps of Walter Benjamin’s Memorial at Portbou in Spain. The poems are often a little like that, the author discernible only at second-hand, offering responses to moments in the lives of other people – Dali, Mansfield, Cy Twombly. Even in the poem “Am Schäfersberg/On Shepherd’s Hill”, which recalls a moment when Kemp is walking in a field in Germany, she says it is as if her shadow is moving beside her on the path, “scribbling all this down”.
This authorial stance is far from the directness and often sensual character of Kemp’s earliest poetry in the collection Against the Softness of Woman, though for a long time she has drawn on her impressions of other places and their stories to provide a focus for her poems. “Vindobono, Vienna”, about a Roman garrison of 2BC, uses the location to muse about the unknown parts of oneself:
There are rooms in yourself you must dig out
cities under the cities
you think you know your way around.
Kemp then thinks of a line by R A K Mason, typical of the manner in which she draws places, times and people together, just as in previous collections she took a starting-point from Glastonbury Abbey or could write a love poem set on a felucca on the Nile. In “Dream” she takes a moment on a foreign headland to reflect on its similarity to Cape Reinga and the grief that can be felt by an expatriate.
Skilled as these poems are, some verge on travelogue, as in those about Kyoto, chateau life at Lavigny, and aspects of and reflections on a visit to Frederick the Great’s palace at Potsdam. If a person is the focus, such as Dali or Mansfield, the sense of engagement immediately sharpens. At Lavigny, in “À la recherche de votre temps perdu”, she addresses a previous occupant, Jane Rosenthal Ledig-Rowohlt, noting the sumptuous accoutrements of this publisher’s wife:
long black leather trousers dangling earrings
with furs & silk lingerie to burn (with your
hanging in closets hats for every season fingernail
false eyelashes mascara to sink ships ….
The lives of the château mingle with those of writers such as Madame de Staël, Proust, Nabokov, Hemingway, as well as the author herself, making the poem a complex tribute to the love the Rowohlts had for each other and their support for authors. Kemp is at her best here and, like the later Adrienne Rich, she is giving up some shape to let the poem be a discovery, an experience, moving beyond the cooler, more shadowy reflections that make up much of this latest collection.
John Horrocks’s latest poetry collection, Something in the Waters, appeared last year.