Touch of darkness, Sarah Jane Barnett

Shadow Play
James Norcliffe
Proverse Hong Kong
ISBN 9789881993588

Great South Road and South Side
Tony Beyer
Puriri Press
ISBN 9780908943395

Remnants
Leonard Lambert
Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242285

Curriculum Vitae
Harold Jones
Xlibris
ISBN 9781493137527 (e-book also available)

James Norcliffe is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher who has published six collections of poetry. Published five years after his last collection, Shadow Play was a finalist for the annual international Proverse Prize in 2011. The collection is one of curiosity in action. In a generous preface, Bernadette Hall sums up the appeal of Norcliffe’s poetry: his “quick, clever, jinky words” and “gift for being seriously funny”. While Norcliffe excels at whimsy, the poems are also wry and accomplished, especially the exceptional “Lost in Nineveh”, “Ichthyosaurus” and “Towards the Mountain” (a poem for Pat Hammond).

Shadow Play shows an astute knowledge of the human condition, and the poet’s own foibles, and weaves these together with a thread of social commentary. The poems range widely in subject and location: from China and the sadistic Empress Cixi, to ancient Iraq, and then to a truck driver in Iowa. Norcliffe also changes form, from lyric free verse to a traditional Anglo-Saxon riddle poem to a few prose poems, mid-collection. The fact that the collection works as a coherent whole is a testament to Norcliffe’s consistent voice. One of the most enjoyable aspects of these poems is their seamless movement from the familiar to the unexpected. The titular poem shifts from shadow play with children to a scene in which a soldier hides on a hillside, holding his “heavy revolver”. In another, we move from an illustration of Alice in Wonderland drowning to the poet’s thoughts on rats to a comment on the exploitative nature of art when Alice is slipped a “Mickey Finn”:

 

yet another reminder,

were one ever needed, not to down drinks offered

by dodgy writers nor to allow the consequences

to be witnesses by graphic artists with an eye

to your humiliation: diminished with a wet rodent

and your hair streaming about you like wonder.

 

Norcliffe’s poems often have a touch of darkness or at least suggest that our everyday experiences involve illusion. One poem features the “largest / statue of a strawberry in the world”; another links a plate of cervena with a deer’s “head … angry / tracery of winter branches / slashing at the sky.”

Still, not everything shines. The poem “Vindaloo” feels overworked and “Lygon Street” too easy. As with many collections, Shadow Play loses momentum toward the end. The book’s production is also disappointing and, with competition from e-books, the lack of attention baffles me. With slippery paper stock and an awkward cover design (the text frames a statue’s pert breasts – hello!), I would be unlikely to pull it off a shelf. While the collection includes a CD of Norcliffe reading the poems – a wonderful bonus – a link to downloadable audio files might be a better option for the smartphone generation. Production gripes aside, Shadow Play is an imaginative, sharp and deeply enjoyable collection.

Tony Beyer’s latest collection, Great South Road and South Side, is the opposite to Norcliffe’s in terms of production. The publisher, Puriri Press, specialises in the design of small, hand-bound editions. It’s a beautifully produced collection, with a letterpress soft cover that features a drawing by New Zealand artist, Catherine MacDonald. I would have purchased the collection for the cover alone, and I think small publishers have a lot to gain by conceiving of poetry as an art object.

Beyer was born in Auckland in 1948, and while he has published a number of collections – all with independent presses – he is an elusive figure, at least for this researcher. Great South Road and South Side contains two sets of poems about living and growing up in South Auckland. The first – Great South Road – is a long poem in 10 parts, and is the more successful. It’s a nostalgic trip: Beyer describes the urban and social change brought on by modernisation, transportation, and multi-ethnic communities. There are some superb historical details – “where the first / hamburger bar / in New Zealand / was opened / for GIs in the 40s” – although other images, such as the “gangsta tryhards / toking weed / or snorting glue / in the mall”, feel too expected. Beyer’s attachment to the past is obvious, but he seems equally interested in the process of change and the reinvestigation of his own memories. The poem’s form itself creates a backwards and forwards rhythm, with the suggestion that the past and present are intertwined:

 

most days

my mates woke me

in Symonds Street

or didn’t

for a laugh

and I wore sandals

year round

and carried

a flax kit

stocked with poems

wrapped meat

and roll yr owns

putting aside

half of what I earned

to finish the degree

full time

the following year

in another flat

with the same

loved ones’ breathing

and the reasons

I did this

still seem good to me

 

The second section – South Side – focusses on childhood in South Auckland, from small pleasures, such as fishing, to a grimmer picture of the “state house suburbs”. Beyer has a detailed and beautiful turn of phrase: the “stubborn shape” of a homemade boat, where the “outline has become the outline of an unrealised dream” or a shot deer that “has bled vividly from the mouth / so it appears to wear lipstick.”

The best poems of this section echo the themes of Great South Road: memory, belonging, urban change and class struggles. It’s a reminder that any concept of place is constrained by time, as well as by environment and people. Not all of the poems meet this mark. Some do not transform beyond a personal account, which makes them feel like an in-joke, especially for readers without knowledge of Auckland. While the poems describe social inequality, there is often an uncomfortable and confusing ambiguity about the observer in the poem. Beyer certainly sees himself as one of the working class, but it took some time for this to become apparent. The short poems in South Side under-utilise the power of titles, and I wonder how the collection would have looked with these poems brought together into longer sequences. This could have avoided some unsatisfying vignettes and abrupt endings. That said, Beyer has given us a carefully crafted collection that attends to, but doesn’t sentimentalise, life in South Auckland.

Leonard Lambert is a poet and painter who has also worked in advertising. He has published four collections of poetry, and his writing has appeared in literary journals and magazines. Lambert’s most recent collection, Remnants, is unfortunately mediocre. A few poems stand out, such as the meditative “A Morning Walk in the Later Days”, “Late Lunch” about a son’s kindness to his mother, and “Bird-Talk”, but, overall, the writing lacks originality and freshness. The opening poem, “Extreme Sports”, sets the collection’s tone by ending with an equivalent of that old favourite: it’s all a dream. Lambert describes his work as an attempt to “weave a small poetry of quick precision”, but the use of vague and clichéd language, such as the “endless blue” sea and the “rock-hard” ground, is problematic. These issues may arise due to a lack of distance between the poet and their subject matter. Many poems pay homage to famous writers and deceased friends, but while these sentiments are obviously important to the poet, they do not transform themselves sufficiently to have wider appeal.

While there will always be a range of styles and talent in New Zealand publications (we’re not all a Manhire or a Kennedy, after all), and this is an essential part of a country’s literary dialogue, Remnants has a troubling undercurrent of chauvinism. Without any social commentary or irony, such depictions of women made me want to stop reading. In one poem, a tall woman “shrinks in herself / to a more womanly size”, but cannot “reel in” her man; in another, a man’s “elegant wife” has “a degree of her own” (lucky her!). From “Women in Love”, a poem that describes producer Roger Vadim’s ex-wives gathering at his funeral, comes this pronouncement on womanhood:

 

A woman will forget many things

but never this:

the sure knowledge of being loved

for what she is, bathing at last

in her full feminine self …

Was it really that way?

It seemed so …

 

Lambert’s women are painfully one-dimensional “feminine” beauty objects for the male gaze. While I am sure Lambert means no harm – his poems are heartfelt and sincere – they “stuck in my jaw”, as Plath would say. Suffice to add, I could not connect with this collection.

After a 20-year gap in publishing, Harold Jones has self-published his collection, Curriculum Vitae. Jones’s poems have appeared in national and international literary magazines, and a selection was published by Auckland University Press in AUP New Poets Four (2011). Curriculum Vitae is a wonderful surprise. Jones’s poems are first-person meditations on loneliness, transience and personal growth. They have a forlorn urbanite sadness which reminds me of the emotional intensity and existential questioning of 1960s and 70s Californian poets, such as Snyder and Hass. Like those poets, Jones often dwells on the boundaries between human and non-human, and explores the conflict this creates:

 

I am in love with the ordinary – with

The efforts of this landscape, the human

Will somehow to make it work, to plant rows,

Nail fresh boards to a wall, build

Condition in a herd, while all the while

The weather, the clock, the market, all

Pick new holes in what’s achieved,

Pull loose threads from the whole

Community’s common, expensive fabric.

 

Other poems, such as “Buying Pushkin”, are about wealth, artifice, and art, whereas the brilliant “Motel” addresses ageing. Jones has mastered the line-break, and his ability to run imagery together creates depth in these poems. While a few poems suffer from intellectualism, most are startling. Everyone should read this achingly powerful collection.

 

Sarah Jane Barnett’s first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. She blogs at: theredroom.org.

 

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