An Open Return
Untold Books, Wellington, 1991, $23
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1991, $16.95
The Man of Paradise
Hudson/ Cresset, Auckland, (distrib Brick Row Publishers. PO Box 100-057, Auckland 10), 1991, $17.95
The cumulative or serial poem which presents an ingathering and juxtaposition of diverse materials has had a healthy international vogue, with local variants, since Pound. All this is obviously familiar territory to Alan Riach. Throughout An Open Return he is assiduous in citing references and acknowledging influences and sources. So much so, in fact, that it is almost impossible to gain any impression of Riach’s own unaided voice, other than in the trite, inconsequential manner of passages like X: ‘How do you sell/ land?’. This may be intentional and much the worse if it is.
Ostensibly an account of a particular Scotsman’s journey to and growing knowledge of New Zealand, An Open Return adds meagrely to the conventions it evokes. Riach is unvariedly literary and his responses are so filtered through textual allusions that the unedited experience of ordinary life seems to strike him as extraordinary and absurdly profound. Anything anyone says to him is in danger of becoming leaden with a significance he can’t usually communicate well to his imagined audience.
Riach has read all the right books but his attempt at continuing their processes cries out for the unifying, cranky individuality and scope of an Olson or, closer to home, an Alan Loney. His real agenda is an inwardly focused dialogue about his own poetics and those of his models.
Oscillating – or vacillating – between New Zealand and England has become a way of life and state of mind for Peter Bland. To describe him as a native of the latter country would be to deprive us of one of our most engaging voices. He opens Paper Boats with ‘Advice for Immigrants’:
For the rest of your life
there’ll be two sets of voices –
those in the street
and those in your head.
The preoccupation still dominates the poetry, allowing little room for other, more formal developments. ‘Painting a Primitive’ in this collection is reminiscent in form and some content of Bland’s well-known ‘The Happy Army’ of the 1960s. Similarly, material in ‘Lines After Convalescence’, first collected in 1979, is recycled with minor modifications in ‘Poems for Jo’.
Relative stasis is not a bad thing in as genial a poet as Bland, however. His best pieces are always in the voice of a conversationalist we want to hear again. His faults are those peculiarly characteristic of contemporary English poetry: too journalistic; given to loaded vignettes and to anecdotes as nasty in their telling as in what they tell (‘Doris Simpson on the Gold Coast – 1930’, for instance). But Bland excels when he shows an actor’s delight in the texture of words in the mouth:
Mortlake brewery’s golden drains
where kids fish the yeasty foam for sprats
Bland is also consistently good at conveying the intimate but necessarily impersonal visual experience of looking at paintings. Where he mourns and celebrates friends (Louis Johnson’s large-scale ghost) his loyalty remains appropriately with his emotions. I’m happy to note as well that enough of the fifties bad boy is still in action to give Bland’s poetry part of its curious flavour. After all that recent debate around ‘painting Mount Taranaki’, his reference – in a poem commemorating Ronald Hugh Morrieson – to ‘Mt Egmont’s frosty tit’ should offend just about everyone.
Like Peter Bland, poet and actor, Denys Trussell is also something of an Uomo universale: poet, biographer, art historian and critic, and classical pianist. The last activity alone gives rise to a trio of strong poems in one of the sections of The Man of paradise, his third collection. One of these, ‘A Poem for my Mother’s Father’ exhibits his style at its most impressive.
Founded in the fifties and sixties, and weathered by experience, Trussell’s tastes are refreshingly exacting. The traditions of Mason and Fairburn are strong in him, and he has made profitable contact with the works of Lorca and Pablo Neruda. Trussell can be a dab hand with titles. ‘Declaring for the White Goddess in the Purgatorio of the Economists’ resoundingly ushers in one not inconsiderable piece. Where wavering occurs among the poems, it is often in the direction of overwriting. The first of ‘Four Stanzas on a Falling Mountain’ is crisp and compelling, the other three a deflating gloss. This problem lies partly in the seriousness of Trussell’s intention and may be an inextricable element in his current approach to writing poetry.
Occasionally the elemental and portentous verge on the pretentious. I am probably more cynical than Trussell, or have had a less fortunate life of the heart, but I find it difficult to read a title like ‘Long Woman Lying’ without thinking of meanings beyond posture or physical location. For the sake of his readers, Trussell needs to tune his ear to ambiguities like this.
Tony Beyer is a New Zealand poet who teaches English at Auckland Grammar School.