Recent New Zealand Poetry, Charles Croot:

Cabin Fever
Anne French
Auckland University Press, 1990, $15.95

Park Island
Leonard Lambert
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1990, $18.95

Jazz Waists
Robert Sullivan
Auckland University Press, 1990, $16.95

Man with a Child’s Violin
Gregory O’Brien
Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1990, $14.55

What’s this? On the cover of New Zealand’s glossiest, yuppiest magazine? Have our poets really made it into the Big Time at long last? Publishers’ sales figures over the next year will give us some sort of answer to that question. Meanwhile, a sampling of the most recent collections from local poets confirms that New Zealand verse continues to flourish and expand in range and variety. Anne French, one of Metro‘s cover girls, has had a rapid rise to the top rank of contemporary New Zealand poets. All Cretans Are Liars, which confirmed her early promise and firmly established her reputation, won the New Zealand Book Award just two years ago. Her latest publication is Cabin Fever, and it maintains our high opinion of her work. French’s tone is confident, her touch sure as she continues to move into new territory and explore fresh angles on human experience. Cabin Fever takes us sailing in the Hauraki Gulf, returning to shore among the suburban bean-counters and professors of marketing, imaginatively contemplating the geology of the Auckland isthmus, and poking among the debris of a ruined relationship. Whatever the setting, French seldom fails to establish time, place and mood rapidly, economically, vividly; to place her readers in the midst of a realistic event and living people; and to give us the sense of taking part in the situation she conjures up. The most successful, because the most moving, poems of the 34 in this collection are those in the last of the three sections, ‘A problem of knowledge’. Here the situation dealt with is simple, familiar … the protagonist looks back on a love affair that has ended, exploring the spectrum of her memories and feelings with clarity, honesty and the restraint that suggests much more than it needs to state. French frequently displays here her greatest strength as a poet, her ability to encapsulate complex states of feeling in vivid, concrete images, and to express them with kinetic strength, as for example in these lines from ‘Roped off’: … The streets I won’t drive down, the music I shun, in the name of clean beginnings and laundered recollections. What a fool I’ve been. Here you come, vaulting over the barriers as easy as thought.

These qualities are in frequent evidence throughout the book, but here and there one also detects traces of a characteristic French shortcoming … a somewhat narcissistic preoccupation with the craft of poetry (‘Watch me … I’m writing another poem!’). The very first line of the first poem in the collection, ‘Going aboard’, sounds this note: ‘Here we are ashore with the metaphors’. Throughout the first group of poems, ‘The Marine Observer’s Handbook’, this theme recurs, often very effectively integrated into the action and texture of the poem, but sometimes just awkwardly self-conscious. In the second section, ‘Cabin fever’, there’s a whole poem, ‘The Perfect Text’, devoted to the problems of editing a poem and the quest for word-economy; it makes its point, but (with what seems more like unconscious irony than daring craft) does it laboriously and wordily. Again, in ‘Reverse/ fast forward’, there’s a sense of the author trying too hard, and thus failing, to integrate setting, emotion and attitude. The Otago Lakes landscape is deftly and convincingly described, much in the manner of Glover or Baxter, and there in the foreground is the poet, writing ‘all day in the van’ while her companion goes skiing. But the links between poet, companion and setting are never made clear or meaningful, the attempt at integration in the last three lines collapsing in empty gestures and abstractions. One has the sense of a poem which has been engendered by academic calculation rather than from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings … and that’s ultimately a failure of craft, rather like the tailor letting the stitches (or, in this case, gaping misalignments) show. But if Anne French sometimes runs the risk of bogging down in literary introspection, she much more often moves and delights. It’s when she forgets about the figure she’s cutting as Poet in the Limelight and becomes fully absorbed in the raison d’être of the poem that she comes to us at her brilliant best.

The back cover photograph on Leonard Lambert’s Park Island shows the author holding up a verandah post in a Crump-like pose, wearing what appears to be a Mafioso suit and white trilby. One immediately thinks of Peter Bland in the film of Came A Hot Friday. But this picture, and the blurb beneath it, are misleading as a guide to this collection’s contents; these are not brash, matey, chauvinistic conning poems at all. Leonard Lambert the poet turns out to be a gentle soul, with a sensitive and almost diffident approach, and one who can call on a wide range of classical, historical, geographical and Maori parallels for the situations and ideas he offers. True, many of his poems evoke images of past and passing small towns not unlike Morrieson’s Hawera, but there is none of the Gothic embellishment or wry leg-pulling; people and places are presented sympathetically and with a shrewd eye for telling detail, as for example in ‘Antique’, where an old ‘Princess’ fridge and a Columbus ‘Matador’ radio prompt this thought:

one day in afar country
Where gone dishonoured gods much trouble sleep
They will ponder these, the unburied artifacts,
The last of the lowly, peopled things.

 

‘Park Island’ of the book’s title is a Napier sports ground and cemetery, once on the coast but now (since the 1931 earthquake) marooned inland. Many of the poems in the collection can be related thematically and symbolically to this ground’s unusual history, suggesting perhaps that in human terms it isn’t unusual at all. At his best Lambert (who has been published in Landfall, The Listener, Poetry Australia and Takahe, and once before in collected form) is allusive, incisive, warm-hearted and witty, as in ‘The Hall’, which conjures up a set of buildings, a community and complex attitudes to them in just 23 simple, resonant, well-cadenced lines. ‘The Hall’ indicates Lambert’s considerable potential; understandably, not everything in the book measures up to it. In some poems there are traces of an awkward Victorian poeticism (‘whereon I stand’, ‘ to endless … rooms I came’), and some unconvincing ventures into full rhyme. There are strong echoes of Dylan Thomas, of Auden and (especially in ‘Affinities’, which works very well) of Hardy. This poet has not quite yet found his own distinctive, confident, consistent voice; but one feels sure that he will.

Robert Sullivan’s first collection Jazz Waiata is from a young North Aucklander of Nga Puhi and Irish descent who has made only occasional appearances in the periodicals to date, but is clearly marked as a comer. He deals with his family connections past and present, and with the return to ancestral places. He does so in a racy, raucous manner, with a welter of jarring detail and a headlong pace very reminiscent of pop-culture ‘rap’. The poems in the first third of the book remind one in their energy and attention to the detail of our cluttered society of David Eggleton’s ‘rant’, though they lack Eggleton’s subtlety, acute judgment and carefully-disguised polish. Sullivan can be very effective in evoking images of present‑day Auckland’s extraordinary mixture of natural beauty and man-made squalor, but there tends to be too much repetition of the same few examples of grubbiness and depravity. The final section of this 52-page, 43-poem volume is the most impressive; in a quieter mode, it is a sequence of fifteen poems dedicated to the late Sir James Henare, celebrating the poet’s return to his kainga in the Bay of Islands, where he feels at the same time at home and a stranger. He rejoices not only in his Maoriness but in his Irish and Pacific Islands origins, in verse that is down-to-earth, unpretentious, supple and appealing. Here we have a rather different poet from the one who roars and rants in the opening pages of the book, but both aspects of Robert Sullivan signal the arrival of a significant new writer, not the least of whose gifts is the inclination to think in terms of integration and inclusion.

More familiar as a poet is Gregory O’Brien, whose Man with a Child’s Violin is his fourth collection. He also deals with the themes of family love, the environment, personal links with the past and interpersonal relationships. This 72-page book is presented as three long poems … a pleasing circumstance, as such well-developed works are all too rare from present-day New Zealand poets even though they are of uneven quality. The first, ‘Flying Wall Cafe’, is really a collection of very short pieces dealing with aspects of the asphalt jungle of mid-eighties Sydney. Sprightly and inventive at their best, these make an immediate visual impact on the page, but not too much beyond that. The last section, ‘Entitled’, sees the poet celebrating the birth and babyhood of a son. Written mostly in high good humour, there’s more interaction and cohesion among the parts here, and a lot, to admire. But best by far is the middle section, ‘Sydney Calm Joe’. In twelve parts, totalling 560 lines, this poem is very carefully crafted and much less self-consciously quirky. It recreates, most impressively, the eventful life of the author’s great-uncle, who before his death in Sydney recorded his early adventures on tape. As O’Brien explains, ‘The poem is concerned with the view backwards into history, my relationship to ancestry’. ‘Sydney Calm Joe’ has been produced by Radio New Zealand, and it deserves to be recognised as one of the outstanding achievements by a New Zealand poet in 1990. Gregory O’Brien is confirming the promise shown in his three earlier collections.

 

Charles Croot is Head of English at Kaikorai Valley High School, Dunedin. His publications include books on local history and media studies. He directs the annual summer school for Creative Writing at Otago University, and reviews poetry regularly for the Otago Daily Times.

 

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