Poetic accomplishments, Peter Simpson

Waiting Shelter
Jenny Bornholdt,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1991, $17.95

Angle of Repose
Jean Lonie,
Te Taa Haeretahi/ The Hand-in-Hand Press, Wellington, 1991

Making Tracks: A Selected 50 Poems
Sam Hunt,
Hazard Press, Christchurch, 1991, $14.95

Breeze
Bob Orr,
Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1991, $16.95

The publication of a third book in four years suggests that Jenny Bornholdt is a young poet in a hurry. Waiting Shelter is a substantial collection, though; there is no evidence of haste or lack of discrimination about the contents.

The last two of the book’s five sections, ‘Le Nom’ and ‘We Will, We Do’, are based on a period of travel in Europe during 1990, but while their subject matter sets them apart, the book as a whole is convincingly integrated through thematic and linguistic repetition and patterning, and by the pervasive presence of what Thomas Hardy once characterised as ‘an idiosyncratic mode of regard’.

An early poem, ‘Australia’, detailing instances of linguistic confusion, difficulties of communication and cultural difference, embodies in brief and witty form many of the concerns and strategies encountered throughout. A New Zealander’s inability to make herself understood in an Aussie supermarket with the word ‘fish’ (‘it gets away from/ you, you wonder how/ to mime such a word’), is almost paradigmatic of how the poems are typically generated from gaps, ambiguities and multiple meanings in the ‘broad sea of language’.

I was less convinced of the effectiveness of the prose poems in the section ‘Tourists Often Stop’ (despite some beguiling instances of Laurie Anderson-like dead-pan narration), than by the rest of the book which impresses particularly by an acute sensitivity to how language behaves and shapes and misshapes our lives, especially in the subtle and mysterious title sequence.

Jean Lonie dedicates Angle of Repose, her first book, to her children and grandchildren, so poetry for her is evidently a late-discovered vocation. Her compass is largely confined to the traditional staples of lyric poetry, and especially to appreciative recording of the particulars of time and place ‘Where land and sea/Compete for place’ (‘Dimensions’). Her unpretentious and often vivid documentation of perceptions of house, garden and sea-shore, occasionally enlivened by quiet humour, is sometimes reminiscent of Ursula Bethell’s domestic poems, though without the resonance that her luminous details generate. The family poems in the section ‘Growth Rings’ are generally less convincing in transcending the occasion of their making.

Sam Hunt’s Making Tracks has more to offer readers new to his work than to those who have followed his unique career with close attention. It is a compilation of 50 poems drawn from many previous books without apparent regard for chronology or other discernible principle. The small, squarish format adopted by Hazard Press is attractive but often results in poems extending distractingly beyond the scope of a single page.

While the selection is not precisely Sam Hunt’s ‘Golden Oldies’, it is familiar poems such as ‘My Father Today’, ‘Birth of a Son’ and ‘Battle to Death’, where the strength of the poem’s occasion exerts unusual pressure on the poet’s craft, which stand up best – poems which contribute to the construction of the poet’s persona as distinct from merely exhibiting it.

Like Hunt, though less visibly, Bob Orr has been active for over twenty years, Breeze being his fifth collection. The first and longest of the three sections is dominated by the sea, as subject matter and source of imagery, as suggested by titles such as ‘Fearless Tides’, ‘Container Terminal’, ‘The Fish Factory’ and ‘The Wine Dark Sea’. Auckland as a Pacific maritime city and working port has seldom been better evoked than in these limpid yet gritty lyrics with their deceptively transparent surfaces.

Memories, of rural childhood, schooldays, family incidents more conventionally make up the second section, while the third consists of poems of erotic celebration, neatly connected to earlier poems through imagery, as in ‘Pohutukawa’, or sailing as metaphor for love-making: ‘With eased sheets/ we set sail to the summer’s white horizon’. Impressive control of image, idiom and line makes Breeze a continuous pleasure to read.

 

Peter Simpson is a freelance writer living in Christchurch.

 

 

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