Poetic Grammars, Mary Paul

How to Talk
Andrew Johnston,
Victoria University Press, $19.95

Piki Ake!
Robert Sullivan,
Auckland University Press, $19.95


I was given these two books to review with the instruction that I should look at them in the wider context of current poetry publishing. Both these volumes come from university presses. Robert Sullivan’s Piki Ake! from AUP, and Andrew Johnston’s How To Talk from VUP. Sullivan’s book is his second from Auckland University Press. This press publishes a wider and more eclectic range of poetry than Victoria which has developed a small list of poets. Of these, this book sits comfortably alongside volumes by Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt.

How to Talk is Andrew Johnston’s first book and his ‘provenance’ is in the fact of a number of his poems having already been published in reputable (if middle-of- the-road) magazines, in Australia and England as well as locally. Robert Sullivan on the other hand is publishing his second book (the first Jazz Waiata had an energetic street-wise flavour) and you could say that he invokes a different kind of provenance with the inclusion of his Harawene Whanau Reunion sequence in this collection, a sequence that acknowledges his Maori (and Irish) family and ancestry.

Andrew Johnston’s collection kicks off from its title. The trope is of the book being a manual, a grammar, a ‘how to talk’ which is also a ‘how to be’ in words (which some would say is the only way to be). In this textbook emotion is a series of inflections – persons, cases and tenses (note the potential ambiguities). Revision of this grammar is, in the title of the first sequence of poems, ‘Revisionism’, but one also has to watch out for 2. ‘The Possessive’, 3. ‘The Dark Past’ and’ 4.’The Third Person’. Confessional moments written under these elegant constraints are poignant and (as in most of these poems) very amusing:

forehead tilted toward
the places where

the stars should be,
the whole of your serious profile
translated by the moon, reads
like an excess of strategy

and there, you say, I go again
and so I almost went,

slipping into the dark past
for the sake of comparison

When I leave I leave
a lot to be desired (from ‘3. The Dark Past’)


The punning of the last lines ‘leaves’ the reader considering a persona or a state of the poet’s mind; he’s self-ironic, distanced, self-deprecating, haunted by ‘excesses of strategy’ on other people’s part but kind of proud of the sensitivity that leaves others impatient at his self-consciousness, and wanting more of him.

This is a very coherent and entertaining first book but the poetic of Johnston’s work turns on this cool distanced persona, as much as it does on a post-structuralist sense that we only get to exist when language speaks us. (‘I could see my name on the tip of her tongue’ is a nicely eroticised version of that idea.)

One could say that this is the poetic that informs much of contemporary NZ poetry but also that it was fresher, more surprising in 1977, when Bill Manhire brought out How to Take Your Clothes Off at a Picnic, than it is now.

Robert Sullivan’s book Piki Ake! is a very different story. The material, the juxtapositions of Robert Sullivan’s poems are really fascinating for instance finding himself a librarian the George Grey Room (at the Auckland Public Library) he is bound to consider the history of his people and that governor. He contemplates all the oddities of modernity – of touching precious things such as rare books bound in vellum or illuminated manuscript, and going home to listen, with flat mates, to a tape of ‘Southern hog calling’. The books he looks after have some harrowing contemporary significances: Spanish incunabula bear pictures of ‘feet burning and staking natives’; a page ‘worked in burnished/ gold coloured with plant juices ochres’ depicts a Crucifixion. The poem ‘Work’ which bridges the section Harawene Whanau Reunion and The George Grey Room makes a geography of this modern, hybridized city life:

Walking to work
through corridors that take me to the staffroom
the New Zealand and Pacific Department
walking through Literature Arts and Music
through the Whangamata
or a blackwater cave
I am walking over the viaduct
that links my street to Kingsland
and the Rare Books Room


This is the material that Sullivan is ‘working’ with, but surprisingly little of it is as effective as this poem. Some moments are vivid, like the found phrase ‘teaspoons tipped with paua shell’ a gift to Queen Elizabeth II, or the details of how ‘calfskin for vellum would be soaked in lime’. But the flatness of the writing may be indicative of a sense of obligation to speak wisely about cultural contrasts. Homage to other poets is also made in a rather embarrassing way, and seems to indicate that the idea of being a poet is sitting heavily on Sullivan’s shoulders.

But, this is not true all the time; the first section of Piki Ake! is the most interesting and has more in common with his first book, Jazz Waiata. The poem ‘Mana’, for instance, is a typographically and visually loud statement about Maoridom, while ‘Arch Hill’ starts to get up some more energy as well as aural complexity:

There are no barbies, or wooden fences
holding a uniquely landscaped pool
deck chairs round a cognac, latest lycra
fluttering from the line, John Dory and fries
wrapped in last month’s Metro, where exercise
consists of practising tongue extensions,
the imaginary acted prattle this Arch Hill resident
despises ….


This poem, like ‘The Business Ethic’ dedicated for Hone, seems to have some of the racy, cynical and energetic humour that I enjoyed previously in Sullivan’s work. Instead of the juxtaposition of cultures being portentous, contrasts in ways of speaking are used irreverently, in every line:

Thoughts range to the Whangamata rise
with its tree plucking eyes, a tad Goth
Austro-Kiwian alps spearing white
waves where sand bars stave the rave …
and the same poem continues ‘A vestige of an Access scheme’:
is a lone bench beneath a black-necked
pohutukawa; it’s a possum rip seesaw
the owners have just familiarised
with the white sand (hey bud!)

seen the cave which fills at high water
been briefed on a crack at the top where
the water would spit at them and between
nibbles are impressed by the cakey texture

the gullet shape grotto
they admire the brown trickle
begin to think of giant trees and moas
they start licking their chops….


There are definite echoes in this poem of some recent Tuwhare work. And, for me, that other voice in the poem serves to intensify it. If Sullivan really needs a mentor then Hone Tuwhare or perhaps David Eggleton may be more vital for him than the Curnow and Baxter he salutes.


Mary Paul teaches English at Auckland University.



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