Auckland University Press, $19.95
This is Kendrick Smithyman’s twelfth book of poetry. It continues and restates the themes of his recent collections, Stories About Wooden Keyboards and Are you Going to the Pictures? to the point of recycling ideas and imagery. For Smithyman poetry is contrapuntal. As in music, motifs can be picked up, discarded then gathered in again later. His is a ruminative chin music, a thing of oblique sidling manoeuvres towards enlightenment and communication:
over that way, someone I fancy
is at a window, has been looking out
watching for me, but? Nothing is said
‘Turn of a Screw Once’
Behind the flat careful understated speech rhythms in which he presents the seemingly mundane, prosaic world of the everyday lives a complex evocation of the tradition of English verse, which connects Smithyman with such masters of English verbal music as Geoffrey Hill (Mexican Hymns) and Basil Bunting (Brigflatts).
The international recurring echoes of T S Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning and the Elizabethan, of madrigals, jazz age crooners and others, provides the counterpoint within his disciplined register of tones to the semi-submerged, semi-hermetic cross-referencing of personal history: the fine discriminations and delicate dissections from which the reader can, with patience, tease out meaning as in ‘The Wisdom of Marcus Aurelius’ with its variant on the theme of tyrannical puritanism in New Zealand, where a book containing the Viennese decadent art of Klimt and Schiele must be destroyed ‘to preserve the reputation of the family’.
In Auto/Biographies Smithyman becomes a cultural gatekeeper to Northland, to the Hokianga, to the landscapes of the poet’s childhood and youth. The hearsay and ‘told memories’ of local lore inform his short ‘biographies’ of rural eccentrics; his gazetteering of colonial and post-colonial history colours his sense of place.
In his search for precision, working his way round ambiguity and ambivalences, sometimes Smithyman misreads or mishears and what is misunderstood becomes something with a new meaning. He is a poet able to demonstrate the intrinsic hollowness of language, its essential dumbness, its need to be activated, even while the author is diminished into an accessory after the text.
He is a modernist mandarin, a bibliophile, who has made himself over into a practitioner of postmodern playfulness, in at the end of history, noting the examples of entropy (Mitimiti and Faia, Lage Ohia ‑ with its ‘burnt manuka left-overs’). Smithyman, too, is the poet as hunter-gatherer, turning over the cultural flotsam and jetsam washed upon these shores by the British Empire and its settlers. His characteristic tone is wry, a wryness imbued with melancholy, implicitly containing an elegiac farewell to the passing of ageing cultural totems. Wisdom consists of a few insights from which we should not expect too much:
Their bush dropped, some species disappeared,
Others simply moved on
In poem after poem optimism is undermined by human fallibility, exposing the bleak facts: ‘only this week/Somebody stole a twelve inch Echo chainsaw’, ‘million(s) of dollars down its drain and no return’, ‘Councillors still have hopes for this as a port’. But this book is a medley and sober considerations give way when the mood swings towards mild euphoria, restrained rhapsody, as the poet conjures up ‘the sweet mystery of life’ with ‘a jade carp’, or ‘we are cupped in flowers’ and moonlight can be intoxicating, as in ‘Clair de Lune’ or ‘Blackberry Moonlight’.
In ‘Etchings and Aquatints: Some Months of Gary Tricker’s Cat Calendar 1988’, the poet moves from the gently quizzical, ‘shall we play four handed at the grand piano’, to the slyly rueful, ‘some scratched song on an old horny phonograph’, to the grotesquely ironic – a motor’s flatulent exhaust pipe is seen as a varicose ‘horn of phonograph’, sounding forth with Verdian opera.
Smithyman’s musical tropes become a method for loosely itemising yesteryear pop culture: a wind-up portable, tin of steel needles, HMV Regal Zonophone 78s, a walnut Victrola, When he vamps ‘a sweet tune’ on ‘some old honey-brown Bluther upright/ in a shadowy bar’ he is the consummate nominalist magician, naming things into existence.
Elsewhere the poet retreats to the bedrock pragmatism of the pioneers, haphazardly cataloguing their re-invention of the land: the shelter belts, the camping grounds, the shell-stuck ‘late Twenties bungalow’, the ‘holes which gum diggers made’, the ‘no account roads’ of the Far North and so on.
Auto/Biographies shows how, as things fly apart, they become involuntary memories, strands which can sometimes be represented as verbal wisps, stop-start melodies. Smithyman, all erudition, is a weaver of matching skeins and recognised coincidences. He untangles, rearranges and connects. His anecdotal poems weave together all kinds of detection. They are nuggets of quotidian observation and aggregations of magpie facts, overarched by a humanist’s values.
Feinting, slowly advancing throughout his poetic career by trial and error, working at the pastoral/ urban intersections, Kendrick Smithyman is a poet, true to his own ear, whose cumulative poetry reveals that he has a fully realised and idiosyncratic way of saying exactly what he wants to say with humour and grace.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based poet and writer.