Stopped and Expounding, poems and pictures
ALwayZZ Books (distributed by Brick Row), $19.95
5 to 12 (P O Box 9925, Wellington)
Auckland University Press, $19.95
First books are always interesting. I enjoy their chutzpah, their unfinished energy, their unpredictability. Reading them is like meeting a stranger in a bar. It might turn out the start of a long friendship or just the most forgettable conversation of the evening, but there’s no telling in advance.
Alex Stone is the sort of poet who meets you halfway across the room and bombards you with everything that’s in his head at the time, confident you want to hear it all, as though you’re already his best mate. He’s keen, too, about writing. He wants to tell you where he wrote each of his poems and why and where the story came from and what the flight attendant said after she read it. He gives you notes at the end with that kind of detail and he includes pictures (line drawings and reproductions of paintings and collages mainly) which may shed light on the words, with voluminous chatty captions. I’m not averse to this kind of help. If there are obscure references in a poem, I like to be told their provenance, so that I can follow along. If there are connections to be made, I like to be able to make them.
For all his garrulousness, Alex Stone is pretty keen on this poetry stuff. He hasn’t been writing it all his life, but he has the zeal of the recently converted. Perhaps having children has had something to do with it.
Standing there quietly,
trying to find a word for
the rhythm of their breathing
and a hand slips in mine…
…All in that room
our lives in that four‑square space ‑
a universe whose music is its breathing
He’s playful when he’s not being deeply serious, fiddling round with language like a kid in a box of dress‑ups. “Liar for hire”, for instance, is a nice comment on language and the way we use it to fool ourselves:
(“…and to think,” he said “I never wanted to work at all. And now
I’m an ‑aholic.”)
… C’mon, liar, how many words between
friend and acquaintance’?
The Inuit, I’m told, would have twenty there,
right there, to fill that hole.
Word for “You’re my friend, but I won’t go hunting with you.”
Word for “Dislike you, but I’ll trust my kids with you.”
Typographically the book is loose, open, lively. The poems were written in Pagemaker and refined in performance “in the pub, at parties and to anyone who’d listen”.
Their cumulative effect is of bouncing good humour and enthusiasm ‑ rather in the manner of early Ian Wedde. In the title poem, he imagines the poetry taking him over, while he’s driving, and dreams
of a movie,
with traffic backed up
and me on the roof
stopped & expounding
(aerial shot, receding and wheeling, take in the whole view)
Bill Direen is also a performer, according to the back of crappings, but he doesn’t want to talk about himself. His poetry is altogether a more cerebral business; he has an ear for the surreal within the vernacular like Bill Manhire, and a nifty way with line endings. He’s also more inclined than Alex Stone to go for the beautiful image (“Once I spoke easily / light rhythms ran out of my mouth / now I’m quiet as smoke”). He seems to have been reading Denis Glover. I detected Gloverish cadences in several poems, including one called “Win breaks into his own house”, about a man after a separation, that Glover could never have written.
“My wife and I
we did for each other
I did for her
she did for me
we were all that a marriage could be”
in the bar
The juxtaposition of flat Kiwi speech plus sardonic humour plus striking image in these poems is Direen’s hallmark. Just when you think he’s seen it all before he allows the emotion back in.
But at the moment big‑handed Win
is sitting in the house he built
and he is not telling himself these things
he listens to his children sleeping
like little oceans on a pebble shore
The Subject is Graham Lindsay’s fifth book, and he has the quiet confidence of someone who’s done it all before. There’s a lot in here about writing, about what poetry is and how it works and what it’s like writing poems and the relationship between language and the world. The blurb pins its heart on its sleeve, thus: “To feel is most important because that’s what gives the impetus to describe.” Or, as the poem “Subject” puts it, “Go right to the heart, never / miss a beat”.
Lindsay has his antecedents, of course, though they are as mixed as Alan Loney and Allen Curnow, with touches of Baxter. This is highly visual poetry, full of images, loaded with similes; the poet showing us the world. “We have to let things look at us / in order to see, then see our seeing,” he says in one poem, and elsewhere, advises, more sternly:
using language to protect
yourself from the full
implications of the world ‑ the world says
Look at me, I dare you to
I dare you to see.
The Subject is a meditative kind of book; not showy, but cool and thoughtful, worrying away at the big epistemological questions in poem after poem. Not, perhaps, to everyone’s taste, but distinctly, I must admit, to mine.
Anne French is a full‑time writer and editor. Last year she was Massey University’s inaugural writer in residence.