Victoria University Press, $19.95
The Persistent Levitator
Victoria University Press, $19.95
Auckland University Press, $19.95
Black Family Letters from Boston
L E Scott
Blue Black Press / Bent Publishing, $15.95
What is most to be prized in poetry ‑ craftsmanship, imagination or emotive force? The first three of the books under review here each exhibits one of these qualities in abundance and collectively they quite starkly pose the choice.
Chris Orsman’s Ornamental Gorse is his first book of poems, after appearances in Landfall, Poetry New Zealand, Sport, and Bill Manhire’s recent 100 New Zealand Poems. A former architect and ambulance officer, Orsman is now a full‑time writer in Wellington.
Ornamental Gorse has been well served by its cover designer, Fleur Wickes. In chaste white, sky‑blue and yellow, it pleases the eye, promising beauty and order, with the photo of a gorse‑bush adding just a hint of sharpness. And this is exactly what the poet delivers. Taking his inspiration largely from old photographs, he explores aspects of our national character and culture through the history of his own family and through personal recollections. In the first few lines he impresses with his control, his eye for visual detail and his measured detachment. As you turn the pages he impresses you further with the consistency of his approach and the distinctiveness of his poetic voice ‑ rare in a first collection. As you near the end you are almost wishing for some deviation, a slip or a sudden breakout, but none comes; steadiness is all.
And perhaps that is more than enough for an inaugural volume. It is certainly sufficient to place Ornamental Gorse among the outstanding local collections of 1994. The book makes pleasant reading from cover to cover, as Orsman captivates with his clear, unhurried euphonious manner. Especially to be admired are his effortlessly resonant structures and juxtapositions, which frequently strike sparks of wry humour, such as this from “Ancestral”, where the poet describes his great‑grandfather
retiring each night with Dickens
and a pint of gin. An unsuccessful prophylactic.
His daughters loved their letters …
Orsman’s gift for sharp visualisation is seen in lines from ‘Scenes from a Provincial Life” in which he is describing turn-of -the-century Havelock:
It’s as much a mess as any
provincial township ‑ a curving
mainstreet where the horses
have stopped for the photograph
between clay banks and a tin fence;
exotic trees blacken the spaces
beyond corrugated‑iron roofs
which shine new as if snow
has fallen. What’s been felled
has suffered a resurrection
in balloon frames and timber cladding;
the hills behind grow hazy
from an uncontrolled burn‑off.
The Auden of “Musée des Beaux Arts” would surely not have been ashamed to call these lines his own; there is the same nonchalant, assured mix of exact material detail and resonant abstraction, the same unhurried, captivating cadence. Elsewhere there are strong echoes of Yeats in his middle, level‑headed phase. For example, some lines from “A Prologue to Antarctica”: “… his great men / dug up from a common burial ground / in the companionable south … ” call to mind the “cold companionable streams” of “The Wild Swans at Coole”. And Orsman’s “companionable” is every bit as effective in its place as the Irish master’s; though it must be added that when Orsman uses the same epithet again in “Ice Age”, “companionable wilderness” doesn’t make nearly as much impact.
This gives a pointer to future development: if Ornamental Gorse has a significant limitation, it is in its thematic and emotional range or lack of them. One reaches the point where one wishes Orsman would put away his old photos and let rip on something more contemporary, more challenging, more hot‑blooded. Just occasionally he does so, with results that give promise of future delights. “Dubroynik, May‑June 1989” is arguably the best poem in the book, certainly the sharpest, certainly the funniest. The narrator meets a self‑proclaimed literary expert:
Try me, he says, name a writer!
A great German!
Ah, the Russians were our friends once.
Yes, yes, I know her well!
A fine writer. A Black American!
Bernadette Hall’s The Persistent Levitator is her third collection of verse. This Christchurch teacher and writer has established a reputation as one of the rising stars of New Zealand poetry. Here again the cover‑design provides an accurate epitome of what’s inside. The bland pale‑orange jacket and ill‑cropped black‑and‑white reproduction of Sandra Thomson’s exuberant painting “The Persistent Levitator” suggest an uneasy mix of the brilliant and the banal, the delightful and the slapdash.
No question, Hall is the most gifted creator of images and unlikely yoker‑together of unlikely but energising ideas among the poets under review. In “Art History”, for example, she shows what she can do with someone else’s picture (in this case a Velasquez), and what she does is as a fireworks display to Orsman’s magic lantern show:
It is all quite clear, even the lamp hooks
in the ceiling. The child, a white flower
unhinging on an emerald cloth, roses in a glass
jar. They all breathe the same dark air.
Admire the placement of “jar”; feel the impact of “dark”; this is Hall at her best. Her poems buzz with life and feeling. A visit to “The Butterfly House, Melbourne” produces one of the simplest but most polished and moving poems in the book; no brief quotation can do justice to its lively colour, its careful crafting and its neatly understated emotional richness.
But not all the poems are as successful. Sometimes Hall strives too hard for irony, paradox or surprise; the last line of “Love” falls dead flat, spoils the whole poem. “The Dumb Waiter” strains too hard for too little effect. “Mount Cook Among Other Things” is nothing but strident posturing, a rant and a feeble one at that. But just when you think that The Persistent Levitator has appeared prematurely Hall demonstrates that the title aptly describes the poet herself … up she bounds again with an image, a juxtaposition or a whole poem that knocks you sideways. “Darling Harbour, Sydney 1989” works brilliantly to confront us with the contradictions of China:
Beyond the moongate, undisturbed by little
mice, the boy Buddha lies sleeping in the sun
& in Beijing two doctors bend to a student
wounded in the crowd & a soldier turns & shoots …
“The Anger of Vito Paccelli” is a longer poem of considerable impact which shows that Hall can develop characters, their situation and the interplay of conflicting attitudes drawn out over time with consummate skill. “The Girl Who Sings Waterfalls” is a short verse drama which in several respects carries on where Eliot and Fry left off, without owing too much to either.
It could never be said of Bernadette Hall that, as she writes in “Anorexia”,
in a monochrome of beige sheep & paddocks
you try to say your unclear thing …
If she sometimes seems not to have taken the trouble to make sure that the right word is in the right place, and if occasionally she doesn’t know just when to stop, more often than not she produces thought‑provoking, moving, satisfying verse.
Which brings us to Lynda Earle and Honeypants. Well! A first reaction was “Can this priapic cover design really have emanated from the respectable portals of AUP? And can this raucous, randy, violent, foul‑mouthed stuff be what AUP now regards as poetry?”
Make no mistake, Lynda Earle comes on strong. She seems, as she might well put it, fucking obsessed … and preoccupied with sleaze, Polynesian studs and the seamy sides of Hastings and Auckland. She rubs our noses in grime, figuratively flaunts pudenda (including her own) in our faces. Her language is strictly nineties Hollywood B movie.
Repelled? Disgusted? Wouldn’t blame you if you were … but this extraordinary production should not be dismissed nor condemned too hastily. There’s actually quite a bit to it. For one thing, there’s a Poundean delight in languages, in the interplay of them and here and there a facility for multilingual punning that Nabokov himself would be proud of. There’s also ‑ and this is not common in a new poet ‑ a marked ability to create and sustain a situation to develop its characters and fashion a meaningful story in verse, notably in “To Hastings with Love”, which lasts for 21 compelling pages and brings to life a whole seething community.
Anger and outrage against the violence and the vicious masculinity of some parts of Maori and Polynesian society and their desensitising effects on women as well as men dominate this book. Often the feelings are expressed too stridently, but the effect overall is compelling. And there are flashes of mitigating humour, as in these lines from “Frank’s Life (or the House that Jack Built)”:
Jack’s wife is still around,
always playing at housie,
for the steaks, once she won,
brought home enough
pork to fill an abattoir
the Labour Party were on to a good thing
when they discovered
the meat‑eating proletariat weakness
for gambling, swap a vote for a chicken thigh …
Though the quote also illustrates Earle’s tendency to overdo things, to go just too far; that last, limp phrase all but spoils the effect.
When she turns her attention from big bikes, big dicks and sweaty, aggressive couplings, Lynda Earle can be a witty and beguiling writer. The liveliest movement of her best verse hints at her skill as a jazz poet and performance artist and her varied background (born in London, raised in Papua New Guinea) suggests a capacity to write about a much wider range of topics. Those at AUP who survive the expected holocaust from the Rigid Right should take a vow to put Earle on a strict regime of cold showers, so that she can put all this sweating and grunting and effing and blinding behind her in the interest of developing her real talent as a poet. She has the emotional force; all it needs is direction.
For another view of oppressed people who are not above oppressing others when opportunity offers, we turn to L E Scott’s Black Family Letters from Boston. Scott, the book tells us, is an African‑American who, having been drafted to and wounded in Vietnam, travelled the world before coming to New Zealand. The Letters are a series of prose poems from a Black Massachusetts mother to her son in New Zealand, in which aspects of their lives are alluded to along with reminiscences, revelations and ruminations on current events and trends, all done in an engaging epigrammatic style. Some have been published before, notably in Takahe.
A world‑wary, wise and well‑read mother, this. Is it unreasonable to suggest that she sounds like Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, or is that a tribute to Harper Lee’s good ear? The references to New Zealand seem entirely gratuitous but there are some memorable remarks about human nature. The production, on brown recycled card, is unusual but entirely appropriate. And yes, “prose poems” is an apt description for these pieces. They lack the depth of a novella, the sharp focus and trim shape of short stories, the precision of reportage. But with an insistent cadence and an easy flow to the utterance, poetic they certainly are. L E Scott’s Boston is a mellow place, in sharp contrast to Lynda Earle’s Hastings. He doesn’t exhibit her rage or bursting energy; he hasn’t the leaping imagination of “Levitator” Hall, and his crafting, while careful and consistent, is not as meticulous as that of Chris Orsman. But his judicious blend of craftsmanship, imagination and emotive force makes him a poet too.
Charles Croot is a Dunedin writer and editor.