Skinning a Fish
Hazard Press, $19.95
The cover illustration ‑ a cold blue etching of a grotesque deep‑sea fish screwed to a ragged knife ‑ is a spare and disturbing image that hints at a hard edge to the poems within. The book starts with what may be the best of the poems here, “After the rain comes morning glory”. In the past, Ireland’s trademark extended metaphors have done little for me and they often verge on the twee. In this poem, however, he manages to mix two extended metaphors (botanical and military) to great effect.
The weather is fine.
Walking up Queen Street, policemen bloom
like morning glory. We have not seen
such unfailing blueness for almost a week.
Days passed; rain bulleted down;
streets died in the hail.
Lines such as “New lovers twine across town. Their hands / curl together like tendrils” are both conventionally touching and slightly disturbing in their evocation of blind biological impulse. This blindness is then made explicit: “Their eyes are like pumpkin seeds; / they signal blind optimism.” The poem concludes with an ironic litany of promises from “our rulers”:
No increase in taxes. Everyone
shall have work. The streets shall be safe.
Our lives shall bloom with morning glory.
The weather is fine by me.
This is a highly structured poem. We have landed back where we started, but during the poem’s journey the “fine” weather has taken on very different undertones and becomes nearly brutal in its cool sarcasm. The policemen move from an almost comic “blooming”, through military imagery (‘Reinforcements”), and back to “Our lives shall bloom with morning glory”, which has now taken on sinister police‑state connotations. The interlocking metaphors have charged the words with new meaning, which is what poetry should do.
In “Railway jokes”, the trains and docks remind me of Einstein’s thought experiments:
The station detaches and becomes
a lost property. I ask: are Italian
clocks adjusted to make sure
the trains always depart on time?
If the subject of this poem is relativity, it is the cultural sense ‑ a literal example of “when in Rome”. The locals take a dim view of the narrator’s flippant attitude to the Fascist era:
“You must consider our view.
Everything was in chaos, then
this man came along and the trains
ran on time.”
The narrator laughs at “the tin‑pot dictator” (like Clive James, who wrote: “The blood was always upstaged by the thunder. / They held pyjama parties with their power / Forgetting to wipe out a single race.”), but to the Italians Mussolini was no joke: “Death had a free hand. It wasn’t / supposed to be funny. Things ‑ / meaning people ‑ got done on the dot.”
Ireland might also be making a comment on our society’s obsession with time: “We belong to the future … We obey. / We are aimed at the next clock.” He ends with the narrator chastened and bemused (although still unable to resist the charms of a bad pun):
My railway jokes
fall flat on their dials. I learn
to express myself in excuses: I hope
you don’t think I’m just killing time.
The poem “Fire at Anne Street” begins by crisply describing the aftermath of the fire in hard, one‑line sentences: “Roofing‑iron clangs in the breeze. / Burnt and broken timbers clap softly. / Raspings of steam vent from the cold ash.” It then moves through an extended food metaphor, with the festive image of fire hoses as streams of champagne ending in a memento mori:
Then the rosy popping fury
of the feast inside consumed itself
in a last lustrous blowout of crashing glass.
Interestingly, most of the food imagery is less than appetising: smoke coils like “black puddings”, and the roof is compared to “a soggy / slumping pastry”. Some of this seems akin to Craig Raine, but Ireland never quite achieves the intensity of Raine’s best work.
The second half of the poem shifts to metaphors of war. After the insatiable flames “had eaten the house / they belched across the sky and suddenly / exploded into dawn”. Ireland says:
We should have felt lucky to have escaped
the fire. Sober, restored. Purged,
But this is not Eliot’s “Fire Sermon” and, far from purifying, the fire leaves “a whiff of sadness sour with shivery damp, / like a mould”. Memories of wartime newsreels are recalled and the poem ends with “whole cities / burnt to the ground. And a lost forgotten fear.” The nature of this fear is never spelt out ‑ I think Ireland is trying to be mysterious here but that last fragment of a sentence just seems imprecise and slack and the tension of the poem dissipates into vagueness.
The title sequence consists of four poems. The first, “The right way to do it”, begins with simple, pedantic instructions, interspersed with one‑word interjections (“Simple.” “See?”), and ends with what the back cover describes as “a metaphor for Ireland’s own incisive poetic craft”:
the thing neatly ‑
through correct usage.
Everything by the book.
Getting down to basics.
This solid flesh deboned.
It is interesting to compare the style and imagery with his earlier poem ‘Deposition”: ‘thin men / write gaunt poems / and each word / sticks out / like a rib.” The violence of the word ‘Flayed” leads directly to the beginning of part two, “On Parade”:
The Saxons were good at it.
They could strip the back off non‑Christians
as neatly and quickly as ripping the skin
off a rabbit. It served as a warning
to others, tacked to the door of a church.
The act of separation becomes sinister and political. Constructing the Other is an essential part of rigid, simplistic military thinking: “Under the skin, along the bone. / Save it for the enemy. Simple.”
Part three returns to the fish analogy:
Consider, then, the scales.
The armour plating, the chain‑mail,
the ironsides of the fish. There
to ensure survival.
If one rubs the scales “up the wrong way”,
there is an unpredictable event,
a scale detaches itself
from the fish, flies off at a tangent
and attaches itself to an eyelash.
A random occurrence? Maybe. Yet
it always happens. I have seen it, right
in front of my own eyes. Chaos theory.
Yes, the obligatory chaos poem (someone ought to pass a law against selling books on chaotic dynamics and fractal geometry to poets). There’s a dodgy extension of the butterfly effect to oceanography as a fish “launches a ripple that, a month later, / becomes a tidal wave in Tahiti. Or, / perhaps, the moisture I feel / in the corner of my eye.” The scales of the fish now represent our emotional defences (as in the title of this section, “Covering up”), fragile and unstable: “Consider / the arc of your smile. It trembles.”
The final section, “Looking up”, takes the threads that Ireland has spun from his central analogy and weaves them tightly into a fine conclusion that makes the other sections necessary.
Skinning the fish. Removing the scales
from my eyes. Dragging things
up to the surface. Beginning to learn.
Human growth requires us first to divide our world simplistically into convenient sections, then to integrate this knowledge as conscious learning dissolves into instinct. After the process of separation, “Loving then returns / as second nature.”
Just as the section is approaching the optimism of its title, everything is undercut by the ending:
You no longer need to be told right
from left or which way to point
your feet. You are lying down. See?
The concluding question mark adds a final twist to a subtle, finely textured poem.
In the next poem, “Execution of a poet”, “Walls get blamed for being there./ They are accused of imprisoning us. / They entomb property, divide people.” Separation is again seen as a political act ‑ to say that “X differs from Y” is anathema to current theoretical and political orthodoxies and we are seen to be living in an age in which all boundaries have been dissolved, as in Jenny Bornholdt’s poem “Scrub cut”: “There is now no saying / That is Manuka. / That is Rimu.”
But there are other ways of looking at walls (though perhaps not as many as there are of looking at a blackbird) ‑ they “support thought” and “can be beautiful”. It is such ambiguities that make up some of Ireland’s best poems. As words explode into semiotic fragments he takes the trajectories of these disparate meanings and turns their intersections into a poem such as “Consumption”. Here, the meanings of the word “consumption” tangle with the connotations of “Takapuna Beach”, and “the words make huge transactions. / We trade meanings. Consumption devours us.”
Unfortunately, not all of the poems here are successful. Some are imitative, such as the Audenesque “A letter to Miss Death”, which is reminiscent of “Miss Gee. A Ballad” but lacks the satirical bite and eventually dissolves into abstractions. “Winged Victory” is a pale shadow of Ted Hughes’ “Crow”:
Fantail flew against the bathroom mirror.
No matter how he dived or rolled or twisted,
a Death Bird shadowed him from behind the glass,
wing to wing across a frozen waste,
When Fantail screamed, the Death Bird
opened its silent beak and ate the sound.
There are many other poems that are competently constructed, but which ultimately come up against the “so what?” factor. They have no glaring flaws but there is little that grabs the reader and invites him or her back to read the poem again. While the best of the poems, such as: “Skinning a fish” and “After the rain comes morning glory”, are very good indeed, this book could have done with a more brutal application of an editor’s filleting knife.
Tom Beard is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in Printout, Takahe and New Zealand Books.