In the inscrutable shadows, Lauris Edmond

Both Roads Taken
John Allison
Sudden Valley Press, $14.95,
ISBN 0 473 04340 8

Pools over Stone 
Helen Jacobs
Sudden Valley Press, $14.95,
ISBN 0 473 03996 6

Always Arriving
David Gregory
Sudden Valley Press, $14.95,
ISBN 0 473 03994 x

As it Is: Poems 1981-1996 
John O’Connor
Sudden Valley Press, $14.95,
ISBN 0 473 03995 8

These are interesting — that is, difficult — times for poetry. Established publishers, thinking of their balance sheets, are wary of taking on poetry manuscripts from writers who do not have an established readership. Certainly self-publishing is again respectable, many writers seeing it as their only way to reach an audience. But distribution without a commercial network remains uncertain and expensive. I congratulate Sudden Valley Press on its ingenuity and good sense in finding a way between these two options.

It is the publishing arm of the Canterbury poets collective, which also organises readings and occasions. It works in whatever ways it can devise to put poetry in touch with its readers. These four books, its first publications, are clearly and cleanly designed, prepared by desk-top publishing and printed locally. I imagine the poets themselves share the cost.

It is tempting to consider the four books as a homogeneous group, but of course they are as individual as any other poetry collections. If there is any common quality, apart from their physical composition, it is an elusiveness of style which I often found disconcerting. Reading through the poems, I was frequently aware of a kind of wariness, of withdrawal from the poem into the inscrutable shadows behind it, of a reluctance — or inability — to grasp something essential in the poem. Is it this? Or this? Neither? Both? I often felt baffled.

Asking such questions is, we know, a common response to poetry among students and others, and poets themselves sometimes reply that the answer lies in the resonances of the poem, its music, the silences behind it, if you like. Without embarking on that debate, I would say of these four collections that rather too often this silence does not reverberate strongly enough to give me the richness, the newness of perception, that I think the poets intend should be there.

John Allison is the least inclined to write with this perplexing elusiveness. For one thing, he often has command of a vivid and clarifying image, as in “the wind / spreads its quick / fingers over the skin on the sea” (“Before Summer Rain”) or “Sleep’s a skin we slip out of” (“A Skin We Slip”) or “The starlings are a melody / composed / on the staves of telephone wires” (“Elaboration of Notes”). Such phrases — and there are many more — give his poems a satisfyingly sharp edge. He can also be gritty and exact, as in “A Boat in Governor’s Bay”:

The boat lies canted on the mudflat
clinker staves slimed with weed,
the iron-strapped keel scraped bright
by shells and shingle. The rope
bull-ringed at the bow, fallen slack
across the mud and shallow water
to the anchor. The well-worked holes
where rowlocks creak and swivel …”

A poem of loss takes its terms from a living person — a partner left, it seems — handling the shirt the dead one no longer wears: “Unfolding it, / she holds it out in front of her / as though trying it / against him standing there.” (“Near Death Experience”) This is an eloquent way of using the concrete to conjure up the abstract sphere of emotional experience.

Allison gives other indications too of a flexible imagination at work. Musical and artistic references slip in and out of the lines and there are experiments with language itself which, although they don’t always quite work (“I reflect on Latin verbs…”), do give a sense of free-ranging frontiers in Both Roads Taken. There is a scattering of haiku:

grandad’s funeral —
in the cemetery a child
chases butterflies

These are cool, confident poems; I hope the author’s scope continues to deepen and expand.

Helen Jacobs’ poems also make connections between the visible and the hidden, often using an everyday item as a symbol, an evocation of an emotional experience. The first poem in the collection is a good example of what becomes a fairly typical approach.

Apricots
Plain fare for the heart
the cook books offer with dried apricots,
or marvellously coloured confections
when the juice is restored;
the measure of flamboyance
is your own, with whatever memories
you have of the exact time of ripening
and all its summer associations.
Brochures tout diet and skin creams
urging me to preserve supple flesh,
persuade moisture between my thighs
as though to reconstitute you
into that permanent summer idyll
of apricots and honey, love liquid —
but this wanting sonnet has an addendum
of your dry ash in a dry urn.

This poem shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Jacobs’ sensitive but somewhat soft-edged handling of her material. Phrases like “summer idyll”, “love liquid” and “summer associations” are euphonious and gently evocative but seem to me to lack precision.

This blurring of outlines continues. “South Coast” begins strongly with “an ocean arc of blue water” and “rocks and flax / composed like a garden / enclosing a green walk.” However when the poem moves on to tell us that the coastline is “capable of such purity / and also wildness in a southerly / aspect”, I feel I am left with something vague, unfinished. I want to know and see more exactly; I want the particular, not the general.

I had a sense, reading these poems, that the poetic eye is eager and responsive but somehow settles for approximate pictures too easily. “Betrayal” is a poem which makes a bid to delineate the harsh contours of a relationship in decline. Yet even here there is a hopeful softening of what looks in the title and elsewhere like an effort to explore real loss, real pain.

So we will both walk softly
on the ice
of kindness,
which with care may last
across the dark water out
our days.

Aiming for less, “Summer Pot”, a modest and more low-key reflection on a loss of intimacy, achieves greater force.

We have something complete to talk about,
a summer pot lidded and accessible
to the first drawn-in evening.
… remember the hot days
when we painted the house?

I enjoyed the physicality of this poem, a reminder that the real world is always there waiting for poets to enter it without pretension and without romanticising.

David Gregory’s collection reads like a gradual accumulation over time of many moods and experiences. The poems have various locations and indeed the first section, “Dropping In”, begins with “Leaving London” and “The Final Europe”. Both these poems have a technical link with Jacobs’ work in that they use surfaces to signal the emotional experinces that lie within. London shows “the suburbs of the self-effacing”, the factories have “shrugged shoulders, / tattooed with closing credits / of some seedy documentary…” In the Tube “the philosophies of feet” refuse to give the traveller “greeting or goodbye”. “The Final Europe” ends with “this plane on trajectory / to an unexplored innocence, / finding that hands have touched / all the secret places.” There is a kind of dislocation in these poems that is not simply a controlled expression of the conflicts of departure. The accidental quality about some of the phrasing leaves the reader wondering what exactly is being said.

There is a kind of wonder at what a poet contemplates that expands the reader’s awareness and another kind that is merely baffling; here I often felt the second kind. Why “unexplored innocence”? Is the new country both unexplored and innocent or is it the traveller who is innocent? I am sorry to nit-pick but it is after all within each word and phrase that the exactness of a poem’s vision is created. And what exactly is suggested by “all the secret places”?

There is, however, both vigour and variety, many changes of mood and pace, as this quite long collection (84 pages) moves through its four sections. There are verbal gymnastics for instance, word games that can surprise, though they often turn out to be rather banal. “Three Blandishments” gives a taste of these:

 

The Bland Leading the Bland
Give me your hand
and if we stumble,
the one-tone carpet
will cushion our fall.
The Most Popular Bland
It spreads straight
from the fridge
and on the bread
tastes
almost …

“Inside Out” is a quirky poem about living in a house on a hill, quick-moving and sharp in sketching its scene. However “Open Only in Disaster” mixes “adhesive smiles” with “plastic bags of euthanasia” and “stillborn babies” with “tablets of famine” in a way that seems to me both pointless and heartless. “Thriller Vanilla” (“Do not be ice…”) is a small throwaway, neatly executed. Perhaps the poems that form the most harmonious wholes are two that evoke boyhood experience: “Flying Low Around My Father” and “Gladly to Church”.

Reading this collection felt at times like encountering a flock of brightly coloured birds let out of their cage and flying at random, some to land, others to bang themselves against unknown and unrecognised obstacles. And I have to acknowledge that, pedantic as I may be, I found the lack of apostrophes — despite many possessives — distracting. Was this a statement? If so, I didn’t find out what it said.

If I have been looking for physical detail, well used, for particularity, here it is, in John O’Connor’s “Ah Ha”:

Often the undersides
of leaves tell you
more than anything
about a plant. Take
the honeysuckle for
instance. November
sees its white stuff
out all over — smells
good too. Thereafter
it’s dull green …
It’s like talking with
someone you thought
you knew quite well.
I was not so sure about “Lines in Search of a Poem”, which begins “14 centimetres by 3 / through which a cloud / might pass… a slot through which / language might / entice an otherwise / innocent grammarian…” However, there’s no denying the originality of the idea that prompted the poem.

There’s a lot of space in these poems; on the page many are quite dispersed, to be read, one supposes, as fragments, glimpses, touches.

at an oblique angle
white on black
a shrill cry
bouncing off corridor
tiles — a fat man
in a felt hat filling
the gallery ‘in his
own peculiar way’      (“Cloud”)

There are risks in this kind of writing. If it comes off, these selected glimpses call up a world of recognition of familiar things subtly and intriguingly changed. If it doesn’t, they remain fragments, random and rather puzzling. There are poems here that meet both fates. I found “Old Song” left me stranded partway through the poems’ journey (“…the centre you wish / despite rustling…”). Yet “Eve”, with more precise references, came to life in the reading. I could see in vivid outline the “sagging fences / & the winter rain — a red / bicycle at / each doorway, / the amazing girl slouches / home…”

There is a kind of dispersed charm about the best of these poems. Reading them sometimes felt to me as though a thermometer had broken and I was chasing the shiny mercury drops that escape as you touch them. Or often they do — but when you catch one, it’s a small triumph. “View from the Window — i.m. john summers” has just the right way of touching lightly on its subject. The poem ends:

in death a good deal more tidy than
life. he is what
we say of him. turn the goat-head coin find
grace wind-tossed
the view from the window is wild trees

Lauris Edmond is a Wellington poet. Her most recent collection, A Matter of Timing, was reviewed in New Zealand Books in October 1996

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