The worth and weight of words, Harvey McQueen

The Sounds
Andrew Johnston
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 306 2

Printout 11
ed Joy McKenzie
Printout, $12.95, ISSN 1171 0438

ed Mark Pirie
Wai-te-ata Press, $5.00, ISSN 1733 633x

Andrew Johnston established himself as one of New Zealand’s finest wordsmiths with his first volume, How To Talk, which won the 1994 Book Award for poetry. Nevertheless, the second volume is always a hurdle. Can growth be sustained or was it a one-off fluke? Johnston clears that hurdle superbly well with The Sounds.

New Zealanders are careless with or, worse, indifferent to words. But here is someone who values their worth and weight, their fragility and toughness and can place them with accuracy and poise. Words are sounds — in Kendrick Smithyman’s phrase, “a way of saying”. Johnston’s inner journey pulls you in to follow him — into sounds, into memory:

You grasp what a child is saying,
Then you’re in the pool –

running in a circle
to stir the chemicals in;

a current comes around behind, so cold
(you’re learning to swim).

A man stands at the edge who
tipped the sky-coloured crystals in,

who took care of memory —
memory takes care of him.

“The Caretaker”

I read Sounds during the election campaign — a good antidote to the clouds of puffery, rhetoric and secondhand cliches. Johnston treasures the potential of words and measures their impact alongside other words. The poems remind me of a well-formed garden — the stepping stones apparently random, yet so carefully placed to give an atmosphere of austere timelessness. Johnston’s taut images linger in the mental as well as the aural mind. “These are the hopeless movies he projected / because she offered nothing / and he accepted.” “A straight at night: the road in motion. / Only the car is still, and the moon.” “He’ll never get across the sea , he thinks, / ‘I will send words instead’ — / scowling and hissing at each other to keep up / lest they sink beneath the map.” “Under the ice, / in our vague idea of the river / fish swim up and down in their constant knowledge.” “Home is the music you lose yourselves / in, a tune you both hear as you read.”

Johnston has a less obvious ego than most poets. He trusts his material — words. His lyrics surprise and delight as they explore and define the interface between experience and language, between the event and its explanation, the space between relationships:

to the sounds as we pronounce them, the

waves, the bright particulars, we hear the
way we’ve been so far, we touch
speech, our bodies fearless listening

Our poetry tends to be serious He mixes in considerable playfulness. He begins a poem entitled “The Fall” with “trail and trial have always given trouble”. “Try”, a serious poem about learning to swing and more, much more, has its humorous undertone. “Apple”, a poem about time, ends with “grins at an apple and bites/ and finds the apple smiles back”.

I thought of W H Auden as I read Johnston. One of the twentieth century’s most memorable poems is his “In Memory of W B Yeats”. In it he says “poetry makes nothing happen.”. A few lines later he says “it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth.” The lines reflect, not only that poetry, once primarily public, is now mainly personal and private, but also the century’s unconcern for the value of words. It is a long way from Shelley’s comment that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. I recall as a secondary student studying Auden’s “Seascape” which begins: “Look, stranger…” I said to my teacher it didn’t make sense. She replied: “It does. It depends how you read it. Sound is our neglected sense.”

Johnston uses that sense to the full. In the irritating, constant search for significance Johnston’s poems travel to meaning effortlessly, yet thought-provokingly, through sound. There is a great deal of water in them, rain and stream and sea — and boats and ships — a dinghy “iffing and butting”. Lots of colours too, or their absence: “light splinters in the cold, colours / slip into hiding”.

And questions with satisfactory answers:
What does sunlight sound like
A white flower in darkness knows,

an ear that hears both ways and sees —
sirens, and silence, and laughter, and after;

Once when I was a secondary schools inspector, I watched a teacher begin a lesson by reading two poems, Fairburn’s “A Farewell” and Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More A Roving”. When he finished he said: “Now we’ll compare them.” One boy put his hand up. “Aren’t we going to look for hidden meanings?” I sensed Byron and Fairburn turning in their graves. What have we done to poetry?

But the question illustrated a dilemma: how to explain assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia without destroying the poetry in the dissection. Johnston’s use of these devices is superbly unobtrusive. Technically, it is excellent poetry. I thought of the classroom experience because one of my touchstones is whether I want to share the poetry I am reading. Andrew Johnston’s poems made me nostalgic for the chance to say: “This is great stuff, let’s talk about it.”

Much New Zealand poetry is about nostalgia and loss. One of Johnston’s attributes is his confidence in possibility, in the future, in continuity. “Fauna” begins: “After weeks of sun and wind and no rain” and ends after a description of two deer who disappear “like thought, back into the trees” with “And then, as in the stories, it softly begins to rain.” Another poem about the beginning of winter ends: “Eventually / a calm voice comes to you- / it is your voice.” He presents the awe in the act of creation:
 You try
to hold on to one such story, but at its centre
a gap too wide to leap is releasing
another story, every second,

For something that apparently makes nothing happen, poetry is an activity that engages a surprising number of people. It tells us something about what kind of species we are and our constant search for personal reference points in a relentlessly globalising age. As part of this process small literary magazines come and go. A few of these flourish for a while. Others have a very brief blossoming. They provide a niche, a seedbed, a toehold. Printout has now precariously managed 11 issues. It has survived not only because of the tenacity of its editors but because it always presents readable and provocative material. The eleventh issue has attracted some big names — a sure sign of success.

Printout 11 has a striking cover, an image from the frock series by Sue McKenzie. Indeed, the images throughout the text have always been a Printout strength. I especially liked Fran Marno’s drawings and Katrina de Graaff’s photographs. In her introduction editor Joy McKenzie suggests “sample and enjoy”. It’s advice worth following. There is much to enjoy in this publication, as in its predecessors. For appetisers it begins with the established poets, Fiona Farrell, Albert Wendt, Gregory O’Brien and Anne French — all good. I liked the O’Brien but admired them all.

They are followed by a well-crafted short story by Judith White and thereafter a smorgasbord of poems and prose (more poems than prose), with a garnish of images scattered through the text. There’s plenty to choose from the  mixture of the well-known and the would-be-known, Lauris Edmond and Alison Wong, Iain Sharp and Glen Colquhoun. Colquhoun, who was a student in Smithyman’s creative writing class, writes movingly about “Parkinson’s Disease”. And I like Cherie Barford’s poems, clear and spare:

I’ll end up like a flounder
aflap in sediment
a one-eyed view
of the tide.

Also included are two of the last poems Smithyman wrote before his death. Joy McKenzie describes asking him to review Dennis McEldowney’s Then and There and the correspondence about that. We regret the loss of Smithyman’s voice. It is worth knowing for the record that, in his own words, he never barked at his students, he only snarled.

Printout 11 concludes with a dessert selection of reviews — kind, thoughtful, sensitive. Sharp says that overall Wendt’s Photographs is an engrossing book of poems. (I agree.) Smithyman praises McEldowney. Kai Jensen is rather critical of Stephen Eldred-Grigg (comparing his trilogy with Gee’s is a bit rough). John Herbert points out that a book on Frances Hodgkins is premature — that only now is more documentary evidence available. The criticism might be valid but I value the book for its paintings and drawings. It is one purchase that I constantly savour. My congratulations to McKenzie and her colleagues for their selection of critics. Finally, there was a further bonus in this edition — some late letters and an unpublished poem from Mary Ursula Bethell.

JAAM is typical of these small literary productions. They usually start with a ringing proclamation about providing a vehicle for young writers. Often a group, but sometimes a sole activist, tired of the rejection slips, convinced of their own ability and with youth and energy on their side, sets up a magazine. In recent times AND was the loudest. It announced the end of Curnow but some institutions are timeless, which Curnow proved. Interestingly, this edition of JAAM begins with a quote from Leigh Davis, who launched AND just before Rogernomics and post-modernism became fashionable.

From Bethell via Smithyman to Sam Hunt — there’s the history of New Zealand poetry in a nutshell. Amongst the young writers of JAAM 5 is an interview with Hunt and four poems from him. Words existed as sound long before they were embalmed on clay brick, parchment or the page. Sam’s promotion and performance has probably brought more New Zealanders into contact with poetry than any other happening. His unique voice is clear in the interview — “what is being said and how it is being said are inseparable”. He is now well on the way of becoming one of the grand old men of our literary scene.

He is in good company in this collection. There is verve and animation galore. Mark Pirie has edited a stimulating assortment. Another of his features is about the Women’s Play Press. There are excerpts from Vivienne Plumb’s Love Knots and Fiona Samuels’ Lashings of Whipped Cream. There are reviews of these two plays and also Jean Betts’ Ophelia Thinks Harder and Cathie Downes’ The Case of Katherine Mansfield. This package is not only educative and promotional. It is a good read..

There is also wit — John O’Connor’s “Comic Opera” with its refrain, “Now I am the ruler of a Great Big Che”.

Now graduates all, whatever your degree
If you want to climb to the top of a Che,
And you’re not a health professional
Here’s a maxim that will serve you well —
Be ignorant of medicine totally
And you’re sure to be a ruler of a Great Big Che.

In a few decades many of the contributors will be household names and JAAM 5 will be a collector’s item, I thought, as I put it down after the first reading. When I looked at the back cover I found a reviewer of the previous edition had thought the same. Ones to watch include Paul Wolffram, Pirie himself, Helen Rickerby and Kate Camp. Kapka Kassabova is already there. And I ask Harry Ricketts to do another parody for his Brief History of New Zealand Literature — this time of Andrew Johnston. He merits inclusion.

Harvey McQueen is a Wellington anthologist and poet. 

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