Always some bastard has to spoil it, Kate Camp

Anzac Day
Kevin Ireland
Hazard Press, $19.95
ISBN 087716111 X

The title of Kevin Ireland’s selected poems, Anzac Day, suggested to me a rather bloke’s, public kind of poetry, a poetry of momentous occasions with perhaps a hint of speechifying. I was pleasantly surprised then to find the poems themselves more closely resembled an intriguing collection of personal bric-à-brac than the bronzed statue illustrated on the cover.

As one might expect from a poet who published his first book – Face to Face – 35 years ago, memory is a major player in Anzac Day. In “The literary exile” the subject “grows older

and closer to his past”, while in “A college holiday” the speaker remembers when “we talked … and made this pledge: / we’d hold a grand reunion exactly / ten years later”. The line break on “exactly” emphasises the brittle precision of future plans, compared to the sloppy, forgetful ways of the present and past. Needless to say, the reunion never takes place. The speaker is left, “feeling neither loss nor sorrow” and only asks “Can you accept a plain apology? Another / pledge unkept? More friends forgotten?”

Future plans are not the only thing Ireland brings down to size. In “A shrinking world” the speaker decides that

[w]ater must have got into the earth,
for everything has shrunk
… the walls of my room
cramp my shoulders …
[c]ries from the street have become faint
and reedy. Air must be escaping
through a puncture in the sky …

The best poems in the volume all perform this same shrinking magic, reducing a vast sticky potful of anecdotes, artefacts and memories to a handful of gleaming boiled sweets. In one poem the speaker tells his grave, “make yourself smaller, / there is less to me than we thought”, but if this is true of Ireland, I would see it as the happy result of judicious simmering, over a low heat, stirring constantly. One gets the feeling here that Ireland has a fair idea of what it all boils down to.

Many of the poems are grumpy in a good-humoured way. “Pity about the gulls” tells of an idyllic seaside day, spoiled by seagulls:

… backs hunched,
they humped the misery of the world,
drilling screams into the cliffs,
rubbing the shine off the day.
Always some bastard has to spoil it.

I love the last line: it would make a great title for a book of New Zealand history, or a book by Barry Crump, to whom Ireland pays tribute in a poem which begins with appropriate understatement: “It’s hard to get it right.” There are other tributes in the book. “Ash Tuesday” is dedicated to a group of friends “and the remains of Frank Sargeson, Tuesday, June 26, 1990“. It is everything a tribute to a dear dead friend should be: renewing, funny, and utterly true.

Old friends always
take each other lightly,
so when we held your body

in a paper bag
no bigger than a bulls
scrotum and took turns

at jigging you out
under a loquat tree,
our only fear was that

the wind might blow you
completely away
before we could get you back

to your old roots …

Ireland also pays tribute to Denis Glover – whom he describes as “a man of unlimited and unlikely truths, / a great heart half-used” – and others, including his parents in “Fathers”, “A volatile fluid”, “Mum to the rescue”, and “Herstory” which begins, “The hardest poem / is the one you write / about your mother”. “Fathers” also has a powerful opening: “My father lived by the measure / that if you got out on the water by dawn / the fish would queue up for the hook”. The speaker recalls his father’s exacting fishing routines as “part of the heartless / perfection of living” and concludes, “[o]ur fathers exist / to uphold the law, not to make sense”.

In these family poems, and many of the others which focus on relationships, Ireland can capture the turn of phrase or cadence of another voice perfectly. This “dialogue” in the poems, combined with the strong sense of specific time and place, almost makes the book read like a collection of short stories, as scenes are set and characters are introduced and speak their lines. It’s easy to miss inspired compressions of language by racing through for narrative satisfaction.

On a slower reading, there are some very fine moments which quite escaped me the first time around. “[F]lames tickling / at the logs” is a perfect image for Ireland to introduce as the friends plan their grand reunion in “A college holiday”. Fire and time meet again in “Auto-da-fé”, when a woman burns her love-letters and photos which the speaker sees as “your years of real and fake and flash affection / gusted into blushing flame”. The attribution of fiery qualities to emotion in “flash affection” and of emotional qualities to fire in the “blushing flame” is pleasing enough, but the phrases also each convey a distinct tone. “Flash” in the New Zealand usage (eg, “a flash car”) gives us a masculine voice, sardonic and less-than-impressed with his loves past paramours. “Blushing flame”, on the other hand, gives a sense of conventional feminine modesty and also, because it is the fire which blushes as it consumes the romans love-relics, the image suggests the flames themselves are scandalised by this romantic fuel. Like many of these poems, “Auto-da-fé” is denser than it looks.

I’ve always been a sucker for a really good short poem. My favourite in Anzac Day is “Deposition”, to which I would only add that for a poet in his 60s with an obviously gluttonous appetite for ideas, Ireland has managed to keep his poems remarkably trim:

I cannot
give you words
that turned
as succulent as flesh
upon the nib

thin men
write gaunt poems
and each word
sticks out
like a rib

Kate Camp is a Wellington poet whose first collection Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars appeared in July.

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