Digging for treasure, Richard Smith

Buried Ships: Poems new and unpublished
Rob Jackaman
Hazard Press
ISBN 0 90879096 1

There is treasure to be found within the 144 pages of Buried Ships, though, as the subterranean cover by Bing Dawe seems to suggest, some digging may be necessary. This is Rob Jackaman’s eleventh book of poetry since his arrival in New Zealand 30 years ago. It opens with Zone of Silence, six recent poem sequences written between 1990-94, followed by Rain Rain: Poems 1978-81, a collation of lagans salvaged from the early 80s, and closes with a selection of further new poems entitled Spars.

In the fourth poem sequence, “Lay of the Unknown Poet”, the poet persona describes his discovery of a world resolved / to a moment / at the edge of water. He recounts how he resists waving down a passing motorist and saying, Friend share this nightwood / with me (as I do with you)” [the reader]. He explains that it:

would be too much like
coming to terms
when to come to terms
seems a lot like
and I’m not
ready yet for that.

Despite the gentle humour apparent in this excerpt, the process of coming to terms” is central to the themes that pervade most of the poems in Buried Ships. Within these poems Jackaman confronts the buried or sunken ships that possess his memory and imagination. These include: the places, events and myths of his past and of the present, the death of loved ones, the break-up of his marriage, and the history of       death / lying inches under this visual / display.”

Although in the introduction Jackaman suggests autobiographical alignments with the poems, he frequently reminds readers of the constructed nature of the personae and the unreliable boundaries between the autobiographical and the imaginative. At times these reminders are delivered awkwardly: there was a man /       last year / and I think       it was me.

Jackaman is far from awkward in the way he draws together the rich montage of metaphors for these ships, powerful images which capture the imagination and resurface repeatedly throughout the collection. These include wrecks littering the coast near Christchurch, the Saxon burial ship exhumed at Sutton Hoo, the ancestors who lie clenching their teeth / in the cold ground.” Odysseus’ ship of death, and past generations of New Zealanders who are:

                                laid down
in layers inside his mind       living only
through his breath
these days         expelled
into a changed world            truncated
from their own
existence            and put together
with words.

As these examples show, Jackaman’s poems have retained their distinctive fragmented layout. At a glance, the lines of his later work appear more segmented than ever. Initially I found these broken lines and isolated words distracting, with almost every phrase and breath mapped out with a line-break or tab. However, once I’d resolved to submit to the rhythm of his typographical steeple-chase, the reading became easier. In many instances Jackaman’s poems benefit from his enthusiasm for the tab key, but two thirds of the way through Buried Ships I caught myself counting the number of pages to the end.

The cause for my frustration was two-fold. Jackaman tends to over-direct in terms of cadence, assonance, and rhyme, and to over-explain, providing the reader with a few too many intrusive signposts. These signposts include unnecessary asides and the occasional didactic explanation or description, as is evident in his depiction of Agra:

                     a city of refuse,
the power wire hung full of it, rags draped
like notes on a stave
or words            blown
from empty sky onto a ruled page –
not as impressive a text as the twin Taj
in Jahan’s mind.

Jackaman’s writing contains some beautiful elegiac lyricism, particularly within the series “Suffolk Requiem / Zone of Silence”, and there are many instances of impressive artistry in the poems of “The Suffolk Miracle”. But this quality is not always consistent. Some poems, such as “Down the Gorge”, are marred by an occasional lapse into the melodramatic. In this particular poem, the lengthy sentences carry an excess of passive verbs and mixed metaphors which fail to convey the power of nature, and achieve only a sense of over-wrought romanticism. I also stumbled over the occasional dramatic device which foundered – “(and is that / a ship / rising between the heads / as if from a sea / burial)?” – or tropes that have been over-worked:

spectacular as             orgasms
straight        up and a sudden
of foliage      splashing
(“Out West (New Zealand)”)

No doubt it was Jackaman’s intention here to give the reader a sense of the regenerative exuberance of the bush with a smile and a wink. This would have been fine, except that he has daubed on the paint a little thickly, causing the device to detract from the wider vista of the poem’s landscape.

Throughout the collection, Jackaman’s sense of humour surfaces with varying degrees of success. There is well-sustained satire in the poems “Lemons (Off Season)” and “Hinau Lullaby” which deliver sardonic depictions of suburban parochialism. He also manages to successfully balance his self-deprecating humour with a poignant sense of loss, giving considerable strength to poems such as “Nostalgia”. Jackaman enjoys poking fun at academic and poetic fashions when in “Lay of the Unknown Poet” the very self-aware graduate from Cambridge describes scenes “so full of / (if you’ll pardon the word) beauty” and where “the dominant discourse is seabirds’ cries / Quail Quail”. Occasionally the wit slackens. In “The Summer at the End of the Universe” the puns are predictable, and the jokes become laboured – for example, Jackaman’s description of a long-drop: “the beam at the entrance / (worn smooth by generations of heads / banging painfully as pioneers were lured / to stand up in relief) /         sagging more than ever.” And though the sentiments may be plausible, there is less craft in Jackaman’s rhetorical fist-pounding on the business round table of the ” Capitalist Robin Hoods” (“Geronimo’s Cadillac II: Old Movies”) or on the gates of “those Marie Antoinettes / in the government” (“Geronimos CadillacVII: Endgame”).

Jackaman’s poems explore an expansive range of styles, settings, subjects, and images. Yet, he melds these diverse elements together with considerable technical skill, so that their connections seldom seem tenuous or strained. This is particularly evident in the sequences “Ship Burial”, “The Suffolk Miracle” and “Lay of the Unknown Poet”. Jackaman transports the reader with ease between the Maeroero (the mythical wild men of Otamahua) and a Cambridge don fretting over a tea party, then crosses with grace to a dead body and mourners in Northern India “in a train somewhere / where life and death aren’t dwarfed by / cups of tea” (“Lay of the Unknown Poet, part II”).

The poems of Buried Ships enact a coming to terms in which there are no easy resolutions. At the mercy of time, nature and circumstance, human life is depicted as:

a handful / of electrical         impulses
stored on
flimsy software.

Language is portrayed as having failed to locate, represent or preserve us: “words … outfacing — or is it / effacing — / us”. However, Jackaman’s poetry is not all negative: there are strong glimmers of the celebratory and of gratitude for life:

in rainbows             pressed
out of rock
the light

Despite the occasional lapse, there is enough treasure embedded within the many strata of these poems to make persevering in the dig worthwhile.

Richard Smith is a Wellington free-lance editor.

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