Getting the accent right, Mary Macpherson

Nothing to Declare
Harry Ricketts
HeadworX Publishers, $19.95
ISBN 0 47305141 9

“Nothing to declare”, this title murmurs in the polite way that shows we’ve obeyed Customs rules and now just want to get on with our lives. But like many a traveller in the airport queue, this book has a great deal to declare and some subversive comments to make. It’s the first survey of work by Wellington writer Harry Ricketts, covering 20 years of poetry and early short stories. In a collection featuring polished wit and satire, Ricketts covers personal and social subjects and jousts with New Zealand literature.

The latter shows him at his most formally inventive. Using found material and other poets’ work as a springboard, he employs forms like the limerick and diary entries to reflect on the originals. It’s interesting to consider this work in the context of his professional career. A senior lecturer in English at Victoria University of Wellington, Ricketts has produced a book of interviews with New Zealand poets, edited magazines and books about other writers, tutored poetry and generally promoted poetry in New Zealand.

The involvement with literature finds its place in his personal writing. The interviewer who carefully recorded C K Stead’s response to the question “Do you think of there being a tradition in New Zealand poetry?” in the 1980s, published this limerick about Stead in the 90s:

SMITH’S DREAM

I know, I’ll put Janet and Jim
– and Frank – in a book for a whim.
All the critics will say
“What a roman à clef!
Why aren’t we as clever as him?”

James K Baxter, R A K Mason, Anne French, Sam Hunt and other notable New Zealand writers also receive spiky summaries of their work or personas:

TRACKS

What’s hard about being a bard
is the chant – high, blokey, love-scarred.
It’s living the blues,
paying your dues;
Who needs to be avant-garde?

The use of limerick with its strict rhyming scheme makes these literary summaries disarmingly light-hearted. More can be found in Ricketts’ collection A Brief History of New Zealand Literature.

Nothing to Declare includes a generous helping of work that comments on or plays with styles and trends in literature. “Reading Between the Lines”, described by Ricketts’ publisher as a “fugitive” piece, starts in 1981 with a guarded conversation with Fleur Adcock about the New Zealand literary scene, as Ricketts prepared to move here from England. Throughout the 11 diary pieces there’s a sense of the new arrival looking around, a little anxiously, to see how English literature – “that museum monster” – is received in post-colonial New Zealand. Speculation about the intonation in a conversation or a throwaway remark all contribute to this anxious undercurrent. Deadpan delivery and self-deprecating humour help lift the work beyond self-interest to the realm of commentary.

Another piece which effectively recycles found material is “Settling In” which first appeared in Ricketts’ 1989 collection, Coming Here. Using material from a Maori Grammar & Conversation with Vocabulary (first published 1885), Ricketts creates a sonnet sequence which has grown in pungency since the 1980s. Highlighting earlier attitudes, Ricketts focuses our attention on the naivety of these attempts at conversation. Today, it’s hard to read lines like:

Are the Maaoris friendly with the white people?
We have much cause for thankfulness
in the social and physical relations
of both races to each other.
without thinking twice about the truth of the statement.

The other commentary on New Zealand writing that stands out for its verve is “Thirteen Ways of Starting a New Zealand Novel Called Macrocarpa”. Taken from his most recent collection 13 Ways, the piece consists of 13 different beginnings to a novel, all with the word macrocarpa in the first sentence. Each imitates a style you’re sure you’ve heard before and so taps into the magazine tradition where competition entrants are given the first line of a poem or story to complete. The effect is quietly satirical and funny and shows how Ricketts has grown in sophistication with his re-use of existing material.

The collection also contains a careful selection of Ricketts’ poems that deal with family and relationships and social commentary. Many poems sketch a story in a spare narrative style, ending with wry comments or images that are almost punch-lines. The poem “Engagement” speculates about the possibility of living different lives but finishes with the realisation:

    Meanwhile
this baby badly needs changing
and besides you’re suddenly starving.

Although the writing style is controlled and the comments on the situations often ironic, my impression is of work with an emotional basis. In poems for children and about the death of his father, Ricketts wears his heart on his sleeve more obviously, creating genre family commentaries.

The emphasis in these poems is on a polished narrative or comment rather than a flamboyant use of language. But there’s also an enjoyable play of images, sound and rhyme which adds a sparkle to the work. In a poem like “The Elephant’s Nest Shuffle”, Ricketts shows how adept he is in using rhyme to create a suggestive, surreal effect:

It’s one fine day in the middle of the night,
it’s green not red, grey not white,
it’s never quite getting the accent right.

The third major theme of the collection deals with Ricketts’ overseas experiences, in poems and four short stories. The stories remind us that he taught at the University of Hong Kong and presumably had the opportunity to observe expatriate English society at work. Several of them depict the chilling conformity of the white community and the cultural differences between the races in Hong Kong. In “All That Went Out With Kipling” a young wife just out from England commits the mistake at a dinner party of openly challenging the social order – she will not be invited back. In “Mushrooms and Things” a seemingly respectable banker makes sleazy suggestions to a young woman, while his wife and others in the party chat on as if nothing had happened.

Although they make their point effectively, the stories seem slightly one-dimensional in their telling and the work of a much younger writer. It would be interesting to see how Ricketts would approach short story writing today.

This review has looked at Ricketts writing in separate categories, but in fact the collection mixes different material to create an engaging sequence. If there’s a link between the lyric poet, re-user of found material and short story writer, it seems to be Ricketts’ ability to summarise and comment, in a seamless and often humorous way.

In the course of his writing career, Harry Ricketts has produced a book of short stories and five solo or joint poetry collections, many from smaller presses. Nothing to Declare offers an excellent overview of his work and highlights the place that Ricketts is creating for himself as a writer. Who knows, there may come a time when he needs a literary limerick all of his own.

Mary Macpherson is a Wellington poet and photographer.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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