Of ice-blinks, blackbirds and ikebana, John Allison

Homelight
Nigel Brown, Bill Manhire, Chris Orsman
Pemmican Press, $12.00
ISBN 0 47305149 4

13 Ways
Harry Ricketts
Pemmican Press, $14.95
ISBN 0 47304881 7

Natsukashii
Ingrid Horrocks
Pemmican Press, $14.95
ISBN 0 47305139 7

Black South
Chris Orsman
Pemmican Press, $14.95
ISBN 0 47305024 2

Amongst the common and the unique events of my Invercargill childhood, I remember those mornings before dawn when my father woke me with his “Ready, chum?”, and, wrapped in a blanket and skeins of dream, I was bundled into the Austin 12 and off we went in that special world of relativity bounded by the headlights, to the perimeter of the airport.

Others were there already: “Great morning for it”; Should be off about the back of five”; Do you reckon it’ll be him?” Him, I understood to be the last cowboy, leaving town with all guns blazing. His steed, an Operation Deep-Freeze DC-4 looming dark at the end of the runway, revving its motors.

Antarctica was beyond the range of the DC-4s from Christchurch, but from Invercargill they could just make it, with extra help to get off the short runway. Small rockets called JATO bottles (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) were fastened beneath the wings of the heavily-laden aircraft. Most pilots ignited them two at a time. He fired all eight simultaneously, and the DC-4 staggered almost incandescent into the dark air.

Afterwards, we gazed into the huge space towards the south. Somewhere out there was Antarctica. My father told me it was one of the last adventures left on earth.

2

Anyone who starts a small press is trying one of the other last adventures. One must be as brave, as resolute, as obsessed as Scott. The load, the limits, the vast elsewhere, out there in the white-out … South, where there is no Pole Star, only a black gap ….

Then there is the question of JATO bottles. Underpowered, on a short runway, gazing towards the unpopulated wastes, the un-read pages, where is the assistance? Creative NZ? Adrenalin?

3

My father, a surveyor, was unable (through family mishap) to fulfil his dream of a trip to the ice. In our last conversation he told me it was his most bitter disappointment.

Three men who did make it are Chris Orsman, Bill Manhire and Nigel Brown. In fact Orsman has assayed two of the great adventures, for he has also founded a small press. During the past year he has published four poetry booklets, immaculately produced on fine paper and saddle-stitched into high-grade card covers.

Recently, I read copy #1 of the Limited Edition of Homelight printed at Scott Base, the initial response by Orsman, Manhire and Brown to their Antarctic expedition. Now Orsman’s Pemmican Press has issued a facsimile. It is an occasional volume, full of warmth and humour, and mutual appreciation, a quick sketch-book perhaps for other ventures (eg, Brown’s exhibition of a series of paintings resulting from the trip, at Government House from 21 June).

Two years ago Tim Higham, Communications Manager for Antarctica New Zealand, was asked to think of “innovative ways to communicate the value of Antarctica to the general public”. One outcome has been the Artists to Antarctica Programme, which annually will sponsor two artists whose subsequent work might contribute to this objective and to those of Creative NZ. Orsman and Brown went there in late January this year, accompanied by Manhire who had contributed to the planning of the programme. They spent ten days there: at Scott Base, at Lake Bonnie near the foot of the Taylor Glacier, and at Cape Royds near Shackleton’s hut, also visiting Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. “Antarctica,” says Higham, “blew their minds.”

Anecdotal evidence and the poems in Homelight suggest that Manhire’s biorhythms blew first. Did I previously say something about the last cowboy? Well, no, here he is, Wild Bill, going hither and yon, in and out of the known universe indeed. And even elsewhere: Thailand? Well doggone – and it’s true, Scott sent them back, after shooting the ponies. But then there’s the lovely lyric “Antarctic Stone”. I have a ventifact (a wind-sculpted stone) by me as I write, and these lines went inside me, into some still place:

       where what-
ever pours is wind,
is ice, forgetting itself
at last in light
in quiet line, horizon

Such lucid chilled vowels. His other poems? Eliot wrote of “taking a very simple form, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this unperceived evasion of monotony which is the very life of verse.” And here we have Manhire as Evader, always just wandering off somewhere else, constantly withdrawing, constantly approximating – even enjoying rhyme; but also they are the poems of the figure-skater pirouetting on the thin ice of language. Fun. I kept wondering about the depth of Antarctic ice, though.

Goethe said that all poems are occasional. Nigel Brown’s are distinctly so (and were no doubt enjoyed immensely by the folk at Scott Base):

A glaciologist’s paradise
I do declare!
What do I care,
Frozen in my underwear .…

Then, a momentary deepening: “The warming word,/ the felt citation”. A kind of morphic resonance with Orsman, touching towards the essentially Other Antarctic.

Brown’s Homelight linocut is notable, it seems, for the manner of its production (we are informed he printed it with a dessertspoon). Elsewhere, sketches contextualise the occasion in that colloquial manner characteristic of Brown. I have provisionally titled them: Man as Cold Hero, Man as Insignificant Other, Comfort in Small Details, Home is Where the Heat is.

It was Chris Orsman who evoked the Antarctica of my imagination. His sense for the craft is lapidary, and I found myself weighing the ventifact in my hand, feeling its surfaces, its cool assurance. Timelessness. No exclamation-marks here; all is quiet, honed to clear edges:

Barley lies scattered on the stable floor,
the biscuit barrel’s prised,
to feed the familiar ghosts
who read over your shoulder.

His work is so unassuming: no pyrotechnics, just the images presented. But the back of my neck tingles, ice on the nape of nerves: a sure sign of presence.

4

The rustlers cross the Rio Grande
or not. Judge Dredd draws his ampersand.
A poem’s a plant,
la plume de ma tante.
The Kid rounds ’em up in Iceland.

Harry Ricketts’ limerick “Bill Manhire” is not in 13 Ways, but much else that is witty is. Humour is a tricky thing, not easily done, nor the reader easily done to. So much is in the tone. I believe that humorous verse generally has to be heard, the voice of the poet discerned in the turn of phrase. Ricketts seems to have the ability to write his voice on to the page, and not all of it is simply funny. “Fleeced”, for instance, twists in the mind, demanding a little further attention:

Here’s Paekak
Paraparam.
Names crumble
like fleeced hills.

Among those funny bits, his concluding lines on “The Postmodernist” catch at the sensibilities: as her heart comes apart at the seems. And his “Thirteen Ways of Starting a New Zealand Novel called Macrocarpa” should win a Bulwer Lytton prize.

5

The word “humour” originally had nothing to do with “jokiness”, but rather with mood. I respond well to the humour of the poems in Natsukashii. Ingrid Horrocks has heeded the advice of F S Flint and Ezra Pound so well that her poetry should appear in one of the Imagist anthologies. Natsukashii (“something which evokes strong memories”) is an exquisitely evoked mémoire of a trip to Japan. I found myself turning in particular to the poems and prose of Yosa Buson, before returning to these delicately poised poems with their lucent images:

And as this petal turns a deeper blue
I would say
– Look – Just that.

The senses can give so much pleasure when observing the juxtapositions of cultures and memories. Horrocks’s images are primarily visual. Apart from conversations, the only noted sounds are a bell, a guitar, water. This also is the characteristic ambience in which Buson developed his wry observations of human discourse.

Horrocks demonstrates how a few disparate things can appeal to the imagination. Maybe it was Rupert Brooke’s poem “The Great Lover” which first established the tradition of lists, now endemic in writing courses. Ingrid Horrocks has two of them: “Disappointing Things”, and “Wonderful Things”:

– A bath so hot you want to put cold in but you
resist. You enter slowly, bit by bit.

6

And so by thermal contrast we return to Antarctica. Black South is a shadow-volume to Orsman’s South. We are with Scott on his fateful trek. It’s familiar territory, always to be traversed again. Like South, much is reportage, a quiet voice narrating darkly resonant matters. Is it anticipation that broods over this volume, leading inexorably to the chant black south / black south / black south and the afterwords? Absorbed, I am unable to separate remembered boyhood epic and these versions.

Out there, the white-out obliterates every feature. Sea, sky, ice, the human face. Inside, humour and pathos, last words.

Light, reflected from the ice-floes on to the underside of clouds, gives rise to the phenomenon called an ice-blink. In these verbal and visual images, the quick light of that humour and intelligence, play and pathos, flashes up into prominence. Let’s wish Chris Orsman’s press a long summer. And JATO bottles.

John Allison is an English teacher and poet.

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