The Usefulness of Singing
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95, ISBN 0 9583684 1 4
Legend of the Cool Secret
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95, ISBN 0 9583684 6 5
Stone Moon Dark Water
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95, ISBN 0 9583684 7 3
on what is not
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95, ISBN 0 9583684 2 2
A Particular Context
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95, ISBN 0 9583684 3 0
frame of mind
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95, ISBN 0 9583684 5 7
Hazard Press, $21.95, ISBN 1 877161 45 4
As an outsider who has observed the New Zealand poetry scene over the last 20 years, I have often felt sheer wonderment at the will of poetry to grow and survive here. Small poetry presses come and go – some living only long enough to give birth to four or five books – but they all share one purpose: to keep New Zealand poetry alive.
Those no longer with us like Hawke Press, Voice Press and Outrigger Publishers all tried to publish the best poetry that came their way. And the “welcome mat” was there for all to cross. Today that tradition lives on through establishments such as HeadworX and Robert Steele of Wellington and Sudden Valley Press of Christchurch. Sudden Valley Press has certainly been prolific, as the following six collections show.
There is a quiet softness to Helen Jacobs’ latest collection, The Usefulness of Singing. Her work derives its shape and meaning from the “ordinary” and makes a mystery journey of daily things:
Walk pretty, feet
in the belly of my daughter
We prepare, invisibly,
the long mat for you;
the known fibres of
already woven tissues
spin on to new looms
bobbins of new colour.
From the threads of the past
walk pretty, feet,
to dream your own weaving.
(“In the Belly of My Daughter”)
Jacobs’ poems peer beneath that which appears simplistic and reveal how truly un-ordinary the ordinary is in the fabric of human affairs. Brenda Allen, in a review of Jacobs’ earlier work, writes: “women writers like Helen Jacobs still lead the way to a more frank, less artificially artistic appraisal of the human condition.” Much of that human condition has to do with love – in all its shades – and there is an unassuming clarity in Helen Jacobs’ observations on such matters:
when I put the sheets
in the sun
beside the shed where
the grapes ripened,
and took them sunsweet
the garden only for
abundance of honey
and sun flowers
to bring to you,
the house rose
on the mist slopes
to hold our harvest …
Jacobs’ poems have never been about hidden or obscure meanings. She sees things and takes them in, and the words she wraps around her seeing speak directly.
Graham Lindsay is a very different fish from Helen Jacobs and swims in very different water. The cover of his book Legend of the Cool Secret gives the impression that his world emerges from the cosmos. From the black background appears something like a sun or a meteor moving with great force and creating the visual effect of much heat. Words from his poem “Wellspring” come at you from shades of black and red on the back cover.
Graham Lindsay’s poems are not as readily accessible as those of Helen Jacobs. They are solid, cut down to the bare bones, and crafted. But is it enough that a collection of poems can be described as “solid and crafted”?
The pen misses on the upstroke
and scores the paper. A generous hand
taking up a lot of space. Likewise
the setting’s large point size, lacunae.
Meaning sinks in like drops
from a sudden shower
ink on blotting paper, bleeds
into the air the reader breathes …
At the end of the day poems have to be more than well-crafted images, they have to somehow wash over and through the reader. And the language of poems should have some surprise. Not the surprise of cleverness – cleverness doesn’t have a great deal to do with how people bleed – but the surprise of magic.
Legend of the Cool Secret is a good solid collection by a good solid poet. Fortunately, there are poems in the collection that move away from just being well-crafted and descriptive and take on some meat about life, some realness about human nature, such as “Sea of Friends”:
To the ones who went into bush to shoot themselves
what might have been said that was sane or useful?
Look death in the eye? Call its bluff?
Who tinkered with employment on the brink
of bankruptcy despair despair
… Fell into line, into prison, breathtaking freedom
suffered, recovered, let themselves go
saw only failure, failed to see
the ghost of uncertainty …
Mr John Allison’s poems walk straight in the front door of your house, move through the living room and down the hallway and end up in the kitchen where so much of who we are is flavoured and where so much that shapes our lives takes place. We go to the kitchen in need of prayer, when we learn of good news or bad news, in times of celebration and commemoration. Allison is a kitchen poet:
Movement in the surfaces
and then the penetration …
Light and dark. Inversion:
our awareness turns
towards a centre, where
listening has become
a seeing, or a touching.
Such is the inwardness
of forms, this presence
in a world that’s almost
elsewhere, in some place
we never know until
we come there, and
remember our first home.
(“Stone Moon Dark Water”)
In John Allison’s collection Stone Moon Dark Water the question of self is pervasive – not self in the egotistical sense, but in a more universal sense. There is also a feeling in these poems that has to do with coming, going, and arriving – and in this case arriving is about learning to see when you get there:
While I explain the cloud-forms
you insist on seeing them.
That is something I must learn
again, to let the world
openly enunciate itself in me …
(“The Distract of Vision”)
Allison clearly enjoys the wonder of words and the reader will embrace this joy with him.
Michael Harlow says of Kenneth Fea’s poetry: “This is a careful, measured, well-judged writing that clearly is willing to take risks with both formal structures and curves of feeling”, and this reviewer seconds that proclamation. The poems in Fea’s collection on what is not are set out in a style that conjures up to me memories of the iceman chipping into a square block of ice while we looked on, imagining the wonderful taste of the ice as small pieces flew off into the space around our heads.
The shape of Kenneth Fea’s poems is indeed different from the standard style. There is also no punctuation (unless you count question marks) and the poems are set entirely in lower case. This is not a problem in itself, as one’s breathing and the words usually come to some understanding in the reading.
These prose poems are really vignettes – flashes of humankind caught in the various motions of life’s flow. And yes, the language has surprise. Subjects range from the childhood pranks of boys being boys playing nasty tricks to the tricks of human beings being human which take on a darker hue. But few lives are without some humour and wit – the wit in these poems comes up quietly and kisses you when you least expect to be kissed by a stranger:
if no go to
to go or no
i go/go not
(“i am/am not”)
In a “Concluding epigraph” the poet states: “My book, there it is just as I have made it and just as one must read it before the commentators obscure it with their clarifications.” I hope this reviewer, sir, hasn’t had you on the couch too long.
Anyone who is remotely interested in poetry will have seen John O’Connor’s name popping up in our literary magazines and will know that he ploughs at least two furrows of word planting – free verse and haiku. It will also be clear to that wondrous animal – the average poetry reader – that he is building quite a reputation with haiku. So what harvest does John O’Connor bring us with A Particular Context?
There are three distinct cultivated fields in this collection. The first section, “script”, brings to mind something Alan Loney said some years ago about “space and things and how things move between the physical space and the mind-space of perceived meaning”:
what is living in our minds
cannot be understood
as easily as
a snapshot or a movie. it isn’t
in black & white, or in colour.
each other. in autumn
they are still –
look you can see them
bend, you can touch them.
(“Voice & Stone”)
The second section, “painting the wooden butterfly”, is about recollection and reminiscence and what births itself from these seeds. And what births itself in this case has to do with a Catholic childhood imbued with a casual brutality. With these poems one knows that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”. And all kinds of things live behind closed doors.
O’Connor’s third section, “moment”, is a field of sunflowers in haiku. The poet speaks for himself:
at each turn –
house of mirrors
The DNA for David Gregory’s frame of mind can be placed under the heading “stream of consciousness being carried to land by driftwood”:
Venturing too far out
on the thin ice of
your knowledge of yourself.
How the surface heals
seamlessly afterwards into
the dead pools of photographs.
These days I dust
the frame, wipe the glass,
scarcely see the face.
(“Frame of Mind II”)
The first section of the collection is titled “In the Frame”, and the poems are written with some plain, strong, earth-coloured words about people around us and their secrets. The second section of poems is titled “Out of Frame” and, as the title suggests, the people living in these poems are out of focus and sometimes they get nasty with it:
Her voice enters like arthritis;
ground glass on the joints of words.
She speaks of it. The right tone
for commanding animals, calling
Puss, Puss, the same hour each night.
Thinks the neighbourhood has lost
its tone, like dads stomach pressing
the equator of his trousers …
This is a strong in-frame/out-of-frame community – and some of these folks we know.
For Sudden Valley Press to publish six books of poetry is undoubtedly quite a feat. Individually, each of these poets brings his/her own particular talent and creativity to light. Collectively, the six books become a big family in the neighbourhood. As in all families, each child has its own quirks of style and particular personality, but overall it’s a nice family to invite into your home.
And now we come to the adopted child in this family. The seventh child (and Dear Lord, don’t we know what they say about the seventh child) goes by the name of Koenraad Kuiper. His book has been given the name Timepieces and is published by Hazard Press. Kuiper’s work is certainly more political than that of any other family member. His opening poem “erfdeel” creates a surreal world of historical time-travel:
young Hitler had a moustache
a real RAF job with waxed points …
He wrote Mein Kampf there
and looked into the mirror often …
Germany needs young men of resolution.
So off came his points and the wax.
Gradually the razor moved inward
ever inward …
The surreal waters flowing through Kuiper’s poems take us to the four corners of our imagining:
After the trouble in the garden
with the serpent and that fruitcake
Adam, Eve took the offer
of a modelling contract in Canada …
There are some real twists and turns with historical and contemporary figures, from John the Baptist and Prince Charles to Madonna and Elle McPherson, and the reader, with just a slight suspension of daily reality, may enjoy the swim.
Welcome to the neighbourhood.
L E Scott is a Wellington poet and critic.