The Male Voice
Dead Poets’ Books, $9.95,
ISBN 1 877185 00 0
ISBN 0 473 05154 0
It must be 15 years or more ago that Tony Beyer’s poem “New Moves” appeared in The Listener – back when publication in that journal really meant something. I clipped the poem, only discarding the piece when it was superseded by his collection The Singing Ground in 1986. “New Moves” is one of those perfectly judged poems that lodge somewhere in the subconscious. It became part of my poetic baggage, that mental anthology in which each poem seems to have been etched for all time.
Interestingly, neither of the Wedde/McQueen or Bornholdt/O’Brien/Williams anthologies roped it in, although both included other Beyer poems (including “Changing Ground” – surely a first cousin to “New Moves”). It is to be found, however, in the Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry of 1989.
There’s something magisterial in the slow measure of the poem, in its deliberate pace:
this far from the road
a tension in the forest air
as if two men
had conspired to kill a third
and bring him lolling to town
lamenting the accident …
That hint of menace, so quickly announced, is never realised. Yet every line threatens death or disaster of some sort: those B-grade movie words, “widow”, “blood”, “skull”, “acrid”, “bullet cases”, “pall”, “smear” are planted at every turn. The poem is acutely aware of its own programme:
stress that the forest
is not a symbolic forest
and the blood in the splayed cups
of the ferns is actual …
But then the unexpected last three lines:
and the thin sun at your
back has its own
miraculous way with wounds
What wounds? Has the narrator become the “third” man of the first stanza? And why, suddenly, is there a healing of those wounds? So many questions are left unanswered. And yet the poem is wonderfully complete and satisfying, the absence of punctuation profoundly right. There is no sense of limitation or intrusion.
This, then, set my level of expectation for these two new collections, published 12 years later. The Singing Ground would be a hard act to follow.
The careful reader will note many echoes of “New Moves” in the sequence “The Male Voice”, which is the centre piece of the first collection reviewed here. Some of these echoes occur at a thematic level: man alone, the bush, violence threatened. These associations, of course, are the planks of a national cliché. How does the poet face up to them?
Tony Beyer does not flinch. They are directly addressed. Indeed, the first poem in the sequence is entitled “Returned Man”, which begins:
afterwards he rang gasson
who’d been with him in the trenches
to tell him he’d shot the wife
the younger children and the dogs . . .
The use of the surname – “Gasson” – and the de-personalisation of the spouse – “the wife” – are signals from another era, that of the rural frontier. These four lines clang out that this is to be a frontier poem. The reader automatically sees scrub and sagging fencelines.
The man alone theme is directly advertised in the 14th poem of the sequence, actually called “A Man Alone”. “Cairo at peace”, it opens, and we’re back in this world of men and wars, regimental buttons and wadis. The 11th poem, “The Male Voice”, speaks of a soldier wounded in the desert and left, with seven others, to die (or not). The soldier survives, but never talks about “the sounds he must have heard” from those who died during the long night they were left for nature to make a selection.
Poem 13 in “The Male Voice”, at least as I read it, provides Beyer’s answer to the cliché, and it is also a commentary on the collection as a whole. Here the hero (the narrator) comes face to face with the monster – the Minotaur as it happens – but the monster is his own reflection in a mirror. Man alone is thus an illusion, and a dangerous one at that. Tony Beyer subverts the cliché. Man alone becomes a fearful internalisation, and not the celebration of male strength commonly associated with the myth.
That inversion is foreshadowed in “Returned Man”. Gasson has killed his family – even the dogs. Conditioned as we are to the myth, we find nothing particularly surprising in that (heaven help us). But the last two lines take us into a different dimension: “another shot had stopped the voice / he would hear for the rest of his life”.
As an aside, we can note the association with “Paradigm” from the 1986 collection. There, the sound of a gunshot in a suicide is recorded on the deceased’s daughter’s tape recorder: “The sound of the shot … /can be heard on a cassette tape / his daughter used in the next room”.
The poem ,”The Century”, as with the title poem in The Male Voice, provides a key to the second collection. The scene is set: it is a rainy afternoon in Epsom. The narrator’s aunt is reminiscing about the house she lived in during the First World War. All other family members – except the narrator – are dead. She:
insists that a child’s sense
of intimacy and familial order
has significance beside the breaking of nations
and will not for now be lost
Much of this second collection celebrates the importance of this sort of familial remembering – dreams and memories of family and place. While it is not a nostalgia trip, the colours conjured up are the sepia tones of old photographs. There are grandfathers in wars, houses previously lived in, old picture theatres, a father’s office, fishing with a grandfather.
From these fragments a whole is constructed. Notwithstanding that it is rooted in fact, the final construction is most likely a fiction or, at least, larger than life. “The Century”, again, provides an insight: “it is one of the pleasures of the aged / to disregard exactitude”. These poems tell us that such memories cannot be dismissed as idle chatter: they contain their own truths.
Such an emphasis means that the poems are generally more intimate than those in The Male Voice. They are less mannered, less rhetorical, but there remains the sense of wisdom gained (and revealed) “at a measured pace”. For all that, the poet seems less comfortable in these poems, with the balance between the personal and the poem sometimes uncertain. “Measured” can occasionally tend to the pedestrian. Of course, there are exceptions, such as “Back” or “A January Cafe”. Look at the rhetorical flourish that ends the latter poem:
you moving through
the room in clothes
that redistribute the light
as a cat stalking
in the thicket of the light
Some of the problem – what I call the “issue of discomfort” – lies with Beyer’s syntactical rules, which eschew punctuation and upper-case letters. The poet’s job (self-inflicted) is thus a tough one, forcing even greater emphasis on word and line than is usual in a poem. In Tony Beyer’s case, the impersonal, more formal poems, lead to a happier result – much as in the supremely effortless “New Moves”.
A poem for Tony Beyer is a tangible thing. He says, “a poem … /brings something / to tap against/the teeth or / weigh in the hand”. And he’s true to that credo. A reader can taste and feel the poems. In this, and other ways, these poems seem – dare I say it – just a little old-fashioned. They do not have shiny surfaces and there is nothing overtly virtuosic about them. In their own way, Tony Beyer’s poems are iconoclastic.
Twelve years of relative silence separate the earlier collection from the two more recent ones. Different concerns have bubbled to the surface in the meantime. The poet appears more reflective now. The bold edges of earlier days are rounded and less cutting. The poetry itself is less formal. As a result, to introduce the formality of punctuation might provide a necessary counterbalance to the increasing informality of content.
But these are small concerns weighed against the pleasure of hearing Beyer’s voice again. By almost any standard, these two collections are a success, containing some exceptional poems. By Tony Beyer’s own standard – that of The Singing Ground – the two collections do not completely measure up. They will, however, consolidate his reputation and, let us hope, introduce him to a wider audience.
Tom Weston is a Christchurch barrister and poet.