Willow pattern poetry, Mark Pirie

A Kind of Kingdom
James Norcliffe
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 351 8

James Norcliffe lives in Christchurch – a place that has, in 
 recent years, become a hive of poetic activity. Its pub-lishers such as Sudden Valley Press and Hazard Press have filled a much needed gap in the poetry market. And the Canterbury Poets’ Collective and the local literary magazine, Takahe, have been influential in publishing and promoting local poets, the Voiceprints poetry anthologies, and organising a successful and energetic programme of poetry readings. Norcliffe, in particular, is one poet to have benefited from this activity. He has been active in Canterbury Poets’ Collective readings and has also co-edited the poetry section of Takahe, with Bernadette Hall.

It was during this period that he produced the work in his slim, consistently interesting second book, Letters to Dr Dee. The book was for the most part very well received, and was later shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards in 1994. David Eggleton has described it as an “Absurdist’s grab-bag of whatever is bumped up against that can be made to reveal the sheer numinous strangeness of existence, imagist-style”. He notes that Dr Dee contains traces of “a distilled Taoist influence” and poems that are “fine-spun, like silk screens, or else transparent, like rice-paper”. Indeed, the collection was successful enough to convince Bornholdt/O’Brien/Williams to include the entertaining “the true story of soap” in their Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (1997).

The strengths of Dr Dee lay in its interesting sequences, which were well developed, carefully worked and often contained intense, magical imagery. They moved with a good deal of ease and displayed a characteristic and inventive wit. Take this, for instance, from “letters to Dr Dee from Oaro”:

I’m writing to you
from a wishing place
from possibly
“the place of a wish”
where a stream
like a thought
trickles through
into the idea
of a lagoon . . .

Norcliffe’s images were delicate, precise and immediately appealing; they showed above all an uncanny ability for being ornate and graceful:

the slenderness
of her wrist
twining like
a mountain path
reaching like
the sound of a bird
white as water
white & falling

such Dee
is the stem
I cling to.

Note the careful stanza break and rhythmical pause before the final, arresting image. At its best, Norcliffe’s poetry displayed an imagistic quality, which coupled with his Taoist, Chinese influence and clever word-play, produced a compelling individual voice.

Five years on from Dr Dee, James Norcliffe has returned to the spotlight with an elaborately designed and colourful new book. A Kind of Kingdom comprises two major “sets” of recent poems. The first set was written in New Zealand, while the second set was written in Brunei Darussalam, the oil-rich sultanate where Norcliffe worked recently as a teacher. It follows on from Dr Dee but in a less convincing fashion. The volume is perhaps overly ambitious in size: more care could have been taken in the editing process to make it slightly smaller, tighter and more consistent.

The author does explain its large size, however, and its two parts, in the note to the poems:

Although clearly there is enough material here for two separate collections, and we did toy with this idea, it seemed that bringing together the two sets, written in different locations, was a more interesting concept, as certain of the themes, for example, dislocation and family, reach back and forth and inform each other.

While the idea is an interesting one, the decision to publish both sets has been only partially successful.
It seems to me that a number of the poems in this book could have remained undisturbed in the poet’s notebook; for instance, “Diabelli Variations” (a poem which is short enough to quote in full):

I love
this music
it laughs at
it mocks
I play it

This to me is nothing more than description. “cat city” is another poem that similarly fails to get beyond description, with images that appear to be random and disparate:

“I reject purple bathrooms with purple soap in them”
Donald Hall in The One Day

milk white cats of alabaster smile
smugly as the city traffic purrs by

from the tenth floor the river is a broad
brush of Milo and the lying shadow
tells how silent it is outside and how cold . . .

These poems are instructive because they point to some of the flaws in Norcliffe’s writing: they appear to be just lineated diary notes or unfinished sketches. While this is not necessarily a sin – some of our best poets, such as Alan Loney, consciously use this technique as a legitimate postmodern or semiotic approach – I feel that the images in “cat city” aren’t working in any useful or theoretical way.

It would be an injustice, however, to focus specifically on these poems alone, as the great majority of Norcliffe’s book is very good indeed. Some of the most successful poems are to be found in Section 2, “Disney Fingers”. A real strength in Norcliffe’s writing is his ability to portray the places and foreign locations he has visited. In this respect I particularly enjoyed “white mercedes”. Here, Norcliffe revives the effective and playful wit of Dr Dee:

I have been engaged
in a frequency count

so far I’ve counted
three white mercedes

although I may have seen
one white mercedes three times

suggesting I’m
being followed . . .

As with “the true story of soap” in Dr Dee, each part of “white mercedes” relates back to the title of the poem. The “white mercedes” then becomes a theme/metaphor running throughout the poem.

The fun of this poem “white mercedes” is well matched by some other strong poems in Section 2, which often include some memorable images and quick turns of phrase: “the bridge hangs across/ the river like a lace curtain/ drawn aside to greet a morning” (from “art lovers”). In “floating in the dead sea”, we find a return to Norcliffe’s cinematically stark, imagist-style:

in the black and white photograph
the soft sandy red hair I was too
soft to see incinerated is grey

he is on his back
feet to the camera
floating towards the horizon
toes upraised like a pianist’s fingers
before the final crashing chord.

The final image of “the crashing chord” adds an unexpected intensity to the scene.

I also found “in the food court” unusually appealing, with its enchanting atmosphere: “the power of love first falls/ like a powdery condiment / all over the grilled tiger prawns / in black pepper sauce”. Here Norcliffe delights by playing with that old cliché that “love is in the air”. Love moves through the food-court entering the “pin-striped shirts” and “button-down collars” of the diners, before finally filling the “whole room like a large bowl of fine blue china.” Then it fades once more from the room. The lasting effects of its presence, however, are revealed in the final stanza:

then with a dying burst of static
the music fades into shadows
and might never have been
were it not for the young woman
at the next table dabbing
a blood-red drip of tom yam
from the white shirt of her lover.

The other section of the book, “Sing Bing”, is in contrast to the exotic quality of Section 2. It consists of poems written in New Zealand, including “Ginger Stardust” and “Hang-gliders off Whitewash” which won prizes in the New Zealand Poetry Society’s International Poetry Competition in 1992 and 1993 respectively. There is also the poem “Paradigm Shift”, which was written for former Landfall poetry editor, Hugh Lauder. Some of the more interesting poems and sequences in this section are “longway from Waverly Station”, with its distinctly New Zealand presence (“the seeping mist / hanging white in / the crutch of the gully”); “attention having been drawn to the chin”, with its wit and absurdist humour; and “cat/dog”, with its darkly satiric and insinua-ting word-play.

Minor pedantic matters of craft/quality aside, A Kind of Kingdom is at times a very entertaining and rewarding collection. It should help to consolidate Norcliffe’s position as a New Zealand poet of increasing note.

Mark Pirie is a Wellington publisher, critic, anthologist and poet. His anthology of young New Zealand writing The NeXt Wave was reviewed in the December 1998 issue.

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