Fourteen Reasons for Writing
Hazard Press, $21.95,
It may not possess the weight of historical significance of The Kennedy Question, but I asked myself, “where were you when Kevin Ireland’s first book of poetry (Face to Face, Pegasus Press, 1963) appeared?” (Come to think of it, there is something of the sniper in his work, not so much inflicting a wound on history, but bursting the tyres on the motorcade of pomposity.) But where was I?
Somewhere in the darkest of dark Lincolnshire, writing a short story for a school magazine and as oblivious of New Zealand and any possible literature it might be generating as it is possible to be without being American.
There he is, on the back cover of Face to Face, fresh-faced, tousle-headed, tweed-jacketed and announced on the blurb as “one of the new generation of New Zealand writers”. There is an intro from Barry Crump, matey, on the edge of sneering, along the lines of, “what the hell would I know about poetry”, but this Kevin bloke is OK.
I sat down to read this book, so many years after the event and clogged with the history of the intervening years. Would this first book be connected to the man who stepped forward and read from Fourteen Reasons for Writing at the recent Books and Beyond Festival in Christchurch? (Is it the same tweed jacket?) Well, there is no true answer, even when wobbling over the stepping-stones of his other poetry books, with a short stopover in Literary Cartoons (1977) to get to this place. Why would I expect a clear progression from another writer that I could not find in myself?
Tracing a movement from the lampoons of Literary Cartoons to “Conversation with Sarah Quigley in a marquee” (in Fourteen Reasons) is probably a sterile exercise best left to somebody else’s thesis; so I have.
As somebody who likes guts, and probably a little blood, in my poetry, I can relate to the territory Ireland is hunting over in Fourteen Reasons. Perhaps it is dinosaur-like to have this requirement, but there is no relish for me in wandering amongst the tar-pits of esoterica. And this is not to dismiss this book as suitable only for the small-brained. There is much here to surprise, delight and intrigue. Above all, it is for me witty in a way that seems beyond the reach of other writers and possibly in a way that is unfashionable: to have real fun with the language.
For a broad-shouldered writer, he seems to specialise in the slim volume. Even with 63 pieces – some of them very short, but none slight – Fourteen Reasons is also slim. The look and feel of a book is part of the total experience, and Hazard Press maintains its usual high standards. However, the seemingly lightweight paper does allow some show-through of the succeeding poem; a minor gripe. The front cover, fourteen repetitions of the title on a black ground, is perhaps a little predictable. It may even suggest that you will only find fourteen poems inside. In the leap of time since Face to Face, the author stands four square on the back cover, mantled with honours and now referred to, deservedly, as “one of New Zealand’s best-known writers”.
It has been part of the experience of reviewing this book to hear Kevin Ireland read from it, not only at the Books and Beyond Festival poetry readings, but at the book’s Christchurch launch. In retrospect, this has been both a help and a hindrance. There is the poet’s voice, layering and interpreting the black marks on the page. There is also the poet expropriating the personal experience of the solitary reader. Like the film of the book, you may be disappointed that Bilbo is not like your internal expectation. But part of the value of a good poem is its ability to look good in all lights, to “add to the stock of available reality”, as a critic once said of John Berryman’s work. I perceive this to mean the poem not as a lens through which to view the world but as a fragment of another possible world. So I can read and hear the wry delivery of “An unforgettable day, … It was the most ordinary of days”, and the anger and pain of “A villanelle for Daisy” and gather the fragments of these possible worlds about me. But I won’t give too much away. Make the discovery yourself.
David Gregory is a Christchurch poet. His most recent collection is frame of mind (1999).