Carnival of New Zealand Creatures
Pemmican Press, $14.95,
I’ll Tell You This Much
Pemmican Press, $14.95,
Pemmican Press, $14.95,
Pemmican Press, $14.95,
The names at the top of this piece show that established Wellington writers are continuing to give Chris Orsman’s four-year-old Pemmican Press a vote of confidence. And, given that three of these books are new editions of 2000 publications, it seems that the readers are there too. These soft-covered volumes, with their restrained colour choices and, in one case, appealing illustrations, underline as they complement the careful effort of the writing process. There is something instinctively, even historically, right about reading a small collection of poems in a format that feels as close to the hand-reared article as you can get.
Lauris Edmond’s Carnival of New Zealand Creatures, originally written to accompany music composed by Dorothy Buchanan, is published here as stand-alone poetry, and I have approached it as such. Carnival is a text with some ambition: a New Zealand bestiary seen through a long lens. The lens is provided by five poems that reconstruct the geological creation of Aotearoa and place the central inventory of creatures (divided into “Ancients”, “Insects”, “Fish” and “Birds”) in a framework of loss and continuation that mixes history with the poet’s own more whimsical descriptions.
Edmond’s sympathy and inventiveness, her blend of sly wit and down-to-earth wisdom, throw up an engaging catalogue of conceits. Her tuatara is a “reptilian great-grandfather, / observing with heavy-lidded eye / the still old centuries passing by”; her weka a chatty domestic, “sweeping her brown / leaf-scented floor / opening the bush / like a kitchen door”; her flying fish an inspired show-off. The collection is sparked by Edmond’s singular capacity to identify with the natural world. While it recalls a piece like “The heat of summer” (from A Matter of Timing (1996)) – the cicadas “out doing their marvellous / rhythmic hysteria” – it abstracts from the scene the lyric response: “and I hear them. Hallelujah.”
As befits a bestiary, there are tightly told morality tales enfolded in a beat you can drum your fingers to; these pieces would appeal to children. And attenuated descriptions punctuated by Emily Dickinson-like dashes, which might not. Edmond experiments any number of ways with rhyme and half-rhyme, and with alliterative and onomatopoeic effects. Whereas variety is the point, I occasionally found the changes disconcerting, like a drop in poise, or thought a piece incompletely worked out; the ambitious ending of “praying mantis”, for example, appears tacked on.
What will stay is the pleasure of hearing again the accents, comic, fluid and various, of Edmond’s distinctive voice, pouncing on a domestic verb like “mooch” and attaching it to a red moki as she addresses the indigenous denizens, present and vanished, of our bush and coastlines.
In Carnival, the author remains in the background, dangling her creations on a string. In the other three collections, the authorial persona is to the fore as the writer engages with the traditional preoccupation of the lyric poet, self at a certain stage of life. In each case a manageable slice of work – around 30 pages of poetry – allows connections and continuities to emerge more readily than is often the case with a larger collection. Some of the same themes surface across collections. But it is the differences – of intention, approach, control, daring – that are more interesting, and three
strikingly unalike voices emerge.
I was told that Vincent O’Sullivan’s I’ll Tell You This Much was rushed to press, to become the first collection of poetry out in the new millennium. But the rush, if there was one, is obvious only as the rush of energy that characterises these 19 poems. O’Sullivan is in prime iconoclastic mode. And his poetic cast is diverse. There are Asian tourists harmlessly plying their chopsticks beside a picturesque lake – transformed into wetas with bamboo feelers. There is the man who would prefer to be a woman, but lacks the courage of “some titty joker who prances a levelled crotch / to the glitter of strobes”. There is the vicar whose “tongue lollies away” at a funeral. The satire swivels from the concrete and local severity of this to the sustained mock innocence of the ultimately not-so-bewildered narrator in “Poetry, oh yes!”. Even the Antarctic is implicated as the man with frosted jaws in “Love trek” imagines his oiled woman in the sun, “polar hints” in her daiquiri.
The most monstrous of these creations is Dr McCoy, academic composite, constructed from horrific academic – and other – puns, peddling her “Canonical clutter”; at which point in the poem we cut to one of O’Sullivan’s masterly and ferocious images, her “half-blinded, de-knackered cat called / Cyclops.” A major amount of the satire in this collection is reserved for an attack on the pretensions that accompany writing and writing about writing. But it is more serious than a send-up of affected surfaces and trendy wrong turnings. O’Sullivan is preoccupied with what is real, as in “the real McCoy”. And his need to explore is so urgent and multi-faceted that it launches him as poet-narrator into role after role, and spawns a bevy of tailor-made “friends” whose stances he can probe and explode, sometimes with delicacy and compassion, sometimes with a Swiftian ferocity.
The poems maintain an appealing and necessary balance between out-on-the-edge story and control over form. O’Sullivan frequently opts for a long Ashberian syntactic flow, the perfectly judged stresses of the conversational voice punctuated by tags that undercut or anchor. And the stage of life? High maturity. This is apparent in the persistent search for the real, and in the answers that the poems arrive at. Sometimes these simply acknowledge a co-presence, like the green lake painted blue by children who knew what they were doing (“The truth about realism”); or emerge, muted and moving, at the end of a poem: “Grass is saying that. That what happens / is also over, once memory seeds” (“And after that?”). Or they may spin like answering glints off the still bright back of a dead beetle: “It was alright being a beetle … there was nothing round here not actually done” (from the lovely opening poem “Right on”). O’Sullivan knows better than most what the real is, and is not, but he will, he can, only tell us this much.
The first poem in Vivienne Plumb’s Avalanche begins, “The journey is now within me”. The portentous feel of this is immediately deflated when the journey is likened to a tapeworm invading the writer’s gut, but the line signals a feature of the life Plumb serves up in Avalanche. In many ways this is a book of forays, close to home (Te Papa and the shops) and further away (Sydney, Italy), including the trip she doesn’t take with Oprah, and culminating in the journey that concludes the final poem sequence, an eleven-hour dash, Wellington to Auckland, on the Intercity.
Formally, many poems are animated by a journey-like dynamism. Plumb’s work is anchored in a detail that she selects like peaches from a box and strings into long shapely monologues which are held together by the never-miss-a-beat-rhythm of her conversational voice. The detail is always presented as commonplace, though it may be as unexpected as roundworm tablets, vomit bags and fake Jewish names. Sometimes the voice separates into two different roles playing against itself, or a stance just outside the poem: “all those men had little wifeys / that did the trick a real treat” (“On living by yourself and writing”); or it accommodates snatches of other voices. In “On using people you love in your poems”, a head-on dialogue swells into the inevitable conclusion, “i / know i love the poem more / fuck / you she says / than her.”
The best of Plumb’s endings pack this sort of punch. There is the elegant last line of “Tapeworm” and the warning image of a big fat finger tapping life’s goldfish tank in “The Tank”. A few pieces fail to deliver – the ending of “The Aroha Love Hotel” is just too expected; and “Frangipani” slips away from some arresting earlier lines. The title sequence begins with a fine first piece, a thoroughly contemporary meditation on death. This is fleshed out in subsequent sections that function like small, differently paced scenes. The reader is caught up in the drama and, in the penultimate section, the onward rush of a language that mirrors the Intercity in its momentum. But I had to re-read the sequence to feel (almost) sure of how to take the “you” of “ you and I” in the first section; and to revise ideas of who was visiting the oncologist – not entirely convinced that combing for clues was what I wanted to do.
In Plunge, Harry Ricketts looks back over his life from his own half-century. And comes up via a repertoire of autobiographical roles – toddler, boy, father, divorcee, husband again and friend – with a series of clear-eyed, funny, finely judged reflections. The first poem, “Plunge”, provides the blueprint for 50 years of life. The narrator as small boy looks down on a swimming pool, a blue faraway world, while his father waits for him to plunge in:
The water will hurt. My togs
are too big; they’re bound
to fall off. I’ll come a cropper.
When at last I make a decent splash,
he’s no longer around to see it.
In the second piece, “First Words”, Ricketts considers his own first words, learned from his Malay amah: “Nothing flash; / just enough for a toddler to get by”, sentiments that are taken up, and on, in most of the poems that follow. I liked, here and in other places, Ricketts’ oblique route into context: the overseas early childhood, summoned up by the amah and a telling juxtaposition of proper names, “Tate and Lyle” versus Tambun road, and the child’s internalisation of both. Ricketts’ credo seems to be that he will include nothing in his work that is out on a limb, stretches for effect or steps outside a persona that is rueful, modest and sometimes, especially in the poems for his children, tender. So that when he says his heart turns over, we can believe him.
The sentiments of “First Words” deepen, via a quietly persistent vocabulary of disappointments, disparities and deals, into the stronger meat of the moving poem “Dissolution”. For a time the phrase “playing, missing” (from “The Australians at Worcester, April 1961”, a fine poem reminiscent of Alan Ross) seems to sum it up. But all this is balanced by ways of keeping on, low-key rationalisations like “Nothing’s wasted; failure makes sense”, and by the comfortable locating of failure in common experience. There are echoes of Larkin – the poet’s undeluded gaze, his choice of topic (“Misfits” recalls “Dockery and Son”) – but the effect is entirely Ricketts’ own blend.
Plunge is shot through with a humour that ranges from the assured creation of comic situation, as in the affectionate final portrait “For Lauris”; through the metaphorical mileage to be made out of a litany of nautical phrases, starting with “Actually by now most of us / are wrecks” (“The Patrick O’Brien Syndrome”); to the preposterous yoking of “Working your testicles to the rim” and “Barbara Pym”, a limerick integrated into the thematic repertoire by its title, “Lost Things”.
A tonally rather different group of pieces adds a New Zealand holiday dimension and revises the theme of “playing, missing”. All end on a delicate upbeat note. From these poems emerges the memorable image connecting urban existence to beach holiday: “the sea / pouring endless flat-whites / all over the shore”. As prefigured in the title poem, the water has hurt, and the too-large togs have probably fallen off, but the plunge was taken. Ricketts’ book makes a more than decent splash.
Diana Bridge is a Wellington writer who has just returned from three years in Taiwan.