Dialectic of Mud
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
The Whole Forest
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95,
Abstract Internal Furniture
Most New Zealand poetry is a private garden. The worlds of politics, work and society are largely ignored, as personal ideas, emotions and memories are cultivated and crafted. It is as if we close the front gate, get out the hoe and trowel and do our own thing. What is surprising is the number and variety of publications. Some are a oncer, a brief annual that doesn’t bloom again. But most published poets become a form of perennial, producing several volumes. It is a relatively safe prediction that Richard Reeve’s, Nick Williamson’s and Helen Rickerby’s first collections will be succeeded by others. I hope so.
Of the three, Reeve is much more aware of that wider world. Not that his poems are a celebration of it. Indeed, they are dark, dense and disturbing. The word “dialectic” conjures up weightiness, memories of long distant lectures about Hegel. Its combination with “mud” sounds intriguingly Kiwi-ish. In Australia it would probably have been dust. Reeve says in the blurb:
As any gardener knows, an experience with dirt can be such an experience with one’s own origins. Moreover, it is a sobering thought that one’s own flesh will at some stage revert to earth. Whether they concern themselves with the eel, the thug or the abattoir, these poems in some way try to disclose the hidden voice of mud or earth that speaks through the character and the subjects. Ultimately, they seek to find mud-meaning in the now which is every person’s own life. For me, this is to be found in an experience of place.
The gardener part appealed, but “mud-meaning” sounded rather, well, excessive. But the concept of mud as place intrigues. Before I began dipping I recalled a passage from a Margaret Atwood speech: “[The novel] cannot do without a conception of form and structure, true, but its roots are in the mud – part of that mud is history; and part of the history we’ve had.” Replace the concept of novel with poem, stir together place and history in terms of mud, and you have the likelihood of an engaging collection. Reeve did not disappoint. For some poets, words are means to an end. For others, they fascinate in how they sound, reverberate and mingle with other words. Reeve is in the word-magic camp. For example, a person being hung “splutters and deflates … flickers and withdraws.” This quality is a major strength but sometimes a disadvantage.
Reeve is a man of scholarship and ideas: “that emblem of the intellect / watching, as all the world it seems – / weeds or words – slips under the skin of the waves.” He’s at his best when the dialectic is called upon –
the harbour is a leaden necklace, wound through hills
in some secret seduction, unrecognisable to the small
who like me clamber up and down their streets: coiled
in a helix of indecipherable problems
– the interplay between language and the visible:
While there is verb, I will scrawl you
in the tense of flowers, the grammar of the earth
I will thread you into the physical
sew every yard with the language of memories.
Many of his shorter lyric pieces are successful, but in some of the longer pieces, the weight of adjectives is unhelpful, as in this example from the title poem:
from the forest bed heaved out in one blind ritual, neither
nor the absolute decay of animal death, itself effecting
always that incidental pulse
by which seasons flourish in the vacuole of language: tor-
oblique, rooted in the ground.
One feels one is wading through mangrove mud. That’s where Alfred Dommett had us last century – wrestling with similar issues but burdened by metaphysical intoxication and thick detail.
I feel more at ease with Nick Williamson – his father, sweating over “his lettuces, his tomatoes, his corn”, is more my era, my experience. I respond to and understand the feeling behind instant Rogan Josh from Pak’N Save served on a plate bought in India. Unlike Reeve’s large “meaning of existence” national park, these poems are “beautifully crafted” (Bernadette Hall’s words, but I agree entirely), compact plots of colour which invite you in. Splitting pine, Williamson can “smell the whole forest”. Character and place dominate. And each poem reflects careful, patient and loving toil. This garden has matured as planned. It is worth the entry money, as in “Making Love”:
We are past making children
but if we join together
we can make the stars
fall from the sky
Helen Rickerby is not my vintage, nor my gender. She doesn’t split pine to smell the whole world; instead she explores the interior interface between myth and reality. Not for her the density of Reeve or the satisfaction of Williamson: her poetic landscape is sparse, with a tantalising scenic emptiness. The back cover of her volume has a poem titled “Calling You Home”. It ends:
here is a rotting bridge
here a wall
but here is a door
and a place I call home
Most Kiwi homes have been surrounded by a garden, but that is now changing. Rickerby’s poems reflect this trend. Within her urban feminist home, she rearranges abstract internal furniture. This is an avant-garde, indoor garden full of strange images and intriguing ideas where things turn topsy-turvy. Lewis Carroll would have felt at home with so many doubts and disputations. A women is trapped inside a fairy tale. Orpheus busks in Cuba Mall. A character attempts to weave the mental furniture into a “gown of shimmering fabric”. Abetted by Maggie Grant’s photographs, the poems attract and distract with their apparent simplicity and complex conceptions:
I am the girl
who walks past you
on the street whose
see in the shop window and
as you turn your
like a witch in a rain storm
She tackles the same subject in a successful prose poem: “I seem to have lost my IDENTITY and you found it on the floor by your feet and so you picked it up and put it in your pocket with your car-keys so I became your girlfriend and hang on your arm and SMILE and meet your friends.” Indeed, identity is the recurrent theme. The sense of family or environmental history exhibited by Reeve and Williamson is absent. Intimacy is distanced, even in the birthday poem about daughter Chantelle. Rickerby picks and chooses her inheritance from sources other than Williamson’s.
The last sequence revolves around a persona called Theodora. This isn’t O’Sullivan’s confident Butcher. This is a “next wave” woman, thoughtful, sure and unsure, confident and uneasy. Theodora creates herself and is being created. She takes a “spare smile” out of the drawer and “glues it to her mouth”. She believes she is safe from fairy tales – “only having seen a wolf in the zoo”. Having leapt through the looking glass,
I am stuck here
where ever this is
whoever you are
Theodora escapes from herself at the movies, temporarily, for when the lights come up she “becomes aware she has a body”. She entertains death, his scythe leaning against the wall. His gifts when he arrived were chocolate, frankincense and myrrh.
The young poets who rebelled against the poetic establishment in the 1960s have been called swashbucklers. The present group has been labelled by Mark Pirie as the “NeXt Wave”. Rickerby is an exemplar. Some of her contemporaries are obscure. She is not. Her spare, interior garden is worth exploration. There are surprising vistas.
Harvey McQueen is a Wellington poet and reviewer.