Moments of invention, Bill Sewell

The Stepmother Tree
James McNaughton
Darius Press, $14.95,
ISBN 0473078244

I don’t think there is such a thing as a “stepmother tree”.  My Shorter Oxford hasn’t heard of it anyway. But if a stepmother tree has never existed, then perhaps it should now, because emerging poet James McNaughton seems to have invented one. In his poem “The Good Neighbour”, he plays sinisterly on that perennial problem: the nuisance tree that overhangs a neighbour’s property. Only in this case it was a stepmother tree, and the neighbour was loath to complain because he wanted to be a good neighbour, even though the stepmothers “quiet[ly] cackl[ed] and plott[ed] … / as they hung, ripening by their humps” and “in autumn / they would fall into his yard, and curse him, and / point their bony fingers as he tried to rake them up.”

Literature has always had it in for stepmothers (viz the Brothers Grimm), and McNaughton’s conceit in this poem is a nice variation on the theme. We see him doing what he does best: being inventive, often in a surrealistic manner. There are several poems that operate in a similar mode. In “The Giant Finger”, a man on Wellington’s Mt Kau Kau observes a giant finger descend “from the blue”, its “deeply whorled tip [run] / carefully along ridges” and read “the hills like Braille”. In “William Tell”, the legendary Swiss hero is now a drunken grandfather who wants to repeat endlessly his trick with the crossbow and the apple on his son’s head. In “No Easy Way Home”, dedicated to “Norm Hewitt, gladiator”, the iconic Wellington hooker is mischievously compared with a bee (an allusion to his team’s yellow and black colours):

This muscled, banded bee is No Man.
Not for him the leviathan myth of a Jonah;
he is mortal, weary
with the struggle home – an Odysseus:
No Man, Norman, Everyman

beating into the wind, the heart
of a hurricane …


There is not only inventiveness in this and in other poems, but genuine wit that would go over well in live performance.

McNaughton’s method doesn’t always convince though. Too often he slides off into private fantasies that the reader cannot share. Dreams and surrealistic fugues can be all too seductive to poets, but if over-indulged they are in danger of becoming boring. I am baffled, for instance, by the continuing story of “the little tailor” that runs through three poems, and the macabre preoccupation with lepers in three others. In such pieces, McNaughton employs a fairytale, fable or parable format, which might be of interest to Jungian psychoanalysts, but as poems they simply do not deliver enough. They do not develop beyond the stage of the grotesque; their line-breaks seem entirely arbitrary; and they do not reward the reader with those startling juxtapositions of language or lyrical upbeats that are the stuff of true poetry.

It’s not as if McNaughton cannot do any of these things. He most certainly can. Here, to show how skilful and surprising he can be, are the four lines that conclude “Evening Arrival”:

A plane hovers high and safe
while another star falls softly

through acres of cool sea air.
Lucifer lands safely.


Bill Sewell is co-editor of New Zealand Books. 


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