Islands of Intimacy, Love Poems 1970-2000
The Albatross is Dead: Sixty Sonnets
Hudson Cresset, $22.95,
Dark Out of Darkness
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
G J Melling
Bumper Books, $19.95,
A number of small presses and private individuals publish works that fill a particular niche in the literary market-place. Without publicity budgets to help them, these publications rely on a loyal readership to advertise their worth by word of mouth. The four volumes reviewed here fit that category. Together they make an interesting group.
Denys Trussell is perhaps the best known of the quartet, more because of an award-winning biography of A R D Fairburn, and a well-received study of the painter Alan Pearson, than because of his six volumes of verse. Islands of Intimacy, the latest offering, is a collection of love poems written over a 30-year span. He weaves poems with rhythm and musicality that owe something to his background as a classical pianist. Each line flows into the next, without effort.
Trussell addresses his beliefs over a wide front. In poems like “Landlocked”, for instance, he declares love to be multi-faceted: “As the many / weathers of itself / love shifts seasons / in you.” He is at his best when he is naming things, moving beyond conceptual love, to telling it how it is. In “The Poem of the Familiarities” he pins it all down to particulars:
I can see
in this moment
of a street tattooist
blue star just below
your elegant clavicle
As he sums it up: “It is here / that I am making / the poem of you.”
In an essay that closes Islands of Intimacy, Trussell writes with passion, believing intimacy has been removed from the erotic poetry of today. We are left, he believes, with nothing more than mechanics, a love alienated from nature. He looks into the poetry of the past to find where the natural world and the world of humanity parted company, and arrives at the great poems of Milton. Are there echoes of Milton in Islands of Intimacy? Perhaps not, but there are certainly Elizabethan echoes in the work of Peter Dane’s The Albatross is Dead.
Dane also uses the past to find a suitable vehicle for his poems of love. He settles for the sonnet, and because of his adherence to the form’s traditional metre and rhyme, his poems can have a stately resonance:
The candle which you lit while making love
Seeking to fill five senses to the full –
No Presbyterian tightness there, no dull
Restraint. Yes, I enjoyed to have you above
Me, or below…
These are not poems of celebration however. Love spurned is then lost. Dane, using the voice of a woman as narrator, finds love first awakening, then moving through gradual disillusion to its end. There are few surprises, yet Dane uses his strict form with skill, and it is the plain telling that appeals, an honesty that has no defensive ploys to fall back on: “True, having been abandoned then, I / wanted to be wanted. Now I see / It was your need, not love, that netted me.” At times, the narrator is speaking with the resignation of age, rather than gender. Some lines are just world-weary: “Of marriage. What is there to forgive? You’re fond / Of women, like them in your bed, and strive / To hide that from me …” The albatross is a classic image associated with suffering; but these sonnets suggest we have a choice in accepting such an omen’s presence and portent.
Dane was born in Berlin. That his sonnet-cycle should end with a rising note of hope is encouraging, and also counterpoints the dark vision of Guyon Neutze, who writes using a borrowed experience of largely Germanic origin.
Dark Out of Darkness is a sequence of poems that looks searchingly at the mid-20th century wars and holocausts. Neutze shows courage in attempting something on the scale of this performance, and in places the writing successfully calls attention to horror and helplessness:
One image strikes the corporate mind, and there!
A half-dead child, her arms out to a friend
takes up the whole heart’s room, for a while.
We go to the sites and weep there …
Illustrations throughout are the work of Jurgen Waibel, and bring to mind German expressionist woodcuts of the early 20th century.
There is, however, something unrelenting and in the end overwhelming about the vision, which distances rather than involves the reader. To write a long or even epic sequence, a poet has to draw on energy, humour, knowledge, characterisation, and a vast range of subtle options, to hold our attention, to gather us deeper into his vision. I suspect Neutze calls himself to account when on page 143 of Dark Out of Darkness he concedes: “Nothing will change till the words are stripped to bone, / and their first intensity recalled …” It takes a lot to rein in a justifiable anger so that it can be shared with the world.
One way in which serious issues can be shared is to seduce the reader through wordplay. G J Melling is able to do that in his mix of poems and short prose, b. 1943. Beat wisdom and the poetry of Roger McGough influence the work in Melling’s collection, which spans the years 1972 -1992. There is a badge of irreverence and enjoyment that is irresistible in his work, which does nothing to detract from his underlying seriousness. The short stories are about misfits, down-and-outs, individuals for whom the world has no time. “Banana Papers”, and also “Doughnuts”, arrive in their prose package direct from a world before the philosophies of the New Right or political correctness came into vogue, and are all the better for that.
Wit abounds in the poems also, as in “Jerry Rubin’s plastic machine gun”: “Toke / ‘n grati-tude / for in-sight / glow-coma”; or in “Finishing timbers”, where he uses language from his day job as an architect: “What it’s cracked-up / to be – a skirting / round the truth”. Melling is happy to show us that insight does not have to be heavy-handed. He has perhaps not developed his work beyond a vision of life formed some decades ago. Does that have to be a fault? While it may limit his audience, it does not limit the underlying truth of his words. He is willing to use his “bullshit detector” to confront some of the issues that the contemporary world regards as serious. b. 1943 is written with enjoyment, and deserves to be read the same way.
Each of these writers contributes to a New Zealand poetry that avoids the trap described by Ian Wedde in a recent New Zealand Listener interview: “I was bored out of my brain with irony. I was so tired of the distancing of so much contemporary writing, the patently dishonest flattening out of tone and the avoidance of big themes.” These poets have something to say, and, regardless of literary fashion, they are going to say it in the best way they can.
Pat White is a poet and painter who lives in the Wairarapa.