Through his Wellington HeadworX publishing house Mark Pirie has become something of a phenomenon in recent years with a list, mainly of poetry, that extends already to 20 or so titles. Many of these have been substantial collections and handsomely produced: I think particularly of Harvey McQueen’s Pigandy and Stephen Oliver’s Night of Warehouses. Furthermore, Pirie has been nothing if not catholic in his selection of poets. He has published the conventional and the experimental, the polished and the raw. Whatever the style, Pirie has generally been astute in his selections and his production standards have been exemplary. So it is with these new offerings from the press. On the surface, they are all quite different, the collected works of the late Simon Williamson, a first collection by Tim Jones, and a long postmodernish verse narrative-cum-meditation by Jack Ross. What they have in common is a theme of self-reference: romantically in Simon Williamson, fastidiously in Tim Jones, and cleverly and wittily in Jack Ross.
Some years ago a novel by John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, became an international best seller, a best seller not only because of the book’s undeniable merits but almost certainly because of the story behind the book. Toole had attempted umpteen times without success to get his book published. He committed suicide in 1969 in despair. He was 32. His mother, a woman with an indefatigable belief in her son’s talent, begged the great novelist Walker Percy to read a smudged carbon copy of the manuscript and reluctantly he did so. The rest is history. Today Toole’s novel is regarded as a comic masterpiece, a masterpiece always darkened by the penumbra of what might have been. Like the poetry of Keats or Chatterton, or in our own time and place perhaps by the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, “another of those poor buggers who gets discovered when they’re dead”.
So, Storyteller. Like Toole, and at almost the same age, Simon Williamson took his own life (he was 31). In life, Williamson had somewhat more literary success, leaving behind a considerable body of poetry written between 1988 and 1999. By all accounts, too, Simon Williamson was an entertaining reader of his own work, and much in the book has that written-for-the-ear-not-the-page air about it. I never heard him read in public, although once, 10 years or so ago, when I was editing the poetry for Takahe with Bernadette Hall, I did telephone him. Simon had sent us a number of poems (handwritten, I seem to recall) which had a great deal of energy and imaginative flair but were in need of some editorial work if they were to be published. Much to my relief I discovered that he wasn’t at all precious about his work and happily agreed to submit to our amendments.
I imagine Mark Pirie, given Simon Williamson’s prolific output, (the book includes just over 300 poems and more than two-thirds of these were produced in his last five years) was faced with the decision of publishing either a “best of” collection, a judicious selection of his most successful poems, or a “warts and all” collection, which included everything: the published work, the unpublished work, the squibs and the occasional pieces. Pirie decided on the second option, and his doing so, I feel, gives us the key to the book.
The name of the book is instructive. Storyteller. Ostensibly, it comes from the opening poem “tell us a story storyteller”, a Beat-influenced piece in which Williamson responds as “storyteller” to the request “to tell us a story” in a kind of poetic credo. Williamson sees himself as a “storyteller” here, and in the context of the book as a whole as a poet carrying on the tradition of his musical and poetic heroes, a pantheon including (among many others) Kerouac, Baxter, Tuwhare, Eric Clapton, Jim Morrison, and Apirana Taylor.
The poems are relentlessly first person. The story is that of Williamson’s day-to-day existence: his loves, hates, obsessions, ambitions, friends, habits, dog – above all his romantic, albeit at times self-deprecating, view of himself as a poet, a storyteller of his time:
& I am seriously considering
donating a sea sponge
used by Keri Hulme
& a condom made of flax
used by Baxter at Jerusalem
to the new museum
& of course
I will give them this pen
which scribed this masterpiece
(“Katherine Mansfield’s Shrine”)
In short, the book is best read, I feel, as a verse memoir, a rich and no-holds-barred self-portrait of an original voice: naïve at times, self-indulgent at other times, but authentic nonetheless and ultimately fascinating. Sometimes the jokes fall flat but at other times he can be very funny; sometimes cheaply sentimental but at times darkly passionate. His embracing of Maoritanga is sustained and genuine.
The question must be asked whether Pirie has done a service to Williamson’s memory by publishing such a complete collection, especially given Williamson’s view of himself as a poet. If judged by the poetry alone, the answer must be no. Much of the poetry is merely occasional, there is a lot of political posturing and flag-waving, and some of the pieces are simply dire (“Princess Di”). There are, moreover, grammatical solecisms, and a lot of mere notebook jottings. However, all of the above are a vital part of the portrait. They are the necessary “warts”.
In one poem “Kiwi Poet’s Pub”, one of many poetic desiderata, Williamson asks to be granted a poem published in Sport. Another poem, “Landfall”, ends:
take a look Dad at your boy
he is a man
and my words will stand at the granite source of the
world of men
or at least
I will be published in Landfall.
It wasn’t given to Simon Williamson to be published in either Sport or Landfall. He would, however, have been delighted by this book, which fact gives the book itself another frisson.
An American editor of a literary journal warns contributors not to indulge in “relativism”. He is not being philosophical; he merely dislikes poems about relatives. Tim Jones is not so coy. Many of the poems in this attractive volume, especially in the first section, deal with the experiences of his family as first generation immigrants in the deep south of New Zealand. The ambivalent business of being creatures of two worlds is a common enough theme in our literature (I think particularly of Peter Bland and “Paper Boats”), and Tim Jones handles it in an open-eyed and sensitive manner. I prefer his picture of his mother in “Gore Housewives’ Choice”, which ends with some bitterness (“Gore Housewives’ Choice:/Nothing, or nothing at all.”), to that of his father in “Stones”, whose concluding image, if taken literally, is rather grotesque:
look far beyond the frame I gave him.
Shadowed from the sun, impassive,
they are skipping over the years,
walking the waves to England.
The second section is “relativism” again with a series of poems largely focused on Tim Jones in Wellington as a young father, the voice wry and tender. The final two sections largely leave the first person behind and launch into the gently fantastic. The poems here work by exploiting offbeat juxtapositions (Lenin and Trotsky, for example, drinking Black Mac and Export) and are at once political and humorous, but the humour and politics are both subtle and light.
Typical, in their wit and authority, are the final four lines of the twelve line “Pastoral”, perhaps my favourite:
Voices in darkness
shapes on the hillside:
the lion, the lamb
kissing long and slow and hard.
Wit and authority also characterise Jack Ross’s Chantal’s Book. To fascinating effect Ross mixes poetry, prose, quotation, commentary, and “found” language to chart a love affair with the eponymous Chantal. Despite the title, Chantal herself remains a shadowy figure, the object not the subject. The surface narrative takes us through a courtship of sorts to, in the second section, “Lessons of the Genji”, a somewhat bouncy journey through the holiday spots of the South Island with a jaundiced look at the Gathering.
But the book is really Jack Ross’s book, and its fascination, as with Storyteller, lies in the picture we get of its author. He is a literary magpie, gathering together his shiny objects with a remarkable eclecticism: in the final 10 pages alone we get Tolkien, Dr Seuss, Lady Murasaki, Leonard Cohen, Cordwainer Smith, Bunan, Henry Thoreau, and Raymond Carver. Ross is erudite: we have Latin, German, Spanish, Italian, French, and Kiwi Vernacular – although to be fair he is kind enough to translate the most intractable of these. He is ever inventive, experimental and self-referential in the best postmodern manner, finding language everywhere – in conversation, on walls, on street signs, in books – and layering and re-contextualising it with an obvious relish. Smart and self-aware, confident and searching, Chantal’s Book is a protean and highly entertaining ride. It’s also, despite itself, a sweetly tender love poem.
James Norcliffe is a Christchurch poet.