Auckland University Press, $21.95,
Sudden Valley Press, $16.95,
The first time I read these two books, I read fast to find out whether I would want to read them in more detail. And then came the kind of reading I most enjoy: I would open one of the books while having smoko, say, and read one or two poems, usually enjoying them; sometimes applauding, the hair on the back of my neck rising in excitement; sometimes left puzzled by a syntactical quirk, or an overly literary image. And then I read both, completely and slowly, while taking notes for this review.
I mention these ways of reading because I do not believe that the meanings of a poem are simply dependent on a reader (or for that matter on the intention of the author), because the reader’s interpretation may be quite wrong. This is especially so if they have a tendency, like I do, to read in terms of a theory. But, luckily, I have no desire to be one of the new moralists (just like the old ones), who take up their blunderbusses of theory made over from Lacan, Heidegger, Adorno, Kristeva, Spivak, Lukacs, et al (whatever their merits, and sometimes they are considerable), and aim them at some poor naked poem that ends up quivering somewhere in the thickets of their interpretations. I believe the theorist (or reviewer) should first read the poem in terms of itself before reaching for their usually laughable interventions of theory, because when they don’t, they usually miss whatever pleasures are on offer. (I suppose, for instance, it’s possible to read Paradise Lost as a light musical comedy written by a closet gay, but only at a degree of distortion that would astonish even the most “playful” of contemporary theorists.)
Of course, while interpreting the words of a poem, willy-nilly, any reader does bring assumptions to their reading. But one of the pleasures of reading is to have those assumptions challenged. Thus it becomes any reader to pay attention to the words as found in the poem itself, modestly recognising that any reading is provisional. Because like the world, the words of a poem are there, implying their own meaning. So allowing for my inevitable distortions, what pleasures did I find in these two books?
The front cover of Valparaiso, Bob Orr’s sixth book of poems, is a black-and-white and blurred photograph of a jetty running out to the sea and sky beside a dark headland with trees, and, to me, it conveyed a sense that Orr would be dealing with something old but which is moving somewhere else. And then there’s the back cover photo of Orr (a face half in shadow, with well-defined lines on the forehead that convey puzzlement rather than worry, and the beginnings of a guarded smile), along with the author’s note that Valparaiso is “as much a place of the imagination as an actual seaport”, which “evokes the mystery and wonder of the Pacific”. Thus I was tempted to think that the poems would be merely those of a poet as witness to his experience, their language that of a personal voice. But as I discovered, the book as a whole is far subtler than a simple recording of someone’s life experiences. The poems are poems first, even if they originated in Orr’s life.
Valparaiso is divided into three interconnecting sections entitled “Mending Nets”, “Poppies and Paspalam”, and “I Have Seen the Gods Gathering”. It seems to me that each succeeding section builds on the previous one. So the first introduces the reader to some of Orr’s preoccupations – with literature, with the sea and ports, with his past; the second deals with his childhood on a Waikato farm; and the last, and most successful section, opens out into a voyage to the heart, Orr’s and the reader’s. One indication of the book’s movement can be gauged from the way references to Orr’s favourite poets, artists, and musicians (his canon, if you like) fall away from the poems, and the term heart becomes central. In a poem from the first section, “Return to the Sun”, which is concerned with John Coltrane, the poet implores him to “Lead every soul back to the promised land of themselves”. In other words, throughout the book, there’s a search for an impossible purity, which leads to a recognition of human tenderness and pity. Thus, in the poem “Cargo” from the third section, there are these lines:
But you alone will lift the hatches from my heart
(a rust-coloured ship tired of wandering)
and from its hold take tenderly
for which I have already paid all duty.
Or, as in “Sword Fish … Far Hotel”, there’s the implied identification with the moment of death of a swordfish that is subsequently used as a bar-room trophy.
There are many fine poems in Valparaiso, such as “Bali”, “Pasternak’s Angel”, “Have You Ever Been to Thailand?”, “An Elephant on K Rd”, “The Tyre Shop”, “Cargo”, and “Barbara”. Their simplicities of language are deceptive and surprising, as in, for instance, the opening lines of “Once I Felt the Summer Breeze”. But for me, the last poem in the book, “Squid”, is the best of them all. It is one of the finest lyric poems I have read, partly because it gathers together many of Orr’s preoccupations throughout the book, partly because his voice becomes also that of a Japanese sailor, partly because the title reminds me that squid escape by disappearing in a cloud of ink. Here’s the second half of the poem:
I catch squid for a living.
The veins of my arm
stretch across the Pacific
like a thin nylon line.
I like to watch dolphins
as they move through the waves
like the shining verses
black and beautiful
of an ancient rime.
What happens in the world
is mostly beyond me
but on the horizon
I have seen
the gods gathering.
The front cover image of Tony Beyer’s book Human Scale is taken from Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture, and it’s a scale drawing of four Greco-Roman columns supporting a lintel. The image is sober and exact (though the tops of the columns are decorated with what could be taken as palm tree fronds), and it brings to my mind the ideas of proportion and dignity, the scales of judgement, and the protective scales found on lizards and reptiles.
And while there’s no image of the poet on the cover, as I read the poems, I imagined him to be a middle-class man around 50 years old, who is urbane, intelligent, cautious maybe, observant of small detail, often witty in a melancholy way, and like the mature person I sometimes think I am. So we find the wisdom of the last two stanzas of “Lasting”, a poem concerning married love:
what was real to us then
as opposed perhaps
to what was true
is real now
the daily small purposes
that pieced together
one on one
became the longer view
Or the amused detachment of these lines from “Bread and Stones”:
this time the doctrine
from the desert
is considered and dismissed
without prejudice or violence
and the prophet advised
to get a shave and a job
As in Orr’s work, the voice of the poems is personal, but rather than bearing witness, it is meditating on a changing world, often in forms similar to haiku. But unlike Orr, Beyer has a more developed awareness of how language mediates between the world and us (“the beautiful / visual simplicity / of accommodation for the blind”).
As it happens, I prefer Beyer’s previous book, The Century, to this one. And from time to time, I was left puzzled by a poem – such as “Persimmons”, where the syntax in the middle simply eludes me. But there are more than enough successful poems in Human Scale – such as “Mrs Caddie’s House”, “Threes”, “Empirical Travel”, “First Person”, “Bread and Stones”, and “Nor’wester in the Cemetery” (a meditation on the William Sutton painting) – to make it a pleasure to read. So I finish with this, the wry, almost exasperated humour of “Sounds Normal”, the seventh poem from “Mt Eden Suite”:
the kind of music
that sounds like a car accident
at 2 am
and the usually
perfectly nice neighbours
cackling and shagging about
on their patio
this with the addition of stench
is what eternity will be like
overcrowding and infill
at the cemetery
then the bonhomie
of the damned swapping sin stories
without the body
as a measure of veracity
My sentiments exactly, except that Tony Beyer wrote them first.
John Dickson is a Dunedin poet.