Victoria University Press, $24.95,
The Adulterer’s Bible
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Both these collections of poetry come from recent graduates of Victoria University’s creative writing programme. The publisher is Victoria University Press. This might once have seemed a straightforward recognition that they were writing good poetry. However, Cliff Fell and Anna Livesey have had their work published at a time when Christchurch critic Patrick Evans has argued that this programme fosters a bland international style that overlooks New Zealand issues.
In these cases, at least, it’s hard to find evidence of any such cloned superficiality. Livesey and Fell write quite differently and they do have something to say. It is true that some of the lyrics in Anna Livesey’s Good Luck have a flavour of experimentation about them. Anyone who can write three poems about Te Papa is stretching the possibilities of poetry, and there is a hint of an exercise in her poems about paintings. Yet they work. Even in the simple short poem “Mind’s Eye”, in which she reverses the role of portrait and viewer, there is a subtle exchange between the eye in the portrait, the words in front of it, and the abstracted viewer, “the one whose gaze/slips across the paint”:
From my spy hole I can see you
clear as the words in front of me –
head on one side, brows
reaching towards each other.
You’re thinking about your love.
In “Marthe in the Bath”, there is the set-piece reflection on an art work, but done so well that the original inspiration seems irrelevant. While in “Towards the Camera” Livesey uses the image of a rough home-camera recording to muse on the frustrating indirectness and fragmentary character of memory:
I watched the whole video
for your shape
in the background
for the scene where you have a drink
the one where you cross the road
towards the camera.
Cliff Fell’s work also appears to reflect the opportunity that a writing course gives to play with perspectives and explore a variety of forms. This can be seen in his series of prose poems presented through the persona of the imagined writer Fidel Serif, allowing Fell to launch himself into a fantastic India of dreams and clairvoyants, in which the search for the lost word “love” echoes the bhakti path of religious and sensual ecstasy.
One could churlishly argue that this owes something to a writer like Borges with his Pierre Menard, the supposed author of the Quixote. But to do this would be to miss the flourish with which Fell plays with the notion of the quest and the mythology of alien geographies. Fidel Serif’s search “through lanes and birdcages, and libraries and forgotten, undeciphered alphabets” is filled with delicate exotica like the “Zaima, little pitch and reed canoe. On which she floated through the dawn, through shoals of tilapia feeding in the red water.”
All this florid meandering brings into relief the plain disclosures that mark the body of the collection, the poems that recall a series of adulterous meetings. These are at their best when they are most frankly devoted to particular moments: in the husband’s bed (“Like a Blind Man”); picking chanterelles on the way to meet her (“Chanterelles); hoping to see a glimpse of her beside a pool (“The Paths”); or in “Jazz Night at the Wild Goose”:
The red sand of Shaldon on her skirt
and the sea out in the bay
smooth and calm as snakeskin in the dark.
The accompanying pseudo-scholarly apparatus: the Adulterer’s Bible, the King James edition with the word “not” missing from the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery”; the opening interview with “Mr Adultery”; and a somewhat corny poem, “Gold”, with its reference to Rumpelstiltskin – all anticipate and provide a frame for the disclosures around the central relationship. These trimmings are fun, but it’s not easy to say how essential they are to the success of the collection.
In the poems that seem most directly declarative, when Fell simply recalls events, a sense of ironic difference can be maintained within the poem, rather than provided by the context. In “Chinese Checkers”, for instance, the moves on the checkers board become a metaphor for the “big move”, but Fell is able to get away with this apparently crass final image because the words are so clearly deliberate, rather than clumsy.
He likes to surprise. In the first poem in his “Ophelia” sequence, he gives the reader the lines:
turned to see what I’d ignored:
wrapped in a faded, torn kikoy, a wriggle
and her hopeless eyes staring into me:
and all of Africa’s anger and sex and wildness
were riding in there.
Ophelia turns out to be a baboon, “a six-week-old Monroe blonde”, bought with a dud cheque in a market. Their relationship has the physicality, tenderness and violence of a human encounter, though Fell can’t resist the odd far-fetched comparison. In “The Inner Child”, for instance, he entertains the conceit that Ophelia contains within her something of that same primal entity. Before this becomes too mawkish, the poem returns to the themes of death, betrayal, adultery and playing roles:
fearless because there was nothing to fear
but the death we both inhabited
laughing as we waited for the final act –
like I was her Player King
and she my player Queen.
This suppleness, a reluctance to be deadly earnest, makes each poem likely to yield an unpredictable pleasure. Sometimes Fell leads the reader down an autobiographical alley, as in his poem about his grandmother, “The Crack in the Mirror”, but shortly afterwards he is developing a brief fantasy about sleeping with the girlfriends of members of a rock group (“The Adulterer Becomes a Roadie for the Clash and Thinks of Sleeping with their Girlfriends”), before following this by stringing together a number of double entendres about raunchy literature and adding a half-serious suggestion that there needs to be a handbook about adultery, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“The Adulterer’s Emmanuelle”).
Though born and raised in England, Fell demonstrates in “Alive” that this does not disqualify him from writing about New Zealand. Anyone who has been a hill-country farmer will recognise the solitary exhilaration of following a fenceline and turning to see the valley below, where “somewhere beyond the manuka/the creek makes a low whicker/as though the soul of the valley was a horse.” The title The Adulterer’s Bible may, in fact, disguise the range of Fell’s work and the ease and perceptiveness with which he approaches his material.
Anna Livesey adopts a less personal, expansive approach in the two long poems that dominate her collection. Both “Napier” and “South Seas Analecta” are ambitious attempts to convey the texture of historical events by a confection of material that is largely “found” – drawn from contemporary sources and shaped by the poet. The first poem is based upon the 1931 Napier earthquake; the second explores the European penetration of the South Pacific. Such material can so easily be tedious or irritatingly whimsical but Livesey manages to avoid these faults. The poems, in fact, often strike hardest when material is embedded as though it is entirely commonplace and the reader becomes aware that this is what people were actually doing or saying. In “Cane”, for example, there is the simplicity of pidgin in the account of a labourer who is talking about a sugarcane farmer:
There was fire on the floor –
Wallace put Berracone foot in fire
And fire burn Berracone.
There are lists of goods and names, Acts of Parliament, a judge’s notes, phrenological observations of aboriginal skulls, the weary predictions of a colonial governor that Japan will soon take over New Zealand, an account of the choice of Potatau as the Maori King. The effect is cumulative and conveys the overwhelming force of colonialism, a wash of goods and alien needs – too much for anyone to resist.
“South Seas Analecta” only slips where Livesey moves from astute selection to what appear to be patches of moralising commentary, as in the final lines of “An Account of the Invasion of the South Pacific”: “Seventy years later firearms, alcohol and disease/had hammered away at this life/until it crumbled before them.”
“Napier” uses similar methods and also relies on the variety of voices to provide the richness. Within each section the reporting is often very simple, as though the force of the earthquake strips away any need to embellish. In “Captain, HMS Veronica”, the narrator tells how he stood in a trench in the road with two boys to give a sense of scale for a photo. The photographer himself in “Behind the Lens” remarks:
Outside the school, I stood still –
carried a stretcher
in front of me.
The transformation of Napier itself is conveyed best by “Before the Quake”, a litany of all the “befores” that the earthquake took away.
For all the skill with which Livesey assembles these longer poems, the most memorable pieces remain some of the shorter lyrics, such as ”Child”, “Last” and “Afterwards”. Here she is closer to her own experience, and the poems, though perhaps less obviously impressive, are more likely to deliver an image that lingers. Livesey won the 2003 Glen Schaeffer Award to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At 25, there is clearly more poetry to come, and it is the development of this personal voice that will be interesting to watch.
John Horrocks teaches in the School of Counselling, Psychology, Alcohol and Drug Studies at the Wellington Institute of Technology.
The Adulterer’s Bible won the 2004 New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) Award for Best First Book of Poetry.