Someone else’s life
Auckland University Press, $24.95,
Sudden Valley Press, $19.95,
How To Occupy Ourselves
David Howard and Fiona Pardington
Someone else’s life is a sort of selected poems: most are new, but there are also extracts from Kassabova’s previous collections, All Roads Lead to the Sea (1997) and Dismemberment (1998). For me, the earliest poems from “The immigrant cycle” are the highlight of the collection. They explore Kassabova’s trademark themes – distance, dispossession and displacement – with a concreteness and attention to detail that become increasingly rare in the later poems. “Security” is a vignette of a family’s nightly routine:
After the long day
My father locks the doors
The blinds on the windows
He locks out the voice of the wind
The question of yesterday
My mother turns off every light
In every room, in every cupboard
She turns off the TV
The red light of the heart flashing
The last star
In this forever foreign sky
And carefully they lie in bed
Listening to the sound
of growing children
The mother’s and father’s obsessive concern with household objects shows the unsettled nature of their internal lives. The plain language suits the dignity of the poem. The image of the TV light as an electronic heart is rich and suggestive – a heart is at the centre of things, but this heart is make-believe, can be switched on and off, is probably more accessible to the children than to the parents, and so on. Unfortunately, the reader never has a chance to take the TV light/heart image seriously – in the next line it becomes a star, bleeding significance from the metaphor. Poetry may be “made up”, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. The whole delicate edifice of metaphor and meaning rests on the reader trusting the truth of the author’s voice. I found my trust wavering as Kassabova kept changing the rules.
In “Calculations”, “The fire that lights a candle/cannot be shared between the wick/and the match, it has to be given/like a life”. But in the real world, a candle and the match that lit it can be alight at the same time. The poem ends with the moving lines “May you never recover/ from the lightness of my touch”, but my mind is still wandering around with that lit match, distracted by the poet’s imprecision. It’s not that poetry should always conform to the laws of logic or physics, but nothing is really at stake in the poem if every object and image is endlessly mutable; they cease to carry weight.
The other persistent irritant in these poems is Kassabova’s “voice-over” effect. The sky in “Security” is “forever foreign” – an unnecessary nudge to the reader, given the strength of the rest of the poem. Another example of this tendency is “The complete circle”, whose second stanza runs:
I dream of gutted, lit-up buildings
in troubled cities of the world
that are everywhere and nowhere.
It is twilight,
I am looking for a place to live.
Dogs watch from the shadows.
I wake up homeless.
Clearly, here, the summary line is a deliberate technique. But the sense of homelessness is much sharper in “I am looking for a place to live./Dogs watch from the shadows” than in the word “homeless” itself. Kassabova’s writing can be focused and evocative. She doesn’t need the voice-overs. Lines like
The cicadas came out after
their immeasurable hibernation
Mated for twenty four hours
and died with great ferocity.
We found them along the path
Their wings elaborate and hard
Their bellies iridescent
Their death abrupt and glorious
bring the reader face to face with emotion and experience, without the poet stepping in as explicator. There are moments of emotional power and lyrical beauty in this book, but many poems need more ruthlessness from their author. “Words,” Kassabova says in “Refugees”, “can cut out gaps in us/so wide we’d find/too many bodies lying there”. Yes, they can. But only if the blade is sharp.
James Norcliffe also works with a blunt blade. There are some interesting ideas and nice observations, but overall Rat Tickling is prosey and often prosaic, repeating the same tone and set of tricks. Reading the book, I began to feel as if any stanza from any poem could be lifted out and put in another poem without causing a serious disruption of tone or language. Topics as disparate as a former history teacher, Bornean wooden disease fetishes and the tango are all treated with the same prosey syntax and flat, declarative tone. Many poems are in the past tense, which doesn’t alleviate the feeling of being told a series of mildly interesting anecdotes, rather than being offered the crafted, intense images and language of poetry.
Reading Rat Tickling I had a strong urge to get out my red pen and cross out conjunctions, prepositions and articles – particularly “and”. Take the beginning of “Pacific Cement”:
the bag split open on the back
of a Nissan Atlas pickup truck
talc smooth and grey splayed
over the grooves of the steel deck
scraped up by a square-mouthed
shovel and mixed with premix
and water to a mulligatawny slurry
that will set to a greywacke hardness
and fix the posts in their rigidity
to carry the rail to bear the pickets
The first two couplets are crisp and descriptive, but the poem’s energy is sucked away into the compound sentence that rolls past with the monotonous rocking action of a long train. In “At Franz Josef”, Norcliffe describes the glacier:
the heart of the glacier
is as hard cold and blue
as a carefully carried memory
ruthless and perfect
Would the stanza lose anything if it were “the heart of the glacier/hard and blue/ as a memory”? Surely “cold” is extraneous for a glacier? A reader can extract a sense of ruthlessness and perfection from a great wall of ice moving implacably forward, without having it spelled out.
The poems in Rat Tickling fail to challenge. Meaning and language are spoon-fed in easy, expected combinations. I think we can legitimately expect more from a writer the cover blurb describes as “one of New Zealand’s leading poets”.
How To Occupy Ourselves combines poetry and photography in one book. The poems and photographs partake of the same qualities: spare, elegant, detailed and evocative. Howard’s poems remind me of flipping through a photo album. The movement from image to image is not necessarily linear or logical, but there is a story in it. And even when Howard is being weird, he is not wilful; conversely, the domestic, in his hands, is not humdrum. The opening section of “Yonder” offers a good example of the kind of associative image-making Howard specialises in:
Family snaps in leatherette albums prove
‘nothing lasts forever’ (thanks Mum) as shadows
crawl on their stomachs, the sun
sinks in the West you never won. Looming
into the tedium waiters understand
the way nostrils understand incense, you
drop your glasses onto Carrara marble
polished by butcher’s cheesecloth.
Bees boil your Siberian crab-apple as a bellbird
curtsies its branches. You yell
Gidday to the red dress next door: she
fumbles her keys. Her tongue is dry
like a thornbush after the nor’wester
and her glare invents the end.
Each image gets enough attention and detail to form as a reality in the reader’s mind. At the same time, Howard is not afraid to add a little twist to heighten the tone with more abstract ideas like “the West you never won”, or a glare that “invents the end”. The knotty music of “nostrils understand incense,” or “glasses onto Carrara marble/polished by butcher’s cheesecloth,” grounds the poem so that the directive nudges to the reader don’t feel over-done.
Some of the poems in How to Occupy Ourselves exploit typography as well as language. “There You Go” moves across the page in a zigzag that reflects the continuous movement of the poem’s attention. Others, like “Home Comforts”, are two poems with their lines interleaved, one in plain script and one in italics:
we see only objects, not light
let the light into a room too long
shuttered like an out-house
interior oracular fire: you must burn in order to become
the only one in the red room who knows
how to blush, you know
another: nostalgia for the emotion of the moment
The poems can be read separately or together. This technique demonstrates an admirable facility and dedication, but the cleverness, and the need for everything to “make sense” at least two ways leaches some of the energy from this work – beautifully crafted as they are, these dual poems feel emptier, more cerebral and less immediate than Howard’s simpler work.
Language and craft are important to Howard, but so are ideas. Questions about spirituality, morality and the human place in the world circulate throughout the poems. I enjoy this sense of seriousness in Howard’s work – “you/do not/receive/each second/as of right, you/purchase it/with words” he says in “There You Go”. This is not merely a case of making a statement because it sounds good – Howard’s poems map a mind grappling with the rights and duties of existence, with the question of how best to occupy itself.
Sometimes the desire to communicate can become a little overwhelming. The majority of the poems have an epigraph – usually a line of poetry or a song lyric or a bible quotation. I think for the most part the poems are strong enough to stand on their own without this little gloss at the top. “(A Rebuke to Kai Jensen)” starts with six lines of Fiona Pardington’s prose about sexuality and feminism; this, and the title, give the poem a strange “letter to the editor” feel.
The series “the Carrion Flower”, set in Prague in 1941, is interesting. The poems are linguistically well crafted, but again there is a sense of distance from the subject, perhaps created by the very skill with which Howard manipulates language. The poems have a polished beauty that is not entirely convincing coming from Antonin Sedlacek, a Czech game-keeper, or Reinhard Heydrich, SS Leader of Occupied Czechoslovakia.
Howard, I think, is most effective in the terrain the poems and photographs share: the small scale that reflects and refracts larger issues. “Lawyer’s Point”, perhaps my favourite of all the poems in these books, speaks for itself:
Incense conquering air, a widower’s gesture
before the Virgin’s image – unbelievable
how ritual animates this house.
I peel garlic cloves so, stir the vinaigrette anti-
clockwise thirteen times. Perfect.
I’ve been here before. My window
opens onto the bronzed seaboard
cliché. As eggs cackle in the pan I hum
Automatic love is all I want …
Casually it happens, casually
because there is no other way;
for as long as ‘as long as’ lasts
forget-me-nots fill the vase on the sill.
Anna Livesey is Schaeffer Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book of poems, Good Luck, was published last year by Victoria University Press.