Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty
Auckland University Press, $22.00,
Afternoon of an Evening Train
Victoria University Press, $21.99,
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
Voice Carried My Family
Auckland University Press, $21.99,
A rather daunting clutch of substantial collections by established poets. Their reputations are not easily put aside, especially when Brian Turner wears the hardback livery of the Te Mata Poet Laureate series, and Hone Tuwhare muses impishly “On Becoming an Icon (!)” And there’s the matter of what to leave out – any one of them would amply furnish a full-length review, so plainly something has to go.
All these poets have polished their craft in the rich and liberal eclecticism of the later 20th century. The successive waves of modernism and postmodernism rose, hardened into orthodoxy, and broke, leaving behind a great accumulation of possibilities, and an enduring imperative to play among them, choosing and discarding. Expansive playfulness dominates the work of Wedde and O’Brien, the most alike of the group. They favour longer lines (often in flexible couplets, which Sullivan also uses), the longer poem (they both rehabilitate the ode), and an ample, discursive poetic.
Though they speak in subtly heightened variations on “ordinary speech”, O’Brien and Wedde can be difficult, unsurprisingly as they tackle big, challenging ideas – beauty, the sublime, memory, time, art and life. Their voices are distinctive. Wedde is engagingly fierce in his pursuit of precision, O’Brien more patiently reflective. They share a postmodern textual self-awareness, which Wedde focuses specifically upon language. The “Three Regrets” sequence includes a disarming and crafty reflection on the artifice of poetry, which will “mimic ordinary speech/so well, you won’t tell the difference//even though ordinary speech would never say/something like that.” He lays bare his own devices: “ordinary speech doesn’t have the cunning/to trapeze round the end of a line of poetry/stranding ‘or’ on the other side of the hyper-dramatic line” – which is of course what he has just done.
Meanwhile other strands – epiphanies, scraps of story, allusions to artists in many ages and media – are spun into an intricate reflection on how life should be lived. This is always Wedde’s concern, anchored in sensory particulars, argued assertively, proclaimed vigorously. In “Letter to Peter McLeavey”, the “aging poet in search of beauty” declares his rhetorical method: “Exegetic, discursive, polemic:/this is how I’ll shape my poem.” His verse is minutely crafted (witness the tactically stranded “or”), an intricate play of regularity against variation.
O’Brien’s textual awareness is less concerned with language itself, more with modes of discourse and frames of reference – history, music, geography, art – which he deftly elides, smoothing conceptual complexity and surreal transitions. There is an extended “Ode to Art History”, and all manner of media – paintings, photos, film footage, maps – figure as ways of seeing and understanding: Waiheke is viewed through “the stammering footage/of the black and white/ harbour, gulls/like opening credits over/Matiatia Bay.” The processes of perception are O’Brien’s persistent subject, reflected in his rhetorical framework, in which plain statement and metaphor overlap and coalesce – “A lizard running down a stone wall/ran back up. This year became that/year” – and scale becomes radically mutable. The tiny lyric “Menton” is a compact instance:
The morning a leaf
from the orange festival tree
she rotated her reflection
in a mirror
that also served as
a tray, her hairpin
a small boat
O’Brien moves at his trademark casual pace between topics and frames of reference. The complex, elusive tone seems to echo the classical models of his odes, in which often homely things (the chair, sleep) and places (Waihi Beach dump, Wellington’s sewers) are elevated with a mixture of curiosity, respect and a muted irony.
If the rigour in O’Brien’s design effaces itself, Wedde’s verse practises on us the reverse deception. Brisker, bonier, his energetic lines impart an air of rigour to a subjective architecture of ideas. “A hymn to Beauty: Days of a Year” is a dazzling long poem. It moves assuredly across time and space, shifting rhetorical modes, addressing and invoking figures from history, and high and low culture from Abba to Schoenberg, William Morris to Ursula Andress, and a stylistic echo of Frank O’Hara. It recycles occasional lines in fresh contexts, more sparingly than The Commonplace Odes, but I think more effectively, wryly challenging the arrogant fiction of the mot juste and edging epiphanies with echoic irony.
There’s a kind of splendour in Wedde – the poems leave a Byzantine after-image of intense colours and intricate architecture, even when they are about sailing under local skies. O’Brien’s architecture is more vernacular, his colours the subdued earth palette he uses in the dust jacket paintings of this handsome volume. The cover images delineate objects – flowers, vessels, maps, a lamp, a window – but colour and line conspire to flatten them into an intricate plane. Figure and ground, depiction and abstraction, two and three dimensions, jostle in a complex conversation mimicking the perceptual intricacies of the verse.
In “Solomon” Wedde explores physical passion with a robust fusion of explicitness and lyricism: “the bathwater blurred her purple/and elaborate cunt, a burst/sea-urchin, acrid and nourishing.” Hone Tuwhare too gives us lyricism and voluptuousness, as he exults in erotic and other physical pleasures. The beautiful and lascivious cover image of a mussel with just-parted lips catches exactly the tone of this volume.
Intermittently we hear vintage Tuwhare here, bold, luminous, tender and engaging. He tells a swallow, “My hope is as big/as the gulp of my heart for your returning”. He tells his beloved, “I am buttoning up/the buttons of my/mouth; and now/with only one to/go – I’m whistling you a love-song”. The prose poem “Caretaker’s report from Tomarata Estate” has humour (a “workshop” of pines “talking past each other in loud voices”), delicate observations of creatures and a sure sense of place. The prose rhythms are exquisitely sure-footed. The same ear and vision are at work in a poised, punchy verse meditation upon time and ageing, “Time is my blue & red tea-pot”. Then there are persuasive ventures into jazz rhythms in poems about music, and many a fine line and image.
But often the sexual or scatological details defy us to be offended, without offering countervailing worth so we are not bored, or repelled, by the haemorrhoids and farts. A sampling of titles: “My mind meanders because I hate to shift my Maori arse to concoct a menu, à la Maori”; “A ‘piss-up’ pome”; “Well … (thoughts on one’s immortality?!) by a socialist-minded rebel & Marxist”; “Let me rest my head on your fat belly, hine/feel/sniff you up —oops!”. And so on. The vieux terrible pose can be sustained for only so long before it loses its power to shock, a tired poetic currency anyway.
I have more serious reservations about this collection. Many of the poems read like drafts, and others cry out for editorial attention. Editors can’t resolve drafts into poems, but they know their punctuation. Poets can omit punctuation, substituting line breaks for commas and the like; but they can’t make a punctuation mark do anything but signal the same combination of pause and inflection that it does in prose. An inappropriate comma will create nonsense in poetry or prose; and most of these poems (were the others edited for earlier publication?) are heavily over-punctuated with marks that trip and baffle the reader. Morphology is often astray too: “I prefer much, the word, ‘opportunely’, to, ‘opportunistic’?” But the words are not synonyms, and exposure like this is unworthy of Tuwhare’s talent and reputation.
Brian Turner has developed a poetic persona with a wide appeal – the Southern Man meets the bookish New-Age bloke. Like Tuwhare, he asserts the right to be lyrical without ceasing to be a bloke, and the right to be blokey without betraying the lyricism. Battles won and forgotten, I’d have thought; but Turner can make them compelling because he is an acute observer of human ways as well as the southern landscape.
I want to say that he is a traditional – that is modernist – lyric poet, without invoking negative connotations. The poems are traditional in relying considerably on metaphor where other tropes have recently found more favour, and in being explicit in their reflection. He doesn’t break new ground, but he exercises with prolific consistency the craft he has finely honed, which is pretty much what we’d expect of a poet laureate – perhaps the institution will persuade us to revalue craft and competence upward and novelty downward?
Footfall is a substantial, absorbing collection. There is ample variety in the subjects, tone, verse forms and rhythms. Turner captures other voices, particular or generic, with a few sardonic strokes. The father, for instance, “Thought I ought/to smarten myself up, actually”; the ex-wife “tells you you’re a good guy/really”. He skewers New-Age-blokery with damned-if-you-do-or-don’t ironies, especially in the potent echoes inhabiting the “The New Zealand Men’s Clinic”: “the Vast Untrodden Ureweras”; “whaddarya?” and finally: “Even Valentine’s Day has caught on like the pox./Bugger. New Zealand’s gone to the dogs.” And he sends up a facilitated meeting deliciously with a bit of help from his mate and the bloke on his left:
Whiteboard, video, whiteboard. Are there any
before we close? the facilitator asked, and the joker
beside me whispered, Don’t you say a fuckin’ thing.
Turner also has an acute ear for the accents of ordinary pain. Separation, loss, depression, fragile families are here, treated sometimes in subtle tropes, sometimes with a bleak directness. He quotes Kevin Ireland, in an ending more effective than the over-explicitness with which he sometimes wraps up his musings:
“Most wars involve crossing
frontiers”. That’s true, too,
and so is the fact that
there’s a blackbird sitting
like a flumph of soot
on the stone wall and singing
as the sun goes down.
And you, you are somewhere
else, across frontiers.
Robert Sullivan’s latest collection traverses his favoured territory – ancestry, colonial history, legend and identity – with gritty style and an agile vision. He places himself at definitive encounters between Polynesia and Europe, reconstructing the perspectives of historical figures such as Tupaia and Mai, the Tahitians who sailed with Cook. Charged political comment sparks across the hindsight gap.
A running theme is the red cloth Cook traded with the Tahitians, the colour a glancing irony in several poems, then spelt out bitterly in “I see red, I see red, I see red”, the cliché reanimated via Split Enz. This small poem typifies the graphic directness of Sullivan’s imagery: “The sharpness of the eastern vertex/cuts me as I trail a red finger up to Hawai‘i/and back to Aotearoa completing the triangle”; “Our islands blushed red like Tiberian Capri”.
The political poems are the most satisfying. The poems about legend and ancestry left me unmoved, perhaps because of the incantatory style, perhaps because this is territory into which I am not equipped to follow; either way, they floated past me like the ghostly heron on the cover, whereas it was impossible not to feel implicated by those that addressed our history so personally.
The collection offers other diverse pleasures. There is a fine poem about the birth of a child, figured as a sea creature emerging from the deep, who will “come out smooth like a barking seal”. And there is a dreadfully topical poem spoken by a boy racer who died “with the road worker friend and father whose face disintegrated as we struck him”:
If I could I’d set up a MASH tent, dive under
to my personal monster, wring its stomach until
it vomited back
my heart just so I could get you an answer.
And I’d be quick enough to stop us racing.
Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer and editor.