A Box of Bees
Victoria University Press, $17.95,
As It Was in the Beginning
Steele Roberts, $19.95,
Steele Roberts, $19.95,
Who can deny the bliss of a first book? How shiny and clean it is, the pages bouncing up from the spine. There’s the publisher’s name, the publishing house, the library catalogue number. We’ve “made it” whatever that may mean. Yet questions spring up like weeds around the very public act of publishing. None more so than when it comes to poetry. A huge number of people write the stuff, yet relatively few get their work published. Maybe there’s a trick to it! Just how did these three particular books get through?
In Emily Dobson’s case, her poems formed the folio by which she gained an MA Honours degree from Victoria University. And an academic prize. Plus a two-year writing fellowship at Iowa University. Rewards not to be sniffed at! I hope there was some wild celebrating. The poems, as far as I can tell, have not appeared elsewhere. They were gathered in-house as it were, and thence presented, like a debutante at a Charity Ball.
John Horrocks, with work published in Poetry New Zealand and the anthologies of the New Zealand Poetry Society, comes from a different background. He’s a specialist reader with a doctorate on poetry and readers’ imaginings. I imagine, therefore, that he is highly aware of audience response to the written or spoken word. This is a fascinating area. I would love, for instance, to explore the extent to which the Antarctic heroes were led to the ice by poetry and how it sustained them there. Think of it, Tennyson’s In Memoriam lying open on Wilson’s chest in the final catastrophic tent. I wonder what lines he read to the others as they waited stoically for death.
Stu Bagby’s poems are introduced, rather disarmingly, as, among other things, “musings on life as a gravedigger”. He is the most published of the three with work in the New Zealand Listener and Auckland University Press’s New Poets (volume two, 2002). He too has appeared in the New Zealand Poetry Society’s anthologies. In fact, he won their international competition in 2000, a major coup. So, he’s the old hand.
Who published these writers and with what grace? Victoria University Press published Emily Dobson. She acknowledges the mentoring of Damien Wilkins and James Brown. Her book has an unusual cover, shades of a Rupert Bear book perhaps, in the line-drawing of a stocky, genderless beekeeper with a well-helmeted head and bare hands. The design by Sarah Maxey is stylish, with an embossed effect around the spine. The title is cheerful and bouncily alliterative. There are attractive swarms of bees outside and inside the honey-coloured pages.
Steele Roberts published the other two collections. Creative New Zealand supplied a publishing grant for Stu Bagby’s collection, peer assessment kicking in. The covers of both books have a rather bland uniformity. One might be taken as a template for the other, just swap the sheep for the waves, and you’ve pretty much got it. Stu Bagby’s title is taken from a little Catholic prayer, the “Glory Be”, which marks the end of each decade of the rosary. There are some very odd stanza breaks in his poems and a strange, sporadic use of a capital letter to begin the second part of a run-on line. Small things to quibble about but, like tics, they narked me. They spoilt the flow. As for John Horrocks, surely he should have been dissuaded from his title, which has a most uncomfortable chafing effect, on this reader at least.
What pleasures await us in these books? I really enjoyed the “working words” in Emily Dobson’s 37 texts: the honeytrucks, the carricells, the hexagons of the waxcomb. She’s the great-grand-daughter of beekeepers, bees run in the family, so she speaks with authority. I experienced her collection a bit like a short story. The poems flow into each other, there are no titles, characters flit in and out of the narrative, some as nebulous as ghosts. This tends to dissipate the energy of individual poems and thus of the whole collection.
I enjoyed the rather haunting, light touch of poems like this one:
I was alone in the shop on a Sunday
when the phone rang:
a local beekeeper’s truck
had gone off the road.
Trapped in the cab most of the night,
he’d received thousands of stings.
Only a beekeeper
could have survived that many.
And the good-humoured warmth of lines like these:
At the A&P show one year
Mum made the whole family dress up as bees –
orange skivvies with brown painted stripes –
and we sang:
Be-e kind, be-e kind,
be-e kind to one another (x2).
Positive signs for the further development of this writer.
Stu Bagby is a master of the great title, the quotable one-liner and the memorable conclusion. I enjoyed the musicality of his work, the humane, laconic tone, the good humour. Not all the poems are equally persuasive. Some are a bit laboured, and “musings” are never quite my cup of tea. But the best combine an interesting range of language registers. My favourites are in a section called “The Tangowahine Gang” which deals with childhood:
You know how it was in those days?
the big picture incidental
we focused on the serial
the Lone Ranger or Jungle Jim
seen in a bad light now
but what did they expect?
there was only
fifteen minutes to save yourself
from last week’s predicament
and be ready to hang from
this week’s cliff
it wasn’t the time to think
of Tonto’s feelings.
This is high energy, insightful writing, a pleasure to read.
I enjoyed the range of ideas in John Horrocks’ work, the way he merged historical with pastoral in his evocation of life on his farm, Te Mara. Then moved out comfortably into the wider world, to Cadiz or the Arughat Bazaar. There are enough fresh, thought-provoking pieces here to hold the attention, to delight even, when, through inventive language, a text is exploded beyond the predictable.
Consider this wonderfully sharp love poem contrasting farmers’ wives with the beloved:
They sail down Queen Street.
like imperious galleons,
laden with gold cards, pearls
and soft Brazilian leather.
They are justly suspicious of you.
You are not quite the right sort.
You are a privateer, swift,
(The misplaced full-stop above is not the only punctuation flaw in the book. Such things should not get through a publisher’s fire-wall.)
The poems in the third section of the collection, Dislocations, show the poet really hitting his stride. The texts are assured and relaxed, working their way through some complexity to a very satisfying mix of ideas and images. The music holds. Something strong and yeasty has entered the texts. There is more going on than the competent arrangement of poetic elements. Ideas circle around the notion of desire: the desire of Roman emperors for fugitive power, the desire of a son for closeness with his aging father, the desire of an adventuring great-grandmother for spiritual passion within the Church of Christian Science. Great stuff!
No-one ever forgets their first book. Or their first publisher. Mine was Michael Harlow and the Caxton Press. Thank goodness for the people who still write poems, those sticks we set in the sand in resistance to brutality and devastation. And thank goodness for the publishers still willing to give them a hand.
Bernadette Hall is the Victoria University of Wellington writer-in-residence for 2006.