The Red Tram
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $24.95,
The Merino Princess
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Learning to Lie Together
Trams. For me the tram is part of an Auckland childhood, red and huge above me with its wooden steps, the hard polished slats of the seats, the uniformed conductor with a leather money pouch pushing through the passengers holding onto ceiling straps, and the excitement as the sparking connections to the overhead wires came off. The tram seems very much part of an irretrievable past:
and I am there still, close to the sky
listening to housewives talk about the War,
watching the poles flash and the red tram
clank off into the future.
C K Stead takes on the past with this image of the tram, and how one deals with the past is the subject of many of the poems in these three collections. For Diane Brown, the past is personal and immediate, particularly in a series of sonnets about a relationship. Bernadette Hall’s selected poems, The Merino Princess, goes back further in that it includes a number of poems about settlers, while much of Stead’s new collection takes an attitude of almost clinical nostalgia towards childhood, parents, friends and lovers.
The Red Tram is Stead’s 13th book of poetry, so it is not surprising that much of it is reflective. Yet there is also an emphasis on continuity, as in the title poem, in which the boy who sat high in an aromatic macrocarpa tree is still alive in memory. Erudite, subtle, Stead is utterly unlike Walt Whitman, but this collection reminded me of Whitman, in his “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, in which he affirms the common nature of each generation’s experiences, perhaps the only immortality of which we can be certain.
In The Red Tram, this sense is most apparent in the reworkings of poems by earlier writers such as Sappho, Catullus, Verlaine, and Baudelaire. They are tilted just enough for the sentiment to be Stead’s, yet are still recognisably true to the originals. This is done with great skill. In a piece based on Sappho’s “Fragment XXXI” and on a Catullus poem, much of this shift is achieved simply by the addition to Sappho’s subject of the name Clodia, with all its additional resonances of betrayal and unattainability that come from Catullus. More unexpected is Stead’s transformation of the most sensual image in all of Sappho’s poetry, usually translated as a feeling like flame under the skin. This becomes “runs over my skin/like wind over wheat.” Stead’s appropriation completes the process of creating his own poem, rather than providing a pastiche of the two originals in translation.
This volume follows a format found in other recent collections by Stead. There are the identifiably personal poems, such as the cycle “The Season, Tohunga Crescent”, poems addressed to individuals, often other writers, and the fabrications founded on Roman poets. There are also scraps, satirical or otherwise, such as “The Advance of English – Lang and Lit”, and the portraits of the advocates of the Eastern Corridor Motorway, John Banks and Sir Barry Curtis. Some of these latter pieces are more satisfying than others. “The Advance of English” is not much more than a take-off of some items of the canon. Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” becomes:
Just listening to that bird
makes me feel as if I’m pissed
or high on something –
and then the fucker flies away.
There are echoes here of that almost extinct imperative that New Zealand poets must also demonstrate that they are not too arty-farty and are real blokes, just as Denis Glover once advised a young teacher of English I knew to go and work at the Kawerau mill in order to toughen up.
Stead the scholar, the professor, is inescapably present, despite these half-disavowals. His poems lose nothing for that. Even “The Red Tram”, which is ostensibly built purely on memories of childhood, echoes Hopkins in the elegiac suggestion that all the macrocarpa are now “cut down, cut down”. He starts a poem about Janet Frame with references to R A K Mason and Yeats, placing her and her experience, then continues with a narrative based upon a moment of misunderstood intimacy between Frame and himself, concluding with lines that recall Keats and Dante:
Sea lanes were open
all the way to the World, those dark rough paths
we knew we’d have to travel.
Histories of the hive, the swallow’s flight
the archives of the ant, even an ode of Keats –
all, I know, confirm it: the thing that happens
dies when it happens.
The thing that doesn’t happen lives for ever.
The directness of speech here, the absence of show, the ease with which Stead departs to other poets’ work then returns, and the understanding of personal encounters should make much of The Red Tram appeal to the readers wished for in “Fame”: “those who can read, and can rune/Best wine for finest palates.”
Bernadette Hall’s The Merino Princess works very differently. Hall’s poems are often narrative in form but proceed as much by the addition and transformation of images. She has the ability to modulate tone as well. A poem like “Waitara Canticle” can begin, like Seamus Heaney’s “Bog Queen”, with a scene of burial: “Someone has dug with a patu/a ditch in the sunlit meadow/of her wide forehead”. Yet this reverently depicted figure a few lines later becomes “Cheryl Moana Marie”, John Rowles’s syrupy love object and the vessel here for a magical release of tiny silver birds and keys. The poem ends with a laconic injunction:
hey, hang on a minute,
we’d better all listen
this time, don’t you reckon!
One can make what one will from all this. That particular poem is part of the “Settler Dreaming” sequence, and the dream format allows a controlled chaos of images of violation, property rights, duality, all of which can be regarded as part of the settler experience; but Hall is never going to set it out in the form of crude abstractions like these.
Hall’s capacity for a higher and serious form of play is seen very early in her poetry, but she can work with simplicity as well, as in the final lines of “Amica”, written for Joanna Paul:
All the windows
are open. Ivory tides wash out, wash in
& you sing the mysteries: that love
is a gift; that nothing is ever lost;
that death is the centre of a long life.
There is a growing boldness throughout Hall’s work in the form of analogies that stretch the reader, very like metaphysical conceits. In “Open Field” the body’s receptivity to perceptions and nuances comes to be the way the painter “fades/the body into the page” and “opens the head as you might open a field cleanly/with a spade, the sea streaming sideways like a Ugandan postmark.”
Some words in “Miriama” sum up the sacramental or celebratory character of much of Hall’s own work: “Nothing is high, nothing is low, nothing is hidden.” To read her selected poems is to see the range of situations to which she applies this understanding, whether in grief, as in the “Tomahawk sonnets” and “Sweet-Kiss-on-the-Mouth” or in images taken from the everyday, as in “The Bowl” and “Windsurfing”. The incantatory blessings of “The Merino Princess” and the epiphany of “St Francis with Magnolia and Birds” are similar in spirit, with a fullness in these poems which makes one want to read them over and over.
Diane Brown is the newest but by no means the last of these poets. Her first book was published in 1997 and won the prize for Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana awards. She works now as a reviewer and teaches fiction writing at Aoraki Polytechnic. The bulk of the poems in her new collection, Learning to Lie Together, are the intimate records of the course of a relationship. There is none of the distancing between the poet and experience that Stead achieves by starting with poets such as Catullus or Ovid. These poems are, accordingly, far more direct and confessional in tone. Often Brown recalls a moment without elaboration, relying on the detail to convey it to a reader. This can be very simple, as in “Going South”, in which she sets down her musings on a bus about how her lover will meet her and what they will talk about.
At times it is within the sequence itself, rather than in individual poems, that one has to look for self-reflection, a judgement about what she is thinking and doing and the creation of that ironic eye that seems obligatory for any contemporary poet who wants to talk seriously. She concedes, for example, that she has written a prize-winning “jilted woman/confessional poem”. Her father, when he reads it, says she should abandon “myself as subject/& advocates poems/about babies/in supermarkets.” This capacity for ironic self-analysis is seen at its most complex in “He Says, They Reveal a Slow Disintegration”, in which her lover’s comments on her sequence of poems and their ending anticipate aspects of ending within a relationship as well:
he said, just throw
everything out the door
breakable or not
of course at the time
I didn’t realise
he was serious
This sophistication allows Brown to deal boldly with the intimacies and phases of a relationship, as well as its embarrassments and absurdities. In “Learning the Language”, she recalls the new experience of sleeping with a man who wears pyjamas: “relying on skin/to negotiate this foreign distance.” At the same time, she plays with the theme of other separations, starting with the more direct one of their being in different islands.
These poems don’t adopt any big poses. Like conversations, they often tell of small difficulties that might usually be dismissed as unpoetic: problems with the telephone, working out how to arrange the duvet on a bed or buying cherries in the supermarket. In the first of “Poems in the Matukituki Valley”, for instance, the choice of the wrong socks (cotton, not woollen) leads into a reflection on experience and choices: “so when we reach the second crossing/I take the plunge, shoes and all: clearly you’re not/about to hang around for ever.” At their best, Brown’s apparently simple poems can be disarmingly good.
John Horrocks’ first poetry collection, Raw Places, has just been published by Steele Roberts.