Strange days in the language school, Mark Houlahan

Monkey Miss Her Now & Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know
Jack Ross
Danger Publications, [no price given],
ISBN 047600182X

Fool Moon
Murray Edmond
Auckland University Press, $27.99,
ISBN 1869403169

Paula Green
Auckland University Press, $27.99,
ISBN 186940324x

Sonja Yelich
Auckland University Press, $22.00,
ISBN 1869403231

In his afterword to Mark Williams’ recent, lively essay collection Writing at the Edge of the Universe, Andrew Johnston comments on the increasing number of “sophisticated, competent … poetry collections coming out each year”. In her contribution to this same volume, Elizabeth Caffin affirms her publisher’s trust that readers will continue to be drawn to “the sensual appeal of the graphic cover, the smooth cream page, the stylish typography.” The volumes considered here bear out both these claims: at times they are all striking to read, and are consistently handsome to look at and to hold. Book production values at mainstream presses, such as Auckland University Press (responsible for three out of the four volumes), are now very high. A striking contrast, say, with my treasured first edition of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets, with its typewriter lettering and its staples now rusting. That volume’s cover featured a drawing by Ralph Hotere, a block pattern of wavy (I guess, rivery) lines. But Hotere does not otherwise intersect with Baxter’s great poems. The last few years have seen a number of collections of poetry where visual design has gone well beyond the cover and layout. Often we have seen formal collaborations between poets and artists. The texts of the poems then ought not to be read outside the frame of their accompanying pictures.

That’s certainly the case here with Jack Ross’s Monkey Miss Her Now, which, physically, is not as lavish as the Auckland University Press volumes but which has been desk-topped with great ingenuity. You need to look as well as read hard to grasp the book’s angle, though Ross’s wry and quixotic “works” are designed to be slippery, wilfully blending the apparently “autobiographical” with the apparently “fictional”, a mélange of genres precisely framed to forestall any suggestion that a single “authorial” voice was at work. The vorticist poet Walter E Clarke, whose career is outlined in “The Great New Zealand Vortex”, might very well exist. The charm of the story is to convince you that if Clarke did not, he ought to have. And, in that case, that he would have met Pound and Eliot, danced at Ottoline Morrell’s and, later, been recalled by A R D Fairburn. This piece is a fine Borgesian pastiche, complete with a Blast style manifesto for Aotearoa: “BLAST PORIRUA/CURSE ITS PEOPLE FOR THEIR SINS AND/INFECTIONS”. Which of course works much better if you look at Ross’s own page and the layout’s mimicry of famous pages from Wyndham Lewis’ polemical periodical.

The retrospect of Clarke’s brilliant career is nicely juxtaposed against “A Strange Day at the Language School”, an essay shortlisted for the Landfall essay contest in 2001. In that context the account of the weirdness of dealing with a hospitalised ESL student, seeking empathy across several language groups and cultures, read as a stylish, fragmented piece of autobiography, a report from the front line of the newly “Asian” streets of downtown Auckland. Read against the imagined life of Walter E Clarke, the effect is quite different. The text is the same, but confidence that what is being evoked is a “real” situation evaporates. The piece instead might be mockingly satirical, offering to concerned liberals exactly the kind of detached yet warm perspective towards language teaching they will admire, and not so far from accounts of similar events in, say, Metro magazine. Nobody else in New Zealand writes quite like Ross, though some of Bill Manhire’s fictions in The New Land are precedents.

Ross’s interest in language poetry certainly has links back to the postmodern avantgarde of the 1960s and 1970s. Puzzlement at the arbitrary nature of words has marked Murray Edmond’s poetry since that time, obsessive jazz style riffing on particular words featuring in many of his collections. You see this in Fool Moon in, say, “Elegy for Mama”: “the elegy itself/the elegy is itself/it cannot contain an elegy it cannot be an elegy it is not/it is not even not.” Here the concern is not just with words but with the specific work that “poetic” words and forms do. But, in this case, and this is what makes Fool Moon so satisfying to read, the words don’t enclose upon themselves. Instead they open out into a wider world with a richness and sweetness that is engaging and powerful.

The impact of the poems is enormously enhanced by the sumptuous format Auckland University Press has designed, the epitome of the “smooth cream page, the stylish typography” Caffin hopes poetry readers are now seeking. The spaciousness gives the poems room to breathe, whether in the long, broken free-verse lines of “Voyager: after Apollinaire”, evoking “the place where wild strawberries grow/one of the heart-breaking accumulations of landscape” or in something terser such as “Just a Moment: For Esther and Jacob”, which alternates three- and four-syllable lines, gathered in tight clusters of three lines each. So much space and whiteness between forces you to linger, and read the whole in slow motion. The poem is a blessing for its dedicatees; it’s also a charm to make their world as magical as the poem itself. At its close Edmond risks some poetic advice:

         making it out
of notes
the dreamer and

the dream
live your lives
freely together

The concision delicately hints at the emotional journey undergone by the poem’s named recipients, while the use of the second person brings all other readers in Edmond’s compass. He invites us into some kind of utopia of emotion.

The book is visually as well as verbally rich. The four sections, for the four quarters or phases of the moon, are introduced by four stunning black and white images from photographer Joanna Forsberg. The images don’t comment directly on the text, but they add considerably to the emotional journey of the text as a whole. An abandoned signal box beside a railway track, a reaching hand in time lapse, a dog running freely on Piha beach. Finally for the fourth, presumably full phase of the moon, we have a classic still life: a porch, a vine-clad trellis, an outdoor sofa draped with a cushion, dappled with light. The scene awaits readers willing to move through the page and settle. Forsberg also shot the lovely cover image “Jar, Gotland”. A preserving jar, quarter-filled rests on the edge of a plain wooden table. In green and grey-blues it stands out against a sombre background. The jar returns in the final lyric “Catch” where “there sits a jar for love/on the table a jar for love”; the jar  stands at the centre of a serene communion:

        two sitting at a table
two at table sitting
two and two and two
a table in the grass


Paula Green’s Crosswind powerfully entwines images and text also. Here again the production values serve both words and pictures well. The long central section “Lounge Suite” is a formal collaboration between Green’s poems and 14 visual artists. Green was inspired by particular images, and wrote a poem using the title the artist had chosen for their work. Each artist then produced a fresh image in response to Green’s words. For “Kaikoura”, for example, Ann Noble provides a diorama-style image of a harpooned whale facing a whaler about to hurl another barb across some looming waves. In a hectic prose-poem paragraph, Green then evokes “in this suspended moment on the open sea with the steady lift of the decuman wave”. I didn’t know what “decuman” meant either, but my OED crisply assures me it means “Very large, immense: usually of waves.” Where Edmond is entranced by the power of small words, Green is unafraid to use a flash one, if that’s the one she needs.

The notes at the back record all the artists Green collaborated with, noting also where she first saw their images. This way she keeps faith with them as well as signalling her commitment to the specifics of time and place. The book expresses throughout a powerful commitment to landscape poetry, seen in the opening section “Famished for the Land” and the closing poems of “Westbound and Floating”. Green evokes Italy, but her main focus is on New Zealand. Her address to the land is sensuously vivid:

     In my city the rain you get
is made of massive kauri trees, the call of
forest birds
howling dark oceans and mangroved creeks.


She is not the first poet to be drawn to Auckland’s west coast beaches, but she does it well, joining the distinguished company of Curnow and Don McGlashan  Nor is she bound by Auckland. The final section finds her in Whangarei, on Courtenay Place and, finally, on “Percival Street, Wellington” where she turns to a reflective kind of melancholy: “the distance is silent and so is desire”, adrift like the whaler in Noble’s “Kaikoura” image.

Clung is Sonja Yelich’s first solo volume and, in scale, not as ambitious as Ross, Edmond and Green. The poems are intensely immersed in the dailiness of Yelich’s life, and often use a notebook format that invites us to read them as directly autobiographical. The opening section takes us through her radio day, where National programme “identities” feature, from Linda Clark to Sean Plunkett. In these opening poems Yelich escapes being merely autobiographical by addressing herself as “you”: “your radio is your talking/world & your baby is your/world crawling into walls”. Her experience also becomes her readers’. She tunes in to sounds as well as familiar voices. “Imagine you are/the sum total/of all the music/you ever heard” the final poem “Weaner” instructs us. The discography itself becomes a form of autobiography. You know who you’ve been by the sounds in your head. Yelich’s playlist ranges eclectically from the Verlaines through Joy Division to the boy rock of The Feelers. She pulls herself up and remembers her status: “& in case/you’ve forgotten/your age/turn the sound down.” Yelich is self-aware and her enthusiasms infectious. Yet, of these four volumes, hers is the one I would be least likely to re-read with pleasure.


Mark Houlahan teaches English literatures at the University of Waikato, and is currently co-editor for The Journal of New Zealand Literature.


Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
Search the archive
Search by category