Steele Roberts, $19.99,
The Joy of a Ming Vase
Otago University Press, $29.95,
Auckland University Press, $27.99,
The Word Went Round
Otago University Press, $29.95,
Books written in prose are carefully sorted by genre, in bookshops, libraries and reader’s minds – fiction or non-fiction is the basic distinction. The poetry shelf doesn’t tend to get this kind of careful attention. It’s alpha by author all the way over there. Not that I’m grumbling – there’s far too little poetry about, and the volumes are far too slim to make bothering with genre classification worthwhile. Anyway, in any given poetry book, an art-historical comment might face off against a mini-biography, overleaf from a philosophical rumination on the place and meaning of black swans in contemporary life. And hallelujah for that. Poetry, at the top of its game, can do all this and more, without even breaking a sweat. These four books essay into biography, history, art history and fiction, with varying levels of success.
Most of the poems in Alison Wong’s Cup fall into the genre of autobiography. The poems speak in the first person, from inside specific, recognisable situations. The “I” reflects on childhood, the death of a father, the quirks of a young son, the break-up of a relationship.
Really good biographical writing, in prose or in poetry, takes the personal, the private, and makes it seem larger, more resonant – the details, moods, observations of one life have something to say to others. Occasionally this happens in Wong’s writing. In “there’s always things to come back to the kitchen for”, she describes the children, who “sail out on long elliptical orbits/and always come back, sometimes like comets, sometimes like moons”. That’s good writing, good poetry: the sound and meaning unrolling together through “sail out on long”, then turning on the hard consonants in the middle of “elliptical” and coming back, like a body in motion through space. The repetition in the last line also models the idea of return; the different qualities of the two astral bodies suggest some of the subtleties in the relationship between parents and their grown children. However, this precision and skill, the ear for language that gives poems integrity and makes them more than jottings, is too often absent.
There’s wordplay in here, but mostly at the basic level of “Kilmog Hill”: the hill is made of dead cats. The poem ends with: “when out of the corner of my eye/I see a small yellow sign:/Pigeon Flat Road .” Wong has a tendency to rely on easy images: a walk on the beach to illustrate romance; a moth as an image for a vulnerable woman; a poem called “Requiem” that starts with “through a mirror darkly”, and goes on to do nothing exciting or surprising with those pre-loved words. When the writing slackens, these poems, like all under-done biography, become slightly embarrassing for the reader – not so much art, as too much information.
Ruth Dallas has had a distinguished career in letters – she’s written poems, stories, children’s writing and a biography. By this stage, as a “senior writer”, it’s fair to expect she’ll have her craft firmly under control. Part of one poem, “Fragments”, could be read as a poetic manifesto:
Not for the casual reader
Nor was meant to be,
A poem hammered out
From the stubborn iron
on the anvil of the mind.
There are different views on whether poetry should be for “the casual reader”, but I like the thrust of the last three lines: poetry as something that’s been tempered, worked on, has some intellectual clash and clang. Unfortunately, clash and clang is just what’s missing from this work. There are pretty images, but the writing itself is bland and undemanding.
The prominent vein of art historical poetry which runs through the book might have offered scope for a bit of hard thinking, on the part of the poet and the reader; in the event, Dallas’ take on this material is underwhelming. Here she is on the subject of a Han Dynasty glazed pottery duck:
What significance a duck might have
For people at the beginning of AD
I cannot guess,
But clearly love and well-wishing
Placed a bright-eyed duck within a tomb,
To outlast centuries of wars.
Well, maybe – but if we agree with the sentiments in this poem, it’s not because the poet has deployed any poetic craft to convince us. There’s nothing in that stanza that rings on the ear, knocks on the intellect, or excites emotions at any deep level. And, to my mind, “at the beginning of AD” is distractingly anachronistic in a poem about China, inserting Christ and the whole edifice of Christianity into the poem like an internet pop-up.
Contrary to the note accompanying the book, which describes Dallas as “a disciplined watcher of the seasons”, I found her treatment of the natural world clichéd and the anthropomorphism trite: “The sun dips slowly/Over the rim of the sea.”; “Hush, say the gentle willows”; “The bush has a secret it cannot keep,/For all its guardian trees and ferns.” So what? I want more oomph out of poetry than these poems give. There’s narry a clang to be heard.
Chris Price’s Brief Lives left me with no coherent sense of its purpose as a book. The blurb on the inside flap describes Brief Lives as “an eccentric collection of biographical anecdotes and fictional vignettes”. I found it very much a collection, not a satisfying whole. It is, I think, telling that the contents page is arranged alphabetically – the book lacks an internal logic strong enough to suggest a less arbitrary arrangement.
The pieces are almost all made up of lines that reach all the way to the right margin – ie they’re either short prose, or prose poems. For me, the writing balanced unhappily between the two: narratives too brief and undeveloped to be stories, written in language too flat to sustain the word-by-word attention which poetry rewards.
Price makes heavy use of declarative statements, creating a blunt-verging-on-flat tone. I think the intended effect is to confront the reader with the often uncomfortable content:
Gianetta wanted to smoke crack with him. She kept on about it so he knew he’d have to try it or fail the test.
Then Elliot did the same, then Jason, and soon they were all sitting there hitting their heads on the table to see who would keep on doing it longest. Danny had been out of prison about two years at this point. Elliot not so long.
So far, so gritty – but the effect wears off over the course of the book. To go back to earlier comments, good writing enlarges things, makes a connection that resonates with the reader. I found Brief Lives hermetic, sealed up behind tabloid content and an uninviting style.
By contrast, there is no danger of blandness or flatness in the colourful, action-packed poems of David Howard’s The Word Went Round. Check him out in the title poem:
For Catholic tykes
of pain in a cathedral
weighs less than griddle-cake
when Kathleen’s grin catches
and splays them.
I’m not overly keen on the arrow-head typography that waves each stanza across the page, but it’s a minor quibble in the face of a big, bouncy, bonny poem.
“The Word Went Round” imagines the story of Irish emigration to New Zealand; the note in the back of the book describes the poem as “a pair of dramatic monologues that circle the character of a Catholic tenant farmer who shipped out on the Asia in 1874.” The brio and extravagance of the writing, leavened with sympathy for the everyday details of getting on with life, really drew me in: quotations from Homer, Ma “scouring the griddle iron”, New Zealand, which “looms like a moult albatross”, “the notion of ‘home’”, which “slips like an excited pig/on wet decking”. The overall effect can be a little overwhelming in parts – the poem doesn’t always give up its facts and dates, its narrative happenings easily. But never mind – the literary acrobatics are worth the ride.
The Word Went Round includes biographical poems too – “A Simple Chronology” is five dated sections, each offering a slice of the poet’s life. Each short section offers an evocative miniature: the weight of blankets in a childhood bed; the scorched grass and the insouciance of teenage girls at school sports; suburban life’s frustrations and quotidian rewards, illustrated through a sketch on living opposite a shopping centre under construction. This isn’t wildly original material, but that’s not what it’s about – the point is that David Howard writes in a way that’s interesting to read. He can package all sorts of ideas into poetry that’s worth spending time with because he’s focused on the idea of good writing – a space in which words are tactically deployed to wow us with the things they can do.
Anna Livesey is a Wellington poet and reviewer.