The Blind Singer
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
Stephanie de Montalk
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
The Tram Conductor’s Blue Cap
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
Attenuated in form and voice, the poetry of the 1990s was a brittle creature. For all its many exquisite moments, its prospects as a species didn’t look good. But poetry since has fattened up on the page, enlarged its reach, and raised its voice with a confident eclecticism. Constraints have become tools for picking and mixing, and these accomplished collections from Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press exhibit a rich and flexible poetic, incorporating modernist and postmodernist ingredients in various proportions.
The Blind Singer is modernist in its technical models, and in aspiring to say something about ideas, addressing the world rather than annotating the margins. It concludes with “The Angel Question”, an extended meditation on modernism itself. This monumental sequence is explicitly “An Essay” in the exploratory sense. It weaves its topics – modernity, physics, and angels – into an intricate tissue around the figures of Einstein, Picasso, Rilke, Czeslaw Miloscz and Charlie Chaplin. They stand for the defining achievements and anxieties of the modern age; and they figure in diverse ways in Price’s psychological and aesthetic take on angels. At the heart of it is an elevation of poetry and music as, well, angelic principles of protective power: “a song is a stitch/in time, a knot securing now in the hope/tomorrow might be taken care of”. This little image exemplifies the elegant elision of the personal and public, moral and historical spheres, at once playful and rigorous. Gathering up all the resources deployed in the shorter poems of the volume, the craft is technically dazzling.
The odd dry stretch echoes Auden: “we might allow the angel as placebo – /a useful fiction, with a physical effect.” But mostly the voice is relaxed, with an agile eloquence and muted wit: “Call it [poetic inspiration] grace, if that’s what may appear/after years of the invisible gathering/of speed, coasting with the engine/in neutral. Truckies call it angel gear.” Curiously, this is not especially musical writing, though it is metrically sure-footed and flexible – for music is present in every other possible way in the work of Price, herself a musician, as theme, motif, and in this sequence as a beneficent cosmic principle.
The verse-chapters are bracketed by compelling prose pieces in a more personal narrative vein. The prologue, full of proleptic wordplay, uses the Cirque du Soleil to pose the “angel” question, about apparently physics-defying feats, and lyrical grace that is literally uplifting: “Don’t look down, we want to say, our hearts in our mouths – the drop to the enormous smallness of the world within’s as dizzying as the prospect of the far edge of the expanding universe … But somehow the music holds them up.” From circus to Picasso’s clowns to Chaplin’s tramp, the sequence describes an arc over the 20th century, or Modern Times as the Chaplin title has it. The epilogue comes down to earth literally – to a Feldenkrais class for easing the body’s load-bearing members, damaged by “years of walking like the little tramp”, and the paradox of human aspiration to lightness of being in the face of inexorable gravity.
Obvious comparisons suggest themselves with Stephanie de Montalk’s Vivid Familiar, which also includes a long poem, and also explores recent history, many of the poems being wry takes on the New Zealand colonial project. She too employs the orator’s rather than the singer’s art, and in a more frankly declamatory ringing way. In some poems the voice is edged with an impish sparkle or even a hint of defiance.
In the colonial poems the same declarative quality is made to sound faintly archaic, evoking a period persona while admitting a cool hindsight; no small feat of what Bakhtin called “double-voiced” utterance, the duet between writer and character conducted with a remarkable economy of means. “Plainchant” has the typical taut directness, elegiac tone and tincture of irony:
The air is too wet
to grow silk.
The women are too
depleted to weep.
And the dreams of feasting
and splendour –
a road, a wharf,
a sawmill, a doctor –
have entered the fables
of disconsolate men.
For all their direct address and plain speech, these poems can be difficult in a way that Price’s more allusive and overtly philosophical poems are not. This happens because de Montalk prefers symbol, metonymy and fable over the precise correspondences of metaphor – the postmodernist’s over the modernist’s figurative instruments – and they ask the reader to work a bit harder, perhaps for more mysterious rewards.
The centrepiece of the collection is “Feathers and Wax”, which is not just another updated Icarus, but a tour de force of the fabulist’s art. A sensitiva – a personification of the feeling as distinct from rational faculty – summons an airship to the poet’s window, and sends her on an journey of perceptual liberation, a “commission” to see things differently: to “equalise the trivial/and consequential … /Turn your pen outwards,/thicken your ink.” The poem is enchanting, an exuberant fantasy with Jules Verne technology and the laws of physics revised in a Philip Pullman vein, a world experienced from the “aerostat” as pure perception, almost without reference. There is exaltation and impish humour, and esoteric learning deployed with a light touch – the ingredients of many of the poems, but in different proportions.
Where Price is discursive and de Montalk declarative, Michael Harlow writes intimately and lyrically. The voice is gentle, but insistent and sometimes intense. His primary concern is the emotions (no huge surprise from a Jungian therapist), the big ones of love and loss and joy. He dances between and elides narrative and fable, metaphor and symbol, emotion and observation, the world and the inner life, putting the reflexive tools of postmodernism at the service of life understood through the definitively modern lens of psychotherapy.
The reflexive textual awareness is not just part of a disarming persona; for Harlow, like Price, music and poetry are explicitly and implicitly instruments of redemption. He talks of “the syllables of angels’ wings” and “making a raid on the unspeakable”, calls “landscape itself a word”, and places the eponymous tram conductor “inside a story that dreams him”; with instrumental words bubbling up from the unconscious, narrative explicitly constructs the self. Indeed it constructs the world – thought and text are as real as the physical world, their relations set out explicitly in the luminous “In the Picture”:
Happy in time just to hear your voice
making things happen, and they do.
And here you are drawing yourself
into the picture …
Here I am, you say,
your undisguised self wearing a shout as
green as summer grass. And you sign your
name like running water.
I can hear Dylan Thomas in the bubbly music of Harlow’s busy liquid line, the stringy syntax, the sensual nature imagery, the charged deployment of the word “green”. But Harlow is lower-keyed, with a tender but patient exaltation – the title “Taking a line for a walk”, borrowed from Klee, catches the pace. He also often addresses death and loss, and essays a reconciliation with their inexorable facts, a recognition that they are part of the fabric of things: “the dark of it, brassy bite/of the boatman’s coin slipped under/his tongue for the long crossing” (“Death Duties”). Despite a darker colouration, an affectionate humanity makes these poems of a piece with their brighter companions; death duties are as ordinary and inevitable as taxes.
Harlow makes us complicit in his fictions. He re-uses figures and whole lines, but in new ways, so a physical fact in one poem can be a metaphor or symbol or a dream in another. One poem is a story about some unconscious wisdom uttered by a small child: she has learnt that “About one hundred years/from now trees will be called very important/people” – the crafty line-break ensuring we get the wisdom before the joke. But he places the same line on the lips of someone in another poem who aspires to be “a bride with pretty feet”, reminding us thus that the speaker is his invention; and the bride reappears as the title of yet another poem, in speech marks. Liberated from fact, she resonates more as symbol with each new context.
Geoff Cochrane is gritty and combative. He employs contemporary devices, such as fragments (often single lines isolated by asterisks), sampling and appropriation. “Addenda” reads like a page from a commonplace book; one poem poses as a filmscript, another is mainly a list of names, another numbered prose paragraphs. But beneath the fractured, irritable surfaces lie two older models. One is the Imagist aesthetic, acknowledged in explicit invocations of Basho, and in passages of whole poems of resonant visual evocation:
Basho in a ditch
with tyres and shopping trolleys
longs for mist and rain,
the aqueous smear of a distant village.
Its strong green chlorophyll
Its fawn smokes and glistening slates.
A place he’s never known
but was at home in.
The perfect Imagist poem sits like a couple of haiku stranded between the narrative lines, washed up in a ditch perhaps. And in the narrative frame the other model announces itself – a confessional strain, also modernist in descent. Sometimes it is projected onto the figure of the itinerant, self-exiled poet in his “sweetish sort of lostness”, but often it appears in first-person verse and prose accounts of dereliction, physical decline and marginal urban living.
There are acute images, on-the-button humour: an “unmarried, unmended man”; “neon steams”; rain turning windows to syrup; car stereos “tripping shifts in barometric pressure/and wanding one with deepest bone disease”. Tone is a flexible, impudent instrument in Cochrane’s hand: “Eardrops stink my head up,/ … /with vilest fucking fumes,/but the basilisk still whistles in its lair.” Physical infirmity, the “blue notes” and “descents into bathos” of an ageing chin, get a wry scrutiny. But there are also descents into prosy defiance or self-deprecation: “Remain a sort of bum” or “this is the way to write but not really” hint at more to come, then shut the poem down and the reader resolutely out. You might conclude that you were being warned off from an emotional no-go area, if it were not for the adroit and rhetorically compelling “Freight”, harsh and clear-eyed about youth, drugs, and the imperative of alcohol, the “druggiest of sweets”, where the repeated “Listen” falls like the hand of a booze-barn Ancient Mariner. You listen.
Janet Hughes is a Wellington editor.