Good returns, Cilla McQueen

Table Talk
Kevin Ireland
Cape Catley, $25.99,
ISBN 9781877340246

Alistair Paterson
Puriri Press, $36.00,
ISBN 9780908943364

The Lakes of Mars
Chris Orsman
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869404086

The Worm in the Tequila
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864736208

Good Business
Ian Wedde
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
ISBN 97818694420

The label on the bottle of CO Polishing Oil claims that its product “will improve the quality of your life.” The same might be said of the books in which each of these poets delivers added value to New Zealand poetry.

Kevin Ireland describes Table Talk as “a concoction/of thoughts and reports and whatever/with cocked-up connections” and goes on to suggest that “Whenever a poet/offers a simple reflection … prise open his fingers and inspect/what’s hidden in his other fist” (“A New Book”). Hidden meanings and “cocked-up connections” give the poetry a twist and allow Ireland’s irony to convey intellect and humour without flippancy, as in “The Business Side Of It”: “Never forget/to be had for love not money”. “Parnell Tale” recalls the late Robin Dudding: “At twenty you have no idea/how a freakish notion can freeze/on the wind and shape you forever”. “A View in Your Window” distorts, making “passers-by wince and puzzle”. There’s foreboding in “A Chill on the Land”, the problem of mortality (“my feet have become my horizon”) in “Losing My Lines”, comments in “Small Earthquake in the Backblocks” on landscape-vanity: “Nothing shall be allowed to spoil our view”.

The line “The signs most favour/loon and lover” in “Particulars” insists on the rejuvenating power of love on language, the “extension of word power” brought by romance: “This is another lingo,/I must learn to speak in a tongue made new” (“Table Talk”). A found poem, “Lost Page”, pokes fun at poetic theory, and “The Man Who Had Great Plans” leaves the reader thinking about the “one thing missing”. Mysterious civic pronouncements regulate language but “Word of the Day” affirms that poets still honour “the old and crafty rules”.

There are problems: “the word picture/fell right out of my head” (“Vanishing Act”). In a snapshot of Paris, “Paris Evening”, he feels set apart: “there is no evidence of my existence” and “for I am forever framing.” But “love is the same as it ever was” (“Get My Drift?”). It’s “business as usual”, “Love shall not alter. It’s a last stand” (“Word of the Day”). In “The Wish”, “I asked one wish/and one alone:/a kiss, a leaf,/a river stone”. Ireland’s lyric gift is as strong as ever.

There remains “this desire, which grips and shakes the bars of its words” to create a poem “in its little case of meanings” to preserve the “desperate implications of the marks/we make” (“The Poem That Wrote Itself”). There’s “something in the air … not caught in writing”. All we can do is “praise the possibility” of “Perfection” and “raise a glass/to what we can really get a grip on.”

In Alistair Paterson’s Africa the task of the shaman is to trace the DNA of primal myth, a quest continuing throughout history. Beliefs of the Xam-ka !ei people about the natural world, beauty, synchronicity and the “matrix” of “reality”, anchored in the stories of the “First At Sitting People”, weave this book-length Möbius strip.

Knowledge is lost; the sacred is elusive, damaged, endangered. “Trying//to discover what might/have been missed … what history’s/about”, the poet researches “obscure locations” and travels time with Jack Ross while sitting in the university English Department, “like now/through reading the words”. People “need to feel …. that they have/a place, belong somewhere/aren’t alone.” The myth of Kabbo, Mantis, and the Porcupine’s daughter asks to be noticed, but “nobody’s listening”. Instead “we race to solve (reality)/imagining it/a jigsaw puzzle//that anyone/who can solve it/should be able … to change things, shape/things differently.” Reality, though, “comes from within as much as from without”. In “the place/of the Cave bear”, drawings link the subconscious with the “world of spirits.”

“It slips from your memory …”: discursive, controlled syntax runs through stanzas separated by asterisks. The tone is even, hopeful, sometimes weary. The loose, looping verses repeat and rework motifs of eland, missing shoe, seeker, always returning to “where it starts from”, Africa. The impression is of incantation, the fractured lines smoothed by centuries of telling.

From the panoramic sweep of meditations on art, architecture, history and travel emerge names of explorers, composers, writers and artists such as Rita Angus, Louise Henderson and Nigel Brown, whom “people ought to know about” as well as “poets/who look at the paintings/who need to be recognised”, who “can’t do without poetry”. The role of the artist/shaman is vital because “forgetting/is what most of us do best”.

The poet wants to know “whether it’s true … that everything that lives … shares a common ancestry”, finding that “Our ancestors are alive//they live through us.” The eland of myth “lives where/little’s known of what/happens.” It appears to the seeker through time, “looking towards you//as if it knows you know/it’s there.” Once discovered it is vulnerable, “disabled … surrounded … deafened.” The myth “doesn’t want to be known/doesn’t want to be/recognised.” As the Flat Bushmen knew, “whose thoughts/speak to you”, it must remain hidden, for safety.

Chris Orsman’s fluent, resonant language in The Lakes Of Mars takes us on “business as usual:/we hike across Lake Bonney’s/star-fractured lens,/taking ourselves farther out/than we’ve ever gone before.” Work arising from the impulse to write, make art or compose on Antarctica’s blank tablet has tested the physical and expressive powers of several creative artists by now. “Terra Irredenta”, “without fame or renown/until one walks here and claims it/by right of vision”, is inscribed “through conscious art”.

In Wellington, “White Wind” catches Greg O’Brien reading the “sand-blasted text of the morning”. A response in “Firmament” to Bill Culbert’s art is riddling: “What burns below you and above/tethered to its source?” The poet’s old Kodak stalls time, its record “partial/and often blurred or otherwise/resisting focus” on “that plenitude that rouses us/…slips away before our eyes.” “Who can find time again in these//near-images, affectionate botchups?” asks “Instamatic”. “Making Waves” gives credit to those “quiet archaeologists of the unseen/hand and mind of God” like Maurice Wilkins “clicking the backbone of DNA into place.” In “Primer of Ice and Stone”, Orsman suggests, like Paterson, a return “to the source,/the original order.”

Language distinguishes and distances humans from the polar landscape, but “right of vision” is the hidden cameraman’s. In “Massif”, “Figures loom in colloquy/and vanish in a parting shot” while in “Steps”, “We link arms and pose/for the documentary afterlife.” In Scott’s hut, “things have been set upright again” by curators, “with homely interventions/designed to match originals.” After the pristine outdoors, inside “there’s the sense of a black film/covering everything, like the patina/on a preserved saint. Your hands,/though gloved, feel unclean/– that odour of un-sanctity.” “The Strand Magazine lies open/on ‘Victims of the Weather’”, an advertisement for umbrellas (“The Book of the Dead”).

Something’s missing: the “Polar Captain’s Wife” is sensitive to “temperate surfaces”, “missing the body heat” of her absent husband. The earth’s “secret, held-in life” is viewed through a lens of ice-melt over gravel (“A First Landing”). “Menace is defused in the scene/by our low jesting banter” with “just that note of exile” (“The Lakes Of Mars”). The “assiduous camera” “misses everything really” from agoraphobia in a landscape where “mastery of scale is thwarted” (“Mappa”) to the taste of ice.

Geoff Cochrane’s enigmatic raves, choked utterances and filmic takes are “screwy, haywire, contrary” (“Things Are Not as They Were”). And yet, as he puts it in “Black”, “the poet’s productions/get simpler as he ages … admit more light and air.”

“Paint me as a painter dipped in paint” asserts “August: A Broadsheet”). “The painter’s works look weirdly truculent … A rich detritus also adheres” claims “Impromptu”. The short poem “Rauschenberg” achieves a close correspondence with the “sackcloth … mustard … rust and gluey glaze” of the painting. A friend, “that rare thing, the untroubled artist” – “perhaps I’ve dreamed him up” – bears stigmata in  “Flesh And Blood”. Allowing connection between his own “mingy socks,” the imagined socks of the “Assyrian Kings” (“Monday”) and his remembered “cardboard shoes that melted in the rain” (“Shoon”), the poet in “The Worm in the Tequila”) admits with mock solemnity: “A circular serendipity is what I’m after here.”

A vigorous kind of nostalgia evokes childhood, the 1970s, the beat poets, the “Duke of Edinburgh” pub, a cook’s “eye/like an oystery egg/bungled in the poaching.” The sign “Do Not Leave Chotes To Soke” finds the absurd in “The Rooming House” whose concrete steps are “like fluid porridge frozen.” “Songs and Shapes: A Chapbook” is a bent take on reality with the lemony fragrance of a jeep being washed, sinister undertone of “there’s trouble at the library”, a wish for an Aztec camera (“For that I’d find a cunning use or two”) and truncated, bitten-off fragments: “Long ago./When I was but.”

Personal anguish is clear in “Bamboo Jazz” where “ghastly inner shakes” are intimated by “conflate the words gibber and flutter. There are searing descriptions of childhood asthma and alcoholism: “We forget and forget, but still we remember” (“Caves and Castles”). “Bitter Suite” and “The D Word” detail the onset of diabetes. “I’ve always been a fucked unit.” “I’ve become a kind of priest or celebrant” in “this medical Eucharist”.

“A Blackbird Gets Inside” suggests the possibility of collusion between observer and observed, the bird in his room. In “An Italian Notebook” the poet interrogates himself, “And what of the impossibility of writing anything? … the saccharine conceit of giving Herman Stone effulgent stigmata?” Cochrane’s language has an elastic, surprising feel and gives the impression that despite everything (“blow the fucker up”) the embattled poet loves the world and its imperfections.

Ian Wedde’s Good Business achieves “a lasting shine” (“CO Products Ltd”). In the arresting double image of “Toyota”, I recognised the setting of his multi-layered novel Chinese Opera. The poetic scheme is plainly put: “In some way I find hard to describe/I know it’s always been like this.”

The first section turns on the premises, promises and “expert advice” of consumer society in a pull-out panorama of city businesses where the pride and energy of work power the city. There are hilariously “pious opening prayers” at Kentucky Fried Chicken (“KFC”) and a sharp critique of humans from the animal viewpoint in “SPCA”. Modestly describing himself in “Tony’s Tyre Service” as “bald/and stale and need[ing] a cheerful tune”, Wedde is interested in, and interesting on, oblique resonances in the metaphysics of a world which has “always been there”: “the forever crane’s lifting/the entire weight of the future” (“Metalworx Engineering”).

Like Ireland, Wedde can be loonily in love and retain his wit: “I wear my heart on my sleeve which is/threadbare but sincere” (“Epithalamion”). Here at full throttle, or changing gear into “Honeymoon”, the language is as mobile as “light in the licked bowl of a spoon”. The tone is mellow. With affectionate irony the poetry examines that “meniscus” between “the enclosed and the disclosed”, “where we almost become what we represent” (“The Sheen”).

Memories and meanings preserved in the surface of a hand-made table (“CO Products Ltd”) invite deeper contemplation of its “Schein”. Through layers of lucent, reflective language “between the enclosed and the disclosed” (“The Sheen”), the poet travels “the longest tunnel, now, on the whole/bright coast” (“Riding The Train”), “not/in my body but in words” (“Dawn, Dusk, Home”). In “Seven Dreams”, the strange language of dream shows how close poetry is to the subconscious source. In “Black”, “Our shoes were made of cardboard and melted in the rain” while in “Naked”: “then there’s the dream in which/I’m naked in my dreams.” The poems of “Arriving Blind” are full of light, “Abat-jour” a luminous poem for Bill Culbert.

Intense attention to the shining interface of language “between the latent and the manifest” (“The Sheen”) reveals that “Nothing’s like//anything else, finally, there’s a word for this/and another for that, that’s that, get over it” (“The Enchanting Aroma Of Cut Flowers”). Warm, sensual and intellectually acute, the poetry reminds me of looping reflections inside the glass sleeve of a thermos.


Cilla McQueen is New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2009-2011.


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