Strip-mines and elegies, Mark Houlahan

Slip Stream
Paula Green
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869404628


Vivienne Plumb
Seraph Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473177171


Time of the Icebergs
David Eggleton
Otago University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781877578021


The Radio Room
Cilla McQueen
Otago University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781877578038


The poetry of illness goes back a long way. Not illness as metaphor, but rather the metaphors through which poets describe their own paths through illness and health. In the English canon, Donne’s use of his own pathology in “Hymn to God, my God, in my sickness” stands out. In the 20th-century, Lowell, Berryman, Sexton and Plath were fearless delineators of their own fractures: disturbed psyches and broken limbs. But there’s a catch. Illness by itself doesn’t make poetry worthy. It might be therapy but is it art? These poets, at their best, deliver electrifying rhetoric around their various maladies. In the Autumn 2011 issue of New Zealand Books, Louise O’Brien remarked that the “pervasive sadness” of Leigh Davis’s early death would override admiration for his bravura final collection, Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life. Yet surely Davis, always writing to explode the boundaries of what New Zealand art might mean, would be appalled to be read merely out of posthumous pity.

Paula Green’s new collection is a valiant entry in the genre. Essentially the book is a series of journal poems, narrating an experience with serious illness. This has been a popular way recently for female poets to drive a book of poems, as in Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore and Anne Kennedy’s Sing-Sing, both much praised and read (in those cases illness was of friends and family). In Green’s case (as with Donne, Berryman and Plath) the patient is the poet. Green uses the third person throughout, but invites us, I think, to see this as a transparent fiction: “She is green on the white operating table/and she urinates blue ….” This voice, in theory, allows Green the space of wry detachment. She aims to clinically observe her own experiences of being in the clinic. None of the poems here have titles, so we are tempted to read each successive page as more extracts from the Slip Stream of the title, as gestured towards in the epigram-like first poem: “She drifts in the slipstream/Of the slim margin.”

Of course this would have been written before Auckland University Press designed the book, but in fact they have laid it out with attractively wide margins. The words have plenty of space to breathe in the middle of the page, and withholding titles allows the reader in. This has two results. One, the eye catches on striking phrases that flash up (such as the lines quoted above). That’s good. Yet I also felt pressured to find “poetic” a set of experiences that, however painful, were mundane and banal. If you knew the poet (as it happens I don’t), you might care. But not as a reader. To find that “She can eat mussels steamed open/and vegetarian sausages (parmigiano and rosemary)” is instructive but not engaging. You’re better off with somebody who can really make poetry out of food, like Anthony Bourdain or Nigel Slater. Perhaps this isn’t a fair comparison. Why, in contrast, are the shopping lists and menus all through Mansfield’s notebooks so compelling? Auckland University Press have showcased Green’s new sequence handsomely, but on the whole it fell flat for me.

Comparison with Vivienne Plumb’s Crumple is instructive. Yeats writes that we make poetry out of quarrels with ourselves, but that is not Plumb’s mode. Instead here, as she has done through her six earlier collections, Plumb makes poetry out of quirkily observing the world. In a sense the poems here too are autobiographical. The poems can go anywhere – clearly Plumb herself has travelled, while the collection has been assembled. But it is the world the poet has seen that predominates. Some of these are unlikely “poetic” vehicles, such as “Intercity”: “We accelerate into the velvet pocket of midnight/the smell of warm tarseal lines under the hot hum of cicadas ….”

Vivid and loving, Plumb’s poem here aligns her with the subset of bus-catching local poets (along with Vincent O’Sullivan and Roger Horrocks). The bus speeds Plumb away from Rotorua, a location little serenaded in poetry, but Plumb works it well in “A Photo Opportunity in the Government Gardens, Rotorua” and “Sulphur City”,  from its lyrical opening (“Rotorua, light of my light, pale dawn of my dusk”) to its pop-song close (“but I still love you, baby,/I love you”). Rotorua and places nearby feature also in a series of prose poems, a form Plumb has often found congenial; it suits her investment in the found poetry of odd objects, weirdly juxtaposed. The approach works also in a series of poems set in Poland, set as either verse or prose. Plumb writes as a visitor but has the happy knack of suggesting Polish voices translated into English. These voices break frequently into aphorism, but their wisdom is not obvious, as in the end of “Polish Addictions”:

Jarek tells me: I live to smoke.
There is only one cigarette –
the cigarette of the mind.

Maybe Christopher Hitchens would like that one.

Crumple begins with a threshold poem, “Instructions”, to invite us in. This too is made from found language: “Do not give the parrot avocado”. For parrot minders, this would be sound advice. For the rest, it gives notice of the mild surrealism the collection deploys. It also serves as a product warning – that Crumple is not strongly thematic, but that the miscellany on show here is a good read.

David Eggleton’s Time of the Icebergs ranges widely also, taking in Suva, Nukualofa, Sydney and Auckland’s Devonport. Nevertheless Eggleton remains a staunchly southern poet, and the gusto he brings to his Dunedin poems is arresting. Since early colonial days, the city has been a “nest of singing birds” but, as Eggleton shows, there remains much to serenade and lambast. Many will have heard Eggleton’s superb public readings. His rhetoric here seems bound to make even silent readers get up and stride around. He still has the opulent swagger taken from early Ginsberg, elegising “Dada Dunedin”: “For in the New Year you are a ghost ship of a town maintained/by a tatterdemalion skeleton crew in op-shop regalia”, as January/February visits easily confirm. He’s equally good on Auckland, in the epic ode “Matariki from Takarunga, Devonport”:

Auckland’s monster brain, even asleep, pulses
with electric flashes: a live volcanic field –
urban magma, glowing, larval, wormy,
while Skytower blazes like a firebrand to flush
out werewolves … .

This surely is what Sir Walter Scott describes as the “big bow wow style”. In a time of relentless irony, it’s good to have such full-throated rhetoric to hand. Eggleton does not shy from his allegiances: the collection ends with his vision of “Twenty Second Century” New Zealand as a “Middle Earth/being prepared for strip-mines by Orcs”, an unashamedly romantic eco-poet.

There’s more here though than a harshly prophetic local version of the Blakean sublime. The thundering major chords at times turn to notes of quiet delicacy. “On Beauty”, for example, manages a lovely homage to the late Baxter sonnets: “Between deep fiords: landslips of slow footsteps./Lakes dark eyes, you triumph in your screen test.” The love of the south – city, lake, mountain or sea – is fierce and sustaining. Fitting then that the collection includes another ode for Hone Tuwhare, “Aotearoa Considered as a Scale Model”, not a direct elegy, but one where the poet morphs into the land from which he came:

If shabby corduroy paddocks won’t wash
follow a jiggle-string of beach pulled taut
by the soaraway kite of blue sky,
as Tangaroa unfolds a pill-flecked jersey … .

Reading those lines made me think the time was right for a book of New Zealand elegies, for there has been a raft of them in recent years, as the older generation of poets passes on, like veterans of poets’ wars. In that case, you could match Eggleton beautifully with the last poem in McQueen’s Radio Room, dedicated “to Hone 1995”. “Your Eyes” links Tuwhare to the land, “Plain and true/the hills and the horizon”; but this delicacy makes room for the salty relish, the sheer naughtiness of Tuwhare: “O you got wicked eyes/that needle me and piss me off, my friend.”

The collection derives from McQueen’s tenure as poet laureate. The gathered poems justify the award, using a wide array of poetic forms, with a default setting of free verse poems, mingling with prose poem, a “Passion Pantoum”, and a stirring ballad, “Mining Lament”:

I went to see the golden hill
but it had all been mined away
all that’s left is an empty bowl
of yellow gorse and rutted clay … .

Elegy dominates this collection, not just in the two poems for Tuwhare, but also through the general sense of casting back, to previous poetic forms, to ancestors both Gaelic and Maori. McQueen evokes “Talking to my Tokotoko”, for example, in terms that are graceful and moving.

Another nifty anthology might be made of poets who illustrate their own work – Joanna Paul is the prime New Zealand example. Here McQueen has interspersed her poems with delicate drawings. The text does not note the format of the originals for these, a mixture of charcoal landscapes, pen and ink drawings and manipulations of computer text. It’s the southern landscapes that work best: Foveaux Lighthouse, Bluff’s port, a sharply refined segment of the Southern Alps. On the A5-size page, the word pictures, “Incorporating the Oyster” I and II, densely patterned pictures made of words, seemed too small to read, as if the original had been too shrunk to fit on the single page. Possibly this was the point, and my ageing eyes were meant to work hard at the jumble to elicit anything like sense. In any case I wondered whether static concrete poems like this had any resonance still, given the much greater scope on line for playing with the materials of poems. Taken together the images lend a nice balance to the words on the facing pages.

To end with a confession of my own. I wanted to like these collections more than I did, having relished previous books by all four poets. In each there were some good touches and there were some memorable poems. But none of them struck me as being, as a whole, a great book, demanding to be reread and possessed as a whole. I don’t feel the need to press any of the four upon people, as gifts, or loudly to recommend them beside the poetry section in a bookstore. This left me puzzled. Were all four pretty decent efforts in the end, but nothing terrific? Or had I missed something in the Zeitgeist, and is the lust for a “great” book of poems – like Ian Wedde’s Earthly: Sonnets to Carlos (1975) or Allen Curnow’s An Incorrigible Music (1979) – just nostalgia for a paradise lost of local poets? Answers may be included with entries for this issue’s crossword.


Mark Houlahan teaches English literature at the University of Waikato.

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