Steal Away Boy: Selected Poems of David Mitchell
Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts (eds)
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
In the 1970s David Mitchell was the poet everyone wanted to be. A self-possessed and talented hipster, Mitchell’s best-selling collection, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby (1972), spoke to a generation navigating the downward turn from 1960s idealism. After Pipe Dreams Mitchell went on to win the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in 1975 and then founded the performance event Poetry Live! in Auckland. Three years later Mitchell stopped turning up. By the end of the 1980s he had started to fade from the poetry scene.
In Steal Away Boy,editors Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts bring together over 250 pages of Mitchell’s poems from 1962–2009. The book opens with a substantial introduction that is punctuated with black and white photographs of a young Mitchell, as well as images of Mitchell with Baxter, Glover, and his family. I found this abridged biography allowed the poems to be read in the context of 1960s and 1970s New Zealand, a bohemian Europe, and Mitchell’s personality and philosophies.
Mitchell has been called an antipodean beatnik and his theatrical and lyrical poems take on the big hitters – death, love, social concerns, and the act of writing. He is straight speaking: “th sombre politicians/of love/are murmuring ‘he’s one/of us …’/as if th fancy denim/suits cd hid the pus”. Mitchell is also funny: “they are still/sitting in the café lebanon/waiting for something GREAT to happen”, and his self-awareness cuts through any moments of sentimentality. I can easily connect Mitchell, slouching at Kings Cross with a lopsided smile and his wife at the time, the impossibly beautiful Elsebeth, with his romantic and erotic poems: “I remember her as a fifth season/she/who came unheralded/into those lean months/shaming the precise blue evenings/with the proud eternity of her flesh”.
More than anything, Mitchell’s poems demand to be spoken, and he composed poems as he intended them performed. In performance he was “the master of the pause”, and his skill with rhyme and silence is evident. His poems drop unuttered letters and use sparse punctuation and line-breaks to control their pace. There are frequent exclamations – “LOVE! LOVE!” – while poems such as “at pakiri beach” repeat stanzas like the chorus of a song. While Mitchell spent time in Europe, he is not ashamed (unlike some contemporary poets) to announce he is a New Zealander. In “Dunkirk, 1962”, he states:
I, who wear no uniform
in no greatcoat & jackboots
only an oilskin parka & ripple soled
rubber jandals MADE IN NZ
(“VERY FLAT HORIZONS!”)
Occasionally Mitchell’s work turns heavy as poems chant at the reader who, now distanced from the politics of the time, may disengage from this voice. At his best the poems are joyous but restrained and full of a vibrant energy.
Edmond and Roberts have used a light editorial hand. They worked with Mitchell and his daughter Genevieve who had the “three thick, bound, blue-covered A4 books” of the poems Mitchell had preserved. Steal Away Boy comprises “about one quarter” of this material, and the editors followed Mitchell’s formats and notes where possible. The book is divided into seven sections, vaguely chronological, that are titled after poems or events. As a reader, I would have liked date ranges with each section, but it is possible the information wasn’t available to the editors. I also wondered if print was the best medium for his selected poems, considering Mitchell himself had only ever published one book and preferred the act of performance.
Mitchell now lives in Sydney and due to illness can no longer speak. In a way, Edmond and Roberts have let his poems perform again, and I think he would be pleased to find his voice is still forceful and persuasive. In younger years Mitchell was known for avoiding publishers, so Steal Away Boy is a coup for the editors and Auckland University Press. It is also a gift to New Zealand readers because Mitchell’s poems are a time capsule that captures the poetry and mood of the 1960s and 1970s. In this sense a new generation of readers may be surprised by what’s come before and how whimsical, soulful and musical the past can be.
Sarah Jane Barnett is currently doing a PhD in creative writing at Massey University.