Victoria University Press, $28.00,
Beauties of the Octagonal Pool
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
To graft is “to fix two things together like tree branches, or skin to heal or grow something new”, and Helen Heath’s first book of poetry, Graft, explores the sometimes uncomfortable intersections between science and faith, life and death, reality and magical thinking. The book doubles as Heath’s thesis for her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University, and for the most part it is an impressive and focused collection.
Graft opens with Isaac Newton, who endeavoured to reconcile his Christian faith with his scientific discoveries. Newton is one of several profiled figures; in “Radiant”, the hard facts of Marie Curie’s experiments with radium are juxtaposed with her humanity and relative fragility:
at night she is the moth
bumping against the soft blue glow,
pulled to the point from which
all things radiate.
The beauty of the imagery is at odds with Curie’s brutal death, caused by the element to which she has devoted her working life, and which ironically ushered in the development of radiotherapy as a modern cancer treatment. The development of something new, the graft, is not always easy and Heath handles complexity with skill. The poem-profiles also sent me scurrying to the internet to find out more; more knowledge on my part led me to reread and discover further depths to the poems.
“Radiant” sits among a series of poems describing the death by cancer of the poet’s mother. The ugliness of a hospital death is sensitively captured (“Over her legs a thin sheet,/ice chips dissolving in a paper cup./She’s bigger than her body”), as are the strange practicalities of dressing the dead (“Your hair’s brushed wrong –/we try to fix it./And the makeup’s almost clownish”). “Show your workings” uses the format of a mathematical problem to contrast the bruising reality of cancer treatment with the seemingly impersonal medical science behind it.
While Heath values medical advancement, she is uncomfortable with an unquestioning faith in science. Can any single doctrine apply to the messy reality of humanity? It is a provoking point, and the final three poems of the book illustrate it effectively. Describing the sexual abuse and subsequent abortion of a young woman, they drive home the message of humanity’s sometimes banal and bleak experience, versus the divinity promised by religion:
But it can’t be the Rapture
’cause you’re only just above the houses
and the river, which slides over the shingle beds
and out to sea.
Throughout the book Heath plays with the meanings of graft, sometimes with less success. Graft can also mean “dig”, and two long poems in the middle section, “Ithaca”, act as part travelogue and part exploration of her Greek cultural heritage. The imagery is evocative and Heath effectively captures the sights and smells of Greece, and the sometimes alien experience of visiting an ancestral land. However, “Ithaca” has less immediate impact and detracts from the power and tight thematic links of the rest of the book.
Gregory O’Brien’s Beauties of the Octagonal Pool is also a travelogue, meandering around New Zealand, through the Pacific and across Europe, with a sprinkling of other destinations thrown in. The book is divided into eight sections (one manifestation of the octagonal pool of the title), with poems roughly grouped by theme, time and place. The octagonal pool also refers to the Waitemata Harbour, which O’Brien notes is “not rectangular, but neither is it round: octagonal feels about right” and to which he finds himself returning after two decades living in Wellington. Despite the title, Auckland appears less frequently than expected, acting less as an anchor and more as a jumping off point for O’Brien’s journeying.
O’Brien is an effective travel writer and frequently branches out into uncharted territories. A trip through Fiordland inspires poems which both eulogise pioneering explorers who travelled through the damp Sounds, as well as mourn the damage to the fragile ecosystem by the onrush of European travellers. “Richard Henry in Fiordland” pays tribute to the Irish-born New Zealand conservationist of Resolution Island, and the last kakapo of the South Island who was given his name:
When stoat weather took apart
the kakapo pen
Richard Henry swam
even deeper down, beyond feather star
and coral tree, his own species
a sea as empty of birds
as the sky above.
Likewise “The Ailing Wife” recalls the voyage of Spanish explorers Malaspina and Bauza, who explored Doubtful Sound in 1799, and effectively captures the cool remove of the landscape, with its “wide/unmoving waters”.
O’Brien’s poems are painterly, reflecting his other life as an artist. The description and metaphor throughout the book give the impression of saturated colour, including the glorious “sky made/of watermelon, pomegranate and lime” in “Ode to Futuna Chapel”, and the “fish-like flecks – yellow, gold /and green” of “An Artist’s Guide to Layers of the Ocean”. If Heath questions the validity of transcendence, O’Brien finds balm in the damp, abundant flora and fauna of New Zealand and the South Pacific, which he expresses through his poetry and his art.
Beauties of the Octagonal Pool is also funny. Section four describes a trip to Moscow, and he notes both the quirky instructions to guests at the Hotel Rossiya, and the mix of humanity in “Outside Lenin’s Tomb”:
One – ex Army,
a dealer in reptiles – had installed
a family of iguanas and four metre snakes around
the nearest pond.
Who was going to argue
Painting crops up both as metaphor and subject. The long prose poem “Black Square” describes the painting of the same name by the artist Kazimir Malevich in the New Tretyakov Gallery; O’Brien also references Orthodox Russian iconography, visits Russian art galleries, and notes the splendour and permanence of distinctive Russian architecture and the onion dome. The effect is immersive and informative; as with Graft I found myself continually looking up references on Google, not only because my knowledge of art is sadly lacking but because I was curious to see the works that O’Brien references with such obvious knowledge and passion.
Beauties of the Octagonal Pool is a long book, running to 118 pages. The poems are immersive and dense, but, as with any good travel story, a few photos at a time are enough to give a flavour for a place, and make you wish you were there.
After the density of Graft and Beauties of the Octagonal Pool, Harry Ricketts’s Just Then can seem like light relief. Just Then is Ricketts’s ninth book of poetry and also has the quality of a travelogue, only this one is as much through time and memory as it is across geographies. The tone is wry, witty and occasionally elegiac; if Octagonal Pool was like flipping through a travel album, Just Then is looking through the clippings album of an old friend.
Ricketts regularly returns to the England of his childhood. “Just Then” references childhood war games, while “Just Then 2” provides a perfect snapshot of a 1970s Bee Gees youth: “the sun feels hot though your jeans, cheesecloth shirt; the string of yellow beads sticky fingers your neck. The black-and-white bag with its astrological symbols bumps on your hip.” “Flannelled Fools” and “Masters, reading” refer to his educational experiences at public school and prep school, respectively, and, like many of Ricketts’s poems, are peppered with bit players the reader meets only fleetingly.
“A fish out of water”,
that is what Macksey called you …
You realise that you’re
the one McGann had a crush on.
The effect is to build up a community of characters with a recognisable protagonist. By the end I almost felt that I had read a memoir, although the brevity of most of the poems leaves the reader with tantalising hints rather than gory details. Included are several poems written by Ricketts in the 1970s, including “Three Songs for Hong Kong” from 1975. I appreciated the use of traditional poetic forms here, but the lyrics seemed a curiosity, overwhelmed by the rhyme without capturing the mood or sense of place that characterise the rest of the poems.
In amongst the growing cast of characters are a number of other poets and writers from New Zealand and elsewhere. James K Baxter, Allen Ginsberg, Louis Johnson and Bruce Chatwin are mentioned, and “The New Zealand Lit XI” casts some of New Zealand’s literary lights as a cricket team. At times this has the slightly irritating quality of name-dropping; however, “Seven Things Nigel Told Me about Bruce Chatwin” and “Allen Ginsberg, Leicester, 1980” are enjoyably gossipy, a look behind the scenes which this shameless reader of celebrity magazines thoroughly enjoyed.
But my favourite poems were two elegies written for old friends. “Dear Nigel, Ten Things I Never Got to Say to You” is a heartfelt description of a friendship and its shared jokes and memories, while “Some Things to Remember about Louis Johnson” gives a lively and idiosyncratic portrait of a fellow poet. In “Dear Nigel”, Ricketts remembers “that you were my oldest friend” and “that your half-snort just before you said something wry or ironic lit up the world”. Both lines are reminders that it is the small, shared moments that make for a rich and generous life.
Nadine France is an Auckland reviewer.