The Little Enemy
Steele Roberts, $29.95,
A Man Runs into a Woman
Sarah Jane Barnett
Hue and Cry Press, $25.00,
The Same as Yes
Victoria University Press, $28.00,
These three collections are all debut publications, and each reminds us of the diversity in current writing. They vary greatly in perspective, tone, technique, assumed knowledge, and raise again the interesting question of what it means to be a New Zealand writer.
Nicholas Reid is a lyric and satiric poet. A long career as teacher, historian, theologian, critic and widely published reviewer, spans a reading life which, like mine, encompasses the notion of the literary canon – the best of which has been thought and taught – from the standpoint of the latter half of the 20th century. His poems, sometimes with the benefit of endnotes, name-check (as they say) Hazlitt and Cowper, Philip Larkin, Randolph Scott, Alfred Hitchcock, Mayakovsky and Baudelaire – among many more. All dead white males, for sure, but one has a sense that this collection has been a while in the making; that it is both a cultural retrospective and a Proustian reverie about familiar places and the experiences of a younger life.
There is also a tone of mordant acceptance that temps is, after all, perdu. Reid’s sceptical Catholicism modifies his tone but certainly doesn’t lighten it. Take the curious title poem, The Little Enemy, for instance, which is Swiftian, or perhaps Augustinian, in its reminder that we are all bound for decay and oblivion. Reid’s subject, an epicurean, is savouring a dish of fettucine when:
The little enemy, like an army not knowing
whether to advance or retreat, stalled in his gut,
announced its presence with an acidic stab ….
In those moments of hesitancy, the little enemy
turned philosopher, declared ”You did know
was brief, didn’t you? That sooner or later
I would break down into my constituent
Leave me uneaten, I rot. Process me through
I rot faster ….
“I am the food you ate, become yourself,”
said the little enemy, “And I am digestion,
and I am Time.” He swallowed. The enemy
kicked, and fulfilled its destiny.”
But life has its epiphanies before it turns to excrement and dust, as the poems in the first two sections, “Fly-over Country” and “The Pool”, attest. Some are lyrics of familiar places such as “Bluff Seas” – “Skewed on a tip of rock/the straps of copper-coloured kelp/dance in the noon’s sea swell”. Or, in the gentle Romantic paradox of “Reserve”:
And we claimed delight at how
distant, soft and hushing the
rude noise from the main road was.
Pure Nature. But it was still
the concrete beneath our feet
that made us most at home.
The absence of cameras is celebrated in “Long After it Was Heard No More”: “Thank you for not bringing/the camera when I was twelve/feet tall. Digging a cavern.” Memory, not memento, is preferred: “Thank you for not saving/the moment, for letting it grow malleable and live/in this obtuse soft grey organ.”
There are other blue remembered lyrics here, such as the tightly rhymed, gently elegiac “Once to the Rocks”, dedicated to his friend, the poet and editor, Bill Sewell:
“Once to the rocks” said Bill and took a dive
as neat and arc-light as a well-cast line.
He left no ripple. I blundered behind
with belly flop and splashes, awkwardly.
So in his element, smooth and alive
ahead, with berried skin and flexing spine
amphibious kelpie boy, he didn’t mind
headaching sunlight on a morning sea.
Elsewhere, we find religious themes questioned with a humanist caution – as in “Holy Sonnets” and “A Donkey Ride”. And, when you check Reid’s notes and learn that the title refers to an airship’s gondola, Nacelle is rewardingly airy. Also notable is the witty and perceptive riposte to Yeats’s poem of the same name, “Among School Children”, which concludes: “What of the leaf, the blossom and the bole?/Platonic fizz distracting from the social whole.” The Little Enemy has thoughtful, lightly-managed poems that lure you back to be their friends.
Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection, A Man Runs into a Woman, is also a first single-author publication for Wellington-based art and literary journal, Hue and Cry, and it is well worth the heralding. The collection is in three sections; the first consists of eight pieces. Some like “Embossed” (“‘We’re getting on,’ she says./He sings into her hands, his voice/slipping between her fingers”) and “Bees” (“One evening there was a fat cloud of bees. They hum into/his empty spaces”) are short dense blocks of unlineated text, like compressed Oxo cubes, perhaps, concentrations of flavour and meaning waiting to be released by the reader.
These poems inhabit subjectivities other than that of the poet; they are micro-fictions, tersely fashioned to suggest meaning beyond their margins. “Lullaby” is especially insinuating in its melancholy:
The woman next door sings so slowly someone
died. She practises her sorry aria through the
The radio tells me
it snows somewhere south. Drifts fall down for
presenter uses the word ghastly far too often.
In the ghastly
snow he says, animals dig for their calves.
The second section is more particular and, perhaps, problematic. These poems all refer to the documented executions of convicted murderers on death row in Texas between 1999 and 2009. They are named – Dennis Dowthitt David Long, Johnny Ray Johnson – and details of their grisly crimes, all against women and children, are interspersed with accounts of their final hours and minutes awaiting lethal injection. The authenticity of the details, I discovered, can be found on the Texas Execution Information Centre website.
Barnett crisply and powerfully captures the events, the frame of mind and actual words of these miscreants. Dowthitt commits his crimes at a rundown location he knew as a kid: “While he drags her to the rear of the truck/he thinks, I’m fucking sick/of selling cars in Humble.” There is sinister irony in For a New Technician: David Long, the live-in handyman who killed all three women in the house he shared, faces execution:
The chair looks
like a La-Z-boy or the seat an astronaut
would be strapped into, ready for blast off.
The astronaut mouths, Don’t watch, Mama.
I’m sorry I have been such a lazy boy.
My initial reaction was that these are Google poems, with subject matter drawn a long way from “home”. But the poet has adeptly made this material her own and inhabits the specifics in order to invoke our deeper consternation and bewilderment about the sources of human cruelty.
The final section consists of three extended prose poems. The longest, “Marathon Men”, describes the unlikely meeting of two isolated older men – Stu, a waste collection contractor and Robert Malzack, a reclusive man who paints (and decorates) prosthetic limbs. It is a study in contrasting personalities and unlikely connection and has more than a touch of eccentricity to it. It would make a brilliant short film, but I feel, at 15 pages, it looms too large, literally, in a slim volume that should be more delicately balanced.
It raises into question the severe economy of other pieces and overshadows the splendid composition, “The Geographer”, which precedes it. “The Geographer” refers to the woman narrator’s father, now a cross-dresser – “‘I’m still/your dad, just kinder,’ he says.” Source for the line – “In my dream a man runs into a woman” – it gives the book’s title new implication. The man morphs into a woman, as Barnett morphs through a variety of guises, many of them male, some of them in extremis. She, like the Geographer, charts new territory and takes imaginative bearings beyond the subjective eye.
The opening poem in Joan Fleming’s collection describes a small girl who “has some questions: is ‘hello’ the same as/‘yes’ ”. In this imaginative suite of intriguing miniatures, Fleming greets the world from new perspectives and in their playful, often affirmative engagement, hello does indeed seem to be the same as yes.
Like Barnett, Fleming is also a shape-shifter, inhabiting her poems even from inanimate perspectives. An old house says please, a clothes peg talks to the clothesline, chalk talks to the board. In fact, in the first section, “Blue as the Eyes of her Mother”, everyone is talking. An old man is talking to his radio, a young girl talks to a quail chick she is about to love to death, a 15-year-old boy talks in his broken voice, a father does not talk but snoozes through a feminist play, a boy talks to his pockets, a young man who hasn’t swum in 14 years talks to the ocean.
In the “He and She” section, the focus is interpersonal – as in “He and She Talk a Sweet Violence over Dinner”:
They ate their dinner at the table, which
was really a
child’s school-desk. Darling, she said to him.
said to her. And they tore up their bread to
the sound of
the radio news – snatched children found on
earthquake weather making the hemisphere
had a lovely cut on her hand, clean as a
border. And he had splintered fingers from
wood which they were allowing to die, hotly
in the potbelly stove.
The final group, entitled “A Mirror and the First Face”, explores identity and creativity but these poems are, like the whole collection, Escher-like in their surreal intricacy and Edward Lear-like in their whimsical curiosity. In “The Sun Talks about Loneliness and Dying”: “The sun talks in plosive vowels. Mostly Os, at noon./Because it is tired of living so far away, it tries to take up/residence inside our skin.”
The Same As Yes is a captivating collection. Joan Fleming’s assured writing, like that of the other poets discussed here, has a waiting readership who will not be disappointed. But they are not likely to be very young. Most young poets now write songs. Someone should post these poets on Facebook or Twitter or somewhere – to help the hue and cry.
Murray Bramwell lives in Adelaide and is a theatre reviewer for The Australian.