The Conch Trumpet
Otago University Press, $25.00,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
Feeding the Birds
Steele Roberts, $20.00,
The job of reviewing poetry may one day be redundant. A neural-net programme could conceivably learn enough from previous responses to collections of poetry to make critical judgements, even write passable poetry. A large data set would be essential. Harry Ricketts, Geoff Cochrane, Kevin Ireland and David Eggleton have now produced a total of 55 books of poetry, a formidable starting-point even for a computer.
The pleasures of familiarity would, however, be lost, as well as the surprises as these writers edge into new domains. Computers, moreover, do not have friends or family, at least not yet. Many of the poems in these collections are about these subjects. There is also a cautionary Jeremiah, a cascade of rejections of technosociety in David Eggleton’s “Testament of Databody Dave”, an assault on the “panoptic tracking” of our information, the “banjaxed bollocks” of over-consumed lifestyles and the reduction of people to “algorithms taking care of business”.
For all the modernity of David Eggleton’s style: the demented tumble of metaphors, the repetitions, the grab-you-without-a-pause directness of his delivery, the subject matter of his poetry in recent years has often been more traditional. Like Brian Turner or the poets of the 1930s, he has used landscape as the foundation for his forays into history or moments of revelation. Though it is unlikely that he would be so obvious as to say so himself, he is an advocate for a landscape of the sublime. It is a quality realised, now and again, when it is not damaged by people or simply reduced to banality. In “Hydrangeas”, for instance, there is nature in a vase, a polite accessory to tennis parties and champagne. These flowers contrast with many of the figures in other poems who come from a numinous past: Māui, Rangi the Melody Maker, Moriori dendroglyphs on the bark of trees, a tohunga at Omarama, even the itinerant sheep-stealer Mackenzie, who appropriates objects like pounamu blades, but still responds at daybreak to the mythic view before him, a “spyglass of islands crooked in his arm”.
There is also the Eggleton who writes about the Viet Cong and the death of Gaddafi, but the best of his poems are in sections like “Waitaha”, which exposes the impact of human settlement on the South Island, while at the same time recalling what has been lost. They only wobble when Eggleton’s frustration breaks through, as in “The Motherlode”, which is about the destructive changes brought about by dairy farming.
The Conch Trumpet, like its fine opening poem of the same title, looks good, with its cover and internal illustrations by Tonu Shane Eggleton. It is on a heavy paper and allows the poems space on the page, unlike some of the straightjacketed chapbook productions that are common at present.
Eggleton is unusual in that so much of what he writes can be described as public poetry, whereas both Harry Ricketts and Kevin Ireland focus on their own memories and imaginings. Geoff Cochrane goes further. He stands alone among local poets in the manner in which he unabashedly thrusts his readers into his world. His poems start (and often remain) within the minutiae of his own experiences.
“I’m a man of a certain age,” says the narrator of a prose piece in his collection Wonky Optics. The man of a certain age reflects a lot, so he proceeds to meander through a series of trivial and sometimes uncomfortable topics – his medications, his projects, his horror at the crassness of public displays of literary activity, the beanies that kids wear, the savings that can come from not drinking coffee. To read Cochrane’s work is to come up against the tedium of everyday thoughts and experiences, or at least those he is prepared to reveal as a man who is “conducting an experiment in living” (“Equinoctial”). This accumulation of laboratory notes about being human might appear depressing, but Cochrane, who suggests the “disenchanted poet” may struggle to “find the words in which / to say next to nothing” (“Manifesto”), has the knack of gathering together his apparently random perceptions to create a world that is curiously fulfilled.
It fits that the pieces in Wonky Optics can range from snippets of a few lines or line (“Addenda”), to prose poems in which the sections may or may not be related (“Flying Backwards”). It all seems very erratic, but this is Cochrane’s familiar style. He can move from a polished eulogy for Gerry Melling (“Into the West Away”) to a series of reminiscences in which he can mention computerised axial tomography in one section and a moment in Pigeon Park with his ill friend in another (“Blue Lightning”).
He can, of course, deliver a finished poem of a more conventional form. There are plenty of them in previous collections such as Into India (1999). His movement towards the unexpected gives his latest poems an unusually intimate flavour, as though the reader, like Cochrane, might also experience moments such as a woman’s struggle to get off a bus with her children and a baby buggy, the visit by the plumber to fix a broken toilet, or Cochrane’s musing that he would like to have a son.
The impression left by Wonky Optics is not of the self-deprecating figure who says “Everything’s in place except myself”, but of someone who accepts all possibilities, despite death camps, attempts to write, the loss of friends, or the buzz of alcohol and the “holy faces” at closing time. Geoff Cochrane is no Pollyanna, but his poetry is remarkable because it accepts a place for all this human variety. He even slips in the occasional lyrical moment, the “Scented gusts that bring us sweet elsewhere. / With up so floating many bells down, somehow”.
Harry Ricketts appears to be more detached than Cochrane. He poses at times as the giver of avuncular advice, including to himself. In “Evasion Theory”, a poem from an earlier collection, Your Secret Life, he warns against facing up to one’s fears: “Ignore the urge / to rummage in your backpack”. The past, he says, is “out of bounds” (“Memory Inspection”).
Out of bounds, maybe, but that never stops Ricketts from trespassing into such areas. In Half Dark, there are elegiac reminiscences about dead friends, even acquaintances from schooldays who never survived the 60s. The latter are not attractive, with their shag spots and bad haircuts (“Blanks”). Yet their inclusion, along with poems for close friends such as Bill Sewell, is part of a generosity towards the people he has known, including those who might once have seemed ridiculous. This doesn’t mean he has gone squishy – there are still traces of the familiar poet who makes fun of reviewers, other poets, and literary fads and squabbles. There is space for an examination of the believer in crystals and gluten-free food (“A Modern Creed”) or the optimistic youth who is “a ball of pure consciousness” and fully “de-Freudianised” (“Folly House”).
“Noddy”, which recalls a friend with that nickname, is based on memories of Richard Gilmore and encounters between Enid Blyton’s character and figures such as Mr Plod and Mr Golly. As in many of Ricketts’s poems, there is a serious story set alongside the absurd. In “Breton Café, Brandon Street”, the solemn scattering of ashes at Red Rocks is interrupted by a theft from a car, an event that prompts the valedictory remark about his dead friend’s probable response: “If I listen hard enough / I can just catch your dark laughter”.
The cover of Half Dark is illustrated by an attractive pastel of Central Terrace by John Drawbridge. Many of the poems, like this cover, start with recollections of a place. Among them are the Goethe-Haus in Frankfurt, Rome, Te Mata Peak and Rotoma. Each comes with resonances of affection for the people who were there with him. The warmth seen here is not qualified or restrained as in some of his earlier work. Together with his enjoyment of what can be done with many different poetic forms, this quality of feeling makes it the best and most satisfying of all his collections of poetry.
Helping to bring the total up to 55 volumes for these poets is Feeding the Birds, Kevin Ireland’s 21st collection. In a poem for Fleur Adcock he reflects on one of the advantages of age, the chucking out of the daily myriad of perceptions and memories that bung up a clear vision. The involuntary loss of these “tacky details” prompts a series of metaphors: sprung leaks, melting ice-sheets, and tree-clearing (“The Advantage of Losing Your Marbles”).
Other poems in the collection have something of this paring-down, this detached study of aging and what it is to write, as well as the friends who have shared that project, even those whose efforts he once discounted. It is Ireland at his best, companionable, amused at silliness, but forgiving enough (“Hot Night”). There is still a little of the touch of rage at human venality that lies behind the poems in Tiberius in the Beehive (1990). In “Lucky Us”, for instance, he savages complacency about our leadership, so that we can concentrate on the real news, “shootings, crashes, celebrities, football and the weather”.
These late poems are often quite simple, as in the fine “Epithalamium”, with its disconcertingly unromantic ending: “Each time I reach into a pocket / I find you’ve slipped me the time of my life”.
The pleasures and trials of everyday moments are often contemplated: filling in the evenings, having a shower, washing the dishes and telephone calls. It is hard to accept, however, that Ireland really believes that the “transcendental / comic grit and everlasting glory of wild birds” is the only shield he has against the misfortunes of existence (“Feeding the Birds”). Rhetoric runs away with him here. More convincing are poems such as those about his father’s injunctions – “This’ll hurt me boy, more than it ever hurts you” – or the phantoms summoned up in “Dead Reckonings”, with its memorable opening line: “The world is overpopulated with the dead.”
Ireland, the craftsman, reflects in a complex concluding sonnet on the fate of his poems. I find some of his poems about writing among his least satisfying, but this answers the implicit question it asks about itself – is it worth remembering? Yes, definitely yes.
John Horrocks is a Wellington critic. This year he is a resident scholar at the Stout Centre at Victoria University, where he is researching the war novels of politician/writer John A Lee.