Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963–2016
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Canterbury University Press, $25.00,
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Mākaro Press, $25.00,
It is a harsh fact that we live in a world where there is far more published poetry than people willing or able to read it. Over the past 50 years, poetry has ceased to be a common currency. It is less often a core component of literary studies in either high-school or university curricula. For most people, poetry has become esoteric and increasingly formidable. Few nowadays have ever read more than a handful of poems, let alone committed lines to memory. There are many reasons for this. A significant one is that since the 1960s some of the best poetry has gone to live in Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”; the canon is now plugged into the body electric. Of course, lyrics still matter for people, but only when encased in melody and beats.
So, whenever a volume of poetry appears that is able to capture readers at first glance and then reel them in slowly for deeper, sustained pleasures, we are reminded that all is not yet lost. Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s collection Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963 -2016 has this effect. These poems have a sturdy, well-weighted directness, an artful verve that welcomes the reader without easy blandishments or hyper-slam theatrics. The poems span a more than 50-year period, but the great majority have been gathered from five volumes published since 2000.
There is an impressive range of themes and subjects – unsurprising, given the variety of Holman’s life experiences (born in London and resident in New Zealand since the age of three). The cover notes list a range of occupations: “shearer, postman, psychiatric social worker and bookseller”. He is also a distinguished historian and scholar in Māori studies. He spent his early years in the coal-mining town of Blackball on the West Coast. He comes from the working world, and his poems affirm a sense of social justice and remembered hardship. He has a cv which echoes Walt Whitman, or the Beats, or Kiwi poets (James K Baxter the postman!) from a generation earlier.
Blood Ties comprises eight sections, but three, in particular, form the core of the book. “Some Ancestors” includes a grouping of elegies about the consanguine links of parents, now departed. In “Father and Son”, he writes: “I do not want another father: old man now / dead, cancer faded / and swelled you”. This is the negligent, cruel, war-damaged father he describes elsewhere in “As Big as a Father”, the title poem of Holman’s collection published in 2002 and winner of the Whitireia Prize the following year. It is a splendid poem and has a strong ballad rhythm which shrewdly stays just short of declamation:
I lost him the first time
Before I could grasp
Who he was ….
I lost him a second time
To the rum-running Navy
Who took him and took him ….
I lost him a third time
To a ship in a bottle
That rocked him and rocked him
And shook out his pockets ….
Holman’s courageous mother is remembered with a child’s fondness in “We’ll Meet” and “Mary at Dawn, 25 April 2004”: “Now Mum is gone, who’s left? Memory once / was a blazing day and now it bites the eyes ….”
But there are also other ties that bind. Holman pays tribute to a literary father figure: Peter Hooper, his English teacher in 1963, to whom he dedicates the schoolboy poem, “Moon”, which opens the collection. Hooper, himself a prominent writer and fabled owner of Walden Books in Greymouth, is a valued mentor (as he was to Brian Turner and Pat White). Hooper also appears in “Poem for John Pule the Last Days of Peter Hooper” as a kind of Kerouac Zen mystic, in the turbulent “Re-reading You” and, as a digression, in the salute to Tuwhare, “Universal Hone”.
Growing up in Blackball, his father a miner in a tight-knit community, has imbued Holman with a workerist commitment that is deeply felt. In the section “Old King Coal”, the selections from the 2004 volume, The Late Great Blackball Bridge Sonnets stand out, even in this high-calibre collection. Describing the now-dismantled bridge, Holman remembers it as both a vital link for coal and supplies, and to the larger world: “And over you would come the town’s lifeblood: / groceries and detonators, the miners’ wages and / the morning paper, The Grey River Argus (New Zealand’s “Pioneer Labour Daily”) and for some / that National rag, the Evening Star … .”
Elsewhere, Holman writes ruefully: “Now you’re obsolete planking, marking / the route to my old town’s grave: but when coal / was still some kind of king, you were / The royal road to heaven for kids like me.” The description of the community of miners in “Sonnet (xxxi)” has echoes of D H Lawrence: “The bathhouse was a cathedral of nudes. / Here the grateful shoulders lathered, work / forgotten in prayers of steam.” “Mine” connects to the Pike River disaster of 2010. It is a powerful elegy, simply spoken and quietly pitched, gathering feeling with rhythm and repetition:
Son, there was a time when you
Brother, when the shining day was
Friend, there was an hour when all
went well ….
…. And now, the mountain says,
And now, the rivers say, “He’s ours.”
And now, the darkness says, “My
In part four, “Traumata Dreaming”, Holman’s themes shift from the particular in “The Boy”, dreading the return home of his drunken, violent father, to poems in response to the Christchurch earthquakes – “Who of You” (“Who of you/ will not now bow / pay homage to / Unbrick and Unstone ?”), the chant-like “After the Tremor”, and the chaotic, scattered syntax of “When All You”. The section “Other Tongues” incorporates te reo sections in poems such as “Dreaming of Te Rauparaha” and “E korero ana ki Nga Tama Toa / Talking to the young warriors”. And, not forgetting another inspiration, his kiwi Chapman’s Homer, he describes “On looking again into Heemi’s Collected Poems”. Blood Ties is a richly rewarding collection in its range, its assured (and reassuring) voice and the deft vividness of its language. It is fine poetry in anyone’s reckoning.
Bob Dylan’s songs have been internationally ubiquitous for more than 50 years and his recent Nobel Prize for Literature highlights his place in world letters. Many poets have been ardent admirers – Robert Adamson in Australia, the Canadian poet Stephen Scobie who has constructed intricate acrostic poems to honour his Bobness – so Holman’s slim tribute, the bluntly titled Dylan Junkie is yet another genuflection to the enigmatic, elusive master.
Dedicated to Radio 2ZB host Pete Sinclair, on whose Sunset Show in 1965 Holman first heard “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Holman’s poems are a mix of tangential meditations on what Dylan himself called his “thin wild mercury sound”. “Hearing him was wind over water,” Holman exults: “sixty can’t call back sixteen / expectation is a mountain / fulfilment a sparrow / what he set free was light as a feather / left you hopping for joy over crumbs.”
The collection is a panegyric to the poet who released in Holman’s New Zealand teenage self a sense of the glory and weirdness of language that has clearly sustained him through his whole life. In the 1960s, Dylan’s alchemical wizardry was unique. Allen Ginsberg could see that, as could the Beatles. No-one staked out more new territory than Dylan. So, whether it was through the airwaves of the 2ZB Sunset Show or, in my case, also in 1965, from my bedroom in Palmerston North, accidentally picking up the first broadcast of “Like a Rolling Stone” on Sydney’s radio 2UE, followers everywhere believed they were tuning into the future itself.
Many of Holman’s poems use Dylan’s song titles: “Went to See the Gypsy”, “I Believe in You”, “Wedding Song”. Occasionally they are overwrought like “A Simple Twist of Fate”; others directly refer to specific Dylanology such as Dylan’s Wildean swagger through Camden Town in his video clip for “World Gone Wrong”, or the eye-watering astonishment when the previously unreleased masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell” was finally, casually, loosed upon the world. An outstanding poem is “No Time to Think”, a recollection of an act of instinctive heroism Holman poignantly recalls from the West Coast in 1978.
The centrepiece in this collection of meditations, perorations, and un-tranquil recollections is the sequence “Lines from Hard Rain”. Using phrases from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Dylan’s apocalyptic hymn from 1963 – part Book of Revelation, part Child ballad, part science-fiction dystopia – Holman threads reveries of possum traps and marram grass, Bottle Lake and Blackball Creek. The poem sequence is a daisy chain of phrases quoted from “Hard Rain”: mouth of a graveyard, baby with wolves, diamonds with nobody, black branch drips blood, tongues all broken. These fragments Holman has shored against, not just his ruins, but his ecstasy. Dylan Junkie is an obsessive project and a celebration. These are annotations from a pilgrimage – including an actual one, described in “Heading for Hibbing”, notes and epiphanies from Holman’s road trip to Dylan’s birthplace in Minnesota.
There are undoubtedly excellent stand-alone poems here, but Dylan Junkie is also inextricably connected to its host texts. It is hooked on Bob, you might say. And there are plenty of us out there who share this dependency. There is the risk that these intriguing, evocative poems are for Dylan devotees and trainspotters only. Knowing the scriptures certainly helps. But then again, as someone once said: you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Murray Bramwell lives in Adelaide and is a regular theatre reviewer for The Australian.