Mirror World by Nicholas Reid (Steele Roberts, 2016), 83 pp., $19.99; Dark Days in the Oxygen Café by James Norcliffe (Victoria University Press, 2016), 80 pp., $25
Nicholas Reid is a good poet; Mirror World, his second collection of poems, is a good book. Two books of poems, poems written one by one, not necessarily one after the other, as occasion has demanded, which are then gathered together: this sadly anachronistic procedure, which requires that the poet write in nothing but good faith, is what gives Mirror World and its predecessor, The Little Enemy, their variedness, particularity and assuredness. Craft is tested against attended experience, time after time; should an occasion inspire sufficient motivation to write a poem, then Reid, if he has time, takes pains to write one.
So there is no ‘theme’ to this collection with which to readily market this book. What unites them is a style, a marriage of craft and sensibility. Whether or not one takes umbrage with Reid’s ideas about the world, particularly with what he regards as its failings, even his softest targets would have to acknowledge the un-self-serving approach he takes to writing. Even his most gimlet-eyed Jeremiads have a spring in their step. But poems of this kind, zingers like ‘The cat sat on the mat’, a poem in which Reid holds a mirror up to a self-impeaching zeitgeist, are much less arresting than his more tender poems, which by far show him at his best, such as in the collection’s title poem:
Seated at a desk, in an empty house,
with the door open to the bedroom
mirror, I see a world of trees familiar
and unfamiliar, bent in a way I know
and do not know. Behind them houses
of left-handed people, dressing right.
Fey mirror world, the clouds
contrary and the shapes perverse,
its to’s are fro’s, lefts rights.
Morning sunlight strikes things
from the west. Greeting is valediction.
A cello buzzes a goodbye at sunrise.
Clocks don’t tick backwards.
Alice does not slide a zigzag game
of chess. No mirror-cracking
curse upon them, things are as they are,
up up, down down, and laws of physics
operating with a concrete slap.
But it’s a picture mocking what’s outside,
beyond the window, acting every move
reversed, an alien Old Master tempting me
to rush the glass, to break the frame,
and walk the skew-shaped paths that run
behind wallpaper, all ways and unknown.
Tenderness, as often is the case with Reid, is carried on a voice that is also a bit sad and a little pissed off. Reid’s other recurrent concerns – evanescence, how surface bears on depth and vice versa, the ‘alien Old Master’ and the theological and philosophical quandaries ‘He’ brings to the table – are all found in ‘Mirror-World’, though it is far more plainly spoken than almost all the other poems in this collection, which roil with the richness of proper nouns and particularities of place and time (and not only in English). Playing off expectations of iambic regularity by throwing in a metrical banana skin, as for instance happens in the second stanza of ‘Mirror-World’ (and getting three bone fide spondees in one poem is no mean achievement), is another tactic Reid employs to give life to his verse, which delights, too, in a communal life of books, travel, family and art.
Reid may have written only two books of poems, but he has written a number of books of other kinds, and much else in journals, periodicals, magazines and on the web. Like the late English poet Donald Davie, Reid seems to me concerned with getting as many of the prose virtues into his poems as they can bear without breaking. Occasionally they buckle; but to my ear and eye they never break, and more often than not they are enriched, humanised, and made penitent by the cargo they carry, belying their sometimes splenetic first impression. Despite its often slightly bitter tone, Mirror World amply enacts in poem after poem a generosity and openness Reid himself so verily – as it were – expresses: ‘Greeting is valediction.’
Dark Days in the Oxygen Café is the most recent book of poems by James Norcliffe. Norcliffe – a fiction writer, educationalist, and tutelary spirt of the Canterbury poetry scene as well as an accomplished poet – has, for readers who have encountered his poems more than once, an instantly recognisable and unforgettable voice, whether in print or at one of his many live readings. It is a voice that trades in the poetic currency, a voice honed before an audience of warm bodies: it is economical, well-turned out, intelligent but self-deprecating, good-humoured, and not shy of eliciting gasps or giggles, whether appropriate or altogether not. But it is more than all that, Norcliffe’s way with words. And perhaps his ease, wit and affability distract from other less comforting characteristics, which are, for me, why his poetry often maintains its spell long after he has passed the microphone or the page has been turned.
Dark Days has a lot of poems ostensibly about this or that. Norcliffe is particularly fond in this book of surrealistic anachronism, a Barthelme-like setting askew of then and now, of high and low, juxtapositions, which shiver with the frisson of opposed magnets, which have readers wrong-footed as they set to reading. Almost all the poems deploy humour, and sometimes they slip into frippery. The finest poems also turn on wit, but do so for serious ends – poems such as ‘The death of Seneca,’ which closes Dark Days and is one of the best in the book. It is also the best poem written if not about then at least in response to, albeit obliquely, the Canterbury earthquakes.
The death of Seneca
Such a gesture of indifference is the shrug –
indifference with a hint of disdain
and when earth itself shrugs and picks
pips from its teeth, nothing is different.
All night the tremors came, rattling windows,
shaking walls, cleaving stones and rolling
them down hillsides. Fondly we believed that
because we loved this place and these gardens …
Now we are beyond shrugging, unlike Seneca
who, when the emperor came rattling, ordered
his servants to draw a warm bath, bring him
sharp blades, bring him pomegranates.
The emperor rattles like a window; quite so. But the really remarkable thing about this poem is how that extraordinary third stanza throws its determining shadow back across the first two, making the clichéd ‘hint of disdain’, ‘rattling windows’, and ‘shaking walls’ questionable in an unexpected and telling way. The last two lines are, well, killers (Norcliffe has quite the way with grammar – grammar as a weapon!) and pomegranates is undeniably le mot juste. Choosing the right words is, of course, important, but Norcliffe is also one of our best syntactical technicians and is extraordinarily adept at drawing on its subtly expressive power.
There is no doubt of the effectiveness of Norcliffe’s drollness, understatement, punning and affability – all of which readers of Dark Days will find in spades – but such qualities often belie his poems’ emotional charge, which never depends on him raising his voice. There is, though, an incantatory pitch that, when married incipiently to his wryness, carries to one’s ear a peculiar suggestiveness beyond – not, I think, beneath – the poems’ ludic surfaces, which often gesture subtly away from what they say. This emotional charge is most fully felt in ‘The death of Seneca’, but Norcliffe’s poems, even though entertaining, never shy from language’s darker charges and louring penumbras: delicately poised but strongly made poems in which what is not said is often more keenly felt than what appears to be.
ROBERT MCLEAN is a poet, short-story writer, critic and reviewer. He lives in Wellington where he works in the Civil Service.