O me voy o te vas / One of us must go by Rogelio Guedea with English translations by Roger Hickin (Otago University Press, 2022), 81pp, $25; Rāwaho/The Completed Poems by David Howard (Cold Hub Press, 2022), 329pp, $45
Before reading O me voy o te vas / One of us must go, the Aotearoa-based Mexican novelist and poet Rogelio Guedea’s latest book of poems in Spanish, accompanied with English translations by Roger Hickin, I checked out a music clip Guedea had posted on Facebook: he’s playing guitar and passionately singing a song in his native tongue.
The song somehow carries the grain of his voice into Hickin’s translations, indicating something simpatico in the men’s creative relationship. The pair have also collaborated on two previous Guedea collections, and both work in the service of other writers. Guedea is the director of The New Zealand Hispanic Press (he’s translated a number of Aotearoa poets’ work into Spanish), and Hickin is the publisher and editor at Lyttelton-based Cold Hub Press.
In poem XI of the XXX-poem sequence, Guedea addresses his partner of over 20 years, to whom he’s dedicated the book, through his thoughts:
You can’t sing
and I really regret not being able to tell you,
you often sing while you cook
or take a shower, as almost
everyone does, I listen to you
and can’t help thinking
you’re deliberately off key […]
The poem ends:
Today I can hear you singing as you water the plants in the courtyard
and there’s nothing to be done but gaze
at the light that falls on your shoulder:
I’ve just noticed how your cheeks glow
in the mid-morning sun.
The poems move from annoyance to endearment to revenge or somewhere else altogether, as in poem XVI, where Guedea has driven his partner to her hairstylist. She doesn’t want him to stay and he walks the streets, but it’s hot so he returns to the annoyance on his partner’s face and the comfort of the salon’s air-conditioning, its ‘voluptuous’ women:
I was in paradise!
Your stylist greets me as if her prince charming had come back from a long journey […]
I could see that you were a bit uncomfortable with it all,
fortunately the woman who was washing your hair
carelessly splashed a few drops of water
that made you close your eyes
for a moment,
just a moment I needed to lose myself forever
on the lips of your stylist.
The apparent ease with which Guedea sets up these candid, nuanced love poems is deceptive; they are, in fact, skilfully devised by a writer with skin in the game. That he can air them with such flair is not only a testament to him but also to his partner ‘Blanca, the only country I can live in’ who, I assume, is complicit with her husband making art out of their intimate, at times fraught, yet enduring, marriage.
The groundwork was laid from the get-go. In answer to Guedea asking her if she remembers a woman they’ve met on several occasions, she says:
‘You know I’ve got no memory for faces,
eh Guedea, so why the fuck ask me
if I remember her?’
None of my excuses are of any use:
oversight, unconscious ruse,
an attempt at conversation,
‘Why, eh? Tell me!’ […]
We’ve been married nearly twenty years,
no, more like twenty-five,
and we’re helpless against forgetfulness,
against love too, which every day
makes us eternal, still.
This entertaining collection will ring true to a wide range of folk. It would also, I reckon, make a marvellous performance piece in Spanish or English.
On taking up the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 2013, David Howard told Dunedin’s Channel 39: ‘It’s a validation that I’m very grateful to have and didn’t expect. The one regret I have is that my father, who was very supportive when I announced in my teens I wanted to be the most ridiculous of things, a poet, died ten years ago and isn’t around to see it. I would just like to say, Hi Dad, I did it—and can’t.’
So, with this grain of Howard’s articulate voice, authentic in tone, I dive into his weighty book, Rāwaho/The Completed Poems, dedicated to his father: In memory of Reginald William Howard (29.11.1928—16.10.2003) who taught me how to read.
‘THE HELD AIR’, title 85, one of the book’s 150 titles, is a six-part sequence, which had its genesis on his father’s birthday, 29.11.2003, and was finally completed on 14.11.2020.
The end section, which reads like a letter, was translated into braille and exhibited as part of photographer Glenn Heenan’s exhibition at Te Tuhi Gallery, Pakuranga, in 2004.
Happy birthday. I hope
you’re OK. There’s snow
expected, yet I can’t wait
to break the surface.
Your gumboots are heavy
with yesterday’s mud.
I measured the boundary
in order to buy more wire—
that fence is for tomorrow.
It would be good
to have your hands
correcting the tension
then. But I must be
going on, like this, alone.
This is a letter to a dead man in a hinted-at afterlife, although Howard’s thinking/writing about his father is, in effect, giving him an afterlife. With the line ‘going on, like this, alone’, he is leaving the poem; the sustained work on it has been done. But in the first part of the sequence, there’s his father’s bodily presence: he was once ‘an unruly boy’, a deckhand on the TS Vindicatrix, a training ship for the merchant navy; then the remembering moves to:
… A roofless chapel
filling with royal blue,
our new garden
overlooks the sea.
You grew into Dad.
Howard measures his dad, with his faults, who, after his mother Rose died, ‘lost hope’, lost his ‘tenderness towards women’, his ‘desire for fatherhood’ and, cursed by drink, at times came up short:
One Friday night, dinner already cold
you could not goddamnit slip in
the key. Mum pulled back
the door, you fell forward slowly
over your wedding vows …
In the small hours, ‘groping back to bed
after a piss’, I found you
dumped in the clothes basket
at the familial darkness.
The quoted phrase in the last stanza opens a door to Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Sad Steps’, in which Larkin meditates on the moon, and: ‘There’s something laughable … / … The way the moon darts among the clouds … / … O Wolves of memory! … / … a reminder of the strength and pain / Of being young; that it can’t come again …’
Howard not only references other poets but also himself, as in the penultimate section:
My Kāi Tahu love, Tiriata drinks dark beer—
her glass marks the table you made, Dad
and that memory is a splinter working itself
out. Your carpenter’s tape extended
the length of my childhood. Read, then
retracted, it wore out the pocket of your jacket.
‘My Kāi Tahu love, Tiriata’ is a character from title 122 ‘THE MICA PAVILION’ [1.2.2013–4.10.2021], a four-part piece set in 1874 in Tuapeka County in Central Otago, and revolving around Chang’e, Chinese goddess of the Moon, Ah Sing, a gold miner, his partner Sam Chew Lain, who finances the claim from his earnings as a hotelier, and Tariata, the daughter of Te Kaha from Kāi Tahu. Te Kaha, who is against the tryst between Tariata and Ah Sing, says Tariata should marry within the tribe. She falls into depression, dies of grief, and enters the Underworld. Ah Sing, on the advice of Chang’e, attempts to win her back by entering the Underworld, near the Tuapeka River, and singing to Hine-Nui-Te-Pō:
Every thing has its home: songs live in air
And the singer who keeps his song—
He’s forgotten like the politician
Who promises to deliver
A cartload of presents to the poorest
But steals the horse. […]
There’s a great deal of cross-hatching and interconnecting in Howard’s poems; while working on ‘THE HELD AIR’, he has ‘THE MICA PAVILION’ in his ear. He’s also reading; for the poet, reading and writing are wedded activities.
Throughout Rāwaho (outsider, or foreigner), Howard explores belief systems that are coded Aotearoa New Zealand: Māori mythology, along with Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), which some say is also mythology. Characters include prominent Māori figures, prophets, politicians, mariners, farmers, early European settlers, and the Dalmatian gum diggers. Croatia and Prague also feature. One of the two quotes at-front-of-book is telling:
Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an
easy nature as not to deserve the name. —Samuel Butler (1872)
In this big collection, there are sensuous poems, poems for lovers, poems for children, punk poems, poems under the influence, poems in memory of the dead, and a number of poems for fellow poets and artists; there’s also a libretto for Slovene composer Brina Jež Brezavšček.
To read Howard is to engage with alert and dynamic language, always in movement, in stanza drops, across columns, zig-zagging down the page. The first thing I got as I attended to these pages was the music, the mercurial, shapeshifting nature of the text. He credits jazz pianist Paul Bley as an inspiration, saying: ‘I’m amazed by Bley’s ability to hear the melody he’s not playing and that’s what I’ve brought over to my poetry.’ Howard’s a fine poet, inspiring even, and a delight to read, his book alive with literary and cultural echoes.
Rāwaho/The Completed Poems, follows the equally hefty The Incomplete Poems of 2011, and starts with the poem ‘JUDY IS A PUNK’ (‘echoes the Ramones 1976 song’), from the latter book. It begins:
The moment before
the head boy
saw your sister
polish Yes then
place it in
And it is reprised, or completed, as the last poem in the book, which begins:
‘The moment before’—
but decades destroy
your eye’s glister
and what then?
the dark within
a large casket.
LINDSAY RABBITT is a writer and poet based on the Kapiti Coast. His latest book of poems is Prayers for the Living & the Dead.