Kay McKenzie Cooke
Dylan Junkie by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Mākaro Press, 2017), 56 pp., $25; Waking by a River of Light by John Gibb (Cold Hub Press, 2017), 88 pp., $29.95
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s Dylan Junkie is part of the Hoopla Series of poetry books that Mākaro Press has been producing, and is Holman’s seventh poetry publication to date. Waking by a River of Light is John Gibb’s second book of poems, both of which have been published by Cold Hub Press. Both Holman and Gibb provide the point of view of men who have ‘looked at life from both sides now’, to quote a Joni Mitchell song-line. Perhaps part of their individual takes on life lie in their influences. In Dylan Junkie we are given the point of view of a hard-won life lived to a soundtrack; in Waking by a River of Life we read of a life impacted by the play of both darkness and light and often viewed aslant, as if from the slipstream of a river.
Straight out of the starting block there is no mistaking what drives Dylan Junkie. Title, cover illustration and the tag ‘Bob’ are all clear indicators. Going in, a reader of this book definitely does so armed with the knowledge that they take the risk of inviting a Bob Dylan ear worm to take up residence. However, for all of the emphasis on Dylan, any quiet qualms about the poetry being a little too Dylan-derivative are immediately put to rest. This is poetry that connects, flowing directly from Holman’s own imagination and experience, even if the very first poem positively drips with all the signs of a Dylan-enhanced natural high:
hearing him was wind over water/like when it was
time to go home from the river/& you knew it was
you before that sound/you knew it was you right
after that/& it was two different kinds of you/one
just waiting to be and one becoming/it was all those
words in the deep black river coming up for air at last/
bubbling not as fish that day/bursting up as birds
(‘When the thin wild mercury music came’)
Rather than aligning itself solely with Dylan, though, most often the poetry trucks away from any direct association. This is poetry from a Kiwi male’s perspective of the world and written in direct response to an urge to record his emotions:
he punched a hole in the wall
that was me
In a series of chronologically arranged poems, subject matters both bitter and tough are dealt to the reader. Here is a man bashing, sweating, vowing and wrestling his way through decades of harsh realisations until, finally, he reaches a graceful resignation, even if it does have a sting in its tail:
to fold my wings retreat like the bee
in my hide this heart worn down
by beating beating and the wasps
in their suits who live to kill.
(‘Shadows in the night’)
Lines from Dylan’s song ‘Hard Rain’ inspire the middle section, of short poems contained within a long poem. Here Holman has utilised Dylan’s lyrics to produce protest poems about life’s hard bits. Even though triggered by the lyrics, the overriding authenticity of the poet’s own voice is undeniable, successfully adding a deeper level to the singer’s familiar lines.
The last section describes the thousand-mile pilgrimage-by-automobile that Holman makes to Hibbing, once a mining town and the town where Dylan grew up. This diary-like account is written in an approachable, telegraphic style. The loneliness of the long-distance traveller permeates; here is a lone pilgrim in a foreign country, seeking out the birthplace of the prophet. Like any dedicated fan ( or Dylan junkie) there is focus; this is a trip carried out without any self-questioning, despite the incredulity of a gas-station blonde:
She wants to go to New Zealand, ‘Hibbing?
But there’s nothing there!’ She wants to go
to where I’m from, they all do, all these
Americans want our beauty. I say, ‘Go.’ Never
knew where Dylan came from – now she does.
(‘Marathon gas station, Princeton’)
The immediacy of these descriptive sound bites allows the reader to accompany Holman all the way to Hibbing and, once there, to discover what traces can be found, or imagined, of Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan:
See the cemetery first: is Abraham Zimmerman lying
down there? Find the singer’s Hibbing High School:
… I walk through
doors where Dylan walked to blow his tiny mind.
Thoughtful arrangement of content ensures that this is a cohesive, compact collection that, for all its small size, still manages to achieve a long reach; a reach that goes beyond what only a Dylan fan would expect. Dylan Junkie provides the reader with a double-layered story of journeys, and journeys within journeys – all taken with a Dylan soundtrack played loud.
The title of John Gibb’s new book, Waking by a River of Light, invites the anticipation of poetry that is aware of life’s more attractive moments, even if these moments are merely evanescent shimmers:
… A river of light
rides up the harbour:
and laps silently
into a hundred rooms.
The first glimmer of light
arrives like a bird.
(‘Waking by a river of light’)
This collection is stacked with poems that evoke beautiful moments, and memories of beautiful moments:
When its pages open
it is winter.
When its covers close
it is still winter.
(‘Lost notebook / vanished season’)
At their best the poems appear uncontrived, with neither meta-message or metaphor to cloud the simple, clear ideas, or impressions. Scenes and stories are described either with humour and imagination, or deeply and quietly by way of more subtle, painterly strokes.
As one reads the poems, a sense of the writer as subject develops. This subject (most often appearing as third person in these poems) is shown to good effect as a man teetering on the brink of fullblown self-deprecation. Much of the humour arises from the poet’s sense of being a simple man with simple desires: one who loses his glasses, who is misunderstood, who owns an invisible white cat and, when in Berlin, one who washes his socks in a hotel handbasin. In some poems such stuff of everyday life is carried with bluff, good grace. There’s a James Thurber-like, ‘This is my life and welcome to it’ approach to some of the poems, especially in the first section. A sense of playfulness and an assortment of scenarios, including both the imagined and the commonplace, result in a variety of poems that entertain and amuse.
The use of sections to divide the poems in Waking by a River of Light produces a streamlined, thematic effect, bolstered by attractive headings – ‘Walking’, ‘Voyage into darkness’ and ‘Waking to rain’ – which serve to echo an underlying theme of light contrasted with dark. To quote from the back of the book: ‘Many of these poems explore life’s puzzles and miracles as light and darkness.’ The most successful poems are those where restraint has been applied to produce pieces with a captivating rhythm and a bittersweet charm:
The valley is haunted.
Two fantails fly there.
One early ash-grey afternoon
they swoop and turn, or perch
on polished branches overlooking
the river, near the bridge.
… How slowly the changes come on.
Yet always it seems the same autumn park:
rain-soaked, filled with leaves.’
(‘Days in a life’)
The division into sections serves to move the poetry from the playful and whimsical to a more sombre palette. In the more sombre or ‘greyer’ poems, the poet is often portrayed as a traveller haunted by past memories, grief, choices and departures: someone who feels like a stranger, or feels invisible – as hinted at in the last line of the poem ‘Almost invisible flower’.
When all of the above concepts are gathered together in one poem, the result can be dazzling:
Later you find your way homeward,
with the past crackling like an untuned radio;
the dark earth smell of fallen leaves, acorn
husks and twigs. You follow a bend in the
road under winter trees at evening, and walk
uphill, as if rising from a soundless cavern,
with whatever grey underwater light there is
shining in your eyes.
These are poems about a poet caught in the act of discovering the poetry to be found in the loveliness of light, as well as in the universal, quirky nature of life itself. Perhaps it is this very act, this poem-making, that enables the poet to haul himself back from an encroaching darkness. When he finds the poetry, he can see the ‘big new sun’, as described in the final line of the remarkable long poem, ‘In my next life’. This is affecting poetry from a poet who reaches out for both the salve of humour and for whatever shimmer of light there is to be discovered in life’s rough and shady patches.
KAY McKENZIE COOKE is a Dunedin writer with three published poetry collections to her name. She is currently gathering together poems for her fourth collection, as well as taking notes for the second part to a novel with the working title ‘Craggan Dhu’.