Some of Us Eat the Seeds by Morgan Bach (Victoria University Press, 2015), 95 pp., $25; The Glass Rooster by Janis Freegard (Auckland University Press, 2015), 96 pp., $24.99; Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo by David Beach (Victoria University Press, 2015), 64 pp., $25; Atonement by Vaughan Rapatahana (ASM/Flying Islands, Macau and MCCM Creations, Hong Kong, 2015), 124 pp., n.p.
In Morgan Bach’s debut collection Some of Us Eat the Seeds, another book of dream-associative family reveries from VUP, the modus operandi – as usual – is surrealistic caricature, which has been the go-to for middle-of-the-road New Zealand poetry for longer than I care to remember; its fisheye lens trained on what I thought was an adamant world, but which melts before its gaze and is swimmingly poured into the mould of the waiting page.
This is the first stanza of ‘In pictures’:
The first time my father died, I was four.
A group of them emerged from their getaway train
into a grand room. In my head the walls are papered ornately
and the lights are chandeliers, and somebody shoots him.
Money flies around the room and he falls to his knees.
We see his face register the situation
before he falls flat on it.
Dad ‘dies’ in eight further unexpected anachronistic ways – buried alive, consumed by possessed ink, shot by a Japanese soldier, and so on. The parricidal fantasy clatters across three clumsy pages. I suppose Bach could have kept wringing the murderous changes for another eight, or God knows how many; but eight it is. From this bloody ‘unstable dream-world’ the poem switches into what I take to be ‘waking life’. Quotidian details – getting back from lunch, phone-calls going through to voicemail, hitting refresh on web-browsers, and so on – stud a prosaic account of Dad not dying in the Christchurch earthquakes. I can see how it is creative, but this is balanced by the consideration that it could only be as well written as prose if the prose were bad. Quality of writing aside, Bach seems to have mixed feelings about her father. And about men – ‘they’ and ‘them’, sometimes narrowed down to ‘him’ and ‘he’ – in general.
‘Even to my face’, which I take to be a monologue in the voice of a male moron, contains some of the worst lines I have ever read, whether in poetry or elsewhere, including on men’s restroom walls:
I was alone in that dusty
afternoon bar and the tequila shots
sat thick and used, sticky with fingerprints
and citrus like unwashed morning
wait for it …
tongues on a cock. So delightful …
Like the dolt-speaker, revelling in his amatory incompetence, I find myself not ‘able to find the right words’ to express my feelings, a problem all the hapless chaps in Some of Us Eat the Seeds have in common with me – a solidarity that offers cold comfort.
At 95 pages – admittedly this number includes an exhaustive two of acknowledgements, which I dutifully read – by poetry measures Some of Us Eat the Seeds is a big book, long enough to make for a generous selected for a mid-career poet. Tighter editing would have done this book a good turn. It also suffers from Bach having no style for which she need take any responsibility, only an askew stance and, possibly, a strategy, though without the necessary tactical nous to implement it with much success. It is methodical writing, a doctrinaire dialectic of wilfully ill-defined ‘dream’ and ‘reality’, their inevitable synthesis being the box-ticking poem. Bach, since she is, as mentioned, a ‘creative writer’, makes all the rules and brooks no resistance to the bubble of her fantasy, doing herself and her poems a disservice.
By the end of the second week
we’d finished the duty free
and fashioned a make-shift shelter
from the in-flight magazines.
We dreamed of shops, the internet,
trim flat whites.
This is the beginning of the first poem (‘Flotsam’) in the first section of Janis Freegard’s The Glass Rooster. The following two stanzas begin ‘When, at the fourth week …’ and ‘After six months …’, respectively. Unsurprisingly, surprising – by which I mean a bit weird – things happen that have never and will never happen. Does this sound familiar? I suppose to her credit, like a Giotto drawing freehand a perfect circle, Janis Freegard seems to take pleasure in making her poems for the sake of the making. This is the book of the poet as an almost exclusive tactician, of a deconstructed Valery. But writing like this from ‘Arohata’, a poem in which ‘you’ visit a friend in jail …
to be inspected by the woman behind
the glass; you see now you should have brought them in
a plastic bag marked with your friend’s name like the
woman in front of you did & you make a
… prevents me from pushing the comparison beyond rhetorical goodwill. The language is boring, and it is boring for the usual reasons poets’ language is boring: wilful failure to look at the world and to account for it as accurately and as responsibly as can be managed, quickening syntax by listening to its rhythms and enlivening diction by calling things their proper names. In such a light I found Freegard most interesting when she dipped her toes in Ronald Johnson’s territory, as for instance in the second section of ‘Hothouse’:
Phalaenopsis waits in her wimple, bride white
lips lined red and parted
(but only the air gets closer)
– though that ‘bride’ seems all too wilful – and in the pure noun-fest of ‘Desert song’.
There is a world out there, one in which Freegard takes an alarming lack of interest, and when she does it is only when she has a direct stake in it (though with all those unattributed pronouns, it’s hard to know who is doing what to whom). When the eponymous glass rooster, perhaps a kinder, gentler incarnation of Ted Hughes’ Crow, informs the reader that ‘I am not made of concrete, no. I am not made of sand. Nor of light, nor air’, I can only say I agree with him in the strongest possible terms and to suggest that he is made from nothing but the fiat of the mind of Janis Freegard.
Zoo staff were comforting (and reassuring)
the distraught parents. Beyond dispute,
a sign clearly warned that if you fed the
animals you would be fed to the
animals. Major beneficiaries of
this policy – and morale seemingly quite
restored after the damage done it by
installation of a ‘close encounters’
window – the lions were roaring lustily
in front of the (packed) observation
chamber. Two keepers seized the boy, ready to
swing him over the rail. ‘I won’t feed the
animals anymore,’ he hollered, a quite
transparent lie in the circumstances.
Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo, David Beach’s fourth book, from which the poem above (‘Wellington Zoo 44’) is taken, displays a charmingly disarming lack of development; indeed, little has changed whatsoever, for either good or ill, since I last reviewed one of his books here. It contains four quasi-sonnets of droll observation on Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets, four of droll reflections on love in general, and 50 of droll fantasy, frippery and snook-cocking about (as it were) Wellington Zoo. ‘Wellington Zoo 44’ is characteristic of the book, though the same could be said of any of its conveyer-belt 14-liners: parenthetic canard spiking, convoluted committee-room syntax, which often trips over its own feet, mock- instead of scare-quotes, and a flat but anachronistic diction bringing to mind late-Victorian stories for Boys and Girls.
Flipping back to ‘Wellington Zoo 42’, one finds another typically dry but involute example of Beach’s mind in action: ‘However essential a part of a zoo’s charter keeping the animals well-nourished, this could diminish the spectacle at feeding time, as was made clear by a dingo, sleek, obviously never needed to hunt a day in its life, which seemed ready to disappoint for ever the small crowd waiting to watch it tuck into a hair, hide and all slab of meat, and only at last closing its jaws upon the meal to move it to another spot, from where the dingo favouring its audience with an unruffled grin that suggested its hunting skills still present, just sublimated.’ This is the whole poem with its line breaks removed. Make of it what you can. Here, in addition to the characterises I have already mentioned, there are clichés set slightly askew, ambiguous punctuation, suspended or absent verbs, and possibly intentional typos (… to disappoint for ever the …)
Beach makes some sound points here and there, for instance in ‘Jerusalem Sonnets 2’, about Baxter’s wilful grooming and hygiene issues. But this in a book where the same joke, usually with the punchline at the beginning, is told 58 times and as if the teller, who speaks like an ambitious policeman at a press conference, has forgotten how the joke is meant to go. My reaction to these poems, which would make for amusing intra-office emails, was similar to that I have to an unfunny New Yorker cartoon, in which satire has been distilled to a homeopathic dose of wittiness. I’ll leave the last say to Beach, who writes about a poet who ‘utters some blather against contemporary society … he has to be sending himself up. Or one can’t quite tell’ (‘Jerusalem Sonnets 4’).
Vaughan Rapatahana, if his latest book Atonement is taken as signal, breathes a larger air than the three Wellingtonians. And to his credit, he certainly, and often rapaciously, takes an interest in our works and days. His mode in Atonement is incessantly satirical. And it isn’t pretty, at least not in an ameliorating way. He gives English what might be called ‘a jolly good kicking’. Irreconcilables clash and shatter; an internationalist patois is fed through a dialectical wood-chipper:
down tin heng
mere tinkles in
the w i d e r pool.
C.S.S.A doesn’t feed
s p i n o u t
a week of dry dim sum
weak lai cha
lashed slap dap
at that local
cha chaan teng.
the old men
in h ol ey singlets
on their laps
to the cement stoop;
their rheumy hunger
in last week’s
(‘tin heng supper’)
Rapatahana’s dyspeptic lyricism – his poems singing almost despite themselves (and the poet) – rattles across continents and cultures, Ovidian postcards of an exile with (to put it mildly) mixed feeling about his Rome. Odi et Amo ignite and snuff out each other in turn and sometimes from word to word to word, never settling, never combining, never reconciling. It follows that there is – almost of course – no atonement in Atonement. This is the first section of ‘auckland triptych’:
so these palsied pākehā
in name tag munitions
stroll down queen street,
shades stuck like
adrift their blading
edging towards extinction
but still clasping the reins –
still reigning, eh.
I found the ‘New Zealand’ poems, of which I take the above to be an example, far more abstract, generalising, and prone to caricature, than the ‘Elsewhere’ poems, which seem more challenging, alienating and ‘strange-making’ because they are more concrete, specific and accommodating. Rapatahana boasts a capacious intellectuality that most poets dream of (probably literally). I learnt nothing about the world from Beach, Freegard, or Bach; I encountered only authorial sensibility. From Rapatahana, who knows about things I don’t, I learnt much. Didacticism needn’t be scary. And Rapatahana sure as hell has a sensibility to boot. [insert cover image here]
Rococo similes and garish metaphors are really abstractions in drag, tipsy Platonic forms draped in the ruin of feathered peignoirs. Indeed, the day-glow associative poem seems to be itself an oneiric metaphor of nothingness. Having been cursed to live proverbially ‘in interesting times’, which undoubtedly they are, it is extraordinary how little interest our poets seem to take in them (Rapatahana stands apart from this navel-gazing, and it is to his credit). The unfortunate introduction to VUP’s 2009 anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets is apposite, stingingly so, to the triviality so sadly apparent in centrist New Zealand writers like Bach, Beach and Freegard, members of a shifting roster of residents in Axel’s castle (refurbished in the Memphis style). New Zealand poetry is said to ‘incorporate an “anti-poetry”: it embodies a suspicion of the “poetic”, of the tendency to romanticise, to idealise, to move away from the real world into the realm of pure ideas. The suspicion extends to purity itself, for its capacity to blind us to dangerous absolutism.’ All this, remember, is what our poetry is supposed to be against; instead, it exemplifies it. It might be time for change – laconicism, anyone?
ROBERT MCLEAN is a New Zealand poet and critic, and a graduate of the University of Canterbury. He lives in Wellington.