Time to Sing Before the Dark by Helen Bascand (Caxton Press, 2018), 94 pp., $24.95; Voodoo by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, 2018), 63 pp., $20; Remembering a Place I’ve Never Been: The past in three voices by Heather Bauchop (Cold Hub Press, 2018), 104 pp., $30; There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime by Erik Kennedy (Victoria University Press, 2018), 80 pp., $25
It is no easy task to summarise a life, but literary executor Joanna Preston’s selection achieves a balance in this volume of Helen Bascand’s writing, Time to Sing Before the Dark. It shows the steady growth of moments into words and lines, a filtering of time, reading, conversations and personal events, to the point where they become commonplace in a positive way.
There’s a spiritual dimension to the collection, a Christian history turned over and examined beside Graeco-Roman stories, balanced and polished, so that the poems reflect difficult and unhappy experiences while making the most of the opportunity to live them.
Often Bascand seems to go without fear of abstractions – edging towards general truths, or travelling as directly as metaphor allows. For example, in ‘There and Back’:
a man no higher than a double bass – he
pats the sweating neck, whispers what the wind
shared as they wedged it apart,
hobbles on his twisted leg
leading a beast
Bascand reveals the thoughts of a mature woman, the insights of ageing. In the poem ‘To You Who Follow’, she speaks for the generation who have ‘broken things’, ‘thrust / our dwellings higher’ and who are ‘collecting / a second family car’, commenting to the next generation: ‘So we leave you the highways.’ Her poems do not reveal a great deal of personal information and locations are deliberately blurred, indistinct, allowing the reader to identify with the experience rather than the place. Yet they are also, at times unapologetically, poems of surprising detail. ‘The Good Garden of Evil’ simultaneously reveals Christchurch as a location of fig leaves appropriately manoeuvred, ‘little shifts’, as well as the place of ‘quake-tilted night’, cracked photos and ‘a dog shaking its wet coat’.
Traumatic events do happen ‘out there’ – lurching, shaking ground, hell. The poems are a reminder that there have been ‘So many Icaruses, aiming too high’. ‘These god stories’ ‘straitjacket’ grief – balancing permission for expression with some semblance of control over emotions in the wake of life-changing events. Humanity’s worst excesses are not the focus of this work and there is nothing shocking in the language; the voice is gentle but steely, soothing where there is lurking loss and sadness; poems mostly whistled and sung ‘against the ravages of raptors’ and fitting testaments to an observant life well lived.
The concentrated impact of the title of Peter Bland’s 2018 collection, Voodoo, conveys the passion invested in many of his poems, although a conversational tone, wit and impulsive humour sometimes break through. ‘Voodoo’ – as haunting conversations with or recalling the dead, and a form of dancing with them – is a unifying theme in the collection, and is evoked in a general way rather than referencing the religion’s specifically African roots.
Lines are tightly structured, wandering thoughts firmly brought into order, but the broken lineation emphasises that there is considerable personal and linguistic effort involved in pulling the poems together. Like Bascand’s poems, these don’t give any space to maudlin feelings or emotional outbursts. The pathos is in the images, the situations and the shifting perspectives they frequently contrast. In ‘Dark waters’, an autumnal Rangitoto provides the backdrop for a landscape in which:
in the shadow
of its shore
must suddenly feel
a long way from home.
‘Place’, the title of another poem insists in deliberate understatement, ‘is important.’ Every step, every word is a new experience: ‘when lived / from moment to moment, / place is always a foreign / land’. These settings are awash with ‘buckets of moonlight’ – and other substances. In ‘Elegy’, dedicated to Gordon Challis (1932–2018), the ‘bombings / in Mosel and Aleppo’ recall the ‘defenceless’ of ‘Conventry and Guernica’ and Lorca in a previous era, a reminder of how violence threatens poetry as the very expression of life itself.
It is also poetry as persistence: the angel ghosts who return to discourse; the ‘tramps and wayfarers’ with ‘big hands and feet / that grip on solitude’ in ‘Homage to Van der Velden’ (1834–1913); the speaker in ‘Interview with a Refugee’ who struggles ashore to a landfall that is only the beginning of the pain of experience: ‘That’s / how it is when you call / earth home.’ It seems that Bland’s attraction to voodoo is precisely in its unChristian histories, its refusal to soften the pangs of migrancy or appease the gods of propriety.
Bascand perceives that although her generation has had more space and time for expansion and observation, it is also responsible for accelerated change: ‘Please God, we leave you the beaches.’ Well, I’d say some of the beaches are still there, but the wildlife is not what it used to be. Bland might claim the world of ‘rundown’ cafés and harbourside rendezvous over more ‘fashionable venues’, yet his work stays relevant in terms of contemporary references. Although, as Bland succinctly asks, ‘who can say which poems will live or die?’ There’s a lot of life in this poetry.
In Bland’s work the ageing process enables the poet to turn visionary. He’s a storyteller, a poser of demanding questions, a mood magician, conjuring up images and entire histories from the classics to the contemporary in a few lines through precision-driven diction. His extremely compact, almost prosaic style enables Bland to evoke locations, character, dilemma and maximum compassion with a few quick, expert strokes. In initial readings this briskness may seem almost dismissive, but it’s more that he’s a latter-day Tiresias, a follower of Homer and Cavafy, at times burdened and at others delighted by insights he cannot act on. Perhaps that’s safer at the time of life he describes so vividly, when chipped cups and blue slinky dresses with gold beads are hoarded for the memories they bring.
Fleur Adcock has a way of flicking off any impertinent attempt to summarise her subject matter too quickly, and that’s also true of Bland. A poem dedicated to Bob Orr, ‘Grey-eyed Athena’, turns the rapture of a poetry mate’s images into a wry observation that the beauty we all aspire to understand eludes even the brainiest of poets.
Working out where the stresses come in Bland’s lines is not always easy or obvious, but when the prize of understanding arrives, it’s a well-earned reward, and the whole poem lights up. ‘Elsewhere …’ begins in an everyday generalisation then suddenly, amusingly, provocatively, becomes more particular:
is where we go when we know we’re not wanted
and life sucks. For years we thought it was Australia
The sheer accuracy of those supple lines keeps you on your toes and wanting to read more.
Pursuing a personal history of migration across a long period of time produces a shared history rather than one solely focused on specific families or individuals.
If I knew where I came from
Could I be somewhere else?
The collection is as bleak as Plath’s Three Voices at times, so sparse as poetry that an accompanying spoken-word CD would warm it considerably. Further in-text explication rather than the few notes on the back cover would also give readers more direct access to the fragmentary tale.
The work is divided into three. Part One is the story of an unidentified man negotiating his family’s past in a distant location. Part Two posits a historian’s point of view, as the man from Part One ‘reconstructs the history and physical fabric of an 1882 gentleman farmer’s residence’. Bauchop sometimes has fun with the disparity between the objectivity of the researcher’s voice and the personal agenda of writer, fictional speaker and readers. In ‘Technological assistance’, for example, the writing instructs:
enter the search terms
Architect, tender, erection.
Here is something
I could use.
I particularly like ‘Recommendations’, the structure of which mimics a legal document with spaces for a reviewer to sign and date, because all readers are, in a way, reviewing as part of the reading process. Bauchop, in her postmodern turn, is not afraid of blank spaces.
Part Three is a ‘found manuscript’, giving ‘voice to an unidentified woman whose life was lived out in a cell at the rear of this residence’. Through the multiple framing and cross-referencing devices of the narrative (Who is the ‘I’ of the title? When and where does this take place? Who is Maude?), the poems in this section reveal history as a layering that both exposes and obscures the past.
Embracing technological originality, Erik Kennedy in his first full-length collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime allows that ‘Everything foals a new thing like itself, / and old things are respectful in their pastures’ – although irreverence is equally acceptable. This collection is also in three parts, loosely themed, allowing the reader to associate connections. Each poem gives a ludic turn to daily observations, questioning the validity of normal at every corner.
This is the internet as home of the demotic – a not always comfortable and frequently uncanny imaginary home. In ‘Remembering America’ the poet channels Ginsberg: ‘America, like a lot of people, I’m keeping my distance’, and continues the OMG what is happening to the world?! mode in ‘The Democracy Sonnet’ – which is not one, and is also an antonymic poem about democracy. ‘The Paris Agreement’ references Ashbery in a well left-of-centre, sinewy, syntactical voice.
There’s an anti-poetry ethic working to mitigate the impulse to romanticise (nature in particular) although fortunately it doesn’t always succeed. In ‘You Can’t Teach Creative Writing’, ‘artisanship’ is a lovely choriamb (/xx/)’; ‘I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are’ starts with ‘self-sacrifice, then supernovas’. ‘Love Poem with a Seagull’ catches the absurdity of everyday life in vividly surreal images: ‘I wish I’d seen it from your side of the table / when the horrid gull attacked my fish and chips.’ It works as both a lament on Brexit and an angsty spoof on male composure.
Kennedy’s leading role is that of a poetic Neo, searching for belief and trust in an internet age where reality is as elusive as meaning, while he discourses on Bach and whisky. So what’s not to like? He could be a warm-up act for Flight of the Conchords, keeping the more bookish in the audience happy. Language is a medium he breathes. While many poems maintain a perky fusion between a historical sense of location (‘How a New Zealand Sunrise is Different from Other Sunrises’ and ‘Public Power’, for instance), others are abandoned to the dazzling array of multi-referentiality that is an online world.
Kennedy does both flip and panic with charm and originality, while maintaining strong lines in commitment.
BRIAR WOOD grew up in South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Until 2012 she lived and worked in Britain, where she published poetry, fiction and essays. Her recent writing has been inspired by her return to Northland places, where her whakapapa connects her closely to ecological concerns. Her poetry collection Rāwāhi was shortlisted for the Ockham Awards in 2017.