The Facts of Light, by Stephanie Christie (Vagabond Press, 2014), 48 pp., $15; Headwinds, by Lindsay Pope (Submarine/Mākaro Press, 2014), 66 pp., $25; Coracle, by Peter Stuart (Submarine/Mākaro Press, 2014), 78 pp., $25; A Clearer View of the Hinterland, by Jack Ross (HeadworX, 2014), 190 pp., $34.99
Facts of Light, a small-scale book published by Sydney’s Vagabond Press, is Stephanie Christie’s second collection of poetry. Christie is a poet who enjoys issuing her work in a wide variety of media: theatre, art installations, music and dance, and so on. Having read through Facts of Light, I wonder if her work isn’t better suited to performance than it is to the infinitely unforgiving printed page.
‘Each day is a blank, black slate’ – this is how the opening poem, ‘The missing ice’, begins; it finishes ‘Dislocated thoughts collect at / the bottom of the glass’. The defiantly adolescent note struck in the first line is amplified by the clinching cliché, a pitch that this 41-year-old reviewer finds it difficult to listen to. And this note, the same note over and over, is sustained throughout the collection: strident, flat and stagey. Readers are promised after the fact ‘rich details of diurnal existence’; this reader is left wondering at their complete absence in a book marked by emotionally keyed-up abstractions.
‘I write so I can feel / and let there be feelings’ (‘Muse’). When Christie indicts ‘Christian conquerors’ for the fact that ‘[t]he earth’s burning up with gas from [their] SUVs’ (‘Heres[a]y’), she is unwilling to level similar charges against her poetic self-indulgence. ‘Visions are so in excess / but there’s no better feeling / so turn your fucking phone off (‘On two axes’). And the literal nonsense of lines like ‘In our ultraviolet catastrophe / we see an increasing quantity of stars’ (‘E.C.L.O.S.U.R.E!’) thickens the bathos as cream would porridge. As do lines like these from ‘Darkness’:
When I start up
the walls disappear, windows blow
our brains out with
such vicious clear flatness
hallucinating some dense
dimensions to the outside’s romance
‘My self-destruction’s egotistical’ (‘Solid gold shriek’). I am forced to agree with the author – this is the poem as photo-shopped selfie. There is so much ‘say it like you feel it’ going on that those ‘rich details of diurnal existence’ never had a chance. It’s all diffusion, generality, abstraction and gutted pronouns – even the ‘cock’ that appears in ‘Beauty’ is bloodless and disembodied. This book will appeal to morbidly self-interested folk who want a licence to indulge their own morbidity and self-interestedness.
Nevertheless, the first measure of a poem and of a book of poems is the degree to which the poet has done what they’ve set out to do. Having read Facts of Life from go to whoa half a dozen times, it still isn’t clear to me what Christie was trying to achieve, her declaration ‘I write so I can feel’ notwithstanding. Besides, how can I possibly know if she has succeeded on those terms? Although it comes across as satire of street-wise 20-something angst, there’s no indication that this would be an appropriate way to read Christie’s poems. ‘If it sounds wrong / then it is’ – I’ll take Christie at her word.
There is a photograph of Lindsay Pope on the flap of Headwinds, his first collection of poems, that shows him in a defiantly unfashionable hard-bitten pose: close-cropped grey hair, checked shirt, lighting a cigarette, cupping the flame against the prevailing wind, as if all existence has shrunk into the hallowed moment of ignition (I shudder with guilt-stained nostalgia). ‘At the bar the women wear their skirts / too high for lofty thoughts’ (‘Crossing the bar’): this book speaks in a bruised, stoical and masculine voice, and at times the songs it sings are disquietingly good. ‘Praise God, the Earth is maimed …’ – this delightful sentiment comes from a poem by the Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who, until he went blind for the last time, saw purgation in the wings of butterflies. At times Pope almost matches him, and not only in his bitterness. ‘Outpost’, for instance, is wonderful:
The coast is a scribble. Stars are stored in a
wooden box on my shelf. It is more black than
white here. Like algebra but colder.
The hut’s walls are a ghetto of mice. Those I
catch become whiskers of smoke in the firebox.
I attend to the scratching radio.
This is not my dream.
The short days are long here. Morse code
stutters in my aerial.
Every door of the home of the wind has been
thrown open. An albatross turns the world on
a dip of its wing. It has learnt the axioms of the
Mice crawl in the pockets of my sleep.
I wake, clutching a stick of chalk. Each day a
The mice have all but disappeared.
Clouds, black as slate, are heavy with names.
They fall upon my roof clutching ash.
On short wave the radio coughs all night long.
I have lost the frequency.
I quote the poem in full because it is one of the best poems I have read by a New Zealand poet for some time. Pope is a master at this aphoristic broken prose, of which ‘A letter to Jim Harrison’ is another fine example. ‘Outpost’, though, is Pope at his very best. The bleakness that can turn maudlin at times – ‘The sky was bandaged when I hit the road, / the hatchet work done, leaving me / to limp into tomorrow’s waiting room’ (‘Wounds’). In Pope’s best poems is dramatised and lends focus to a particularised predicament, as in ‘Island flight’, which crackles with the same attenuated energy as ‘Outpost’.
Pope’s ear is unfailingly good, and it is one which most poets should envy. Each syllable is carefully yet instinctively weighed, and Pope’s diction should remind English-language poets that sea-raider monosyllables are their trustiest and truest weapons. Even in an innocuous-seeming number like ‘A letter to Ruth’, Pope’s sense of measure and handling of tone is immaculate – brevity becomes him. And he has a sense of humour, demonstrated with the least barbs or venom in ‘One, two’, the punchline of which I won’t spoil.
It’s not all poetic wine and roses; there are some significant misses in Headwinds, when the hunger for self-laceration sends the poem spinning into freefall, like Darth Vader deep-breathing at the losing end of an outer-space dog-fight. Aside from the finger-pointing-at-the-cracked-mirror that infects poems like ‘Wounds’, some of the more regularly metred poems don’t sing truly, such as the dimeter ballad ‘On parole’, which has some choice ripostes to life, but which is clunky. Yet with a poem as good as ‘Outpost’ in the mix, it seems churlish to complain about the misfires.
‘Here I am, a foolish man in a dry mood / living in a house with a low door, / planted between two older settlers, / unsettled by the season’ (‘Being here’). One hears Eliot, of course, but more than anyone it’s C.H. Sisson, the great hater of 20th-century English poetry, who ghosts these poems. And Sisson is an august spirit to have at one’s shoulder. Headwinds closes with these lines from ‘Crossing the bar’: ‘Most failures, it’s true, reward with remorse, / but success with the pen is a poet’s curse.’ I wish Pope all the readers he cares to have and no more. I’d also like to acknowledge Marian Maguire’s fine etching, Pegasus Bay, which in every sense graces the cover of Headwinds.
Peter Stuart’s Coracle is in the same Submarine Poetry series as Pope’s Headwinds, but it is a very different book. Stuart, a retired university chaplin, parish priest and canon theologian, is the author of Edward Gibbon Wakefield in New Zealand (1971), and co-editor of a 2006 collection of critical essays about the Presbyterian iconoclast Lloyd Geering. The poems in Coracle – Stuart’s first book of poems – are often wry, sometimes sentimental, occasionally faux naïf, and they are difficult to square with the author’s obvious erudition, which scarcely leaves a trace in his verse, except – much like in contemporary academic theology – in its absence.
Coracle is the considered speech of an intelligent and sensitive man – table-talk poeticised. In contrast to the specificity of Lindsey Pope in a poem like ‘Outpost’, despite its being an imagining, Stuart’s diction generalises, even when the poet’s witness seems to be first-hand, as in a number of poems of place. This failing is somewhat explained by Stuart himself, since he unwisely conforms to the habit of the latterly poet to provide a self-referential manifesto, to which, in ‘Sea of poetry’, he gives a nautical tack:
Poetry is when the wind of life
whistles through the stays of syntax,
strains the rigging of grammar,
bellies out the sails, those limp words
waiting prosaically, harbour-bound,
moving uneasily in the shifting
tides of sense and beauty
Poetry is when a helmsman
of the good ship Word
tests a new tack …
And so on. And, more importantly, not really. This is not Stuart having An Idea of Order at Key West. And when wind whistles in a poem, there is a bigger problem than a figurative self-definition, though metaphor is a problem, especially when Stuart is writing for and of something irrevocably concrete. In ‘Wanaka summer’, the reader is startled to learn that Wanaka is – either simultaneously or successively – ‘a woman’, ‘clear water’, and ‘classic wine, a rippling vineyard’. If Wanaka – and the Aspiring Faith Community to which the poem is given – is worth singing about, why not sing about Wanaka per se? It seems to me an act of bad faith and an abrogation of pastoring dappled things in all their haecity or ‘thisness’. Much better are Stuart’s ‘Synod haiku’, which read like a less gin-soused and donnish visit to Auden’s ground in the latter’s ‘Shorts’. These have undoubted charms, seeming as they do to be more observed, particular and knowing. Synods, going by Stuart’s view of them, are odd and all-too-human, and as a consequence funny (though possibly only in morsels of 17 syllables).
It is, I think, a pity that so many poets go in fear of their own intelligence. Stuart’s poems of travel, love, aging, loss and gain suffer from his reluctance to utilise what Donald Davie called ‘prose virtues’, argufying and reconciling from sensitised intellect. Stuart relies instead on reductive ‘formal’ strategies. For example, no fewer than eight poems of very different occasions use a kind of refrain with variations from stanza to stanza. Bodies crunch or pop on the poet’s Procrustean bed. And anyone looking into Coracle to find verse in the tradition of clergyman poets stretching from, say, Herbert and Donne to R.S. Thomas and Rowan Williams, will be disappointed. There’s not a doxology to be found; one could never tease a position on a point of ecclesiastical policy from any of Stuart’s undoubtedly good-natured poems. But I doubt anyone would want to, apart from the odd curmudgeonly book-reviewer, who really should know better.
A Clearer View of the Hinterland begins with the poem ‘Tanera beag’:
The gradual evolution of that cry
irrelevant, rain-channelled stone
remembers where the fissure first appeared
that led to an ascendancy of bone
on calcium, the crofts of Achnahaird.
Sheared off, the column need not die,
its imperfections find complete expression
in that late sky
whose dark marauders know no nuclear fission,
rubber is a spy.
Roy Fisher, Peter Riley, Christopher Middleton; all you mid-century denizens of British modernism, stand aside – this is Jack Ross writing in 1981, and it is an extraordinary flag to raise. It boasts the best first enjambment I’ve encountered in a book of poetry for as long as I can remember. Not that it sets a standard by which readers can orientate themselves. Confronted with a book mostly made up of chapbook and journal publications spanning 33 years, it’s hard to set one’s bearings. And as I made my way through the book, confrontation, especially the hoary old mashing or clashing of the high and low culture, but also between peoples and languages, seems to be the common thread running through the more than three decades of poetry rehoused in A Clearer View of the Hinterland.
I’ll admit it bugs me when Ross sanctions Dante, Sebald and Celan to bump heads with Britney, bogans and New Zealand’s Next Top Model (knowing as I do that snobbishness, if that’s what I suffer from, is a prophylactic that reduces pleasure and fails to prevent gravidity). I also think it’s a pity that Ross has apparently eschewed a rich, surrealistic, lyric option for so long, not that it is necessarily his ‘natural’ voice – it is, however, a damned good one. So far as voice goes, in its shiftiness and gamesmanship, and how it relates to authorial identity, from the bulk of the poems in A Clearer View of the Hinterland one could make a case that Ross is Dr Jekyll to Manhire’s Mr Hyde. Manhire deals in whimsy and nostalgia, his compassionate tongue in his cheek; Ross ups the ante with kitsch and the ever-erstwhile contemporary, his incisive fangs bared. His modus operandi mash-ups are ‘like’ ideograms, which instead of humming in discordant harmony, shatter into each other, resulting in a spiky co-mixture of shards from shop-front windows and cathedrals’ stained glass alike. But surely as above (where I’ll put Celan) isn’t as below (Britney can dwell there for the sake of argument). Apart from language per se, wherein ‘Celan’ and ‘Britney’ have a soft semantic equivalence, the existents erstwhile Celan and at-large Britney don’t – hence the clang that goes off in my mind when reading Ross’ ‘Britney suite’. But the strictest analogists know that even antonyms are somehow, perhaps essentially, similar – and round and round we dizzyingly go. And, it must be said, we spin with a fair amount of pleasure.
A shot or two of Hinterland can be welcomingly tart in short doses; say, a linguistic palette cleanser; a snort of (anti-)poetic snuff. Despite my reservations, I shruggingly admit that the apotheosis of banality will go on even if Ross didn’t present us with unvarnished facets of it, which often cut across the fresh and necessary in his poems. And given the continued deafness of New Zealand scriptwriters and playwrights to the vernacular, the crispness and verisimilitude with which Ross gets across Kiwi spoken lingo is decidedly welcome. So, too, is his eschewal of the fetish of ‘creativity’. Some touchstones for the prospective reader might include the cheerfully dark archness of Donald Barthelme or the campy jollity of Jonathan Williams, especially in the ostensibly ‘found’ poems, from diaries and street-signs, in Hinterland. The presiding tutelary spirit seems to be John Hawkes, especially in books such as Virgine, its sexualised equine dentistry only one instance of its aestheticised cruelty. Michael Haneke also comes to mind, only with more rapid montage. For its unremitting tone, though there is more to it than that, Hinterland is a querulous spectacle:
1914 – The Elberfeld Horses
A malicious groom
let a mare into the yard
and Kluge Hans
cut himself open
on the rail
of his locked stall
They had to sew
at moments such as these
as though humanity
were on the point of breaking
through the crust of matter
that weighs it down
It’s lean and mean, no doubt about it – flesh is cleanly flensed from bone, from the marrow is then sucked. My time in the Hinterland has left me more with feeling than thought, which I hope excuses this clinching review-by-analogy: picture yourself on a Gold Coast beach, the wind idly leafing through the pages of a much-annotated copy of Benjamin’s Arcades Project on your lap; as ‘Baudelaire’ flashes by in your peripheral vision, you disinterestedly observe a sleek conferential shark feeding – though far from frenziedly – on a smorgasbord of swimmers, whose names end with unstressed vowels and whose togs are at least a size too small. The water is the colour of an $8 bottle of rosé. I find reading Ross – to borrow his victims’ parlance – kind of like that.
ROBERT MCLEAN is a New Zealand poet and critic, and a graduate of the University of Canterbury. He lives in Wellington.