Drinking With Li Bai by Doc Drumheller (Cold Hub Press, 2022), 136pp, $22; Surprised by Hope by John Gibb (Cold Hub Press, 2022), 80pp, $28; Sheep Truck by Peter Olds (Cold Hub Press, 2022), 48pp, $19.95
My preference as a poetry reader is for voices that operate and sing to us from the edges of the field; and for writers who have spent long hours observing the play of the world, honing and refining their perceptions, turning in reports that endure over the temporary and slight. The three collections at hand are by writers who all share the virtues of stillness, attention to craft, and the patience of careful observation.
One is a kind of poetic travel journal, a daybook written in haiku form by a poet visiting cities in China and India. One reads like an account of the poetic mind or imagination’s late flourishing in a poet newly liberated from the exigencies of working life. While the last, by its own admission, is like a summation or wrapping-up of a life’s work. A life where poetry and its composition were lived like a spiritual discipline.
A brilliant haiku has the capacity to alter consciousness. What other poetic form can hold the reader in a state of wordless comprehension between two or more perceptions with such brevity, succinctness and simplicity? Where else in poetry do you find the experience and the enlightenment hammered into three short lines? A haiku is an epiphany. Doc Drumheller’s Drinking With Li Bai (subtitled ‘100 haiku from China and India’) is a braid of nine haiku threads that read like postcard snapshots of these two vast countries: the people, their tenets and traditions, and the infrastructures and landscapes in which they take place.
this land of contrasts
in-between complete chaos
peace and holiness
This is ostensibly a ‘little red book’, a pocket notebook in the manner of the thoughts of Chairman Mao, full of word-pictures, shards of wisdom found on the road, gratitude lists for the joys of travel, and for having the practice of poetry to register those joys. In its best pages, we are given a world full of weirdness and the beautiful (and brutal) contradictions of humanity:
all the workers leave at dusk
populate a town
From Bashō, by way of Pound’s ‘At a Station of The Metro’ and Lorine Neidecker’s New Goose, haiku composition is concerned with the ‘leap’. A jump or hyperlink between two disparate objects and/or modes of perception to reveal their interconnectedness. I’m not sure if Drumheller is himself a Zen Buddhist, but these poems have both the polish and immediacy that comes out of an established and sustained practice:
the TV Tower
Canton’s slim-waisted lady
wearing garter belts
It is the dazzling perception in poems like the one above where a reader is left altered by the experience. It is unlikely I will ever get to Canton, but if I did, the ‘TV Tower’ would remain a ‘lady / wearing garter belts’. After reading a poem like this, how could it again be seen as anything other? The ageless (and precarious) pairing of poetry and alcohol is celebrated here too:
good drinking manners
toasting ghosts and ancestors
Li Bai (also known more commonly as Li Po) was not only one of the T’ang Dynasty’s greatest lyric poets: he was also one of its greatest drunkards. He is celebrated here as the figurehead for friendship, connection to the natural world, remembrance and acknowledgement of the dead through the rituals of drink and poetry:
the god of liquor
sent alcohol from the stars
rewarding the earth
One of the traps of writing haiku is defaulting to a write-by-numbers landscape poetry, to the rote reconstituting of symbols and themes we associate with T’ang and Zen poetry. Drumheller’s little book does not shirk away from the darker aspects of his host countries’ histories. But there is no judgment-making—no theorising, either. The solution is to always find recourse to the practice of poetry.
writing a haiku inside
my little red book
Similarly, in John Gibb’s third collection, Surprised by Hope, the practice of poetry is an act of self-care. A tool for navigating towards the next enchantment. A friend and source of comfort in lonely hours. This is also a book that celebrates both the freedoms and frustrations inherent in the creative act. There are no haiku here, but Gibb’s poems are all about taking leaps: from the dark turning of the day-to-day world, into the light of the poetic mind at play, of finding joy again in the act of writing:
… But, between nightmares,
this is still a fine place to be: towards the end
of summer; a place slightly smaller, a little
more human, and even in this modest,
companionable café with its passengers, their
cellphones and drinks—definitely still good.
These poems are full of the stuff of small wonder, of celebrating the quotidian present, acts of keeping oneself amused. We are hard-pressed these days to find much good in the news. Wars, inflation, pandemics, superstorms. Etcetera, etcetera. It is hard not to default to cynicism, despair and hopelessness. Gibb’s poems make the case to persist: to stay open, to seek out the next enchantment.
As many readers will know—particularly, those in Dunedin—John Gibb spent his professional life working as a reporter for the Otago Daily Times. It’s hard not to get a sense that poetry took a back seat during those years. Many of the poems in Surprised by Hope seem to be about a return to writing poetry after a lengthy hiatus:
Thirty years out of the poetry world, now,
in a small way, he was back. Everyone else
had industriously published book after
book since he’d left.
Gibb is at his best when he lets the magnitude of his feeling—the feeling that is the impetus for the poem—take over, instead of always couching it in whimsical phrasing and imagery. Here is an example of where feeling finds the right images and music:
You walk alone into an underwater
city, whose old chief post office has
been mysteriously refurbished. You
imagine an orchestra which yearns
for music but cannot play, and a
shadow searching for a lamp post,
a cry seeking a pale throat, a dawn
fumbling towards a lost city. When
you fall asleep, you’re still upside
down and surrounded by small birds
also flying upside down, as if searching
for an upturned cosy tree in which
to roost. Offering a strange comfort,
many other things also fly beside you
and ahead of you, far into the darkness
Peter Olds has lived his life inside poetry. In the opening poem of Sheep Truck, his latest book, he sets down how his journey as a poet began: ‘It was the ‘60s / I wasn’t cut out for suits / I fell through the cracks // I needed something to do / It was one thing or the other / or the madhouse.’ Here the decision to become a poet becomes a lifeline for its maker. Poetry becomes a survival art:
Art was one thing
I could’ve done that
but I needed to travel light
A cheap pen and a notebook
was all that was needed
to be a song-writer poet …
Across five decades of writing, he has candidly documented his various struggles in and out of the mental health system, his issues with alcohol and tranquilizers, and life on the fringes of society in boarding houses and council flats. His is a world that poets with tenured university positions or public service jobs will rarely get close to. These days, he does not write about these things directly, but like a watermark, the trace of these experiences is present in his new poems:
You could pop over here & keep me company:
I could show you how I once drank wine
& danced on table tops—but I can barely
climb into a chair now.
He is the recovered poet and has stayed young and alert because of it. These new poems are as fresh and immediate as any he has written. They are characterised by a wry and wise humour, a sense of human comedy. His eye is clear and compassionate, even when it is trained on the excessive materialism of consumer culture:
It is the end of the earth: there is nowhere
else to go. So pop-up another hamburger shop,
fresh from L.A. with clean white T-shirts,
brand new spilling out into the streets …
And The Remarkables are wonderful in all
the ways The Remarkables can be, looking
down on human folly with a Buddha smile,
There is an air of sadness hanging over some of the poems in Sheep Truck, but it is not one of regret or solipsism. It is simply the poet aware of mortality, the inevitability of slowing down, of finishing. But even this he approaches with love and laughter. Like Whitman or Ginsberg, he praises and gives thanks for his body in all its frailty. On a visit to the Dental School, he cracks jokes with trainee dentists:
—back in three weeks for further
measurements … I’ve asked them to give
me a ‘Tony Curtis’ look—‘Who?’ the
Malaysian students ask—giggling
behind their masks.
Olds is one of our great stroller poets; dawdling along the street, he’s an observer missing nothing, carefully tuned in. Many of his finest poems are records of his daily walks around the hills and streets of Dunedin. He is also in fine form when he writes in the epistolary mode. And in Sheep Truck, he is still sending out letters to close friends, old lovers, with an openness and intimate vulnerability:
I liked you right from the start.
I knew from 50 yards away that
something special was about to happen.
You got up from where you were sitting
(at an outside café table, so you
could ‘exhale’) looking like a
peacock who’d just tumbled out
of a clothes dryer, covered in scarves,
black eyes & remarkably perfect teeth …
You had already placed our orders. The
table wobbled. Your enthusiasm tripped
me up. Everything was beautiful.
MICHAEL STEVEN is a poet and sparky from Tāmaki Makaurau.