A Field Officer’s Notebook by Dan Davin (Cold Hub Press, 2018), 104 pp., $29.95; Murmurations by Art Nahill (Two Hemispheres Poetry, 2018) 68 pp., $27; How to Defeat the Philistines by David Beach (David Beach, 2018), 64 pp., $25; Crisis & Duplication by David Merritt (Compound Press, 2017), 22 pp., $20
‘If I ever get round to making sense of the preceding,’ wrote Dan Davin before his death, ‘I’ll call it Field Officer’s Notebook.’ Editor Robert McLean has honoured this intention, making sense and order of a lifetime’s work in this posthumously published collection. McLean’s introduction provides valuable context, describing the three stages of life in which Davin’s poetry was written: while at university, while serving in World War Two, and during his later years in England. And though the introduction self-consciously admits that some of Davin’s work might now seem dated, the depth of feeling evoked in these poems spans the decades easily.
These are poems heavy with the weight of disillusionment – even those written long before Davin had seen the horrors of war. ‘Perspective’ captures that disenchantment that is keenest-felt when fresh, in adolescence: ‘My father was a hero once. / Now he is a man. / The world shrinks from infinity / To a finger’s span.’ A few pages on comes a lament for wasted talent: ‘In what diversity of sterile tasks / Have I diffused my power, that these full years / Have built no monument of mine.’ If the language and style here are period-specific, the feeling is surely near-universal.
The poems that centre on Davin’s university days are also marked by a reticence about the world of academia and his place within it. In ‘Had I constrained my spirit then …’, Davin reflects upon his narrow escape from the stifling effect of ivory tower propriety. This unease with his own status as scholar presents a kind of anxiety of influence. In ‘I love never great ones greatly’ he admits: ‘Thucyides, yes. / And somewhat less, Tacitus, / […] Who else? The premature clones of one’s own cloning, / Joyce, DHL, more and more less.’
The influence of Davin’s literary education remains evident throughout. ‘Do you remember?’ is a dark subversion of Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Tarantella’. Pastoral imagery is employed often, and to devastating effect – his war poems abound with rotting leaves and trampled harvests. Several of the later poems are very short, pared back and occasionally caustic; like this one, quoted in its entirety: ‘Not a profound despair. Just a shallow one. / Like drowning in two inches of water.’
Amid all this despair, however, truly gorgeous images emerge. The first line of ‘December’, for instance: ‘The honey of that summer still / Combs through our thinning minds.’ The collection’s final poem, ‘Day’s end’, is such a shift in tone as to be almost jarring – although solace comes as an unexpected relief:
The hens are fed, the pigs are fed.
The cows are milked, and out for the night.
So are the stars.
The Building Society’s bill is paid.
We haven’t lost the land beneath us …
How to Defeat the Philistines is David Beach’s fifth collection of sonnets. As in his previous work, the traditional form is stripped back here almost beyond recognition, deliberately devoid of rhyme and metre. However, there is a sort of schema in the way the collection rolls out; there are seven poems on ‘Impersonal Poetry’, eight on ‘The Crowds at the Metropolitan Museum’s 1978 Tutankhamun Exhibition’, nine on ‘Murder Victim Discovery’, ten on ‘Ghosts’, and so on. The final seven are all devoted to ‘Post-Modern Irony’, and in this collection irony is deified – held up as ‘the prankster angel’, ‘a superior / species of epiphany’.
Beach’s tone is dry and distant, his observations sometimes prosaic, such as this line from ‘The Crowds at the Metropolitan Museum … 7’: ‘New Yorkers couldn’t go past a show so / expressive of the sentiment ‘he who / dies with the most toys wins.’ It is those poems tinged with empathy for their subjects that strike me as genuinely charming; one posits that ‘Ghosts are particularly susceptible / to the phenomenon of phantom limb.’
In fact, the collection’s most engaging poems are those that veer close to the very earnestness that ‘Murder Victim Discovery 8’ rejects. ‘Ghosts 10’ is a sudden display of vulnerability – not voyeuristically observed as a crime scene, but personally felt. The anxiety here is a familiar one:
You can’t write without the
ancestors participating, rattling their
chains in your subconscious, chittering at
at the notion of the self you hope might
survive into the halls of the future.
If there’s one thing this collection is at pains to reminds us, it is that survival is never guaranteed.
Murmurations is Art Nahill’s second collection, and it is remarkable. Nahill writes with a keen, empathetic awareness of human frailty; the first section is mainly a list of phobias. In ‘Survival guide’ a friend suggests, ‘one should play dead and curl inward / to shield the most vulnerable organs’. Yet Murmurations is vibrantly alive and outward-looking, determinedly finding beauty in a world of pain.
‘To say salt / is to invoke / antiquity …’ one poem begins, and the various kinds of grief suffered in this collection have indeed been with us for millennia. The loss of a parent, the disintegration of a relationship … ordinary existential dread. In ‘Athazagoraphobia’ – ‘the fear of being forgotten’ – Nahill’s verbal sleight-of-hand equates artistic and existential anxieties: ‘I fear I’ll wake / to find one morning I’ve made / not the slightest of impressions / upon the sheets.’ A later poem hints at how such doubts can lead to self-sabotage: ‘Didn’t you ever want to graffiti up / the wall of your existence / for no good reason? / Because it’s clear you’ll never leap / the Grand Canyon on a star-spangled rocket bike?’
The open world of childhood is crystallised in ‘Hometown’: ‘we sledded down / Reservoir Hill / that long white / sheet of possibility’. Nahill has an eye for everyday beauty; in fact, in ‘Synesthesia’ he describes how beauty can overwhelm. In the pleasingly titled ‘You say my poems have too many adjectives’, he tries to explain: ‘you’re not / here to see / those mornings / when the traffic lights / the trees / the darkness itself / all wait outside my window / for some small praise’.
When turned on the harsher aspects of life, this clarity of vision can be painful. ‘Fieldstone wall’ is quietly shattering: ‘Mother / I often wished for you / a tenderness / that could break / you open like the geode / we once unearthed / revealing / all the bright / and jagged crystals.’ Nahill knows such tenderness is hard to come by, and so takes it where he can find it, as in the idea of ‘Black swans’:
I’ve heard they mate
and today I just need
it to be true
for the sake of this poem
and every poem.
David Merritt’s Crisis & Duplication is a work of two neat halves, split in subject by the ampersand in the title. The first section distils a ‘mid-career crisis of confidence’, in the midst of which Merritt looks for guidance to a writer gone before. And where Davin ‘loved never great ones greatly’, Merritt has chosen a giant of New Zealand literature to idolise, a figure so recognisable that he is never explicitly named in the text, referred to only as ‘Frank’. The premise of this section is simple enough: ‘one poet, very alive, 400 miles south for now, compares life & times with another poet, 60 years ago still alive & kicking’. The form is simple too – prose poetry, beautifully typeset. And for all that crisis is ostensibly the subject, beauty feels like the prevailing theme; the beauty of tomatoes and sunlight and life pared back to the essentials.
In the idea of Frank, Merritt finds a reassuring sense of literary lineage; a model for ‘sustainable living & a sane, ethical career’. His identification with Sargeson is warm and genuine, the kind of imagined friendship easily indulged in: ‘I could take you out for a spin in the Landrovers sometime […] we could debate tobacco or tomatoes, red wine or literature. Whatever.’ It is not all rose-tinted idealisation, however. Merritt acknowledges the isolating aspects of what they have in common: ‘It takes a special kind of old caring bastard to be this mid-career male writer, slightly offset, slightly jangled, slightly out of place and context.’
There is a lack of clarity about the titular crisis – referred to paradoxically as ‘this small moment of self-confidence, this crisis, this ongoing crisis’. However, this only adds to the sense that Merritt is used to making the best of things – of every ‘better than average moment’. This section’s last line caught me by surprise, bittersweet and beautiful: ‘we both realised a long time ago that books, stacked in bookshelves, lining the walls of a home, makes the best insulation from all that is prevailing & unfortunate & cold’.
The second section, ‘The Means of Duplication’, takes us through Merritt’s process of crafting a book. There is a transparency here, an honesty about the mathematics of living his particular creative life: ‘During the day I make 5–15 books. I give away some, I sell some. Each night I go to sleep with $42–$48 in my pockets.’ As in the previous section, the generative processes of literary creation and vegetable growing are aligned; Merritt composts old novels while saving their covers to recycle. ‘The worms thrive on 1950s pulp science fiction paperbacks, lightly ripped, watered, layered with weeds.’ Crises aside, Merritt’s work exudes a quiet confidence – a belief in small, human-scale constancy: ‘I can fix or replace any book I make for as long as I am alive.’
GENEVIEVE SCANLAN is an MA graduate of the University of Otago. Her poetry has appeared in London Grip, Poetry New Zealand and The Rise Up Review, and she was a participant in the Fortune Theatre’s 2017 Emerging Playwrights Initiative. She lives in Dunedin.