Forty Years of Titirangi Poets, edited by Ron Riddell (Printable Reality, 2017), 132 pp., $30; Homeless by John Howell (Submarine, imprint of Mākaro Press, 2017), 68 pp., $25; 仁Surrender by Janet Charman (Otago University Press, 2017), 120 pp., $27.50
In 2013 the Titirangi Poets arose from the ashes of the Titirangi Poetry and Jazz Group, which ran from 1977 to 2000. Forty Years of Titirangi Poets records those two incarnations and brings us work from 51 poets, 15 lumped into ‘the 70s, 80s and 90s’ and the rest in the last four years. The poems aren’t dated or commented on, and the introduction is used mainly for identifying stalwarts.
Nine poets are crossovers. Some stayed true to their early passions: Will Leadbeater moves from contemplating the inscrutable name of William Carlos Williams (p. 31) to an imitation of the red wheelbarrow (pp. 86–87). Diana Hibbert circles the sonnet from a cautious distance, first to express her younger concerns (pp. 26, 27), later with a note of acceptance (p. 78). None of her poems is a ‘tick-the-boxes sonnet’, but all end with something like a turn and feel enough like sonnets to make one count the lines on first reading. ‘Messengers’ (p. 26) ends with:
There’s more that went with the storm:
these intimations of faith
I hold to you like a blade.
Iain Sharp shows the most spectacular contrast, beginning as a brash youth entranced with self (p. 41) and signing off with ‘An old man’s song’ (p. 111), a villanelle on the same topic that ends:
My shadow so small and the sun so vast,
my smile disintegrating tooth by tooth,
I watched my future became my past,
which I expected, but not quite so fast.
Others of the original mob are Serie Barford, who goes from dominatrix to Matariki, and Piers Davies, who uses geomorphology to draw a Xanadu-like fantasy world but later looks directly at nature. Michael Morrissey begins with apostrophes to his lover and to American war-mongering; he ends with nostalgia and more emotional involvement.
Ron Riddell’s style moves from loosely connected images to heavily linked metaphors. Paul Protheroe goes from looking at his very new baby, with anxiety, to looking at a performing guru, with irritation.
Denys Trussell seems to come closest to what an outsider might expect from poets living in Titirangi, given its repute as a destination for eco-dropouts. ‘Flood/Ohikanui/Paparoa’ collects clear observations: ‘the stone/ rain/ the leaf/ the tree/ rain/ cold radiance …’ (p. 43). But his later sample expands his words to a wider space:
Sheer night of the cold
rushes into my lungs. Its shock
wakes sense … (p. 115)
The book is certainly worth a look. It is competently presented, though the design is basic – and I wonder how many kōwhai-plus-tūī cover images the world needs.
John Howell’s new collection Homeless is attractively illustrated and presented in a slim format that invites tucking the book in one’s pocket to read and re-read.
Howell is a retired minister who volunteers at DCM (formerly the Wellington Inner City Ministry). His poems record and celebrate the many homeless people he serves there. ‘Homeless’ is almost an anagram of ‘homilies’ – appropriate here, as his brief and straightforward poems nudge us into remembering that faith without action is not enough.
His people live in the corners and on the edges of the city – as shown on the cover and here:
Home assembles at the edge of night
tent, ply or cardboard panel
a house of cards when gale-winds channel
I was dealt cards of a nothing hand
walk the line, my shadow and me
hide away from the judge’s decree
(‘Folding unfolding cardboard’, p. 28)
They don’t disappear – more likely, these men set up their own boundaries:
From the kitchen I bring a jug
to refill the urn. Put my hand
on his shoulder. ‘Don’t.
You. Touch. Me.’
(‘Short fuse’, p. 19)
Howell also speaks to those who know best in ‘How to make people homeless’ (p. 44): ‘1) Cease maintenance on state houses./ 2) Begin selling state houses … (10) Continue selling state houses.’
The various repetition poems are most effective read out loud. ‘Home 4: The house’, for example, goes from ‘Here is a daydream, here is a day’, to end with ‘here is the land barren and bare,/ watch the rage, the gun, the fear’ (pp. 40–41). It perhaps works best as a rap.
‘Home by 2050 (pp. 30–31) is one of several poems on conservation:
native birds deserve a home
before possums and rats
(Gareth adds cats) …
possum fur pulled over eyes
the sea will rise
pests will drown
the homeless wait
But I think these are too vague – who do we save? the birds or the homeless? The speaker is offstage in most of the poems, an observer, but when he broadens the topic like this, he needs to take a stand to keep the poem from collapsing into two bits.
Howell’s Christian faith is clear, and his vision of being-in-the-world makes clear the ethical duty that comes with it. The lovely villanelle ‘They shuffle into a queue’ (p. 20), echoing the Gospels, ends with:
A different kingdom will dare
the last in the queue to be first
on the overcrowded stair,
when those on hard times come here.
The cover of 仁Surrender, Janet Charman’s newest book, also starts us out on an empty stage. She writes in a place of temporary (and of course voluntary) dislocation, one of eight guests on a literary residency in Hong Kong. Eight is a lucky number but hardly a serene one: books, faces, personalities, gifts, performances, expeditions – and words of every tone and shape – spin around from all sides.
In the 18-page poem ‘Where people are’ she moves in to the hotel, assigning labels:
i am a new arrival to this cabinet on the ninth floor
a grey crab immobilised in twine …
i am actually a left margin justified crazy person …
i am that woman (pp. 10–11)
… with daylight
i am becoming
another woman (p. 13)
And another, and another, through a dazzling collection of images and conversations, shop talk and casual chat:
a woman breathing in
the weight of a poetics
which brings to consciousness
the blush of the body joyous (p. 27)
The closer people get acquainted, the faster the labels get compromised. ‘they say you’re Japanese’ is the title. Then: ‘and are/ from Okinawa/ though actually/ when we get right down to it/ you were born on Ishigaki/ in the archipelago of Ryukyu in Urumanesia … (p. 31).
Later, in ‘my Korean is better’: that’s what you say/ wherever/ whenever you are expected to speak English …’ (p. 36). We are told that the speaker grew up on the DMZ, medically robbed of the first ten years of his memory. And we remember the Ryukyuan’s belief that
… in a multicultural situation
what matters most
but respect (p. 32)
The title poem 仁 begins:
the sign for man
and the number two
today some agree to translate it as co-humanity (p. 64)
The word 仁 can also mean a parent–child type of altruism, an outward expression of Confucian thought. Perhaps the guest poet has flashes of being a parent in ‘of our lucky eight’ (pp. 81–88 [sic – very nice]), describing the end of the residency as her fellows drop off one by one with an air of adult children going off to their respective concerns.
Throughout, it’s clear the poet sees herself at home in both the literary and the wider world, and this brings responsibilities which she must honour.
‘some notes on shopping and present giving’ (pp. 48–58) is a very funny riff on the difficulty of buying gifts for people of another culture whom you have never met and to whom you wish to represent your country. Charman gives us the unabridged internal debate: no to the iconic tea-towels (made in China), no to the Sydney Parkinson kiwi coasters (can’t find enough), no pāua cufflinks (forgot to order), will I be guilty of cultural appropriation? (probably, but hey), how about those little Stanley Palmer cards (yes!), can I get frames for them this far away from the Avondale $2 shop? (don’t be silly) … and so on and so on:
i went in and chose and paid for fourteen plastic frames …
kind of dull and unassuming …
but ultimately harmonising
as i happily found when i got them back to my room
and made one up as a sample
i didn’t want anyone to catch me at this either
behind my locked door i felt like a forger … (p. 53)
(And all this with no panic attacks, either, we’re told.) It was impossible to read all 11 pages of the gift exercise without thinking of it as an existential dither, or a metaphor for a writer in search of The Right Word, The Perfect Opening Sentence, the one true immutable answer to What On Earth Am I Trying To Say Here? In any event, it gives us a vivid view of the writer’s craft as she expertly sails the Hong Kong coastline.
It’s a rich book, readable and rewarding.
MARY CRESSWELL is a poet and reviewer who came to New Zealand in 1970 from Los Angeles. She is a retired natural history editor/copyeditor and lives on the Kāpiti Coast. Field Notes, a satiric miscellany, is her fifth book, and is published by Mākaro Press (Submarine Books). For further information, see www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Cresswell,%20Mary