A poetry collection exhibiting a long-term obsession with planes, especially fighter-planes from World War II, planes, planes, and more generally, flight, Fly Boy is filled with evocative replications of Canterbury poet Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s basic, vigorous and deeply rooted song of boyhood, imaginative freedom and time past. A bit like Seamus Heaney’s nostalgic paeans to household items, Paparoa Holman’s poems show an art of linking vivid, musical phrases into small lyrical vignettes that read like private memorative recitations: revisitations of a formative aviation manual which the poet evidently pored over as a boy, meditations on birds and bird flight, pilot death, gliders, Antarctic Austers, Fokkers, Constellations, Vulcans, Barouders and Sunderlands.
Genji Monogatari, Mark Young (Rockhampton: Otoliths, 2010) 60 pp., $14.95. At Trotsky’s Funeral, Mark Young (Dunedin: Kilmog Press, 2010) 44 pp., $45.00. the allegrezza ficcione, Mark Young (Rockhampton: Otoliths, 2006, 2007, 2008) 80 pp., $14.95
I first heard rather than read Mark Young’s poetry in the 1960s at Barry Lett Galleries and at the Wynyard Tavern in Auckland, where I was a student and had aspirations to be a poet. What was immediately striking about his poems then, and remains so now, was a quality of displacement. There seemed to be three sources of this displacement. The voice I heard (and the texts I later read) had a deliberating, impersonal quality, in marked (so to speak) contrast to the jongleur or troubadour voice of Dave Mitchell, who often performed with Young. Then, the language itself, in its internal (pronouns, subject/object relations, point-of-view) and external (line endings and enjambement, syllabic weight, visual scoring) exercised a persistently sceptical and frugal sense of affect. And finally, the references, even when local in terms of a scenography, seemed most often to have been mediated by distant influences and references – LeRoi Jones (‘Gonna roll the bones’): Black / gamin / disdains all games / of chance, Robert Duncan (‘The Tigers’): Within the tiger / reels a turmoil / of desires, William Carlos Williams (‘The intention’) (i) The intention is / that I / refurbish / the room – French poets (Verlaine), artists (Magritte), and jazz musicians (most often Miles Davis).
What this added up to could be described as negative romanticism: subjectivity identified by being uninterested in winning sympathy or affection; meaning declaring itself to be uninterested in conclusions, especially transcendent ones; a presence revealed in its preference for distorted mirror-images over face-to-face disclosure; an honest preference for sleight-of-hand over ‘honesty’; and, most importantly, the poet’s liking for fictions, unreliable science, a certain droll impassivity, a relish of coat-trailing narrative, a love of the playfully esoteric.
A Long Girl Ago, by Johanna Aitchison (Victoria University Press), 2007, $25.00; Museum of Lost Days, by Raewyn Alexander (Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop), 2008, $15.00; Liquefaction, by Iain Britton (Interactive Press), 2009, AUS $25.00; Self-titled, by Tony Chad (HeadworX), 2006, $24.95; How to live by the sea, by Lynn Davidson (Victoria University Press), 2009, $25.00; Overnight Downpour, by Andrew Fagan (HeadworX) 2006, $19.99; Geography for the Lost, by Kapka Kassabova (Auckland University Press), 2007, $24.99; Etymology, by Bryan Walpert (Cinnamon Press), UK £7.99.
T.S. Eliot described poetry as ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’, and words themselves as things that ‘slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision’. Good poets are not so much punch-drunk on language as wary of it, like recovering alcoholics, and however chatty or conversational the voice of the poet, it is only ever offering a persona made of language, with claims of clarity, accessibility, or indeed hermeticism, just strategic devices. Contemporary poets strain their ears to catch the silences between ‘noise’ and bring us word of them — in the form of Chinese whispers, or Russian dolls, or Zen paradoxes, or Kiwi minimalism.
Tigers at Awhitu, Sarah Broom (Auckland University Press, 2010), 80 pp., $29.95 The Worm in the Tequila, Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, 2010), 95 pp., $25.00
Does lyric poetry spring from calm and contentment, or agitation and unease? Adverse circumstances and events can certainly provoke powerful creative responses; it is probably unsurprising then that the experience of physical or mental illness has resulted in many compelling literary works. Sarah Broom’s Tigers at Awhitu and Geoff Cochrane’s The Worm in the Tequila both emerge from such experiences, evoking and – eventually – moving beyond them in very different ways.
Sarah Broom is a relative newcomer to New Zealand poetry (Tigers at Awhitu is her first collection of poetry; a scholarly work, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, was published in the UK in 2005). Her book is divided into two untitled sections: the first part written before the author’s diagnosis of terminal cancer (which is now in remission), and dealing with a variety of lyrical and narrative subjects; the second written after the diagnosis. Many of the poems in the first section are cool and spare with vivid imagery and stand-alone lines used for blunt impact, while other somewhat denser poems establish a more prosaic pace. ‘Crusade’ is an especially powerful example of the first type, its opening question – ‘And I wondered what kind of a thing the soul was’ – leading, after six lines of rhetorical speculation, to the climax:
Or the death rattle
of a coin belt ripped
from the waist of a dying man.
Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-class Verse 1996—2009, John O’Connor (Post Pressed, Queensland, Australia, 2010), 144 pp., $25.00.
John O’Connor is a Christchurch poet who has had eight books of poetry published. His most recent book is Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-class Verse 1996–2009, a sizable (144 pages) selection of previously published and new poems that are more or less in keeping with the qualification of the collection’s title.