Friday Prayers by Tony Beyer (Cold Hub Press, 2019), 40pp., $19.50; By the Lapels by Wes Lee (Steele Roberts, 2019), 76pp., $25; Neon Daze by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, 2019), 143pp., $25; Moral Sloth by Nick Ascroft (Victoria University Press, 2019), 80pp., $25
Tony Beyer’s Friday Prayers proves the truth of that old adage: big things come in small packages. A chapbook, forty pages and five poems long perhaps, but therein lies such mastery of concept, language, form and evocation that it seems larger and longer, packing more cerebral punch than the sum of its parts.
Beyer’s inspiration is Christchurch and New Zealand’s second-largest city’s heartbreaking recent history of quake and massacre. From the distressing, though, Beyer uses poetry as agency, calling for harmony and catharsis. From the first, the twelve-part cycle ‘Island Time’, the page ripples with cadent energy:
the moon’s reflected path on water
leads only to the moon
a barren place marked
by the boot prints of imperialists (p.7)
This image and others in the poem – a writer cleaning a house; ‘the ghost city under Christchurch’; ‘grunge pub near the city centre’ (p.7) – speak to stasis and loss. But, like much of Beyer’s work, this poem about stillness is never still. Each of its twelve sections offers ‘slice of life’ moments that build in meaning, metaphor and music to a powerful poem. For in the midst of all, the examination of inertia, revelation and accomplishment reign. The spring-cleaning author, for instance, discovers the subject for a poem. The observance of Armistice Day offers ‘chasing shrieking children/ whose voices the future needs to hear’ (p.7).
Observance is a process more widely at play in Friday Prayers. The titular poem is a case in point. As the name suggests, the subject matter is ceremony: the rites of authorships are offset by adherence to God’s supposed will to become a meditation upon intolerance and a call for communal respect. As in ‘Island Time’, here there is also proof of Beyer’s devotion to poetic technique and form. In the collection’s first poem this is evident in strict poetic patterns: fourteen lines per section, each composed of seven couplets, all laid down in parts according to that sacred number, 12. The titular poem, meanwhile, is composed of nineteen quintets. Each line retains a consistent length that builds into consistent stanzas and thereby an overall aesthetic shape – just as the narrative builds to its significance: the personal consequences to faith and family of the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre attacks:
everything we love
songs poems prayers
our children’s faces
and their children’s
gone in a gunshot (p.28)
Poetry has been called the art of making every word matter. If so, in Friday Prayers Tony Beyer proves his mastery of the form. The book and the work in it are succinct, no doubt, but they are the more impactful for that.
In her second powerful collection, By the Lapels, Paekākāriki writer Wes Lee shows that she shares Beyer’s deeply mulled poetic impressionism. The book reads as a novel-like narrative, each poem a slanted entry point to the ongoing story. The first offering, ‘The Things She Remembers’ is a case in point. A list poem of snatched image-moments, it opens:
A homeless man in an orangutan costume
with an Emily Dickinson poem written in black marker
pen on the cardboard held out in front of him: ‘Hope’
is the thing with feathers (p.7)
As in subsequent verses in the collection, this almost-comic set up, combining absurdity with poetry, becomes – through a series of sharp authorial observations and linguistic twists – something tragic and profound. For the poem’s content is propelled by the narrator’s perception, something Lee increasingly persuades us is dark, disturbing and, as with the most profound protagonists, highly unreliable. It’s giving nothing away about the plot of ‘The Things She Remembers’ (or the wider work) to say that references to the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, troubled icons and creatives like J.G. Ballard, Joseph Merrick and Mickey Rourke, and memory snippets like ‘My brother cutting off his ponytail and placing it/ in our mother’s coffin’, incrementally construct a volatile tale seemingly hijacked by an anonymous neurotic (p.7).
So layered is the opening poem, so ripe its images with material unstated but implied, I feel I could write an entire review on it. The truth is that the work that follows it, such as the poems ‘Speak to Me’ and ‘You Wait for Your Loneliness to be Looked Upon’ is just as impactful and deserving of exclusive evaluation – had this review the space and time. Usually, following the impressionistic style, these poems are brief and fleeting insights to a far-reaching world. Take ‘That Night’, for instance:
where the whole room must have bellowed
when it saw what was happening
to the child. (p.50)
Three short lines with a powerful ability to fill the vacuum of the withheld broader account with emotion, assumption and narrative potential.
By the Lapels ends with the kind of image-shard poem that opened the book. It’s no coincidence this verse is called ‘The Split’; no coincidence either that, where the first poem offered the reader an entry point into its dislocated environs, this closing act brings such disorder to its climactic, cathartic finale:
Recalling the bad dream
takes a lifetime
The desire to know the face
of the criminal
I had one story
I shine different coloured lights on it
Like a disco. (p.75)
Amy Brown’s third collection, Neon Daze, is a poetic journal of motherhood. Where Beyer and Lee left a lot out of their work, the better for imagination and intimation to work their magic, Brown is in search of speaking as many truths about mothering as possible.
The book begins with the day of her child’s birth:
13 August 2016
This day begins early
when seven kilos you’ll lose
by its end starts to leak
and your abdomen begins
to speak in a voice that books
and friends recommend you
control as soon as you hear it. (p.13)
What follows are four sections, four months of similar diary-like poems. Many are annotated, explaining poetic drive, craft techniques, memory fragments, linguistic connections and so forth. They develop the poetic journal into a broader bricolage skillfully combining verse, creative nonfiction, memoir, autobiography and dictionary. All is undertaken to chart the experience of birth and the jet-lag-like days of early motherhood, and to search for a meaning – or series of meanings – never, in this reviewer’s experience nor, seemingly, in the poet’s, offered by those ‘already parents’ imparting wisdom to others about to become parents.
9 September 2016
In the last three days I haven’t gone past the front steps.
The edge of the balcony is my limit.
A trip to the recycling bin stretches what he’s deemed regulation.
I am becoming yin to the sofa’s yang as my injury heals.
While we re-watch Nigella cubing Gruyère for a fondue, whipping cream
and describing the significance of eggs en cocotte, you suck my nose
and kick my stomach, demanding more. (p.38)
This is a profound, probing collection, miracle of the imagination conjoining the joyous moments of mothering a child through its first days and months. As with Wes Lee’s book, every poem in Brown’s offers the reader so much to consider, marvel at and re-read. Wondrous.
Renowned for his proficiency with poetic form and technique, Nick Ascroft’s literary voice is that of the social dissenter. In his work the traditional and unorthodox coalesce, as is evident with his fifth collection, Moral Sloth. Glimpses of this dissent are witnessed early on in the book; ergo, the title of the collection’s third poem, ‘Reflections on Emptiness, Celebrity and Agency, Having Visited Patrick Pound’s Hall of Mirrors’. Here the façades of a famed trio – Elizabeth II, Patty Hearst and Ronald Reagan – are deconstructed through an opening and closing limerick and an epic middle section. Ascroft is also a poet content to poke fun at himself and his craft, as in ‘What to Call My Next Poetry Collection’. It’s in the list poem, however, that the poet’s caustic, richly cadent tongue most finds its mark, as this excerpt from ‘Gone Mad’ ably illustrates:
Health and safety gone mad.
Disease and hazard gone mad.
‘Health and safety gone mad’ gone mad.
Healthy dislike of Baby Boomers gone mad.
Housing prices gone mad.
Interest rates threatening to spiral out of control but remaining at a
plateau gone mad.
Estate agents gone mad.
I’m stuck in an elevator with three of them with only a safety pin
and malice afterthought gone mad (p.21)
Such layering of music, meaning and associative interplay build to a stream-of-consciousness-like incongruity, which crescendos pitch-perfect in its rendering of the flaws of our age:
PC gone mad.
PCP gone mad.
CCCP gone mad.
Pea soup gone mad
Healthy pee is not sea green gone mad,
but gone girls have gone with the wind gone mad.
Schizophrenic disassociative copralalia gone mad.
Humanity, one day everywhere like vermin, and the next, gone:
Be it the meditation upon atheism ‘Truth’, the Taylor Swift-infused homage to artistic block, ‘A Writer Wrongs’, or the more personally inspired works such as ‘Kid in Day Care, Cat Sleeps in Pram’, the foibles, fixations and mores of contemporary existence are filtered through Ascroft’s vivid imagination and sparkling diction into a Brechtian dystopia that modern-day luddites will love.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of five books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award-winning collection Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). She’s a lecturer at the Centre for Creative Writing, AUT. Longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Review Peter Porter Poetry Prize, she has also won the Robert Burns Poetry Award (Scottish Heritage Council, Dunedin Libraries 2020) and the Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems, International Writers Workshop NZ (2019).