Craven by Jane Arthur (Victoria University Press, 2019), 88 pp., $25; The Track by Paula Green (Seraph Press, 2019), 64 pp, $25; At This Distance by Dunstan Ward (Cold Hub Press, 2019 ), 88 pp., $27.50
Craven by Jane Arthur feels effortless, unfiltered – it displays the raw motions of the limbic system, untroubled by social mores or poetic constraints. It is the over-sharer at the party – but one who is artful, engaging. It is the deep-and-meaningful quasi-confessional anecdote told over a punch bowl that commits you to feeling more flawed but also as if you are more of a participant in the human race. Eileen Myles, American poet and judge of the 2018 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize (which Arthur won), said of Arthur’s poems, ‘they don’t have to try so hard’. There is an ease to their pared back conversational honesty.
Jane Arthur has her finger on the pulse and on the place where introspection meets hypochondria. There is a discomfort in looking at the heart ‘head on’. And there is anxiety in looking away. Craven is a log of embodied terror, of the existential grief of being hurled into a world intent on killing its protagonists. Nevertheless, there is a doggedness here, a hanging-in-there, a heroism in sheer persistence. ‘I can get up in the morning / I do things.’
Arthur’s writing is a ninja wielding a stethoscope instead of nunchuks. It cuts – but in laparoscopic nips. Arthur is laconic, grunting at the operating table. But each vocalisation drives us towards some internal truth, something hot and pulsing. This is not poetry trying to be poetry. These are scalpels, not quills; suction tubes, not erasers. Arthur is aware of the fragility of the human subject, and her work is loaded with hazards and monitions – the car crash, the poisoned apple, rising oceans, undiagnosed tumours. ‘Drive safe,’ she says. ‘Don’t drive unsafely.’
The first poem, ‘Circles of Lassitude’, paints the world as a threatening place:
Anything can be a weapon if you
swallow hard enough:
nail scissors, a butter knife, dental floss,
a kindergarten guillotine, hot soup,
There is something cartoonish about the danger, though – as if it’s done in a kind of stencilled technicolour that lends familiarity to fatality – ‘cuteness / and morbidity’. Her work has bozos and baddies; ‘Everything’s 3D but flat.’ This is the sort of poetry where characters snuff it then get back up.
Arthur’s poetry has an audacity that moves well beyond ‘craven’. This is no yellow-bellied assemblage. The poetry here is bold and disarmingly honest. Certainly, it is riddled with neurosis, trepidation and pain – but the fact of its utterance, its ‘being there’, is a subversive act. There is a hard core:
I say, that sucks but I guess I’ll survive it
or, that wind’s really strong
but so are my roots, so are my thighs
my branches my lungs my leaves my capacity to wait things out
Notably, Arthur’s poems are more than explorations of Self. Arthur’s heedfulness bleeds out into the world at large. ‘How will we keep the world safe?’ she asks. Her care extends to other people, animals, to the onions she chops (‘it’s okay, they’re already dead’). There is an awareness that to be human is to harm and be harmed. It reads like a riff on T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which itself is a quiver of anxieties – ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’, and ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ As if in answer to the question, transposed, Arthur writes:
I eat apples whole,
pips and cores and skin
leaving no trace
Craven is a picture of the things that make life simultaneously horrific and worthwhile. Sometimes it reads like Edvard Munch’s Scream (‘A YouTube montage of animals being friends with each other / with me screaming in the background’), and sometimes its edges are soft and the sardonic is muted (‘We can’t tell if the sky / is clinging // to night or happy / to welcome this new morning’). This is poetry that reverberates and shudders well after you’ve put the book down.
Where Arthur’s poetry charts existential pains – the hazy but intense agonies of the psyche – Paula Green’s The Track is a log of pain as localised, visceral. Green is a champion of poetry in this country. She runs two poetry blogs, has edited several anthologies and written a number of books, the most recent being Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand women’s poetry (2019). The Track is poetry with clenched teeth, poetry that hobbles with stoicism and purpose, which thrashes and scythes through pain. It is ‘journey’ poetry. The Track is a verbal seismograph, registering the rogue weather and injury that the author meets on her 2015 walk of Queen Charlotte Track. It zigzags and ripples, changing pace and content midstream when Green slips and breaks her foot. The journey onwards is marked by poetry that becomes ritual and mantra. This is a book of two halves. The first is an outwardly orientated observation of the world as sumptuous landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes:
A dragon hill sleeping deep with
nose in the water and folded skin
the ninety-nine white caps
at this halfway point
like little demons
There are images that thrum deeply with the local scapes, and there are images that come as exotics, trespassing upon the walker’s imagination, which roams as wildly as its adoptive physical body. Familiar sights are given a magical twist: kānuka trees stand ‘sniffling’, a fantail ‘flits / like a dandelion wish’, a heron is ‘like / a greeting card at the water’s edge’. My favourite is: ‘I am walking into July’s teeth / in the mouth of November’.
Then there are flora, fauna and foodstuffs that would seldom meet with the Queen Charlotte Track: Orwellian dystopia, Modigliani heads, artichoke soup, tofu. This inventory grows more zany and elaborate after the break. We count animals – ‘impudent iguana’ and ‘rambunctious rhino’ – yet what looks like an alphabetised set is tickled by autobiographic memory. ‘I wouldn’t climb the pines’, ‘I sang “Born Free” in form two an awkward year of misfit’, ‘I used to draw in black and white’. In The Track we count cities; we count food, novels, movie directors. Far out – we count like it is a compulsion, arithmomania, something which Count von Count of Sesame Street might have endorsed. We count colours. We count children’s books. The counting feels like it brings existence to things, like it is an ontic force. There are passages that feel like word association games: for example, in ‘Counting Cities’, Jerusalem pairs with artichokes, and Kathmandu is as much a clothing store as it is a city of Nepal.
This counting and listing and cascading associations simultaneously mark time passing and keep the present in focus. The reader moves through a world where Wes Anderson and zebra and Brian Eno are more experientially pertinent than weather and pain and localised geography. On the track anything is possible, and the world of human creation – art and memory both – bleeds into the terrain. The track is a revelation. Two roads did not diverge in a yellow wood. Rather, there are feedback loops, temporal violations and non-linear paths. We are never really here. We are creatures of the mind, we are forwards and backwards, this place and another, all at once.
In the final pages the fever de-escalates. The ‘manic counting’ quietens and the mind returns to the world as proximate. The verbal ritual and chant, which was ally to the safe passage, backs away gently. Its job is done:
Now breathing in millponds and good views
the morning blue cracks the storm and
I let the poem go.
The gears change again with Dunstan Ward’s cerebral and deliberate At This Distance. The poetry here feels like a world away from Jane Arthur’s Craven. It is, perhaps, more leashed, more laboured. The collection is Ward’s second – his first was published a few years ago when he was seventy-four. The work here reflects a life of breadth. There are nostalgic poems, centred around ‘childhood on our Otago farm’. Yet bucolic life is not all golden crops and serenity. ‘That first promise – “clover and ryegrass / knee-deep on the Flat” – was gone.’ There are quarrelling parents, night-terrors, flooded fields and stranded stock. Ward writes of the guilts and shames of boyhood with a tenderness and an eyepiece from a life lived long. ‘How did I let this happen?’ he says in one poem, reflecting on an early misadventure. Perhaps, the poem ‘The Thing Not Done’ best reflects the remorse of its speaker:
The thing not done,
it’s there in the night,
it’s here when I wake
before the light
These are the twisting thoughts of a reflective soul, the things that make for nocturnal tossing and turning, ‘through tide on tide of silence and self-doubt’. This psychic toiling is present in the poem ‘On Trust’, where the absence of a text message spurs the protagonist to head out into the world ‘ready to take on trust’ full frontal. He locates his message-recipient engaged in conversation in a small café. Ward leaves the reader hanging on a point of ambivalence. Is this the forsaking of a lover? Is the observed conversation platonic? The poem leaves off with the chief character entering the scene. The reader inhales – and the poem succeeds in its provocation.
Ward moved to France in 1973, and his new home turf is very present in this collection. Helpfully, there is a notes section at the end where words like flâneur (stroller) and péniche (barge) are elucidated for monoglots like me. This is a poet who straddles two different worlds and seems at home in both. In Paris we pause at noon for those lost in the terrorism of November 2015. We walk by the floodwaters of the Seine, Notre-Dame, the Louvre. We celebrate ‘the art of fine things French’, ‘l’art de vivre’.
Ward is an academic, and this is realised in these works. There are references to figures from New Zealand’s literary canon (among them Iain Lonie and Lauris Edmond), and also to Graves (whose three-volume Complete Poems he edited in concert with Graves’ widow), Auden and Eliot. There is a back section with schoolboy drollery, often sardonic, short, and literary or historical in content:
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
I sometimes wish he’d stayed at home,
It is, however, the quieter poetry that I find most powerful – poetry where the natural and domestic worlds collide. Those poems that stop to listen, or crouch to watch the world about them, are vivid and textured. In ‘At First Light’ the sighting of a fox is dexterously told, and Nature’s ambivalence knocks against our attempt to find meaning:
while repeatedly a single blackbird rings
its warning, maybe, or morning jubilation’
‘Today’ also summons this ambiguity. The stimulus is there, but how ought it to be interpreted?
From the cathedral no bell’s yet ringing,
whether in mourning or celebration
This poem is another that pegs the magic of Nature to something unique to the human mind: story. The allure of the natural world, and the world as imagined, compete:
Soon that rook or crow will take flight,
though he’ll no longer be there to observe it,
having returned to resume his story
Ward’s collection feels careful, contained, but there is a force that hums through it, an unmistakable joie de vivre.
ELIZABETH MORTON is a storyteller and poet. She twice placed second in the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition, and came second in the inaugural Sargeson Short Story Prize. She has an MLitt Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and is completing an MSc in applied neuroscience with King’s College London. Her second poetry collection, This is your real name (2020) is published by Otago University Press.