The Death of Music Journalism by Simon Sweetman (The Cuba Press, 2020), 90pp., $25; Shelter by Kirsten Le Harivel (The Cuba Press, 2021), 84pp., $25; The Oceanic Feeling by Jack Ross (Salt & Greyboy Press, 2021), 72pp., $20
I have on my desk a phonograph that was built in the late 1800s. It is a thing of beauty, and I keep it as a reminder that music weaves through lives and families. It can tie us to particular places and times. For many of us, music is as crucial as the air we breathe.
Music has always been important in the life of poet Simon Sweetman. He has been loved and loathed as a music reviewer, blogger and podcaster for a number of years. His opinions have been welcomed and ridiculed, yet he has always stayed true to his beliefs and assessments. Truth is at the heart of good poetry, so it is no surprise that Sweetman has produced an honest and veracious collection of poems. In The Death of Music Journalism, we see a life in which music plays an integral part.
Sweetman’s poems give us glimpses of his childhood in Hastings, illustrated beautifully by an awkward misunderstanding with his father over Cat Stevens:
My mum told me that
the reason I got out of the
car and Dad stayed in the
car that night was because
he sat and listened to
the song three times to
try to understand what he
thought was being said
(‘Father and Son’)
The poems follow Sweetman’s development into adulthood as he goes flatting, starts a family of his own and prunes his CD collection to pay the bills. Much of the book is devoted to Sweetman’s life as a music journalist. Mark Knopfler calls his house and talks about the world’s second-ugliest guitar solo. There are nerves before an interview with Kim Hill. Encounters with Sam Hunt and Bruno Lawrence. A well-reported run-in with Robbie Williams. There is humour that sparkles, taking the poems to deeper and darker places.
and a guy
wrote in and
me to wash.
Sweetman’s poems are entertaining and accessible, but sometimes feel overlong and in need of editing. Line breaks appear from nowhere, interrupting the flow. Many read like works of creative non-fiction rather than poems. It is something the poet himself alludes to in a conversation with his mother about a book of short stories:
stories a bit
long columns …’
There was a time before streaming when musicians took care to put albums together. Sequencing was as important as the songs themselves. The individual parts added up to something cohesive. The Death of Music Journalism is the same. It should be digested as a whole rather than selecting individual tracks. What Sweetman does best is tether songs and albums to times and locations in his life, and poetry secures it in place.
When I was a child, I built huts in the apple orchard behind our house. At first these hovels were simple, constructed from cardboard boxes and old blankets. They never lasted long. Rain turned them to mush, wind tore them to pieces. Sheep ate what was left. As I grew older, the structures became more complex. They were grand designs of plywood and bricks, they had windows and doors and unexpected alcoves. These huts became places of refuge, shelters where I could hide and dream. They were havens.
The poems in Kirsten Le Harivel’s new collection, Shelter, bring to mind the sanctuaries we build in our lives. Asylums where we feel safe. Le Harivel has lived in many places during her life, and the poems in Shelter reflect this. We are transported to Scotland, Japan and India. The shape of Kāpiti Island is ever-present, viewed from the flat sands of Waikanae Beach. Place and time reside in these poems; the poet’s personal history is indelibly linked to geographic locations and the emotions they stir:
The sky is grey and spittles silver.
Wind pumices faces huddled inside hoods.
Necks crane out in search of a sandwich spot
and, with luck, a flicker of sun.
Le Harivel’s poems explore the places we belong with tenderness and strength. There is detachment, but there is also kinship and family. There is insecurity, and yet there is affinity. In poems such as ‘Balcony’, she explores these contradictions, examines them against her own background and lays them out to inhabit the page:
I think of our flat on the tenth floor,
and how despite our two bedrooms
there was never enough distance for you.
Sometimes you sat on the balcony,
a cigarette cupped between your fingers,
as if the smoke would blow me away.
Like the huts of my childhood, I find shelter scattered in the unexpected alcoves and corners of Le Harivel’s words. There are lines of refuge among vivid and sharp and droll images. Poems such as ‘Bar talk’ and ‘Bedroom’ speak of the sanctity of physical love. ‘When We Came Here’ explores the silence and noise of the places we belong:
My childhood had been a swathe
of people. They didn’t feature
in our photo albums or come
round for tea. Instead they made
a clatter, rumble, shuttle, rush
just outside the window.
The sanctuary found in these poems is accessible, but it is also vulnerable. It is as tactile as imprints left on a pillow, as delicate as feathered paint.
Hello is rustled leaves, a claw curved around her trunk.
They wind in circles, ribs to tips.
(‘A Letter from a Bird’)
Le Harivel’s poems represent the huts where we go for respite, they are the haven of memories. They are where we can finally find shelter in time and place.
Family, place and time also anchor Jack Ross’ new collection, The Oceanic Feeling. The book is, in the words of art writer Bronwyn Lloyd, ‘about the skeletons we all keep and the uneasy truths we harbour’.
one day my sister went out to the back yard
to hang herself
but just as she was throwing
a rope across a branch
she saw some people
from the parking lot next door
and decided not to
The collection’s title stems from a letter penned by French dramatist Romain Rolland to Sigmund Freud in 1927. An ‘oceanic feeling’ describes being at one with the world. Freud explained it as the feeling a baby experiences before it learns there are other people in the world. As Jack Ross himself says, ‘Those of us living in the midst of the world’s largest ocean, the mighty Pacific, may have our own understanding of this oceanic feeling.’ This sense of being connected but elementally detached is illustrated by the poem lending its name to the collection:
Out there it’s speed and money
in here it’s moana time
tethered round your hips
the morning climb
up to the laptop
(‘The Oceanic Feeling’)
The Oceanic Feeling is grouped into three sections, beginning with ‘Family Plot’. These poems are at times frank and personal, with place and time inhabiting the pages. Dementia and the withering of life sit side-by-side with recollections and regrets. The poet’s father, mother, sister, uncle and partner all make appearances, as does Freud himself:
After Freud’s father died
over the next four years
he sank into himself
insight like this
comes once in a lifetime
The result was
The Interpretation of Dreams
It’s been four years now
since my father died
and I’m still trying hard
to understand him
The second section, named ‘Ice Road Truckers’ after the reality TV show, turns its focus on contemporary life in general. These poems explore the conundrums of the world around us, and Ross sometimes wonders how we survive at all. Topics include snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, the fragile world of ants and academia, the perils of public art, the joys and pitfalls of editing Poetry New Zealand Yearbook:
Those eager scrawls
sent off with such trepidation
to whoever happened to be
in the hot seat that day
and then acceptance
or—that other thing
(‘Indexing Poetry NZ’)
The third section of the book contains some translations of poems by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Here Ross takes comfort in words, the place he feels most at home. The loneliness of living on islands in lockdown illustrates the uncomfortable realities where we find shelter.
The collection also contains ten drawings by Swiss-born New Zealand artist Katharina Jaeger, whose images of pruned branches intertwine with the book’s themes of fragility and life. The book concludes with an Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd that ably explains the connections between the poems and drawings.
Jack Ross’ poems are at times dark but sprinkled with humour and sequestered in time and place. There are skeletons here, scattered through every page. An impression of finding shelter in isolation. A sensation of limitlessness. An oceanic feeling.
TIM SAUNDERS has had poetry and short stories published in Turbine|Kapohau, takahē, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Headland and Flash Frontier, and won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition. He placed third in the 2019 and 2020 National Flash Fiction Day awards, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His first book, This Farming Life, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020. Instagram: @thisfarminglifenz