Breath Dances by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, 2013), 66 pp., $20; Bones in the Octagon by Carolyn McCurdie (Mākaro Press, 2015), 78 pp., $25
What is there within the covers of these two volumes of poetry to engage the reader, that might draw him or her back over time to dig deeper into their contents? Both volumes feature a broad life experience offering wide contexts for the poetry. They also reflect skill with language that acknowledges time spent with the craft of writing. These attributes may appear almost ordinary with a superficial reading, but they deeply reward contemplation and ‘sitting with the work’.
I am reminded that as a young man on building sites I used to work alongside older men who had used a hammer and saw for many years, or who worked with a shovel over a lifetime. Their ability to achieve output with what appeared minimal effort never failed to astonish me. They, over time, must have honed the art of economy of movement for maximum return. Their pared down any superfluous action making their jobs look easy in a way that encourages the youngster to feel ‘anyone can do that’. Something of that same feeling occurs when one reads the poetry of Peter Bland, because he does not flaunt his many years of work at the craft. His skills of inflection and timing gathered from a lifetime spent in both writing and acting ensure deceptive nuance in the work. A robust economy of means is exploited to maximum effect, to achieve a muscular simplicity in poems like ‘Welcoming the sun’:
Wherever or whenever
it was, it’s time
to go down
to the harbour wall,
greeting the dawn
with sails and ropes
and setting out
beyond all that we know.
Similarly in Carolyn McCurdie’s poetry there is evidence of hard-won experience at work. A major point of difference between these poets is their stance as story-tellers. Bland is happy to tell his tale without too much overt embellishment, pausing as it were from time to time, for a sip at a well-earned beer. In contrast, it would be easy to categorise McCurdie by a Celtic fey quality in her telling. She transports the reader to realms of ‘somewhere else’ and it becomes completely believable in the final lines of the very first poem, ‘Inside a story’, describing the sale of ‘fruit in brown paper bags’, which is set in Dunedin’s city centre, the Octagon:
A hooded woman crossed the street
to buy cherries. She paid him
in seashells, laid them out on his stall so that
light caught the shy iridescence inside
where dreams were beginning of purple
and blue and pink and gold.
This is why we went under the sea,
said the woman, to bring these
Bland is looking at old age as an insider, a seasoned participant. His poems dwell within that space and he looks back and forward from a stance of interested observer, on a stage he has occupied for the necessary complement of years. His use of language facilitates his intention, and the pared back forms ensure a directness of approach that allows no distraction. ‘Perspective’ is a poem where Bland shows cause for celebration at this stage of his rich life:
I’ve always enjoyed waking early.
I love throwing open dark blinds
on a waiting world
alive in the light
and happy to be found again.
Here the poet is fully engaged in the business of daily life. Where in earlier work Bland may have enjoyed writing about events that signified his willingness to travel, now the horizon is something to look out at while secure in the domestic comforts that shape a quieter life.
But I do not want to give the impression that the inward glance has taken the toughness, the clarity of insight from the poetry. Bland still inhabits a planet that has cause for a healthy awareness of the dark side, as he makes very clear in ‘Have a nice day’:
There’s nothing one human won’t do to another
even in God’s name, even on a nice day,
given the authority and some decent money.
Perhaps repeating that phrase day after day
is a sort of charm keeping evil at bay?
Which is why we’ll always go on saying it.
There is something a touch more introspective about the way McCurdie considers the aging process. She has watched others aging, and there is more than a hint of loss in the longer lines of ‘Almost a year’:
It’s May. From our window I watch leaves leap and skip
into drifts across the road. Those unruly
heaps used to fill you with glee, with a not-dead-yet
urge to jump, kick, plunge into their deep
prickly crunch. ‘Where are the kids?’ you’d say.
Bland started writing poetry at a time when he was numbered, along with Louis Johnson, among those who followed the British poets – such as John Wain – who engaged with suburban realities. But now, he has been writing for so long that the history seems to be part of a distant world, when places like Porirua were new sites of state housing and urban growth in New Zealand – a world in which he could say, ‘Poems, for me, are very much excursions and discoveries; the opening up of previously cramped and confusing territories and, one hopes, the eventual celebration of a new awareness of life.’ The quote, taken from Charles Doyle’s Recent Poetry in New Zealand (1965), could just as easily apply to the poetry of Breath Dances. The poet is still taking excursions in language, and still celebrating each new awareness and discovery. Now he draws on his experience of life and acting to employ timing and voice to great effect on a smaller stage.
McCurdie could be taken for a beginner poet, given that Bones in the Octagon is her first published volume. That assumption would seriously under-estimate her long involvement as a writer in a variety of genres. Possibly it is just that she now has time to attend to publication, so that we have the pleasure of being able to see the results of a considerable apprenticeship coupled firmly to the distillation of some hard-won subject matter. One example is mentioned in the Tuesday Poem blog-site by Claire Beynon, where the poem ‘January begins’ was published. Over the last decade of her mother’s life, McCurdie cared for her. To carry out such a task one needs to possess not only compassion, but also mental toughness and imagination, attributes that can be readily seen in the poetry.
McCurdie engages the reader in a conversation, a potential sharing of experience, and is unafraid of saying how it is for her, and how it may be for whoever comes across the poems. In ‘Falling asleep’, the rituals that grow more pronounced with each decade are hinted at, until in the final stanza:
There’s a lullaby in the wind tonight
a rocking song of vastness, song of the black
hole of ceasing to be, into which you fall
with the trust of a baby.
Held in the core. Until morning.
Each of these books is the product of an engaged, and engaging, poetry publisher. Bones of the Octagon is part of the second annual publication of three Hoopla poets, selected by Mākaro Press to create a significant departure in the way poetry is published in New Zealand. Their production qualities are attractively standardised. In some ways there is similarity in appearance to a series from the 1960s, when Jonathan Cape Publishers produced a popular series of small monographs, written by eminent thinkers, at a reasonable price. McCurdie, with Bones in the Octagon, now joins what is becoming a very worthwhile project from Mākaro Press.
Bland’s Breath Dances is published by one of the great servants of New Zealand verse, Steele Roberts. Roger Steele has published a virtual ‘who’s who’ of those poets that have failed to be picked up (or chosen not to be) by university presses over recent decades. Bland is a member of the list that contains many fine poets within its compass. Steele Roberts have production standards that are invariably attractive, as is the case in Breath Dances.
In an environment where it takes courage to publish new work, it is important to remember that poets such as Peter Bland and Carolyn McCurdie are carrying out the work of making with competence. They are producing poems that grace the page without pretension, saying what they say, and not striving to do more than that. It is in this territory that both these titles become satisfying and worth returning to.
PAT WHITE is a poet, essayist and memoirist with a strong interest in place and the seasons. His collection of autobiographical essays, How the Land Lies: Of Longing and Belonging, was published by VUP in 2010. His most recent collection of poems, Fracking & Hawk, was launched on National Poetry Day 2015.