‘A Tingling Catch’: A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864–2009, edited by Mark Pirie (HeadworX, 2010) 189 pp., $34.99; AUP New Poets 4: Harry Jones, Erin Scudder and Chris Tse, (AUP, 2011), 96 pp., $24.99
‘A Tingling Catch’, Mark Pirie’s anthology of New Zealand cricketing poems is unabashedly a pleasure — a pleasure which I mistakenly initially expected to be, if it were so, a guilty one. A skimming, darting and then progressively more engaged reading, however, soon convinced me otherwise, suggesting rather that its subject matter is one of the more worthy nails to fling the horseshoe of poetry at, if I may fail to employ a cricketing metaphor. However, if you don’t like, and in fact hate cricket — all that lilied gentility wrapped around thumping red-ball testosterone — perhaps better just to steer yourself clear.
My initial comcern was that the meeting of minds of cricket-haters and poetry-lovers might make too large an intersection for a book of this sporting nature to be viable. An idiotic thought. There are, let’s face it, more lovers of cricket than (New Zealand) poetry by the hundredfold, and the populism of approaching such a market is not to be pooh-poohed. Poetry should be read by all, and it isn’t pandering to write on subjects that large numbers of people want to read; it is generous, humble and, in the sense that should you fail it will be more apparent, brave. (And on the other hand who can say what wonders of conversion may not be wrought.)
The reason cricket befits poetry goes further than that it rhymes neatly with ‘wicket’ (though this fortuity is pounced upon by nearly all of the rhyme-based poems). Poetry requires lexical beauty, metaphor, drama, politics, all of which are in inherent abundance in the game. Its language is especially evocative, from the ‘ye olde worlde’ fustian of the field positions — the gulley, the long leg, the metonymy of the slips — to the more modern neologisms that stuck, or caught: the ‘googly’, the ‘titanium duck’. Not to mention the historical milieu; the cricketing nations make up a post-colonial legacy of considerable textual heft, providing not only an aspect of the imperial imprint of Britain in the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent, and southern Africa and Australasia, but also a latter-day narration for assertion, fight-back and pride of independence. The Commonwealth in a way was — is — held together by the game of cricket. The game lends itself to providing the easy drama, the cliffhangers of conflict and loss and triumph, that the craft of poetry can utilise.
True to form, Pirie is omnivorous in his selections, and while some might prefer less of the rhyming couplet doggerel (not I!) or less of the whacked-out jazz-cigarette poems (no comment!), the largeness (and largesse) is warm and fun. While I find Kendrick Smithyman’s ‘Uncle Arthur’ the most beautiful thing in here — (‘He was so small when he was born,/ the ayah used to say, you could bath him/ in a quart pot.’ And then, ‘he was somehow/ bombed out … when he passed/ … caught and bowled in the mid-century of the/ Common Man.’) — any cricket non-hater will certainly alight on some other particularly suited wonder. I recommend it to the unprejudiced as a present for all occasions, excluding perhaps only weddings.
A single sturdy central theme — or thematic motif — also lifts the poetry of Chris Tse from any hint of leaden-footedness. His ‘Sing Joe’ in AUP New Poets 4, while containing some lovely single poems, is made more cohesive through its retelling of the story of Tse’s great-grandparents coming to New Zealand early in the twentieth century. That the ‘Joe’ of the title emigrates first, not to be followed by his wife for some years, and only after he has started a new family, meaning that she must arrive pretending to be an aunt, gives the tale a sense of the operatic — secrets within secrets, doors opening and closing, an ellipsis of telling that’s sometimes comic, sometimes melancholy.
Family history and ethnic identity is something many, if not most of us, cling to in New Zealand, and the story of a Chinese family’s settlement in New Zealand gains in fascination from being the less told: less written about. While elements of the universal experience for those made other in their homeland can be found, Tse’s story remains emphatically personal, emotionally reverberant in its very clipped, tightly-wound expressiveness: ‘This talk of the other that trails/ my every move …/ speaks not of defiance, but of blood clot guilt./ … It mattered back then too,/ possibly even more so –/not knowing which crayons to use at school/ for family portraits …’. His ‘return’ to China at the end of the sequence is poignantly delivered.
Erin Scudder, a name which flung at you might sound like a stage direction, is the second of the three poets in this assemblage of emergent talent, and she too has a gift for elliptical storytelling. Her emphasis though, is more on single poems, which characteristically possess the insouciant knack of achieving a story’s arc in a short space of time, while remaining crisply well told, a quality many New Zealand poems lack, as if their authors associate a more shambolic shaping with a more authentic mode. Scudder reminds me of Jenny Bornholdt in her turn of phrase, which remains conversational yet is delivered with a controlled grace – though she differs, perhaps, in her waspish wit, in her odd perspectives, and in her knowing inclusions of classical references. Here’s an example of all-of-which-in-one in this excerpt from her account of the famous suicide, Lucretia: ‘See Sextus slip/ into Lucretia./ She didn’t want to let him but he told/ her he’d kill her and wreck her repute too. Do/ you see how grittingly, today,/ she wills herself away.’ As with Chris Tse, Scudder’s top-billing as the main character of her poems is justified by her interestingly ready and quick-witted persona. Her effortless-seeming nonchalant stylings are cleverly done, and they suggest that this poet has the potential to become a prominent fixture in the small room with large windows that is the New Zealand poetic scene.
Harry Jones, being the most straight-talking of the three AUP poets here, makes you feel that he could write excellent verse on cricket, if he could ever be pushed in what seems an unlikely direction. They would be bleak and candid affairs however, involving hazing with wicket bails or the long-remembered disappointment from a father at the boundary. Jones is not as ‘new’ as the other poets, his hair a hoary streak on the back-cover photo, and this has clearly given him the confidence of experience. There is nothing in him of the need to impress or, rather, the need to be liked. He tells truths and doesn’t require to shine them up for us. When the candour seemingly emanates from Jones as opposed to a character, he does not always come across as hugely likeable, but the poems, the honesty and the intelligence of his musing are more palpable for it. Like Scudder, Jones takes on the rape of Lucretia, but he is less playful, juxtaposing the Titian painting (‘He has one bare knee already/ Between hers.’) with the real-life rape and savage murder of a Christchurch sex-worker. That he is haunted by both and by other terrors of the world is convincing, and regrounds a reader in the humanity and barbarism of their own world. Undoubtedly, New Poets 4 is another words-worthy triptych in the series from the redoubtable AUP.
NICK ASCROFT has published two collections of poetry with Victoria University Press, and at present is employed in the academic publishing industry in London. He is the current British Mind Sports Olympiad Scrabble champion.