Singing With Both Throats, Maris O’Rourke (David Ling) 72 pp. (2013), $24.99; Old Hat, Mark Pirie (HeadworX, 2012), 64 pp., $24.
Maris O’Rourke’s debut promises much. It’s a good-looking book, slightly larger in format than the standard poetry monograph, and punctuated by both a quirky title and an intriguing cover image (by Claudia Pond Eyley). Singing with Both Throats is a substantial poetry collection, made up of three punchy parts: Passages, Parallels and Pathfinder, which, together — we are told on the back cover —constitute O’Rourke’s ‘poetry primer for living.’ As the titles to these subsections suggest, the book takes us on a journey through the poet’s various practices, ‘political, professional, practical and personal.’ More metaphorically — and as the title, which alludes to the tui’s various harmonies, implies — the collection is an expression of her several selves, or ‘voices.’
The book’s title is taken from ‘Harakeke,’ a short, clipped lyric that appears towards the end of the collection. Suitably, and complimentary to this ode to flax, the subsequent and adjacently placed piece is ‘Tui.’ There is a subtlety to these two poems that the rest of the collection struggles to achieve:
Spread from its dying centre
the flax I planted when Taru died
has inexorably taken over
encircles the silver birch.
Observing tapu, I root
out the dead warriors,
create a place a child can hide
lying in the space
surrounded by giant fans,
swathes of sharp swords
gleaming Grecian olive.
There is texture to this poem that brings the words to life: the comparison of the ‘Grecian olive’ to the ‘sharp swords’ of the flax infuses the piece with a delightfully Mediterranean air; the dead warriors ‘rooted out’ exemplifies the desire of the poet to illuminate the Māori heritage that clearly inspires a lot of her practice. Similarly, this ‘spreading from its dying centre’ is a lovely instantiation of the mortality that the poem addresses.
Yet, where this falls down, and indeed where the whole collection fails to meet expectations as the promised ‘primer for living,’ is in the relentless and inattentive use of adjectival abstractions. At the risk of using a now-dusty and pedestrian tenet, I assert that a large amount of the success of a poem lies in its ability to show, not tell. Precisely the moments of ‘showing’ in this collection are the points of real poetic energy, instances where a poem’s ‘electricity’*surpasses its temptation to inform its audiences exactly how or what they should be seeing or feeling. Of course, it’s a tall order to ask a debut collection to pursue and attain a certain poetic affect, but what’s wrong with asking the poem to show us how the flax has ‘inexorably taken over’? What does that even mean?
There are plenty of things that O’Rourke’s collection does do, regardless of her doing so, at times, with the slap-dash of the ingénue. There are bold uses of confessional lyrics, of genealogical excavation, familial reminiscence and bicultural encounter. And sometimes she does this with an adroitness that indicates a real poetic sensibility and a trust in the reader: ‘My body grew and shrank beneath / months of desiccating heat’ (from ‘Water Baby’), ‘He wrote a list of what he’d lost – / wife was on it with dog, house kids, / somewhere close to the top’ (‘Separation’), and more successfully, in a poem about that infamous French cemetery:
Benches on boulevards, curving
cobblestones, long expensive
views for Edith and Oscar.
Red lipstick pressed on cold stone –
holding up the homeless on the other side.
(from ‘Cimetière du Père-Lachaise’)
At times in the collection O’Rourke walks us through the detail with confidence and agility, trusting we’ll see what she sees. In others, she attempts towrite a sonnet or to be a poet and in the process neglects the trust of the reader. This kind of self-conscious reflection creates an implicit distance between the poem and its reader, and often does little more than enhance the esoteric references that populate some of these poems.
Given that poetry is made up of language and human sensitivity — things that occur in everyday existence — it is sometimes mistaken as one of the easier art forms, unlike music or painting for example, which requires an auxiliary skill and of which it is quickly apparent that the painter or musician might have not yet mastered that skill. Aspiring poets are often under the illusion that because they can write poetry, the first prerequisite for being a poet has automatically been fulfilled. On the contrary, there is a very good reason why there are only a handful of truly revered poets in the world today: a great poem is bloody difficult to write. Not many people can do it.
There is, however, something to be said about perseverance. Mark Pirie’s recent publication, Old Hat, is a slim collection of triolets. In usual Pirie style, the self-confessed people’s poet traverses a quirky range of otherwise colloquial subjects: sport, history, geography, literature, music and pop culture. Whatever the subject matter, Pirie squeezes the lot into this traditional form. The triolet, or the ‘extended epigram’ (as the back cover of Old Hat claims), is a relatively rare medieval French stanza poem of eight lines. Robert Bridges renewed it, Thomas Hardy played with it, Wendy Cope has flirted with it, and, like the villanelle and the rondeau (of which the triolet is a direct derivative), the triolet works with rhyme and repetition.
Pirie is not a stickler for the rules though, and some of the poems in Old Hat don’t follow the traditional structure in the strict sense. Rather, he uses the form as a framework through which to address this somewhat busy melee of subject matter. The author also points out, in his rather interesting but unnecessary ‘Preface,’ that the form is not regularly used in contemporary New Zealand poetry (unlike the villanelle, which is a favourite of most poetry workshop conveners). This then provides the basis of what this book attempts to do: by bringing the triolet back into the collective literary consciousness, and by using it to deal with real-life and vernacular subject matter, Pirie endeavours to do something new and original in the current parochial climate.
But does he succeed? There is plenty of evidence to assume that this form can and does work well with certain subject matter, as Pirie shows us in several of these pieces:
Put the kids to bed, sit in lounge,
Dim the lights low, telly on.
That part was easy, a breeze.
Put the kids to bed, sit in lounge…
But, their lights come on, not out;
Two boys run in and about.
Put the kids to bed, sit in lounge,
Dim the lights low, telly on…
There is some electricity in this poem. It illustrates the perpetual, repetitive and monotonous nature of certain day-to-day activities, and Pirie is justified here in pushing the material into the triolet. The reader gets a sense of the anguish of this repetition, in the same way that a pantoum or a villanelle goes around in circles in a vain attempt to find a way out of the tedious circuit of living.
Yet, there are other moments when the form is far too stretched to deal with the subject matter at hand. Poems like ‘Bonjour Tistesse,’ ‘Gary Sobers,’ ‘Summer of Sam, 1977’ and ‘The Piri Weepu Blues’ do little more than exhibit the poet’s own peculiar interests. This last title—‘The Piri Weepu Blues’—has a nice music to it, and displays further connection to the title and cover of the book (a lovely, minimalist design, with an illustration of a ‘blues hat’ by fellow poet Michael O’Leary), but the poem itself fails to live up to the intrinsic lamentation of a blues lyric. In fact, it does the opposite, perhaps subverting the consolation and imbuing a sense of irony: ‘Ain’t it hard to be an All Black;/ Remember last year andthe Cup?/ The Blues? Yeah, yeah, we wonthe Cup!’ If it isn’t meant to be ironic, I wonder how familiar the poet is with the blues (not the rugby team). If it isironic, I’ll eat my words.
On the whole, there are a couple of good moments in Old Hat. Suffice to say, however, the form doesn’t yet justify a whole collection, and is, like Singing With Both Throats, more of an exercise in the poet’s own percolations and excitations. This alone isn’t enough to demonstrate the book itself has something interesting to say. It’s like having a stranger tell you last night’s dream.
* In a recent blog post, Ashleigh Young made a comment about guest-editing the literary journal Hue & Cry, where she mentions a certain ‘electricity’ that effective writing has, and is often the quality that distinguishes the good from the bad. See http://eyelashroaming.com/, 3 July 2013.
LYNLEY EDMEADES has recently returned to New Zealand from Northern Ireland, where she was studying poetry. Her poems have been published in various journals in New Zealand, UK, Ireland, and the US. She is also a regular book reviewer for the Listener.