Dandy Bogan by Nick Ascroft (Boatwhistle Books, 2018), 82pp., $21.99; Islander by Lynn Davidson (Victoria University Press, 2019), 80pp., $25
Where I grew up, in the small East Auckland suburb of Bucklands Beach, bogans were both a source of envy and terror to me and my impressionable mates. We envied them for their wild girlfriends, their outlaw status, their flagrant disregard for the conservatism practised by our parents. They sold us smoking dope, did burnouts in their souped-up eight-cylinder rides outside our school during class time, and arrived at our parties in hordes to start fights. They were a mongrel cabal. A scruffy aristocracy, unaccountable to anyone. Dandies they were not.
Published in the United Kingdom by Boatwhistle Books, Nick Ascroft’s Dandy Bogan is an 82-page sampler made up of poems from his first three trade collections published by Victoria University Press, a clutch of early unpublished poems (gathered under the section heading ‘Unpublishable’), plus a group of new work that has gone on to appear in his 2019 collection, Moral Sloth. Ascroft is a poet with verve, dexterous linguistic range, and some serious mettle. Here’s a taste from an early poem, an absolute cracker, entitled ‘An Arch Back-Bender, Nous and Some Polioed Portfolio’. Buckle up, reader. Dose yourself on the raw:
She’s a militant refrigerant concocted to keep the big cogs incognisant.
To slip from fish to lizard, you gotta first fleece or grease
some dubious amphibious flippers, whippersnappers.
And this wicker bulimic is just the licky ticket in our steamy
sandy salamandery. Handstanding,
she’s a salivator’s sandwich which we dangle on a cord,
grandstanding, squat-eyed and bald-fangled.
Most of today’s rappers would give away their 24-carat-gold Tut-pieces and pounds of Sour Diesel to get a cut of Ascroft’s assonant and alliterative texturing. Here eye and ear really do ‘lie down together in the same bed’.
Along with his running mate Richard Reeve, Ascroft helped to revitalise the Dunedin poetry scene of the late 90s through the print journal Glottis and the reading series of the same name, held at the Crown Hotel on Rattray Street. What is common to the work of both poets (and that of their mentor and kaumatua, David Eggleton) is a formidable and uncanny poetic intelligence, and a pitch-perfect formalism; a shared sense of poetry’s origin as, first and foremost, an art form of oracular utterance.
Where Reeve’s metaphysic is sinuous, gnarled and somewhat austere, Ascroft’s is couched in humour – poems that, at times, are so damn funny they can knock a reader out of their chair from laughing too much. Here is another sample of the man’s humour and its power:
The creak of a hinge waits to creak,
under inoculating walls that wait,
above a metal bed that waits to creak
under the ever-lessening weight of our torso with limbs,
limbs that wait to slack, crossed on our torso
(from ‘The Deathbeds of the Hospital’)
I’m reminded here of the opening line of William Carlos Williams’ 1923 sequence, ‘Spring and All’: ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’. The work is understated, laconic, yet not without serious philosophical heft and pertinence to the exigent difficulties of our contemporary life. It’s perhaps a little too easy to label Ascroft as a satirical poet, although that is certainly one of his gifts. He is able to articulate the unnameable, to harness the ineffable into meter and rhyme. His best lines gas us with the weirdness of the world-in-language.
If the reading of poetry can be likened to a recreational drug experience, consuming Nick Ascroft is akin to standing in line at the supermarket with a box of beers under your arm, three or four customers away from the checkout, and realising the nubbin of acid you were offered an hour ago and obligingly took was a lot larger than a nubbin and has just kicked in. Once inside your head, these poems do strange and startling things to one’s brain chemistry and consciousness. They are like gremlins running amok inside the thalamus:
Grey and morning-sick, spring
nurses itself like a pelican,
skimming a spoonbill of Cook Strait
ice water, and vomiting it back
onto Wellington in a trimester of rain.
The other seasons look on and quack
inanities. Summer coos from afar.
Summer blurts. Summer says of spring’s
grey lump, you must be happy.
(from ‘Spring Is Sick With Child)
The poet George Oppen’s last interview was recorded at his home in Polk Street, San Francisco, with his friend, novelist and poet Paul Auster. When asked about the presence of the sea in his poetry, Oppen answered:
It’s a symbol of space at least, our native space. It’s some kind of stoppage, something you can’t go beyond, and it flows in upon you.
What Oppen says makes sense. A lot of sense. We are an island people. Common to all who make their home in New Zealand/Aotearoa, native and immigrant, is a sense of never being far from the sea and its mimetic influence. The greatest lines in our literature are charged with its presence, its interminable moods and rhythms. There is Charles Spear with his ‘ovals of opal on dislustred seas’. Any number of Curnow’s late poems are quotable, but these lines particularly: ‘seabed / rock wetted perpetually with spectral / colours, quotations lifted from // life into a stony text’. We have Bob Orr’s ‘sonic boom of the Tasman Sea’. Or this, from Tracey Slaughter: ‘outside your bedroom / the sea is electrical / tape holding down / a black pane’. Etcetera, etcetera. I could go on.
Lynn Davidson is one of the quiet, unsung achievers in New Zealand writing. She has published two prose works, a novel and a novella and four collections of poetry. Her latest offering, Islander, is assured, graceful and calmly astringent. It makes a good argument for place being the true wellspring of poetry – our greatest and most consistent poetic antecedent:
In their light
we call our hunting and foraging mothers and fathers
our first ancients, our dear ones,
in from the hills. Back from the sea.
(from ‘Ancient Light’)
To read Islander is to take something of a world trip. Her poems move from her native Kapiti Coast and Wellington to Mount Ruapehu, to Melbourne, to the isles and small villages of Scotland. We encounter a man dying from a heart attack while crossing on the Cook Strait ferry. We meet a painter whose subject is the vulva, and who would become the lover of Tilda Swinton. There are poems about lovers, about children – poems as peaty as single malt.
The sea is not the only simpatico Davidson shares with George Oppen. In one of his late daybooks, he writes:
The music of a poem
is wave after wave
of meaning. The wave
must be perfect. Each
wave as perfect as the wave of pitch.
Davidson is the real deal: her gifts are legion. There is no dilute surrealism, no toneless and banal confessionalism, no tub-thumping of identity politics and its theoretical matrices to be found in these poems. She writes with the deep sensitivity of a psychogeographer. Her attunement to the forms and sounds of the environments in which she finds herself are a study, as the following poem, ‘Return’, reproduced here in its entirety, testifies:
I walked the thin road back,
one slow movement in dusk’s animation,
when the sky washed out
exposing the bens splashed with gold light
then washed in again, stained sea-
anemone-red, and this red sky
flickered drawing me in
releasing me beyond Laphroaig Distillery
to Port Ellen where all the white-washed houses
standing on one leg
at the Bay’s gleaming edge.
Here is the quietude of Edward Thomas, the pre-Socratic earthiness of Seamus Heaney, and the painterly marks of a Joan Eardley landscape. Davidson operates outside the climates of what is fashionable, favouring the business of what is before her senses. In these dark times, there is much to be found in this book that rails against despair and despondency. I will conclude with this reminder, lifted from the collection’s concluding poem: ‘Even though it’s not the beginning of the world anymore, / neither is it the end.’
MICHAEL STEVEN is the author of the acclaimed Walking to Jutland Street (Otago University Press, 2018). He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. His poems were shortlisted for the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. A new collection, The Lifers (Otago University Press), is published this year.