Two Lagoons by Trevor Hayes (Seraph Press, 2017), 20 pp., $20; Floods Another Chamber by James Brown (Victoria University Press, 2017), 112 pp., $25; Symphony for Human Transport by Lisa Samuels (Shearsman Books, 2017), 75 pp., $17
Trevor Hayes is a Punakaiki poet, but his chapbook is founded often on the landscapes of South America, where he has lived, travelled and taught. It opens appropriately with ‘Cartography’, orienting us with a sense of place and speaker—someone reading a map at a cafe mid-journey, even if that speaker is in the second person, the lyric ‘I’ snuck in as a quotation in italics: ‘It’s a relief to be able to say / I am here—as you look out / on the contour lines …’ The sense of journey continues in many of these beautiful, carefully rendered poems, e.g. ‘Going Nowhere’, ‘Peruvian Light’, ‘Cabo de Gata, Almería’. These are uncertain landscapes in which the speaker feels marginal, such as ‘empty museums / and vacant parking lots’, and it is clear such landscapes are both physical and emotional.
Beyond the physical and metaphysical journeys suggested by maps and landscapes, the collection has an explicit interest in language itself, as in ‘Paroemiology’, which focuses on the challenges of translation. The poem consists of proverbs notable for the strangeness translation can create—hence they are intriguingly elusive: ‘Sometimes one must let / turnips be pears.’ These work to the effect of humour and also to convey the sense—as poetry often should—that more is going on than can be articulated. Hayes is also interested explicitly in the conventions of poetry itself, turning to it self-referentially: ‘There are no humans / in this poem,’ he writes in ‘Cabo de Gata, Almería’. That strategy could grow tiresome, but he manages to make such references not merely playful but also a manifestation of his own discomfort with poetic artifice, as in ‘Ash Song’. This poem acknowledges: ‘I have created / these blues myself,’ and concludes: ‘This summer / isn’t genuine. / / And these ashes / haven’t come from any fire.’
This is a collection balanced on the edge of the literal and figurative, of language and experience, and it seems to me the poet consciously resists, as a matter of poetic character, venturing too far into the hall of mirrors a full aesthetic investment in language can be. Instead, he wishes to remain, however elliptically in an autobiographical sense, in the grounded world of experience. If the final poem of the collection, ‘Bread’, alludes to Wallace Stevens’ blackbirds, it refuses to render them as symbols or mere allusions—‘those two blackbirds / sitting on posts are no more / than two blackbirds on posts.’ And, having sent those blackbirds into the fog, he concludes with the solidity of experiential terrain, not poetic or cartographic abstraction, insisting: ‘The fog is not a metaphor … / I have gone into it / for some bread from the shop.’
If Hayes seems nervous about the pull of abstraction and figure, James Brown in his sixth collection seems more wary of the terrain of experience. His work is interesting to me for a particular tension in that regard: these diverse poems can be conversationally generous, yet in another way are chary of giving too much. This sounds like critique but is meant with admiration for his deft use of restraint.
Consider the first section, partly a meditation on work, ageing—a sense of someone reaching middle years with some ennui and disillusionment about where his decisions have brought him. He does so not just with characteristic wit but at times with the barest of details, the minimum necessary specifics and images. It is a poetics he acknowledges, as in ‘The AM Sound’: ‘You know you’re telling not showing here.’ One strength of this poetry is in fact the handling of such broad strokes, which gesture to, rather than provide, detail. The effect is to suggest breadth of vision, length of time, the universal over the particular, for example in ‘Green Light’, with what appears to be description but is not: ‘full moon and waning crescent’ and ‘evening mist and wood smoke’, In that poem, too, he admits his concerns with detail: ‘Do we really need more finely turned description / to help us admire the beauty of their imagination?’
Similarly, there is a sense of the personal here, but he mostly evades inviting strictly autobiographical readings, with no interest in the lurid details of confession. Throughout the second section in particular, he provides a sense of relationship ups and downs, sexual trysts, as well as ‘naughty’ (a term from his poem ‘Slippage’) behaviour, such as desires for partnered others while their partners ‘lay fallow’ at home. As with his restraint on image, so too with information: ‘The Awkward Apologies’, for instance, is expert at knowing which details to leave in—practically none, relying instead on double meanings and metaphor to suggest and perform two people ‘stalled between / the unsaid and the said’. A lesser poet would provide less by giving too much.
The final section is more concerned with poetry, explicitly (‘Janet and John Go to the Book Launch’) or via allusions to writers such as Stevens. It is also a concern performed. As in previous collections, this section is marked by formal and linguistic experimentation: prose poetry, verse with lines that are so long you have to turn the book sideways, poems driven by anaphora, and ‘Agile Workshop’, an amusing (if insider) ‘found’ poem comprising phrases he jotted down during a workshop, in which he invites language to speak for itself, and it obliges. The wit and irony sometimes do not pay off for this reader in a fuller sense of import, as in the otherwise funny and intelligent ‘Here’s Giles with the Numbers’, but such is the nature of aesthetic risk. By and large in this accomplished and generous collection, James Brown makes the balance he achieves look easier than it is, employing humour and evasion to engage the elegiac without over-indulging in it.
If Hayes and Brown show at times an explicit interest in language itself, language is the foundational aesthetic—wholly performed rather than thematised—in Lisa Samuels’ Symphony for Human Transport. The back cover says the book ‘records a sustained plunge into the imaginative elixir of a dream’, and the first poem—acting as the book’s epigraph—alerts us to the dream as context: ‘I finally dreamed last night,’ she writes, and in that dream ‘the door of the train flew open’. A variation of this line is repeated in each poem, acting as the foundation for improvisations (many of them sonnets). If many begin with this phrase—‘the door on the train flew open’ or ‘the door to the train blew open’—elsewhere it returns in a different guise, turning language back on itself, for example on p. 26 (the poems are untitled) where door turns to figure, noun to verb: ‘I mean that door / of which our own ideas train on open chance.’
Sometimes dream logic seems explicit, e.g. sudden shifts in scene: ‘the door to the train flew open and the sweetest possible scent furled in / then I was in a garden and the parlor-game split open the scene’ (40). But perhaps it is best to say that dreaming is a conceit that provides a grounding context for the leaps and shifts of image, phrase and syntax. It is the improvisatory nature of these poems, the pleasures of the language, that engage, including pleasure in its music, as on p. 27: ‘The train flew open ting / the tink thing flinched / and scored long strings / drawn on the think curve / plink …’ The poems’ obsessive return to the opening of the door—as in an dream—is also an obsession on thinking, a term that recurs often, from the epigraph (‘one took thinking and assembled it’) to the metaphor of door and thought, as in ‘the open / thought-door’s whoosh’ (30) and references to ‘scratched out mental stuff’ (25) or ‘the mind’s construe’ (18).
What the mind construes here are structures that eschew architectural linearity in favour of fragmentation, Samuels’s foundational aesthetic, as she has explained elsewhere: ‘[W]e are fragmented, and fragmentary language is a true reflection of experience—it feels … truer than styles that try to render language as transparent.’ You do not come to this book, then, for personal narrative, for the contextually grounded perception of the traditional lyric poem’s speaking subject. You come, per the title, for what Samuels has called ‘the real fragmentations of being human’. You come, too, for the transport provided by the book’s promised symphony (its four movements paralleled by the book’s four sections)—for the improvisations and returns, for the remarkable variety of linguistic, situational and imagistic improvisations a single line can develop, and for the deft and gorgeous musical phrasings that can result: ‘where birds fly magnets / where their wings / huff where the tight sounds / of their wings huff in / the magnet air / where breath’s too fast for birds.’
BRYAN WALPERT is the author of the poetry collections Etymology, A History of Glass and Native Bird (Mākaro Press); a short story collection, Ephraim’s Eyes; and two books on poetry, most recently Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a journey. He is an associate professor in creative writing at Massey University, Auckland.