Gorse Poems by Chris Holdaway (Titus Books, 2022), 72pp, $25; The Stupefying by Nick Ascroft (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 88pp, $25
Chris Holdaway (b. 1989) belongs to a new generation of New Zealand poets by demographic. He is set apart from his peers by his distinctive style and his role as publisher and printer of poetry. As founding editor of Minarets journal and co-founder of Compound Press, Holdaway has produced a substantial number of publications, which provides an intriguing angle in consideration of his own writing. It is a thread back to New Zealand poet/printers of previous eras as well as a contemporary link to the world of DIY indie music and zine production (although it must be said his production standards are well above the norm). This is his first full-length collection, but Holdaway has previously produced a chapbook, has been widely published in New Zealand and overseas, and is a MFA graduate of the Notre Dame creative writing programme. The back of the book features insightful words from his former teacher, the remarkable American poet Joyelle McSweeney, as well as New Zealand poet Michael Steven. So, this is a ‘debut’ that perhaps carries more weight than many first collections.
Gorse Poems is a serious work. It does not offer an easy way in for the reader. The style is simultaneously, and disconcertingly, super-modern and strangely archaic. There is a meticulous precision to Holdaway’s printed publishing work, and there is more than an echo of the same compulsive intelligence at work in the structure of his poems. The formality bypasses the colloquialisms and emotional foregrounding of other younger contemporary poets.
Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is a curious plant. It smothers great areas of the landscape—spiny, invasive, blooming in deceptively cheerful colours. It is also a coloniser—an introduced super weed that flourishes in the New Zealand climate and establishes itself in rugged and inhospitable situations. Ironically, it can serve as a shelter for regenerating bush, including native species. This symbol of biological and economic colonisation of an unstable environment—and other less obvious resonances—immediately positions Gorse Poems as a political work. But this is clearly not a manifesto.
Despite the complexity of Holdaway’s poetry, the form itself is stripped back. Most of the poems run to two pages of dense text, occasionally broken by white space. There is little conventional rhythm, more staccato bursts and angular tones distributed on top of a relentless pulse. The voice of the poet rarely seems directed at the reader, and the sense is of a mind in conversation with itself, darting between concepts, noting and processing—about as far from the performance poetry ‘feel my pain’ mode as you can get. Meaning is fractured, concealed, and refracted. Although often contained in bafflingly gnomic utterances, Holdaway’s language itself glints with steely brittleness.
Our galaxy fuses with the next like urban sprawl or
One thought bleeding into another …
There is a pervasive physicality in these poems that prevents them from hardening into abstraction. The environment is a constant factor, but there is nothing sentimental about landscape in these unnatural histories, and the world is often (but not exclusively) presented as brutal, alienated, or sometimes simply indifferent to human consciousness. Despite the sometimes claustrophobic denseness of the text, a conflicting current is provided by recurring references to spatial dimensions:
… How clouds are
The ultimate test in geometry—their folding nets
The sun at different angles flat in the distance.
If all this feels a little straightforward, Holdaway then shuffles the cards and offers a further level of reference. His book serves as a simultaneous meditation on The Bridge, the major work of the American modernist poet Hart Crane (1899–1932), unfortunately only a name to me prior to reading Gorse Poems. The ghostly presence and tragic persona of Crane fills the page—and Holdaway certainly shares the ambitious sweep of his work.
… Hart Crane
Left his coat on deck and leaped for the Atlantic.
I found Gorse Poems impenetrable to begin with—intimidating and perplexing. But I slowly acclimatised to its complexity and nuance and difficulties. I would not presume to have grasped the meaning of this work in its full depth. But from my initial readings, I feel it is the work of a writer of unusual intelligence and power.
Nick Ascroft (b.1972) is a very different poet to Holdaway, with an inimical style developed over a substantial career. The Stupefying is his fifth collection and it builds on his previous work rather than breaking with it. It may be a throwaway line to say Ascroft is a very Wellington poet, albeit one originally from the south, with a solid history as a former Burns Fellow and Glottis editor. Wryly self-deprecating, urbane and ironic, his poems often use a comic mode to approach experience obliquely, a method the poet is well aware of and even devotes a poem to analysing:
Comedy is the last line of defence against dogma and puritanism.
The other lines of defence had best be
better suited to the job or we’re all fucked.
And we are.
Only comedy can say this with a straight face.
Ascroft’s advantage is he is funny (not always guaranteed when less adept poets decide to do a turn). What could be merely confessional is given extra emotional mass by this Trojan horse where sadness and disappointment are concealed passengers aboard the vehicle. His poems are quicksilver, but not at the expense of veracity. It is hard to get halfway through a life without encountering the painful territory of separation and loss. The breakdown of a marriage and youth fading into the distance are two recurring themes in The Stupefying, dealt with sometimes whimsically but always honestly, and this ballast means the collection never becomes merely clever.
It’s the last time I’ll think of it
out loud, and won’t give you
the poem itself on your birthday
because nostalgia and
the sour-sweet have their place,
which is not amidst a celebratory
mood, but I think of the hillside
in Hawke’s Bay where I
choked up a little but said
my vows and you said yours
and for the time we meant them.
Ascroft’s realm is the minutiae of life: work, relationships, the quotidian, and the strangeness of the everyday, put through a Hall of Mirrors. When he changes tack without warning, the effect can be startling. The closest New Zealand poet in anarchic and surreal sensibility might be Erik Kennedy, especially in Ascroft’s list poems, like ‘Cross-Eyed Martyr or I Am a Lazy Art Critic Bot for Jon Cox’s Canvases’. Of his generation, in terms of skill, Richard Reeve might be on the same plane. Which brings us to another key aspect of Ascroft’s poetry—his astonishing technical ability. The reader is sometimes left grasping in the air as a grab bag of bon mots, curlicues and fireworks gleefully explodes. Ascroft is a linguist and national Scrabble representative. Language is a game and he pushes it to its limits.
I’ve pissed on a piston, pissed in a pistol.
I’ve penned a puissant epistle to the unappeasable
legions of pissant Ephesians. I’ve pieced together
sellotaped the tatters and sent most of them
back to their slack typesetters via post to them.
An ability to glom contemporary wit onto sometimes antique forms is impressive. His sonnets ‘Today I set About’, ‘Lockdown’ or ‘Why I Changed My Surname’, are grand examples. Another is the ottava rima in ‘Niki’s Handbrake in Tokorozawa, 2004’. He takes the limerick to impossible places in ‘Limericks collaged from the Withnail and I screenplay’, but this isn’t a first—his powerful ‘Five Limericks on Grief’ in his 2016 collection, Back with the Human Condition, showed this facility to subvert and mutate forms to stunning effect. This tendency is jokingly referred to by the poet himself in ‘Instead of Finishing the Plotz I’ve . . . It’s Another . . . Gah!’:
‘The Plotz’ I’m writing in ottava rima:
alternating rhymes across a sextain
and then a couplet, this entire schema
in pentameter. Can I, ah, explain …
Many samples from the stream of references to life and pop culture in the 1980s and 1990s I found resonant, but I am of the same generation as Ascroft. In fact, I remember being at Otago University at the same time as him. I don’t know the poet personally, but the snatches of names and faces, the half-serious nostalgia here, is familiar territory. Whether it will have quite the same meaning for others is hard to say.
It is probably facile to try to compare Ascroft with Holdaway—two such different poets who have established strong individual voices. To stretch the bounds of good taste, I could make a cosmic analogy—Ascroft’s poetry is a galactic nebula, brightly lit and sparkling with colour, whereas Holdaway’s work resembles a black hole, a singularity containing vast mass within minute form. It’s worth noting that both books have high production standards and strong covers featuring local artists, so full credit to the publishers for their care and attention.
VICTOR BILLOT is a Dunedin writer. His poetry collection, The Sets, was published by Otago University Press in 2021.