Shape of the Heart by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2020), 64pp., $24.99; This Is Your Real Name by Elizabeth Morton (Otago University Press, 2020), 72pp., $27.50; The Wanderer by Ron Riddell (HeadworX, 2020), 84pp., $25
It shouldn’t be surprising that a book of poems dedicated to a cohort of fellow octogenarian writers (including Maurice Gee, Vincent O’Sullivan and C.K. Stead) should muse on the ageing process—its frustrations, indignities and lessons. And if the poet is Kevin Ireland, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of those poems are crackers. Ireland has written good poems about ageing since before he could claim to be old; I’m thinking of, for example, ‘An old man on Capri’, from 1990’s Tiberius at the Beehive:
There is nothing that amuses me more,
so far from the Forum, in my decline,
than to torture the politicians
with the prospect of my return.
This sort of wry defiance is on occasional display in Shape of the Heart, too. Take ‘Odd man out’, which opens with:
Ask any actuary
and he or she
will tell you that
the longer you exist
on earth the more your life
is likely to continue. The maths
at first seemed mad to me
and yet they work.
This vision of an indestructible tough old bugger, as surprised as anyone to still be existing, brings to mind the late work of Clive James, who similarly found a lot of time to consider the subject. But I don’t want to give the impression that the poems of Shape of the Heart are all bluff and well-girded by irony. Aloneness and fragility and pain are given in regular doses, like the morning’s meds. A poem about walking around the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with Fleur Adcock is a catalogue of dazzled, strained eyes, munted knees and the desire to recline and ‘let the blood drain // back into my skull’. The limited horizons of the ageing poet are indicated by the presence of multiple poems about the day’s weather, which is the sort of thing you’re more likely to write about if you’re not going anywhere. Decreased powers of recollection and concentration are assessed, and Ireland tries to make the best of the situation, even coming up with an advert-worthy tagline for a failing memory: it’s ‘the natural way to help you unclog your head’.
At risk in the middle of all this slow breaking-down is the ability to create poetry. But, to be fair, poets of every age are afraid of losing their gifts, and Ireland realises this. Artistic failure comes to everyone in the end, and stubbornly sticking to an art in the face of setbacks is what Ireland refers to as ‘the cost of calamity’:
Art activates obsession and depression
and even though a little accolade
may bring relief or provide a total cure
one failure always leads on to another.
Disaster’s cost is absolute commitment.
In this way, writing and ageing—this book’s two most obvious themes—aren’t so different. Both are attempts to keep failure at bay, and both require single-minded concentration:
Age is like a mountain. The angles alter on the way
and sometimes all you come across up there is fog.
You find you’re wheezing and unsteady, but craftily
you learn to blame the iciness of the peaks.
It’s a frantic effort merely to exist—and there’s not
a single second to reflect on fear of heights, or death.
And both efforts, of course, are half-measures, tidal barriers against unstoppably rising waters.
The poems of Elizabeth Morton’s second collection, This Is Your Real Name, are more fractured and evasive than those in 2017’s Wolf. The debut featured a strong central sequence of lyrics about the character Wolf, describing him killing and doing other wolfish things, and many of the other poems in the book could reasonably be described as ‘raw’. Here, on the other hand, we have language stretched out like elasticated denim, paratactic sentences, an increased reliance on surreal phrases. It’s an imperfect analogy, but it’s a bit like if the Clash had gone from the self-titled straight to Sandinista!
There are dreamlike sequences, such as in the poem ‘The eating of sorrow’—which works pretty well, I think, though it’s not easy to explain how:
There were days I spent gulping sky,
picking every star off the plate
with the stub of a thumb.
There were days when birds
would slide down my windpipe
and I would splutter little heartbeats,
wipe my mouth with the corner of a cloud.
There are holes in my eyes.
… There were days
I would not stand in corners,
days where sparrows would perch
in my tear ducts and rain-pellets
would tickle my windshield of pain.
There are holes in my eyes.
This is what I call a high evocation-to-elucidation ratio; the language suggests faster than it can conclude. The result is poetry that ramifies outward. There are enough connections for you to feel you know what sort of effect is being created, but not enough to pin it down. And I have cut out of this the bits that reference Achelois (a minor Greek moon goddess whose name means ‘she who drives away pain’, a clear nod to the title of the poem) and Kokytos (a river in the Greek underworld). If you think there’s a lot going on here, you’re right.
But there are also poems in This Is Your Real Name that draw on more easily recognisable scenes of life. This is ‘I shed kilos reading Cioran in the mall’ in its entirety:
Sometimes I go hunting
in Sylvia Park,
like our love
is empty calories,
like Karen Carpenter
is our spirit animal,
like me plus you
less than a zero,
like sometimes I go
with bling lanyards
or the window dresser’s
who carry small hope
in the napes
of their neck stumps.
Sometimes I go
roleplaying sweet nothings
to the cashier
in the carpark building
and mostly I am scared
of falling for something
mechanical barrier arms
that crush whole
torsos and spit out feet
And sometimes I go
listening to customers
about refunds and
and it just rubs in
the fact that
I am not
like I can’t even count
in twos or add up
on one hand.
How could you not like this poem? It’s almost jolly in the way it handles anxiety, consumerism, eating disorders and love—and it’s all stimulated, apparently, by the writing of one of the most miserable men of the twentieth century, the Romanian nihilist philosopher and erstwhile fascist Emil Cioran.
To cap it all off, there are poems that engage with contemporary politics: a poem that is probably about Syria (‘Counterstrike’), an elegy for Grenfell (‘Sonnet for a towerblock’), and a critique of the US that almost strays into paint-by-numbers territory but just avoids it (‘We ordered Big Macs and napalm. We downloaded the world / from our couches, exploded villages from our apartment suites, / watched body counts split into a solitary pie chart’). Elizabeth Morton is a poet who is striking out in a new direction.
Another poet one might expect to strike out in a new direction is Ron Riddell. His latest effort is a book-length poem whose title seems to promise peregrination: The Wanderer. This is in fact book one of a planned multi-volume work that is ‘a poetic attempt to make sense of time “in exile,” to give coherence to the disparate and the seemingly random in the persona of the traveller’, as Riddell says in an author’s note. The second volume, we’re told, will involve physical journeying along the famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia; this book’s journey is of a more interior nature.
The Wanderer is organised into seven sections, mostly named for places in Colombia, where Riddell usually resides. (The exception is the ‘Coatesville’ section.) These stamping grounds may be familiar to readers who have followed Riddell’s work since the publication of El Milagro de Medellín (2002) and especially Spirit Songs (2004), two books that marked a shift in his poetics.
There is a circularity to this poem’s wandering; spiritual self-knowledge matters more than destination-oriented thinking. We are very much in the territory of T.S. Eliot’s ‘In my beginning is my end’ and ‘the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time’ in Four Quartets. (I actually wrote in my copy of The Wanderer, as a joke, ‘This could be called More Quartets.’) This is not an idle comparison. In the opening two sections we get lines like:
In my beginning is my breath
the breath in every step
the step in every breath:
in my end is no end but
zen and no-zen; art and art-less-ness …
In my end there is no end:
acting out of the back streets
from the dim recesses of memory
I bring significant facts to light
I tease them out with patience
The absence of a clear narrative impulse in a fifty-eight-page poem means that much of the work’s variety comes from sound. Here Riddell is on sure footing, as he has always been a capable user of slant rhyme and both obvious and subtle meters. A good moment comes near the end of poem, when a metaphorical (and possibly actual) peak is being reached:
We’re getting near the mountain top
getting near; not giving up
getting near and reaching out.
With startled cry, with joyous shout
we spy the summit looming up:
huge boulders, crags, one last ridge
that would defy us, knock us out
break our crampons, boots and picks
wipe out our steps
There is a surging energy at work here, a can-do vigour that I feel is very much not present in much page poetry of today, and that counts for something.
We have the chance
and need to take it
knowing what we do
and what we don’t:
the assassin waiting round the bend
the motorcycle matador
poised to strike
as the earth moves in silence
the sun in stillness
the planets, moon and stars
How can the human voice
make a difference?
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, forthcoming from Auckland University Press in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, The Moth, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Sport and the TLS. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch.