Nowhere Is Too Far Off by Peter Bland (The Cuba Press, 2020), 60pp, $25; Latitudes: New & selected poems 1954–2020 by Owen Leeming (Cold Hub Press, 2021), 144pp, $35; After Hours Trading & The Flying Squad by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Carbide Press, 2021), 102pp, $25
Peter Bland’s 25th collection is a testament to a lengthy poetic career. It’s a slim, modest volume, and the poems in it seem slim too—stripped back and conversational for the most part. But the quiet pace and relaxed style is a trap for the unwary. These poems pack a punch. Distilled to an essential state where every word has its place, they shift from surreal dream-states to an often startling clarity of vision.
A poet who has been publishing since the 1960s, Bland is a transplant. He arrived in New Zealand as a young man from Yorkshire, where he was born in 1934. Bland has moved between Europe and New Zealand over his life. He is a friend of Owen Leeming, but unlike Leeming he is widely published, his books appearing almost annually in the last decade. Gregory O’Brien notes a ‘luminous quality’ in Bland’s poems, which is fitting—they give a sense of small, glowing incandescent bulbs, casting out light and heat.
Bland suffered a stroke in recent years but it has not silenced him. This is a mind untrapped by the contingencies of age and physical decline, adjusting itself to a mode that suits new circumstances. The poems roam restlessly over the past and present, postcards from the edge of existence, their mood naturally reflective. They look back on a long life and muse on the approaching end:
… I suspect
it’s almost time to move on.
(‘The roadside camp’)
There is an accepting sadness at loss. Some of the poems dedicated to his late wife are devastating in their understated grief and simultaneous celebration:
a shared lifetime passed!
(It was water slipping
through cupped hands.)
Bland offers a humanist vision that draws on Christian themes of redemption and forgiveness. The weighty questions are there but can be faced with laughter, albeit sometimes from the darkness. One memorable ode to the meaning of life (‘The dying ant’) is voiced from the perspective of an articulate insect facing imminent doom under a descending breadboard: ‘We’re all of us no more than sacred / specks of energy in the giant ant-hill of passing / time.’ This comic touch nonetheless delivers its payload: life is transient, existence a brief wonder; love makes it worthwhile.
There is nothing cosy or complacent here, however. Instead, we find a deep wellspring of discontent at destruction and violence and the long bloody catastrophe of unfolding history. There is no resolution, and the struggle continues to the end. The title poem has a grim simplicity when it refers to the smallness of a troubled world:
… what will we do
with all those other bodies
now that the sea
is giving up its dead?
We are in an age of worship of youth (the idea of it, not the actual debt-burdened young themselves). It seems naïve to talk about wisdom won with age, and Peter Bland’s poetry is too light-footed to burden itself with such grand illusions. These are poems by a friend further down the road, showing us the way onwards.
Owen Leeming is a contemporary of Peter Bland. Leeming grew up in Christchurch but has spent most of his life outside New Zealand. His first collection, Venus is Setting (1972), received substantial acclaim. There followed a long silence until his second poetry collection, Through Your Eyes, appeared in 2018. Latitudes brings together the best of his previous two collections along with a number of uncollected and unpublished poems.
Latitudes is a well-produced volume, a credit to the publisher. It features a fine introduction by Robert McLean that offers a rigorous discussion of the poet’s body of work, his technique and his recurring themes, as well as a useful contextual outline of his life. The quantity of Leeming’s poetry is not great, but, as McLean notes, the poet has lead a full life. After leaving New Zealand as a young man to study musical composition in Paris, he ended up in broadcasting in London—he interviewed Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes together for the BBC—and associated himself with the poets of ‘the Group’. In Wellington in the 1960s he was involved in drama at Downstage Theatre. He was the first Katherine Mansfield fellow in Menton in 1970, and has lived in Europe ever since.
‘The priests of Serrabonne’, from his first book, forms the centrepiece of this collection and remains Leeming’s most substantial work. The poet uses the foreboding setting of a French monastery to reflect on his loss of faith and where he now finds consolation:
… With hate
Of self as premise, they build the tower their life
Around and over in flawless logic. Art
And love have a human heart,
Cherish both self and world, the proper state,
A great whole. God’s knife
Cuts cold at me, but cuts too late.
‘Venus is setting’, the title poem of his first collection, is closer to home, a sharp-eyed etching of the emotional and cultural emptiness of post-war New Zealand viewed through the prism of a sterile marriage.
Alongside these are ‘Uncollected early poems’. Although they have a verve and freshness, sometimes the references date them. But this is not necessarily a bad thing; they become windows into a vanished world. In ‘France has fallen’, the style is less ornate than many of Leeming’s other earlier poems, but its clarity of vision provides heft and the emotional density is considerable:
My father switches off the voice from London,
comes to wake his sons. ‘France is fallen’
he says, breaking it, crying in front of us
for a country, far away, that he hasn’t even seen.
Leeming’s later poems—especially his most recent uncollected ones—develop down strange and wonderful branches. Nimbly swinging from topic to topic, kept aloft by a light but never superficial wit, they give a sense of the wholeness of life. Leeming displays a similar attitude towards the inevitable passing of time in his later poems.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is the youngest of the three poets reviewed here. Leeming and Bland were born before World War II during the Great Depression; Holman was born in the UK in 1947. With his English father and New Zealand mother, he immigrated to Aotearoa as a boy and spent his youth in the environment many of these poems refer back to, especially the mining communities of the West Coast.
Paparoa Holman’s poetry has a strong affinity with history, both personal and social. He has a powerful sense of the Pākehā–Māori relationship as core to his identity, giving a sense of rootedness and connection, and his working-class background and peripatetic life give him a wide-angle perspective.
His new collection is divided into two distinct sections: ‘Pākehā Mōteatea & Southern Sea Shanties’ and ‘Into the Mist (poems 2009–2021)’. The first is a series of poems linked around the theme of the world of the early and mid-twentieth century in the South Island, its provincial, predominantly Pākehā communities and ways of life. Paparoa Holman has an acuity of vision that might be denied a writer who was solely a product of this environment, or one who was simply looking in from outside as a remote observer.
The world that Holman writes reverberates on a personal level, but when I was a child in the 1970s this world was already fading into memory and is now unrecognisable. Post-war changes saw a drift to the cities; the balance of population between urban and rural shifted. The final dividing line is the 1980s/1990s socioeconomic shift. And today, ubiquitous communication technologies ensnare even remote communities, along with cheap imported goods and illicit drugs, making the narrative of a nation of self-reliant people of the land ever more dreamlike. Paparoa Holman reaches back, with experience and imagination, to resurrect voices and images lost in the stream of time.
Paparoa Holman captures the language, the humour and the resentful wounded pride of its inhabitants, as in this excerpt from the opening poem, ‘Ten songs’:
don’t know who these pricks think they are
coming down here
fucking us about
now look at them
Most of these poems deal with the capriciousness and remoteness of the physical environment of the south, whether the Tītī Islands, West Coast coal mines or yellow graders wandering the gravel backroads. The scale and indifference of the natural world is overwhelming and creates a certain human response. The distinct culture that grows here is both limiting and infused with a rough freedom. Many poems adopt a recurring form, their lines interrupted with white space, in an echo of the direct, sparse rhythms of vernacular language.
The second section is more personal, more wide-ranging, and shows another aspect of the poet, cosmopolitan and confident in discussion with the world. Poems are often addressed to friends or other poets and artists who have left their mark. It’s no surprise to read the names of Baxter, Hotere, David Howard or Michael Steven here, all poets with whom you can trace connections in Paparoa Holman’s work. Other references and dedications give a wider sense of the poet. Neruda, Jack Gilbert, William Blake, Osip Mandelstam and W.S. Sebald make appearances, as do Rachel Carson and Bob Dylan, and old friends from worlds far removed from the literary one.
The second section doesn’t have the coherence of the first, but the poems cover a much wider field. The individual poems are strong, sometimes striking, and a comic and anarchic streak balances deeply personal notes of grief and reflection. There are several small groups of poems that are related in topic or mood: family (‘In 1972’ and ‘Family time’, for example), animals (‘Tailfeathers’ and ‘Pit ponies’), and the poet’s German heritage (‘Wie man einen Elefanten aus der Ruhe bringt’). While there is a constant sense of political commitment, the intrinsic morality of these poems is never two-dimensional or didactic. Paparoa Holman shows us, then leaves us to make our own judgements.
These poems range stylistically from colloquial, minimalist and realist to complex and nuanced, but there is no sense of playing games (or of being a smart-arse, as one of those old voices might put it). Paparoa Holman wants to communicate. He is a story-teller, with sympathy for the broken and unfavoured, an affinity for his class, largely devoid of sentimentality or pretension, and more than capable of footing it with intellectuals and academics (a tribe he has joined later on in his unconventional life journey). Paparoa Holman belongs to different worlds but is a chronicler of them all. His physical and realist approach is summed up by the concluding lines of ‘The handpiece’:
… if / words won’t make a house that stands, we’re naked in the dark.
VICTOR BILLOT is a Dunedin writer. His poetry collection The Sets was published by Otago University Press in 2021 and he has written regular satirical poems on current events for the Newsroom website.