Exits and Entrances by Barry Southam (Copy Press Books 2015), 108pp., $19.95; Felt Intensity by Keith Westwater (Submarine, Mākaro Press 2015), 76pp., $25; Udon by The Remarkables by Harvey Molloy (Hoopla, Mākaro Press, 2016), 78pp., $25
These three slim volumes by experienced practitioners of their art illustrate well a few of the issues and tensions inherent in contemporary poetry. There is a continuous interaction now between what the language of poetry is and what it is not. Linguistic territories remain fraught. Is the language we use on a day-to-day basis the only source of poetic language, or can this be extended to more exploratory regions of expression, other parts of the dictionary, other forms of speech, other modes of saying? The tools and technologies we have to access these other regions are far more sophisticated nowadays, perhaps overwhelmingly so. When the world changes, as it is rapidly doing in a multiplicity of overlapping and interconnected ways, how should poets reflect that in the language they use?
Of the three books, the poetry and short stories of Barry Southam stand more towards one end of the spectrum. The language is laconic: clear, simple, and uncomplicated and reflecting the diversity of the author’s life experience. The initial impression is that it reflects a time when phones were located at permanent addresses, wool bales were stacked on wharves and loaded onto ships using strops and nets, and cars ran on leaded fuel. However, as well as looking back at what might be called old-fashioned New Zealand, there is a well-considered set of more contemporary pieces, where online dating and X-men get a good look in too.
The short stories here by Barry Southam work best for me. The poems at times seem clunky, but then their role in this collection is to provide a kind of counterpoint to the short stories, serving almost as a kind of echo, or afterthought. Southham’s stories, though, have been dwelt on, brooded over, fully experienced: better grasped by their author as epiphanies of the local, they are better crafted and display acute comment on human relationships, character and absurdities.
In ‘Learning Curves’, the men’s group participants are struggling with their feelings, and their inability to articulate them. They have difficulty really understanding the women in their lives and their needs for experience of intimacy. There are absurd breakdowns in mutual understanding and communication such as in ‘Surprise Me’. In ‘Praising the X-Men’ Southam takes on younger male personas and provides a heartening salutary lesson in intercultural understanding, both between the generations and between religious persuasions.
‘Sunday Cross Roads’ builds well in an account a group of city people going on a bush walk, led by a much more experienced friend. The feelings of uncertainty about the destination, fear of nature, fear of the unknown bordering on panic, and the final relief at encountering the road, civilisation, are well put with the almost inevitable consequences for a fledgling romance.
‘Made in Heaven’ explores a wedding, and is delightfully humorous. Here are people, players, in situations not really of their choice, but rather because of a misguided commitment to a relationship. The contrast in cultural approaches of the family of the bride with that of the groom’s family creates an amusing spectacle. The poems that follow provide another comment on the choices of coffee now available and the absurdities of religious sermonising.
The concluding ‘Another Town, Another Time’, on life in Kawhia in the late 1960s, portrays the difficult struggles encountered in pursuing a living by writing. For that town, really very little has changed since this neatly observed short account by Southam: in some places, in some ways, the so-called old-fashioned remains contemporary.
Felt Intensity by Keith Westwater takes us through three frames, from the broken city of Christchurch, to the community, to personal experiences. Part One, subtitled ‘All that tectonic testosterone’, takes us straight to the emotional epicentre as a record of events from various perspectives, reference points, attempting to come to terms with, to embody in some way, the 5 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and subsequent aftershocks. The technical language used here is not at all out of place in this environment, but reminds you that whereas poets are often chastised for obscurity – or pretentiousness – sometimes less well-known terms are more evocative, more immediate, more truthful to the singular nature of these experiences. What is demonstrated here is that unusual and technical language, the jargon of experts, can and does become part of everyday speech, discourse and language. It is inescapable, living in a country of active faults, that we should not know something more deeply of what is happening in the ground beneath us – and lazy to behave otherwise. It is the subject of intense public, media and scientific interest globally, and we have a responsibility to learn about it accurately, using the language accurately.
As a record, this is of course but one of many volumes that have been and will be written in response to the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma of the earthquakes. Westwater’s take is predominantly detached, using lists, variations of lists, and headlines as the main structure subject to poetic deformation. ‘February 22, 2011, Report 1’ introduces the sense of a collapsing city, the chaos; but it clunks with ‘And I remember now how grey the sky was, / how no cell phones rang’. The poem is all a memory. ‘February 22, 2011, Report 2’ is merely a clinical geophysical data report as a contrast to the myth and humanity to come later. ‘Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale’ uses the structure of the scale to explain the disturbance, like a swaying tower block.
In ‘The Ruamoko Series’, as in ‘The Boating Accident’, the Māori mythical element is introduced and toyed with, as Ruamoko plays with creating new scars on the land. But do we really need to be told in the Notes that Sam Hunt reminded some one who Ruamoko is? These scars are supposedly explained more clearly in ‘Trainwrecker’, where ‘Ruamoko, eyes shut / and grinning, is playing with the point-setting levers’.
‘Mortal Perils’ is for me the most interesting poem of the first part, exploding the meaning and interpretations of five words: Erosion, Eruption, Flood, Storm and Slip. What the earth is doing, the processes of its geomorphology, are simply physical events. All the rest is anthropocentric creation of meaning and quest for meaning. The mathematics of all this is summed up well in ‘Resilience’.
Part Two, ‘Felt Intensity’, takes a closer view at fragile humans. It’s as if the heaving ground beneath our feet is not enough; we must then subject ourselves to faceless unsympathetic systems and processes with no apparent accountability. Explored are societal outcasts, abused children, courtroom processes, annoyance and intolerance of others, the self-proclaimed prejudices of the poet, and contempt for the spin generated by Police SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).
Part Three, ‘A wing and a prayer’, takes us closer and is more personal to the poet’s own experience. ‘Bloodlines’, where the loss of his mother, a friend and an unborn grandson are lamented, sums up the whole volume:
Maori say when one tree falls
The whole forest cries
Udon by The Remarkables by Harvey Molloy takes the expansion of language alertly and refreshingly up another step. He is not afraid of referring us to the tool Google Earth in the same-titled first poem, hence pointing the direction in which we should look if there is anything we don’t fully understand. There are words here that do challenge us out of our passivity, our acquiescence, from the scientific names of insects and plants, to exotic places and ideas in distant lands, to words and sequences from old Anglo-Saxon. These words are not in commonplace usage, but why should the poet not use them if they serve the purpose, convey the sense and meaning intended?
To accuse Molloy of being obscure is to miss the real point. We learn by exploration, playing and testing new experiences, searching, and it’s really not that difficult is it, to Google a word? Many of us do it almost every day, at least once, for things we don’t know about off-hand, or much detail of – like the route through new city traffic, where a business is located, the term in that news report, the phrase used by the subject of that interview, the word translated, where that country is, what to do to make a particular thing … nowadays, easy as – Molloy works with this kind of linguistic regearing, a wider awareness of contexts and meanings, making poetry new, making poetry surprising.
‘Dear ET’, for example, invites an uncommonly used word, moulin, and ET to a new experience, watching the apes deal with climate change. In ‘Revenant at the Royal Hotel’, a return from the dead or from exile captures the opulent sense of the hotel, its carpeted stairways and happenings in various rooms. Like the last drink, the time is called on events, but the character is still flickering, his memory not yet ready to leave. The poem ‘Delph Whit Friday’ is for those kids, like Harvey once, who wondered at the relevance of religion. It’s much more fun to blow straws with rice and tease the flustered trombonist.
His ‘Mirage in Valhalla’ evokes the dislocations and disorientations of migranes, or migraine-like experiences, natural or self-inflicted. There’s a new term ‘to migraine’ – for that feeling when, ‘the centre lines on Upland / Road had floated untethered / to the sky like bars of marzipan’. Such imagery is full of visual immediacy.
The disciplined control and quest to find exactly the right word-picture produces poems that capture the essence of an image exceptionally well, as when the girl in ‘Glam’ is deftly portrayed: with her bomber jacket, Aladdin Sane flash, evasiveness about the wallet, the dry cough – she’s sitting right there. Molloy is a very subtle writer about the ordinary: ‘Courting’ introduces us to his marriage in a precise uncluttered way; ‘The change’ to the wedding night, with its new combination of mutual reflections. He’s alert to verbal echoes of all kinds, especially pertinent now, when globalisation produces echoes on New Zealand streets of all the world’s tongues. ‘Crossing Hutt River’ with its ‘You eating mee siam’ and ‘The river’s muezzin / brought me back’ fit the world right now, unquestionably. ‘Closer’ and ‘Our Song’ refer to the Anglo-Saxon, and the voice of the late Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, the translations being re-creations. ‘The last day of Petra Kelly’, referring to the late leader of the German Green party, is yet another strong poem; I especially like ‘how could you leave / your navel’s knot so open, so exposed / to the flash of photographers …’
In sum, Udon by The Remarkables creates a vivid exotic sense of a very New Zealand place, at this point in time in the twenty-first century, and urges the reader into further enquiry, a wake-up call. This is a new New Zealand Molloy is talking about here, the one we can see by zooming in with Google Earth, but also the one that anyone else on the planet can see too. Like this book, and the poems that follow from here on, it just keeps on getting better — certainly for those in the poetry business. The pies in ‘Bus stop’ are tasty enough for the possibility of ‘just one question: / do you mind if I lick your wrapper?’, and well, in ‘Fey exchange’, ‘How can we live in just three sided space?’ when there is so much more fun to be had, assumptions to test – imagine.
PIET NIEUWLAND is a poet, writer and visual artist who previously worked on conservation strategies for Te Papa Atawhai. He lives near Whangarei.