Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-class Verse 1996—2009, John O’Connor (Post Pressed, Queensland, Australia, 2010), 144 pp., $25.00.
John O’Connor is a Christchurch poet who has had eight books of poetry published. His most recent book is Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-class Verse 1996–2009, a sizable (144 pages) selection of previously published and new poems that are more or less in keeping with the qualification of the collection’s title.
This process of ‘making it strange’ is registered on several levels. Merely treating the working-class milieu and argot in a context such as O’Connor has made is itself unusual. Then there are experiments with typography: text is projected here and there, and hither and thither, about the page, and sometimes dingbats replace words (looking forward to formatting pages for publication, editors with electronic submission facilities must be very grateful to have them when poems such as these appear in their inboxes). As the sections and the overall sequence of poems move from early childhood through to schooldays and onto adulthood, so the pages move from fairly conventionally typeset lyrics towards ever more disjunctive, fragmentary, and disruptive layouts. It seems as if the most distant rememberings have been stabilised and integrated though imaginative reconstruction; while the closer one moves towards the historical present, the less potent this process of creative re-rendering becomes. Reported speech, the incidence of which also progressively increases as the collection unfolds, is delivered either in grimaced italics or in quotation marks acting as semantic forceps, by means of which readers may more easily inspect examples of half-truth (though there is more to this than at first appears). As the sequence becomes more distanced from an initial speaking voice that is wry and integrated and stable, so it becomes more prey to interruption by characters from without.
The deferral of ‘be still’ to the penultimate line is masterful. Even the cliché of the ninth line manages to carry more weight than it ought to. This poem speaks as Emily Dickinson spoke, and into the same emptiness for which we are responsible and to which we must account. What is more estranging than death? What else makes everything and everyone so unfamiliar? Shklovsky and the working class of Addington would surely be likeminded in the end.
ROBERT McLEAN was born at Bethany in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974. He graduated from the University of Canterbury in 2004 with an MA in political science and art theory, returning to complete an MFA in creative writing in 2008. His poems, translations and reviews have been published in a variety of periodicals and anthologies both locally and overseas. His first collection, For the Coalition Dead, was published by Kilmog Press in 2009; For Renato Curcio (Gumtree Press) followed in 2010.