Next: Poems 2016–2021 by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, 2022), 82pp, $27.50; Night School by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, 2022), 84pp, $25; Sonnets for Sio by Scott Hamilton (Titus Books, 2022), 74pp, $25.
All poems contain their own platonic notion of poetry: that is, what a poem is or can be, and how it might behave. So, Paradise Lost embodies a particular version of the epic. The Waste Land embodies a certain version of the modern poem just after the First World War. A hundred years later, Rebecca Hawkes’s ‘Pink fairy armadillo’, say, or James Brown’s ‘War and Design’, Ruby Solly’s ‘Behold the line’, Chris Tse’s ‘Poetry to make boys cry’ each (in its distinctive way) embodies a particular version of what—here, now—poetry is or might be. I don’t mean that this platonic notion is necessarily part of the poet’s consciousness in writing the poem (although in some instances, such as Paradise Lost and The Waste Land, it obviously is). If, as Auden wittily proposed, poems read us, it is also the case that they read themselves. And, in doing so, they adumbrate certain ideas about the nature of poetry.
The same is true of poetry collections. Alan Roddick’s Next: Poems 2016–2021, for instance, presupposes poetry as something readily accessible, a verbal machine that preserves and presents experiences and feelings in such a way that any reader can imaginatively enter into them. Michael Steven’s Night School, by contrast, assumes and largely inhabits a rather specific poetic world, a desolation row of drugs, hard knocks and occasional epiphanies, a Kiwi wild side that the poet clearly knows like the veins on his wrist and which by implication is offered as the authentic site for poetry. Differently again, Scott Hamilton’s Sonnets for Sio, imagines poetry as a letter: a missive simultaneously addressed to a close personal friend (the Tongan artist and mystic Viseso Siasau) and to a general reader who is probably unfamiliar with Tonga, its language, history and customs (hence the five-and-a-half pages of explanatory endnotes). Read alongside each other, the three collections and their platonic notions collide, contrast and occasionally light each other up.
There can’t be many poetic CVs more lopsided than Roddick’s: his first collection (The Eye Corrects) appeared in 1967, when he was thirty; his second (Getting It Right) was published in 2016. (This almost-fifty-year hiatus makes Allen Curnow’s silent decade seem a mere blip in comparison.) Now, almost in a hurry, comes a third collection.
Next: Poems 2016–2021 is a companionable volume. The poems are full of people: parents, mentors, friends, the poet’s wife Pat. Several carry an epigraph to the living or the dead, though the prevailing mood is celebratory rather than elegiac. There’s a terrific poem to one of Roddick’s mentors, Charles Brasch, recalling a visit to the poet in the late 1950s. The young Roddick is returning a book of someone else’s poems, about which he has reservations, and ‘fumble[s] for something to say’. As he leaves, Brasch insouciantly quotes a line from Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ (‘Is the night chilly and dark?’), a literary password Roddick fails to spot and to which he fails to return the correct countersign: ‘The night is chilly, but not dark’. He goes off, imagining crushing alternative replies (‘Hellish dark, and smells of cheese’), while realising that, even if he had come up with them at the time, Brasch ‘would always have the words to put me right’. It’s poem as extended anecdote (like many of the poems in the volume): touching, funny, half-respectful.
In the next (pricklier) poem, a friend recalls Brasch visiting his class at school: he remembers the ‘polished brogues, sharply creased trousers’, the ‘show handkerchief’ and cologne, but not one word that Brasch read or said. Then, continuing the run of poetic revisitations, there are poems that re-read Yeats’s ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ (with a nod to Larkin) and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’, followed by well-turned translations of poems by Aleksandr Blok and Sergev Yesenin. Poems, in the Roddick model, can be self-consciously literary, provided the learning is lightly worn, and the focus is attuned as much towards the physical, palpable world as to some poetic original.
This outward-facing focus is characteristic of the collection as a whole. The reproduction on the cover of Anne Caselberg’s evocative St Kilda Beach sets us up for a number of South Island landscapes and activities: catching ‘a sudden whiff of seal’ at Cosy Nook; riskily netting flounder off Bluecliffs Beach; the satisfaction of chopping wood; having a misdirected fly-fishing barb snipped from a pierced lip. As one might expect from an older poet, intimations of mortality often haunt the lines. ‘In the Dementia Ward’ opens with a memorable double-take:
The person we’ve come to meet is not here.
A man with much the same first name
is standing at the entrance to his room …
(Is it him or isn’t it?) In ‘Careless’, the final poem in this well-honed, low-key, slightly blokey collection, Roddick wonders whether his own last moment will be ‘at stool’ or ‘up on the carport roof with a rough brush’ before appropriately ending with white space: ‘careless of my unfinished ’.
The milieu and general tenor of Steven’s Night School could hardly be more different. In fact, all this collection and Roddick’s have in common is the use of a lyric ‘I’ that seems to stand unironically for the poet, and a preference for the carefully crafted poem, particularly the unrhymed sonnet. These ‘ghost’ sonnets, as one might call them, are Steven’s preferred form here, whether in Baxterian couplets or in line-arrangements of 8/6 and 3/3/3/3/2.
Night School is regularly punctuated/punctured by poems with titles beginning ‘Dropped Pin: …’, a characteristic that Steven has used throughout his previous two collections too. A ‘dropped pin’—a marker which (especially if you’re lost) helps you relocate yourself—is a useful running metaphor for a collection that sketches the gappy cartography of a dislocated personal past by recalling telling moments and events. These ‘dropped pins’ include childhood sport (‘inherited strategies of defence and attack’ on ‘misted-out, wet Saturday mornings’) and lessons in schools in East Waikato and East Auckland (especially the more important lessons learnt on the side). There are memories of adolescent suffering from a severe skin condition (‘spending our days and nights in a suit of fire’) and of dropping acid on a road trip with a friend to look for the ‘cheap / memorial plaque’ to Ronald Hugh Morrieson in Hāwera. There’s listening to Dylan on a ‘speaker-box’ in a casino in South India while ‘[s]moke eats the sea’, and loitering in and around the Trinity Wharf Hotel in Tauranga, where a ‘grape vape cloud’ of stories, reminiscences and dreams hang in the air and jostle for attention. There’s working as a sparky in Christchurch, ‘scribbl[ing] secret lines of unspeakable / poetry’ and ‘[s]wimming stoned / each night before sundown, / … at the edge of the Hauraki Gulf’s / basin of tepid green water’. These chiselled shards certainly work away in the reader’s mind, and will no doubt trigger for many their own periods of being ‘stuck inside of Mobile / with the Memphis blues again’ (to borrow the famous Dylan refrain). In the Steven platonic model, poems are spider-traps for intense experience, usually of a desolating and/or desperate kind. Consequently, for all the mesmeric fluency and rich wordage, the effect can at times be a little unrelenting.
I felt this most strongly with the volume’s other interpolated sequence of poems, those entitled ‘Strains: …’, as in strains of dope. (Drugs play a major role in the Steven model.) Perhaps the great Arthur Lee (of the band Love) really did ‘write his best songs’ under the influence of Acapulco Gold, just as (not mentioned here) Coleridge really did write ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of opium and, closer to home, Durban Poison really did ‘spring-board’ John Dickson into writing ‘The Four Sided Square and Other Mysteries’. Literary history is not short of stories of drug-assisted composition, but isn’t the point to remember that the drugs didn’t do it all on their own? First, you had to be Lee or Coleridge or Dickson.
Night School is an impressive collection, and its imagined readership will probably be most compelled by the ‘Dropped Pins’ and ‘Strains’ poems. Personally, I was more taken with the short ‘ghost’ sonnet sequence ‘The Picture of Doctor Freud’. This, with its Wilde-inflected title, probes aspects of the poet’s relationship with his panel-beater father. Here ongoing emotional scar-tissue constantly presses behind the lines: ‘my father filling quotes, invoices; // making calls to his illicit affairs’; ‘My father and grandfather, the same / wounded human: complicit, bewildered’. Trying to unravel one’s feelings towards one’s parents (and extended family) is often the work of a lifetime.
The emotional weather of Hamilton’s third collection, Sonnets for Sio, is generally warmer and closer to that of Next, though there are lines (‘The moon is a codeine / pill’) which wouldn’t look out of place in Night School. Like Roddick and Steven, Hamilton regularly appears in the first person, mainly as the friend to Sio, but also occasionally as the responsive father of young children. Unlike Roddick and Steven, however, these ‘sonnets’ (which, with a couple of exceptions, aren’t actually sonnets at all, even in a ‘ghostly’ sense) imagine poetry as having a much wider-angled lens. While offering a half-insider’s view of Tongan life and times (Hamilton spent time teaching there), they engage more globally in cultural pulse-taking, often setting different histories alongside or against each other. In part, the poems do this by self-consciously inhabiting a polyglot linguistic world:
Rhythm is form cut into time said Ezra Helu Futa Pound
with kupesi with chisel with mimeograph machine
the artist the tufunga’i makes
holes in the world makes
Futa Helu, the endnotes tell us, was a Tongan ‘educator and dissident’; kupesi is ‘the name for the patterns and motifs traditionally used in Tongan barkcloth paintings’; tufunga’i is ‘a traditional Tongan word for an artist’. In this instance, the English-speaking reader could probably make a reasonable stab at the Tongan terms. Elsewhere, the brief explanatory glosses on figures like Hikule’o (the Tongan goddess of death), Kau’ulufonuafekai (a ‘ferocious’ fifteenth-century Tongan king), Finau ’Ulukalala (an early nineteenth-century chief), and Taufa’ahau (‘the first king of modern Tonga’) are essential to understanding, and a timely reminder that the Pacific contains many complex, intersecting histories.
The reference to Pound in the lines above is pertinent because—though not politically, I should add—there is definitely a Poundian quality to these poems, particularly in their engagement with non-Western history and (to my ear) in their carved cadences: ‘Under the chandeliers our saviour shone with sweat’; ‘watch the moon dissolve / like a lump of sugar’; ‘remembering Socrates’ draught of hemlock’—even perhaps in their very form as letters.
The poem as letter allows Hamilton to include whatever and whoever preoccupies him. So, as in Pound, a plethora of international characters wash up or are teleported to this Tonga of the mind: Theseus, Milton, Marx, T.S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Martin Crowe, Dennis [sic] Glover, Edward Lear, Richard Hadlee, Coleridge, Rimbaud. Tonga, its present and its past, is always the default point on the compass, but the needle constantly flickers back and forth between American, British and New Zealand histories so that perspectives continually merge and blur.
Brasch once lamented that ‘distance looks our way’, as perhaps it seemed to for a portion of the New Zealand population. None of these three notable collections could have been written, had that platonic notion (of poetry as cultural exile) still held imaginative currency.
HARRY RICKETTS’s Selected Poems appeared from Te Herenga Waka University Press in 2021.
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