Back Before You Know by Murray Edmond (Compound Press, 2019), 80 pp., $20; Conventional Weapons by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University Press, 2019), 95 pp., $25
These two engrossing and unique collections are evidence of great variety in our poetry scene, but they are also fascinating to look at side by side because they each inhabit Pākehā Gothic—in quite different ways. Murray Edmond’s cheerfully titled Back Before You Know is set in a heady historical bush-world of hard yakka, violence and romance, while Tracey Slaughter’s Conventional Weapons eviscerates the moments, big and small, of a suburban Kiwi girl. Both volumes, in true Gothic style, are dark, funny and rhetorical.
Murray Edmond is well known as a multi-voiced, multi-form poet, playwright, editor and scholar. He has published thirteen collections of poetry as well as chapbooks, creative non-fiction, plays and critical works. He convened the drama programme at the University of Auckland for many years and has a long association with Indian Ink theatre company. These strands of Edmond’s output are worth mentioning because they are ploughed into his poetry; recent publications like Shaggy Magpie Songs (Auckland University Press, 2015) and Walls to Kick and Hills to Sing From: A comedy with interruptions (AUP, 2010) epitomise Edmond’s code-switching, form-bending output. Back Before You Know is no exception. The immediately startling element of this book is its theatricality, its rhetoric, as it picks up threads of our history and literary history and runs with them.
Back Before You Know—which was recently longlisted in the 2020 Ockham Book Awards—consists of a duet of narrative poems which take on two common Gothic ballad topics, crime and romance. The first, ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’, is an adaptation or ‘palimpsest’ (the notes tell us) of American folk poet Robert Penn Warren’s ‘The Ballad of Billy Potts’. Edmond finds similarities in US frontier history and Pākehā settler bush culture—much as Frank Sargeson (Waikato-born, like Edmond) hitched his wagon to American Midwest writer Sherwood Anderson. The connections and references are many and varied, with shades of Edgar Allen Poe, Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Barry Crump on a good day. In the hard-graft, bush-whacker world of Edmond’s (re)invention, his poet-protagonist Jonas is a suitably hard man, a ‘whale-stabber, seal-clubber / road-digger, gold-grubber’ (5), trying to make a go of it in the King Country. His son is called Rascal, with appropriate consequences. Edmond is ever attentive to the story aspect of the ballad, and sure enough, a stranger arrives:
JONAS: Like a golden peach just right for picking.
BETTY: A squealing fat pig ready for sticking. (8)
As the fable of skulduggery and karma is batted back and forth between Jonas, his wife Betty and the narrator, the ballady rhythm begins to branch out; true to form Edmond explodes the mode, and the swashbuckling tone finds its way into the striding, swaying rhythm. There are mesmerising passages that pull and spin with a song-like quality, referencing all over the place. I was reminded of the Gothic ballads of bands like The Violent Femmes. This is a poem to stamp your foot and scratch your washboard to. It’s also a poem of contrasts, of ebullience and tragedy. Because of course, like Tom and Elizabeth, Jonas and Betty have no luck: ‘The magpies are calling, calling out back’ (12).
In the end, ‘Jonas’ takes on the mystery of trying to make it in the new land, where everything else is lost, in a Gothic kind of way:
The land’s like a body, it’s soft and alive
but if you drove your car by, on a day like today
only the rivers, only the rivers, would talk of the past. (5)
The second poem, ‘The Fancier Pigeon’, sits nicely beside ‘Jonas’, in part because it deals with another fav topic of the ballad, romance. This is a longer, more expansive piece, its free verse packed with interior rhyme, hocketty rhythms and tight metaphors (‘Six hungry ideas’, 35); as such, ‘Fancier’ creates a sense of growth and development in the volume. There’s still a good yarn (it’s a ballad), with a lovely inciting incident where a pigeon drops a ring at the couple’s feet, seeming to ask (and the poem asks), could there be a better (a ‘fancier’) way to conduct a romance? The story reaches out in surprising threads; it turns back on itself—this is Edmond at his anti-narrative best—while attending to sound, image and emotion:
There is symmetry
and there is entropy
and they go together
like two girls in a bar
if you have ever met
then my heart goes out
to you. (44)
The poems in Back Before You Know use the light and dark of the Gothic to convey their allegorical substance. This little volume—a stylish handmade edition from the growing stable of Compound Press—deserves to be read and reread. And recited. It’s not every day you find poems that ‘leap off the page’, but this duet, with their exquisite blend of the serio-comic, of control and tossed-off-ness, beg to be performed live. I hope they will be.
This was the violet hour
when nothing comes
and nothing goes
and all is but a traffic jam
a brute forgery of the real (48)
Tracey Slaughter is acclaimed for her high-strung, gorgeously styled prose which she often uses to render, in unflinching detail, the tense territory of female right-of-passage—most recently in her short story collection Deleted Scenes for Lovers (Victoria University Press, 2016). Conventional Weapons is her first foray into a full-length book of poetry, although readers will recall poems alongside stories in her 2005 Her Body Rises (Random House). The poems in Weapons re-examine Slaughter’s edgy concerns with a new rhythmic energy, looser narrative shapes than we have seen before in her work, and a more contemplative and language-y style. The result is bluesy and cool, confronting and heart-rending. Where Edmond’s Gothic summons bush balladeers, Slaughter is attuned to a kind of Southern Gothic, spinning a sometimes-louche beauty out of heartache and poverty. On the cover of this striking book, a little girl in ‘bandit’ make-up glares out at the world with a mixture of challenge and need.
Vital to this collection is location, often the regions or the wastelands of suburbia, hangouts of an ignored lower middle class. Yet these poems are peopled energetically by characters and personas with passions and smarts. ‘We’re here’, they seem to say.
The opening poem, ‘She is Currently Living’, sets the scene for what will become an important trope in this book—juxtaposing the concrete and the metaphorical: ‘she is currently living in a red metal playpen’, and ‘in the lobby of memory. in sin. in abstraction’ (9). Slaughter luxuriantly mashes things and ideas to create a rich semblance of being. In ‘31 Reasons Not to Hear a Heartbeat’, one of the six long-form poems in the book, the story of a lost summer romance is set in a tenement where the highs and lows of love and sex are catalogued with deft code-switching in loping, short-lined free verse: ‘we slept / that summer on a mattress / somebody’s water / had broken on’ (10).
In ‘It Was the 70s When Me and Karen Carpenter Hung Out’, a similarly long-form poem (nineteen pages), Slaughter revisits her signature topic of adolescence. (Who didn’t consider high school the epitome of being?) But here, the homage poem is given a dark, skinny work-out:
you don’t know
the exultation: out
in the greenroom
our collarbones gave
a standing ovation
under our halters. Sideways
in semi-automatic mirrors,
angels got together … (55)
Conventional Weapons is a meaty book, varied yet unified by Slaughter’s unmistakably powerful voice. Some poems experiment spatially. ‘How to Solve an 18-year Sadness’ spreads its visceral message across the page: ‘This is an ex- machina fuck’ (60). Most of the poems tell stories. ‘The Mine Wife’ imagines the world through the eyes of one left behind after the Pike River disaster. This enormously moving poem (‘Grief is opencast’, 78) packs image, setting and emotion into its deceptively bounding free verse. As always, Slaughter dwells in the real: ‘I used to work / in a dump like this, / slapping the batter in / a yellow bucket’ (76).
While I was sometimes reminded of the spare lilt of Kiri Piahana-Wong crossed with Hera Lindsay Bird’s shock value, Slaughter has a voice all her own. These are brave, edgy, densely packed poems that take on the fragility and toughness of the feminine, the danger and wonder of sex and loss. There is no one writing quite like Tracey Slaughter.
The Gothic is important to Pākehā identity and literature, and these two poets with their very different, but equally must-read collections, do the territory proud.
ANNE KENNEDY’s most recent book is Moth Hour (Auckland University Press, 2019, shortlisted for the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Award for Poetry). The Ice Shelf, a novel, appeared in 2018 (Victoria University Press). Awards and residencies include the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry, the Montana Book Award for Poetry and the University of Iowa International Writers’ Program. Anne is a screenplay consultant and teacher of creative writing.