The Wilder Years: Selected poems by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, 2021), 313pp., $40
I read David Eggleton’s poems as serial libations.1 Libation, as a poetic approach, has its strengths and weaknesses, and in this review my aim is to address both. To begin with, we note that any poet who holds the esteem of their literary community over almost four decades—including a stint as editor of Landfall (2011–18) and another as current poet laureate (2019–21)—is deserving of our attention. This attractively produced hardback, The Wilder Years, is the hardly-over-yet culmination of a good life’s work and includes some 187 poems selected from ten volumes published between 1986 and 2020, and a small number of new poems.
Above all, Eggleton is intent on being a writer, and this writerly thread underpins and can be traced through The Wilder Years from go to woah. Writerliness means neither bookishness nor academia; in fact, Eggleton guys the habituated academic in ‘The Book Reviewer’, in which he contrasts ‘the quicksilver promise of someone else’s words’ to the charlatan egotistic reviewer, ‘a creature of isms and wasms’ who feeds their own pomposity off the creativity of others. For this poet, creativity surpasses its criticism.
The strengths and weaknesses of this collection revolve round this conviction of the genuineness of creative endeavour. This key point provides an opportunity to take a single poem from Eggleton’s late middle period, ‘The Zero’, in order to examine more closely the working method and the convergence of elements. The poem facilitates an escape from all fears and fair play. It intimates the fantastical’s lure—the lure of the lure—in one mangled sentence, on trend:
With a writhe of hands,
this world-famous nobody,
a vacuum, really,
an elbow plucker, one of the fans,
casting about for a way to be felt,
makes a once-in-a-lifetime offer
to become frontrunner;
and this unedited emotional genius,
flirtatious pathological liar,
silent taunter, foe,
wreck on the never-never,
Olympian, winner, game-on
whooper punching air,
this hero ready to go—
is then gone.
We witness a paring down of the poet’s usual proclivities in an attempted return to the pivot. In place of the restless springing from image to image in search of something that never satisfies, here the meditation freewheels on the null point itself, departure and return, zero. Language inclines to null experience. In many ways, this is an unconventional poem: it is cerebral, rather than communitarian or mythos-generating. It is brief, with terse lines stretching out from a margin-as-centre. The tone includes incredulousness, retaining Eggleton’s knack for informality, companionableness.
‘The Zero’ opens the door to the terrestrial extreme, a kind of deadly embrace of an elusive landedness. Against a centripetal wanting to secure habitation in specifically identified locales (vide placenames as titles), the actual centrifugal force of the poems is unavoidably thrown outward from a centre they may want to but cannot inhabit. The gesture—or realisation—is ultimately aesthetic. In this sense, poems like ‘Shed Light’ (‘brilliant light to journey by’), ‘Brightness’ (‘world netted in light’), ‘On Ice’, ‘On Beauty’, ‘Almost Once’ (‘a nimbus vanished’), and the final poem in the book, ‘The Letter Zed’ (‘will zap / Zealandia back to zero’), are usefully placed alongside ‘The Zero’. What they reveal is the surprising isolation of the protagonist, a disembodied voice in stretchy, unsteadiable landscapes:
of crystal interiors,
of reined-in light,
here is the Antarctica
you were looking for,
escapes the white.
For me these poems come closest to a bringing to restfulness, repose, in contrast to the otherwise pressing restiveness of the poems. For all their resolve, near their heart is a wrestling with their own better inclinations.
And here I come to the weaknesses. An immediate, almost startling, realisation I had on reading the entire book is how much of a piece it is. While such consistency may be considered a strength, which undoubtedly it is, for me it also spurs some feeling of disappointment and a question: What has been learned and applied afresh by this poet on his far and wide (Wilder!) adventurings?
My disappointment relates to missing a sense of probing inquisitiveness; there’s a kind of mental incuriosity, resulting in selfsameness and a re-enactive approach to how the engagement with experience works. The outcome inclines to liturgicalism. In place of suppleness of nuance, vividness is achieved through use of rapid-fire chains of images that run the risk of overextending or depleting their subject. Several poems use the same word to launch successive lines. For example, ‘The Colour White’, an evocative poem of reflection on ‘White is the abstract thing’, ends thus:
Twenty-two of thirty lines in the satirical ‘Forever Barbie’ (‘flaccid phallocrats of the patriarchy’) begin with the word ‘barbie’, two more ‘yo barbie’, one just ‘yo’. More wittily—and perhaps more appropriately—‘A Birthday Suit’ opens all seventeen lines with ‘skin’. Similarly, again not entirely inappropriately, most lines in ‘Poem for the Sunburnt’ start with ‘skin’—five regular body stanzas separated by the standalone word ‘sunburnt’. Admittedly, verbal repetition and sonority enhance an atmosphere of gripped attention and plangent intonation, at times showing considerable verve, but at other times they incline to the laborious.
Suffice to say, Eggleton shows an acute verbal consciousness, marking him as a fine performance poet and placing him in a long and honourable tradition of bards, extending from the Dunedin-honoured Romantic Robbie Burns to the near-contemporary Beats and in particular Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), famous for the long-lined incendiary rhetoric of his Howl and Other Poems (1956). For the most part, abstract thought is abjured in The Wilder Years and in its place concrete objects and rich aural densities are used to embody and project mental states. ‘The Smoking Typewriter’, a poem in homage to Blake (beginning ‘A paper tiger burning bright’), ends with a wittily concocted top row of keyboard letters, twice-over: ‘Qwertyuiop! Qwertyuiop!’
But overall allegiance is with rhetor rather than maker (poiētēs, a maker, doer). For example, a poem like ‘Dada Dunedin’ begins with a promise of splendid disarray but, as we proceed, we are instead presented with several stanzas each beginning at the left-hand margin with the single word ‘For’ then an empty tab over to loosely connected individual verse paragraphs. Dada means ‘Robbie Burns in bronze plucks a quill from a passing gull, / and writes on air words in praise of Octagon hip-hop’ and ‘you are a jester in cap and bells holding up an inflated / gallbladder on a stick, which vibrates in the wind like / an aerial tuned to otherworldly hymns’—associations neither particularly anarchic nor incisive.
Another poem, ‘In the Godzone’, better exemplifies Eggleton’s genuine love of the land and its people. Yet even here there is an anachronistic flatness in delivery. The indented refrain echoes ‘in God’s Own Country’, but the adage has little ironic bite. The earlier ‘God Defend New Zealand’ deploys our national anthem as refrain, in a similar mock-heroic sendup, but lacks freshness (it compares unfavourably to Fred Dagg’s mocking ditty ‘We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are’, released in 1975). Instead, we are given a string of associated clichés depicting the usual suspects: ‘Zen managers, Province of Bloat, wool off the backs, a million meat raffles, butchered cows’ heads, forest’s cut edge, salad bowls, ski resorts, honeyed hexagons of Bumblebees’—phrases accumulated in only the opening stanza. Rather than a more natural close, such poems seem to end with the push of an ‘off’ button.
I don’t mean this itemising of weaknesses to stand in the way of a consideration of the strengths of the poems. On a broad level, I include emotional communitarianism, a distinctly ‘landed’ or localised temperament, clear resolve and feistiness in delivery. There’s a sense in which the poems and the writing of them matter to this writer—and I circle back to the opening point, about Eggleton being, above all, a writer. The titles are apt and help anchor the texts, concretising the sometimes unwieldly cogitations. Related to the titles, which commonly invoke specific placenames—‘Maungapōhatu, 1916’ (1986); ‘Hundertwasser at Kawakawa’ (2001), ’Old Railway Line to the Maniototo’ (2006), ‘Matariki from Takarunga, Devonport’ (2010), ‘The Burnt Text of Banks Peninsular’ (2015), ‘My Inner Aotearoa’ (2018)—there is a suggestive connection to a deeply held communal Māori and Pasifika sensibility: Eggleton is of mixed European, Tongan and Rotuman descent. The references are palpable, large-hearted:
A man bows to consult
his Bible; thumbs verse like a hitchhiker,
smooth brow filled with lagoon’s light,
though engine drone drowns surf’s sigh.
From sleep’s hurricane my mind heaves
its woven mats; and I’m this wind-drifter
with fraying map, dreaming of a comeback.
(‘Belief in the Pacific’)
Here too is Eggleton’s propensity to contrive unlikely spatial and aural meshes of activity: on the one hand, the quietude of ‘bows, smooth, filled, sigh, woven, wind-drifter, dreaming’ and, on the other, the disquietude of ‘drone, hurricane, heaves, fraying’. To say the least, often the poems pull both ways from a central pivot. Related to this pivoting, obliquely linked references and associations are dextrously wrought, a kind of slipping gear without losing momentum, or a strange fascination with skimming newsreel-like possibilities. Or a clutching from branch to branch, where the branch, rather than providing a secure point of purchase, enables the momentum to continue full ahead. ‘Clicker’ is a good example:
We are borne by a pilgrim swarm of incidentals
into memorial New Zealandness (not cute, ugly rather),
where flags hang limp on their standards,
zeal catches the nap and weave of small towns,
fluffy clumps of sheep tackle bungalow lawn,
and a cow’s neck extrudes through slack fencing.
Slipping the black blotch of the rear-view mirror,
the leaden glare, the vaporous murk, the cryptic joke,
roadside attractions disappear off the windscreen.
Other, interesting, poems depicting classic New Zealand iconography are ‘The Sleepers’ and ‘Drifting Cone’. The latter depicts volcanic Mt Taranaki as a simulacrum of a failed relationship, a surprise in itself in that Eggleton rarely ventures into the field of personal intimacies (‘your distant indifference smouldering to ash’). The former surveys several dormant volcanic cones in the Auckland region, this time with a note of regret at the heedlessness of ecological loss:
Of those forty-eight sleepers, half are gone,
or nearly gone; only Rangitoto has stayed untouched.
Here again we sense the central pivot, and the way Eggleton uses his poetry to pull the subject, himself, and the reader both ways.
- The word comes through Latin litania from Ancient Greek λιτανεία (litaneía), which in turn comes from λιτή (litḗ), meaning ‘supplication’. A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid, or grains such as rice, as an offering to a deity or spirit, or in memory of the dead.’ (Wikipedia)
JOHN GERAETS is a Whangārei-based writer whose Everything’s Something in Place appeared from Titus Books in 2019.