Summer Grass by Ginny Sullivan (Steele Roberts, 2017), 72 pp., $19.99; Edgeland and Other Poems by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, 2018), 112 pp., $27.50; View from the South by Owen Marshall with photographs by Grahame Sydney (Vintage, 2018), 208 pp., $40
It feels somewhat reductive in 2019 to be framing a review of three New Zealand poetry books with the poets’ shared exploration of place and landscape, but here we are. However, that is not to say that these three books are themselves reductive in any sense. So much of our country’s art is rooted in the land – I can still hear my university lecturers exalting the pivotal role that our celebrated landscape has played in the development of our national literature and film history. And if it’s not our own land then it’s the far-flung places we Kiwis end up in, a shared wanderlust pushing us to escape the confines of our island nation, our isolation.
I read these three books while commuting to work (a welcome distraction from Wellington’s recent bus woes), sipping coffee in noisy cafés, and on park benches in the city’s lush Town Belt. No matter where I was, these three books were able to pluck me from the routine of my otherwise ordinary days and transport me to more enticing locations in New Zealand and beyond, from the Rangitata River in the Canterbury Plains to the sun-baked beaches of Byron Bay, or a market in Israel.
Ginny Sullivan’s debut collection Summer Grass opens with an elegiac image borrowed from the Book of Ruth, one of five books in the Hebrew Bible:
I feel like Ruth in the alien corn,
cut down and shucked,
unsure that my love
will rain its benison
on these fields.
This opening poem and its title (‘Harvest’) asks us to consider what it is we take from the land – whether literally or metaphorically – to nurture ourselves. I won’t attempt to summarise the teachings of the Book of Ruth other than to say it deals with themes of loss and displacement, its story culminating in acceptance and a birth. I mention this because throughout this book I felt a similar dichotomy at play – most noticeably one of celebration and resignation. By the end of the poem, the speaker is afraid of disappearing like the crop she has described, and vows to ‘turn back / at least to find myself’. This sets the tone for a collection that wanders – at times circuitously – from place to place in search of meaning and beauty in even the smallest moments, and how those moments may or may not add up to represent a life. These are poems steeped in nostalgia and reflection, propped up by astute observations about human interactions and relationships.
Much of the collection draws inspiration from the natural world. Sullivan sets her poems in gardens and forests and fills her lines with birds and flora. Despite this affinity, her poems sometimes carry an uneasy reluctance to accept that her relationship with the land cannot live up to past expectations. In ‘Cathedral of trees’ she laments the change to the area surrounding her grandmother’s house, the lush garden now ‘lacerated by stone beds and bark chips’, trendy designer plants ‘failing at pretending they belong’ and a once mighty forest reduced to grass.
Summer Grass clearly demonstrates Sullivan’s evocative way with words, capturing and describing moments and scenes in a way that can place you right in the action. These are poems that pull readers into their orbit. Sullivan’s interest in other places and cultures – and what we can learn from them – reminds me of the poems of Diana Bridge, which showcase an inquisitive mind similarly attracted to worlds of difference. Where Bridge is mostly influenced by China, Sullivan’s poems detail multiple trips to Israel that clearly left an impression. In these poems, Sullivan navigates the real and spiritual worlds with one eye on the past and the other on an uncertain future. These poems tussle with light and dark and are some of the most lyrical in the collection.
The collection also touches upon the everyday, which Sullivan views with a similarly lyrical lens. However, even the most artfully written poem about a mundane act of domesticity (such as ‘Making the bed’) still raises questions of what the poet is trying to say beyond how comforting a freshly made bed is. The collection’s weaker poems are usually single moments distilled into a few lines without added commentary or even context that would lift them to being more than just description. But these are few and far between, and even if they don’t kickstart the brain and the heart like the other poems do, they’re still pleasant to read. Something else that would have helped to strengthen this collection is a more focused sequencing, to give the reader more sense of the path the poet has chosen to take.
In my search to find out more about Sullivan and her work for this review, I was saddened to learn that she passed away in December 2017, not long after Summer Grass was published. This prompted me – for better or for worse – to reconsider my initial impressions of the collection, which had been coloured by a rather bland blurb that certainly does not do this book justice. Throughout my first reading of the collection I was struck by how the mood of the poems felt scattershot, something I couldn’t quite reconcile with the many light moments threaded throughout. There were hints at illness (‘Ward 5 North’) and musings on mortality (‘Angels in Jerusalem’), but these felt more like flickers of memory than signposts to guide the reader.
With her passing now fixed in my mind, the closing lines of the opening poem ‘Harvest’ made much more sense. These aren’t just poems filling the spaces of a sampler tray, this is a stocktake of the poet’s life – a balancing of the ledger: ‘I cast my mind back over all my deeds / trying to detect which sin, misdemeanour, omission / may have escaped my guarded hold on myself’. As Sullivan herself says, these are ‘words of leaving’. Perhaps the aforementioned poem about making the bed holds much more weight than I was originally willing to afford it; the things we take for granted, the tasks we bemoan having to do, will one day no longer be an option. Summer Grass reminds us all that life’s unpredictable nature is a terrain to be taken step by step, day by day.
A part of me approaches reviewing David Eggleton’s Edgeland and Other Poems with apprehension – how could I not when the poem ‘The collective’, a list of collective nouns for poets (my favourite being ‘an ambush of poets’), ends with ‘an unkindness of critics’?
Edgeland is the follow-up to Eggleton’s The Conch Trumpet, which won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2016. It’s another assured and engaging collection infused with the frenetic energy and wit that has made Eggleton one of our most beloved writers and performers. His distinct voice can be felt lifting itself from the pages as you read, an authoritative and discerning rumble that demands your attention. His reputation as a commanding performance poet is felt in some of the more kinetic poems like ‘Age of the Anthrocene’ and ‘Escapologist’, which I can imagine would be a thrill to experience live.
The collection is split into five sections. The first three each has a geographic focus, with poems based in Auckland, Southland and Australia. The final two sections are a little looser as thematic groups of poems, but they give plenty of space for Eggleton to do what he does best. This is a collection where distinct sections are warranted and beneficial to the reader. They afforded me the chance to take my time with these poems – the many layers of meaning and linguistic textures lend each a mighty heft, loaded as they are with knotty wordplay and image upon image upon image. I’ve never run a marathon before, but after reading this book I felt like I had (albeit over several days and with plenty of screentime breaks). Eggleton is a poet renowned for stretching language with athletic verve, and Edgeland does not disappoint in this area. Scientific terms rub against the ‘slanguage of advertising’; Kiwi colloquialisms tango with Māori place names. But whatever vocabulary he has chosen, he constructs his poems in a range of forms, a poetic mix-and-match that shows off his skill and versatility.
Like Sullivan’s collection, the poems that make up Edgeland hop, skip and jump from one location to another. The title refers to a concept used by writers and environmentalists to describe the liminal space on the boundaries of country and town – ‘the interfacial interzone between urban and rural’ (Marion Shoard) – not so much a No Man’s Land but more a transitional place of promise, if one is to put a positive spin on it. Eggleton quotes the writer Robert McFarlane in the collection’s acknowledgements: ‘Edgeland desire lines, grasshopper susurrus, clatter of trains, chatter of magpies, now.’ That desire manifests itself in Eggleton’s poetry in the form of nostalgia for places past and how they compare to their contemporary incarnations, pulling you into the ‘now’ that Mcfarlane speaks of. For Eggleton ‘now’ is a loaded word, troubled as he is by the effects of humans on the land, which is felt in poems that yearn for days past, before urbanisation and development, before tourists began arriving in waves. However, Eggleton’s nostalgia is equal parts romanticism and loss, tinged with a sting of bitterness. The West Coast is depicted as a ‘long, rotting log’, and Auckland is a city of ‘blood-letting’ and ‘streets that smack you / in the face with their indifference’. As far as relationships go, you could say it’s complicated.
Eggleton recognises that we all have our own personal connections to the land, each of us moved by it in different ways. The plurality of what a place can represent to individuals is a recurring theme in this collection. In the collection’s title poem he writes:
Awks: you winged Auk-thing, awkward, huddling;
you wraparound, myriad, amphibious,
stretchy, try-hard, Polywoodish
juggernaut; you futurescape, insectivorous,
Akarana, Aukalini, Jafaville, O for Awesome,
still with the land-fever of a frontier town …
Auckland is a good example of the many facets a city can wield, making it ripe for Eggleton’s poetic excavations. It’s our fastest-growing city, changing at such a rate that projections of what it might look like in ten, twenty, fifty years are constantly being revised. The International Organisation for Migration named it the fourth most diverse city in the world, and the line ‘the largest Polynesian city in the world’ is often bandied about, although visual evidence of that will differ greatly depending on which parts of Auckland you visit. Lana Lopesi rightfully wrote that ‘there is something more sinister at play with the repetition of this diversity tag-line’. Whether or not Auckland can actually lay claim to that tagline is up for debate, but it’s undeniable that the Polynesian community is being pushed to the edges of Auckland’s ever-sprawling boundaries, into Auckland’s own Edgeland, where ‘Two-dollar leis sway outside shops on Great South Road’.
Reading the poem ‘The wilder years’ made me think about how nature and place are tied to our ideas of nationhood and identity, and perhaps it’s time we let go of what we once considered agreeable or appropriate in terms of using our isolation to mark our difference as a people. Edgeland ends with the words ‘the unsayable being said over and over’. This, to me, is an apt description of Eggleton’s body of work as a whole and an explanation of why we are still drawn to place in poetry in this day and age. In this collection, the act of writing and rewriting landscapes – both urban and rural – raises questions about the meaning and value of using place to define our identities. It leaves me wondering whether, in trying to say the unsayable this whole time, we have merely talked ourselves into a never-ending conversation, one that circles an ‘eternal darkness made visible’.
If reading Edgeland was akin to running a marathon, Owen Marshall and Grahame Sydney’s collaborative effort View from the South is more of a contemplative and languid stroll through southern landscapes.
Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted what we have in New Zealand – our lush native bush, golden beaches and sky-brushing mountain peaks. Last year I took a few road trips around both islands and, for the first time, drove the route between Christchurch and Akaroa. The former trip was to show off our country to a visiting American friend, the latter a solo drive that meant I could stop wherever and whenever I wanted to take photographs of the vistas unrolling before me. None of my photographs came close to capturing the humbling drama of the landscape, something Grahame Sydney has perfected over decades of artistic practice.
Sydney’s iconic paintings and photographs are likely what many people picture in their minds when thinking about what Central Otago looks – and feels – like. Most of my family holidays as a child and road trips as a teenager were centred on the North Island, so Te Waipounamu has always been a foreign land to me – a mysterious idea of a place suspended between stark reality and unreal paradise. For me, driving in the south was like seeing my own country through new eyes – the light was clearer, the sky a little bigger, each turn in the road revealed a new breathtaking surprise.
Sydney has collaborated with Marshall before – the confluence of their individual talents is as iconic a pairing as Manhire and Hotere riffing off each other’s work. Marshall and Sydney are a natural and synergistic pairing – both use stillness in a way that heightens the feelings that can overwhelm us when we’re swallowed by the enormity of a landscape. Many of Sydney’s paintings are vivid, like impressionistic photographs; in this book many of the photographs themselves feel like paintings with their framing and use of colour and light. The images are usually uncluttered, inviting the reader’s eye to take them in as a whole. There’s a quiet devastation at play in many of the photographs – landscapes show signs of human life, but people are eerily absent. The photographs that do feature human subjects show them in relation to the land, often hard at work or play.
Marshall – one of our finest short-story writers and novelists – has long mythologised provincial New Zealand, in particular the Otago region, with his sparse realism and characters living at the edge of society. Although better known for his fiction, he has published three volumes of poetry, the most recent being The White Clock in 2014 (with a cover provided by Sydney). View from the South draws from these previous collections and material from literary journals, along with previously unpublished work. Marshall has split the poems into four themed sections, covering Nature and Place, Family and Friends, History and Arts, and Heart and Mind. With close to 150 poems contained herein, there’s a lot to savour. These are bookended by prologue and epilogue poems, which provide two diametric views and moods. The pointed prologue opens the book by proclaiming, ‘God / Don’t let me die in Auckland.’ Shots fired! It’s an opening line that gets your attention, and sets in motion the collection’s unabashed celebration of the south’s majestic terrain and the philosophical outlook it can instil.
I am often struck by how the identity of southerners is so deeply rooted in where they’re from, much more so than their cousins in the north. View from the South goes some way in clarifying why this might be, with Sydney’s photographs providing the visual evidence and Marshall explaining this connection on a more philosophical level than one of just blind romanticism (though that is still present here).
There’s a carefully considered economy to Marshall’s poetry. Few poems are longer than a page, and when he does stretch his pen a little further, the longer poems tend to be made up of smaller, distinct chunks. This is efficient and deliberate poetry – no time wasting or dithering around the periphery – and Marshall gives the reader just enough to dwell upon before moving on to the next scene. The tone is largely consistent throughout, with Marshall placing emphasis on images and description rather than resorting to experimentations in form. Where the poems’ forms do matter is in the space that surrounds them. In Marshall’s work it is integral to giving the lines room to roam and breathe, not unlike the space that Sydney depicts and uses in the accompanying photographs. One could write about the south with epic, loping lines that sprawl out like the Canterbury Plains, but Marshall opts for concision and compactness instead to get his points across. A great photograph can be filled with detail but still contain a single point to which the viewer’s eyes are drawn – what Roland Barthes termed the ‘punctum’. Many of Marshall’s best poems are filled with clear, real-world details, which in turn are magnified by a single point or turn that surprises the reader.
Much like Sullivan and Eggleton, the changes in our relationship with the land or a place is one of Marshall’s preoccupations in his writing. For Marshall, that change clearly comes with the insight and appreciation that arrive with age. As a child he may have committed crimes against nature (‘Blowing up frogs with a straw’), but deeper respect for the land eventually sets in as he grows and experiences pain:
Having experienced no suffering of
my own, I dished it out with gusto.
And now I wince to step upon a snail.
Nature turns the tables on us, and what once fuelled our hubris is now a reminder of our capacity to empathise. The sombre ‘The big snow’ recasts a wintery scene as a rumination on fragility, and how the forces of nature can mirror our own mortality: ‘How could such / an age of solidarity and strength be / so helpless before mere snowflakes?’
There’s a phrase that Marshall uses that sums this up in his own succinct way: a ‘singular privilege of being alive’, which is clear and resounding in this collection. In contrast to the hiss and roar of the collection’s prologue, the much calmer epilogue wraps things up with a peaceful image of a night, and the time it affords us to reflect on the day’s achievements: ‘Each day is a small life / drawing to its close of embracing darkness.’ Darkness is inevitable, and Marshall acknowledges its role in encouraging us to appreciate the lightness of life. Although the human effect on the land is acknowledged (as in Eggleton’s collection), in View from the South the emphasis tilts to the other extreme – this is a book that celebrates the effect of the land on us. Marshall writes twice in the book that ‘memory chooses us’ – there’s an uncanny sense in these pages that maybe it’s the land that has chosen to impress itself upon us also.
View from the South is a beautifully produced book, the kind you’ll want to gift to others or treasure as a keepsake. It’s a fitting unified statement from two of New Zealand’s most singular voices.
CHRIS TSE is the author of two collections of poetry published by Auckland University Press: How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and He’s So MASC. He is an occasional food blogger and regular contributor to Capital magazine.