Lonely Earth by MaryJane Thomson (HeadworX, 2015), 90 pp., $30; Cards on the Table by Jeremy Roberts (Interactive Press, 2015), 145 pp., $29; The Empire City: Songs of Wellington by Andrew Laking (Pirate & Queen: Victoria University Press, 2015), 64 pp., $35
MaryJane Thomson’s poetry collection Lonely Earth is another interesting addition to independent Wellington publisher HeadworX’s extraordinarily diverse catalogue. Although its roster includes such well-established yet utterly unlike poets as Riemke Ensing, Jack Ross, Stephen Oliver and the late John O’Connor, it also seeks out younger writers who, like those four reputable poets I mention, would struggle to find a place at the university presses. I commend Mark Pirie not only for his astonishing energy, but also for his commitment to providing an outlet for our more contrary talents.
And Lonely Earth is an interesting book from an antagonistic voice. Thomson certainly doesn’t kowtow to received wisdom or conventional taste:
The earth searches the cracks,
for remnants of the sea.
The oil spills,
the water freezes,
now they can drill.
The water ushers the fish,
‘Come this way, it’s fresh.’
The curious use of commas to mark line-breaks is odd to my eye and redundant to my ear: I feel the poem could do without much of its punctuation. If the second stanza were deleted, ‘Elements’ would tick all the Imagistic boxes, along with flaunting a sense of sound Basil Bunting would be proud of. But spilling of oil, freezing water and drilling matter most to Thomson, often more than those qualities that quicken one’s auditory pulse. Thomson is probably justified in not trusting contemporary readers to see her point without her spelling it out in such blunt terms, but ‘the water ushers the fish, / “Come this way, it’s fresh”‘ makes her point more richly and strangely.
Lonely Earth is a big book at 86 pages, and most of it is filled with similarly spare lyrics as ‘Elements’, often of as few as four lines, sometimes even fewer. Some are charming in a similar way to James Laughlin’s Grecian turn on the English epigrams:
To be complete, not like satisfied
or sick from over indulgence,
to sit in a bit of time and really know something,
like the way the rose sits on the dresser is beautiful.
I’d strike out the first ‘like’, which seems teen-speak modish, but the rest of the four lines seem complete, assured and timeless in their time.
Sometimes, though, Thomson’s penchant for being ‘with it’ backfires and nullifies her gift for such chiselled sonorities:
Most famous artist in the world,
Edgy 21st century photography,
Put a filter on it.
This, for all we know, will be irrelevant by next week and certainly in a decade. Nor has celebrity culture, especially where it is based on saturating media with likenesses and ‘likes’, been a perennial phenomenon throughout recorded history. It comes and goes; it is a fad; it may last for some time, longer than many of us would hope, but it’ll pass, if only for a season. ‘Cultural matters’ isn’t news that won’t stay news; it isn’t news at all.
Better, but still brief and pithy and on trend, is ‘Killjoy’:
You’re a killjoy like a conservative
or a greenie,
depending which way you look at it.
Thomson may be more talented than she realises. The best poems in Lonely Earth suggest potential that far exceeds its modish turns and even its finest yet most fragile pieces. I hope she will allow that potential space to grow and train it to engage eye and ear in equal measure.
The following poem, the title of which – in brackets, below – is longer than most of Thomson’s poems, is from the collection Cards on the Table by Jeremy Roberts:
all I had to go on was an awkward arrangement
to meet outside work, sometime
which never happened.
I was sure there was sex inside
her frequent auburn-hair framed stare –
&, for months, I longed to scuba dive
that aura, leap recklessly into deep water.
all I got
was reflective park walking thru photosynthetic landscapes
with a starved green face,
a talking mirror – pondering her signals
& a slow decline into my seat at the coffee shop –
going over snatches of coded conversation.
I wanted something for my trouble.
often, you get what you deserve:
emotional g-forces which can fuck-up daily life
& a little bit of terror in the heart.
It was typical fallout from unrequited romantic yearning –
the sort of thing that should be taught about in school,
but never will be.
a blast of clarity & freedom came one afternoon
like a peace-bringing gunshot to the obsession,
as I vandalised a red booth seat by distractedly doodling
it was a problem that had to be put to sleep
because it had nailed me,
just as efficiently as those hard-ass Navy Seal bastards did
on that secret mission in Pakistan.
(‘Reflection on a crush while looking at that photo of President Obama, Hilary Clinton, etc, in the situation room – watching and waiting for news of Operation Neptune Spear’)
Concision, then, is not a priority for Roberts, who fills the 145 pages of Cards on the Table with words almost until they overflow it. Most of the poems are as baggy, ruminative, cumulative and roistering as ‘Reflection on a crush …’ – with casual capitalisation, ampersands, loose-lipped clichés, cynical Leftism, ‘fucks’, and drawing of skewwhiff moral equivalences signalling a nostalgic ’60s vagabond poetic, one eminently suited to the microphone or an audience of lovers. It is the kind of thing that many readers of poetry still associate with ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’.
I don’t find all Roberts’ bumptious verities particularly rewarding, although as an account of what seems to have been an adventurous cosmopolitan life it was somewhat entertaining. It is a shaken-up kaleidoscope of experience, and how the reader feels about the innumerable sparkling shards is the crux. James Dean and Andy Warhol are surely getting a bit mouldy for counterculture revisionism; Sam Hunt may have ‘had control of the rainbows’ (‘Love buttons’), but I’m not really moved by the assertion; I can relate to Roberts having ‘ambled respectfully by beside the river Muse / which he [Arthur Rimbaud] probably pissed into’ and having ‘stared at one of his childhood houses’ (‘Destinations’), since I similarly stalked the spectre of Ezra Pound in Venice and had my photo taken outside Olga Rudge’s house. I can see the appeal of wanting to create one’s ‘own, earthy counterpoint / against their bland, sanctioned melancholia / & rules’ (‘Bold moves against conventional perspective’), but the image of ‘two battered leaves … eventually going down the drain’ wouldn’t inspire me to do so.
From the above, prospective readers should have an idea of what they’re getting themselves in for with Cards on the Table. And you can have fun with it. It just depends on your point of view.
Andrew Laking’s The Empire City: Songs of Wellington is a ‘book’ (and a CD). Leaving the contents of those parentheses aside for a moment, what I mean is that more than being another instance of myriad text delivery devices, as when poems usually are printed on pages that get bound together, The Empire City is – irrevocably and inseparably – what it is: a hardcover publication incorporating, almost literally, text by Andrew Laking, paintings by Bob Kerr, and photographs – some in colour by Ines MacMullen, along with archival black and white images from the Alexander Turnbull Library. Margaret Cochran’s design and Geoff Norman’s layout have ingeniously integrated these elements. This lavish production is accompanied by the aforementioned disc, which features a number of fine musicians backing Laking singing his songs, the lyrics of which provide the book’s text.
So The Empire City, which is truly a collaborative work, offers a great deal to reader, listener and reviewer to enjoy or not according to their bent. Although I am neither art critic, social historian or music reviewer, I thought Kerr’s draughtsmanship exemplary and realisations haunting, the photographs idiomatic and unsentimentally evocative of their period milieu, but the musical performances somewhat anodyne and well-mannered; the tastefulness of the playing and the artlessness of Laking’s vocals are commendable, but a little spontaneity and fieriness would have added a welcome edge.
This is especially missed given that Laking often writes, to put it simply, some good words, for the most part by putting things simply. Brief scene-setting prose paragraphs preface the ten song lyrics, which are conventional, folkish and balladic:
Red falls to yellow then to orange down to blue
Red tips for the Cuba, for the blood in me and you
Yellow is off-centre, it spills to the street
Orange stands before the sea that we came in on
Blue is where everything must run to, even that will fall
(‘Red stands for the Cuba’)
The ten songs and their respective prefaces range over totemic Wellington happenings, places and people, such as the Wahine sinking, the wharves and waterfront, William Wakefield and mayor George Trump. But although Laking can be pithily evocative, in the end I found myself dissatisfied after having had my interest piqued about some historical local colouration, given I am a newcomer to the capital, a city in which the past is remarkably conterminous with its self-consciously vibrant present. The Empire City would be a wonderful addition to any secondary-school library, and many young people would find its rich mixture of media arresting. And I can imagine that in an interactive digital format it would do more nicely in a local museum. Still, admitting as I do its visual marvels, attractiveness as an object and educative potential, as a book of poetry or song for the serious reader it doesn’t quite measure up.
ROBERT MCLEAN is a New Zealand poet and critic, and a graduate of the University of Canterbury. He lives in Wellington.