The Little Sublime Comedy by John Gallas (Carcanet Press, 2017), 184 pp., £11.69/$22.29; Coming to It by Sam Hunt (Potton & Burton, 2018), 208 pp., $29.99; That Derrida Whom I Derided Died by C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, 2018), 128 pp., $29.99
Three collections of poetry, all distinctly different. Indeed, the only commonality I discern is that the poets are all older Pākehā men, even given that I have had some dealings with all three over my own reasonably lengthy lifetime.
Let’s look at the collections separately, starting with the youngest poet, John Gallas. The Little Sublime Comedy is sui generis. It parallels Dante’s Divine Comedy in terms of structure, namely a description of the hero’s moral progress through Hell on to Heaven, but here the parallel ends. Gallas sets his very clever and funny spoof/rip-off/pastiche imbroglio in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand, and the text is chock-full of solidly Kiwi expressions such as ‘buggered if I knew’, and of Kiwi kai such as bulk cheese and ham sandwiches and Minties.
Samuel Beckett is the guide during the first part of the action, The Bad Place, and hangs around well into the second stage, The Better Place, where the ‘hero’, aka the novice, aka Gallas himself, is guided by Joy and a faithful dog, Lineout. In the later section, The Good Place, the novice, never afraid to mutter and exclaim guttural expletives everywhere, encounters a skiing pōhutukawa tree. Snow and ice and slaloming interweave all three sections. Yet nothing of what I have written explicates Gallas’s rather brilliant book.
Gallas also lives well inside a dictionary, such is the vocabulary throughout – often obscure, often invented. Once readers get into the gist of the scatter chatter, the juxtaposed jargon, the lexical glissades between and across the entire 147 songs, they will become enchanted by the entire Tolkienesque cum Blakean cum Lewis Carroll ambience; they will guffaw and giggle continuously, all the time marvelling at Gallas’s skills. An example of his sesquipedalian text:
I staggered back from the floating million-foam
lurching like perturbed sausages on their tympanical skewers
and shrieking at their lottery of unction.
(from ‘Song 73’)
My only query is, I’m buggered if I know which audience the poet was aiming at when he set forth on this hallucinogenic and hypnagogic journey, whereby the onanistic ‘hero’ departs from Lake Rotoiti and emerges some time later up Mt Robert, now absurdly more existentially aware. As here:
For we are seas
and for our own salt die
Fried eggs from the pan.
Tea from the billycan.
Icecream and jelly.
Some crap on the telly.
(from ‘Song 146’)
The entire weird escapade is Christmas stocking-full of philosophical discursions relating to language, to ontology, to humankind’s place in the cosmos, especially the mass of the poet’s own friends who have met Death. The writer’s metaphysical fascination with the Rietdijk–Putnam argument also brings to my mind the work of John William Dunne and the non-lineality of time. All somewhat abstruse, like a good deal of this book:
Comparisons occur to me
because there are not words in men
plainly to show what has no words
made for it, for it is not,
yet it was
(from ‘Song 111’)
Perhaps Gallas himself can elucidate more about this tome for us, as here from a recent interview with Bill Manhire (SPORT 46, 2018):
Readers may read The LSC from a thousand points of view – as a tale, as a piece of moral thinking, as a take on Dante, as a Becketty cackle, as a Comedy (from Despair to Joy), as a series of little poems that can almost stand alone, as a New Zealand Poem, as a poetic/vocabularic/stylish exercise, and as all of those stuck together … it is fair game for the public … interpretation, enjoyment and evaluation are all up for grabs and I have no claim to the Right Ones.
I read with John Gallas in Nottingham in 2018. He has lived in England for decades now. He is an unassuming, modest, friendly man. His work can be downright odd, as here, but well worth experiencing and evaluating. That he is regarded with some awe by his adopted homeland is evidenced by the fact that Arts Council England supported this intriguing and intelligent extravaganza with funding, and the venerable TLS attempted to review it. It warrants being accessed and appreciated for the allusive and elusive whirligig it is: discursive titbits of ngā kupu Māori embellished with echoes of Waiting for Godot roaming free throughout. ‘If I cannot go on, I must go on’ (from ‘Song 112’). Indeed.
Sam Hunt will require absolutely no introduction to anyone in his homeland. Coming To It essentially covers his poetic life journey. There are several new poems here, published for the first time, although there are no text indicators to highlight which these are. The reader has to trawl through the book to discover they are all gathered at the end.
The collection is dense, about 130 poems across 199 pages of verse, which in itself states two obvious things. One, Hunt does not write long sequences of poems – except for the sequence Doubtless, which consists of small snippets of sometimes rhyming couplets or abab-rhyming stanzas, spread over 26 pages. Two, this compendium was not designed to be read in one sitting, but rather to be dipped into and savoured by an aficionado or by a new kid on the block.
The reader may well become worn out by attempting to read too much Hunt all at one time, given the genius of his earlier work represented here. Poems such as ‘Porirua Friday night’, ‘My father today’, ‘School policy on stickmen’ and ‘Bottle to battle to death’ remind me that there should be statues of the poet scattered around the country – except in Te Kuiti – such is the thrall he engendered late last century.
You know what else? There is no need for a reviewer to cartwheel or caterwaul over the first 180 pages, given that the bulk of these poems have previously been viewed and extensively published. However, his recent, briefer and more self-absorbed work has – for me – not quite matched the quality of his first generations of verse (as in the examples mentioned above), while the sexist overtones persist (see ‘I used to live around here’, p. 195). Hunt’s now more maudlin tone is well exposed in the fine final poem, ‘Brothers’ (p. 199), which ends with:
may he find what he lives for
a Catholic hereafter
and may he maybe
put a word in for me
his young brother …
forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive each other.
Mind you, Hunt himself disavows this depiction. Take this recent quotation from a Listener interview in August 2018:
Now, calling it Coming To It, the ‘it’ means … death. And it feels right, it feels completely in order. I don’t feel anything maudlin about that. It’s reality and that’s beautiful.
Sam Hunt set the bar – high – for English language performance poetry in this, our skinny country: he is and always will be the prime Pākehā exponent of ngā mōteatea tauiwi. His entire oeuvre needs to be examined, experienced, enjoyed by his intense reading of it: there can be no separation of the written word and the live performance. While Hunt is almost a polar opposite of Gallas in terms of any radical expropriation and expansion of English vocabulary, the printed book remains aloof and does not capture the essence of his often koan-like ruminations. A new poem such as ‘So’ (p. 187) craves his impassioned reading:
I don’t rightly know
it’s even you – but
being on the edge of what
was like a lake I know
which could only be seen
without all sun or moon
and water so
deep you’d know
(if you’d half a brain)
not to go close.
But I had to,
to be on the edge of you
I have met up with Sam on more than one occasion and always enjoyed his company, his idiosyncratic individuality, his intense and candid commitment to his work. The publisher’s media release quite correctly points out that this book ‘is the only collection of Hunt’s poems currently in print’. I urge the Kiwi public to support the writer by diving and delving into Coming To It, and in so doing confirming Hunt’s place as the poet of the so-called common man; as an Antipodean literary pioneer.
Speaking of which, here comes C.K. Stead strolling in from quite another direction. That Derrida Whom I Derided Died is a new collection of recent poems. Very well-constructed and written throughout and – like Sam Hunt – open, reflective and often backwards-looking, given that Stead is perhaps more wistful, less abrasive nowadays, certainly more so than his earlier, critical self. More than this, Stead explores and inhabits exact imagery and inculcates varied poetic formats far more than the bard from Bottle Creek, given that his work generally lacks the direct earthiness of the younger man, except for the poem ‘Hospitality’ (p. 100) with its visceral depiction of female anatomy.
There is much to delight in throughout his 115-page consignment of nearly 60 poems, stretched across six jigsawing sections. For C.K. Stead is well unafraid to laugh gently at both his younger self and his octogenarian stature. In ‘Seeing I’m here’ (p. 68) he is wryly honest – and funny – all at the same time:
Four opposing mirrors
in the otherwise empty
show me myself
in unwelcome detail, a very old man.
I had no idea!
I want to apologise and say
it’s not for long.
He is often mellow, often sadly reminiscent of those acquaintances who have passed away, such as Sarah Broom (‘Funeral’, p. 29) and Nicholas Tarling (‘Unusual obsequies’, p. 114). Several poems are dedicated to the lost, somewhat inevitably when one lives long and looks back longingly and sometimes lonely.
He has also become more and more respectful of ngā mea Māori, and poems such as ‘“Auckland”: The renaming’ (p. 72) illustrate an empathy with the endemic epistemological differences between ethnicities. Thus:
give back the name
tangata whenua first
accorded her –
our clement isthmus
between two harbours and two oceans,
hub of the South Seas
loved by many.
(Although it would be good if he used macrons, such as those lacking in another excellent poem, ‘Sapphics for Tarore’ pp. 91–92.)
Similarly, Derrida, once negatively appraised by Stead – ‘how I disliked you’ – is repositioned rather more positively in the final lines of the titular poem:
You are a ghost now truly, but the ghost of Derrida –
a voice in the halls, a word on the page, deconstructing!
Mind you, Catullus/Karl has not completely forsaken his scything tongue, especially when it comes to the British royal family. In part-poems such as ‘2013 New Year cartoons’ (p.16) and ‘14×14: Tercets in the spirit of Brecht’ (pp. 87–88) he skewers their pampered pomposity. Prince Harry in the former, for example, compared killing Afghans from his gunship to computer games, and:
With practised thumbs
and small royal brain
he does it well.
Stead doesn’t easily forget his critics either, as in ‘A flash in the pan’ (p. 93) and tangentially in ‘By the back door’ (p. 98.) Ultimately, Catullus will belie them all by
by the back door
with no announcement –
and no regrets.
Throughout this volume, we are consistently reminded of Stead’s subtle skillset and his ability to pare poetic language right down to the bone. He is the chartered accountant of verse, such is his economical lexis and concise expression.
He also has a tendency to insert academic references and name-drop here and there (see the rather extensive Notes): his finest work is more personal and evocative, such as the paeans to past potential loves in several places here, like ‘Ten minutes to midnight’ (p. 115). He also writes succinctly about the vestiges of war, as in the wonderfully pithy sequence ‘WW100’ (pp. 74–81).
A poem like ‘Rain’ (p. 62) further reinforces his ability to enliven via apposite imagery, and its final stanza not only invokes Hone Tuwhare’s work, but also grounds the poet in his own tūrangawaewae. As here:
Green is never so green
as the colour of after-rain
when birds set in,
wahine with one thousand lovers
shakes east and westward
over two harbours
and an isthmus of cones
of feathered cloud.
I have appreciated C.K. Stead’s work right from the early days of the 1970s when he was up on stage lecturing in English One at Auckland University, through to his novel Smith’s Dream around about 1971, and on to the occasions when I spied him patrolling Parnell in my years as a storeman there last century. He is a craftsman to cherish, and this set of mature poems is well worth acquiring, enjoying. It consolidates even further his already deserved reputation as a gifted man of letters, as worthy Poet Laureate. As he writes and cites in ‘In a Zagreb bookshop’ (p. 43):
That is why I should say
‘He is a writer’
you will receive respect.
But if I should tell them
‘He is a poet’
respect becomes honour.
We are indeed honoured and very fortunate to have such talented yet distinctively divergent Kiwi poets. Let me return to lines from a master that apply to all three:
I was the one who believed in poetry –
that it could capture the gull in flight
and the opening flower
and in the blink of an eye
a knock on the door of death.
(from ‘I was the one …’, p. 108)
Rawa waimarie pono [very lucky indeed].
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA earned a PhD from the University of Auckland with a thesis about Colin Wilson and has written extensively about this writer. Rapatahana is a critic of the agencies of English language proliferation, inaugurating and co-editing English Language as Hydra and Why English? Confronting the Hydra (Multilingual Matters, UK, 2012 and 2016.)
Rapatahana has several poetry collections published – in Hong Kong, Macau, the Philippines, the US, England, France and New Zealand. His Atonement was nominated for a National Book Award in the Philippines in 2016; he won the inaugural Proverse Poetry Prize the same year, and was included in Best New Zealand Poets in 2017.
Three new books will be published in early 2019.