Kay McKenzie Cooke
Main Trunk Lines: Collected railway poems by Michael O’Leary (HeadworX, 2015), 80 pp., $25; Possibility of Flight by Heidi North-Bailey (Submarine: Mākaro Press, 2016), 76 pp., $25; Poroporoaki to the Lord My God: Weaving the Via Dolorosa: Ekphrasis in response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon by Anahera Gildea (Seraph Press, 2015), 19 pp., $20
Although all three books under review are published by independent publishers located in Wellington, and all three poets either live, or once lived, in Wellington, there’s no exclusive-to-Wellington vibe to any of them. As far as subject matter goes, the three poets have cast their nets wide.
Farewells and the nature of leaving and journeying are a common thread. Michael O’Leary’s Main Trunk Lines: Collected railway poems offers a clear and obvious focus on farewelling a large portion of New Zealand’s passenger rail service. Heidi North-Bailey’s Possibility of Flight makes reference to the nature of farewelling both place and associated relationships. In the publisher’s notes for Poroporoaki, poet Anahera Gildea informs us that the meaning of the word poroporoaki itself ‘is essentially a farewell’.
In his foreword to Michael O’Leary’s collection, publisher Mark Pirie refers to this book as being a 65th birthday present for O’Leary, who throughout his life has harboured a ‘love of all things rail’. Reference is also made to his time working on the railways ‘in the S9 track gang north of Dunedin’. His is therefore an authentic voice championing the history of rail travel. Despite the book being largely about disappearance, it is far from a bleak account. Alongside evidence of decline, any glimmer of surprised beauty found down the line is faithfully noted:
Across the just out of sight
Bridge, Morningside where
gum trees glisten
And graffiti gangs battle it out
(‘Auckland revisited xi’)
Literal, spontaneous offerings (sometimes accompanied by lines from songs, or references to songs or singers) describe what can be seen from a railway-carriage window. Some poems, however, do stray off the rails and into the realms of fantasy:
Then, leaning forward, she asks softly
‘The tapes. Have you got the tapes, Comrade?’
‘As always,’ I reply …
The section titled ‘Six Waiata’, which lists stations with names in te reo, borders on ‘found poetry’ with its addition of imaginative and lively translations:
Clickity-clack, Karakiti, karakiti – KAPARU
Dirty old town, thatch roof fell down, again
Clickity-clack, Karakiti, karakiti – HAUWAI
I can smell the mollusc-ranium on yer breath
(‘Waiata – a chant: Te manga aho o te rerewe ki Picton’)
In order to take it to the punters, O’Leary isn’t afraid to mix it up and offers unplugged poetry that is both pensive and punchy. Musical references work like refrains or else co-ordinate. The middle section of the collection, ‘Station to Station’, is dedicated to David Bowie. Nestled in the collection are lines from songs, as well as a song O’Leary wrote. There is a song in the form of a haiku:
A bullet train fires, mushroom
(‘Song of a Tokyo greengrocer’)
Descriptions sway between what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is found and what is lost, recording without distinctions or sifting:
A dead sheep rots in a bog
Two horses canter comically away …
Despite an ever-present wily sense of humour, the poetry still throws enough shadows to give pause. There is at times a slowing of pace (as in the manner of rail travel), which adds thoughtfulness to this collection’s smorgasbord of contrasts:
This koha o nga kupu ki aroha is from
the centre: where the break in the rail
lies. And in the old days when we locked
Our horns together to hongi like bulls, we
who hear the magic whispers of sensual
kai-words, knowing it is ata-kahurangi in flight
(‘Hone Tuwhare: A memoir’)
The poems in this collection showcase a ‘crossover between working class and literary realities’ (to quote the final line in the poem ‘Disappearing railway blues sonnet’). This intersection is a junction where O’Leary feels at home, as evidenced by his role as trustee for ‘his beloved Paekakariki Station Museum’ (Foreword), and as owner of the Kakariki Bookshop next door. Written in the unpretentious vernacular of a seasoned railway enthusiast, passenger and worker, O’Leary’s Main Trunk Lines is a collection that spans some 30 years. It is an entertaining, informative, valuable and important collection of New Zealand railway poems; one that rings true.
Heidi North-Bailey’s attractively presented book, Possibility of Flight, is part of the Mākoro Press’ imprint, Submarine. In this collection of 42 poems, there’s a focus on the emotional impact that the act of leaving has on relationships. The emotions described range from a form of wary and watchful joy to where, in the pivotal poem ‘Return’, the poet allows herself a kind of contained rage.
Estrangements are often described in visceral terms, sometimes tinged with brute force such as the reference in ‘Dear boy’, which alludes to a heart torn out. The very first poem’s candid description of the betrayal of a bff childhood friendship sets the tone for the whole collection:
she looked like someone I’d never see again
… And she said, Can I have a dollar, you little bitch?
Emotional wreckage from the breakdown of relationships is objectively picked over in order to be examined for its truth. Perhaps the inspiration for this approach is signalled in the poem North-Bailey has written for New Zealand poet, the late Lauris Edmond:
Lauris knew about fragility, how
fleeting delicacy and grace
could be contained
by the spindly strength of a poem …
(‘My view from Lauris’ bedroom window’)
Trimmed to within an inch of fragility, this poetry employs unfettered language without artifice. A subdued background of alienation highlights the frequent and sudden sparks of colour (often co-inciding with images of fire) that the poet uses to express hope:
For weeks I waited for the sturdy green shoots
to produce colour; nothing but the garlic grew.
On the morning of your return I watched
red and gold petals crack through their shells.
Fond depictions of childhood reminiscences, photos of ancestors and the immediacy of conversations convey a quiet brew of emotions often present in families. Bitter-sweet, tough and tender, these family poems carry any cargo of grief with effective restraint. The subject of these poems, even while in retreat (or flight) from the perils and heartbreak of fracture, toughs it out:
exits in the blue-grey dawn
a hook to hang
that burnt ribbon of highway …
By the end of the collection, the underlying tension that has hung on from the very beginning finally relaxes into a budding contentment:
so much laughter
and the room may be too
but you can take it …
(‘My god, you’re getting married’)
North-Bailey’s Possibility of Flight is a first collection that holds to its calm centre. Its triumph lies in a resolve to describe episodes simply, without clatter; to tell it clearly, despite any of the emotional turmoil and bereavement it circles.
Anahera Gildea’s Poroporoaki to the Lord My God: Weaving the Via Dolorosa: Ekphrasis in response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon is a limited first edition published by Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press, and is a fine example of collaborative design between poet and publisher. These are hand-numbered books, hand-bound with hemp and with a flyleaf of paper made from harakeke. As article, the book itself could also be described as a poem.
The paintings this ‘ekphrasia’ refers to were painted by McCahon in response to the death of the poet, James K. Baxter – further indication of how much this book is a fusion of art and poetry.
Poroporoaki takes the form of a slow reveal: upon reaching the nub of the book, the poetry, the first word encountered is ‘Bro’. A bold stroke, this blokey, matey intro, and one that immediately cuts through any pre-conceived notions of spiritual distance. The direct and conversational nature of this greeting remains a constant throughout the rest of the poetry, and an engaging testimony to the spirits of both McCahon and Baxter.
The work also weaves in the Via Dolorosa: the ‘Way of Suffering’ – the path that Jesus walked on the way to His crucifixion as depicted in the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The poetry in Poroporoaki is divided into fourteen sections numbered with Roman numerals. Majestic in their red and black, the numerals stand as stanchions just above the page’s mid-line with the poetry (arranged in a carefully thought-out line-per-page sequence of 1–4–4–1) suspended beneath – much like viewers in thrall before a large painting, or perhaps congregated in front of a station of the cross.
Gildea ably demonstrates that she is an expert weaver of words to go along with art. As poet, she gives voice to McCahon addressing Baxter, which again extends the premise of this as a layered work. In our walk through the poetry, Gildea’s imagery invokes the earth, sea and sky as places: where body, mind, heart and spirit meet the horizon.
a black line separates the milk of the sky, sheepish and shrouded
from the knuckled gravel, where you took your first fall …
This is poetry as strong as ‘clouds formed from my fists’ (IX). However, a circumspect approach as to how many lines of poetry to pull out as examples of the work seems appropriate. To quote liberally from ‘this sackcloth taonga’ (V) would risk a clumsy tearing at the very fabric. Gildea’s Poroporoaki is a multi-faceted work, where poetry, art and craft effectively and meticulously co-mingle.
KAY McKENZIE COOKE is a poet and writer who lives in Dunedin. Her third collection of poetry, Born to a Red-Headed Woman, was published in 2014 by Otago University Press. She is at present writing a novel that is set in Southland.