Horse with Hat by Marty Smith, with collages by Brendan O’Brien (Victoria University Press, 2014), 77 pp., $30; Tree Space by Maria McMillan (Victoria University Press, 2014), 80 pp., $25; Remnants by Leonard Lambert (Steele Roberts, 2013), 62 pp., $19.99
At the beginning of Marty Smith’s debut collection Horse with Hat, the reader is presented with a photograph of five men and two women, five of whom are the ‘characters’ whose downward trajectories Smith traces with anecdote and metaphor along a loosely chronological arc. So characters, then, but also ‘real people’ who do such things as ‘sign up for the war’ and ‘go back to the farm’, things with which New Zealanders of a certain age will be familiar, people whose dads ‘wouldn’t be seen without a hat’ (‘Hat’).
The cast of the book seems to have made a lot of poor or ill-informed decisions. The book enumerates the consequences of these decisions in a manner that reminds me of overhearing my relatives talking about uncle Black-Sheep around the dinner table while I’m finding reprieve in an adjacent room.
Smith is telling a story: chronology, cause and effect, picturesque detail, verisimilitude, beginnings, middle and ends. One consequence of Damien Wilkins ushering his erstwhile charge down the narrative line is that it has muted the poet’s lyrical voice. Narrative and lyric are difficult to reconcile and Smith doesn’t seem to have tried. Her woolly-sheep Chaucerian tales are to Orphic song as Granddad’s Donegal Tweed blazer is to a single strand of silk.
An instance is ‘Dementia for Uncle Charlie’, which deals in anecdote, makes obvious points about memory and its fallibility, validates clichés as being sometimes the best older menfolk can manage in light of age and trauma, and should ask more of itself than it ought to ask of us:
It is Sunday, the table cloth spread out, Charlie
The china cups and me at the kitchen table.
He smoothes the wrinkles in the cloth
He says he’s never smoked he comes down hard
on smoking. I’ve seen a photo
all four brothers with fags in their fingers, aha.
Aha, indeed. A number of other poems harvest these familial pastures that seem to have gone to seed, and in which I struggled to sense much weight apart from the understandable care and significance the scenes have for the poet. Smith writes about that which Uncle Charlie and his brothers wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about – ‘He’d talk about anything else. Horses. Dogs’, about which, to be fair, Smith also talks at great length, especially about horses.
‘Dad’, a recurring character throughout the book, becomes as mythologised as Pegasus. His apotheosis comes towards the end of the book in successive poems, in the first of which, ‘My father, the astronaut’, he ‘blasts across the firmament / shooting up the sky … with Robbie Burns / a four-leafed clover … a muffled madman crying, Sorry / in his lonely coat and hat’. This is followed by ‘Until the night’, in which Dad, ‘who hated fuss’, dies; the daughter, who ‘had never kissed him before’, is present at the end of the ‘madman,’ left holding ‘the shape of him and nothing’.
I found this to be true of the characters in the book, who come as silhouettes, contoured blackboards with their 50s catchphrases written on them in chalk. The horses, in contrast, seem so much more palpable, despite their totemic existences. The final poem in the book, ‘The glory of his nostrils is terrible’ (a wonderful phrase suggestive of untapped lyrical possibilities), is a summation of all the strange ways, bumpy roads and equine graces that have come before it.
Horses do not sleep.
At night they stand up all over the world.
Since their coming was our beginning,
Earth retains the horse as a rememberer
for the horse has huge clear eyes
in his chess-piece head
the horse with his crest and his haunch
as he stands like a knight on watch.
And so on. This is all over the show – portentous, a-rhythmical, its connections not logical but associative (the chess piece in line six to the knight on watch in line eight), making odd assertions (memory is an optical function), falsehoods baldly stated, but admittedly and oddly arresting, albeit quite at odds with the Formica and woodbines and shrapnel wounds that have come before it. What does it all mean? You’d have to ask the horse, I suppose, but ‘now the horse has turned back, leaving us’. In the absence of the horse, my determination is that book is diffuse, obsessive, imaginative, prosaic, and a half-shuffled deck of the quotidian and fantastical: for some readers, such as the jury of the New Zealand Post Book Awards, these qualities will be prized.
Tree Space is Maria McMillan’s second book. McMillan is a member of the same writing group as Marty Smith, but her approach is different in kind to that of her colleague. McMillan, instead of attempting to evoke a milieu, tries to articulate space – and not necessarily of an arboreal kind. This space is often un-peopled and its gaps and interim nature, its breaks and sometimes frightful conditionality, mark it off as strangely outside of or indifferent to human machinations, yet which in the same breath is integral to our being as such. It’s heady stuff.
For a poet concerned with nature, both broadly and in specifics, McMillan’s language seems to be divorced from process. Often the poems are grid-like, static, tableaus poised upon thresholds, as if silhouettes in which light and negative space are clearly, albeit ‘poetically’, delineated at the expense of verbally enacted transformation. The copula abounds; more often than not something ‘is’ – that simply – done. ‘To be’ seems McMillan’s go-to verb. Yet often things ‘must’ be done, which one assumes will be done – volition, be it of trees or pregnant women, comes fraught with contradiction. And nature’s plenum consists mostly of empty space.
McMillan’s style isn’t yet fully formed. It stands as a gimlet-eyed Plath abutting on a thin-lipped W.S. Graham through Laura Riding’s narrow gate towards Beckett’s late prose. Sometimes this can an arresting concatenation; but sentences like ‘Not a forest but the forest and infinite which is another word for indefinite’ or ‘Made by the arch of an ancient tree and cannot figure’ from the titular poem, made me long for Jo Buchannan to explain to me the concept of tree ‘space’ as he did to McMillan. After the poem I felt none the wiser, though somewhat unnerved. And to talk in the voices of flora and fauna I found a little silly, but, usually, despite all the neutering intransitives, the style and concern carried the day.
The hill shimmered and when
we had pitched our tents against the light,
stowed our food in a shady part of the stream,
I lay in the tall grass and the day grew up around me.
Bugs. Wild wheat. As if we’d always.
I thought of the way I’d seen that night
through the neat flap in the tent black clouds move.
How sure you must be to tilt a plane into them.
How solemn. How it was to fall.
I thought of the tent pegs in the ground,
How very firmly they pinned us in.
You’ve just read two stanzas from ‘Billycock Hill’, a poem that sounds like it rhymes, but doesn’t – it’s more a matter of syntax, of cleanly rendered monosyllables and adroitly controlled vowels. ‘Bugs’; ‘bags’; ‘pegs’; ‘pig’ – spread across and buried within four stanzas, the poet’s ear lets words draw towards the source. In its plain style, nascent violence, firm but subtle patterning of stresses along the line, and tough but plaintive tone, not to mention John Barleycorn singing just out of earshot, this has more in common with Thomas Wyatt than Samuel Becket.
Short, hard sounds embody in recollection the physical experience, which is given internal music by the judiciously manipulated syntax – memory made palpable in mouth, in the skull’s resonance, as well as in the ghostly mind. Experience passes not from the writer’s to the readers’ minds, but from her mouth into mine. One can almost taste it. The poem is a process towards a complete – or as complete as possible, given the mystery at the centre of lived life – and active state of understanding involving body, mind and feeling, held in sympathetic harmony; such a poem, too, is a moral estimation, a judgement and validation at once of the poem itself and all that informs it, the life and not least the language from which it has been made. Again, this is heady stuff – but there it is on the page.
Just as one ought not to reject Milton for his avowal of the Ptolemaic universe in spite of Galileo’s hard-won evidence otherwise, so to it would be foolish to reject McMillan for her post-structural animism, for which I, for one, have little time. And, yes, the sky isn’t blue and the table at which I sit is less solid than it seems, a complex of atomic vibrations that are beyond my comprehension. McMillan’s ‘urgent need to understand the basics of the universe’ sometimes comes at the expense, in the poems, of the perhaps more urgent need to understand, as it were, what it means to understand. As a consequence, the slighter poems in this book are light-years away from its best, which do, with a remarkable degree of perspicacity, enact dancingly the latter kind of understanding. The world – revealed in a poem like ‘Billycock Hill’ – is in the poet’s blood, measured by the poet’s pulse; it is closer than what is in one’s mind or even what is close to hand. The best of these poems not only give an account of experience, they are also an attempt to come to terms with it: the more complete the coming to terms, the better the poem.
This is a book of a post-modernised dryad, finding her feet beneath the imposture of theory’s weight. In a late poem Charles Reznikoff wrote ‘the oak has many acorns / that a single oak might live’. I await with interest to see what grows from the seed of Tree Space.
Remnants, Leonard Lambert’s most recent book of poems, makes altogether different demands on its readers than those of McMillan and Smith. The collection, which includes drawings by his partner Jan Fitzgerald, lives up to its name. The poems often look back, take stock of the past – the book is dedicated to the poet’s mother and a number of poems directly address his father – and attempt to bring to light what remains, or, at least, what remains within the imagined reach of the poet’s quietly restive mind, reaching back to friends and acquaintances, comings and goings, places and times, and often cocking a snook at their foibles and follies, at the dappled shadows they throw across the poet’s way. Not all the poems are of this ilk; indeed, the more realised and immediate ones zoom into what I take to be the poet’s life in the present, especially that part of life lived in love, in which the speaker takes refuge, delight, and comfort.
Characters by the names ‘Dad’ and ‘Father’ frequent a number of these poems. There is sometimes an esoterically nostalgic air about some of them. Lambert is good, which is to say, effective at making poems of this kind: sociable, poised, good humoured, honed in years of public reading, exactly not the kind of poems in which a ‘lone craftsman’, as the poet is described on the book’s back cover, would specialise. And mercifully, Lambert, like the late Donald Justice, delights in spiking the sepia bubble of ‘That staid grey world’ (‘Coming out of the 50s’) on the poingards of his italicised denouements: ‘O gadfly dreams! Worlds incalculable!’ (‘The Auditors’).
Other times, punchlines seem apposite but a tad askew, the kick a little more left-field than straight up and down, and which, one imagines, would elicit the chorused ‘ahs’, unanimous knowing laughs, and tête-à-tête nods from neighbouring audience members that will be so familiar to anyone who has attended a poetry reading of the more genteel stripe: ‘It’s over bro. Please / if you’re going, go.’ (‘Redundant’); ‘Oh, those. Lachrymosas. / Rather pretty, aren’t they? / Rainflowers.’ (‘Rainflowers’). Pop goes the balloon. ‘Cadeau’, however, is charming: ‘Heads may turn, / ‘tis all one! / These my lights / are yours, my love, / and yours alone.’
So, then: love – Lambert does write poems of the lonely crafted type; and they are much the finest and best poems in Remnants. And these are not the kind of poems that ‘work’ through a microphone; they are lyrical, tender and overheard, and are often that most risky of risks, love poems.
Walking the wide blown day,
the sea the cape the long quiet sky
upwind of the world, we two,
walking in our time –
and the lines of the land
go on & on –
the wind & the light take away the town
how far we’ve come
walking, my love & I,
walking in our time.
(‘Walking in Our Time’)
This is as unfashionable as the Hemmingway snugged into its title. So be it. The ocean and the seashore, the poet and his beloved on the beach, walking or standing side by side and staring out to sea: these, for me, were and will be the lasting images of this collection. It would be easy to overstate the metaphorical significance of this, but it is significant; free-diving into memory, the poet surfaces, nodding and winking. The reader, too, will find there is much going on beneath the gentle surface of these poems.
ROBERT MCLEAN is a New Zealand poet, critic and reviewer currently working as a teacher in Vietnam. He is a graduate of the University of Canterbury.