The Night We Ate the Baby, by Tim Upperton (HauNui Press, 2014), 53 pp., $20; Only One Question, by Tom Weston (Steele Roberts, 2014), 74 pp., $24.99.
French poet Rene Char once stated, ‘The poet must leave traces of his passage, not proof.’ In these two collections, the sophomore collection by Palmerston North poet Tim Upperton, and the fourth by Cantabrian lawyer/poet Tom Weston, readers of antipodean poetry are fortunate to experience two disparate, yet equally authentic and authoritative applications of and testaments to, Char’s maxim.
Many good things have been said about Tim Upperton’s poetry. Here are a couple of examples: writing on her blog, the red room, Sarah Jane Barnett considers his poem ‘The starlings’ – which appeared in his first collection, A House on Fire, and, subsequently The Best of the Best New Zealand Poems anthology – to be her ‘favourite poem by a New Zealander’. In an attempt to qualify the way she feels about the poem, she goes on to say, ‘I find it difficult to say why; maybe it’s the vibrating language, or it could be because the poem is insistent, unpretentious, essential, aching, open, and shit-filled.’ Ashleigh Young, on the back cover of The Night We Ate the Baby, further extols, ‘These wilfully, calmly disagreeable poems have tenderness and courage at their heart. Both bleak and hilarious, they perturb so deeply that they comfort.’
These are endearing plaudits and, according to the bio note, Upperton has won competitions. He is a two-time winner of the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Competition, and has taken out the Bronwyn Tate Memorial International Poetry Competition. His poems have also been anthologised. Deservedly, he has acquired something of a loyal following among local poets. What he offers in this latest collection should augment and expand his fan base.
On first reading of these skillfully crafted and deployed poems, it appears as if the poet – if we are to assume the speaker is indeed the poet – has scudded their way into some kind of mid-life nadir: a place where it seems any possibility of attaining or knowing further enchantments has been precluded. Here are two couplets from the second poem in the collection, titled ‘Valediction’:
Goodbye pepper, goodbye, salt.
Goodbye, sour and bitter things. And honey. Malt.
Goodbye whiskey, cabernet, beer.
Goodbye, Christmas. Goodbye, New Year.
Maudlin, yes. But there’s more going on in these poems than what appears on the jaundiced exterior. Upperton is a clever guy. He manages to be an attentive observer and, like Auden and Lowell, the poet as a kind of human anode conducts and writes the unease of the age in which he lives. It was heartening to note how capable he is of expressing authentic tenderness and, at times, anger, without recourse to the clicheic or aggressive trope. Consider these lines, lifted from the collection’s titular poem:
crying hard, from inside a sorrow
so deep I couldn’t reach you if I tried,
so I didn’t try because bad things
never stop, it’s not in their nature
to stop, they maybe rest for a while
and catch their breath and go on
(‘The Night We Ate the Baby’)
This is great stuff. Who hasn’t before felt this sense of disconnection to one they love; the inevitable frustration at not being able to get through to them because of their pain. And the things that hurt us are one of the principal themes addressed in this haunting collection. There are moving poems concerning the death of, and memorialising (at times frustrating) traits of, the poet’s mother, to whom the collection is dedicated; there are poems about the passing of love into another phase. There are poems about obsessive personal hygeine, poems about lust and desire; about our blind reliance on the media and its capacity to manipulate and distract us from the substance of our lives. Complexly, he can be both serious and laugh-out-loud funny, often within the same stanza:
At the cemetery the gravestones
are hilarious. This woman died
aged one hundred and two.
We sit on her tomb for an hour.
You kiss me. I kiss you.
(‘At the Cemetery’)
Perhaps it is idle to draw comparisons with the work of other poets, but I did find his book shares a simpatico with the work of certain members of the New York School. I am thinking of the ad hoc surrealism, the freewheeling appropriation of both high and low cultural references. And, as is found in the best examples of these poets’ work, what belies their casualness in tone is an impressive formal ability. Like John Ashbery or Kenneth Koch, Upperton excels at subverting popular verse forms such as the sonnet and villanelle:
A ceaseless clamour in the brain.
It’s all over the news that Putin lied:
Russian troops are in the Ukraine.
I’ve got a headache. Still no rain.
‘Hey! Schapelle Corby attempts suicide.’
The screen-door sings its old refrain.
(‘“Hey! Schapelle Corby attempts suicide.”’)
Notice the well-placed and paced alliteration, the quiet and subtle hydraulic effect of the assonance, the gentle end rhymes. Where a lesser poet would create a bombastic and jarring noise, he creates a vivid and variable music. The taut lines are at once accessible and mysterious. They are pleasing to the eye and ear, while at the same time engaging the reader’s emotional intelligence.
In reading The Night We Ate the Baby, I found it refreshing to be reminded of a poem’s capacity to surprise, and the need for a poet to avoid the easy lure of a prefabricated conclusion, to stay near the mystery. Because, for all their adroit conceits, these poems are self-effacing and utterly human. They stay open to the world they are made from and, importantly, they stand accountable to, and endure, the difficult yet unavoidable issues of our contemporary life. These are poems of a bizarre yet courageous and highly lovable integrity.
Since publishing his first trade collection The Ambiguous Companion in 1996, Tom Weston had been releasing a new collection at a consistent interval of every four years. His latest, Only One Question, breaks that pattern. It is published seven years after the last and it would be an understatement to say a lot has happened in the intervening years.
A long-time resident of Christchurch (where he works as a QC and litigator), the last sentence of Weston’s bio note reads, ‘These poems came into existence pre-quake but have been shaped and moulded post-earthquake.’ There are references to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which close to 70,000 people died, but there were no poems about the 2010 and 2011 quakes in Canterbury. This latter omission was the only concern I had while reading the collection, though in fact this minor misgiving was allayed by the brilliance of the poems that make up the two parts of the collection. Weston’s latest abounds with ideas, forms and distillated arcane poetic intelligence.
If Allen Curnow was the stony and austere godhead of New Zealand literary modernism, then Tom Weston (along with his close contemporary David Howard) are tending to the altar, counting the mala beads, and ensuring the continuation of the elder’s example. It is something of a study, to observe how Weston is able to sustain the seriousness of the task – the poem-as-act-of-sacred-communion – without ever breaking down into didactic sermonising or self-conciousness parody.
Here are two stanzas from two different poems that I think best exemplify this:
To be quit of this, what remains, the little hopes.
And what remains is my own estimation, the calculation
by which I assert some entitlement to forever
(‘Low Expectations of Evening Devotions’)
You knew you might forget everything
while you slept, history sneaking up from behind
and emptying your mind of wonder
Weston has developed a facility for the psychic and metaphysical shock of the actual. At his best, like Curnow, this is an active force within the poems – not merely a representation of, or a gesturing towards. The reader becomes a participant in the construct. He is able to move across time as freely as he does across continents. But his treatment of the historic never lapses into mere reportage, and he is capable of sustaining the narrative sweep of epic drama. In a spectacular example from the second section of the book, Peggy Cowley recounts her trysts with Hart Crane and his last moments on the steamship Orizaba brfore leaping into the Gulf of Mexico:
Until he rose again and vaulted over
the railing into the sea. He emerged swimming strongly.
We never saw him again, even though, in my dreams
a thousand times, I have risen and gone to him,
laying my glass pieces down on the deck, begging him
to pick another course. Compass, quadrant and sextant
his marvellous tools, setting the wrong direction.
While Tim Upperton’s poems have a direct and immediate accessibility, Tom Weston’s have a different but equally powerful and profound impact. We are aware of and experience their power, but at times it seems as if the poet is concealing something; that there is some vital component – or key – necessary to unlock the poem’s full comprehension, missing. Or maybe not. Perhaps it is this quality that will ensure they are returned to and read again; the enduring enigma.
The strong poems in the book – and there are many here that are strong – balance a sense of the high-minded address with a conversational tone. He has removed the barrier between his interior and exterior worlds; he has found his own language that is at once public and private. Weston’s technical prowess is also to be praised. There are no off-notes in his cadenced phrasing, and his images feel as if they have no expiry date. I will conclude with the following lines, in which I hear echoes of both Heaney and Yeats’ idea of the poets responsibilty to their vocation:
I am building a great tower;
the wood in which all good things have gone.
(‘The Old Dog’)
MICHAEL STEVEN is an Auckland poet. His poems have appeared around the world in various journals around the world. He has published three chapbooks, most recently Daybook Fragments, published by Kilmog Press.