Citizen of Santiago, by Gregory O’Brien with photographs by Bruce Foster, (Trapeze, Wellington, 2013), 40 pp., $20; Ruby Duby Du, by Elizabeth Smither, (Cold Hub Press, Lyttelton 2014), 40 pp., $19.50; The Speak House, by David Howard, (Cold Hub Press, Lyttelton 2014), 44 pp., $19.50.
Another country. It’s our nearest mainland neighbour to the east. Chile. One with which we share marked geographical and botanical affinities. It is now regaining a civil society, the wounds of the Pinochet regime slowly healing. Two New Zealanders are in Santiago with an exhibition from Te Papa about the ecology of the Kermadec Islands. One, the photographer Bruce Foster, is drawing a bead on the visible Chile, but reaching well below the surface of the image. The other, poet-curator Gregory O’Brien, is writing the social text.
The photos tend to dominate with their sharp focus and at times surreal edginess. An opening two-page spread of a hat-shop window, its bizarre mannequins and rakish hats, is almost film noir and slightly menacing. On pages 30–31 is another spread – a spectacular slice of societal life. The main figure is a beautiful policewoman standing rigorously and slightly left-of-centre, fists clenched, dressed in body armour and helmet. Around her are moving, un-menacing civilians. The right foreground is dominated by a man carrying a large rectangular parcel over his shoulder and looking suspiciously at the camera. It’s a public square, framed leftwards by what looks like a presidential palace. The instant is choreographically perfect. The plurality of society and the stress of the policewoman reveal feelings hard to put into words about a lasting tension between authority and community.
The longest of Greg O’Brien’s poems is also, I think, the most successful. A hat-seller running a successful ‘sombrereria’ is voiced delivering a commentary on the ubiquity, the transformative powers of hats. The poet has constructed this monologue as a kind of ode, echoing the Odas Elementales of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904–1973). O’Brien’s ode, ‘Sombrereria’, comes into full focus with lines that humanise the almost magical powers of the hat:
The hat is
a commentary on all that is wrong
with the world. It knows
the true shape of
the head beneath it …
Each evening my hats extend towards
the edges of the city, like taxis or library fines.
Or they reach skywards
above the Santiago underground …
The poet too has picked up on the crimes of the Pinochet years, still recent, and symbolised in the use of the sail-training ship Esmeralda as a prison during the coup. The need for expiation is in the air:
one, may the great tongue
of the Pacific forever
mispronounce your name.
Strolling down this bitter avenue
of lemons and pisco
and fighter planes, O
bony mistress of the dictatorship
the nation’s poor will inherit
your scattered body, your
divided family …
The book is very much a duo, poems and photos interacting, at times directly, at times obliquely. It’s an interesting concertante performance and gives insights from the outside into a society, vital, troubled and still reconstructing itself.
Ruby Duby Du by Elizabeth Smither is a rapturous response to new life arriving. It has a sacred dimension to it. Such sacrality may be felt equally by people with or without formal religious affiliation. Here the language works initially within a religious convention. A grandmother, contemplating a newly arrived grand-daughter, writes of the moon looking
… in vain for a missing angel
smallest of the hierarchy and most pure.
The wings look vaguely military
as if angels wings are epaulettes
earned in another galaxy. The sheet
makes a frosty field. An angel
sinks into the snow and proves
a baby sleeping is a sleeping angel.
The poet traces her grandchild’s life, beginning with a kind of annunciation titled ‘Announcement of a Pregnancy’.
Whether the religious parallelism is here to state a particular vision of childhood epitomised in the arrival of Christ, or whether it signals a more secular but equally intense variant of this I cannot say. Nor does it matter, provided the ecstasy of the poem succeeds in the terms set by poetic language. This happens, but not always. Sometimes folly threatens in phrases reading too hungrily of a consuming affection. I think the poet pushes her luck, for instance, in writing of the ‘sweet muscles’ of her grandchild.
There probably should be no limits to grandmotherly love, but once framed in poetry the demands of an aesthetic discipline cut in whether we want them to or not.
It is refreshing that a girl is being welcomed here, given the dismal traditions of misogyny and male primogeniture that are still destructive realities in countries under cultural and population pressures that favour boys. Smither neatly characterises juvenile male limitations. ‘How quickly’, she says, ‘they learn the world is mechanics.’
Now I need a girl to show that underpinning
all that is invented and made to move
comes the purpose of love, the glue
that ties inventions to the world.
I too am glad at Ruby arriving to help redress the dangerous imbalance that has turned us into fetishists of a technosphere. If her grandmother has her way, Ruby will know the fullness of the world, both its human artefacts and its biospheric richness. She’s had an interesting start, figuring in all twenty-eight poems that make up the book. By the end she’s being encouraged to connect with the many phenomena of the actual, be they stars, plants or animals.
The poetic style is clear, largely untouched by the strenuous abstractions of Modernist and Post-Modernist theory. Regular verse forms are used – couplets, tercets, quatrains, all unrhyming. A simplicity constructs the lines, appropriate to the writing of a child’s world. There are occasional ‘word-knots’ like ‘polyphonic syncopation’, which does not work for me and probably would not in music either. But Smither has largely mastered the difficult problem of simplicity here and achieved what I suspect was one of her goals: an innocence in language.
The text is illustrated delicately with watercolours by Kathryn Madill. These are mono-chromatic and work like drawings. They are distributed irregularly thoughout the book.
The Speak House by David Howard takes us to Samoa in 1894. It concerns the last two hours in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson, then domiciled at Vailima and deeply involved in Samoan politics. It’s a chapbook and consists of a single poem accompanied by some of Stevenson’s own small woodcut images. Howard’s poem is longish – 285 lines in pentastichs – and is a guess at the contents of Stevenson’s mind after he has suffered what was perhaps a stroke. It is a risky exercise, but also a chance to lend voice and direct utterance to the incidents, the texture, the datum of Stevenson’s life. The dramatic monologue that results is well used by Howard in realising the potential of that form.
This literary life, finally lived in Samoa and freighted with imagery and detail, ends in doubt about the reality of language:
And words are shifty clouds, they replace what was
solid, they refuse to mean what we think yet leave us free.
As the light of meaning goes out an increasing numbness underpins this loss of faith in being a maker with words:
I don’t feel a thing, breathless
running after my shadow: that is what writing is.
Howard has composed not so much a stream of consciousness, but a final and enigmatic streaming of unconsciousness. In real life this would obviously not be in pentastichs, but the poetry here is deft and supple enough to keep the ‘stream’ running with no suggestion of artifice, or of intrusion by the verse form. The whole exercise rests on that proverbial passing of one’s life before one’s eyes when in a near-death state. Enough people have lived to tell of this experience for the poet to risk the assumption that it probably happened to Robert Louis Stevenson.
So we bear witness to a writer now limited absolutely to the word and its powers of capturing memory and imagery. It is the last thing that life has briefly left him. In the beginning was the word, and, it seems, also at the end. The ‘speak house’ might be a kind of marae of consciousness or temple of thought that is entirely internalised before death opens out into the unknown. The scriptural reference is made explicit by Howard’s use of Two Corinthians, 5:1, its words lodged in the dying Stevenson’s mind concerning ‘a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’.
In the ‘stream’ is also reference to much historical and social detail – the layerings, the tangled skeins of loyalties and conventions that made the fabric of life lived in a milieu at once colonial and indigenous. All this has meant that the poem has needed notes. They are provided and the book works as a co-ordinating of poetry and prose, to which I have not the slightest objection. It is also illustrated with a handful of Stevenson’s own minimalist woodcuts. These hint at the social interaction, the tension, the theatre of life in Samoa, at times violent, at times playful.
In all, a worthwhile exercise. Word, image, the syllogism of prose, the allusiveness of the poetry have combined, along with a fine print face and layout, to make this an accomplished publication.
DENYS TRUSSELL is a pianist, poet, biographer and environmentalist. His poetry, essays and criticism have been published in New Zealand, Australia, Britain, France and the US. His books include a biography of the poet A.R.D. Fairburn.