A Riderless Horse by Tim Upperton (Auckland University Press, 2022), 68pp, $24.99; Naming the Beasts by Elizabeth Morton (Otago University Press, 2022), 80pp, $25; Surrender by Michaela Keeble (Taraheke | BushLawyer, 2022), 130pp, $30
My only complaint about Tim Upperton’s work is that there is not enough of it. A Riderless Horse comes a full eight years after his last book, The Night We Ate the Baby, and, like that book and his first (A House on Fire in 2009), it has barely fifty pages of poems in it. But Upperton builds books like racing cars, without an unnecessary gram. In only thirty-two poems, we get full servings of hard-won wisdom and music and rue and pathos. In a recent interview, Upperton characterised A Riderless Horse as ‘a kinder, more reflective book’. Some of the strongest poems in the book seem to be evidence that this is true.
‘School caretaker’ is simply wonderful. It uses a villanelle’s rhyme scheme (uh-oh) without shackling itself to the villanelle’s demands for the use of refrains (hooray!). It is a ‘children’s poem’ and it, therefore, tells the story of a school caretaker getting a birthday cake:
And the cake has green icing, and for my sake a
tiny lawnmower, and a tiny seated figurine
a bit like me, with its tiny cap, its red windbreaker.
They know I care. I’m the school caretaker.
Nice. But it also tells of the toil and entropy of low-paid work, and Upperton’s bravura rhyming (wakers / make is / mistake is / troublemakers / acres / jokers / rake is / bakers, and so on) enacts the ludic creativity that the caretaker’s career doesn’t seem to allow for. This makes the birthday cake, to the reader, bittersweet. ‘Sizewell A and B’ is about an old photograph taken on the beach at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, near the Sizewell nuclear power stations. The power stations have been left outside the frame because ‘They were not what I wanted— / I wanted the nineteenth century, / the irrecoverable past’. Also missing from the picture is the poem’s addressee—so the picture is just a beach and boats, with both the human and the unaesthetic elements removed. Upperton writes over this history to include ‘you, / your face flushed with effort’, and also ‘all I’d ever turned my back on’, including ‘me, forgetful me, / improbably in the picture too’. The book’s closing poem, ‘Homecoming’, promises a fanciful but beautiful intergenerational hospitality to any friend of the speaker:
My family left the village long ago.
They are all dead now,
they died in wars no one
speaks of anymore,
but still the people there
‘It’s you!’ they will say
when we get there.
‘We knew you would come.
But it’s not all kindness and reflection. ‘Three men in a lift’ is the hilarious, dark, and unlikely story of three men at a conference who all have fathers who are murderers. (Disclosure: I published this poem in takahē.) The murders of the fathers get more callous and psychotic in turn as the men disclose them. ‘You wonder sometimes, / if you’ve got it, the killer gene’, the speaker confesses. And the payoff, after the sharing of experiences and sorrow, is an unexpected hardening of attitudes as the lift doors open in the lobby on the ground floor:
… Yeah, I said
loudly, to the pack of waiting men,
like your dads never killed anybody,
and I ducked my head and I pushed,
I pushed my way through.
Similarly, the slightly menacing title poem, ‘The riderless horses’, recounts a scene of comical horror as a family is trapped inside their house by, first, one horse, and then innumerable horses. While the equine siege takes place, the speaker whispers ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ to a bag of pigs’ ears sold as dog treats, ‘but it’s heard it all before’. And that’s it—we’re left with radical uncertainty about what really happened, how it resolved, and what it might have meant. Upperton is equally comfortable tying up bows or leaving loose ends, and equally good at both.
Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beasts is also a third book. It is her richest book so far, lexically, and its often-sumptuous wordscapes give the poems a unique texture. It’s not exactly Adam naming the animals, but there is a strong sense here of a poet assembling words in never-before-seen combinations as the only possible way to define the world she observes. Morton is not just thinking in language, she is thinking through language, and we are watching the process. This is poetry as a kind of fMRI scan, an in-flux map of neural activity.
Morton likes to lay down sentences like thin strips of wallpaper, so ideas are juxtaposed but not explicitly linked. Sometimes this creates atmosphere by collage, as in ‘Fire’:
Gorse lights a million candles along the nape of a hill.
Yesterday, a fire alarm mistook smoke for steam.
Today they smelled gas in the playground but found it to be sewage.
And here, the beige livery of a garden left all summer.
And here, rat bait tucked into the elbows of a workshop frame.
Sometimes bits of the Kiwi quotidian are refracted through language to appear unrecognisable, as if written into Martian poetry, as in ‘Mower’:
The dumb patience of grasses, gossip of eucalyptus purple-backed
and chittering. Ancient washcloth of oil and blood and the lullaby
of primer, carburettor, my father’s lungs that clench and unclench.
An ox heart is a jackfruit quenched with heat and horror. My father
peels back honeysuckle from the soft brains of hydrangea.
He coaxes asparagus weed from the mouths of burrows,
while his wireless spits words without a catcher—scratched choir
of men who hold morals like munition.
The title poem, ‘Naming the beasts’, has a different way of mystifying us. It tells the story of two cows, named Romulus and Remus, who are ‘butchered’ the same day ‘the planes went down’, which was a Tuesday in southern hemisphere winter. Yes, it’s a 9/11 poem, but it is also an ekphrasis based on a picture of two cows and an airliner passing overhead; it was published that way online in Rattle, however its ekphrastic origin as a poem inspired by an image by the photographer B.A. Van Sise isn’t mentioned in the book. This gives it a retrieved-from-the-memory-banks quality it probably wouldn’t have if it was identified as art about art.
Sometimes Morton’s paratactic surrealism resists neat explanation. The ending of ‘Poem in which we sleep at the wheel’, which is a series of little pensées about what night is or does, goes like this:
… Night chases us into the corners
where I hold my hands up like guns. Where the guns turn into owls.
Where I hold up two things that burn into my fingerprints
like time might have done
anyhow, if I’d given it long enough.
And sometimes, especially when deep history and natural imagery are admixed, we get a lush poem that explains that there is no explanation. ‘We go down together’ is a poem that shows Morton at her best:
We have no names for our ancestors—
not for the one wading through a swarf of wheat,
the sun sticking to the drystone walls,
not for those ones idling in the alleyways,
or passing the windfall of a summer plum.
We have no words for the one with the machete,
sat fever-trembling in the Sumerian paradise
with carnelian pears and cattle shit and willpower
that looks back twice before walking into the lake.
This offers a genealogy based on ancestral uncertainty, where language creates the knowledge we can’t find through other means.
Also concerned with the long arc of history, Michaela Keeble’s debut, Surrender, is anxious to create action in the world we have to live in today. I’ll say it at the start, so there’s no mistake: this is an important book, a different book. Keeble is an Australian: a Pākehā writer who lives and works in Aotearoa, and hers is poetry that ‘goes beyond whiteness as confession’. Even in 2023, it’s uncommon for white writers in settler-colonial states to write about whiteness, and when they do the writing is often sodden in unproductive guilt: performative, self-centring, dead-end. It doesn’t work very well, so (perhaps not unexpectedly) most white writers avoid the subject altogether. This results in a literary landscape where writers of colour tackle race in their work and writers who should be allies are shuffling their feet on the sidelines. I think this is a dynamic that everyone is familiar with, even if it’s not often discussed.
Keeble’s work drives a coach and horses through this dynamic. For a start, she identifies the problems she wants to discuss as the products of both systems and individuals in the book’s untitled preamble: ‘our ancestors, colonisers … brought scrub rollers and barbed wire fences. we brought drafting and drenching. we brought deep illogic, survey pegs, and a method for ringbarking. we had no grain to speak of. of course we brought other things, grapevine cuttings and synchronised swimming … we rope each other, jostling for transformation.’ So, yes, there’s extractive capitalism on stolen land, but there are also the people who practise it. There is unalterable history, but there is also the choice-crammed present. There is work to be done.
Maybe some of it can be done through poetry. In ‘#nounwork’, describing a process of generation by negation, Keeble writes:
But Keeble is well aware of the long history of writers convincing themselves that writing is enough, that writing is action. But is it really? In ‘revision is a kind of faith’ she articulates a worry that so many writer-activists have in their minds:
i don’t mean to turn good ideas
bad, to dislocate
And it doesn’t get easier when one decides to go for practical application. In ‘tent embassy’, she recalls with disappointment her younger self’s participation in an action in support of Aboriginal sovereignty ahead of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when ‘[i] hardly spoke / with other activists // did not speak / with true landowners’. But Keeble has grown. She knows that being an activist involves humility, listening, acknowledging the (often intergenerational) mahi and achievements of others. The hands-on work of Waiariki Grace in monitoring ancestral whenua during the construction of the Kāpiti Expressway is the subject of the long poem ‘expressway’, which is strategically positioned in the middle of the book. The artistic work of Evelyn Araluen, Bruce Pascoe, Elia Suleiman, Anahera Gildea, Patricia Grace, Apirana Taylor, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Joy Harjo, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alison Whittaker, Wisława Szymborska, and (interestingly) Kurt Vonnegut is cited and respected in poems, not just in notes. (A similar outpouring of love and gratitude is found in essa may ranapiri’s Echidna; 2022 was a good year for literary cross-pollination.)
Keeble’s poem ‘literary fiction’ describes the damage that colonisation has done to Indigenous cultures, and hints at how something fresh can be built:
the stories i love
come from libraries
obliterated by people like me
without training in poetry
or intellectual property
Keeble is a precise and marvellously lapidary writer who is working to create new ‘intellectual property’ in a way that embodies Te Tiriti o Waitangi. (As, incidentally, is her publisher, Taraheke | BushLawyer, a collective of indigenous women writers and allies.) This is an artistic praxis that shouldn’t be rare, but is.
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of, most recently, Another Beautiful Day Indoors (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), and he co-edited No Other Place to Stand (Auckland University Press, 2022), an anthology of climate change poetry from Aotearoa and the Pacific. He lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch.