No Rising of the Sheep by Bill Bradford, illustrated by Thomas Lauterbach (Mary Egan Publishing, 2022), 80pp, $30; Selected Poems by Andrew Johnston (Te Herenga Waka Press, 2023), 206pp, $40; The Tip Shop by James Brown (Te Herenga Waka Press, 2022), 78pp, $25
There’s a long literary tradition linking shepherds and poets: Theocritus, Virgil, Spenser, Milton. But this tradition doesn’t have much to do with sheep as such. The flocks, the herding, the pastoral landscape are simply high culture tropes, allowing the poet to write about other things: love, society, arcadian spaces, sex, poetry, loss, religion. The poems, wonderful in their way (Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ remains a ball-park knock-out), are self-consciously artificial and stylised. You won’t find sheep shit in Virgil nor foot-rot in Milton. Even recent agrarian poets such as Ted Hughes tend to have only an occasional piece that gives much idea of what the ordinary shepherd’s lot is (or was) actually like—Australian poet Philip Hodgins is perhaps an exception, but he grew up on a farm.
Bill Bradford as a young man worked as a shepherd on sheep stations and farms in New Zealand and then in the UK and Spain, and the opening two-thirds of his debut collection, No Rising of the Sheep, offers a first-hand account of that rustic way of life. It’s a tough, physical, isolated existence of early starts, gruelling days and sometimes liquored nights, but one with particular compensations and rewards, such as contact with the land, following a seasonal structure, independence, self-reliance, the companionship of animals. We learn a good deal about the different horses and dogs Bradford worked with and the affectionate admiration he felt for them:
There’s Storm and Breeze and Tuke
black and tan with white
Blue and Bo and Bet
the ring-tailed one called Duke
each different dog a mate
I can recall them all
We also learn, of course, about sheep. Contrary to received opinion, they are far from stupid. In a few poems, Bradford tries to imagine the world from an ovine point of view: ‘I can recognise different humans and tell the mood they are in by looking in their face’; and, ‘We four are close, been in this flock / all our lives / all our mothers went missing / last year’. In one touching prose poem, ‘An old trick’, we learn how a ewe whose own lamb has died can be persuaded to foster another lamb that has been rejected by its mother.
The extracts above are characteristic of Bradford’s no-frills approach to poetry, complemented by Thomas Lauterbach’s fine pencil sketches. Individual stanzas at times read like jotted diary entries; several poems carry an appended italicised haiku, suggesting to my eye a lamb’s tail. Overall, this pared-back approach creates a rather flat tone. But in poems towards the end of the collection, which clearly draw on Bradford’s long and committed involvement in the union movement, the poet angrily tackles abuses against ordinary workers. ‘HR Business Partners’, with its parodic list of obfuscatory corporate euphemisms and clichés, stands out particularly strongly.
To close No Rising of the Sheep and open Andrew Johnston’s Selected Poems is to pass through a poetic wardrobe and find yourself in a wordscape that is only distantly related to the one you just left. Here, linguistic reach and imaginative preoccupations, the verbal music, the expectations of the reader, the platonic notion of what a poem might be, the approach, the technique all seem radically different. For Bradford, a poem is an arrangement of words designed to evoke a certain scene, or event or feeling, and presented as immediately as possible. There are many memorable poems, ancient and modern, which operate on exactly this basis. However, from his first collection, How to Talk (1993), Johnston has worked from quite another set of premises.
His poems don’t so much describe or evoke experiences, but present themselves as actual experiences, conveyed through the paradoxes inherent in language. Here, the literal is not quite what it seems. In the title poem of How to Talk, ‘I’ and ‘she’ are on a Ferris wheel that is turning. Near the top of yet another circuit, she says ‘How high it is, up here’. Soon afterwards, the poem breaks off with: ‘I could see my name / on the tip of my tongue.’ The early works in Selected Poems tend to behave like this: an apparently real situation will abruptly veer off and yet indirectly seem to complete the previous idea/scenario, or at least add a new dimension to it. So, for the ‘falling’ lovers in ‘Time Slides’, we are told that ‘A net of lies will catch them // and softly / let them through’—which leaves the reader both holding and failing to hold a shimmer of elegantly conflicting possibilities. Such poems are alert, witty, self-conscious, elusive, not unlike Bill Manhire’s, and, certainly like Manhire’s, they carry a strong melancholy undertow.
Those early poems are frequently in ten-line, unrhymed couplets, and that continues to be Johnston’s default form. But, as a number of excellent poems in his second and third collections, The Sounds (1996) and Birds of Europe (2000), remind us, Johnston is also our premier exponent of the sestina, a form few have successfully pulled off in English. [Just to remind you, the sestina is made up of six six-line stanzas plus a three-line envoi, the end word of each line is repeated in a shifting pattern in succeeding stanzas.] Johnston’s experiments with the form culminated in ‘The Sunflower’ (Sol, 2007), a double sestina elegy for his father: twelve twelve-line stanzas with a six-line envoi. He borrowed the end words—breath, her, way, death, sunflower, sun, day, bed, thee, dead, done, me—from a double sestina by John Ashbery, who had, in turn, borrowed them from Swinburne.
Paula Green has written warmly and perceptively of ‘The Sunflower’, calling it ‘the very voice of grief; some words fracture at the end of the line and are then carried over as if the poet is stuttering in an effort to recall, to make sense of, to eulogise (“in his the- / ology” and “had burned a dead- / ly thirst”).’ Just so. ‘The Sunflower’ seems to me one of the two greatest New Zealand poems of the last thirty years, the other being Margaret Mahy’s comic epic ‘Bubble Trouble’.
Johnston’s fifth and most recent collection, Fits & Starts, which won the poetry section of the 2017 Ockham Awards, is amply represented here. It’s a group of poems that repays multiple readings. The material is richly layered, full of reverberations, and draws on an eclectic range of sources. These include the radio alphabet, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the King James Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy and ancestry.com. The ideal reader is probably someone as erudite, as historically, philosophically and politically knowledgeable as Johnston. However, even on an initial encounter, there is plenty for any reader to enjoy, not least the subtle music and witty surprise of lines like these from the section called ‘Echo in Limbo’: ‘The spirit of the law was all she had. / If she could only love her echo better’; ‘She fell in love with the river. The river / was falling in love with the sea’; ‘If she could rock her baby self to sleep. / If they would let her cross the border then.’ The figures in these poems, mythological, Biblical and contemporary, are constantly on the move, under threat, vulnerable to human agency and time.
James Brown’s eighth collection, The Tip Shop, likewise rewards reading and re-reading. The teasing, punning title sets the reader up for what’s to follow: we might expect that the poems will metaphorically resemble the shop at the tip, with its heap of heterogeneous items. These are items you sort through, hoping for a bargain or at least a find. And the book’s title also entertains the possibility that the poems are perpetually hovering on the point of tipping over into something else—as Andrew Johnston’s frequently do—transforming into something mysterious perhaps, grand even, or lyrical or whatever. And is there also the possibility that the poems could offer tips about life, the universe and everything? No—a James Brown poem would never presume to offer the reader advice about anything except perhaps to beware of certainties (and poetry itself).
The poetical items, topics and considerations on offer in this collection include the chair Christine Keeler draped herself round for that iconic 1960s photo; an office water cooler about which contemporary clichés are spouted; a God who prefers Test cricket because after five days the match can end in a draw; rescues that go wrong; football boots that fall apart; and being sacked from a job in a supermarket. Then there’s the way sea-swimming might make your body feel ‘afloat in salt / as if cured’, while green apples have ‘a sharp fresh taste sweeter / than you’d expected’, and much more. The variety of poems that arise from Brown’s subjects take all kinds of unpredictable shapes and forms: anecdote, narrative, found poem, list poem, prose poem, rhyming couplet, and (a James Brown speciality) the almost-lyric.
A constant motif is Brown’s awareness of how everyday moments, objects, events and reactions often embody deeper feelings and concerns (usually dismaying ones), such as frustration, boredom, a sense of failure, anomie. There’s something Beckettian about this: the reader is always waiting for the possibility of something momentous to happen or be said, only to find that the delay itself is the actual subject. And, like Samuel Beckett, Brown is often both hilarious and poignant in the same moment: ‘Their feelings are like a mosquito sliding / its proboscis into a freckle’; ‘Don’t talk to me about love and its / crazy raison d’être because love is always, in / some baffling way, French’; and especially, ‘baths are actually small boats / taking on water’.
The non-event prose poem ‘The Waiting Room’ is, again, characteristic. The speaker remembers a crowded, noisy party long ago and how finding a deserted room, he sits down. John, an actor, comes in and asks what the speaker is doing; ‘Waiting’ is the reply. John, too, sits down. Others come in and ask what the two are doing: ‘Waiting,’ says John. And so it goes on until John eventually leaves, wishing the speaker ‘“Good luck with everything”’. Now, thirty years later, John is on TV playing ‘middle-aged men who drink and smoke too much’. The comedy is in the deadpan delivery, the existential lurch in the gaps in between, which suggests that—like an unexpected find amongst the tip shop jumble—these poems might just conceivably be offering the odd bit of life advice, after all. Advice such as to do more than simply endure our lives, we need to grasp, even give two cheers to, the sadness-tinged hilarity of it all, and still go on caring. The Tip Shop is compelling, accomplished and grown-up; why it wasn’t even longlisted for this year’s Ockham Awards mystifies me.
HARRY RICKETTS is a poet, biographer, editor, anthologist, critic, literary scholar and cricket writer. His Selected Poems was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press in 2021.