Wonky Optics, by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, 2015), 94 pp., $25.00; A Little Book of Sonnets, by Julie Leibrich (Steele Roberts, 2013), 64 pp., $19.99; Driving With Neruda to the Fish’n’Chips, by Leonel Alvarado (HauNui Press, 2014), 88 pp., $20
Wonky Optics tells you in two words that you are going to get vision plus eccentricity – a marginal view, oddly constructed but not out of focus. The title gives no further clue to content or the singular form of the book. It could be a chapbook of sudden insights, quotations and quirky playing with language. Is it poetry? It makes no claim to be, but generally is so. It is also prose in part.
An underlying approach holds it together. Cochrane’s allusion to Kierkegaard is clue to this: ‘An irony directed at the whole of existence produces, according to Kierkegaard, estrangement and poetry’ (‘Cutting up the Don: Barthelme reconsidered’). Irony is Cochrane’s here-and-now ‘negative capability’ that keeps his show on the road in an environment of randomness, of meaning yet inconsequence, of irremediable loss and zen-like humour. Despite his claim that ‘The disenchanted poet … tries to find words in which / to say next to nothing’, in this collection things of wit, substance and pathos do get said.
Cochrane’s historicism is of a post-everything in which many juxtapositions of time are possible. Romanticism, the many ‘isms’ of modernity, have gone, yet are there to be re-invoked when necessary. We are at an end, and therefore, a beginning. ‘Is this the toxic dusk at the end of Literature? Are our centuries of effort at an end?’ asks one of the personae in ‘Telephonitis’. The answer given by the text finally has to be no, otherwise the effort of continuing to write would not be made. Cochrane continues in the faith and turns to some expressive account the fragments of history that T.S. Eliot ‘shored against’ his ruins at the end of The Waste Land. He is not buried under them but remains able to spring out from the cracks in the broken masonry and speak, sometimes with tongue in cheek: ‘Better one good schoolmaster than twenty poets’, he notes in ‘Coffee and a crossword’, and remains capable of a lyricism that combines natural imagery and technics. ‘Autumn’, for instance, combines Keats and photo-voltaics:
The lightest shade of green.
The darkest shade of yellow.
And soon, one by one,
these leaves will start to disconnect themselves
from their photosynthetic circuits.
Cochrane’s style, prose and poetry, is straightforward, breaking sometimes into ‘language poetry’ or surrealist modes:
Amens bedeck Cathay’s delicious eggs …
Unvarnished violins withhold
xeroxed yellow zephyrs.
These sallies have mixed success. ‘Troy’, for instance, does not, for me, induce insight:
Spilling from Achilles’ tidy navel,
a trickle of injured crotchets
a tinkle of broken spiders
a tickle of tiny maimed swastikas
The bone-headed warrior of The Iliad may indeed have damaged music (or the hooked processes of insects), destroyed arachnids and foreshadowed the shock troops of the Third Reich – all this might be read from these lines – but the imagery points in no particular direction and ‘Troy’ remains an anti-heroic enigma. Perhaps the poet intended this, but does it work?
Cochrane concludes with an interesting ‘Bibliography’ – a set of quotations from an odd, dare one say, wonky, collection of writers. Larkin, Borges, A.E. Housmann, Joyce and Dr Johnson are all there. I enjoy his eclectic readings and I see him as I suspect he sometimes sees himself: an antipodean Gully Jimson character, living on the edge at latitude 41 South. We know he was drawn to Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth. He has told us so in his poem ‘The teachings of Father Smith’.
The early attraction to Cary’s novel might have been auspicious – the sign of a mind that can remain open, rather than being closed down by overdoses of critical theory and passing fashions of intellect. This accounts for part of the success of Wonky Optics. The other part is in its author’s ability to make sharp and varied observations of life and its arts.
Attractively-bound, A Little Book of Sonnets combines three arts: photography, poetry and prose. The main focus is on twelve sonnets – one for each month of the year. Each is prefaced by a short piece of prose that discusses the occasion of the sonnet, and is often connected to it in theme and imagery. A further division of the twelve into four groups of three represents the seasons. Julie Leibrich is also the book’s photographer and has a clear eye for composition with the camera.
The sonnets have the intimacy of being intended for friends, but she has also risked putting them before that incalculable creature, the public. There were misgivings: ‘I couldn’t begin’, she says in the January prose, ‘for fear that using a strict form might spoil something essential about the way I write.’
In a period dominated by vers libre that is a real question, and an old argument, carried on over hundreds of years in English-language poetics. Do rhyme and regular metre put the muse in a straitjacket? Does verse that is more free result in vacuity, slop, or just mediocre, segmented prose? Leibrich goes in at the deep end with the Shakespearian stanza and rhyming scheme, hoping for sufficient suppleness of thought, feeling and vocabulary to enable the poetry to survive the rigours of the form. It is a paradox that the more restriction or resistance offered by the external form, the more it may strengthen the essential poetic impulse. In this case the gamble has paid off. There are infelicities, odd forcings of the line or rhythm, but these are not disfiguring. She keeps a general flexibility, both of metre and argument, going in a way characteristic of the sonnet in English. This happens without undue artifice or archaism of vocabulary.
The prose links have a precedent in Dante’s La Vita Nuova (1292), but the subject matter does not strain towards the transcendental. It remains resolutely on the plane of everyday life, allowing depth, intensity and meanings to arrive without being forced into the lines. There is not a hint of the rage or irony that has underpinned modernity. These sonnets are far from being ‘fleurs du mal’. They are garden flowers, unadorned. Their quiet success is due to the strength of the experience lived in them and the poet’s expressing this in clear language:
One year I went without a secret garden.
Just a cactus in a rented room.
Needed to prune. Time for cuts to harden.
Then lilacs, lilies, called me out to bloom.
D’Arcy Cresswell, Curnow, R.A.K. Mason, Baxter and Stead are among those who have helped keep the sonnet relevant here. It’s a difficult ask to take one of Europe’s most traditional poetic forms and work into it the experience of the South Pacific 500 years after Spenser, 600 after Petrarch. Leibrich’s direct, sincere speaking has had modest but credible results. We do not feel we are being asked to admire politely facsimiles of an old form. The old form in this case is still very much alive.
Pablo Neruda is much more than a name in Driving With Neruda to the Fish’n’Chips. He is a sustained tone in the general style of Leonel Alvarado’s writing. The title poem is the longest. It imports Neruda into the Manawatu as a posthumous, yet still earthly and earthy being. The epic poet of The Heights of Macchu Picchu is present, along with the gourmand who loves soups and has a sharp sense for the qualities of a tomato or salt – the Neruda who gave us Odas Elementales. Alvarado has translated this persona into New Zealand. His native Spanish equips him to do this. So too does his command of clear English.
Why should Neruda be important to us? Because he is a commanding voice of the world’s South? His poetic is of our hemisphere, and he comes from a country closely related to us in its flora, its topography and its oceanic vastness of outlook. He is also vernacular and funny in ways that key in to the informal comic qualities of our own populations.
For many decades we have followed the poetics of the Anglophone world – from Housmann and Yeats to Pound, Olson, Williams, Creeley, Ashbery, Bernstein. We’ve nodded in the direction of France by way of Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire and Derridean linguistics; we’ve inclined a little, with the North Americans, towards Chinese and Japanese – their Taoist and Zen poetics – but we have not really as poets swum in the broad tide of Hispanic Latin America. In a modest way this book shows us someone swimming, in English, in the New Zealand milieu and in that tide.
Alvarado does not pretend to be Neruda. He inherits him easily by culture and language, but remains himself, writing of a daily, often domestic life in provincial New Zealand. Here he achieves another success. He has a relaxed sense of the local and the indigenous and readily takes up Māori words and concepts, Pākehā idioms and quirkiness, and incorporates them in his writing without sounding in the least forced. He has sensed the ancient and modern community of the Pacific, beginning with the proto-Polynesian Lapita people criss-crossing the ocean and touching on the coast of South America. He has combined that awareness, present in his poems, with the argot and feelings of Aotearoa New Zealand, itself an increasingly multi-cultural society.
This has happened quietly. He only once states the inter-connections directly:
to the kauri of Aotearoa
and the Patagonian pehuen.
His marama comes
from the same
Such subject matter informs his style, but remains subliminal in poems on many other matters: poems that protest about the inhumanity of war in Syria; poems that speak wryly of global economics or the issues of suburban life; poems that can be erotic and witty, as is ‘The advantages of moving the TV to the bedroom’.
In ‘What stones know’, he enters the New Zealand landscape by way of an ancient debate about the consciousness in the inanimate world, before human nouns existed: ‘the stone / remembers a time before the name’.
This leads in ‘Tautology’ to a second ancient debate – the question of the boundary between names and things named. Plato’s Cratylus is invoked: ‘The rose, says Cratylus, / is in the word rose’.
Does the name make the thing, or the thing, its name? The question has remained central through Postmodernity, as has its twin – is poetry a language of words or of things? It has been enough for him in this book to leave a group of interesting poems using accomplished English, a language we assume is not his mother tongue.
DENYS TRUSSELL is an Auckland poet, biographer and classical musician. His most recent book is Taheke: An account of the Hokianga in the life of New Zealand painter Annette Isbey, published in 2015 by Brick Row.
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