Tigers at Awhitu, Sarah Broom (Auckland University Press, 2010), 80 pp., $29.95 The Worm in the Tequila, Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, 2010), 95 pp., $25.00
Does lyric poetry spring from calm and contentment, or agitation and unease? Adverse circumstances and events can certainly provoke powerful creative responses; it is probably unsurprising then that the experience of physical or mental illness has resulted in many compelling literary works. Sarah Broom’s Tigers at Awhitu and Geoff Cochrane’s The Worm in the Tequila both emerge from such experiences, evoking and – eventually – moving beyond them in very different ways.
Sarah Broom is a relative newcomer to New Zealand poetry (Tigers at Awhitu is her first collection of poetry; a scholarly work, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, was published in the UK in 2005). Her book is divided into two untitled sections: the first part written before the author’s diagnosis of terminal cancer (which is now in remission), and dealing with a variety of lyrical and narrative subjects; the second written after the diagnosis. Many of the poems in the first section are cool and spare with vivid imagery and stand-alone lines used for blunt impact, while other somewhat denser poems establish a more prosaic pace. ‘Crusade’ is an especially powerful example of the first type, its opening question – ‘And I wondered what kind of a thing the soul was’ – leading, after six lines of rhetorical speculation, to the climax:
Or the death rattle
of a coin belt ripped
from the waist of a dying man.
There is an otherworldliness at work here, which often combines, even in her most ethereal poems, with a kind of earthiness. This earthiness is especially pronounced in the wordier poems, with such lines as: ‘the car motor gurgles and clicks like a nervous stomach’. Elsewhere, the lines ‘The beach is heaped and hilled with bleached branches/ as if whole forests have been rolled over the ocean /and dumped [. . .]’ effects a kind of gravitational pull.
Her occasional excursions into surrealism are similarly visceral:
[. . .] And then it started.
Daffodils sprouting between my toes.
Fantails nesting in my beard. Blossom
in my navel, daisies in my groin.
Baby rabbits sleeping in my dressing gown
pockets. . .
Unsurprisingly, there is a marked tonal change in the opening of the second section, starting with the blunt, almost frantic lines of ‘NO’:
SOMETHING WE CAN GET RID OF
TIME / GET RID OF / YOU / CAN / LIVE FOR
SOMETHING / BUT / TIME / A LOT / WE CAN / NOT
Another poem, ‘Three Exercises for Oncologists,’ offers a colder, more clinical approach, suggesting a struggle to establish a sense of detatchment as the poet’s polished and controlled imagery quickly rises to the fore. However, subterranean currents of raw emotion continue to swirl, and ‘Keep Moving’, a dream-like narrative that seems like an episode from a newly risen mythology, is especially haunting.
Illness is not quite so central to veteran Wellington poet Geoff Cochrane’s The Worm in the Tequila, yet its tendrils still permeate the work. Most overt are the frequent references to the poet’s recently diagnosed diabetes, which prompts, in the poem ‘Bitter Suite,’ a section titled ‘Txt to my sister’:
DEAR CLARE, AM
TO DEATH. PLEASE BURY ME SIMPLY
This kind of short, pithy form is typical of Cochrane’s style. His contents page abounds with references to brevity, fragmentation, or incompletenesses: ‘Song and Shapes: A Chapbook,’ ‘A Work in Progress,’ ‘Fragments #3 to #5,’ ‘Chinese Whispers’, and so on. The book also features prose sections, but these too are oriented more around the brief paragraph than the page. This is all very much in keeping with previous books like 2009’s Pocket Edition (which was literally pocket-sized), and contributes to the poet’s ongoing insistence that his work is minor, insubstantial, inextricably flawed. Such self-deprecation, mixed with moments of nihilistic bleakness, echoes throughout the book: ‘I should have been drowned at birth’ is a refrain taken up in two separate poems, while elsewhere the poet bluntly declares that ‘No one ever gave a rat’s arse / about my verse.’ Other poems unflinchingly evoke memories of alcoholism:
And I sat side-on
to my little olive desk
and drank and drank my plonk
a little at a time,
like a student of something large and long,
large and long and complacently abstruse.
And many nights fell
and many days dawned,
and I studied and studied.
Yet despite this kind of melancholic subject matter, Cochrane never comes across as self-pitying or melodramatic. His darkness is shot through with simply electrifying moments: ‘Anne,’ an oblique ode to Anne Carson, features the beautiful lines ‘Her husband swallows his ouzo and waits / for its slow hot snow inside him’; while the third, epigraph-like section of ‘Some Last Words’ states with wry elegance: ‘Come in. Sit down. Rage and Scorn will join us presently.’
Almost despite himself, Cochrane is one of the country’s most compelling lyric poets. By turns direct, funny and desolate, his work collectively forms the kind of unity and completeness he insists is beyond its grasp, fragments and notebook entries coalescing into brilliantly formed constellations. In a typically self-deprecating piece entitled ‘The poet interrogates himself’, he informs himself that ‘you’re not read in Sydney, let alone New York.’ While that may be true, the simple fact is: it shouldn’t be.
CY MATHEWS is a PhD student at the University of Otago, specialising in post-World War II American Poetry. His own poems have been published in Bravado, Critic and online at Blackmail Press.