House & Contents by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, 2022), 112pp, $29.99; Museum by Frances Samuel (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 88pp, $25; Farce by Murray Edmond (Compound Press, 2022), 98pp, $25
Gregory O’Brien’s latest book is a real treat, with its three dozen poems accompanied by twenty-three of his paintings in full colour: O’Brien the curator, putting on his own show. The paintings are not ‘illustrations’ but talk with the poems as if on equal terms, as some of their titles demonstrate: ‘Ode to a water molecule and five Canterbury rivers’, for example, or the Wordsworthian ‘Lines composed a few metres above high water, Meretoto’. ‘The uses of fondness’ is an exception, being a poem in a painting, or a painting of a poem.
The title, House & Contents, suggests insurance, but it hints too at what gives us security and is part of the story of our lives. The book itself could be seen as a house with its contents:
A man or woman
might be remembered
as a house
the living room
immense with their
breathing, the staircase
a spine, and the kitchen
an ear listening to all
the other rooms …
‘House and contents’ is also the title of a serial poem or diary, a meditation on earthquakes that runs through the book: from 9am in Wellington, where walls and cutlery speak of tremors; to orange-coned Christchurch at 1.45pm; and then across the Pacific to Santiago de Chile, another seismic country, at 5pm, where the walls seem to echo the voices of fugitives from Pinochet’s time.
O’Brien’s poems and paintings have always documented his travels, in person or in thought. In this new collection, he explores Central Otago (‘Styx Crossing, Upper Taieri’), revisits his Irish heritage and connections in the very fine ‘A genealogy’, and thinks about how we deal with the world and its challenges (environmentally for instance in ‘Conversation with a mid-Canterbury braided river’, or in the ‘Origin of the Valdes chair’ where the design was inspired by contemplation of a smashed tennis racquet).
The useful ‘Notes to accompany the poems and paintings’ tell us that ‘[m]any of these poems and paintings are rooted in specific places … For the most part, however, the poems were worked and reworked away from their place of origin—the present writer’s notebook and desktop are their truest address.’ We are, I think, given a glimpse of that writer’s notebook in the group of squibs, jottings, poems and scraps of verse that are brought together under the disarming title ‘Sixteen Things’. Perhaps we may look forward to reading some of these ‘things’ again in the future, fully worked out as O’Brien poems.
In his travels, he has always been sensitive to the presence of others, as we see in this poem ‘For James Cook, melancholy, at Meretoto / Ship Cove’:
An outdoor shower, I would suggest,
if Cook were still here
or at least the ship-worn memory
of a wife
pale as this morning’s sea—
fog, clad only
in bafflement, scent of ambergris—
plain to see, or be left
unseen. This life too long for the being
together, too short for such parting.
The touching clarity of this writing is typical of Gregory O’Brien’s best work which, with his beautiful paintings, make House & Contents a rare delight.
From a poet as curator of his own work we go now to a poet who is skilled at mounting exhibitions. With her debut collection Sleeping on Horseback (2014), Frances Samuel showed an ability to use unexpected and striking metaphors. Now comes her second book, Museum, which in many ways reflects her time spent working for Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, where she wrote descriptive material for exhibitions.
In these poems, we imagine her at her day-job, producing accurate and unambiguous descriptions and explanations, for instance:
… keeping the word count down
lower and lower as attention spans dissipate.
But it’s not really about that.
It’s about trying to read standing up
when you are tired from finding a car park,
or a child is pulling on your arm …
Free now from her museum work, Samuel can follow the siren-song of words; to find, for example, that a ‘Life-drawing Class’ could also be a place where you might draw your own world and live in what you’ve made of it, subject only to ‘one rule: you couldn’t erase’. Even if it was not what you wanted, ‘you had to keep drawing’. The poem ends darkly with the lesson that the outcome of ‘life-drawing’ is not always ‘life’.
There are nine poems with ‘Exhibition’ in the title, such as ‘Exhibition (DNA)’, ‘Exhibition (Navigation)’, and the quirky ‘Exhibition (Explain Yourself to a Plant)’: the museum (originally a temple of the Muses) as a place of learning. Too often, sadly, these poems are driven by their prose more than their poetry. For instance, the opening lines of ‘Exhibition (Bees)’:
Here’s a lost tour group in the staff lift
on the way to level 3 with me.
Back of house seemed more interesting than front of house.
But I had to tell them, didn’t I? the right way to go.
I had to send them out into Blood Earth Fire.
For this reader, at least, the words are mildly interesting but they lack rhythmical life; nothing is memorable in its own particular way. Nothing tempts me to remember what the poet wrote by infusing what’s noticed with a musicality.
Thankfully, this story ends rather better, and after visiting several floors and at least four exhibitions we reach the ground-floor café, where:
I see my reflection in the glass, almost cross-eyed.
I look like a person with the shadow
of an eagle overhead. I look like a person
who’s trying to hear a whale whisper.
I look like a person who needs someone
to show them the way out.
Samuel’s poems that reflect the trials of parenthood are among her most effective, such as ‘Recommended Exercise’ and ‘Breathing’, or ‘Fatigue Font’, which starts:
I want to write about fatigue.
I can do this in Inherit or Liberation Serif.
Both fonts are relevant to the subject.
The speaker—the writer—discusses her options for getting said poem down but, so exhausted by her ‘sleepless children’ that she has ‘fallen asleep between the floors of a lift’, she ends her poem thus:
… enough about that. This is my writing day!
Time for big themes, flickering images.
Is there any way that I can fool myself
that by sleeping now I am actually writing?
A cave could mean bears, hibernation.
Hit ‘save’. Close eyes. Liberation.
Whether they are writers or not, a great many readers will know that feeling well—that beyond-tired feeling that only having children can induce—and will be grateful to Samuel for putting it into words.
Finally, to new work by Murray Edmond, a successful anthologist and dramaturge who has seen three of his previous collections become finalists in the New Zealand book awards for poetry.
In Farce, his poems are presented in five sections: Fables, Atonements, Regalings, Capers and Encomiums, and are a bit of a mixed bag. He makes use of a range of forms, including sonnets, rhyming couplets, haiku and a ballad. The pantoum is a challenge for most poets, but Edmond’s lacks punctuation and is almost impenetrable. His cento, titled ‘Cento-mental’ for some reason, consists of lines about the sea from poems by other New Zealand poets, but again, without punctuation or structure, it is hardly more than quotations.
Edmond seems most at home in a free-form style, which suits the anecdotal ramble and no doubt works well when heard read by the poet himself. Reading them on the page, however, the eye moves slowly. For example, in ‘Sketch for an unfinished poem’, the reader can take time to savour and query what is being said:
The water running out the sink
sounds as if pigeons in a Phoenix
palm were cooing. The content of
their hearts, would that be the same
as their hearts’ content? That’s the
paradox anyone has to live with
whether they’re Elizabeth Taylor
or Publick Universal Friend.
Prosaic octosyllables that take us from the sound of water to pigeons to a pun on ‘content’, which is somehow a ‘paradox anyone has to live with’—whether Elizabeth Taylor or ‘Publick [sic] Universal Friend’—does calling a poem a ‘sketch’ excuse this muddled thinking?
In ‘Anamensis’ (is this a typo?), Edmond recalls at ‘the terminal age of 70’ the lawn-mowing of his youth in a ‘suburban tranquility’ [sic]:
whose shattered peace I can recollect
with pensive gaze anytime I settle back
for a flash of pre-mortem solicitude.
Prosaic lines again, but I welcome his choice of ‘solicitude’, suggesting the anxieties that ‘solitude’ may bring to old age today.
Two poems stand out from the others. ‘I loan Jeanette Fitzsimons my pen on the plane’ is almost completely told by its title, but has a neat ending as the poet goes back to reading his Balzac while ‘Out of the corner / of my eye / I can see my pen / doing its work / for the cause’. The other is ‘Dream of a drying shed’, which tells how, on an ‘early spring evening, already dark, / wind lashing the coast, rain pouring …’ a neighbour with her two kids knocked on the back door, asking ‘what had happened to her washing’. But there was ‘no need to cut a long story short / because’:
… you had rescued the washing
and now as you stood in the doorway you were together something of a we
as she said “Thanks,” and “I guessed you would have”…
The reflection, from the same poem, that ‘…we live in pronouns / immersed in their shifts…’ leads to the neighbourly ‘dream of the drying shed’, and the poem ends with the pronoun again:
… the dream of a we
the stitching together of the quilt of ourselves
the quick kindly thought followed by the quick gathering
in the bluster as the sheets and towels
and t shirts wrapped themselves round your face
It’s a touching personal anecdote in a leisurely two and a half pages (‘no need to cut a long story short’), but with that first occurrence of the word ‘we’, and the lovely image of ‘the quilt of ourselves’, it rises above the domestic everyday with a glimpse of what can only be called ‘poetry’. My compliments to Edmond for that.
ALAN RODDICK is a Dunedin poet whose third collection, Next, Poems 2016–2021, was published in February 2022 by Otago University Press.