You Sleep Uphill by David Merritt (Compound Press, 2022), 86pp, $35; Super Model Minority by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, 2022), 104pp, $24.99; The Pistils by Janet Charman (Otago University Press, 2022), 100pp, $25
David Merritt excels at a sort of hard-luck lyrical life-writing that, in an Aotearoa context, is virtually his exclusive domain. (Maybe only slightly contested by Dunedin’s beloved Peter Olds.) His poetic practice is also unique in that he tirelessly travels the country gigging and selling his numerous lovingly made broadsheets and ‘poetry bricks’ to audiences outside the poetry mainstream. (Well, he did before COVID.) He is warm and engaging and engaged. So I was a little surprised to realise that his recent work, some of which I have read before, is, when put between two covers and handed over to a publishing house, suffused with a poignant sadness. It is affecting. As he writes in ‘small, black cloud’:
It’s a sad history of water flowing
quickly under multiple burnt bridges
you keep coming back to those
fleeting moments of life
in a seemingly perfect place,
you intensely crave these moments,
wish they could have lasted forever
Missed opportunities are behind nearly everything in the book, like cosmic background radiation. In ‘tail lights’, Merritt writes, somewhat vaguely, of being ‘forsaken’, of ‘watching life slip past and just pass me by’. He is more specific in ‘sad rocks’:
I miss you,
you should know this,
over a distance which kills me slowly
like river water running over sad rocks.
So I am now better off maintaining
an attitude like an ember, barely alight
but cosy with residual, stored affection.
I will be ready to burst into a bright,
small, warm flame, eventually, again,
just not with you, anytime, ever.
Even the book’s title, You Sleep Uphill, suggests glum emotional labour, as if sleeping itself is an uphill struggle.
The key section of the book is a long prose poem called ‘crisis’, in which Merritt compares himself to, and communicates with, Frank Sargeson: ‘ground down’ by ‘indifference’, ‘slightly offset, slightly jangled, slightly out of place and context’. This is why Merritt is suffering a ‘mid career crisis of confidence’ … ‘None of this poetry stuff is really that easy. It can take many years of subconscious predeterminism, sleep deprivation, life, and then one day our time and place collide like this in sudden print.’ It seems important to Merritt that he identify an artistic role model who also had feelings of lassitude and aimlessness—in this case, Sargeson, a fellow outsider. Artistic authority is possibly the only sort of authority Merritt is comfortable with. He is a refugee from the corporate tech world (in which he worked for years) who has simplified his life and the way he produces his art. He has said, ‘I’ve eliminated all of the middle people between me and an audience of readers’ because ‘I wanted to reach the vast bulk, the 95% of Kiwis who are blissfully unaware the established literary industry even exists.’ (This book, published with Compound Press, is something of a departure for him.) The last decade or so in world affairs has certainly given him few reasons to start embracing dominant narratives. His left-libertarian scepticism comes through even if you just skim titles: ‘neo liberalism #1–10’, ‘we already ½ dress for war’, ‘plastic & dirt’.
Merritt hasn’t given up on the system entirely (‘vote for change. vote for making small democratic / differences. vote because we teeter atop an / environmental cliff’), but he also won’t grant the system’s illusions any power over him. We need poets like this. We need someone who will insist to us, as Merritt does in ‘early / late #1–7’:
They will tell you all kinds of stuff,
mostly false and mostly untrue,
it will take decades to work this out.
But eventually you do.
The publicity around Chris Tse’s third book, Super Model Minority, suggests that it concludes a ‘loose trilogy’ of books that began with How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes (2014) and continued with HE’S SO MASC (2018). There is some substance to this. The first book is a full-length treatment of a historic hate crime, the second is about performance and persona in contemporary Aotearoa, and the latest one is a fever dream of futurism and the apocalypse. There are six poems with ‘for the end of the world’ in their titles. ‘The future scares me’, Tse writes in ‘Utopia? BIG MOOD!’, ‘but it’s good to be scared of what I want’.
Tse wants a lot of things, including a viable future for himself and the communities he loves and worries for. This means Asian New Zealanders and queer communities, of course, as it has always done, but it also encompasses many others on our increasingly out-of-control planet: ‘leaning into the smoke of our burning world is good practice for how we’ll choke on everything else we love that’s slowly killing us.’
The challenge of writing poems is another preoccupation for Tse. After all, when one’s art is used in service of one’s ideals, the stakes are high. ‘Every day I consider what’s worth memorialising with the patterns we call language, especially when we’re constantly reminded that there is nothing new under the sun’, he writes in ‘(Yellow—Sunlight)’, one of the colour poems that make up the book’s inventive Vexillology section, devoted to the colours of the rainbow flag. Elsewhere, he wonders, ‘Is it predictable for me to write this poem? I suppose so. / What I really want to write about are things with promise, to offer up / whiskers on kittens when the outlook is for Nazis upon Nazis.’ This is in a poem (‘Wish list—Permadeath’) that opens with the line ‘I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write about racism, but there it is / patrolling my everyday thoughts like a mall cop drunk with power’. So yes, it’s predictable, but I don’t see any way around it, and these poems are Tse’s most direct and caustic statements yet on the small-minded prejudices of some people in our society.
As in HE’S SO MASC, Tse’s persona as a cape-swishing, large-living bundle of nerves is at the heart of some of the collection’s most enjoyable and outrageous moments. (‘I make grand gestures to leave behind // more than just a few lines in the death notices’, he observes about himself.) The reader who doesn’t cackle at the end of the second verse paragraph of ‘Abandoned acceptance speech for outstanding achievement by a Chinese New Zealander in the field of excellence’ has circuitry instead of a brain:
Thank you! Thank you! 多謝嗮, you impressionable bastards!
It’s an honour to stand here on the edge of this melon-green sea
with the foam seeping through my bespoke vegan leather sandals
feigning surprise to have received this in such a competitive year
of excellence by Chinese New Zealanders, some of whom I’m not
‘What’s fun until it gets weird?’ describes, with agonising specificity, a family game of Cards Against Humanity that goes badly off-piste (even by the standards of the game): ‘You’re not equipped to handle their queries about the ethics or etiquette of bukkake and what even constitutes bukkake’. Now that’s the apocalypse.
Where does Tse go after all these end-of-the-world poems? ‘We buried our dead but we didn’t bury the causes / of their deaths—and therein lies the seed of our predicament’, he writes in ‘Version control’. I suspect that Tse knows that his subject matter will survive the end times, and I have no doubt that he will be there to write ‘poetry to make boys cry’ even in the world to come.
‘if the poem contains polemic / don’t expect them to rate it / as a literary artifact,’ Janet Charman writes in ‘cunt’, a poem title that—I think many readers would agree—at least implicitly ‘contains polemic’. Charman’s ninth collection, The Pistils, is polemical and also has poems I rate as literary artifacts. Much of The Pistils (which are, of course, the ‘female’ parts of a flower) emerges from what Paula Green has called Charman’s ‘feminist core. Not an adjunct, nor a side track, but an essential feminist core’. These lines from ‘the gold zipper’ give a sense of the peppery register some of the poems are written in:
our bodies separate sexual pleasure
so women have no need for contraception
men expect us to fuck
because it’s what they want
and why is killing somebody of more literary significance
than a kiss?
because men say it is
i defy your authority
i won’t ask for permission
O shut up and lie down here in this bed for a change and listen
But I wouldn’t be representing the book fairly if I made it sound like a manifesto. Charman is not a one-issue poet, and her practice is varied, full of a surprising number of tricks. She writes memory poems that remind me of Maggie Rainey-Smith’s recent work in Formica, but she also writes poems that swerve or operate via parataxis (placing starkly different ideas in sequence, with poetic ‘logic’ put to the side). There are poems about a mastectomy (‘my right breast is all set / to be a flat line sewn flat’), about the etymology of ‘clitoris’ (‘door tender’… ‘from the Greek “kleitoris”’), and a fantastically crafty poem called ‘gracious living’ which compares the tacky plastic handles on her mother’s oak dressing table to the varicose veins she also inherited from her mother.
There are also notable poems about environmental activism, both serious and faintly ridiculous. No fewer than three poems refer to the destruction of a stand of rare native trees on Canal Road in Avondale in Auckland in 2021. The property these trees were on was the site of a 245-day occupation by kaitiaki. It was ultimately unsuccessful:
while the audience winds in
this long-running production
feel the blow
through all the tiers of the ngahere
giving up a near hundred-year-old groan
Someone I know was dragged out of the Canal Road site by police on that last day, and it was a really shabby business, so I am pleased to see that Charman’s poetry isn’t letting us forget any of this. But ‘waste management’ shows that she isn’t taking herself or her activism too seriously:
well this is awkward
they’ve threatened to trespass me
from the Carl’s Jr.
over the road
because i kept picking up the trash
from their business
which finds its way into the street
and i’ve been leaving it outside
their staff entrance
very irritating for them of course
You’ve got to love a poem that works like this. I have no doubt that the anecdote is true, and litter is awful and worth making a nuisance of yourself about, but Charman realises that she has crossed a line, and she sees the funny side of it. Comic vulnerability is an underrated poetic virtue.
The book ends precisely where it should. ‘stamen: stawomen’ is a short vignette about female hummingbird fledglings that present in male plumage to avoid being targeted for ‘aggressive pecking’ by males. As in a fable, Charman brings from the story an apposite moral:
sing your hearts out
fly sip mate nest
in whatever plumage you wish
but until you call out the body slamming
do not rest
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.