RedEdits by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, 2017), 95 pp., $25
This is Geoff Cochrane’s sixteenth book of poetry and a fine addition to an oeuvre that establishes him as one of the major New Zealand poets of his generation. RedEdits seems at first a fragmentary book, but it soon coheres into a carefully orchestrated evocation of the interlinked mundaneness and splendour of any person. Nary an image or word is extraneous, though a few are opaque. Cochrane has a plainly baroque sensibility, a deadpan engagement with the inescapably humdrum details of daily existence, and a frequent eruption into gnomic pictures such as ‘drowned basilicas’ (from ‘True blue’): ‘Times past. The flooded years. Seasons submerged / like drowned basilicas.’
Threads interconnect poems. For example, ‘Natural history’ follows the image of the frozen corpse of a seal with the cry ‘Oh to leave behind / but scraps of gas and water’; the next poem, ‘Housekeeping’, has a reference to the poet’s desire for a spray of nicotine under the tongue; the poem that follows, called ‘Getting a new one’, mentions the ‘switching mechanism [that] refuses to catch and hold’ of a broken kettle that needs to be replaced with a new one from The Warehouse; and the next poem, ‘Oxygen’, one of the most poignant in the book, secures the airy thread in an effective way – an old man is in distress:
Two Warehouse employees are trying to settle him, but what a famished, lungless husk he seems […] he’s waiting on delivery of the vital gas he needs. A colourless, odourless gas in the presence of which stuff burns.
An example of the cunning structuring within this book is the use of a death-scare when the poet discovers ‘blood in the bowl’, though he finds ‘it really hard to give a fuck’ (in ‘Let’s not call it old age’). Two poems on, the poet is relieved by the hospital’s diagnosis of haemorrhoids and feels a consequent ‘muscular impatience to be gone, a passionate impatience to escape’, a prosaic declaration masking a resonant philosophical comment, a familiar strategy.
There is a more elaborate mock-heroic self-portrait in the long prose poem ‘Falling down’ near the beginning of the book. The poet experiences a possible diabetic blackout, an encounter with ‘Dr Death’. Recovering, he sets off to see the ‘quacks at A&E’ only to discover that the ‘quiet machines [fail] to read my blood, comb legible secrets from it’. Older men sometimes ‘keel over’ from ‘trouble urinating’, a doctor surmises, then wants to ‘talk about my smoking’, at which point the poet begins to ‘feel the need to be getting dressed’.
‘Naked pictures’, a poem of four brief segments of disparate ‘pictures’ that immediately follows the bloody shock of ‘Let’s not call it old age’, opens with the outburst of ‘Broken sky and crushed accordion’, a flamboyant image that is a fitting summary of the previous poem’s mood. Not all of Cochrane’s images – for example the pneumatic drill, Mars bars, and supersonic judo of ‘Naked pictures’ – resonate and interrelate as well (for me).
Poetry seems a calling for Cochrane, a way of life: ‘To trick himself into facility; this is the writer’s daily task. To ambush himself; to trick or trip himself into … a state of lucid volubility …’ This is the whole of ‘RedEdit#8’. There are twenty-seven RedEdits interspersed throughout RedEdits, the repeated word like a chorus of frogs. At least twenty are quotes from other writers, mostly famous foreigners: they counterpoint the musical composition of the book. ‘RedEdit#12’ – ‘The principal characteristic of our existence is suspense’ (Saul Bellow) – is precisely positioned between ‘Heroics’ and ‘Insomnia’, between lines such as ‘From there and then to here and now – / how many bridges burned?’ and ‘My days are too eventful, demand too much of me, and thus I devote my nights to the scowling micromanagement of nothings.’
The poet expresses himself in fragments interleaved with other writers’ fragments, eschewing the larger picture, the novelistic. He laments (in ‘Service’): ‘I never quite took as a novelist, no. And what I do in the recuperative quiet of my failure is write poems.’ In ‘Cameos’ he re-edits other writers’/artists’ personas and visions into a tiny novelistic world of two pages’ length, in which Donald Barthelme, André Derain, Malcolm Lowry, Anne Carson etcetera strut in a cameo of the poet’s inner/imaginative/dream (take your pick) world.
The poet’s disenchantment is real: ‘In the absence of God, we don’t know what we are’ (from ‘Lividity’). Sometimes he is nostalgic for the beliefs of his Catholic upbringing, or the solace of alcohol, as we learn in ‘Some thoughts coaxed out of me by Kirsten McDougall’: ‘My history of addiction to alcohol (my very own ‘backstory’) is a gift that just keeps giving.’ Disenchantment rises to a bleak empathy in ‘South of salvation’, a longish ballad-like paean to a junkie known long ago:
While the blue gas burns
and the window’s four black panes
weep or bleed or inkily defrost,
he tinkers and taps,
tinkers and taps.
he sees a brief, felicitous montage:
Cutlass. Molten lava. Elephant.
Given Cochrane’s attention to the plain facts of the world, it is not surprising that Basho turns up in ‘Bashō redux’ as one of his alter egos on a visit to Blackwater (a slightly skew-whiff place suggestive of the West Coast town of Blackball) to stay a few days in the Grand Hotel, which ‘has had no guests in years’: ‘Bashō ascends to the first floor. / In a room facing the street, / the light of an eternal afternoon, / the light in an Edward Hopper painting’. Details are stated portentously, the mood of the poem deliberately uncertain.
In ‘Oriental sketches’, haiku-like verses are preceded by epigraphs, purporting to be by classic poets like Basho, Li Po and Tu Fu. The epigraphs’ references to plastic, neon and jukebox are either extreme translations or parodies. Are the sages being gently mocked, or absorbed? There is the odd jolt of clarity:
A chlorinated twilight by Magritte. Li Po
The magpies living in the Norfolk pine
Don’t envy me my mug of tea,
My two or three malt biscuits.
The most matter-of-fact lines in RedEdits can echo with extra feeling and meaning. Take the last stanza in the book (from ‘A mild case of the dingbats’), in which some of the echoes are arguably of the catchphrase ‘bee in the bonnet’ and the concept ‘be’:
What sounds like a bee in the cistern.
A big fat bumblebee.
But there is no bee in the cistern.
RedEdits is not the ragbag commonplace book that it initially appears to be. It is the carefully honed work of a poet who is not exercising his ego but seeing through himself.
DENIS HAROLD is a reviewer who lives near Dunedin.