Thuds Underneath, by Brent Kininmont (Victoria University Press, 2015), 72 pp., $25; Native Bird, by Bryan Walpert (Mākaro Press, 2015), 78 pp., $25; Generation Kitchen, by Richard Reeve (Otago University Press, 2015), 64 pp., $25
I approached these books with some nervous trepidation, but also excitement. They are three slim, very well-presented books of poetry, two from university presses and one from respected publisher Mākaro, by authors with a well-founded and growing reputation. Kininmont is a graduate of the Victoria University creative writing Masters programme and an earlier version of this, his first book, was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Award. Walpert teaches creative writing at Massey University and has won or been shortlisted in several American poetry awards. This is his fourth book. Reeve has a doctorate in English and this is his fifth book.
So here is a representation of poets from the academic English tradition, reaching out into a diverse, rapidly-shifting, multicultural world. I have not been keeping up with poetry collections published in Aotearoa New Zealand recently, so was not familiar with any of the authors or their work. With few preconceptions, the chance to write about these books would surely serve as an introduction to what could be among some of the recent best.
First impressions do count, and in all cases I was engaged quickly by the poetic intent involved. Kininmont begins by peering out through the plane window onto something bigger, something more important. We are reassured in ‘Spotter’ that ‘The man on the wing is looking for holes where the rivets should be’, and later ‘thuds underneath’ indicate presumably no missing rivets, loading is being completed, theories of flight are stacked away and the plane is ready for flight. Likewise in ‘Nineteen’: ‘Through a hole in their thinking a West German flew me.’
In Generation Kitchen Reeve begins with a self-titled ‘Proem’, a public relations or promotions poem that neatly encapsulates the role of that ‘life-blood’, oil, in our society. This also ties to the introductory quotation explaining the oil-company term ‘generation kitchens’ and the sense of diving beneath the multifarious surfaces that characterise the pages of poetry to follow.
Walpert’s Native Bird references ‘native’ by defining ‘exotic’ from the Glossary of Birding Terms, and then goes on to distinguish between bird songs and calls. Adding the use and value of binoculars, shape is given to the inherent perceptive tensions within the poems that follow.
Each collection displays a predominantly different style. Kininmont is spare, Walpert is largely narrative, and Reeve is verbally dense and often rhyming. Kininmont and Walpert’s volumes contain explanatory notes, acknowledgements and references that aid our understanding of the context, source and detail of the poetry. This is not necessary for Reeve: we are quickly and clearly in the ‘good oil’ zone.
Kininmont’s Thuds Underneath, in a sparse, lightly stated, laconic and often implied way, traces parts of his life – from Waimate on the south Canterbury plains, travelling through the desert to ancient colossi, islands, student life, to Japan and his new family.
Scattered through the text are motifs of flight, aerial views, aeroplanes and propellers, such as in the poem ‘What boys who sleep near airports know’:
Some whine like bandsaws
when they talk of revolutions
Some fling until sunrise
blade after blade
Some whisk night into spoonfuls
a child can swallow
In ‘Nineteen’, the circus in the air reflects the circus below:
Too slow for the jet to keep up,
we burrowed into clouds,
And in the following verse:
He retired the generals
Who didn’t believe their eyes
their pilots’ eyes
(our flutter on their radar: Geese)
These poems play with the speed of perception, the relativities of movement, shifts in the air, as well as shifts in the political landscape of Europe under Gorbachev.
In the final third of the book, in Japan, Kininmont lightens up with some subtle Zen references in ‘The god question’: the place where two hands rest, of one hand clapping, trails of speech balloons suspended. In ‘What sounds like a DC-3’, he plays with or reacts to his daughter’s comment on the previous poem ‘Figuring it out’ (‘Boring dancing, ballroom dancing’), by writing, ‘what what what what what what?’ On hearing what is said but with the accent in another language – your language heard in another country – how do you hear it, how does a child hear it, when your accent is embedded within wholly different suites of sounds and meaning? The recognitions and interpreted meanings shift so easily and quickly, and that is the fun. ‘What what what’ does sound like a DC-3’s propellor engines if you say it even a little faster than normal speech, doesn’t it!
Native Bird by Bryan Walpert offers a questioning of his place in this country and a search for connection: he and his wife are described occasionally looking out, each through their own window, at birds, at the horrible weather – wondering, it seems, what they are doing here. Is it the birds that they know better, or the people? In ‘This poem is conversational’, the trip to the enchanted forest with the children’s party, interwoven with Stephen Fry’s visit to the Codfish Island kākāpō, accompanies the realisation that half the parents at the party are in fact immigrants like him. The birds are a lens through which the country is viewed, as well as the subject of other modes of perception: the telescope, the binoculars, and the sounds of their songs and calls, that invisible feeling of lightness.
The book is closely instructive, with helpful and detailed hints on how to approach birding interspersed throughout. The birds do get a fair treatment, my favourites being those mentioned in ‘Oakura’, where: ‘The seagull will do almost anything, to avoid flight.’ The bird, motivated by hunger, must determine the energy expended compared to the value of food gained from a flight. But after all that calculus, to the young boy it is still simply: ‘Bird, bird’.
In ‘Ruru’, the final resolving poem of the collection, the night-time presence of the bird is both real and simultaneously ephemeral. But as a spiritual experience, it confirms for the author and his wife their decision to come here: ‘What took us in its teeth, love, brought us here.’
The birds are also a metaphor, and indeed for many readers and any ornithologists, they will also be the bait to a wider view. Walpert cleverly explores the nature of communication, of language shifts, of seeing and then leaving, through fleeting moments of recognition. ‘Worries about my daughter in a foreign tongue’ plays around with the local vernacular and how it may be interpreted, the English seeming at times like a foreign language – a common experience, surely, for those who arrive here from other shores.
I’ve never been a fan of self-referential poetry; poetry about the act or process of writing seems indulgent, even superfluous, as if there is nothing else of value or important enough to write about. But Walpert successfully turns this around with inclusive circularities about the poet as father, husband, bird watcher and new settler. My favourite, even if it is a little too long, is ‘Objective correlative’. It begins ‘Start with a bird …’ and then winds its way through in a single string of object correlatives: ocean, house, two people, man and (possibly pregnant) woman, poem writing and fisherman. This poem could easily be read aloud, anticipating full audience engagement, to a summer gathering at a beach.
Reeve’s Generation Kitchen reeks of oil, shit, compost, body odour, sweat and tears. His preferred landscape is mainly Otago and the Otago tussock hill country. In the language of this book, in the persona of poet, Reeve appears ragged, rugged, wind-blown, energetically cold, shorn, gritty. He can be seen striding, or is it staggering, sloshing through the rain along ‘The Leith in flood’. Up in the backcountry, he is listening to ‘Old breeds’ and sympathetic to suicidal farmers. Then, he is overlooking the boulder shorelines hammered by the ocean in ‘Sunshed’; arguing elaborately, like a Shakespearean character, with oil company executives in ‘District’; and lamenting the illusions of money markets and accumulation of possessions in ‘Bailout’. The poetry is intricate, often long-lined, and thick like oil seeping – a rich crude bubbling up earthy and generative. What first appears to be an occluded or clotted mass gradually opens up to you with its sustained use of humour and rhyme. I’ve not before been much of a fan of rhyme, seeing it as an often unnecessary distortion and imposition on poetic structure. But in this collection Reeve finds an overall balance with a selection of rhyming and non-rhyming poems.
Then, too, the rhythm of walking the streets and shores and hills suffuses the gravity of the poetry and lifts it, so that we see the urgency as part of the moment. The final three poems in the book, ‘Up the hill’ with the machinery of earth-movers driving the poem forward, ‘Crust’ with its ecological lamentations, and the elegiac ‘Back country’, in particular, seem to me to sum up the collection. What is the world worth? We live and we die; so, do we face the challenge or just acquiesce and slink home in the dark? The fantail flits from the predator: there is no time, we must act now!
‘Not a soul’ is a really funny poem, where the poet places himself as a naked corpse, attends his funeral, is forgotten, and then over aeons is transformed into oil-bearing shale: a secret agent in the campaign against oil exploration off the Otago coast. ‘Into the compost’ stays small and local: a rallying call for all composters out there to celebrate the ease of building a heap.
Generation Kitchen explores a wide scope of subject matter, driven by an insistent vitality and enthusiasm. What is lost in the rolling swirling lines, which at times do seem unnecessarily lengthy and overdone, is picked up by the rhyme and rhythmic undercurrent, providing a buoyancy best described in the poem ‘Westport’: ‘The world, being all about itself, is the Buller River, gathering its poetry in an irrepressible surge.’
PIET NIEUWLAND is a poet, writer and visual artist who previously worked on conservation strategies for Te Papa Atawhai. He lives near Whangarei.