South D Poet Lorikeet by Jenny Powell (Cold Hub Press, 2017), 97 pp., $29.95; Walking to Jutland Street by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, 2018), 80 pp., $27.50; The Light and Dark in Our Stuff by Mere Taito (MT Productions, 2016), 30 pp., $10; He’s So MASC by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, 2018), 84 pp., $29.99
Four collections of poetry, four different Kiwi publishers; four disparate poetic gusts.
I alphabetise this review, for I found not a lot in common between the collections: there is no common seam that threads through all – although for several poets here, we will certainly see a great deal more of their work, such is their merit.
Jenny Powell’s South D Poet Lorikeet is a veritable mixed tote bag, inconsistent in the sense that some of the 55 poems, especially the earlier ones, are somewhat journeywoman. Take ‘Shadow girls’ for example, which commences with tired images:
Pale girl arrives in the room of your safe,
thin as a knife’s edge
In the desert, wind caught her body
as if she were a kite.
The writing lifts, though, as the collection unwinds through its 86 pages, with a fair deal of word playing – Pawing/pores; apart/a part; bear/bare – and lexical echo/repetition – parting and parting; the graze, the gaze; from station to nation; illusion, allusion. There is also some alliteration, with curtsies towards song (‘Song girl’ with its ‘sad’ refrain is more Elton John than Dylan) and some economic verse fruition (‘Cherries’ is William Carlos Williams to a T), where an event, a memory is laid bare, ‘stripped of flesh’.
There are glimpses of fine poetry here.
The boy turns into a comet
his orbit punctuated by commas
(from ‘Newspaper boy’)
He clutches his arms close
to fold the noise into his coat.
(from ‘Yellow scarecrow’)
Dressed in their nylon routine
her legs ran to the car.
Powell is at her best when she captures lived experiences (as in ‘Ballad of the pink roids’ and ‘Newtown Station incantations’), and she apexes with ‘Opening night’, which is quality throughout.
Overall, however, there are perhaps too many poems here and some could have been culled – ‘Perched on a blue hydrangea’ doesn’t work well, while ‘Loose leaf Lindy’ strikes me as silly. And while continuing my pedantic purge, the Notes on page 87 are out of sequence, and tuis is best as ngā tūī.
Sweeping up also from a southern direction, but trammelled by swift northern crosscurrents, is Michael Steven’s excellent first collection Walking to Jutland Street. I cannot speak highly enough of this book. Steven writes sheets of candid, visceral verse that is crammed with searing images of his past street-life, the ‘dropped pins’ of his developmental tapestry. Here is vital intelligence lacerated with stark and sparing depictions of the calculous undercurrents of the poet’s own experiences and his current reflections of what went on before. Pathos but no (self-) pity. Thirty-three poems patrol inside four sections, and nothing is surplus to requirements.
Here roam ghosts, ngā kēhua – captured inside a panel-beaten poetic chassis – not knowing they are dead and thus never buried. Here are reconstructed the rusty metallic husks of stark suburban light-industrial precincts. Here also lurk Bukowski-esque gnarls, furrows; drink and drug sotted requiems to father and friends; to ‘a terminal scrimshank’, ‘a deluded charlatan’.
Steven is a camera. Here are a couple of his graphic photos:
His eyes share a silence like two strangers on a bridge.
If I were able,
I’d climb down into my body, where the real action is happening,
where my heart hammers out harder rhythms
than a rock drummer.
But really, such slivers betray the brilliance of the complete poem. Steven is best ingested holistically, not sly-grogged behind a bike shed. Pour yourself ‘Peninsula’:
They come back tonight like a long forgotten
weather system or some foreign illness.
Walking along each of the peninsula’s twenty
streets they come back now, to claim the exam
results they missed out on two decades ago,
to see what the girl they left the party to meet
made of her life after the car and passengers
were deducted by a parked truck.
They come back
from illegal drag wrecks on the back roads of Papakura,
from nooses in wardrobes in flats on Symonds Street,
from overdoses in dingy Kings Cross basements,
ambling down wind-scoured avenues with schoolbags
and six-packs and flagons of rough red wine
and toolkits to repair the errors of the terrible clock.
Coming back, to be among these weatherboard houses
where the only warmth is the cathode glare of televisions
where mothers and fathers sit glumly at silent tables,
set pieces in the final acts of their brief and pallid lives.
Steven is not always rooted in the crumbling concrete, the corrosion, the collapse of New Zealand city dwellings, either. One section, entitled ‘Vasco Da Gama’s Bedroom’, further establishes his gift of orchestrating succinct images of a scene, of epitomising the sheer sense of place involved, in overseas locations also. For in Kerala,
On an old parade ground
where the Portuguese,
Dutch and British navies
once wheeled in drill
formation, now boys,
playing a game of twelve-a-side
soccer, kick a tennis ball
high in the air.
The blood dust of colonialism
rises in the afternoon
heat-haze from their footfall.
(from ‘Vasco da Gama’s bedroom’).
To paraphrase Jon Landau somewhat, I have seen the future of Aotearoa New Zealand poetry. Michael Steven is slap bang in its nexus. His is an immense and immensely refreshing talent.
Somewhere also, in that once-marginalised, ever-encroaching centre that is the soon-future of poetry in this country, is the work of Mere Taito, whose collection I have reviewed elsewhere but would like to expand on here. This slim, self-produced booklet, The Light and Dark in Our Stuff, drives in from the west via Hamilton and – from somewhat further out – Rotuma. In only 10 poems, Taito leaves out in the open for us all to see, the stinking pile of shit that greedy, obdurate (neo) colonialism plops globally (‘The dark matter’) and yet – in a Blakean reversal of songs – then rhapsodises away from the fetid, via fecund depictions of nature and the concomitant joyfulness it presents (‘The light matter’). Throughout both compartments she is never afraid to state exactly what she sees, to fingerpoint those culpable for environmental and economic ravage, nor to parlay in her own indigenous tongue whenever she sees fit to.
Taito is a clever wordwoman too; her sets are chock-full of clever stuff. As here:
a black tar-seal road
slithers into a village like a hungry boa
it eats the sand first
as it winds its way through proud gardens
defecating a trail of infrastructure
(from ‘This charmed life’)
gate-crashes your lunch
through an opening
in the bus shelter wall
it salts your chips
makes you squeeze
the tomato sauce out of your words
onto the battered fish
Throughout this corpus is steady corporeal imagery: the slim collection crowds with a concatenation of spine, legs, soles of her feet, wristed blue hands, armpits, teeth, scalp, skin, back, vagina, nose, gut, hard palette. This, aligned with Taito’s own ebullient abilities as an enthusiastic performance poet whom I have seen read in the flesh, as it were, serves up sufficient substance to make any reader crave for more. In short, her next compilation has to be much fatter: there are not enough poems in this one!
Finally, a word about the beautiful presentation of this collection: this sets the book apart from the other three here reviewed, by dint of the colourful and splendiferous designs alone.
So, where is the East? Come out and in Chris Tse, gay Kiwi poet of Chinese ancestry with his second compilation He’s So MASC. MASC, you ask? Refer to page 20, I say. Enough layers there to create your own alternative volcano.
Now, here is a potential fringe dweller jangling with his own jargon, as published by a big city publishing house. Why? I’ll tell you, eh.
The 43 poems are all suffused with a disciplined, sometimes – yes, inscrutable – intelligence. They will delight purveyors and surveyors of creative writing classes. Clever articulation, shapeshifting form and wry reflections appear in a style that is rather verbose and arcane at times, always with an ambience that brings to this reviewer a faded image of gay men in homburgs hanging around restrooms, smoking filtered cigarettes replete with Audrey Hepburn-long holders. It brings Dirk Bogarde in black-and-white films nestled in Weimar Germany with David Bowie soundtracks; and Stephen Chan is there too, popping out of an Auckland university den. Disco is in the mix, titillating with a mechanical backing track and an electronic synapse, which spotifies here, there, everywhere, back and through into more recent gay pictography inside nightclubs and movie stalls.
And always there are wolves. Everywhere is the lusting wolf, the dribbling wolf. The big, bad, slobbery wolf, ready to gobble up, to lick to death. Here, the wolf is a semi-hairy male with a mysterious look about him. He generally enjoys a lot of sex.
Tse is a manpoet in search of an identity (see the rather wonderful ‘Performance – Part 2’), and always on the rove for a new lover, for he is always riven from yet another lost lupine lust. Always anonymous; often entangled in an act, an opera, a dramatic monologue.
There is no self-centred pomposity in his search for himself through others; his poems are an ongoing defining and refining of a wide-ranging crusade to pin himself down. Sadness is the plangent aftertaste here (lament yourselves throughout ‘The saddest song in the world’). The book is full of loss, self-deprecation and black humour (as in the rather marvellous ‘I was a self-loathing poet’). These emotions are ever filtered and controlled, however: no blood pools on the tracks. Take, for example, the even-toned, distanced, ‘I could no longer lay claim to who I thought I wanted to be.’
Indeed, for Tse, there is no real ‘me’:
I could be anyone and every man could be my first time
if I threw my voice just so – just me, slipping out of mise-en-scene.
(from ‘I made it through the wilderness’)
Although I believe there are too many poems with the same timbre in this collection (and a couple, in my view, are frankly dull, as in ‘Choose your own adventure’), anyone who can pen lines such as ‘a gloom in their throats’ (from ‘Belated backstory’), and ‘he left a poem to walk home alone / This is the poet as neglectful father’ (from ‘Artist’s impression of the poet is not drawn to scale’) is, at the very least, a poet and a half. Ko he kaituhi tino whakaihiihi [a very interesting writer]. Consider also:
The city slept in your eyes
last night, traces of its troubles
linger in your morning sigh
I look for men like I look for nouns, though
I have very little use for them once I find them.
(from ‘Notes for Taylor Swift, should she ever write a song about me’)
The girls I thought I loved
still follow me around –
they are scare quotes
in all subsequent drafts.
(from ‘Crying at the disco’)
It’s exciting to see a poet like Chris Tse entering the now-future of Aotearoa New Zealand poetry. About time too, I say.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA writes across several interrelated genres, in more than one language. He is widely published internationally – a collection of his poetry will be published in France in 2018. His latest poetry work is ternion (Liverpool, 2017) and he was also included in Best New Zealand Poems, 2017. Finally, his Poetry in Multicultural Oceania Book Two (Essential Resources) is due out soon, as is a new novel entitled Novel (Rangitawa Press).