A poetry collection exhibiting a long-term obsession with planes, especially fighter-planes from World War II, planes, planes, and more generally, flight, Fly Boy is filled with evocative replications of Canterbury poet Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s basic, vigorous and deeply rooted song of boyhood, imaginative freedom and time past. A bit like Seamus Heaney’s nostalgic paeans to household items, Paparoa Holman’s poems show an art of linking vivid, musical phrases into small lyrical vignettes that read like private memorative recitations: revisitations of a formative aviation manual which the poet evidently pored over as a boy, meditations on birds and bird flight, pilot death, gliders, Antarctic Austers, Fokkers, Constellations, Vulcans, Barouders and Sunderlands.
The book is divided into four sections, ‘The Dumpy Book of Aircraft & the Air’, ‘Fly Past’, ‘Bird Man’ and ‘Flight Path’. Despite sporadic weaker poems, Paparoa Holman’s shifting focus on a wide selection of planes encountered in The Dumpy Book is pleasurably reverberative, imaginative, where his poise and rhythm and flair for rich language surface, the salient voice of the poet in this book being the vivid song of reminisced Cold-War youth which powers the poet’s flight-oriented anecdotalisation. Here, quoted in full, is ‘The World’s Fighter Planes’:
Who remembers now the Barouder SE 5000?
Anyone left of those crews who flew
the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck low-wing
two-seat long-range all-weather fighter
with its twin Orenda turbojets? What about
Hunters, Javelins, Meteors, the tubby but
deadly MiG-15? Or the SAAB-29, precisely
christened ‘The Barrel’? The Yak-23 was
a really ugly Russian pig, but I loved
the sexy McDonnell F-101 so much
I painted its name on my crapped out
bike in shaky silver letters: ‘Voodoo’.
I certainly don’t remember the Barouder SE 5000; nevertheless, I enjoy Paparoa Holman’s musical plane-obsessed-nerd-rebel idiom, the compounding jargon, served with a genuine relish for technical subject matter, which this poem so well illustrates and which is a positive feature of the collection as a whole. Elsewhere, in ‘Ask Gary’, Paparoa Holman describes his initiation into the incantatory magic of plane jargon alongside the like obsession of a boyhood friend, Gary:
…. I was half in love
with the magic of names: Stuka, Dakota, Avro Anson.
And half aware of the power it gave me: SE58 and
Sopwith Camel. Even the engines: Rolls Royce Eagles,
Napier Lion and the Junkers Jumo, Mustangs
powered by Packard Merlins. Nobody had to make
me learn them—off by heart I was flying solo
through all those worlds of sheer excitement.
The section ‘Fly Past’ features more poetry about planes and aviation, often using subtle, semi-formal rhyming or half-rhyming structures in marked contrast to the careening syntax of certain poems in the first section. Throughout the section, Paparoa Holman recurrently conjures the life, death and destiny of fighter pilots. In the envoi ‘Old Flyers’, he wonders rhetorically what secrets those who daily risked their lives to deliver death to others might reveal to him (there of course being no answer from the dead, whether young or old):
Each day they fly to never’s never, each
night a raid above wherever flak falls
silent back to earth and medals glitter
behind the broken glass of winter. We
need to ask them, but never do, what
it was like to hover above the earth—and die?
Hover over death and kill, kill then laugh
till you were killed? Night and day they
leave the earth and we’re none the wiser: old
flyers rising up through the clouds of unknowing.
Of course, the greatest war-time aviator New Zealand ever produced was … Sir Keith Park – who doesn’t surface in Fly Boy, or indeed in the consciousness of many New Zealanders at home, though he won the Battle of Britain for the Allies. Any nod to W.B. Yeats’s ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is also strenuously absent from the collection, though the dionysian streak in Yeats plunges in right at the point where Paparoa Holman pulls back in ‘Old Flyers’:
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult of the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Elsewhere, Paparoa Holman describes Anglo-American airman John Gillespie Magee, author of ‘High Flight’, as ‘John who hammered the perfect sonnet’. I demur; Gillespie Magee, who died in 1941 in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire, may have had the professional credentials, but his poetry is a bare emulation of another formulaic perfectionist, Rupert Brooke, whom he idolised. ‘High Flight’, in its public-schoolboys-own Brookeian gay abandon, is literary lance corporal to Yeats’s masterpiece.
Fly Boy is not just planes and pilots. The section ‘Bird Man’ contains short lyrical evocations of birds, from the Roethke-like ‘Me He Manu Rere: If I was a bird’ in which the poet imagines his soul’s provenance (‘Then I became the child of flying things/ And flew into the instant of my birth’) to ‘Toroa feeding—Taiaroa Heads’ about Dunedin’s albatross colony. As in the first section, in ‘Bird Man’ Paparoa Holman illustrates his facility for tight, metaphor-rich poetry whose rhythms are created through internal rhymes, compound phrases, alliteration and assonance. The language of the excellent ‘Piwakawaka’, which begins, ‘Waka jumper, feather box of tricks on/ springs, tree-hopper, handbrake-turn show-stopper,’ would fit comfortably into a collection by Les Murray (the Australian poet’s Translations from the Natural World (1992) springs to mind).
Differing from the others in its formal character, ‘Flight Path’, the final section, is an allusive open-form sequence about the poet’s trip to San Ramon, California, to visit his daughter and granddaughter. Punctuated by parataxis, ‘Flight Path’ rewards the patient reader with likeable and moving in-transit meditations on our 21st-century condition of existential globalism, technology and capitalism. As well as being the occasion of the poem, flight is a background metaphor for imaginative transcendence, visitation (as per the hummingbirds of San Ramon, which evidently fascinate the poet) and physical escape. The sequence as a whole has a satisfying unity loosely shaped around the recurrence of natural flight-voyages, especially those undertaken annually by the godwits, which both begin the sequence and see it through to its lovely, open-ended terminus:
… now it is time
for me to go fly back south to my own people
leave these summer feeding grounds follow
the trail of brother godwit leaving in your
mother’s kitchen three most worshipful
peonies their gorgeously fleshly faces
opening lips as if to speak
of our father making
(‘10. Light from Saturn’)
Discussing Swinburne’s defect of ‘interminability’ in an introduction to his Works, Laurence Binyon observed, ‘If we are to enjoy him and give him his due, we must definitely limit our reading of him.’[i] Binyon’s comment might be true of Fly Boy, which contains much quality writing exhibiting more and more of the same creative impulse – an evidently profound desire to capture the formative influence of planes and flight on the poet’s imagination – that drove the book in its beginnings. Like Swinburne’s, Paparoa Holman’s poems are possibly better served individually than in sum. With more effective editorial weeding, this might have been a first-rate collection. As it is, there are many lovely poems to return to.
[i] Laurence Binyon, Introduction, The Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1995), viii, vii.
RICHARD REEVE is an Otago-based writer and poet, and currently studying law at the University of Otago. He is the author of four collections of poetry.