Monday, October 19, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“TENDER MACHINES” by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “OCEAN AND STONE” by Dinah Hawken (Victoria University Press, $NZ35); “CARDS ON THE TABLE” by Jeremy Roberts (Interactive Press, $NZ25); “TAKING MY MOTHER TO THE OPERA” by Diane Brown (Otago University Press, $NZ29:95).

This week, I am looking at four completely different volumes of poetry.
They were written by four completely different poets with completely different preoccupations and styles.
Therefore, I am pledged not to make strained comparisons between them. All they have in common is that they write poetry.

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Emma Neale’s Tender Machines takes its title from its two epigraphs – William Carlos Williams’ statement that a poem is “a machine made of words”, and Don Paterson’s definition of a poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”.
The ironically-titled first section, “Bad Housekeeping”, presents a wonderful paradox. There is the clear context of a loving domestic situation – the poet as mother to a young son – and there is the ferocity of the imagery. That poems deal with a domestic scene can often arouse the suspicion that they will be gentle to the point of mental softness. Such is not the case here. Emma Neale begins courageously with a poem (“Origins”) speculating on her own procreation, and on the chaotic way life begins where the human heart could be like “spit rubbed in mud” and the mind “a junk room / of broom handles and wheel-less prams, / must-stink chair nobody will sit in, / little black fly heads / sprinkled in a corner web / ear bones of vanished mice, / single bits of faded jigsaws, / carpet littered with broken envelopes / addressees illegible…
            One strand of imagery introduced in this poem points to the fragility of life itself. The “ear bones of vanished mice” lead to other poems about these small and vulnerable animals. In the later poem “PokPo”, Neale replays a childhood sense of guilt at almost killing a pet mouse when she played with it too roughly. In the poem “Bad Housekeeping”, she rescues a hunted mouse from the attentions of a cat, overcome with a sense of fellow-feeling when “the glittering of her minikin eyes / says terror plunges through her / in two black pins / and tells me, mute but clear, / that once upon seventy-five million years ago / we sprang (crept and hid) from one lost, common ancestor…”
            Much more than mice, however, it is the child who preoccupies the poet-mother. The first section of Tender Machines dwells most on that tension between strong love and frustration, when the young child also throws tantrums, is too demanding, has an active imagination that won’t be reasoned with – in other words, is an ordinary young child.
The child’s imagination dominates the prose poem “Hunter” (are those waves the growl of a bear coming to get me?) and “Zac and the Beanstalk” (child’s play with implicit magic). The child’s inquisitiveness fills the poem “The Piano’s Appointment”, where the examination of an old piano turns into the child’s questions on how life was in his forbears’ times. The mother is aware that she is bringing up a young male (“Man Up”). But, most poignantly, there is that clash between the mother’s love and the child’s aggression. “Towards a Theory of Aggression in Early Childhood Development” suggests that “Perhaps for the toddler / other people don’t quite exist yet” and asks “This hurled block, this swift kick, this fist swipe, / do they colour us, too, hot and red and beaded with water, / is love the tough, tensile wire desire insists / along all the blood’s jumbled frequencies?” The poem “The Lost Letters” is one that could lead readers to either laughter or tears (like a child’s paddies), with Neale imagining what mothers really want to write to tantrum-throwing children, because “Even love wears thin”. The section ends with the title poem “Tender Machines” where the child himself become as machine as he undergoes and operation and sinks into unconsciousness under an anaesthetist’s needle.
When we awake in the volume’s second section, “Auto Correct” we are in different poetic territory. “Auto Correct” – the punning title suggests the poet is following a course of self-correction, which gradually becomes reason tempering passion. If the poems of the first section deal most with presence – the presence of the child or of the life that is being nurtured – the poems at the beginning of the second section cluster around absence. The poet alone. The poet reflecting on self and on love that has gone, usually in sylvan or “natural” settings. In this, the sense of loss has to be set against responsibility, one’s dignity and the realization that what is lost is usually irrecoverable. A later poem,  “Over” dives into seeing a lost love, and sexual experience, from a male’s point of view.
But this mood is not where the volume’s second section ends. A clutch of poems look (lightly, ironically, playfully, affectionately, with fellow feeling) at the life in the streets – the life beyond the closed self. Thus “Slice of Life”. Thus Queen’s Drive, Town Belt”. Thus the oddly blokey “John Smith, Brother of Tim”. In “Suburban Story”, there is a deeply ironical account of a misunderstanding over what a woman was saying, leading to a consideration of the whole phenomenon of loss, including losing a sense of purpose. But within this is the phrase  sense of purpose / carries something of the feeling of being part / of the great ongoing human symphony”. And this really defines when this collection of poems is going. Out of the confined self and into wider human interaction. Regrettably, in the age in which we live, some of that interaction is via intrusive technology. So to a clutch of poems about life on-line – “Feeling Only Sort of Sorry for the Robots”, “Cyber Bullying”, “The New Narcissicism” and naturally “Auto Correct” itself.
The self and the community interact. The mother raising the child is part of the community. Her concerns are part of the concerns of the community. Which is where “the personal is political”, and that is the main theme of the final section, “These Poems Want”. The poet has much to say about ecology. The poet has something to say about sexism. The poet has things to say about poetry, too. Putting it this ham-fisted way, I make it sound as if Emma Neale succumbs to sloganeering. Not at all. As in the rest of this collection, the poems of the third section are filled with acute observation, sharp and memorable imagery and various levels of irony. The poem “How to Install a Glass Ceiling” is a whiplash against type of assumptions made about “domestic” poetry to which I referred early in this notice. And the final poem,
“Polemic”, lifts up its hands to everything a poem should, could, hopes to and never will be. The title tells you that some irony lurks here, too.
            You will note that I have said virtually nothing about Emma Neale’s skill with technique, virtuosity in style, creation of prose poems and other matters upon which I should have commented. That’s because I was too busy enjoying the poems, nodding along at what they were saying, occasionally (but only occasionally) feeling rebuked as a male, and being gob-smacked by their imagery.
A very, very powerful collection.

Silly footnote: The poem I felt most keenly was one I couldn’t fit into the “pattern” of this collection – the poem about sleep-deprivation, “Sleep-Talking”. As a chronic and unwilling insomniac, I moaned in recognition at the line “hell, can’t you leave it alone, switch off this inner racket? If only you could bloody sleep.”
            You can say that again.

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If Emma Neale thrives on generous ferocity and close observation, Dinah Hawken is more the calm, rationalist philosopher. In Ocean and Stone her poems are cool, lean, pared-back, sometimes almost gnomic.
The volume’s epigraph reads “We have to live within / our limits: the knowledge / of limits and how to live within them is / the most graceful and comely knowledge / that we have.”
The very first poem sets the mood for much that follows. “The lake, the bloke and the bike” is a first-person confessional in which a woman attempts to reflect on the big things in life – including permanence and impermanence – as she gazes at Lake Rotoiti from the shore. This might sound a peculiarly Wordsworthian set-up…. except that the lake is racked with the sound of a bloke on his noisy hydroplane. Natural perfection is transient. The world changes. Technology intrudes. Reflection has to end up engaging with a flawed world.
And thus it is in many of Dinah Hawken’s poems.
An affectionate cycle of poems about a young grandchild moves into a couple of poems about young people on the cusp of adulthood. The poem “Another, older boy called Jackhas a young man leaving a farm and “the head of the boy is down / in its workings. He has heard no birds. / He has seen no trees. All he hears / is unsteady talk, bleak bravado.” The transition into adulthood is neither smooth nor necessarily a maturing process. Following this, the poet slips into Sumerian mythology with a pair of poems presenting, in magical form, the power that is given to young women as they enter into life, and how it is challenged. Late in the volume, there are poems of old age and glimpses of a hospital for the elderly, in the poem “If you want me I’ll be down below”, the recognition that “I am at the mercy of salt, drought, / snails, leaf-curl and wind. I am at the mercy / of ignorance, sloth, limited years, / an aging body and hope beyond belief.
From babyhood to boy- and girl-hood to adolescence to old age, the poems so far point in the direction of a linear sense of life and time.
Counterpointing this, however, is the mythic sense of an “eternal return”, of time as circular and endlessly repeating the same pattern. And this was, after all, how time was understood in much of the ancient world (including the Sumerian bit of it), where the gods played endlessly the same games.
Hawken’s cycle of poems “The Uprising” deals with the vast ocean that surrounds New Zealand, rising menacingly. Beginning lyrically, the poems in this cycle then hit readers with a daunting contrast. First “With no motive and no name, the whole / indivisible ocean fits over the earth like a blessing: / it slips around, between and over / the territories we have made….” But then “It’s hard to have a mind for its envelopment / and treachery. Its weight, sheen, depth. / And its frank, cold-blooded flow.” The sea is becoming a menace – and it is hard not to think that Dinah Hawken is referencing one of the threats posed by global warming. Later in the volume, the concept of a global inundation is echoed in a poetic version of the Sumerian legend of the universal flood (the non-Jewish precursor to the story of Noah’s flood). The sense of “eternal return” appears.
The sequence “page.stone.leaf” is often minimalist in style (complementing the drawings by John Edgar that go with it), spare and unadorned by adjectives, some poems being presented as lists. They put together brief observations on stones and leaves as items connecting us with nature but used by us in papermaking over the centuries – a repeated, cyclical process.
And finally, rounding off this theme, there is the long poem “Tidal” (originally written as a response to artworks by Colin McCahon), where all the songs sung by the sea turn out to be one breathing since the world began.
Where do we end in the tension of linear and cyclical views of time? Knowing, I suppose, that while the individual life moves on, it is within the context of the greater pattern. (And why, in my head, do I hear an echo of Longfellow’s “the tide rises; the tide falls”?)
I have dealt with this volume in terms of cold rationality. That was how I read it. For all the warmth of the grandmotherly poems, that was the way I was invited to read it.

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I cannot pretend to be coldly intellectual about Jeremy Roberts’ collection Cards on the Table, because I have to make a confession – some years younger than me, Roberts is a personal friend. I’ve long admired the way he organises pub poetry readings in Auckland’s Ponsonby, and helps to promote even poets who do not see things the way he does.
Roberts is an adept performance poet. He is happiest with poems that can be declaimed publicly. After reading this collection in page-proof, the poet Siobhan Harvey and I each (separately) agreed to contribute blurbs to appear on the back cover of this ample (145-page) collection.
Below is what I had to say:
Jeremy Roberts is a performance poet, a quick-change artist with words, a confessionalist not afraid to let it be personal, a guy who grabs the present moment and makes it sing. In the words of one of his best, he’s ‘permanently temporary’. He knows ‘the Zen of the immediate moment’. Are you tempted to think he’s just a freak and a letter-day Beat? Wrong! The surface is the surface, cosmopolitan, infused with Asian experience and Rimbaud and American pop culture and echoes of mean urban streets. But scratch into these free-form effusions and you find and strong and fine outrage, a protest against a world in which ‘the celebration of the buck is alive everywhere’. Roberts is accessible. He’s a rebuke to academic poetry which turns in on itself and never looks outside its window. He’s fun and he’s a damned good read.”

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Diane Brown’s Taking My Mother to the Opera is autobiography conceived as poetry.
Across 110 pages of blank verse, organised throughout in three-line stanzas, Diane Brown tells the story of her relationship with her parents. This narrative is divided into 18 sections, which I find it hard not to call chapters.  The first six chapters deal with the poet’s childhood, early upbringing and adolescence, up to the point where she first married, young and apparently against her parents’ wishes. The last twelve chapters leap a number of decades (one section is headed “Leaping into the Twenty-First Century”) and tell of her relationship with her parents when they are old and infirm and succumbing to dementia or debilitating physical ailments. Both parents lived into their 90s. The collection ends with memorial rites. By design, then, this is very selective autobiography, deleting material about the poet’s own adult life and relationships so that she can concentrate on her chosen theme of how her parents shaped her and how, bit by bit, she came to judge them differently and even, perhaps, to forgive them.
Recently I had the great pleasure of reading Martin Edmond’s (prose) autobiography of his youth The Dreaming Land, and one of the things I found most attractive about it was the way Edmond’s sharp eye for specific detail conjured up the New Zealand that I remembered from being a small child in the 1950s and an adolescent in the 1960s. There are passages of Diane Brown’s Taking My Mother to the Opera that offer me the same pleasure, especially as Brown’s childhood was spent, as mine was, in Auckland.
Some of the childhood experiences she reconstructs are universal ones, like the time when she was a little girl and her mother failed to keep a rendezvous, sending her into a panic of thinking “Maybe I dreamed her up, / will have to live alone now / in the darkening woods  / like all bad children” (from the section “Then We Came Along”). What small child doesn’t experience this sort of separation anxiety at some time? There is also life in state-house suburbia out in the West of Auckland and a memory of being allowed to walk across the Auckland Harbour Bridge on the day it opened and such iconic (and period) versions of a father’s indulgence as the following: “He takes Clive and me up the road / for the 8 O’Clock paper and our Saturday / treat, a box of Black Knight liquorice” (from the section “Big Talk”).
Every child has a memory of weird or horrific things intruding, even into the safest and most orderly lives. In Brown’s case, there was the woman’s body found in a nearby creek, and a near-brush with a teacher who may have been a paedophile. There are also adult reflections on what the domestic norm of the country must have been in the 1950s. Brown thinks of her ex-serviceman father and her mother, and she thinks of all the wives who must have had to show considerable forbearance with husbands who had somehow been marked by the war: “All around the country, wives holding / their tongues, soft hands and voices / maintaining a fragile layer of peace.” (from the section “You Can’t Eat Poems”)
What the whole collection suggests is that the poet felt closer to her father than to her mother – he being more flamboyant and perhaps more permissive and something of a frustrated poet in his own right. Her mother comes across as too possessive; a bit puritanical; disliking and refusing to read the type of things the poet writes and gets published; and (in old age) resentful of change and modern cookery. Yet there is the gradual discovery that the mother was shaped by her own very hard childhood. The clearest shock of forgiveness happens when the poet visits her ailing mother in hospital and at first walks right past her, not recognising “an old woman, / her head pressed into the pillow, / silvery-grey curls grown limp.”(from the section “On the Lookout”). There will always come a time when adult children realise how fragile and small their parents have become. If there is a particularly vivid image in this collection, it’s the one Brown deploys to convey her sense of shock and sadness when he father lost the ability to speak clearly. He babbled incoherently, with only one or two recognisable words  like coming across / New Zealand mentioned in a foreign / newspaper when you’re homesick.” (from the section “Dad’s New Home”)
I hope I’ve made it clear that I enjoyed much of Taking My Mother to the Opera as recall to a past age, reconstruction of a domestic situation and personal confession. There is an aspect that sometimes niggled with me, however. Sometimes the blank verse gets all too blank. For example, in the following two extracts (out of many I could quote) I have removed the dividers that would tell you where the lines begin and end. We are clearly left with prose.
Thus: “Back home, as a family man, he struggled to be easy with workmates who wanted to talk rugby and racing over smoko, not art or poetry or anything that might unleash the demons he carried.” (from the section “Leaping into the Twenty-First Century”)
And thus: “We are all in the room with Dad as the doctor shows us two large white spots on the scan: bleeding on opposite sides of his brain.” (from the section “Listening to My Father Read”)
What I am saying is that, expansive though it is, and much as it often hits apt imagery, much of this volume is very prose-y. Or Prosaic. It tells us things as straightforwardly, sans imagery or distinctive rhythm, as a prose confession would.
Otago University Press have awarded Taking My Mother to the Opera a very handsome piece of book production. It is a generous and study hardback with an inbuilt ribbon bookmark. Feels classy.

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