A Way of Living
How to characterize a national poetry? The New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt, introducing her selections for her Best New Zealand Poems 2016 volume, managed only to say that her choices were “strong and various ... New Zealand poetry is in fine working order.” In 2013, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams also demurred: “The field seemed amorphous ... difficult to pin down.” An outsider, I have no such scruples (though I’d never dream of trying to characterize my fellow American poets). I read fifteen or so books by New Zealand poets published in 2017. These particular poets seemed affable, whether writing political or domestic poems, and cheerfully civil, even when obscene. Several of these volumes mix prose, lineated poetry, and poems constructed of found language, with no posturing or apparent anxiety about genre. The poets I read are more likely to write short lyrics or sequences composed of short bits than to build ongoing narratives or modernist-style mega-projects. They tend not to make big claims, or talk loud. Some are marvelous at getting the look and feel of a place, like Rob Hack in “Round Christchurch Square” (from Everything Is Here):
Water filled basements with concrete columnsthe reinforcing like a comb over.My uncle, eighty-four, big hands clasped behind his backreckons this street was always busy, watchesa cherry picker move over a church’s holey roof.
Some, like Chris Price, access the comfortable disquiet and emotional intricacy of domesticity, as in “My Friend Flicka” (from Beside Herself ), which begins with a question, “What was it with the horse / books we all read?” Price’s half-answers have to do with sex and seduction; the poem ends in witty irritability and a not-so-sexy turning out the light. The very best work in Ian Wedde’s Selected Poems, containing work from 1971–2013, might be his sequence “Good Business,” a series of short poems rendered in couplets, each named after a Wellington business. “KFC,” for example, is a bemused, brisk presentation in which mildness and judgment coincide: “snappy flags match the crisp new uniforms / of the KFC staff, standing with their hands clasped reverently // beneath their stomachs.” Wedde ends the poem with a benediction, sort of:
I wish them wellin their fresh new premises, I wish the customers better —and the chickens in line to be fried as nuggets, may theytoo benefit in some fashion from today’s pious opening prayers.
If at times I felt too much moderation in the stack of books I was reading through, a too predictable decorum, and could have wished for a clunk, a barbaric yawp or two, even a bit of show-offy artifice, still I liked the understanding that not everything has to be a monument, or to aim at greatness — though there were many great things in these books. I liked tremendously the sense that, rather than a specialized event, poetry can be, simply, a way of living.
RedEdits, by Geoff Cochrane.
Victoria University Press. $25.00.
Case in point: RedEdits, Geoff Cochrane’s seventeenth collection, is a terrifically fun book, and difficult to convey a sense of through quotation. No ostentatiously exquisite language, no straining toward mystery, and no ka-pow endings to cap off thoughtful little poems. Instead, RedEdits is record, and practice, of dailiness, a sort of pillow book made public. Some entries feel cobbled out of notebook jottings, but transcend collage through Cochrane’s perspicacity. In “Cameos,” a series commenting on various artists and writers, for example, “Anne writes of headlights soaking through a fog. That soaking’s characteristic. Her talent is a trick; her talent is a kind of maladaption.”
The twenty-seven titular “RedEdits” — mostly quotes from other writers — are scattered among Cochrane’s own poems, prose vignettes, and commentary. The book seems ordered on no particular principle beyond dynamic energy, alertness, and nerve. No particular connection exists between, say, RedEdit #5, a quote from Anne Carson (“Alive in a room as usual”) and “Falling Down,” the three-page prose piece it follows, an anxious, amused, exasperated account of seeking medical care after inexplicably passing out. Cochrane is by turns winsomely antisocial, delightedly self-mocking, crapulously good-hearted, and very, very smart — this book is a bit like an extremely well-curated social media page. Some of his subjects: crappy tea kettles, paintings, rain, family members, cheap suits, the meaning of literary success — and loneliness, self-deprecation, satire, forthrightness, humor. “My slender book / my lithely unambitious Testament,” as Cochrane puts it in “The Plan.” This isn’t a young man’s book; it’s a humane one. Here’s all of “What I Told Bernie’s Class”:
Poets disimprove with age and should die young.Should resemble shooting stars.Should trace short arcs of fizz and fireand then disappear.
Frank O’Hara could do that too — make you feel like he was messing around and dead serious at the same time — make you laugh and also move you. Cochrane’s is not a book designed, thank goodness, to induce the mmmm-ahhhh of poetic epiphany, but in all its short segments it feels tremendously, and tremulously, real.
Fale Aitu | Spirit House, by Tusiata Avia.
Victoria University Press. $25.00.
In Fale Aitu | Spirit House, there’s a grimness, and a directness, to Tusiata Avia’s telling and to her singing. Irony is not much her thing, although the four-line “Tell me what you remember” is a striking, modest, garish bit of implication:
Sitting on the floor with Sticklebricks, too old for them by thenThe way the sun came through the kitchen window and fell on my Lego houseMy mother kissing Karen, who smoked and drank vodka and had a boyfriendAnd let her German Shepherd lick the inside of her mouth.
Much of Avia’s storytelling comes in long paragraphs, from odd vantages. “This is a photo of my house,” a prose poem of disquiet and evidence, is told from a child’s point of view:
There is the piano. There is the ghost. Here is the hall, it is very dark. Here is the bedroom. Here is the other bedroom, babies come from there. Here is the last bedroom, it is very cold, there is a trapdoor in the wardrobe, it goes down under the floor and you can hide if there is a flood or a tornado.
Spirits live among the people in this book. Two locations bookend Avia’s long-lined “Wairua Road” — Aranui, an impoverished suburb of Christchurch, and Merivale, a wealthy neighborhood. The Spirits seem to love the poor people best, to dubious effect. “The Spirits love me so much, they send all the people in Aranui to be my friends or my parents,” writes Avia.
My mother rises up out of the lino, wringing and wringing the blood from her hands.
If the Spirits didn’t love me, I could live in a dog, in a wife, in a house, in Merivale or on some other shining path, far away from the hungry road.
Avia is of mixed Samoan and Palagi lineage; this is a book emphatically conscious of injustice — of economic inequality and ethnic oppression — at home in New Zealand and abroad. Avia is partial to anaphora, a repetitive device that works particularly well in live performance. “I cannot write a poem about Gaza,” is the title of, and recurring phrase, in a poem that considers our sense of helplessness in relation to faraway events happening to other people.
I cannot write a poem about Gaza because I cannot eat a whole desert....
I cannot write a poem about Gaza because if I speak up for the bodies of babies, for the pieces of children, for the women pulling out their own eyes, you will call me anti-Semitic and I must allow the blood of thousands to absolve me.
I agree with Avia’s politics. A poem like this moves me less than her more personal work, but lends gravitas and a sort of willed urgency to the collection as a whole.
Cold water cure, by Claire Orchard.
Victoria University Press. $25.00.
Claire Orchard’s first book, Cold water cure, keeps Charles Darwin — his books, notebooks, and letters — front and center, but reads nothing like the way most research-and-development poetry books read. For one thing, there are poems on plenty of other subjects, like “Poetry masterclass,” which satirizes the scene, from the audience, of a class given by a poet named Bill (possibly Manhire):
Someone waving urgently from the back row requestedthe addition of a comma. The woman beside me scribbled“no commas is GOOD” on our copy of the poem.
Performing a smash cut at the end, “Poetry masterclass” is more than mere satire:
Leaving the theatre, I sidestepped a trike driven by a runaway toddler.The mother’s face apologized for her girl, who, pedalling hard,was targeting the harbour at the end of the road.
Orchard likes found language, likes remixing it, as when she borrows from Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. On each page of her eighteen-part “Voyages,” Orchard lineates and left-aligns text from Darwin, then follows with right-aligned personal narrative, thematically connected. After Darwin writes of his dinner,
I had thought for a momentI was eating a local delicacy,namely a half-formed calf,
the poet-speaker follows with an account of eating eggs while watching two international students:
One took photos on her phone
of the colourful plastic fruit lights
strung across the ceiling, while the other
pointed at my plate of yellow on toast
and asked the waitress to explain.
Appropriative poetry’s built-in failing (as well as its victory) can be in its difficulty in expressing emotion (it often doesn’t want to). But when, in “My Dearest Emma,” Orchard lineates and reorders sections of Darwin’s letters to his wife concerning the illness and death of their ten-year-old daughter, well, I ache:
We have changed the lower sheet,cut off the tail of her chemy.She looks quite nice.Got her bed flat & a little pillowbetween her two bony knees.She is certainly now going on very well.
Some will complain that’s Darwin, not Orchard, working on me there. Shrug? I think of my own ten-year-old, and more to the point, I think of the tyke on the trike heading from the arena of absurdity that adults create to the harbor of will and self-determination in “Poetry masterclass”; and of the networks of compassion and human experience, without falsification, a good poet can create, using her own words and those borrowed from others. This is an impressive debut.
Hera Lindsay Bird, by Hera Lindsay Bird.
Victoria University Press. $25.00.
Hera Lindsay Bird’s amusingly eponymous debut Hera Lindsay Bird has plenty to do with the (sometimes laughingly) self-dramatizing, (sometimes cutesy) gothy-gutsy performance we’ve seen from a number of midcareer American poets and songwriters (mostly women). Bird is thankfully outward-looking and energetic rather than full of coy anomie; her mind is as healthily filthy as the next person’s. “Everyone assumes you want to fuck them,” she writes in “Bisexuality”:
And they’re rightbut you’re also bad girl, with a kinky .... goodbye fetishAlways bursting into tears in the hotel lobby!
Nifty turn, that. Bird also likes thinking about feelings. “Hate,” like several of her other poems, is a list poem organized around anaphora:
Hate is an emotional aristocracy fallen on hard timesIt’s like eating nothing off a solid gold plateTo hate is a cruel vintage festivityLike a hand-made piñata filled with bees.
That’s the thirteenth of sixteen stanzas in this poem, seven of which start with the phrase “Hate is” or some variation. Bird is rather good at similes; she likes to compare abstractions (here, hate) to abstractions (emotional aristocracy, cruel vintage festivity) to surreal-ish, imagined-rather-than-experienced things (solid gold plate, piñata filled with bees). This sort of figuration is interspersed with statements like “I don’t think it’s right to hate people / It’s just that I don’t care,” which generally amuse. It’s not clear why the poem goes on as long as it does, nor why it doesn’t go on longer, but I’m grateful to Bird for recognizing that not everything has to be a neatly-wrapped lyric performance. If she’s heavily reliant on simile, and overfond of anaphora (in other poems, clusters of lines begin with “It’s so sad to” or “I want to” or “I am” or “It’s like”); if I began to yearn for more tonal and syntactic variation; if Bird is a bit of a, well, two-trick pony, that’s more tricks than most poets have, especially in first books. What she is capable of is evident in one of her best poems, irresistibly titled “Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind,” in which fragments of fantasy are set into comments on poets’ deaths, some factual, some invented:
Keats is dead, so fuck me from behindSlowly and with carnal purposeSome black midwinter afternoonWhile all the children are walking home from schoolPeel my stockings down with your teethColeridge is dead, and Auden tooOf laughing in an overcoat
There’s brash luxury here, not just ennui. The dead poets cited are Great White Men; the poet sets her bedroom activities into a psychic, perhaps onanistic landscape (“Finger me slowly / In the snowscape of your childhood”) while also setting herself and her fuckery into a lineage of male poets. There’s a vulnerability and ambition here in tandem with a moistly triumphant pathos. This relatively short (for Bird) poem ends cheekily, in challenge, also compliment, to the best-known living New Zealand poet:
Nobody, not even the dead can tell me what to doEat my pussy from behindBill Manhire’s not getting any younger
Some Things to Place in a Coffin, by Bill Manhire.
Victoria University Press. $25.00.
To judge by his poetry’s humanity and rigor, Bill Manhire should be amused by Bird’s namedropping teasing, even flattered. He himself is not writing much about fucking, but there’s lots of death in Some Things to Place in a Coffin. The title poem is an understated list poem executed with grace and intimacy. Each line names a thing or things, literal or conceptual; each is made of a sentence fragment or fragments; from this we learn about the poet’s dead friend:
A glass of pinot noir.A boat with a motor, a boat with sails, a boat with oars.France and Spain.Some Lorca, some lacquer.A fishing rod, a hammer.The dog Matiu.
Attentive to sound and scale as it shifts focus to give a sense of the things and thoughts and aspirations that make a life and a friendship, the poem finally enacts a burial, a transformation, then maybe disputes notions of transcendence. No theatrics here, or direct claims to feeling:
Nailed down with iron against the rain.
Nailed down with rain.
With an old window-frame.
A more public experience of death — in war — unfolds in “Known unto God,” a fourteen-part poem that Manhire wrote for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, in which 2100 New Zealanders died. Some of these super-short bits rhyme:
Once I was small bonesin my mother’s bodyjust taking a nap.Now my feet can’t find the sap.
Many talk from the grave, and take surprising twists:
They dug me up in Caterpillar Valleyand brought me home —well, all of the visible bits of me.Now people arrive at dawn and sing.And I have a new word: skateboarding.
This is a tasteful and thoughtful performance; the brief third-to-last section elevates the poem to importance with its glancing reference to the present-day refugee crisis, making a connection between then and now:
They taught me how to say refugee.Then my father and mother floated away from me.This was on the way to Lampedusa.By now we were all at sea.
Such strange brightness in the midst of elegy — this is one of the things we read poetry for — to acknowledge life in death, and death in life.