Two beautiful chapbooks were launched by Compound Press on Saturday at Timeout Bookshop in Mt Eden (how I love this flurry of poetry presses the length and breadth of New Zealand). For a moment there, when Lee Posna started reading his ant poem it felt like I was sitting back in Frank O’Hara’s New York apartment listening to the lilt and lift of American poetry (only done that via YouTube!). There is something to be said about an intimate audience leaning forward intently into the pleasures of poetry.
Lee didn’t read from his book, Arboretum, but instead read a longish poem about ants that took you from Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ to Luis Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou and made various other sidesteps. His book has delicate artwork that brought to mind the painterly gestures of Judy Millar– here in black and white. Beauty may be a suspect word when it comes to poetry and the ability of language to transmit such a concept, yet reading Arboretum, I do get a transcendental, beauty effect. It is a matter of absorbing the layer of simplicity (‘I die right now./ I am past.’) that then unfolds and refolds the rebounding layers of complexity. The syntax buckles. The vocabulary challenges and soothes. There is the insistent hook of death that keeps up appearances. There is the strange difficulty of life (a life in passing glimpsed in shards).
Steven read a brief extract from his book, Fiddlehead. Again, I felt transported at the level of beauty — through a concatenation of physical detail and musical litheness. This long poem takes its starting point from Dante’s geographical world view in The Divine Comedy and in Questio de acqua et terra. Steven re-imagines the island left when the southern lands fled to the Northern Hemisphere (sighted by Ulysses in a distant haze just before his ship sunk) to Rangitoto. Listening to an extract from Fiddlehead and then reading the complete poem is reading poetry at its musical fullest. I have not read poetry like this in an age—poetry that startles the ear as though each word is a note picked or threaded as chord in a musical composition. The listening experience brings to mind the joy of hearing Michele Leggott read. Or reading Susan Howe. Lisa Robertson. There are aural contours that shift you from difficult word to exquisitely simple phrase along syntactical shudders. The physical detail grounds you. And then moves you on. Elsewhere. Into an ambiguous but moving ‘I.’ At times the detail is sensual and a locator of place, at other times it is off key and slightly surreal. A foothold into the local landmark. A foothold into Dante’s circles.