Four poets offer poetry picks for June.
1. David Eggleton:
Top of my poetry book pile for the last few weeks, if you don’t include Under Milkwood and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, are three twenty-first century poetry collections by Americans. In Rae Armantrout‘s 2013 collection Just Saying (published by Wesleyan University Press in Conneticutt), she picks up everyday phrases with tweezers, inspects them under a magnifying glass, then eccentrically jams them together in jazz-type riffs, sparking an electric charge — but it’s all totally understated and elliptical. Blink, and you might miss how she puts the riffs together. She’s like a sly disciple of Emily Dickinson, but one living in an age which is not filled with birdsong, the creak of rocking chairs and the rustle of Bible pages being turned, but with media’s white noise, the infernal combustion engine, and endless iterations of the quotidian: ‘God is encrypting his account// This is taking forever!’
Edmund White, in a profile of Truman Capote entitled ‘Sweating Mirrors’ wrote: ‘The rich have the means to realise their whims and the effrontery to avow their desires.’ He could have been talking about the independently wealthy Frederick Seidel, whose 2013 collection Nice Weather (published by Faber and Faber) is partly a bouquet of rose-stem-barbed misanthropy and partly custard pie slapstick, where the target is often enough Seidel’s own lugubrious Buster Keaton-like physiognomy. At a time when the importance of being earnest has taken on the status of holy writ, Seidel prefers to substitute witty heresies for canonical babblings. Seidel’s a bit like a Baudelaire with money, not ground down by poverty but wafting aloft, a rhyming flaneur up on Cloud Nine, albeit a cloud raining human blood. Seidel has the morbid intimacy of a Jacobean playwright, much possessed by death.
The third collection, Endpoint and other poems, by John Updike (Hamish Hamilton, 2009) with its elegies, its requiems, its poems on the death of a computer, on a lunar eclipse, on surgical operations and on last trips to favourite haunts is also obsessed by mortality, but then it was mostly written when the poet knew he was dying. ‘The poet is the emissary to childhood and all things lost’, to quote Updike’s friend, the novelist Carol Joyce Oates, and Updike was that: a great celebrant of his own childhood, which he accomplished through memory and the power and precision of his language. In his last book of poems the poignancy effect is doubled as he stares back from the clifftop vantage point of a terminal illness. The particular wonder of Updike, essentially a conservative in the American grain, is his dexterity and his grasp: in his travel poems he spins the globe like a basketball in the palm of his hand, slam-dunk style.
David Eggleton is currently editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online. His seventh poetry collection is forthcoming from Otago University Press.
2. Vivienne Plumb:
I am living down in Christchurch at present while I hold the 2014 Ursula Bethell writer-in-residence position at University of Canterbury. So, I’ve been reading work by lots of South Island poets. I have particularly enjoyed Bernadette Hall’s Life & Customs (Victoria University Press, 2013). It has a most attractive pale mint green cover and I enjoyed the small interesting moments that are clarified and defined within these poems.
The Bond of Time (Canterbury University Press, 2014) is an epic love poem reprinted by the University of Canterbury Press and just launched a few weeks back. This epic was written by John Pule (writer in residence at University of Canterbury in 2013) many years ago, when he was only twenty-one years old. It is lush, romantic, and thick with language, and this work, by one of New Zealand’s most fascinating Pacific writers, is well worth obtaining.
Vivienne Plumb holds the current Writer’s Residency at the University of Canterbury.
3. Janet Charman:
The Blue Coat, Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, 2013) This collection puts to me certain things I don’t like. Organised religion for one. Death. Into the crafted fabric of her poems Smither weaves the flaws that, as the ‘Narnia’ clothing label admonished in the 70’s, ‘are a unique part of the character of the garment.’
Purity depends on them and glass
the length of bodies with saints enclosed
or fables of shepherds and lambs.
Those spitting hissing gargoyles of Notre Dame
how, when you look up, they have spit ready
in their taut-muscled cheeks and drawn-back jaws
how they love to undo––in exact proportions ––
all the good you thought you had accrued
by lighting candles for all your family
The conspicuous awkwardness produced in Smither’s poems by her polite interrogations of patriarchy, the transgressiveness of her discipleship of women, her rowdy wake for the bereft friends of Maxine Kumin, these got me to buy The Blue Coat––flaws and all.
Cloudboy, Siobhan Harvey (Otago University Press, 2014) These poems put me in an awkward position too. Making me uncomfortably aware of my former lives as educator and health professional, someone looking uncomprehendingly at the mother of a tricky child. Harvey’s shrewd gaze makes it possible for the reader to keep their aerial views, but not at the expense of taking an internal look. She invites me to stand beside ‘Cloudboy’ and ‘Cloudmother’. Of course I am now a Cloudmother too.
From ‘Cloudmother’: ‘When a child starts school, so too the parents:/this is a truth Cloudmother can’t escape.’
The “other” question at which these tightly constructed poems subtextually puzzle, is not just how to live in the land of the long white cloud but how to be alive here. From ‘A Migrant Teacher Considers Clouds’: ‘his eyes hungry for belonging/in the harsh light above/two jigsaw pieces of land,’.
Heartland, Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, 2014) These poems ramble discursively through the memories of uncles, off the track, down to hidden beaches or into shops where they have things for sale you didn’t expect and suddenly, viscerally don’t want, because you have to get out.
‘the day of the explosion they postpone
her arrival two men walk out and agony
begins its clinch we crouch by the radio
unable to help thinking they could all be dead
‘Olive’ is the name of Leggott’s Seeing Eye dog. Leggott’s poems, as ever, walk the pristine beaches of sensual L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Weird words and images have always washed into view in her work but may or may not have acquired comprehensibility. May or may not have halted progress towards the sublime. But something here has changed. From here on, the poet tells us, the crap on the beaches is not going to be washed away and so it’s time to stop and recognize exactly how it got there. Leggott cares harrowingly less in Heartland about the reader’s enjoyment and more about what she can see.
Janet Charman is an Auckland poet.
4. Steven Toussaint:
The Odour of Sanctity by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, 2013) This is one of the most original, audacious, and virtuosic books of New Zealand poetry I have ever encountered. The book, a contemporary epic, follows the process of canonisation ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. Brown’s proposed candidates for sainthood are an eclectic bunch, to say the least; we find the testament of theologian Augustine of Hippo next to petitions on behalf of Neutral Milk Hotel frontman and recluse, Jeff Mangum. Much of this book’s charm is due to its intricate formal dynamics. Its discrete sequence of ‘cantos’ relate to one another in the sifting ratios of a sestina. Brown’s appropriation of the medieval form brings to mind Ezra Pound’s admiring words about the sestinas of Arnaut Daniel, the form’s inventor: “like a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself.” Therein, Brown navigates beautifully through a number of distinct prosodic and stanzaic shapes, corresponding to the numerous voices that populate this beatific myth. My favourite sections were those charting 19th century poet Christina Rossetti’s ascension to holiness. These lines are a latticework of lyrical filigree, assonant and dazzling:
What we feel for each other
must be sisterly, brotherly—
human not holy, the only
love I can know. Paradise must be
a place of mothers and sisters
where there are no demands on one
but to be cheerful and no reason
to groan—no bills or illness or
scissors or competitions. No
temptations or hatreds—I am
neither clear nor concise!—
no apologies or slights. No
false modesty or guilty eyes.
We might be a flock of swallows—
a summer of swallows or a
our prey would not exist.
Brown’s Odour is a broad church; it echoes with both the old lore and the new, but never turns a deaf ear to the subterranean beat—the aural foundation of oral tradition.
Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die by Joel Felix (Verge Books, 2013) I couldn’t believe, upon finishing, that this was a debut collection. Felix crafts capacious long poems, short lyrics as dense as ironwood, and prose ‘field books’ with equal mastery, pathos, and insight. What’s more, the political and philosophical questions at the heart of this work couldn’t have higher stakes. In these poems, Felix seeks to understand the legacy of the American civil rights struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries through ancient lenses, specifically Lucan and Virgil’s accounts of the Roman civil war. The title poem is a triumph. Starting with a line from Virgil’s Georgics, the poem spindles out into a serious meditation on everyday violence. Our thraldom, this disinherited song:
—No one taught the apple how to die
and none were taught the song
it sprang from the disemboweled shell
of a turtle the baby Hermes hollowed
and how the lopped tongue danced
from its beak
to the guitar of its body
In the book’s Afterword, Felix confronts one of the primary ethical dilemmas of our time: “Should I accept that any form of poetry fails as revolutionary action (as I do), I cannot relinquish the claim that the art should remain responsive and responsible to the common suffering of culture.” It is refreshing to encounter a poet who accommodates this critical imperative in such an aesthetically rich and inventive way.
Bravura Cool by Jane Lewty (1913 Press, 2012) Another startling first book. Lewty’s poems seed the cloudy borderlands between science and arcana. This book seems to emerge out of what Charles Olson called a ‘saturation job,’ the kind of depth immersion in a particular body of knowledge that yields a singular poetic sensibility. And Lewty is indisputably singular. The discourses of sound studies and mineralogy are just two of the many esoteric lexica that texture these alien poems. But what’s truly remarkable is the way that Lewty’s curiosity with regard to these subjects comes through so palpably as a core of vulnerability, an absolutely personal voice. So we find in “Radioséance,” the book’s staticky backbone:
What bulk can we ascribe to signals? Are they small large long fluid straight circular
a fix a star-map, just an old code.
Give a meaning. You see.
Aboulia is the loss of will, or the will to. Through a limestone wall, will it place on me a wind
will I hear you? Do I believe you?
I think we are so used to encountering the ‘personal’ in poems as address, or confession, or petition, that we might overlook the private marvel of a mind being fascinated. Lewty’s are the kind of poems I love most; engaged whole-heartedly in the pursuit of an idiosyncratic learning, the poet nevertheless makes a space for the reader, implicates the reader in the initiation. The searching and perspicacious self that oscillates through these poems is the best and only guide to the strange world she thought up.
Steven Toussaint is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Modern Letters. His chapbook, Fiddlehead, was launched by Compound Press earlier this year. See my comments here.