Tim Upperton, The Night We Ate The Baby HauNui Press, 2014
Tim Upperton’s debut poetry collection, A House on Fire, was published by Steele Roberts in 2009. Since then, his poetry has been published in numerous journals and he has won awards for a number of them. The poems for this new collection were written with the assistance of a Doctoral Scholarship from Massey University of New Zealand, so perhaps they form/formed part of his doctoral submission. Tim will be reading as part of the Haunui Press ‘Deep Friend Poetry Reading’ series at Vic Books on 26th March. Details here.
This latest book is unlike any other collection I have seen in New Zealand; chiefly in terms of the measure of discomfort. The forms are various, scooping an edgy wit into prose blocks, villanelle, triplets, couplets and freer patterns. Yet there is connective glue at work here, and that is what makes this collection stand out. I think it comes down to voice (whether or not it is the personal voice of the poet doesn’t really matter) because the voice steering the poems is sharp, forthright, witty, edgy, grumpy. It unsettles. It keeps you on your toes. On the back of the book, Ashleigh Young suggests that ‘[t]hese willfully, calmly disagreeable poems have tenderness and courage at their heart.’ I would agree. Therein lies the pleasure of reading these poems; there is more to the brittle edginess than meets the initial eye.
The first poem, ‘Avoid,’ very clearly announces that this is a poet who loves language, that is unafraid of rhyme and rhythm working arm in arm. The poem is a miniature explosion of sound effects — with sliding assonance, bounding consonants, near rhyme and sumptuous aural connections. It brought to mind the refrain in Don McGlashan’s song, ‘Marvellous Year,’ and Bill Manhire’s glorious ‘1950s’ in the use of rhythm and rhyme, and aural trapeze work that is ear defying. Whereas Don’s song represents a potted portrait of the world in all its warts and glory (in a marvellous year), and Bill’s poem is a nostalgic recuperation of things, Tim sets up the collection’s negative disposition and itemises things to avoid!
New Age mystics. Wave-particle physics.
Federico Garcia Lorca, that all-night talker.
The law. The rot inside the apple core.
All dawdlers. Power walkers. Tattoo
parlours. Death metal concerts.
Poetry readings that go on for hours.
The second poem, ‘Valediction,’ is a list poem steered by straightforward rhyme, and coupled with the incantatory joy of repetition you fall upon the humour. This is a lonesome poem, yet it is unbearably funny.
Goodbye, bagel, table for one.
Coffee, cigarette. Warmth of the sun.
Goodbye, sparrow. Goodbye, speckled hen.
Goodbye, tomorrow. Goodbye, remember when.
The third poem, Spring,’ (it would be so easy to work my way through the book, poem by poem but this trend is about to stop!) is not your usual homage to the season of daffodils and lambs. It is both refreshing and refreshed as the negative bite overturns such empathetic images. You board the slippery slope of the poem and run into the self-deprecating turn of the poet as he surveys the ruins of his touch (‘I ruin the jonquils, the daffodils. I ruin the I love you.’). Beneath this surface of ruination there is a white-hot core of intimacy and loss of intimacy. Unbearably moving. The final stanza holds its most potent kick until the oxymoron in the final line. Spring becomes the vehicle to hint at so much more:
Which is to say, I am terrified.
Meanwhile the grassy goodness, the lengthening day.
It’s not as if you died.
You come closer and closer away.
I was really drawn to ‘The trouble with poetry’ (originally published in Sport). It felt like this poem was a sleuth on the trail of another poem that would in turn become this poem; the Private Eye Poem collected all the necessary pieces (to tell the story in the manner of ‘a poet, not a novelist’). Like many of the poems in the book, it is as much about story as it is about language effects. There are characters and problems and turning points. The poems begins like this:
In the poem
which is like a house
the poet is looking
out a window.
The poem-houses in the book do look out into the world and what they gather in through their wide open and half-open windows are little anecdotes sometimes layered the one upon the other. They house jarring relations, spiky revelations. They are not-love poems as much as they are love poems. They house broken worlds, interior and external. ‘Late Valentine’ is like an ode to what is not:
I don’t sleep with you anymore,
and this makes the rain come
in the open window
The honeyed repetition of a villanelle renders the ‘hook’ in ‘The bare hook’ more damaging. Again there is discomfort, ache, and the oxymoronic kick of a last line (‘The way in is the way out.’) Here’s a sample:
The bare hook where you hung your coat
is a question mark. The answers never.
Don’t ask what this is all about.
You need to read the whole collection to get a sense of the tonal subtleties, the echoey anecdotes, the spade that digs open and the spade that buries — the language that takes to limitless skies, and the forms that contain. This is a risky collection. It’s like a series of negative imprints that if you tilt to the left you get exquisite glimpses of fracture and repair.
from ‘Take care’
You are precious,
so carry yourself carefully
through this day,
don’t drop yourself because
you will smash
and fly apart in every direction,
and when that happens–
who will gather you,
who will pick you all up
I’d like to know?
HauNui Press page