Murray Edmond, Shaggy Magpie Songs Auckland University Press 2015
On the back of his new collection of poems, Murray Edmond writes, ‘Songs are poems that are incomplete without their music, so I think of these poems as all wanting to get off the page and start singing and dancing. The magpies of Aotearoa are silly (and slightly dangerous) birds who have given rise to the most profound line in the New Zealand poetry canon: Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle …. I like to think the poems are the kind of songs that magpies might sing if they were into making up words: a little bubbly, a little bitter, a little absurd, and echoing with the sound of laughter: songs with shaggy tales to tell.’
Murray’s musings are the perfect gateway to a collection that relishes sound, a sense of humour and pocket-book anecdotes. Not far into the collection, I pictured I was sitting in a dark room, listening to a bit of blues or folk or jazz, a spotlight picking up a pianist whose fingers were freewheeling, bodies were swaying, feet tapping, voices saying, Yeah! Aah! Mmm! These poems make you move because these poems make music before they do anything else. Your ear picks out melody, aural chords, infectious rhythms and shifty rhyme, so often rhyme. Rhyme has multiple effects but initially it taps into that deep-buried allure that rhyme holds for the child. With Murray’s fingers flicking along the scale of rhyme though, rhyme is surprising, it makes you laugh out loud when it hits the mark, it drives the poem, it sidetracks the poem, it celebrates the utter joy of electric aural connections. The music is never constrained. Always on the move. Consonants shuffle to make little bridges for your ear. The rhythm, jaunty, jittery, smooth.
Here is one example from ‘The Poet Returns to New York’
Frank O’Hara strolls on by in pyjamas
a knowing smile disposes the inelegant aftermath of dramas
that might otherwise threaten to alarm us
because this morning there is nothing that can harm us
and Tennessee has bought us tickets to the Bahamas
Here is another sample from ‘Snap Snap’:
addicted to your pictures
a picture ain’t a fixture
turn me soft like focus
nail me with a frame
sign me with a name
The collection is divided into four sections (Praise, Nonsense, Blues, Pop) with no Endnotes (the poem is the thing!) and there is much traffic between. Murray sings the praises of colleagues, fellow poets. Stories are delivered in pieces, sung into pieces with those melodic arches. There is almost a cheekiness in the loping, looping sounds. Splinters of nonsense might tilt the praise. Maybe there is autobiography skimming between the lines, hiding in the flicks of wit. Or a madcap flow of stream-of-consciousness. Or a keen mind jamming facts and fiction.
Some samples. This from ‘Tongatapu Dream Choruses”
from ‘National Standards’
Please step out of the poem slowly
stand by your word with hands on your head
the dogs will sniff you an officer will
frisk you please enjoy the experience
The collection is contoured in terms of pitch and tone. One of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘The Letter from Rilke,’ is like an onion. It is the poem that I keep returning to because each time I peel off a layer I get a different reaction. The visual and aural links are sumptuous (I have posted this poem). I am also drawn to ‘Kiss the Impossible Good Night,’ a poem for Kendrick Smithyman. After suggesting that the poem might work, a question is asked: ‘but can you/ get it to do anything? It is a poem with surreal kinks as you read, but it gets to the heart of writing. Murray’s poetry wears the look of play: a musician at play, a wordsmith at play, the wit of play, yet this playfulness belies the craft that steers the pen.
the impossible good night
before your very eyes
the poem appears
it might work but can you
get it to do anything?)
If poets have recurring motifs, I claim the moon for Murray. His previous collection was entitled Fool Moon, and the moon features in a number of his poems. The motif is stamped here like a lunar signature — mysterious, mesmerising, moody, and is like a tether to poems of the past. Reading the new poems, through the folds and unfoldings, is to listen to different keys, yet whichever key you hit, these poems are sung into being out of a joy of words. Wonderful.
Auckland University Press page