Poetry Shelf review: Jake Arthur’s A Lack of Good Sons

A Lack of Good Sons, Jake Arthur, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023

I cavorted through the Gobi Desert
I fell in love with a camel in Saudi
I poured pints in Kraków.

If anecdotes are a life, I have lived.
Otherwise, I’ve urgently wasted my time.

from “Peregrination”

The opening poem of Jake Arthur’s debut poetry collection, A Lack of Good Sons, is wow! A young boy witnesses a bizarre and startling sight through his bedroom window: the farmer who lives next door, stands naked in his gumboots, back to the window. Even more surprising is the mother who says the boy did that when he was younger. The poem is a perfect threshold into a collection that startles and twists, that is honey fluent, detail sharp, physically grounded and metaphysically sailing.

For me this is a travel collection – poetry as a means of travel through time, space, location, voice, perhaps memory. I could say “prismatic” which would make Nick Ascroft squirm with his abhorrence of the word “luminous” in reviews. But this is the collection’s effect on me. It is poetry that glints and hues variously, from dark to edge to light to edge to dark to softness to searing colour and more light. There is a fluidity of voice and representation, epitomised in an “I” that is on the move, third person pronouns that skate and shuffle, a symposium of characters that Luigi Pirandello might fall in love with, or Italo Calvino.

This is the kind of book you need to immerse yourself in without being dampened down by the expectations and limits a review might offer. I offer you a mini tasting platter of poem extracts. Some stanzas are so sticky you keep hold of them for ages. I love the weave and startle turns. In the multilayered “Confessional”, the poem navigates both an external world and internal consumption. The last verse is sublime:

On a pew I rest my head and look up,
the colonnade a forest to a stone ceiling;
in me, too, an awful lot of rock.

The speaking voice might be man woman son or daughter, but at other times it is object. I particularly loved the shifting perspective (a trademark of the book as a whole) of the tree that becomes boat mast in “Bare choirs”. Again I loved the final stanza:

The flap and licking
thrump of the sail is a beat,
the slapping waves an uneven melody,
but it is more dirge than music
and not a tune to sing too.

I ask myself whether I will locate a connective tissue across the collection as a whole, a link beyond recurring motifs and devices. I wondered, for example, if there is “sameness” embedded in all the difference, then I read this in “1588”:

Everything was animated.
It spun on a dime. It was umami.

Now I  know better.
There is a sameness in everything.

Physicality is a lure. It is there in the earth and soil that appear and reappear. In a deft subject sidestep in the poem “Encounter”, a gardener becomes springboard to a sci-fi anecdote, and is abducted by aliens.

                                                      (…) I’m used to getting soil out
of my clothes, being green-fingered, but first I looked up
in the hope of spotting their craft and
I did see a little black shape but
probably it was just a bird
oh well, I thought,
from a distance

Reading this sublime book, I am reminded of the wit and humour, the economy and richness of a James Brown collection – and heck, there is James Brown, endorsing Jake’s book on the back cover. Jake takes us on a multi-dimensional, electrifying tour that holds human to the light and then keeps twisting and turning so can we absorb human from different vantage points. So satisfying as reader. I have barely scratched the surface of Jake’s fabulously haunting poetry. Read it!

Jake Arthur’s poetry has appeared in journals including Sport, Mimicry, Food Court, Turbine, Return Flight and Sweet Mammalian. He has a PhD in Renaissance literature and translation from Oxford University.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

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