Pander 4 (Winter 1998)
David Gregory. Always Arriving. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997; Helen Jacobs. Pools over Stone. Christchurch: SVP, 1997; John O’Connor. As It Is: Poems 1981-1996. Christchurch: SVP, 1997.
These are the first fruits of the Sudden Valley Press. It isn’t really fair to review them together, as they are three very different poets (a fact somewhat obscured by the similarities in design and format), but it does seem worthwhile to discuss the implications of their appearance before going into the question of their individual merits.
The major publishers of poetry in New Zealand at present are two university presses: Auckland and Victoria. Caxton Press no longer publishes poetry, and Oxford has virtually ceased to do so. There are still various small publishers who specialise in it, or who maintain a list: ranging from the full-fledged commercial operations of Christchurch’s Hazard Press to small-scale providers such as Auckland’s Pohutukawa Press.
Put bluntly, publishing poetry doesn’t pay. Even really big names can still make a loss on their books, and an unknown poet is seldom a worthwhile bet even if their work is truly exceptional. Unless, that is, there are extraneous factors which may contribute to selling it. In most of these firms, the influence of the publicity department has long outweighed the editorial staff.
Two poets in Christchurch, John O’Connor and David Gregory, have now set up their own publishing house, which offers to publish suitable manuscripts at a reasonable cost, providing authors undertake to help with the distribution and publicising of their work. As well as the three books included in this review, the opening salvo from Sudden Valley Press included works by John Allison and Bernard Gadd. Another group is promised for later this year.
The moment had certainly come. I think we can all see that commercial publishing is no longer – if it ever did – serving the interests of poetry readers in New Zealand, and it is no real solution for authors to print and distribute their own work with no editorial input whatsoever. Sudden Valley Press offers a useful compromise between the two, and an example which might be usefully taken up elsewhere in the country.
By their fruits ye shall judge them, though. Taking them in alphabetical order, the British poet David Gregory’s Always Arriving contains an uneven, but deceptively original set of poems grouped around the theme of emigrating to this country. Too often he is betrayed by his adjectives: meniscus window (32), Iliad olives (34), vampire sky (36), and – worst of all – Bloody Mary sun (76). It’s a shame, because this occasional tendency to overwrite and over-determine his effects masks a true talent for simplicity:
and the children
asking to go
down to the fair.
(“Upon the Revision of Opinion Concerning Thomas Hardy”)
Again it rains.
I go out
to catch you falling.
(“During Your Absence”)
The latter poem is what I mean by “deceptively original.” The implications of its echoes of telephone answering machines are interesting to ponder, and by no means easy to solve. “Time Lapse” is another particularly striking poem in this respect. It seems obvious but isn’t quite.
John O’Connor is “an unabashed admirer of Denis Glover, [who] believes that Christchurch is as good a place as any from which to write poetry.” So his blurb claims, at any rate. One might be forgiven for not noticing, if one were confined purely to the contents of his book. I mean that as a compliment.
Whatever he may have been in early incarnations (there is an ominous note to that self-description as “verse satirist,” also on the blurb), he seems now to be preoccupied with questions of form: there are Poundian word-arrangements, open-form poems, two– and three-line stanzas, single blocks of poem – normally grouped closely together. Sometimes their titles let them down: “Gambit,” “Centenary, for Two,” “Flower” (at any moment one expects to find: “My Vase”), but the slight sense of uneasiness which he is so adept at creating steals gradually upon one. Take “Text, Subtext,” for example:
The light behind their faces —
you know it’s winter
& you’d rather be walking the rocky track
past the flowering bush
its purple quietly vibrating
until then you hadn’t noticed the chill
do not require answers
John O’Connor’s is a haunted, edgy world, where your party card is always being scrutinised, and the question “do you / ever dream in colour?” has become a threat. His verse is, in fact, the opposite of robust Glover manliness. Its potency rises from self-doubt, from a refusal to be smug.
I fear that I have less that is useful to say about Helen Jacobs, which is not really fair. This is her third collection of poetry, and it is clear that she has a highly-developed lyric gift:
Somehow the images always tie into a line,
a kite dipping and making deaf talk
at the end of reason.
(“Day Moon and Wind”)
The trouble, for me, is that the images always do tie into a line. They’re beautifully put, they rearrange themselves in myriad forms, but they end up in reason. Even a poem like “In the Manner of Unframing,” which seems to be questioning its own syntax, the mode of its own composition, ends up somehow contained by “the pink and dry carapace / at our feet.”
I had a marvellous moment when I turned the page from “Landing with Rocks” (with its somewhat redundant subheading – Wellington Airport -), to find that that final-sounding “imprint of rock” had modulated into “honey for the ants.” Now that is bizarre, I thought – striking, dislocating, a new view of the capital. Alas, the latter page was simply a new poem without a title, and the ants were ants, not startled citizens fleeing the wheels of a descending Boeing.
Helen Jacobs: Pools over Stone (1997)