Jack Ross, ed.: Spin 36 (March 2000)
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Flood Damage: Poems. Nga Kupu Press, 4/22 Alexandra Street, Otautahi (Christchurch) 8001, Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1998. ISBN 0-473-05225-3. 36 pp. $10.
The cover image on this, Jeffrey Holman’s second book of poems (the first appeared in 1974) emphasises divisions. A group of people are standing on the end of a bridge, looking down at the raging flood waters which have demolished its central span. We are separated from them by time – the overcoats and hats seem to come from the fifties – but also by the camera angle. We stand on the other side of a gap, with the supports beneath our feet obscured.
… this was
once the Blackball Bridge. Was. Once. One full
Westerly too many, the Mother-to-end-all-floods …
The title poem reminds us “… this river’s a socialist: everybody gets / the same treatment. Ask for water, you / get water: death, death.”
Holman’s book, too, seems principally concerned with time, and division, and distance. The poems have been written in a number of different places, with many different personae, and lack any clear sense of unitary design. This is a strength when it results in the surreal, death-camp imagery of “moving house”:
we clung to the walls
of the greasy shaft
until we saw doors
into abandoned offices
where the last of the workers
were burning files
However, there are moments when the reader can feel a little bewildered by Holman’s multiplicity of masks (“Ontological Fish,” for example, does little more than reprise Rupert Brooke’s “Fish, fly-replete, in depths of June”; “On Walthamstow Marshes” could be a hundred other grim-faced visions of London; “The Coaster” is a ballad evocation to which we somehow lack a key).
Overall, though, the individual merits of many of the poems outweigh any lack of continuity in the collection. I would single out for special mention the precision of “Nowhere in the year of the Horse,” the floridness of “Rebuilding St George’s,” the solidity of “Inferno (Strongman Mine 1978):”
I was a man, my death not yet.
What links these poems above all is their author’s strong sense of social injustice. Some may fail as verbal artefacts, but they have much to teach us nevertheless.