Mark Pirie: Reading the Will (2002)

Alistair Paterson, ed.: Poetry NZ 25 (August 2002)

Mark Pirie. Reading the Will. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 2002. 111 pp. ISBN 0-9582091-3-8. RRP $NZ 19.95

There are three things that are real: God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.
– Valmiki, The Ramayana

Some things – perhaps most things – are too serious to be taken seriously. That’s how I read the message of this new book from Mark Pirie, at any rate. In the past I’ve found his flippancy a bit hard to take: propping up chair legs with Bibles (“The Bible Problem”), deliberately misspelling a word for a credulous sister (“the Spelling Problem”) and other smart-alecky tricks in Shoot (1999), his first book. Now I think I’m finally beginning to understand what he’s getting at. It’s a difficult thing to bring off, certainly, and there’s always the danger of subsiding into crassness. (“Home Truth No. 2,” for example, in the volume under review: “Women are like / cats // do the right thing / and they purr … etc.)

I’m much more struck by how often it works, though: one can open the book to almost any page and find something amusing and insightful (“On Free Speech”: “You can say whatever you like / as long as you don’t mean it”). Nor is the achievement of the book confined to epigrams:
I try to tell her
poetry is the way
the breeze ruffles her hair,
the way she falls
stepping from the car,
& the way she cries
when no one comes
to help.

That’s an interesting piece of writing. “I try to tell her” implies a lack of success in the telling – a line that does not go over. This is confirmed by the poem’s title, “On Pick-me-ups”: a deliberate undercutting of the lyricism of the breezes, bruises, and tears. And yet, I don’t feel entirely convinced by this cynicism, either. This is having your cake and eating it too. The writer really means those delicate sentiments, and yet he simultaneously means to satirise the murkiness of his intentions. He does indeed see her as a darling bud of May, shaken by the rough winds of the world, but he’s also aware of something profoundly questionable in defining poetry as “the way she cries when no one comes to help.” It’s almost sadistic, yet, at the same time, a strong expression of empathy!

I suppose that’s why I’m so impressed with where Pirie has arrived in this book. His project: being honest about the feelings of an average young male, without whitewashing them or unduly denigrating them, is a worthwhile one. It’s brave, too, as it offends against our face-saving maxim: “When in doubt, pay lip-service to political correctness.”

As Stephen King remarked in his magisterial study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre (1981), there comes a moment in every story where the author has to put up or shut up. When your characters hear a scratching on the front door, sooner or later you’ve got to open it and show us what’s there. And whatever is there always turns out to be something of a relief. No matter how bad it is, it could have been worse. If it’s a ten-foot cockroach, there’s always part of you that says, “That’s not so bad, it could have been a fifty-foot cockroach.” Some writers try to get over this inevitable anticlimax by never fronting up with the goods – never letting us see the bogeyman – always dissolving into soft-focus at the moment of truth.

Pirie, to his everlasting credit, is not that kind. He portrays himself warts and all, and (as usual) when we’re forced to face the reality – it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s not very bad at all. Just human, just real. Baudelaire said it best:
Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon cœur et mon corps sans dégoût!

[Lord, give me the strength and courage
to look at my heart and body without disgust]

Pirie’s version of the same conundrum (“The Myth Killer”) is characteristically downbeat:
he said he’d found

the answers to all our problems, the problems
of whether to believe or disbelieve, and he said he
could make it all seem logical if I came
and watched a video with him for 15 minutes,

and I just said, No.

Quite right. There’s too much pretentious twaddle in the world, too many big words, too many charlatans. Perhaps the closest we get to a moment of complete affirmation in Pirie’s dead-pan universe is in “At the Church Fair,” the poem where he finds a copy of Glover’s Wellington Harbour “(cost $1, priceless)”:
I bought it and started reading
all the way back down Wadestown Hill,

until I was sure the harbour was gleaming
at me from the pages. And so I looked up
and there it was: Wellington harbour,
morning mist now fading, Oriental Bay

glimmering …

No daffodils, but there’s something of Wordsworth there all the same: a respect for common everyday things. Maybe they’re not so common after all.

“We have met the enemy and he is us,” said the famous wartime cartoon. He’s horny, he’s cheeky, he’s even a bit sentimental at times. Aren’t we all? Perhaps we don’t all care to admit it so frankly. Mark Pirie refuses to get up on stilts to talk about the world. What’s more, he has the guts to stick to it, and for that he deserves considerable applause.


Poetry NZ 25 (2002): 104-06.

[912 wds]

Poetry NZ 25 (2002)

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