Climbing off the Barricades (2008)

Brett Cross & Bill Direen, ed.: brief 36 - The NZ Music Issue (September 2008)

Climbing off the Barricades

Tony Beyer, Dream Boat: Selected Poems. ISBN 978-0-473-12652-0. Wellington: HeadworX, 2007. RRP $34.99.

A Good Handful: Great New Zealand Poems about Sex. Ed. Stu Bagby. ISBN 978-1-86940-403-1. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008. RRP $27.99.

Tony Beyer: Dream Boat: Selected Poems (2007)

Looking back over the HeadworX poetry list ten years (and 39 books) after its inception in 1998, it seems to me that some of the best books on it are the substantial single-author collections Mark Pirie has put out.

Riemke Ensing’s Talking Pictures (2000), Lewis Scott’s Earth Colours (2000), Stephen Oliver’s Night of Warehouses (2001) and Michael O’Leary’s Toku Tinihanga (Self Deception) (2003) were all substantial selections from poets with long, complex back-catalogues. Simon Williamson’s Storyteller (2002) was a memorial volume for a promising young poet who hadn’t yet published widely, but who had a strong following on the Wellington live poetry scene.

There’s clearly a lot of editorial work involved in such projects – far more than for more conventional slim volumes of verse or even (quite possibly), anthologies. Perhaps that’s why there’ve been fewer of them in recent years. I was therefore very happy to see that Tony Beyer had joined the ranks of the HeadworX selected poets with this book, Dream Poems, a substantial sampling from almost forty years of work.

One presumes the arrangement of the poems is roughly chronological, despite their being arranged in one long sequence. Unlike previous volumes in this series, they aren’t grouped under the titles of the books they came out in, ranging from Jesus Hobo (Dunedin: Caveman Press, 1971) to Electric Yachts (Auckland: Puriri Press, 2003). It doesn’t really seem to matter much, though – one of the distinguishing features of Beyer’s poetry is its consistency. Times have changed and fashions shifted, but the essential Beyer poem: free verse, casual and understated vernacular language, left-margin justified irregular stanzas, remains much as it always was.

On the one hand, this shows an independent determination to go his own way, despite what others were doing – one reason, perhaps, for the neglect his poetry has often suffered beside his more showy contemporaries. On the other hand, it means that there are few surprises and shocks as one turns the pages. A quiet reflectiveness is Beyer’s characteristic tone. He seldom raises his voice, and one must tune in carefully to hear what he has to say.

Take “Days of 1968,” for instance (p.188):
while streets of paris burned again
& (nostalgic ampersand)
the poetry revolution was taking shape
in Melbourne and Sydney
and the word was about to be Freed
at the university I’d dropped out of
I had a job driving cattle with an electric prod
up duralumin sided ramps to their death
and nutritious dismemberment

That’s an awful lot to load into one stanza! The nostalgia for Creeley-esque ampersands and abbreviations, coupled with the Paris barricades, Brunton and his cohorts starting Freed (at “the university I’d dropped out of”), while our narrator faces an even deeper level of the military-industrial killing machine. There’s some Baxter-esque self-congratulation there, no doubt: I dropped out, while you guys stayed in the institution and theorised – however, it takes the form more of gentle scepticism than a burning passion of repudiation. Even the poor dead cows are, after all, quite “nutritious,” post-dismemberment.

The poem continues with more juxtapositions of the public and personal:
the Wahine foundered
Martin Luther King and the second Kennedy were shot
I was in love with Baudelaire and Rimbaud
and Guillaume Apollinaire in whose honour
I shunned punctuation for years

That last is rather a nice touch. I’ve looked in vain through the whole of this book for any punctuation. Guillaume Apollinaire is still, it would appear, in the ascendant, which might prompt us to see a gentle, deflating irony in the rest of the poem also:
instead of achieving literary prominence
I’d fallen for the woman who is still with me
and was none the worse for it

Climb down off your stilts, the poet appears to be saying. Stop following those adolescent dreams of revolution and transcendence. The movement you seek is on your shoulder (to quote Paul McCartney). Above all, give up Romantic passion and work on your relationship instead … a nice (and rather welcome) antidote to Yeats’s “Why should not old men be mad?”

And yet, the second verse obtrudes a curious, eldritch atmosphere of doubt into this somewhat deflating scenario:
one day the slouch hat I wore in the rain
… touched the bare 9-volt wire
the prodders were juiced off
surrounding my head
with a halo of purple flame

A poetic halo? The divine afflatus? Or – given that the wires were powered by the killing tools of his craft – the return of the repressed? I like it. I like the poem and I like the book it comes from. I’d like to examine more of Beyer’s poems in details – point out the fine, unobtrusive craft with which he operates: the high percentage of hits, page after page, achieved without fanfare or vainglory. But this one example will have to suffice.

On the evidence of this book, I personally probably have a higher tolerance for fireworks and high-wire work than Beyer (one must be honest even about one’s prejudices), but I’m very pleased that he’s had his say at last. Congratulations both to the poet and his publisher on this fine book, which will, I suspect, outlast most of the far more intensively-hyped poetry releases this year.

Coupling Tony Beyer and Stu Bagby (it’s very hard to avoid unfortunate double entendres when talking about sex, or even about collections of poems about sex) is perhaps less anomalous than it seems.

I confess that my heart sank when I heard about this project. The title, “A good handful” seemed just a bit too much of an obeisance to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink tendencies of Kiwi backroom culture, and the claim that 69 poems (or was it poets?) were to be included didn’t greatly reassure me either.

And yet – there really are an awful lot of poems about sex, or which touch upon it in some way. Let’s face it, it’s on our minds; and it certainly isn’t only male poets who go on about it.

That in itself doesn’t guarantee a good anthology, of course, but one thing about Stu Bagby is that when he takes up a subject he really thinks it through.

If you’re looking for a really sexy book, this isn’t it. There’s no real pornography here, though there are certainly some saucy poems. The more I read in it, though, the more impressed I was by the delicacy and tact with which Stu had negotiated these deep and perplexing waters.

“Sex had a lot to do with it,” the Smithyman quote with which he leads off his preface, does (as Stu says) remain “true of both poetry and life.” Before I read this book I wasn’t sure that such an anthology could be compiled without fatal compromises on some level or other. I admit it. I was wrong. This isn’t just a pillow-book for courting couples. I think anyone could read it with pleasure and profit.

Let’s finish, then, with a few samples, giving an idea of the collection’s range and scope:
[on a penis]:
see how the shy creature stirs
and lifts – feels the way
with its sensitive tip:
seems to pause
like any timid thing
that tests the level of trust,
then eager, nudging,
nuzzles closer,
hungry as a suckling pup.

– Emma Neale, “The Artist’s Model’s Reply” (p.69)

[on a femme fatale]:
I am da dog kirl wif da fire in my arse
Dey call me da woman not da kirl
My thighs rub together make da fire in deir house
My fat taro legs my fat taro belly my fat taro susu
I walk past all da good womens
An laugh wif my white teef flashing.

– Tusiata Avia, “Pa‘u-stina” (p.53)

[on caution]:
Erring on the side of caution is
a taxi home in summer, money
kept in a shoe. It’s a condom worn
from a thousand pocketings, a watch
set fast, a glove with your name in it.

– Kate Camp, “Erring” (p.84)

[on sex itself]:
On the wall above the bedside lamp
a large crane-fly is jump-starting
a smaller crane-fly – or vice versa.
They do it tail to tail, like Volkswagens:
their engines must be in their rears.

It looks easy enough. Let’s try it.

– Fleur Adcock, “Coupling” (p.1)

Maybe there’s something to be said for restraint and subtlety, after all. Beyer and Bagby, in their very different ways, make a pretty strong case for it.


brief 36 (2008): 114-18.

[1431 wds]

brief 36 (2008)

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