Landfall 221 (2011)
Questions of Structure
David Eggleton, Time of the Icebergs. ISBN 978-1-877578-02-1. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2010. 88 pp. RRP $NZ25.
McQueen, Cilla. The Radio Room. ISBN 978-1-877578-03-8. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2010. 77 pp. RRP $NZ30.
Newton, John. Lives of the Poets. ISBN 978-0-864736-28-4. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010. 86 pp. RRP $NZ25.
John Newton: Lives of the Poets (2010)
You could hardly find three more different poets – or three more diverse books of poems. As I kept on reading them, though, I started to wonder about the construction of each book. They are so very distinct, and yet you can see in each case how much time and thought has gone into questions of structure, the ones that tend to be ignored when a reviewer just pulls out individual pieces for discussion.
Take John Newton’s Lives of the Poets. We begin with the nostalgic – and, presumably, semi-autobiographical – verse narrative which gives its name to the book as a whole. Then there’s a section of longish lyrics which seem to constitute a bridge between his first book, Tales from the Angler’s Eldorado (1985), and this one (“Trout-fishing and Sport in Maoriland”, “Gothic, “Black Stump” are a few of the giveaway titles here). Then there’s a section of more recent poems (exactly six of them, matching the six in section two). Then there’s a final section of unrhymed sonnets, “Stations”, hymning various culture heroes of the not-too-distant past (Anna Akhmatova, Malcolm Lowry, Sylvia Plath) in a manner reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s later, post-Notebook poems. There are, predictably, fourteen of these fourteen-line poems, echoing the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
It’s hard to say how tongue-in-cheek this somewhat excessive scaffolding is. Clearly Newton has been inspired by Lowell in more than just the form of his sonnets. The last poem here references “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” from Life Studies (1959). Is it a coincidence that Lowell’s book – similarly self-conscious in structure – predates Newton’s by almost exactly fifty years? If the latter’s great poetic dilemma (as he remarks in the blurb) is the fact that “the Romantic inheritance may be poison, but it’s all we have”, then what better guide to “fossicking beyond the high-tide mark of expressivism” than Lowell and his friends, the somewhat motley crew assembled along Newton’s own Via Dolorosa?
I guess it’s obvious how pleasing I find this kind of thing: the twenty poems in Newton’s verse novella echo the 14 + 6 + 6 poems of the rest of the book, adding up to 46 (4 + 6 = 10 / 1 + 0 = 1), each of the four parts a skewed reflection of one of the others. The arrangement of Cilla McQueen’s new book could hardly resemble it less. The Radio Room includes 35 poems and 11 drawings and designs. There are some recurrent patterns within it: 4 “Elements” poems, various reminiscences for the poet’s friends Joanna Paul and Hone Tuwhare. There are also a number of blank pages which serve to punctuate the book. I count seven of these, but I’m not really certain how they operate as divisions, if they are divisions at all: more like pauses, perhaps.
Cilla McQueen: The Radio Room (2010)
If Newton’s book aspires to the solidity of monumental architecture, McQueen’s might be seen as a verbal labyrinth. We begin with her evocation of a vanished journal:
Damp sea-fog lay like a sheep on my journal
outside all night on the table,
turned radiant blue ink to turquoise wash
through which the permanent horizons stared
(“About the Fog”)
This is also what we return to at the end of the book:
The pen was missing too –
they’ll be together somewhere in the house or outside
on the table, last night stargazing, too cold, morning fog, O my
dear written pages washed-out turquoise mush –
Peel apart damp translucent skins fragile very old person
It’s clear enough that this image of the washed-out pages, “Of vanished thoughts here / and there word-slivers, blots in the gutter, bled edges; / some legible sentences in ballpoint”, is a way of seeing her own book, woven as it is out of landscape notes, stray memories, laments for the fallen:
I wanted to write about the Kotuku,
lost in the strait four years ago.
Every year at mutton-bird time
I remember the texture of my friend’s long hair.
That’s not all there is to this journal, though. “About the Fog” is not the first poem in the book, nor is “Wash” the last. In the former, the fog is described as lying “like a sheep on my journal”. The book actually begins with a poem called “A Ghostly Beast” (“We scared ourselves white in the bothy”), then moves on to a short piece called “Our Cow”. “Like a sheep” therefore means quite a bit more than it might seem to, in this larger context.
The image might also lead us outside the compass of the book itself, to her celebrated poem “Living Here” (from Homing In, 1982):
Well you have to remember this place
is just one big city with 3 million people with
a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of
This, I think, shows us just how she intends to gesture to the whole body of her past work, with its constant themes of ecology, indigeneity (variously defined), the interface between human and environment. Cilla McQueen, like John Newton, has large issues to address, and they’re addressed as much by the studiedly-casual, allusive form of her book as by the individual poems and sketches it contains.
David Eggleton: Time of the Icebergs (2010)
What about David Eggleton? Well, at first sight one might be forgiven for thinking that Time of the Icebergs had no clear structure at all. It functions as a series of discrete lyrical pieces, from varying standpoints and geographical locations (Devonport and Dunedin are two he mentions specifically in his notes – Sydney and Suva figure also, though). It is, after all, as a coiner of strange metaphors and arresting phrases that Eggleton is most famed. Who else could have come up with “Glossolalia of the Undie 500 clown cars” or “solitude of rain gangs up on all / gathered at Queen Tuatara’s funeral”?
This automatically classic quality of so many of his lines can have the effect of masking the larger concerns within his work. Just as in performance it takes Eggleton some time to warm up into that high-pitched neighing note which only he can reach, so his book revs faster and faster as it goes along. That apocalyptic sci-fi title, Time of the Icebergs, seems the clearest clue to what he has in mind. Eggleton’s book may be, indeed, be the most didactic and message-driven of the three. Make no mistake, Eggleton is no gentle celebrant of Kiwiana, no bland bush-ballad bard from beyond the black stump. These are lines meant to lash and hurt:
homeless in a Middle Earth
being prepared for strip-mines by Orcs.
His true Penelope is more Swift than Flaubert – savage indignation at the state of the planet lacerating his breast as he’s forced to watch “fascist playthings / sculpt muscles at Les Mills to a triumph / of the will”.
Reading these three books in terms of their interior architecture has been extremely revealing to me. What these poets have in common turns out to be more striking than what divides them: a careful sense of craft, honed over years and through constant practice; a fierce determination to have their say, to ram home their message subliminally as well as directly. What each of them has to say to us (these books imply) does matter, it really is important. We may not have any more time to waste.