Cards on the Table (2018)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018 (March 2018)


Ted Jenner / Jeremy Roberts /
Laura Solomon / A TransPacific Poetics

Jeremy Roberts. Cards on the Table. Carindale, Queensland, Australia: Interactive Press, 2015. RRP $29. 158 pp.

Jeremy Roberts: Cards on the Table (2015)

There’s a fascinating poem called ‘Driving with Terry’ deep in the heart of Jeremy Roberts’ book of poems (which he refers to in his bio-note below as his ‘collected works’):
the cassette tapes I play as I drive around the city
in my 1984 Toyota Corolla LE
are a dead man’s tapes.
Why? Well, I’m glad you asked me that:
this music came into my hands because for several years
I was his daughter’s number one squeeze.
he must have really liked this music, because these are all
homemade tapes, dubbed off original vinyl LPs
So, as he drives along:
I sing along with the music, & say things like:
‘Good choice, Terry’ – or
‘Why did you pick that album, man? You know they
wrote better songs than that!’
There’s rather more to the poem than that: various arguments to do with lust and the Eagles (in that order), but I thought I’d start with this opening in order to illustrate some of the strengths of Roberts’ approach to poetry in general.

First of all, there’s the arresting conceit or life-event: in this case the ‘dead man’s tapes.’ It’s a genuinely interesting idea to have a kind of ghost companion driving around with you like this.

Secondly, there’s the deliberately scaled-down, unshowy language register: everything about this poem, line-breaks at awkward points, phrases such as ‘number one squeeze’ seems designed not to stand out as dictated by artifice in any way.

Its ending, too, after a long disquisition on the guitar solo in ‘Hotel California,’ described as the ‘creative inverse of emotional pain,’ is deliberately deadpan:
those who take their own lives can’t get free of the pain
& express it in a drastically different way.
they get my respect.

those that don’t understand
are lucky.
Does that mean that Terry took his own life, or is suspected to have done so? It’s difficult to tell. That might be an overreading of this section of the poem: on the other hand, it might just be what the whole thing is about.

‘Driving with Terry’ certainly got my attention, though – and made me see just how much can be achieved by Roberts’ throwaway writing style. One of the crucial points about it, though, would be the fact that it turns attention away from the author / protagonist of most of the poems, and onto somebody else. Terry is interesting. We learn little about him, except his taste in music, and the fact that he’s dead and that he had at least one daughter, but he nevertheless fills out the backdrop of the poem very effectively simply because Roberts himself is so interested in him.

In general, I would say that these outward-focussed pieces are the most successful ones in Roberts’ collection. Poems such as ‘Back in the Day,’ about the millionaire posing as a Shakespeare-spouting tramp; or ‘Love Buttons,’ which offers a curious backstage vignette of a light show at a San Hunt concert, share this fascination with the strange ways other people find to get through their lives in this world.

The compendious nature of the collection does inevitably lead to a good deal of repetition: poems which add little to the overall impression of the book, and which might therefore have been cut from it. The lack of any clear chronological or thematic structure behind it also adds to this impression.

However, while a shorter, more carefully arranged selection might have done Roberts’s strengths as a poet better justice, one can see the logic of his desire to put his life’s work (to date) on record, once and for all.

Next time round I might counsel him to include less work and arrange his poems somewhat more carefully: the strength of this book, though, is that it makes one look forward with considerable anticipation to that ‘next time round.’


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018. ISBN 978-0-9941473-3-2 (March 2018): 311-13.

[656 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018

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