The Blue Marvel, by Denys Trussell (Brick Row, 2013), 96pp., $29.99; A Graveyard By The Sea, by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, 2012), 24pp., $19.50; Dried Figs, by Helen Jacobs (Sudden Valley Press, 2012), 60pp., n.p.
Small press commitment to offerings from diverse voices and directions are especially evident in these collections. Without them the possibility of hegemonic limitations looms and literary complacency could, so easily, become commonplace. Fortunately, New Zealand’s small press life cycle continues and Denys Trussell is able to offer his eighth book of poems. Although the cover announces that these are shorter poems from 1993 to 2012, some of Trussell’s longer works are included.
What should we expect from a book entitled The Blue Marvel? To be invigorated by nature’s wonders? Or will there be references to comic superhero, the Blue Marvel? In his choice of title did Trussell assume his readership would be familiar or unfamiliar with the comic genre?
Interestingly, the Blue Marvel battles anti-matter man while The Blue Marvel’s concerns are with man’s effect on matter. Within ecological anxieties are considerations of love and lives lived.
Trussell’s immersions in sea and sky-scapes are prone to stilted beginnings; ‘That this coast is complexity’, or ‘How many the birds/ Moving over the water’. Playing with language order doesn’t continue, so the effect on nature’s own rhythmic pulse is distracting. Recovery occurs in ‘Dawning’ with convincing transportation to the tidal flux of life at sea:
Upward driven by kawhai
and from above struck
by sky beaks, the schools
of fingerlings are ripping
the liquid surface, each
slender body, sheened, intense
in the knowing of life
and its death.
The title poem sequence is placed alongside photographs of Alan Pearson’s painting ‘Facing Eastward.’ Following on, a lengthy explanation states the poem was written to a triptych photograph by Glenn Heenan. This detracts from Pearson’s art. If it was important enough to include, placement with a different poem, or as a contemplative ending to the book, would have given it more impact.
Another visual image is included, a photo of: ‘Darcy Lange rehearsing for a Flamenco concert with Denys Trussell’. Preceded and proceeded by related poems, it appears as a solo act within the overall choreography of the book. The photo and information about Lange and the poems perhaps belong in a separate memoir or life reflection.
Trussell is keen on the background story. Surplus information sprinkles through pages, while small font partner poems and quotes run down selected margins: their words splashing on intentions of main works.
When sinking into abstraction and his own style of thought, Trussell’s poems drift out to sea. Others provide close-up memorable images. Swede eating as ‘a kind of sacrament from the South’ is one, and lichens spread over gravestone letterings ‘in an alphabet of silence’, is another. This is where clarity and explanation really reside: where The Blue Marvel transforms into the Blue Marvel in full flight, emerging from Neutral Zone to channel exotic word particles and enhanced mental perceptions.
Robert McLean has been widely published and has a strong interest in poetic form. His background in political and philosophical associations underpins A Graveyard by the Sea. Specifically McLean is a proponent of ‘discourse ethics,’ whereby language promotes mutual understanding from a collective assessment of common issues and private interests. From unique insights an extended horizon of shared meanings can be established. In an interview with Tim Jones, McLean clarifies his position: ‘So, yes: this is a socialist poetics – iambic pentameter quatrains reek of nostalgia and tradition, but they, for me, can also be read as anticipatory, should the reader so choose.’
A Graveyard by the Sea travels on a courageous journey, from Rapaki graveyard on Lyttleton Harbour to eternity, in 62 sestets. McLean’s theoretical base carries some distinctive elements into the collection. Contemplation of death, time and the process of writing intertwine with intimate details of local land.
For some, the constriction of form leads to unexpected literary inspiration. For others, the restrictions of form dominate. Meeting rhyme scheme requirements can be gratingly obvious. Rhythmic syllables can beat like snare drums to the point of aural agitation. As a complete work A Graveyard by the Sea battles form rather than embracing it. The quest for rhyme can lead McLean on adventurous linguistic expeditions that don’t always provide the mutual understanding that discourse theory proposes. Stanzas become difficult to access when buried in dense vocabulary.
‘Succinct eidolons fulgurate
(like camera flashes!) dusky strait
and tufted strand beset by death…’
Tonal variation is one method of providing contrast in a lengthy poem with strict structure:
‘Three caramel skinned girls in wee
bikinis bronze themselves. I see
Nona, Decima, Morta! Metaphor
lends grace to Ovid’s drastic themes.
Quicksilver logic born of dreams
transforms hot babes into much more.’
Here though, variation seems too pronounced. Perhaps this is to meet the requirements of form. Contributions of some stanzas to the overall intention of the poem is hazy, and while McLean will be clear in his mind about order and purpose, it’s possible to become lost in the graveyard.
‘…The scope goes beyond
my interiors, plain, loop, purl,
what I read about, listen to….’
A key audience for this collection will be those who share Jacobs’ concerns with aging, but when she moves beyond reportage of associated incidents, Jacobs is at her strongest. The first stanza of ‘The Bowl’ is a sweeter experience:
‘A faint scent of nectarines
ripening in the wooden bowl
brushes a highlight of white
to the low morning cloud…’
Choosing to publish carries obligations of purpose. Offering dissipation of time, and inclusion in the thoughts of another, are arguably, elements of purpose. Sustained transfer of emotion and energy follow on. Each of these collections has moments of distance or inertia where words loiter without obvious purpose. Despite references to sea, fluidity is not consistent. Yet what is on offer is the experience of poetic divergence and challenge. Trussell and McLean delve into experimentation with form and presentation on the page. Hopefully, McLean will look to a wider collection of varied forms to extend our horizons. Undoubtedly all three poets demonstrate a sincere dedication to the craft and deliver an evolving view of social concerns.
JENNY POWELL is a Dunedin-based poet, playwright, reviewer and creative writing tutor. Her collections of poetry include Viet Nam: A Poem Journey, published by HeadworX in 2010.