Half Dark, by Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, 2015), 63 pp., $25.00; Young Country, by Kerry Hines (Auckland University Press, 2014), 200 pp., $34.99
Interesting books, these two collections of poems published recently by two university presses. Indeed there are some similarities between the two, in that both are Pākehā-centric as in amalgams of England-oriented visions, reflections, memories, topos. This point is by no means a criticism either, but it is one I will return to later.
Ricketts’ is by far the more personal and – for me, at least – the more ‘enjoyable’. I place inverted commas around the word enjoyable here, because the overall tone of his poems is also rather ineffably sad. The world of Harry Ricketts, as here mainly conveyed as memories of his own upbringing in English schools and universities, as well as his reflections on dead poets, dead colleagues, dead school associates, dead relationships, is indeed half-dark. Perhaps it is the poet’s own inevitable ageing process coming to the fore here – something this critic well comprehends – whereby one looks back and is inevitably more mellow, more reflective, more prone to la tristesse.
I like this collection for its concomitant honesty – ageing carries acceptance along with it. Sad but not morbid, nor indeed mordant, as Ricketts plays around considerably with poetic formats (see especially the aptly titled ‘Broken song, 1976’) and repetitions. He devotes a whole central plateau of his poetic landscape to the triolet, a restrictive form he attempts to rationalise away from restraint, in his ‘Notes’. Ironically, despite his best intentions, these triolet come across as rather trite. Repetitively so.
His better poems, if one can write of such beasts, are those in which dead men and women come to life on the page – as in ‘Blanks’; ‘Breton café’, ‘Brandon Street’; ‘Others’; ‘Noddy’; and ‘Room’. All bring pathos to the fore and all will make any sentient reader reflect on demise. These are good poems, often burnished by the sense that Ricketts is talking to someone close by – they come across, as it were, as intimate fireside chats.
And this poet can well write the metaphor, the simile, array the alliterative too. Let us take a reverse stroll into his backward-looking poems and consider some such examples:
your hands bunched like spiders
(from ’10 to 3′)
… stars, shudders
at shadows, sounds, shapes
(from ‘Othona, 1978’)
as the wind slickly backcombs the grass
(from ‘Te Mata Peak’)
the Doric columns like stumps
with the bails still on
Here’s the window still letting in sky
the colour of the corduroy shorts you wore
Well done, old chap. Absolutely spiffing, actually. With quite lavish dollops of classic English crème de la crème too – Byron, Keats, Goethe, Shakespeare, Isherwood, Empson; with a bit of Induno and Holbein also in the first eleven – who all rumble and tumble about the pages of this gaunt tome. There is little ‘actual’ New Zealand ambience within these pensive walls either, while Māori gain presence by being so absent. Perhaps these lines from ‘Te Mata Peak’ best sum up Rickett’s umbilical vision:
… Nothing simpler to patronize
than the past, that foreign country where
they persist in doing things differently.
He seems somewhat embroiled still in this past, which is literally set mainly in a ‘foreign country’.
While Half Dark embodies an Englishman living long in Aotearoa New Zealand but still heavily rooted in England and its home-country nuances, Kerry Hine’s collection consists of her considered ekphrastic summaries of the photographs of one William Williams, a Welshman brought up in England, who was trying – via his craft – to root himself into this country. Hines’ poems, then, are imaginative attempts to verbally convey the visual and are not her own personal spillovers.
Thus the poetry in Young Country is more commentary on artefact than the poet’s own voice speaking her own inner sanctums; everything is in the third person, even the ‘I’ voices interposed throughout. There has obviously been considerable academic activity in the compiling of the photographs and the ample historical research involved in delving into Williams’ own heritage. Indeed, one has to continually dip into the extensive Notes to Poems to glean these historical nuances, to comprehend more fully the poems themselves; for despite the poet’s own proclamation that, ‘Most of the voices, characters, and happenings in these poems are imagined’, the contents and contexts of these poems necessitates some background archaeological and archival noise. The evocative photos stand alone, the verse does not.
Hine’s collection, too, is Pākehā-centric. Māori, for example, are generally relegated to peripheries – as in the last section Whakaki – and if sighted at all (either via poem or photograph) are ditch-diggers or labelled as ‘2 Maoris [sic] in the canoe’. The depicted meeting houses are generally devoid of their indigenous owners and even Elsdon Best is rigged up somewhat patronisingly ‘as’ a Māori in the photo accompanying the poem ‘Our friend Best’.
Young Country is a neocolonialist collage of a definitive glancing-back-to-Britain colonialist at work and play, as it were – and there are also references to a purely Scottish ethos in ‘Shellycoat’ and ‘Uncos’. Indeed, New Zealand is depicted as a ‘British Eden’ in the poem with that title:
It reminds me of England
in my grandfather’s time
Ironically and importantly, however, this collection is far more firmly grounded in New Zealand than Rickett’s. The photographs root the individuals and the words firmly into terra firma Aotearoa:
All the early photographs are of fences,
dusty roads and sketchy streets
More, Hines too can certainly write poetry and besets us with some quite brilliant imagery and clever funny punning. Hines is a sporty gal, to be sure, the way she wrestles words and lines around and molests them into new nuances. Let’s take a tour of her often brief, concise, aphoristic written scenery:
The Old Identity,
served up with
(from ‘Tom at board’)
Tom in his tent
with a tent-pole’
(from ‘He dreams briefly’)
… He drifted to a stretch of coast
beside a river mouth whose teeth
The bed yawns and doesn’t
close its mouth
It was not a shotgun wedding,
She wouldn’t ride shotgun
(from’ Settlement’ – which is a very long poem, comprising all of Section Three in this five-section book)
The bush grows back
like a balding man’s hair
The horses, though, are naturally suspicious
of anything measured in horse power
… he holds
the local angling records.
He angers some …
the months went by, his
consciousness of her
was like a trunk of empty
clothes; he was embarrassed
to be caught holding them
Trees in the attitude of a woman trying to hang a curtain.
Houses with shoulders around their ears
(from ‘The Author in New Zealand’)
The wind snarls like a scutcher
pulping our ears
So there we have it then. Young Country is rather a potpourri into which to dip and delve and decide if the imagined imagery matches William’s images. Does this deliberate and clever ‘co-mediality’ of poem and photo segue? Where does fiction die and truth reply? There is a lot in this thick little debut book, which ultimately is less a panoply of poems and more an interesting illustrated history textbook, albeit of a type you couldn’t swot up for exams. It is a well worthwhile and quite ingenious inter-media experiment, I feel, given that at times there is a mismatch, an interstice, between what the images speak and the text suggests.
To summarise, I will leave the final quotation here from Rickett’s poem ‘Gap’:
When I grow up, I want to be
the man who says ‘Mind the gap’
Given that his brief poem is another wistful reflection and is also reminiscent of incessant announcements in both London and Hong Kong train stations, this notion of gap permeates both collections. For there are several gaps working and playing, lurking and plying in both.
Here are apertures between ‘real’ and imagined; between remembered and forgotten and half-remembered and half-forgotten; between visual and verbal; between Britain and Aotearoa New Zealand; between Pākehā colonialist/neocolonialist interpretations and indigenous non-interpolations; between the present and the absent, the centralised and the marginalised; between past and current. And the sizeable caesura between people: those long gone, and those giving current commentary on them. Jaques Lacan would have a field day reading these collections, I muse; amused by him and his manifold definitions of dehiscence being brought to bear here: man and nature; man and culture; subject and other; man and woman; and gaps within the self itself.
More, for me – prompted by this publication of both texts by academic publication bastions, and by reminiscences of my own diurnal train rides in Hong Kong over ten years listening to the same prerecorded metallic message about ‘minding the gap’ – there is a manifest lacuna betwixt what we receive and read today and what we may seek to see published more of in near-future, namely diversified collections of poetry by New Zealand Asian writers who have read Edward Said. I realise I am stepping into a gap somewhat beyond Hines and Ricketts here, but given that over 12 per cent of our rapidly augmenting population consists of Asians, and that this segment is increasing exponentially, this must surely come about. We may soon sight collections with titles such as Full Day in an Old Country. Then might we have a present unencumbered, un-recaptured, uncontested by a somewhat imprisoning English-bound past.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is Māori. His multi-ethnic whānau uses Cantonese as its main language. They live in the Waikato. His new co-edited book Why English? Confronting the Hydra is due to be published by Multilingual Matters (UK) later in 2015 and is a sequel to English Language as Hydra (2012). He holds a PhD from Auckland University, and has recently returned to Aotearoa New Zealand from teaching in Hong Kong.