Past Present, by Peter Dane (Hudson Cresset Publishing, 2005) 108 pp., $24.99; Sex Poems, by Peter Dane (Words that Work, 2007) 70 pp., $16.00; Undone, by Peter Dane (Words that Work, 2008) 81 pp., $16.50.
In these slim, small press publications, former Bay of Islands orchardist Peter Dane handles the comic more successfully than the profound. Unfortunately, much of his work is weakened through his persistent attempts at the latter. Born in Germany in 1921 to a German father and a Jewish mother, Dane fled to the UK as a political refugee in 1939; he was interned as an enemy alien in Australia in the 1940s, and eventually settled in New Zealand in 1961, where he taught in the English Department at the University of Auckland, retiring as a Professor of English.
He was involved with and influenced by Curnow, Mason and Baxter — in 1981, in fact, Dane generously donated a small collection of Baxter manuscripts and photographs to the Auckland Public Library. Past Present, Sex Poems and Undone all draw upon Dane’s personal history, but each differs in its emphasis. Sex Poems is, without a doubt, the most entertaining of the three. With its luridly blurry cover illustration of three naked people fondling one another in a Edenic environment, the book seems more likely to stimulate laughter than libidos. ‘I love to travel on the porno trail’ is a wonderfully bad first line, as is the description of the inhabitants of Sodom as being ‘dead keen / to gangbang the divine.’ Sometimes the humour avoids absurdity and sounds a wry note, as in the spurned lover’s complaint that begins ‘Eager and Open’: ‘You always do just what you want. / Sadly last night it was not me.’ The remainder of the poem, alas, doesn’t hit quite the same level.
Undone aims for a more serious tone. Here Dane tackles issues of ‘human stupidity and brutality,’ making, as the blurb puts it ‘an impassioned plea for sanity.’ The most readable piece in the collection is the long poem ‘Security,’ which tells the bleak story of a post-apocalyptic future in which a group of wealthy survivors and their servants shelter in a Waipiro Bay gated community, eating each other one by one when their supplies run out. Despite the blood-splattered nature of the story, there is a general lack of descriptive colour and detail: Dane tells his readers what is happening, but he doesn’t make us see it. Most of us are well aware of the stupidity and brutality at large in the world; Undone adds little to this awareness.
Past Present is a more generalised collection. It is here that Dane’s personal life rises to the fore, with poems like ‘1940’ and ‘Interned 1941 Hay, Australia In Camp Near Waggawagga’ firmly grounded in autobiography. As in his other two books, Dane has a fondness here for the sonnet form. The rhymes are sometimes strained — for example ‘quietly’ with ‘fruit for me’ – and rhyming ‘heard’ with ‘unheard’ seems a dubious tactic. Again, most of the poems state their case too bluntly: ‘Begin Again,’ for example, informs us that:
We came so close
that you wanted to marry me,
desperately wanted to marry me.
we did agree I was not free,
committed to her whom I wed
many years ago.
Interesting, I’m sure, to Dane and the people referenced in the poem; it seems unlikely, however, that anybody else will be drawn in very far. The musical impulse the lines conjure up, as if to suggest some piano-thumping ballad, is unresolved — one senses that as a lyricist Dane has not quite found the tone he is striving for: amid all the rollicking it hovers elusively, like the faintest echo of some Weimar cabaret.
CY MATHEWS tutors in the English Department at the University of Otago.