Halcyon Ghosts by Sam Sampson, (Auckland University Press, 2014), 96 pp., $24.99; Dear Neil Roberts by Airini Beautrais, (Victoria University Press, 2014), 64 pp., $25; Ranging Around the Zero by Terry Locke, (Steele Roberts, 2014), 70 pp., $19.99
Judges of poetry competitions often say they are looking for the poem among the entries that surprises, the lines that demand attention. Also, it is a given that poets who publish expect the participation of an audience of readers, so there is a conversation going on. When I started reading the three books for this review, what I wanted to discover was how each volume engaged with me as the reader. How would they manage to sustain my attention through their use of language and ideas?
Auckland’s Sam Sampson was winner of the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry with Everything Talks, in 2009. He is also widely published in journals and chapbooks both nationally and internationally, and has an MA in philosophy. In his work the quality of surprise is abundant. For example, layout of the work can be as important graphically as art work for an exhibition in a gallery. It is therefore no surprise to find that Sampson has exhibited with visual artists such as Peter Madden, and taught in the ethnomusicology programme of Auckland University. In Halcyon Ghosts we have visual ways of saying given weight every bit as much as the content references musical forms.
The concern with form, most obviously evident where the shape of birds’ flight spread across the sky like a painting of wildfowl by Sir Peter Scott, is mirrored on the page in the text of the title poem, ‘Halcyon Ghosts’. The sense of the verse is at times to be read ‘backwards’ on the ‘V’, and the ghostlike birds soar into playfulness of language made strange. There are also prose poems, where language is not so much made strange as left to its own devices, in a stream of consciousness that Kerouac and others might have used decades ago.
Playing with language can be a brittle practice. The result depends so much on the reader’s preparedness to engage with the text in the search for sense or non-sense as the case may be. Another poem, ‘Broken Architecture’, at times confirms the accuracy of its title:
left in the alphabet soup
only a week ago inked heaven
the owner shakes his head
gives a shape to, hammers out compositions
the character of this story is easily rendered
(a mystery most profound)
I have a sense that, potentially, poetry of more clarity lurks inside the fluid and adventurous constructions of Sampson’s than is there yet on occasion. So much information is poured into the bucket of language he accesses. Where McCahon’s dog Thor makes an appearance in the stars for instance, one wonders if perhaps the contents have not settled yet. The resulting compost, as it were, could require more time to brew before it provides the impact he is capable of. Of course, any conversation in poetry is dependent not only on the skill of the poet, but also the receptivity and background of the reader.
Communication is made much more difficult for the poet in a world where access to cultural symbolism explodes through the web. The vast quantity of data that is now published in a number of formats means that the reader’s reference points can easily be lost, misconstrued or simply passed over. What is common knowledge within one group can be a mystery to another. Sampson is dealing with the halcyon strangeness of language – the ghosts of meaning that play beneath the surface of utterance.
Yet some poems, such as ‘The Kid’, where material is just as playful as in ‘Broken Architecture’, provide more pattern, and are successful and satisfying. ‘The Tombstone Epitaph’ emphasises further those aspects of Sampson’s work in which he is both highly visual and cinematic, as well as playfully saluting Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. The poetry engages as a series of still images, while simultaneously using a cinematic approach to narrative by way of reference and naming.
a cowboy stops his horizon up on a horse
they left Arizona and came to Albuquerque (seven in all) they would not
give themselves up, knowledge of their whereabouts would bring a posse
of cowboys down upon them
on the horse a cowboy props up his horizon
In a poem like ‘I Spilled my Story’ Sampson doesn’t only play with the sense of things, he references material that seems to this reader as if it is random, as in ‘All Year Minute Fish’:
the team applied a patina, running in the tortuous wind (so long Rodin)
humans project the interior, seek definite articles: indefinite lamps, to
be used if only the moon healthy in the next world rises: an essence of
deceased peoples without any paraphernalia; we can only conclude that in
death, as in life … beads, flecks of the ice-tail …
Echoes of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America float to the surface of my mind. A sort of anarchic teasing of our sensibilities is taking place. However, the work is pulsing with the beat of a living language at its heart. I can imagine that this sort of material could be read aloud to make a vivid use of sound-sense, in a performance context. Sadly, I’ve not heard Sampson read. Much of the way words are placed on the page reminds me of Michele Leggott, where line-breaks and spacing indicate rhythm and breath in reading, clues on offer to the reader. The same endorsement for the ‘sound’ implicit in the work could be given for a poem about Sampson’s mother, ‘She is Sparrow-like and Fierce’. This and the final poem, ‘Six Reels of Joy’, are presented on the page to accentuate rhythm and movement within the line, as if awaiting live performance.
… as shadow a light and body
in the present tense … a quint-
Sampson is adventurous, and if I don’t always ‘get it’ with a first or second reading, he has enough of a sense of joy in his poetry for me to go searching for more. Between ‘making plain’ and obscurity there is always a balancing act. I have been left wanting to read more.
A poet whose published work has been available for slightly longer is Airini Beautrais, who also won the national Best First Book of Poetry award in 2007 with Secret Heart. She is presently engaged in PhD research at Victoria University, investigating poetry in long or documentary sequences written during the last 25 years in New Zealand or Australia. Her research has come about as a consequence of her writing Dear Neil Roberts which is, in the publisher’s information, ‘as much a work of documentary as poetry’. The idea engaged my attention due to personal interest, and an appreciation of various long sequences I have enjoyed in the past.
In the early hours of 18 November 1982, Neil Roberts walked up to the front door of the Police Computer Centre in Whanganui and bombed himself to smithereens, into countless small pieces. Dear Neil Roberts is essentially an attempt to ask how one makes sense of such an action.
The volume reports on the event in forms that visually occupy the page as poetry would, and this review will consider it as a volume of poetry. General comments have been made at times about a hesitation by New Zealand poets to engage with politics and social issues in the way that Bill Sewell did with his books Erebus, and The Ballad of Fifty-one. By and large any event such the demise of Neil Roberts will seldom have a volume devoted to it by a New Zealand poet. So Beautrais is to be commended for her initiative. The death (or suicide bombing) was an anarchic protest and would not often be seen as a subject for poetry in this country.
The resulting research provides the facts – in the poem titled ‘Man’:
If he hadn’t done it at the Computer centre
then he would have done it at the Beehive.
He wanted people to ask why he did it.
It’s not sad you know. It’s not sad at all.
Is the writing poetry, or is it a pure and simple documentary reporting of an historical incident? Does it reflect on similar acts that are described as unadulterated terrorism in locations all over the planet? We live in a world of Boko Harum and ISIS, of jihad and drone surveillance, of random violence, yet there seems to be no conversation going on that requires the reader to relate to their contemporary world.
He was very gentle, calm, and pretty intelligent.
He wasn’t the sort of person who would hurt anyone else.
He wasn’t at all malicious.
He didn’t have a mean streak like most people.
The result ends up as a suggestion of eulogy and history lesson, a hybrid being caught between documentary exposition and a celebration of childbirth. What would the likes of John Berger or Charles Simic make of this? Would they too find the result easy to read, while lacking tension? I want to feel in the face of what appears to be an unequivocal act of defiance, a pain too large for words maybe, or at least a warning about something we ignore at our collective peril. In the poem, ‘Conclusion’:
in the media, the Whanganui coroner explains,
‘I would hope this sad event is taken for what it is.’
What it is. A room made in silence.
I am left with the question, ‘what is it?’, myself. Because when we read in ‘Press’:
Mr Malcolm, appears pleased
that the torrential flow
of escaping New Zealanders
is slowing down. He does not realise
the rest of us are still
saving the fare.
I can’t help wondering who is ‘saving the fare’. What we are doing instead is actually continuing to live – in the comfort of individual non-alignment, or is it just the comfort of comfort?
Contrasting the finality of Robert’s death is the life-affirming act of the birth of Beautrais’ child Felix, which provides a counterpoint in some of the poems. What do the two have that includes them in the same sequence of poems? The tonal range of the language used to register the two events seems to diminish their difference.
Nevertheless, an important task has been completed – the story has been told. We need to accept that events like Neil Roberts’ action, or the birth of a new son, surely place us as participants of a world in which violence of one sort or another is part of life. I am left wondering if the use of prose may have contributed more to what Beautrais was trying to achieve. It is after all the very successful use of prose poetry that distinguished her first book.
Hamilton-based Terry Locke was part of the poetry scene in New Zealand before Sampson or Beautrais were even born. In his work, by referencing Charles Olson and Robert Lowell for example, he signals a history of influence from the 1970s in New Zealand, when poets like Ian Wedde and Bob Orr were first publishing. While he, too, has written a sequence considering a historical figure, Phillip Tapsell, in the 2003 volume Maketu, the present work – Ranging Around the Zero – is more concerned with relationships.
Locke often uses the commonplace as a launching pad for philosophical statement. In ‘Dancing with Mother’, where he rescues his mother from her bath – she has lain for two days unable to get out – the act of rescue is also a way of challenging our use of phrases such as the ‘dignity of age’. He would suggest we have no idea what a particular moment becomes until we are fully tied into the process ourselves. The momentum of his own journey pauses with just such a realisation of change, in ‘Diana: The Morning After’:
… wanted me to take as a signal
that this was indeed an interruption
that the world was slowly awakening to
Locke is drawn to question the culture in which we live. The poetry as a consequence contains unanswerable questions about the way a society acts. Like koans of the Zen practitioner there are not always ‘right’ answers. I suspect he also feels that language is an elusive tool with which to frame his questions. He says in ‘Synopsis’:
All statements are
statements about language
And for Locke that is the case: language and the way it is constructed on the page is very important to his work. The elegance of the asking is important. In a poem like ‘Of Nature’,
You wonder about
the consolations of philosophy:
so much depends
If nature is home,
Then home of what sort?
His attention is also given to the physical and sensory, a being-in-the-now akin to meditation. That awareness of detail provides a down-to-earth quality in what are essentially philosophical meditations, as in ‘My Mother’s Hands’:
I can still feel the ridges
of her soft black glove
enfolding my own small hand
before the pikelets arrived.
Tramping the Heaphy track, trawling on Lake Taupo, or shopping in the local mall, all provide Locke the opportunity to observe closely. What, he asks, is it that encompasses the essence of experience in this moment? He is not afraid to make big statements, as he does in ‘Earthquakes and the Idea of God’.
We can consign the god of retribution
to the nearest bin
along with the twisted girder
There is nothing godlike
we realise in
Sometimes the lines can become overloaded with the seriousness of statement. In ‘The Imminence of Magnolias’:
The jagged wife in Lowell’s poem bemoans
her quality of life. Winter can be
content or discontent. Even old bones
can play the rhythm of trees.
Overall however, we are left, in poems like ‘Karitane Tryptich’, with glimpses where,
the ghost of a dandelion’s
maintains its shape
in a child’s outstretched hand
In each of these books, how the individual poet engages with language provides for the reader’s involvement with the work. Formal structures allow the poetry to work in an environment that a reader can access. Poets reach out to readers, who in turn have to trust what is on the page in front of them. The process becomes a never-ending balancing act, an ongoing conversation. It is a difficult task.
PAT WHITE is a poet, essayist, memoirist and artist. His collection of memoir essays, How the Land Lies: Of longing and belonging, was published by VUP in 2010. He is currently working on a volume of new and selected poems.