Taking My Jacket for a Walk by Peter Olds (Cold Hub Press, 2017), 88 pp., $29.95; The Atomic Composition of the Seeming Solid by Shane Hollands (Back Shed Press, 2017), 100 pp., $20; Ambient Terror by Victor Billot (Limetone Singularity Media, 2017), 78 pp., $19.95
Each of these books is a relatively long single collection of poetry, ranging from 75 pages of Peter Olds, to 80 pages of Victor Billot, to 100 pages of Shane Hollands. By creating subsections or chapter headings, Olds and Hollands successfully retain the reader’s attention with loosely thematic or connected poems. Billot makes long sweeps of linguistic bravura; it’s akin to undertaking an oceanic journey with him with all the vicissitudes of weather and waves.
In his latest book of poems, Taking My Jacket For a Walk, Peter Olds, from his perch as an older poet, captures the changing faces of Dunedin’s people and the changing character of its places. He’s an excellent recorder of the tiny experiences and details of daily living, and has a marvellous memory for earlier stages of his life, turning them into imagistic acts of recall. Throughout the book he not only acknowledges his mortality but also notes the essential frailty of us all, our time-bound perspectives and the flux of the moment, as in the reflections in his opening piece: ‘Visiting a friend at Wakari Hospital / and finding him not there’, with ‘When we die / we have no stories left to tell / best to say them now / while we still have the chance.’
He reveals a certain age-related crotchetiness in ‘From a coffee bar notebook’, in which he observes the changes in himself and the people about him as he struggles to deal with computers, phone-book font size, rubbish bags and the busy library; somehow, he ends up blaming it on the coffee. There is a lot more coffee to come.
‘Taking my jacket for a walk on the hill suburbs of Dunedin’ connects us to the South Pole, a popular theme for Dunedin poets it seems to me. In a neat symmetrical arrangement of verses we join Captain Scott before his voyage to Antarctica, with various speculations about what happened on that last night with his wife Kathleen.
Olds keeps his poems simple, accessible, easy to relate to. ‘Creative writing’ compares the writing process, doing a bit each day, with council workers going about their work. There is a subtle twist at the end of this one: a reference to those hundreds of jokes about how many (… poets, council workers, electricians, poetry book reviewers …) does it take to replace a lightbulb? ‘Poem in the waiting room’ has a simple and direct conclusion or resolution: ‘The rest of us pick up dropped magazines / & go back to breathing.’
While the poems are undoubtedly coffee-fuelled, you do not have to be a coffee drinker to enjoy them; nor do you have to be a Dunedinite. The scenes set in Dunedin could almost be set anywhere; they explore widespread contemporary vexations and design issues. But there is a certain pre-digital time-capsule effect, as if this poet is chronicling a fast-vanishing world. Nowadays the council workers would be contractors with hi-vis jackets, safety glasses, mobile phones and GIS tracking in their trucks. The doctor’s receptionist would have screens to peer at displaying screeds of information about you.
Olds’ most interesting or most resonant lines are those in which there is some contrast with (ancient) historical events, such as ‘Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin & me’, and his current state of mind. Here, ‘no worries’, that all-purpose panacea-like phrase, is juxtaposed with the poet’s ‘I was born instead with a head full of / anxiety, anxiety, anxiety …’. The apparent solace offered by the adonyne blandishments of coffee culture cannot completely overcome thoughts of his childhood fears of invasion by foreign powers.
In ‘The last picture show’ Olds relives a past experience; he watches a movie, then watches a woman who looks like she was in the movie. Inevitably, there is a coffee-centred conclusion – she is ‘adding extra spoons of whipped cream / to her bitter-sweet cappuccino’. It’s very easy to envisage this cinematic scenario, vertiginously repeating perhaps to infinity.
Section two of the book, ‘Yakety Yak’, offers a nostalgic survey of the 1950s, starting with a Goodbye Pork Pie-like journey down the country into a ‘gravy-train’ world, through South Canterbury to Dunedin, where everything becomes ‘a pie’: ka pai, eh! ‘Bike’ celebrates the freedom of cycling where rules don’t necessarily apply, suggesting we could reword Williams Blake’s mantra to ‘mobility is eternal delight’. The Yak series stops abruptly, though, with a sobering dose of the ‘Clap’ – a poem about a sexual encounter.
The remaining journey through this collection goes beyond the city, to the Bay of Plenty, Berlin, Auckland and elsewhere, but returns always to Dunedin – home, safety, familiar streets to walk to shops, pubs and bookshops. Olds’ work offers not just the reassurance of familiarity, with poems well-made, but also a good way to get to know the place where he lives.
Shane Hollands is a New Zealand incarnation of beat poet in his The Atomic Composition of the Seeming Solid. In the first of the opening poems of this collection, ‘Monkey shines’, we are introduced to some of his friends, his sense of being in a group, dependent on them, the hallucinogens and intoxicants, but also separate, isolated, on the edge. ‘Stolen kisses’ launches the motif that reverberates through the sequence: a concern with romantic love, the drug that keeps the him going through the days and nights – in ‘Stolen kisses’ taking him round the lower North Island roads. ‘Te Henga in a storm’, which takes place on the coast west of Auckland, completes the settings that coil through the collection. This is alienation in Auckland city, or any other big city, or the whole country for that matter, laced together with the wild, unforgiving, unsettling energy of nature.
‘Slow cooking in the ghost kitchen’ has the sounds and instruments of jazz echoing through. I can hear it emanating from the language, a slow beat, whatever the music that might accompany it. ‘Cup of joe’ is a fun, over-the-top take on our predilection for coffee. Yet another coffee poem! It’s almost as if the world will not work without it.
For me, some of these poems work much better than others; they feel more musical for a start, like songs. Examples include those where there is a clinching final line, as in ‘Sitting on the edge of your bed’, the poet in a haze ‘trying to remember your name’. Also the poem ‘Rank’, where it’s pretty clear that the intention, as ultimately declared, is: ‘I want to be your stranger.’
Other poems turn out to be enjoyable in a gross kind of way when Hollands sets up a lyric repetition, such as in ‘Zombie Xmas hams’ with its zombie-like refrain, ‘sucking on your brains’. Then there’s the catchy chant in ‘Freaky meat’: ‘what we all need now is a new kind of freaky meat / fuel we can burn / fuel to run our factories’. ‘The lament of Paris’, too, with its ‘come whisper your secrets to me’, brings nothing so much to mind as late-night cabaret in the Big Smoke.
‘My poetry is an alcoholic pit-bull in a bad mood’ appears to be an aggressively competitive poem, seemingly asserting that Hollands would like to beat others up. After all the opening bluster and bravado, though, it turns tongue-in-cheek and identifies its targets as wishy-washy or wimpy forms of poetry writing: rhymes, limericks, greeting-card ditties, radio jingles. In the end, it jokily just melts away into ‘I looked into its big weepy eyes and / it dribbled and snarled at me / and the ridiculousness of the situation …’
These are scripts for performance, to be sounded out live on stage. They are spoken-word ballads about life, the road, the streets, bars and bedrooms. The small type-face, the hundred pages: it’s a dense journey, not cut back, sculpted or refined, but all there, gritty, blasted, thrown out, drummed out, resembling a fall-off-and-get-back-on slip-sliding hectic skateboard ride along Karangahape Road, Richmond Road, through Grey Lynn, Kingsland, Avondale … and yes, even out to the wild west coast of Te Henga, too.
Ambient Terror by Victor Billot begins powerfully and dramatically on a Korean fishing trawler in the Southern Ocean with the poem ‘48° 14.5′ S, 168° 18.76′ E’. It is a tribute to Vo Minh Que, a Vietnamese seaman who was lost overboard. It does grab one’s attention.
This book works on several levels: there’s the ocean of the unconscious as well as political and social consciousness. It leads me to remember a Brian Eno 1978 manifesto describing the philosophy behind his ambient music: ‘Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’ In other words, we soak it up without being aware we are doing so: it’s an atmosphere, the atmosphere we live in now with surveillance taken for granted. In ‘Ambient terror’, the title poem of his collection, Billot sums up the situation concisely: we are all ‘caught in the jaws of an amygdala hijack’. Our subconscious has been colonised. Our behaviour is tracked and traced, stored in fogs of metadata and fed back to us by the convergent media to suit the purposes of the mega-rich.
‘The earth from space’ takes the big-picture view, delighting in the colourful and amazing details visible from the vantage point provided by satellites – Earth is the only planet where ‘Data feeds bounce off comms satellites / in zettabytes of decontextualised space dust.’
Adjacent to this poem is the engaging ‘Edge of shadow’:
… clover parasols tremble
and honey bees hover on balmy updrafts,
dancing on daisy cones and paper petals.
Suspended in the quantum uncertainty of now
as eternal clouds dissemble and ubiquitous wi fi
streams code packets across the afternoon.
This feels absolutely immediate – we could be anywhere, right here and now.
There is social comment on the state of the nation, as in the poems ‘New Year’s Eve 2015’, ‘2016, the unauthorized biography’ and ‘Brexit’, each a rolling, blustering word-river of nanobytes, phrase chunks, alliterations and acrobatic satirical loops, held together by number-eight wire rhyme – great fun.
There are also ironically quiet mood-pieces, including ‘Quantum decoherence at a Bailter Space gig, 1990’, where, despite ‘feeling my neural networks / being reformatted by a subsonic phase shift’, the conclusion is ears ‘filled / with a softly anaesthetic snowfall’. Many of us would have heard that snowfall sometime in our youth and perhaps even afterwards.
Then there are poems like ‘Cordillera’, with subject matter beyond the New Zealand political and social context. It feels like Billot is paying homage to Neruda, with ‘Grey towers of land born from the sky / burnished in mineral solitude, / embraced by ash and the breath of stone.’ Pieces like this, connected to the earth, the natural world, the elements, take us back to something that seems more real: vast mountain chains and rugged coast, but human too.
My favourite poems in this collection have a distinctive urgency and rhythm and frequently use strong rhyme that drives them along. It is easy to imagine Billot on stage, performing them with energy and enthusiasm, whether it’s ‘Ghost beat’, ‘FVEY’ or ‘The oversharing economy’. The more time I spend with them, the more they infiltrate, become part of me, enter the subconscious and join, as in the youthful folkish ‘Song of the sea’, with the flux, the blowing wind.
PIET NIEUWLAND is a poet and the editor of Fast Fibres Poetry. He is also a visual artist, writes book reviews, and sometimes works for Te Papa Atawhai. He lives near Whangarei.