Essays & articles

Fusion Poetry, by Andrew Johnston

from Stand, New Series, Vol 2 No 3, September 2000

A review of:

Bill Manhire, What to Call Your Child (Auckland, Godwit, 1999)
ISBN 1-86962-044-5, $24.95 (hbk) pp. 80
Chris Orsman, South (London, Faber and Faber, 1999)
ISBN 0-571-19682-9, £7.99 (pbk) pp. 128
Gregory O'Brien, Winter I Was (Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1999)
ISBN 0-86473-375-5, $19.95 (pbk) pp. 104
Vincent O'Sullivan, Seeing You Asked (Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998)
ISBN 0-86473-352-6, $19.95 (pbk) pp. 88
Elizabeth Smither, The Lark Quartet (Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1999)
ISBN 1-86940-216-2, $19.95 (pbk) pp.68

In the late 1980s my favourite restaurant in Wellington was an unlikely looking place on a seedy street with pictures of jazz musicians on the walls of the narrow front room. It was a friendly setting, but it was the food we were there for: everything arrived deliciously enhanced by the most surprising combinations of fruits and spices and herbs. The restaurant and what it served defied categorisation, and were sorely missed when the genius in the kitchen decided to move to London, taking the name with him. When Peter Gordon eventually found the backing to repeat his experiment in London, The Sugar Club in its new incarnation became a roaring success. The 'fusion' cuisine practised by Gordon and some other New World newcomers was hailed as an idea whose time - or lunchtime - had come.

I think of the aesthetic of Gordon's cuisine when contemplating the kinds of refreshing combinations that one can find in New Zealand writing and art. The distance from putative cultural centres that previous generations experienced as a burden has been translated into a newfound freedom to step outside traditions and borrow liberally, from a wider and more eclectic range of sources than many literatures call on. If anything characterises New Zealand poetry in general it is the attempt to exploit, often playfully, that freedom to recombine influences in unexpected and unique ways.

Since he started publishing in the late 1960s, Bill Manhire has been at the cutting edge of New Zealand's brand of 'fusion' poetry, working a eclectic range of influences into a style - surprising, subversive, wry, occasionally surreal, often enigmatic - that contains and enjoys contradictions rather than trying to resolve them. 'Hoosh,' a poem in his previous book, My Sunshine, takes its name from very different kind of fusion cuisine, the 'hairy stew' that Antarctic explorers concocted to keep themselves alive: 'pony mixed with penguin / mixed with whale, seal / rissoles and the stewed paws / of huskies.' Manhire's interest in Antarctica led to an invitation to visit it in 1998, and hence the 'Antarctic Field Notes' that form the core of his new book, What to Call Your Child. These observations on Antarctic landscapes and wildlife - skuas, seals, penguins, and especially scientists ('Mike returns from filming the wind / Jeanie cradles her husky ') - are wry, awed, homely, funny and affecting:


Every stone a traveller:
one more darkness,
another gust of light.

For someone whose early work sounded almost icily controlled, Manhire has reached a remarkable level of freedom, a blithe disregard for contemporary poetry's constraining decorum, that prompts him occasionally to burst into song:

Patch me out to Lake Bonney,
Patch me out to the ice:
Where the glaciers pour
And suspend at your door
And the world doesn't look at you twice.

('Deep Field Song')

What to Call Your Child was published in conjunction with the vineyard Te Mata Estate, sponsors of New Zealand's unofficial poet laureateship, as part of Manhire's term as the first laureate. While the book contains some of Manhire's breeziest poems - including versions of Pushkin and of an Anglo-Saxon riddle, and a villanelle written on commission as a lottery prize - it is a very Manhirean irony that such a populist context should also frame some poems as baffling and eccentric as anything he has produced, and that in some ways these are the poems that linger longest in the mind. The title poem, for example, weaves meanings of some Christian names into a weird little narrative that draws one back and back:

Veronica's heart belongs to her
and not to Troy. Thus the boy
lives in slow disaster, by smoke
and scattered sand . . .

Forever wary of seeing his poetry freeze into a stylistic trap around him, Manhire is continually melting it down and recombining it with whatever comes to hand - and staying one step ahead of readers and critics in the process.

Manhire shares his interest in the Antarctic - and shared the trip there in 1998 - with Chris Orsman, whose second book, South, is a sequence of poems about Scott's expedition to the South Pole. Originally published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand, South has been reissued in an expanded UK edition by Faber. Orsman opens the book with a prose introduction in which he explains a family connection to Scott's expedition, then plunges into the first instalment of his crisp, compelling, vividly visualised narrative:

History's a flammable nitrate
the cameraman gathers in É

To take as subject a story so encrusted with myth is a brave venture. Orsman confronts the challenge solidly in five sections that deal chronologically with the voyage south from New Zealand, the landing on the ice, the first hut-bound winter, the almost unimaginably arduous trek to the Pole and the tragic return journey. In many places Orsman uses the point of view of the expedition's cameraman, Herbert Ponting, to help evoke the eerie otherworldliness of the ice. The spectral sights and the expedition members' bafflement and awe are used to describe each other:

We are rarely blended by such scenes
as this: an iceberg stilled in its gyre

and hove-to in chance alignment.
The ice-cave frames a distant view . . .

('A Grotto in an Iceberg')

To carry out his task of building a double physical and metaphysical account of the adventurers and their circumstances, Orsman employs chiselled couplets that accumulate considerable narrative momentum. Their Latinate cadences and the clarity of the physical description they achieve recall the poetry of Les Murray, but the comparison points to a limitation of Orsman's book: it tackles its subject so squarely and with such seriousness that it limits its own ability to take the Scott myths at anything other than face value. Orsman has done a formidable job of retelling the story, but a bit more obliquity might have allowed him to re-imagine the expedition in more unusual ways - and might have pried loose some of the Edwardian language that has attached itself to his narrative:

Who will raise an accent

not heard these eighty years
to praise illustrious men?

('Into the "Fifties" ')

While he deals with the expedition on its own terms, it seems in places that, at the level of language at least, Orsman is reconstituting someone else's frozen hoosh instead of cooking up his own. In other places he lifts free of the snarl of debris attached to the Scott legend and reanimates the story with astonishing grace and power.

In Gregory O'Brien's latest book, Winter I Was, six short prose poems variously labelled 'Contents of a Garden' or 'Contents of a Stream' supply deft correlatives for the kind of cultural accumulation that nurtures New Zealand writing

All come to an end, beginning here: big boat, little ship,
THOMSON LEWIS & CO., a fountain etched in glass, a bottle . . .
. . . Roots of the magnolia tree massage
open the tin box, turned the buried steam train around.

('Contents of a Garden I')

In his poems and paintings - he divides his time equally between writing and the visual arts - O'Brien has constructed an extensive private universe out of such selections and arrangements of iconic objects and words. Attracted to the work of heroically marginal, eccentric or mystical artists, O'Brien exploits the kind of freedom that New Zealand's distance offers to create utterly distinctive work. The danger of such an endeavour is that it can get away on the author, and produce results that escape readers too; in earlier books O'Brien sometimes seemed trapped within a kind of calculated surrealism. The sublime paradox of the poems in Winter I Was is that they are able to soar above such dangers precisely because they are anchored for the most part much more firmly in real occasions and life events. The opening poem sets the tone:

. . . Remember

you're buying a house
not a zen monastery.
A house not a scaffolding

to hang wallpaper from.
A house, the walls to stop those you love
falling out of your life.

('House and Children')

Children figure largely in Winter I Was, which includes a triptych for O'Brien's third son Carlo Victor, born in April 1999. The book as a whole has very much the air of an album, whose personalities occur and recur as the poems mark births, deaths (a fine elegy for the Australian poet John Forbes, and a moving poem for the late broadcaster Ross Stevens) and a marriage: O'Brien celebrates his wedding in 1994 to the poet Jenny Bornholdt a group of six fine poems that are poised, warm, meditative, playful and graceful - and to my mind the best love poems anyone has published in New Zealand. Along with 'Storm Warning,' a subtle and resonant poem written after Victoria University's controversial sale of a Colin McCahon painting, these poems are the book's central achievement: it is in writing about care that O'Brien's style seems most resolved, that he takes the most care:

For all life's beauty

I would never lose myself, except in
your presence, all that

is fixed, all that is constantly

in that unknowable place, that
one unknowable thing

which good luck might grant us, and
has granted us

now, among the

('Mount Carmel II')

Vincent O'Sullivan's latest collection won New Zealand's top award for poetry in 1999. Seeing You Asked displays the intelligence, biting wit, variety and learnedness that readers of his poetry have come to expect. It's a canny choice of title for a book of poems that deftly combine seeing and looking with asking and answering- and the title's relaxed note conveys the more personal tone of these poems in comparison with the intellectualism (however tempered with colloquial vigour) of O'Sullivan's earlier work.

The familiar roster of O'Sullivan's intellectual preoccupations does emerge, however: a typically modernist line-up that intermingles philosophy, mythology, references to other (mostly European) writers, with a strong dose of political, social and intellectual satire. In places O'Sullivan adopts the role of a very public writer; elsewhere he touches on more private themes but always with a strong ironic undercurrent.

At his best O'Sullivan's poems are brassy and funny (the public poet) or tender and finely judged (the private voice). At times they are forbiddingly difficult. It's hard to do philosophy successfully in a poem-sometimes the result is philosophy but no longer poetry. O'Sullivan's most rewarding philosophical poems, for me, are those that - like much of Stevens's work - are caught up in an attempt to understand something that lies perpetually just beyond understanding. The least rewarding are those that are too keen to provide answers.

The title poem, though, leans towards another kind of telling: not answers but stories:

There is something like the glint of a hook,
there is something, love, in that shimmering
vault, trolling too fast to speak of.

O'Sullivan acknowledges Wittgenstein's'whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent' while using resonant images and fragments of narrative to approach it nonetheless; it's the most powerful piece in the book, and shows that O'Sullivan is capable of sublime poems when he restrains his urge to show us how much he knows.

Elizabeth Smither's deft, quick poems leap sideways from the observations or occasions announced in their titles - 'Eating oranges,' 'Stars through tree crowns,' 'Hearing the approach of rain' - in order to catch the ordinary unawares, to show how strange things can seem when shown in the ludic light of the imagination. She likes to set things spinning then step back to share with us her bemusement and her pleasure at the beauty of unexpected contingencies.

What is striking about the elegant miniatures in The Lark Quartet is how often the occasions of the poems are shared. Seldom are these lyric poems in the sense of a solitary voice expressing solitary thoughts: Smither is interested above all in how the things she observes might function as units of exchange - between her and the other people present in the poems, between writer and reader - and in how the exchange achieves a kind of grace:

Two pages turn. The eyes scan down.
A heroine in a bus proceeds
like an angel above machinery.

('A woman on a bus reading a poem')

Distrustful of large gestures, Smither is much more interested in curiosity than in knowledge; in this and several other respects she has strong affinities with Elizabeth Bishop, aiming for a nonchalant artfulness that is deceptively difficult to achieve. For some critics, such work amounts to a kind of studied inconsequentiality, but I think they're missing the point: it is because of, rather than in spite of, the small ambitions of such poems that they succeed in achieving so much.

But poems that stay close to ideas or observations, as Smither's (and Bishop's) often do, run the risk of resting at that level and not entering the realm where language's resistance might generate something more complex. Some of Smither's new poems can only strain after the kind of resonant image that gives others their mystery and their power. Bishop knew that her type of poem was hard to do well, and she published sparingly. Smither, by comparison, publishes prolifically. But I wished some of the poems in The Lark Quartet had been worked on longer so that their quickness and lightness at the level of ideas could ripen into something more lasting in language.

Smither's best work, though - like Manhire's, in particular, but also that of the other poets above - achieves something that literature in English badly needs these days. The United States and Britain, as the two most powerful literary centres, increasingly seem to produce two poetries divided by a common language, to borrow Shaw's quip. Created in an imaginative zone beyond the gravitational attraction of those centres, New Zealand poetry offers not only some unexpectedly satisfying and rewarding work, but some highly original ways out of that standoff - not only tasty fusion cuisine, one might say, but the recipes too. The loopy last poem in Bill Manhire's book, 'The Final Secret', seems to want to have the last word here:

The sun was shining on the wet sand, on the sails,
and somewhere ahead lay the heart of the nation.
Will you enter creation?
I will enter creation.

© Andrew Johnston