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The NZ Lit IV - poetry book reviews

Poetry collections from James Brown, David Beach, Geoff Cochrane and Harry Ricketts.

Warm AuditoriumIt's easier to say what James Brown’s poems are doing than it is to say what they’re about. In his previous collections, his poems have been distinguished by their magpie alertness and their playfulness with language and tradition: his pantoum Cashpoint, for example, is constructed entirely from the banal repeated instructions given by an ATM. The finding of poetry in unlikely places expands our concept of what poetry is – if a poem can be found in the heart of an ATM, where can it not be found?

Brown’s poems call to mind the “uncreative writing” strategies of American conceptualist poetics, the work of poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith (whose book-length Day is a word-for-word transcription of a single issue of the New York Times). Other influences, I suspect, are Canadian poet Christian Bök (the “univocalic” poems in each of the five sections of Bök’s collection Eunoia employ only one vowel) and the Oulipo writers grouped around Raymond Queneau in the 1960s. These writers frequently imposed artificial constraints on their work (for example, Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition gets by without the letter e). Add to this mix the surrealist touches and elusive narratives of contemporary poets Charles Simic and James Tate – and, well, there you have him: James Brown.

Found language, artificial constraints, wordplay, a dash of surrealism, fragmentary, elusive narratives – Brown’s fifth collection, Warm Auditorium, has these in spades. In one poem, he invites the reader to write an unmetrical sonnet with a simple rhyme scheme and including the words “wife”, “sunset”, “palm” and “unction”. On the facing page is a sonnet that fulfils these conditions.

Scenery and AgricultureIn another poem, every sentence includes the phrase “green plastic toy”. In Popocatepetl, every line rhymes with the title. So does every line in Ezekiel. Yet another poem breaks all the creative writing rules: it favours abstraction over the concrete, cliché over originality.

“I glisten to people all day,” the speaker says in The Glistener. All speech is endlessly recycled, whether it’s a stray line from Robert Lowell’s Skunk Hour (which itself recycles a stray line from John Milton’s Paradise Lost) or the stale ritual confessions of a support group. The poet attends in the warm auditorium, listening, sifting and making poems that shine from what he hears. The results are engaging, funny, sometimes maddening, and for all their anti-poetry interventions, oddly lyrical.

David Beach also writes a kind of antipoetry: in his new book, Scenery and Agriculture, he continues his experiment with that most traditional poetic form, the sonnet, which readers encountered in his earlier collections, Abandoned Novel and The End of Atlantic City.

James K Baxter adopted and adapted this same form in his Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament, and to similar ends: an 800-year European tradition is brought to bear on a contemporary New Zealand context in ways that are illuminating and disorienting. Baxter wrote his sonnets in unrhymed couplets, approximating iambic pentameter and disdaining the octave-sestet structure. The poems were loose and conversational, yet authoritative – and, being Baxter, bardic.

The Bengal Engine's Mango AfterglowBeach’s poems are not bardic. His lines also approximate iambic pentameter, but they have such a flattened cadence that the stresses are no more than the lilt of ordinary English speech. Lines end, often as not, in prepositions, definite and indefinite articles, and without the pauses punctuation would provide, pushing on beyond their incidental linebreaks.

Like Brown, Beach seems suspicious of originality, of “poetry”. His deliberately prosaic register and the absence of metaphor, simile and rhetoric have an unsettling effect: these are undeniably poems, though they may not behave like them.

In its quiet, understated way, Beach’s book subverts an Arcadian tradition that goes back at least as far as the odes of Horace. Twelve “Scenery” poems are followed by 46 “Agriculture” poems, but the pastoral has never seemed less idyllic. The sonnet is conventionally the home of the lyric “I”, the taut frame within which the speaker articulates and resolves a personal predicament, yet only two poems here (Agriculture 35 and Agriculture 36, if you want to know) use the first-person pronoun at all. The speaker in these poems is simply a locus of outward-directed, impersonal observation, or a tone of voice, and not a centre of interest in itself. This is frustrating only so long as you ask of the poems something they have no intention of giving you.

The prize for best poetry title of 2012 must surely go to Geoff Cochrane’s The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow. Cochrane’s poems resemble those old commonplace books, in which writers would copy passages from other writers, making a kind of personal anthology. Other writers are certainly jostling for space here, with a preference for the shambling, itinerant and disreputable: Tu Fu, Matsuo Basho, Allen Ginsberg.

Just ThenCochrane doesn’t romanticise these figures, though like them he finds the materials for his poems in the margins of society. Many of the poems here are elegiac in tone, recalling fragments of a remembered past, but they are too jumpy and restless to stay there long. Interspersed among these anecdotal excursions are eight “pinksheet” poems. A pinksheet is a daily financial report on the prices of traded stocks, and the appropriation of the term here hints at another, unacknowledged economy. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” poet William Carlos Williams once said. Cochrane would, I think, agree. These are nuanced, complex, clear-eyed poems, to be read quickly and then slowly.

Harry Ricketts’s ninth poetry collection, Just Then, is also elegiac in tone, and the evocations of loss are the most effective poems here. Perhaps to offset the mood of these, there are lighter, humorous pieces scattered throughout, including The Poetry slam, The NZ Lit XI and How the 2008 modern poetry class cast its vote. One poem mingles the two genres, and from a name inscribed in a second-hand book it invents a life for the book’s previous owner that is funny, convincing and in the end touching. Among these four collections, Ricketts’s best demonstrates the strengths of the durable mainstream lyric.

WARM AUDITORIUM, by James Brown (VUP, $28); SCENERY AND AGRICULTURE, by David Beach (VUP, $25); THE BENGAL ENGINE’S MANGO AFTERGLOW, by Geoff Cochrane (VUP, $25); JUST THEN, by Harry Ricketts (VUP, $25).

Tim Upperton is a poet, writer and senior tutor at Massey University.