Pander 9 (November 1999)
Raewyn Alexander, Anna Jackson and Sarah Quigley. AUP New Poets 1. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999.
AUP New Poets 1 (1999)
In format, a little like those black-covered Penguin New Poets which were the first exposure to post-Eliotic English poetry for so many of us, this first volume in a projected series of “fresh voices in contemporary New Zealand poetry” certainly has the virtue of variety. It’s perhaps more of a buffet than a book, for that reason, but is none the worse for that. I therefore propose to discuss the poets separately, and in alphabetical order (as they appear on the cover).
Raewyn Alexander does “performance poetry which involves the audience.” That’s how she describes it in the AUP press release, but as a frequent member of the audiences in question, I’d say that was putting it rather mildly. As she strides about in her “$300 shoes I bought with plastic,” tossing discarded sheets of typing to the fans, forcing them to read aloud to one another, seizing hapless spectators by the lapels, the vaguely surrealist long lines connect into unwieldy baggage trains of imagery. “She encourages readers to enjoy the play of words, the flow of feelings, drive and drama, rather than any rational argument or surface sense” (another quote, this time from the blurb).
I’ve always loved the show, but it’s interesting to see a substantive amount of “page work” finally. I have to say I like it, not just for the energy and verve we’re already familiar with, but for the strange finesse with which the details are arranged. Take “this fundamentalist I used to pogo with in 1978” (the first lines of all the poems are printed in bold as titles, giving a clipped, disjointed effect which complements the apparent anarchy within):
She had an orange mohawk and zips on everything
now reckons there’s dinosaurs in the bible
That’s interesting about the zips and the mohawk (like different designer brands for “wildness”), and the dinosaur detail is beguiling, but it only really achieves critical mass later in the poem:
but I search Job for stegosauruses anyway
wondering if suffering’s extinct and knowing that’s a lie
The Bible has been pared down to Job, the dinosaurs to “stegosauruses,” the former suggesting “suffering,” the latter “extinction” – which is good, substantial writing and thinking, but there’s also that crucial what-the-fuck? quality (or je ne sais quoi, if you refer something a little less vernacular). You see, I believe Raewyn when she talks about searching for stegosauruses in the book of Job – and it’s a very original and unexpected thing to do.
Forget about making allowances for lack of “rational argument or surface sense” then – these are carefully structured poems, and they’re worth the price of admission in themselves.
Anna Jackson has a good line in beguiling details also, but her poems are more faux-naïve. When, in “Similes for Lisa,” she informs us that:
The sun bites into my skin
like the patriarchy.
one’s immediate reaction is to say “give me a break” – until it becomes obvious that she’s having us on; she has, after all, been trying to read “feminist theory” while sunbathing.
At its best, in a poem like “Elvira’s first day at crèche,” this barbed simplicity can be wonderfully evocative: “A bear is good,” but
That lady is dangerous. The yellow
one. She picks up the pieces
and fits me to the blocks and the trucks
but fits me wrong.
At other times one feels that this diction can be a little confining, leaving “My Friendship with Mayakovsky” with few places to go after its splendid opening, for example.
Sarah Quigley, by contrast, over-determines many of her poems. She has that vice of the significant last line which ties up all the diverse strands. Or perhaps it’s a virtue. Many would say so. I find it a bit much, but perhaps I’m just jaded. However, in “Route 111” she writes:
… all I can think of
is your beautiful Jewish mouth
and how I want to kiss it until the sun
is only a bruise behind Palm Springs.
Now that’s in really bad taste. I like it. Better still, I believe it. The “Jewish” detail and the bruise, make it deliciously sickly. I don’t like all the rest of the travelogue details, though: “it is not expensive to see the moon here in / Constantinople” or “On the crackling grass, find memories / of Milan.” We know you’ve been abroad – don’t go all Kassabova on us.
One thing is certain: it’s nice to see these three poets between the same set of covers. It encourages critical readings, correspondences and comparisons. There’s a lot to be learned from this book. Perhaps I’ll learn to appreciate Quigley’s solid virtues better as I read her more. It’s by no means just a springboard, but a thing in itself.