Pander 8 (July 1999)
John O’Connor. A Particular Context. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.
This book began, for me, with two strikes against it: a section of family poems, complete with potted genealogy (“chloroform in print,” as Mark Twain remarked of The Book of Mormon), and then a section of haiku, for God’s sake. What’s more, the first two (quite long) poems are rather laborious satires at the expense of Christchurch pretentiousness which largely miss their target here up north.
So why am I so impressed by it? Why do I find it so enjoyable? Why have I been going around recommending it to people? Mainly it’s because, when I close my eyes, I see images from it imprinted on my retinae.
There’s the “game called autumn” in “Something to Say,” for example:
all down the Jewish lane children are falling. it’s a game called autumn, a pastiche of drifting leaves and gathering. yet one stays out, has not joined her companions in what they suppose is a fine tumble, quick in the wind, now still.
which ends with the extraordinarily bold image of a gas chamber with “one figure … in front of the group – as if she had something important to say.” This is something important to say. It works, but it could so easily not have worked, and it takes courage to venture out onto such thin ice.
Then there’s the “police cordon. that thin blue line” in “Shining,” another prose poem – puzzling, a little menacing, yet absolutely right.
Some of the haiku, even, succeed in rehabilitating that thoroughly overworked genre for me:
the lingerie girl smiling
through the snow
And, well, I have to admit that not all family poems are bad. It’s not that I care who anyone’s ancestors were unless they were interesting in themselves, but I like the sense of barely suppressed venom about some of these. The “derelict swimming pool” which was:
the only green
before the bishop’s house
though the fat bastard
never ran on it
as far as I could see.
There’s nothing comfortable about John O’Connor’s sense of the past – nothing cosy, heritage industry-y – on the contrary, these poems are alive. Not life as we know it, perhaps: it’s a nervous, edgy, rather terrifying vision, but you won’t forget it in a hurry.