Owen Bullock, ed.: Poetry NZ 45 (September 2012)
Nicholas Reid. The Little Enemy. ISBN 978-1-877577-51-2. Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2011. RRP $24.99.
Nicholas Reid: The Little Enemy (2011)
This is a serious book, and it deserves a serious response. On the plus side of the ledger, Nicholas Reid has a great ear for verse, formal and informal (his rhymed couplets in poems such as “Samson and Delilah” are impeccable; his free verse every bit as accomplished). Some of the poems take a while to make their point, but there’s never any doubt that a point is coming. Once or twice I toyed with the idea of cuts to, say, “I’m Young and Healthy” (about silver-age screen starlets) or “The Student of Prague” (about Ian Milner, the New Zealand-born Rhodes Scholar and – alleged – communist spy), but was defeated every time. What Reid has written, in each case, needs to be there. His poems certainly don’t lack content, and the forms he’s chosen for them are invariably appropriate.
When it comes to the overall direction of The Little Enemy, I find myself less sure. Take, for instance, Reid’s penultimate poem “Silverfish”:
The world’s first critics,
deconstructing what is already dead.
Speeding time’s verdict.
That’s a fairly obvious thought. Depressing, but undeniable. The poem goes on, though:
An infestation of nature,
the word made flesh.
The word making flesh.
Given the sheer weight of religious reflection earlier in the volume, notably in the section “Holy Sonnets” – named, characteristically, after John Donne – this seems a particularly dark summation for a poet who boasts degrees in history and theology (as well as English and French literature). Verbum caro factum est, indeed – the word made flesh (John 1: 14). But wait, there’s more:
Random House. ‘A wingless, silvery-gray thysanuran insect,
Concise Oxford. Nothing.
Pointless erudition, pointless books, pointing towards the poem’s last word:
Lest I be accused of taking Reid out of context, I’d add that the very last poem in his book is called “Let’s Burn the Archives.”
So what does Reid want to say, overall? He doesn’t really seem to believe in much, if anything, for all his obvious erudition and wide experience of the world. Love? “A salmon spent after its run / A bull after rutting / The ass without the jawbone.” God? “no style and no finesse.” The environment? “A short crick in / the neck is green philosophy.” Art? “All poets lie. My poetry is / in what I do not write. / Age filters out the lies.”
Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps Reid (like his mouthpiece Rimbaud, in the poem “Harar”) sees his role as “filtering out the lies”? If so, he’s done a wonderfully thorough job of it. It’s notable that he chooses Baudelaire’s “Spleen” as the only poem translated here in full.
If that were all there was to this long-meditated first book of poems, I don’t know that I’d think much of it beyond disinterested admiration for Reid’s skill as a metricist (rather like calling an artist a good draughtsman). I don’t think it is, though.
Tarkovsky once remarked that it wasn’t really possible to paint a convincing portrait of heaven, but that by depicting hell one could perhaps sketch in an outline of the former in negative. Reid’s almost Beckettian disillusion with the world he sees around him hides, I feel, mostly in the form of ironic double entendres, a kind of longing for something richer, deeper, truer.
Hence his disdainful portrait, in “Death of the Poet’s Wife,” of Denis Glover’s sick jokes “at the expense of old lays”:
What a character, what a card.
Hence the intense compassion for that flawed, bombastic soul Mayakovsk, at the heart of the poem “A Race-horse down a Coal Mine.” Hence, too, the long lyrical first section of the book – entitled “Fly-over Country” because it so obviously isn’t. Every part of this country, the blue remembered hills of the past, must be savoured in detail.
Nicholas Reid, then, is the opposite of a hard-bitten poet, for all his Larkinian disillusionment with the world and its ways. Scratch him and you’ll find a Wordsworth, pondering “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” I mean that as high praise.