Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Three Cool Cats
Right back at you, Jen, and - Bon voyage! I hope Singapore appreciates you in a way that officialdom (at least) has so signally failed to do in Auckland - knock 'em dead ...
I've been debating for some time what would best to do about various extraordinary beautiful little books of poetry which have turned up here over the past couple of months, and then it occurred to me that maybe a joint post would be the best way to deal with them. They do all seem very interesting to me, though in distinctly different ways.
Once I had the title, the rest started to arrange itself quite easily. It's an old Ry Cooder song, apparently - most famously covered (of course) by the Beatles - but I think that "3 cool cats" is a pretty good summary of these three authors and their three curious little books.
I'm going to take them in alphabetical order, to avoid any unseemly wrangles about precedence, but I seriously doubt that Jill or Jen or Ross would ever feel tempted to do anything so uncool in any case ...
Ross Brighton's A Pelt, A Shrub, a Soil Sample is a really beautifully-designed and put-together book. I think that Annie Mackenzie's drawings, in particular, are a joy, and mesh perfectly with the poems.
I've put in a sample page below so you can judge for yourself.
Ross Brighton himself is an exciting new presence on the poetry scene. He's been giving everybody a hard time with his searching blog-comments and general feisty argumentativeness for quite a while now, and it's nice to see Scott Hamilton and various others (myself included) jolted out of the massive complacency of their judgments on poetry. I believe that even Lee Posna (author of an essay on contemporary American poetry in Poetry NZ 38) is to get the treatment in an upcoming issue of the same magazine ... Check out Ross's blog here (It also contains useful details on how to get hold of his book).
Do I get his poems? No, not really. I kind of like them - they have a kind of lyric music and complex symmetry to them - but I'm not sure whether they're love poems, nature poems, or experiments in poetic word disruption. Maybe all three at the same time. That doesn't hugely worry me, though - as I say, the book is beautiful, and I imagine his work will come into ever sharper focus as time goes on. Will Christie's work made no sense to me at all until I heard her read one day, after which the scales fell from my eyes. The same thing happened to me once, long ago, while I was reading a John Ashbery poem called "Scheherazade". Suddenly all that had been mysterious was clear as crystal.
No doubt the same will happen with Ross Brighton in the fullness of time. For the moment, though, I see enough in them to persuade me that it's worth taking the trouble to try to understand them, and him, better. I kind of prefer deferred gratification, in any case. Those of you who know Ross' work better will no doubt have already worked out precisely where it is he's coming from already. Comments and elucidations welcome.
I guess I've been reading Jill Chan's subtle, understated, contemplative lyrics for more than a decade now. They used to come in little packets to Spin magazine, back in the late nineties, when I edited one of the three yearly issues, and there was always something mysterious and distant about them. They roused my curiosity in a way that few of the other contributors did.
I'm not sure that Jill's work has changed all that substantially since then. There was already a kind of formal perfection about her approach to poetry which risked (on occasion) the suspicion of coldness or distance. She has relaxed a little, though, and it's become ever more apparent just how vociferous are the demons who require this elegant poise, this pirouetting on the edge of the abyss.
In short, I'm a big fan. With the possible exception of Richard von Sturmer, I can't think of another New Zealand writer who could more proudly carry off such labels as "Zen" or "spiritual" poet. Her own personal website has shifted addresses, and now resides here.
This book, These Hands Are Not Ours, is a sequel to her earlier volumes The Smell of Oranges (2003) and Becoming a Person Who Isn't (2007), from the same publisher, Michael O'Leary's "Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop."
And might I just put in a plug here for O'Leary's impressive track record in searching out and publishing the works of just such visionaries as Jill Chan? I do honestly feel that his press (run with Brian E. Turner) will be seen as an increasingly important contributor to New Zealand poetry and writing in general in the years to come.
If you check out their website, I think you'll be astonished at the calibre of much of the work they've put out - and with minimal encouragement from the Arts establishment, too. Hats off to them, I'd say. We need many more such voices in the wilderness.
I've already had my say about Jen Crawford's poetry in the speech I gave at the launch of her full-length Titus Books collection Bad Appendix last year, and also in the editorial to Poetry NZ 38, which featured the bulk of her searing "Pop Riveter" sequence. Her blog, Blue Acres, can be found here.
What can I say about Napoleon Swings, the latest poetry chapbook in an increasingly distinguished sequence from Michael Steven's Soapbox Press? Sarah Broom perhaps put it best in her launch speech at Galbraith's a couple of Sundays back. Reading these poems is like trying to make your way through a thick jungle of foliage, with no possibility of getting up high enough to see your way through the gloom.
She concluded that probably the best approach was to stand still for awhile and allow the lianas and creepers to twine themselves around your feet and start to root you to the forest floor.
Beyond that, Sarah pointed to certain verbal analogies and echoes of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, but also to the vital fact that the dedicatee of the sequence, Debbie Gerbich is the woman who committed suicide after her confidential confession to having had group sex with convicted rapist Brad Shipton was made public by the Sunday Star Times in 2007.
Just as "Pop Riveter" explored the alienated wasteland of a factory workplace, then, "Napoleon Swings" looks at the battle-ground of contemporary sexuality with a dispassionate and truthful eye. It's a poem to be studied and thought about long and hard, combining as it does Jen's characteristic lyric conciseness and precision with an ever more intense engagement with the debased language of our bankrupt mediascape.
I think you need to get this book, and you need to read it. Get back to me on what you think. If it's a sexy book, it's sexy in a really profoundly disturbing way.