Book Reviews

HOW TO MAKE A MILLION by Emma Neale (Godwit) VALPARAISO by Bob Orr (Auckland University Press) AUP NEW POETS 2 (Auckland University Press)

Listener – August 3, 2002

William Carlos Williams took issue with Ezra Pound for saying, in effect, that to write serious poetry one had to have digested the art’s various ancient roots. Williams, a GP, contradicted Pound’s high-minded notion, saying his poetry was more concerned with the language rhythms of Polish mothers in his hometown Rutherford, New Jersey. The dear old doc, one of the prime practitioners of imagist poetry (“no ideas, but things”), knew a thing or two and opened up the game to a wide range of folk.

I’m sure Emma Neale, who has a PhD in English literature, knew she was borrowing from Williams when she ended “Recycling”, one of the smallest poems in her big thumping book, “How to Make a Million”, with “no ideas but in the flowers’/bright cogs and springs themselves”. 

Neale’s poems are informed as much by what she has read, as by what she has experienced. She’s a metaphysician, who’s equally at home wandering the backblocks of Otago exploring “the weight of future past and lost” as she is constructing sneaky metaphors such as “and summer comes quietly/like a man behind thin motel walls/not wanting the folks next door to hear”. 

“How to Make a Million” took several readings to reveal itself. Neale speaks in the cracks of language: it’s not the whole she’s on about, but rather the complexities of being human. 

Bob Orr, considered by many to be this country’s finest lyric poet, is a different kettle of cuttlefish: he arrives at Valparaiso, a port in Chile, after 30-odd years of writing poems. His sixth book, it reads like a map of his life: the farmlands of the Waikato, the hillsides and character-packed bars of Ponsonby, to the Hauraki Gulf and across the Pacific to the reefs and wrecks of his imagination. 

He acknowledges his parents, his mates and the international community of poets from whom he gathers strength. Here he is paying his respects to the great Chilean poet: “Thinking of Pablo Neruda/I go out walking/a sailor’s song upon my tongue/my arm around a ghost/in Chile.” 

Orr is unashamedly a romantic and what makes his poetry so engaging is its heartfelt humility: “What happens in the world/is mostly beyond me/but on the horizon/I have seen/the gods gathering.” 

The second edition of Auckland University Press’s New Poets series presents Jane Gardner, Stu Bagby and Sonja Yelich. Yelich’s poetry is the most adventurous of this lot. Her poems sing with the English of Yugoslav immigrants. Nothing’s like anything else, the actual is metaphor enough: “true-life is when you open up/the eyes and it’s there”. 

Gardner is a late bloomer. She started writing in 1995 when she did Bill Manhire’s creative writing course. In 20 well-crafted poems she travels from a Wellington childhood in Mount Victoria where “Dad sounds like a New Zealander except when he’s angry/Then you can tell he’s a Londoner really./He says ‘bloody’ and ‘Mondee’, and ‘fire injin red”’, to middle age when “time . . . has fallen asleep before the television,/eyes turned in, flickering with the pixels”. 

Bagby, a gravedigger, constructs neatly-made poems. He writes of weather, history, his Catholic upbringing, his wishing to be elsewhere while making love, and, of course, his job: “Jeff and I often work/in silence/from the first thump/of the first shovelful/on the coffin lid, to/the placing of the flowers/on the mound.”

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