Thursday, July 05, 2007

Poetry Thursday: A Clutch of Poetry Books

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for poetry. Or at least it does, after I spend the day at work, eat dinner, do the dishes and a pile of ironing. Thursdays are turning into a busy day. It wasn't helped by my adventures getting a cup of coffee when I got home. I put the coffee in the cup and held it under the cold tap (I make my coffee in the microwave). The water hit the coffee and shot me in the face. There was air in the pipes, because P had been working on the plumbing. After I cleaned up the coffee from my glasses, the bench, the walls, the floor, the ceiling ... then I made another cup and relaxed for a bit.

I have been reading the three books that are the finalists in this year's Montana book awards, in the poetry section. This is for books published in New Zealand in 2006. They are quite a diverse bunch. Firstly, The Goose Bath by Janet Frame. I have to confess I haven't got very far through this one. Unlike the others, it is a very fat hardback book. Janet Frame, who died three years ago, is one of New Zealand's finest fiction writers. However, although she wrote a great deal of poetry, she published very little of it in her lifetime. As the preface shows, she didn't really feel at ease with poetry, and didn't know how to edit it. She stored all her manuscripts in "the goose bath" which was the large concrete base of a fountain, previously used as a bath for geese. They were left, rather deliberately apparently, for others to edit after her death. The book will undoubtedly be the basis for a PhD thesis or two. However, the poems are often full of false starts, and seem rather raw. There are flashes of brilliant language - it would probably be a good book to dip into, but I have to return it to the library. It is possible that it will win, because of Janet's reputation, but I'm hoping it won't. Not least because there is money attached to the award, and it would be nice to see it go to a living writer.

The second book is One Shapely Thing by Dinah Hawken. This is a slimmer book and contains not only poems, but also two sections from her journals, written after 9/11 when her husband was working at the UN in New York, and in early 2002 when they were together in Geneva. I'm always a bit uneasy about published journals. I see journals as a rather private thing, where one is free to dump all sorts of things without censorship, and it seems to me that they become rather self conscious if edited (as surely they must be) for publication. The journals do however cast some light on her thought processes while she was writing the poems. That helped, because the poems didn't really grab me straight away. I thought they might, because they are often concerned with the natural world, and I usually like poets who write on those themes - Mary Oliver, for instance. Dinah's, though, seemed rather more obscure, and perhaps detached. There is a poem called "The Company of Stones" which was written to accompany an art exhibition, and published in the catalogue. I should like to have seen it there, as I think that my understanding would have been enhanced by seeing the art work that it was written for.

A number of poems were written while she occupied the Poets in Workplaces residency at the Wellington Botanic Gardens. One of my favourite poems from this section describes in its last section an oak which has fallen over and continued to grow, lying down:

We love your love of the horizontal.
We wish that we too
could fall down in a Garden,
stay fallen, and still thrive.

Perhaps with a little more time with this collection, I might grow to appreciate more of her work.

The final, and slimmest volume of the three, is The Year of the Bicycle by James Brown - so titled because it was written when he was Victoria University Writer in Residence - each weekday he cycled to work, and in the weekends he took to the hills. The blurb on the back describes them as "exuberant, intelligent poems". They certainly do not suffer from an excess of adjectives. I think I would describe them as masculine and active. They start on very matter of fact. I find myself starting a poem thinking "well, so what?". And then the poem draws me in with a witty turn at the end, adding a subtle twist to what seemed at first rather ordinary.

For instance, one poem starts:

The fact of the matter is
I was born at Palmerston North Public Hospital
at 12.40 a.m. on the first of April, 1966.

and continues through the history of the poet and the city until we read

Lots of famous people come from Palmerson North.
Alan Gregg, bass player with popular band the Mutton Birds,
was once asked if he had roots in jazz. He replied
that he had roots in Palmerston North.

I have often wanted to use that joke myself,
and last week I got the opportunity when someone asked me
where I thought I was coming from.

I come from Palmerston North. We are a modest people,
but we are fiercely proud of the bustling, go-ahead city
at the heart of the Manawatu Plains.

In sci-fi movies, people often go back in time in order to try to
change history. This is impossible. You cannot change the past.
And nobody from Palmerston North
would want to.

It was once said (if anyone can give me the source of the quote, I'd be grateful), that the word "bicycle" is not suitable ever to use in a poem. Poetry has changed since then, and there are plenty of bicycle poems in this book. Of the three, I think it is the one I'd most like to see win. I have to admit though, that I would like to see next year's batch of finalists - books published in 2007. I have several likely candidates in my collection, all better than this year's finalists - but then, this is probably about the first review I've ever been brave enough to write, and it's only one opinion. (If you click on the links given for the writers, you'll find other views.)

More poetry at Poetry Thursday


Crafty Green Poet said...

its an engagingly written review and makes me want to read some of the work in these books.

Anonymous said...

This a very well done review. I have a good mind to read this book.

PS: you can chk on my READING ROOM blog where I do book reviews.

Deb said...

Engaging review.

I do so like reading your posts.

Tammy Brierly said...

Interesting review. Thank you!

Rob Kistner said...

How captivating Catherine... I am intrigued.

Kay Cooke said...

Thanks so much for the reviews! I have glanced at Janet Frame's Goose bath book and felt the same way about the poetry you obviously did. James Brown is good when he's good. I like the conversational ease in the part of the poem you quoted. I have admired Dinah Hawkin's previous books.
I bought Chris Price's book today - 'Brief Lives'. It's a finalist too - but I'm wondering what section now ... must be biographical - even tho it's got poetry in it. Interesting.

Marie said...

I adore poetry, and it was nice to get a review so it's easier to choose. I liked the excerpts too! Thanks for sharing.