Winter Eyes by Harry Ricketts.
Wellington: VUP (2018).
RRP: $25. Pb, 80pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Harry Ricketts teaches English ad creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. He has written and edited twenty-five books. In Winter Eyes he reaches into the past and future with other writers and artists. The contents are divided into three sections. Ricketts gives voice to an array of writers – from Kipling to Dylan, Austen to Frame in amongst poems of autobiography, journeying and landscape.
Section I begins with “Song”, a six-part poem, which is highly effective in its simplicity:
The song feels like singing,
looks out the window:
clouds glued to the sky
hills like collapsed elephants. (p 11).
At odds with this Zen-like simplicity are those poems which include references to Kipling, Austen and other writers. In “At Shimla”, for example, Ricketts is having a conversation with friends about Kipling and India:
Here we sit at an oval table
inset with green push-button mics,
holding forth on Kipling
in what was once the Small Drawing-room
of the Viceregal Lodge, that testament
to colonial camp (p 14).
“Love” recalls the words of Iris Murdoch, Donne, Evelyn and Brasch. It ends with the lovely verse:
Then there’s Brasch, his wish
for ‘someone to share the world with’,
You could go for that now, couldn’t you? (p 19).
“The Galton Case” is a prose poem, in which the poet, while reading Christopher Fowler’s Book of Forgotten Authors, writes “Margaret Millar receives several pages.” Reading further, we discover who this author is and to whom she was married:
Fowler mentions that Millar was married to Ross MacDonald and that the marriage was ‘feisty’. (p 22).
The poems are told as small stories, rather matter-of-factly, but with clarity and simplicity. A common thread runs through many, of writers and friends. The beautiful poem “Picnic” recalls an outing with his mother to a cafe:
My mother folds refolds
the paper napkins she hoards
from the Home. Her smile is polite,
expectant, her swollen
legs hidden in blue trousers.
Her hair could do with a good brush. (p 26).
The poem is simple, deceptively so – the language moves with ease and calmness. Though very moving, and at time sorrowful, there is a tranquillity too. “Glebe Cliff” is a descriptive poem, quiet, but forceful – sudden startling images leap out:
On Hole Beach, no bigger than a pin,
a man strides into sudding surf, pauses, dives in. (p 27).
The second section of the book opens with “13 September 1970”, a recollection of a holiday with a German friend in Italy:
Forty-five years ago today,
also a Sunday, Mickey and I
were in Rome, hot and hungry.
Mickey was tall, German, fair hair,
looking like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy.
We met on the road outside Brindisi; (p 31).
The trip is presented through images of heat, hunger, friendship and the translation of song lyrics into German. “Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867)” is an affectionate hymn of praise to a statue that “sits in Central Park”. The poem ends:
Now you’re head of the oubliette
near Kipling’s ‘limbo of lost endeavour
where all the characters go’, greeting
each newcomer with that New England charm:
‘Robert, welcome. Rosamund, Mark!’
Your statue sits in Central Park. (p 35).
Ricketts gloriously writes about a meeting in the prose poem “Accident”:
The ironies flash out so clearly. First, the misfire of a meeting in that clothes shop in High Street Ken; we were both there but failed to see each other. (p 37).
In the long poem “Sansibar oder der letzte Grand” (which includes the book’s title), he writes about the “activity on Somes Island”, a detention centre, where prisoners were interred:
There’s activity on Somes Island
– pa, then quarantine station,
detention centre. Von Zedlitz
was interred there in the First World War.
the wind’s picked up. Time to move.
things look different through winter eyes. (p 41).
“Good at Languages” is a memorial poem for a dead friend:
You were good at languages,
could play any tune by ear;
‘Doesn’t it go something like this?’ (p 47).
While “Poems for Max (1970-2014)” is For Max at 8. The poem ends:
no one understands what’s really real
You could fly if you wanted to. (p 51).
The final poem in this section, “Love Again”
Out there, all this hot, bright morning
the tui working the flax,
white bibs bobbing up and down.
In here, it’s cooler and dimmer.
Deep in my English Auden,
suddenly your ghost again. (p 59.)
Section iii begins with “Good Friday 2017, Driving North”. It’s a light, delicate poem, full of images of the New Zealand countryside:
Annunciation lighting strobes
the late, autumn afternoon, picks out
wet paddocks, a hawk stooping, cows,
full-grown lambs, a donkey, sheep, sheep, sheep. (p 63).
“Napier, Christmas 2017” is a delightful poem about Christmas festivities and whether religion still plays a part in the celebrations, or is it a time for bargains:
Shock your Mum. Come to Church
says the sign. Fudged hills, jacarandas, pink silk trees.
Many bargains in store. Buddha’s conditions apply. (p 66).
“Driving with Mother” is a wonderful evocation of the poet’s mother “dressed up for our drive / in a rum assortment of clothes.” The poem ends:
Twist, turning up Aro Valley,
back to Karori, back to the mist.
The wind is tormenting the trees.
In through the doors, the grey cat, the under-smell,
The slow lift. ‘Lunch in the dining room?’
‘Darling, it’s been . . .’ ‘See you next time.’ (p 72).
The final poem “Spring” is another poem about the poet’s mother, in which he describes her in these words:
‘Oh lovely!’ She too was once in the pink,
a student in the black-out, and it’s spring,
and she’s in love’s stranglehold, (p 79).
Winter Eyes abounds with Ricketts’ characteristic wit and humour, his intelligence, his curiosity and his power with words. Closely felt, but always carefully observed and told, these are poems that will warm your heart, bring tears to your eyes or simply delight you.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).