The Atomic Composition of the Seeming Solid by Shane Hollands.
Auckland: The Back Shed Press (2016).
RRP: $23. Pb, 100pp.
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
So much for the anxiety of influence. Shane Hollands is not interested in concealing his debts to the American Beat poets of the 1950s. His first book of poems, The Atomic Composition of the Seeming Solid, wears its influences sticking out of its rolled-up T-shirt sleeve like a packet of Marlboros. Perhaps understating the case, Hollands tells us, ‘I have of course been inspired by Jack Kerouac and have stolen single words, sometimes two or three and an idea now and then’ (p 2). This accounts for lines like ‘[I] refuse to throw away / my holy docs / like a true beat angel from paradise’ (p 59) and ‘we are dharma-hobos with shining eyes and / blood in our gullets’ (p 15), which otherwise haven’t been deployed in poetry since the Eisenhower administration.
Hollands’s bop poems are mostly tales of hard living, and hard living is what he seems to think poets deserve:
poets are the lowest fidelity
the detritus of the art world
drip feeders of the lowest rung
somewhere beneath the musicians
the other gigolos of art
street poets are the untouchables
flicking words for free
not wanted at your wedding
dyslexic word twisters (“The Lowest Fidelity”, p 48).
Poets like Hollands are also identified as liars, as they have been since Plato. ‘I am a liar,’ he says in “Lies, lies and bloody lies”:
I came into the world screaming
obscenities and untruth
little black, white and multi-coloured lies
lies rank and steaming like
cowpats on frosty Te Puke mornings
soft liquid exaggerations
that slip into conversations
with the slick grace of automated motion (p 12).
But, paradoxically, it is the poet’s degraded condition – the fact that he’ll crash a wedding reception, drink all the booze, and write you a poem saying he didn’t – that makes him somehow trustworthy, close to ‘authentic’ life experience. “Lies, lies and bloody lies” ends with an affirmation that
I am false, conceited and deceitful
I am a liar
I’m the most honest poem you’ll meet (p 13).
So if Hollands’s ecstatic Kerouacian pronouncements seem dated, his vision of a post-truth poetics seems very contemporary. This is not to say that I connect his work with populism and the forces of darkness. Far from it. Hollands’s characters can’t be bothered with the approved culture of capitalism – in “Little Jen, Juddi T and me caught in a summer storm” they scoff at ‘all the fat dogs and bitches’ who drink frappuccinos on breaks from work – but their reaction to this is not to follow demagogues who promise to ‘drain the swamp’. They instead to choose to define their own, more private truths. They find solace in friendship, nature, low-cost travel, mysticism and Buddhism, sex, and the buzz of being in altered states. Two different characters in two different poems roll up ‘a spliff of outrageous proportions’.
The book hums with an apolitical kind of politics. This is what distinguishes Hollands’s work from the work of, say, David Eggleton, who has written a foreword to the book. Hollands is suspicious of the pace and focus of contemporary life and contrasts it with vivid scenes of natura Kiwiana, like Eggleton, but his work doesn’t have quite enough energy to advocate for change. Hollands’s poems, with their pictures of down-but-not-quite-out urban experience, are more like those of Peter Olds (though less controlled and spare). We find more acceptance than anger: ‘Don’t wake me please / I’m only weeping in my sleep,’ he writes in “Mud in the sunset” (p 99).
At the bottom of Hollands’s work is a praiseworthy idealism, an appropriately desperate humanism given how bleak the times can look. This is a good foundation for poetry. It’s all very well to celebrate the figures in one’s life:
I know we are beautiful
scorched half-angel poet fools
the beautifully lost (“Beautiful”, p 72).
The trick, though, is convincing strangers that this is not only true, but important. Hollands is a persuasive performer of his work, with a well-honed sense of dramatic timing. But on the page, without his modulations and inflections to propel the verse, his poems may fall a little short of the foreword’s promises: ‘His writing is a hitchhiker’s guide, by turns brash, wild, exuberant, rhapsodic, zany’ (p 7). Your mileage may vary.
Erik Kennedy is the author of the chapbook Twenty-Six Factitions (Cold Hub Press, 2017) and the full-length collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018). He is the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He lives in Christchurch.