Taking my jacket for a walk by Peter Olds
Lyttelton, Aotearoa New Zealand: Cold Hub Press (2017)
RRP: $29.95. Pb, 88pp
Reviewed by Brenda Allen
Peter Olds’ Taking my jacket for a walk is arranged in four sections: the first, titular section of 16 poems gives glimpses into Dunedin’s street life, its historic places, the speaker’s own mortality and the nature of poetry. The works are locally grounded because the speaker composes his works, he tells us, scribbling in a notebook in a café, at a bus stop or sitting outdoors with a view of Dunedin’s central Octagon. In “Taking my jacket for a walk” p (20), surely named for the southern climate and the habit of extending a hand for a jacket before leaving home, Olds muses on a variety of topics arising from observations. For instance, as he walks by the place where Scott and his wife stayed the night before Scott set off for Antarctica, he carries the idea of extreme cold into his own experience and locale:
Today, it’s the jacket’s turn to take me for a walk instead
of the dog. It’s so damn cold the man in the dairy has an
icicle hanging off the end of his nose …
These lines suggest that, as beer adverts have repeatedly told us, a southern man is no drip to be moped up and forgotten. More importantly, though, is the ambiguity of the vernacular, spoken without stresses: is it the jacket that usually walks the dog? Such double meanings are scattered throughout, intended, perhaps, to make the reader pause before continuing, or to reference another theme, popular culture, in this case, John Lennon’s famous walk in Hyde Park with a hairbrush on a leash.
In the second section, ‘Yakety Yak’, 10 poems recall the 1950s and 60s. The title is a rich reference to the music of the time. The title must surely reference the 1958 song, “Yakety yak, don’t talk back” by the Coasters, a name which references another cold, hardy locale, and tells of generational conflict, another of Old’s themes. The title may also reference the nonsense song, “Blah Blah Blah” (Nicole Paone) from the following year, which begins ‘Yakety yak …’, and is itself a possible reference in “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen (1984).
Many references to pop culture are direct: Olds recalls King Creole, Helen Shapiro and The Beatles, among others, by name, then muses on another of his themes, the relative innocence of that time. That innocence is shown again when, in “Trolley Bus” (p 40), people crammed themselves in rather than leave anyone behind.
In the third section, ‘There are Eyes’, 6 poems refer to a trip north. In “A Bay of Plenty” (pp 54-58), Olds gives slices of time by juxtaposing the stranding of the Tampa and the death of Gaddafi (p 56). He begins:
I killed my first cockroach last night
& today I saw my first pukeko
since I’ve been back.
In his southern bay, no doubt one of plenty, ‘There was no oil spill on the beach / though the newspapers were full of it’, but:
Off the Bay of Plenty
there’s a container ship stuck on a reef
Later, as he ends his walk, the speaker observes that ‘Cars rule around here’, and that ‘water views/ overlooking golf course’ have become a commodity for ‘stupid white trash’ that are here to stay. The mood darkens with lines on retirement, unruly children and Gadafi on the news, ending, again ambiguously, with:
Poison alone won’t kill them –
they’ve decided to stay on
In Green city.
Clearly, experience is personal in ways that what is happening in other places, however portentous, can never be.
The final section, ‘The next ‘plane for Chili leaves at 3 0’clock’, offers 10 substantial poems each of which offers a contrast. In “After the Berlin Film Festival” (p 65), Auckland plays the part of Berlin and the nervousness of a country youth’s first time in the big city of Dunedin is contrasted with fame and fortune. In the titular poem, dedicated ‘for Ben’, while the title suggests South America (and mis-spelling), we are told in the notes, the place referred to is actually in Kazakhstan: ‘The last place Ben wanted to go’, itself a statement implying opposite meanings.
My personal favourite is “You’ve got to watch your words” (p 67) contrasting political oppression and writing poetry. Here the speaker converses, the notes tell us, with the elderly Dutchman, Herman, ‘who worked in Germany during the war’. Herman tells the speaker of the danger of disagreeing with Hitler and the hysteria of Hitler’s fandom, which he says reminds him of seeing The Beatles arrive at their hotel in Dunedin two minutes ahead of the fans:
… there were people swarming everywhere
and yelling . . . it was frightening! Of course, I didn’t
know who they were then. . . .
Herman finishes with an equally ambiguous observation that, for me, sums up the various themes of this final section:
‘Mind you,’ smiled Herman, ‘they did some good things
too. They weren’t all bad’.
Although pop culture is a strong theme throughout the volume, conservation, class, separation and time are treated subtly in thoughtful and poetic ways. A volume to enjoy.
Brenda Allen studied, taught and published essays about narrative texts (including films) at the University of Auckland Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau. She retired in 2016 and now lives in Waihi where she reads, gardens and thinks about writing something in the near future.