Walking to Jutland Street by Michael Steven
Dunedin: OUP, 2018)
RRP: $27.50. Pb, 80pp
Deadpan by James Norcliffe
Dunedin: OUP (2019)
RRP: $27.50. Pb, 100pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman
Michael Steven begins his accomplished first collection ‘Walking to Jutland Street’ with the James K Baxter quote: ‘I invent nothing’. Lacking context this is a paradoxical statement because as well as asserting I only speak the truth, it could also mean I say nothing original, or even what I write is meaningless. What therefore signifies for me is Steven’s talismanic claiming of Baxter himself as the touchstone of his text. In this I understand him as asserting his allegiance to a model that celebrates the arts in late 20th century Aotearoa NZ as having an avowed masculinity defined as stoic, outsider, questing, sexually predatory towards women and ambiguously answerable to an omnipotent, divinely patriarchal authority-figure. However despite nailing these conventional aesthetic colours to the mast, Steven nonetheless departs from his professed literary sea-lane in notable ways.
Walking to Jutland Street is divided into 4 sections, with a poignant prologue in the poem ‘Terminus’. This piece reveals an abandoned site of grandiose industrial aspiration as now haunted by: ‘bewildered tenants/ following their misfortune back to the cities/ (11-12, 9). As an elegy to the anomie wrought on working men by Capital it is a generic acknowledgment of the Fall-of-Detroit et al, but in its explicitly Aotearoa setting, is also a covert affirmation of the resilience of the indigenous in the face of colonisation. The unnamed presences still inhabiting Steven’s terminus will now go: ‘further inland to live on in other myths.’ (13,9)
The hapless dog wired into this piece: ‘only to snap at flies and mosquitoes’ (l.4, 9) is descended from the despondent hound in Allen Curnow’s ‘House and Land’ in which: ‘The dog trailed his chain/ From the privy as far as the fowlhouse/ And back to the privy again,’ (v.2, l.2-4). And is equally a cousin to the innocently obscene canine who ‘licked its-self’ in Bill Manhire’s recent ‘My Childhood in Ireland’.
Curnow’s poem was rueful towards sunset on the dreams of patrician pastoralists, while Manhire’s sexual cynicism surveilles those wa[n]king into the false dawn of the Gig economy. But Steven, though scrutinizing the same post-colonial territory, enters into the dark night of industrialization with refreshing humility.
He locates his narrator’s disillusion at an interface of the urban landscape with the rural. A divide he spot-welds with a tacit registry of the originary sovereign occupancy of the whole land by the indigenous – not excluding even those parts of it colonizers now deem utterly worthless. This reversion of ownership is signaled in a reawakened consciousness of history: ‘approaching from out in the empty fields/[…]/ Here was the past coming on like a creeper.’ – and not, as in Manhire’s poem, an ever patriarchally resilient brothel-creeper. Steven’s implication is that though the virtually uninhabited domains of his poem have been relinquished to seemingly impotent ghosts, it is they who will eventually reclaim this site in the corpoReal. Ihumātao anyone?
Steven’s following section ‘Geography’ is a celebration of the innocent optimism of boyhood, presented in a flashback across 6 poems. The opening piece
‘Axis Mundi’, is a jubilant childhood memory in a style unabashed enough to warm the heart of Seamus Heaney himself. In intriguing and transgressive details, the ‘Geographies’ sequence goes on to evoke both fast friends and all too human teachers: ‘And there up the front was Mr Brower, / who was pissed off having just seen/ the line of red chalk dust across/ the front of his walk shorts.’(‘Last Term’, l.6-9,15). Has adolescent fascination with the sexual [un] certainties and social pretensions of teachers, ever been caught more cannily? There follow descriptions of novice drug scores and itemizing appraisals of the archaeology and social dynamics of The Panel Shop as a sacred site. A shrine to masculinity revisited repeatedly in this volume with Steven’s narrator intent on separating the raw from the cooked: As in the implements of vehicle destruction vs. vehicle repair: The sampled fabrics of the emotions: The unknowable mysteries of a man’s locked chest. In closing this section a minor key is introduced by the narrator’s wit[h]ness of the post traumatic shock apparent in an elder mentor who, as a returned soldier, has to live with the militarist chaos of the world and die with an anguished realization of his own complicity in it.
Also in this sequence there appears an alternative to the romantic, hysterical-animal flourishes of Manhire’s representation of a nursing mother in ‘My Childhood in Ireland’. Manhire’s glorious image is sufficient unto its-self: ‘My sister’s new child was chained/ to her breast. She drifted/ inside a dark forest.’ (v.4, l2-14.146 ) However, adjacent to Manhire’s patriarchally conventional trope I want to recognize Steven’s lactational descriptor as, in all its allusively unfinished affect, operating
in an entirely different matrixial field. Steven says: ‘My mother was occupied, / nursing my younger sister, and, as she had / during her three pregnancies, / suffered severely.’ (v.1. l.14-17,18) The narrator’s full empathy with this mother is signaled with a “manly” boyishness here that makes compassionate allowance for his younger sister sibling’s usurping of his own maternal prerogatives. He is seeing the new baby, his unknown other, not only as an object, but also as a subject who is more important than the self. His reticence with respect to his mother’s suffering, leaves the reader with many unanswered questions about her, so resisting any sense of her as a conventionally “known” patriarchal object. The later glimpse given of the mother in ‘Neilson Street’ (81), similarly resists the objectifying conventions of the woman in mourning (as seen in, for example, Curnow’s abject Miss Wilson in ‘House and Land’), by registering this woman’s assertion of her deceased spouse’s “secret” affair as entirely matter of fact. The narrator neither corroborates nor dismisses her belief and in this conveys his sense of her subjectivity as unknowably independent from his experience of her as his mother.
In the three other sections here –‘The Story of my Past Lives’, ‘Walking to Jutland Street’ and ‘Vasco Da Gama’s Bedroom’ – the audacity and innocence of the narrator of Steven’s first section is revealed as eventually compromised by his need to address the consequences of his earlier impulsive and then compulsive actions.
Salted among these revelations is an array of characters whose beguiling personae are rendered increasingly pathetic by the cruel banalities of addiction. However the narrator’s own eventual disillusionment with boys-own adventures: ‘bandit passengers in a stolen Subaru’ (‘Black Coplas’ v.1, l.1, 39 ) find him nonetheless underwhelmed by the sedate intellectual compensations of upper middle class existence: ‘At his bach our great modernist poet’ (v.3,l.3, 39). However in some of the work in the sections Walking to Jutland Street and Vasco Da Gama’s Bedroom, Steven does eventually embrace the Baxterian norms of privileged literary detachment and austere reflection. But wherever in these sections he renounces listing in favour of characterization, there are telling effects. For example, and powerfully, the survivor guilt of: ‘I saw the arm and shoulder/ of a sad father turning away from the troubled/ districts of his children.’ (Dropped Pin, Latimer Square Christchurch, v.1, l.3-5, 49)
The most refreshing feature of this text is that in focusing on conventionally male experiences, Michael Steven offers a significant number of poems that offer intriguing alternatives to dominant patriarchal tropes. The uncanny effects he achieves suggest that yet more unexpected complexities will emerge in future work.
‘House and Land’ in: Allen Curnow, Island and Time, Caxton Press, Chch., 1941.
‘My Childhood in Ireland’ in: Bill Manhire: Selected Poems, VUP, Wgtn., 2012.
The avuncular tone James Norcliffe adopts in his introduction to his 10th poetry collection, Deadpan, reads more as a disclaimer than a genuine statement of intent. The poet is at pains to assert that “deadpan” is ‘not a bad description of the overall voice or manner of so many of my poems… this deadpan manner is a defensive mechanism, a distancing device’ (Introduction, 9). However I found this volume notable for its passionate insights and fearless expression of emotion. But I cannot say if the invigorating work presented here amounts to a change of sensibility for Norcliffe because I am not familiar with his previous form.
The sequence that most justifies Norcliffe’s self-estimation of his studied detachment, are the 13 ‘Yorick’ poems that form the opening section of ‘Deadpan’. In the absence of any contrary attribution I assume these to be previously unpublished. And if the substantial amount of work listed in the volume’s acknowledgments is any guide, the ‘Yorick’ poems also appear to be the most recently written. So was this sequence, with its high art connotations, gallows humour and memento mori, specially produced to serve as insulating material mediating the frankness of what follows?
Any sense of the wise and lyrical resignation of the Yorick work is jettisoned in the 13 poems that comprise ‘Scan’ – part 2 of the collection. Here Norcliffe makes the reader joyfully party to the precarious existence of a newly formed infant. And immediately after, in ‘Night Watch’, the poet’s sleeplessness is distilled to an involuntary watchfulness in the presence of a child. Then at ‘The Last Stop Before Bethlehem’, the reader encounters the raw emotions of a man who is experiencing what he longs to believe is a reprieve. The city around him is filled with fellow nighttime stragglers, who become enticingly more than their roles, and in his vulnerability, gratefully more than he bargained for. The poem ‘Black-faced Sheep’ empathizes with the immigrant; the foreigner; the refugee – and registers that these survivors, if they wish to rejoin the flock, are required to wear their anguish casually.
The poem ‘Route 1003’ has particular significance for me because I also happen to know someone whose bus driver appraisals are precisely as exacting as the one shared with the reader here. My friend has been known to get off the bus and wait for the next one if a driver’s skills do not meet his expectations! Norcliffe’s poem springs from the same root: That place where the labourer is always worthy of their hire but their performance will nonetheless be judged as art and even, as here, religion.
In other poems in the ‘Scan’ sequence the jouissance the poet finds in close ups of the natural world, extends to the erotica of several varieties of wild forage and also to the unbridled deliciousness of elite catering.
When it comes to family, the prerogatives and expectations of a first-born son are seen, in ‘Mycroft’, to linger painfully, long after the parents who confer such filial privileges, have themselves departed. Finally in this section, there is a memory of savage sweetness in ‘The greengage man’.
What could possibly make James Norcliffe feel the need to profess this work as deadpan? A word that means, in a comical context, ‘impassive’ or ‘expressionless’ and which, as applied to this collection, is quite simply, false packaging.
In section 3, ‘Trumpet Vine’, Norcliffe engages with the Cheshire dog smiles of urban anxiety. Anxious grimacing that hangs from the pylons of the poet’s imagination and threatens in ‘The Tennis Ball’, to trip him. He then ventures to calibrate his own mortality in ‘The Madness of Crowds’ and ‘Pool’. In ‘Underwear’ he rails obscenely against the intrusions of the thought police.
And in ’There are times I feel like the egg’, he recognizes that there are some intimacies whose loss can be a relief. Though such diminutions begin to seem, in ‘Three Times Upon a Time’, more painful than the poet can quite believe.
The poem ‘Deadpan’, in this third section, is an ostensible homage to the comic genius of Buster Keaton. But Norcliffe with-holds till his end note, his own appreciation of the precise calculations with which the comedian ensured that the masonry of his famous building-collapse stunt, could not possibly fall on him.
Norcliffe has devoted an equivalent intensity of forecasting to the work in ‘Deadpan’. However the collection’s introduction is intended every bit as clearly as Buster Keaton’s placement of his façade, to ensure that the effects and affects of the work on offer here do not personally expose their writer.
But of course they do: The apparently casual simplicity of this collection is actually an achievement of maturely calculated artifice. And where the poems invite the reader to enter the hurricane’s quiet eye, Norcliffe allows no forgetfulness of the storming forces from which such work arises.
In the penultimate sequence of the collection ‘Telegraph Road’, the barometric pressure of the relationship depicted in ‘She moved through the silence’, shifts from tranquility, to alertness, to hyper-vigilance in a piece whose exposure of patriarchal privilege is as chilling as it is effective. And likewise the innocent bumbling of a touring family in the collection’s final section uses repetition and anonymity to convey the charm of ‘Five travellers in a small Ford’. But this group’s hapless though affectionately recorded attempts to adhere to their travel itinerary lead them and the reader, without warning, to a place of no return. The desolation admitted here, and elsewhere in this volume, arises because Norcliffe repeatedly expresses his own vulnerability. His voluntary and even involuntary partial lowering of his own ego boundaries allows him to achieve compassionate empathy with the unknown other. For the poet to introduce this collection as “deadpan” is, for me, akin to his settling for the industry minimum, when in fact his aesthetic entitles him to a high-risk allowance and the living wage.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/