Generation Kitchen by Richard Reeve.
Dunedin. OUP (2015)
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Generation Kitchen is Richard Reeve’s fifth book of poetry. “Generation kitchens” are sites where geological forces have combined to create conditions for oil production.
A collection of poems, large or small, should have a ruling theme or structure in order to be considered as a book. The poems must be in conscious dialogue with one another with an eye towards a large whole, be it structured, thematic or historical. This is a collection which meets the criteria as it tackles issues as large as fossil fuel companies, ecological despoliation, and also personal rites of passage. And to be fair, Reeve manages to find a common thread in these ideas, and braids them together into a satisfying and cohesive (if challenging) whole, all the while keeping one foot in his own neighbourhood.
The title poem, “Generation Kitchen”, which opens the book is a Proem. It is a highly-controlled sequence of four, three-line stanzas. This measured logic allows a description of “The cooking rock” where –
a crude that spoils to harden where the cut
is speaking to the sun, its haggard smile
equations on which wheels deliver men
to lives with meaning, endoscopic thoughts,
their factories that spread like impetigo.
Section I opens with “Movers and Shakers” and allows Reeve to visit themes of ruin, disaster, irate jags and fossil ashes throughout the poem, where he is watching his own yard being attacked by a digger. The poem demonstrates just how we come to accept these horrors and prepares us for the denser and more challenging poems that follow.
The second section of the book is introduced by the long poem “Sunshed” (dedicated to Cilla). The poem begins:
Sunshed, the earthing of a day, concerns
The passing of the father, the proud peer,
the donkey, in the ratio of sunshed
that Roman poets knew, old generals,
the chef assigned to pull the corpse from pipes,
whoever has an eye to dress up stars.
Reeve intersperses the poems of this second section with more personal, domestic poems, such as “Younger, Feisty”, “Beer and Chips”, “Croak” and “Zombies”. The significance of these poems is that Reeve brings the ideas of identity and relationship that play counterpoise to one another into harmony, and where the poems resonate with music and compassion. In “Nefarious”, for example, he writes about his cats:
paw-thick with mud, recovers his home under the shed,
dresses in a lick, meditates the wind rising; his goal,
that chamber of food; clean ughs of the fleshy zingle
their female sips the juice from. Knows Family, skipped that,
yowls he scorned it. Though in his claws there is a craving to feel stroked?
forget it, this is Nefarious.
In the lengthy Section III, Reeve returns to the violence of the earlier sections, but whereas those poems emphasised the destruction of the landscape, here the themes are contemporary and seen through the lens of our common humanity. Here is an example from the long rhyming poem in sixteen quatrains: “Mahinerangi” (for Marilynn):
Descending icy creases
beneath the moorland range,
I see land torn to pieces
in the frenzy for change.
with the front passing over.
no more sleek Lamerlaw
but powerless clover.
The longest poem in this section is the six-page, rhyming poem “District”. One might fear that tossing all the elements of local history, landscape, personal relationships into the poem, might result in a tangle of ideas, but this isn’t the case. Reeve negotiates the various registers of the poem with grace, and the result is as much a map of the mind as it is of a landscape. The poem opens:
Surprising by those flames one face I knew
Some years before my detour underground,
I baulked, witnessing how his blemish grew –
raw eye of Jupiter. I searched around,
saw by a distant fire my Master leaning
against a rancid, tooth-embedded mound
where men in mouldy suits crouching cleaning.
Section IV combines the recollection of life experiences with a celebration of nature, both infused with a wonderful sense of seeing things. This section opens with the rhyming poem “Mountain to the Sea” (for Len Castle), where the speaker observes a “Boiled lake”. He sees
the magma’s molten birth
in clay the artist hurled
establishes the worth
of unestablished world.
The act of naming and seeing things is explored in “Southern Farmers”, which opens with the lines:
Forget about the major test, leave town
a week before your final bills are due.
Frustrate all transactions, turn tips down,
bring honesty to the interview.
Trust nothing they say. Don’t play the clown –
The poem relates that it’s “Better by far to trust the country people”, as they know “no other life than this to share.”
In “Up the Hill” the speaker wonders about the price mining costs, in terms of destruction:
Eternal optimist, gritting its teeth the tourist truck scales the mine, on and up
like house prices or default interest, winding through coal-black smudges
along the jungle’s edge. Dust clouds the road behind as the occupants gaze over
diggers working at the reefs.
The distressing images exposed here can be contrasted with the beauty of nature explored in the final poem “Backcountry”:
Now and ever
the mountain river.
A fantail flits.
Moss over branch,
the trees hurry.
continues the rhyme:
there is no time.
Throughout Generation Kitchen, Reeve’s well-developed toolkit is on full display, guiding us through difficult territory with confident steps, deep imagery and a well-tuned ear. Reeve’s poems are the music of the landscape, with all its beauty and faults, the failings of humanity and the destruction which he sees all around. Come, sit with him and hear what he makes of the world.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Stylus, assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose.