Blood Ties: new and selected poems, 1963-2016 by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman.
Christchurch: CUP (2017).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Blood Ties: New and selected poems, 1963-2016, is the latest collection by New Zealand poet Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, who grew up on the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand. He lives in Christchurch and is senior adjunct fellow in the School of Humanities and Creative Arts at the University of Canterbury. The collection spans Holman’s writing career of more than 50 years. The book is divided into eight sections: ‘only yesterday’, ‘some ancestors’, ‘Old King Coal’, ‘trauma dreaming’, ‘in darkest Europe’, ‘other tongues’, ‘lovers and fathers’ and ‘come tomorrow’.
The collection opens with his first published poem “Night”, which is dedicated to his former English teacher, Peter Hooper:
Night dog howling,
The wind draws whispers from hidden power lines.
Tree frogs whistling
Pine trees moaning,
The cloud-cut drifting moon is mute.
The first section mixes memories of the poet’s childhood with memories of flying solo, making Airfix models, baches and the West Coast. “October 1963” recalls the poet shooting his dog which killed someone, after a policeman has threatened to have the dog put down. The poem ends: ‘and nobody can tell me why / I wanted to kill my dog.’ The beautiful longer poem, “it will sound”, was written after Holman received an email from poet Michele Leggott in 2009. These lines are from the first verse:
I can hear them now: those splashing voices
before the pen that bathed in the light’s amen
amen and there were many of them and I heard
them all, the tree, the grass, the bumble bee, the bird
Given this ‘framing’, the poet then turns to his ancestors in section two: ‘some ancestors’. In “Father and son”, he remembers his father, an old man, dead from cancer, where he writes:
I do not want another father: old man, now
dead, cancer faded
and swelled you, speechless
at the door, yellow
feathered fingers. Past touch …
This is a powerful image for the process of mourning. The grief for his lost father emerges powerfully in “As big as a father”, where the image of loss is vividly captured in this verse:
The last time I lost him
I lost him for good:
the night and the day
the breath he was breathing …
The poems in the section entitled ‘Old King Coal’ make the grief at the death of coal miners contemporary, one of Holman’s open-hearted themes. The imagery in
“Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967)” must have been difficult to write, but the ‘widow’s keening’ and ‘miners buried / far from help and the findings of inquiries’ make the poem all too relevant to what is happening today. The poem ends:
I filled my heart with as many tears as I could
possibly carry and saving them for life, skedaddled.
In the pub in Dunollie, knocking back beer after beer,
celebrating a visit to hell with a man who works there.
Holman writes beautifully in the six ‘Blackball Bridge sonnets’ presented here from his collection The Late Great Blackball Bridge Sonnets (Steele Roberts, 2004). Here are stories about the bridge, all the items carried across it, the American who came to the town, where ‘all the girls loved him’, but who disappeared one day:
I never saw him again after 1962: in a world of miners and
forestry boys, he hinted hard at a place I was chafing to go.
The Pike River miners are recalled and celebrated in ‘Mine’, which imagines the thoughts of loved ones left behind after the disaster. This is the first verse:
Son, there was a time when you were mine.
Brother, when the shining day was ours.
Friend, there was an hour when all went well.
Darling, for a moment we were love.
Father, you were always close at hand.
Human, we were people of the light.
The fourth section, ‘traumata dreaming’, returns to more directly personal poems. “The boy” (for Roy McGlashan), is especially moving:
You learned a harsh arithmetic:
if he was late,
he’d be drunk,
if he was drunk,
he’d beat her
and in the morning,
As is “After the tremor” which imagines the anguish caused by an earthquake. The poem ends: ‘after the nurse and the undertaker / we stand and we drink disaster.’
In the fifth section, ‘In darkest Europe’, the poems are interesting explorations of imagination and suffering, and seem to bring a dignity to the poems which is deeply moving. “Memoir” (for W. G. Sebald) opens:
The past returns as an iron kettle.
Militant statues stare right back.
If only the leaves could tell the whole story, before
they fall and strip naked branches speechless.
“The writing teacher” has the most individualized touch, with its humour, realism and fine qualities:
make an appointment with your preposterous
and leave it at that
now that you have that particular piece
of useless advice
mastered give it to the dog …
‘other tongues’ (the sixth section), is a dreamscape peopled by a ‘gentleman, Mr Hiroshima’, Arana Kohu Rau, a man ‘meant for war’, who became deaf at Casino,
young warriors, Te Rauparaha and “On looking again into Heemi’s Collected Poems” which reveals rewards of the structured device most clearly:
Jim, you know the score I’m sure: 4 a.m. on the beach
in a dream, it’s dark and he shines a light in your
face, this stranger you still can’t see in the black
that’s as thick and as wild as octopus ink, the arm
on the throat and he says, ‘Do you cut?’ Waking afloat
in the paranoid state of a day before that was honed
in the light …
The poem is written with humour, as these lines illustrate. “The departed” recalls the deaths of kamikaze pilots during the war:
there are bullet holes in the silence
of certain selected homes
black and white photographs
of departed kamikaze
In section seven, ‘lovers and feathers’, there are poems about nature: tuna, ancient rivers, the piwakawaka, squid-fed chicks, the redpoll, the estuary and the ocean. This section also contains the wonderful poem about nature and love, “Papatipu kissing me”:
Ancient rivers wake me with whispering.
They know I’m home; they will call you too.
Invisible, you move beside me, sleep in my heart
like the lie of the land, I can feel my
rhythms return from beyond: we
rumble through the mountain pass,
Section eight, ‘come tomorrow’, contains two poems: “For Raine 7.5.75” and “Light from Saturn”. The first poem celebrates birth:
the lyrical doctor of medicine
praised you to the skies, stunned
by all that made you look at least
ten million years old
The final poem is a triumph of imagination and fact:
baby sounds clicks whorfs chuckles yells all
of our language begins with a cry last night
from deep space in telescopes at Mount Chabon
Observatory Oakland light thirty-seven light
years in the making finally made it to my eyes.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman accomplishes a difficult feat in Blood Ties, poems of expansive range yet exacting focus. This is real-time poetry, in which the events and thought processes described unfold in the same interval it takes to read about them. The result is a collection of meticulously recorded observations in which places, people and events direct a clear flow of associative thought. These poems invite us into the world of an attentive observer whose intellect is as unrestricted as his language is precise.
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).