Dark Days at the Oxygen Café by James Norcliffe.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.
Peter the Great, 1940s femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, and a mysterious Owl Man are some of the characters you will glimpse in Dark Days at the Oxygen Café, the ninth book of poetry from well-known Christchurch-based poet James Norcliffe. This full length collection follows earlier work which includes Shadow Play (Proverse, 2012) and a volume for children, Packing a Bag for Mars (Clerestory, 2013). A widely-published and anthologized poet, Norcliffe has also written short stories and a number of young adult novels, as well as editing and co-editing several anthologies including Leaving The Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes (edited with Joanna Preston, Clerestory, 2016).
Beginning lightly, the five sections of this book seem progressively more serious and its pleasures become a little bittersweet, as the reader encounters loss, death, melancholia and ageing alongside more playful and diverting forays into cultural phenomena. Moving from ‘Poème noir’, a thematic series of film-inspired pieces, it widens its range in ‘National Sandfly Day’ and the thoughtful ‘Topiary at the Camp’. The poems in this section are well-matched by the cover, a painting by Australian artist Noel McKenna, which imbues its subject matter (a table eyed by a black-eyed dog) with a stark, strange intimacy. The moving cycle of poems ‘What Do You Call Your Male Parent’, which won the Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems in 2012, reflects on the life and mortality of the speaker’s father. In the last section, ‘The White Sea’, the emotional current of the book touches on other intimations of love and transience.
Dark Days at the Oxygen Café is filled with eclectic references, touching on subjects as diverse as the art of Meret Oppenheimer, the music of the Everley Brothers, DayGlo jackets, myths, and Kleenex … or the moving deaths of movie star James Dean, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and Laika, the Russian cosmonaut dog. This poetry may be erudite but it is always accessible, partly because of its omnivorous subject matter and sense of fun, but also due to the fact that this writer is consistently engaged by very human emotions and experiences, and he seeks to engage such emotions in the reader in turn.
The book opens strongly with ‘Poème noir’, a seven poem series with a pitch-perfect evocation of classic films noir and lively combination of brooding detail, bathos and genuine angst. In “Doris’s petticoat”:
I can’t stay here I said
not with these stains on the carpet
the faded canaries roosting
like lost arguments on bent perches
the chipped cups the chipped nails (p 11).
The poems in Dark Days at the Oxygen Café can be highly imaginative, for instance when the speaker relates an encounter with Peter the Great who is pining for hot chicken (p 36), or anticipates a surreal wedding with a giantess in “The big bride” (p 45). The fanciful and the real are combined to great effect in “The Owl Man”, in which the titular figure at once embodies one of Norcliffe’s flights of fancy and simultaneously highlights the way in which folklore can dovetail unsettlingly with the darker vicissitudes of the human psyche: ‘they’ll eat each/ others’ young he adds/ as though it were a good idea’ (p 26).
There is a playful humour in many of these poems, for instance in “Questions with which to interrogate a witch”:
We note your body is wen-
and blemish-free. You appear to have
no warts arranged in perfect circles.
Upon whom have you visited these? (p 29).
This sense of play has its counterpart in the light, oblique touch with which Norcliffe approaches his more serious subjects, for instance in the delicate formalism of ‘Rheum’ (p 49) and the quotidian fear encapsulated in “Hic sunt dracones” (p 68). Poems often contain subtle shifts in key, as in “Solstice”, wherein ‘Today the language is sadness, /grit and ice on the asphalt.’ (p 55).
The poems in this book take a number of forms, but there is always a sense that the form is in service to the content, and it is never distracting. For example in “Osculation” – which demonstrates Norcliffe’s excellent ear for lyric – the spare style complements a poignant subtlety in his approach to the love poem:
it is in bliss
and near miss
and here among these trees
these cars this sky this river
(really) (p 72).
By turns, these poems are musing and amusing, fanciful and thoughtful, joyous and poignant.
Underlying all, though, is an astute attention to human interiority which quietly and insistently makes itself felt throughout the collection. Dark Days at the Oxygen Café is a variable but consistently well-written and engaging book which will delight Norcliffe’s many fans, and enchant newcomers to his work.
when Phyllis stood at the top of the stairs
wrapped in a white Egyptian-cotton
robe and I stood open-jawed in the lobby
a rat began to scurry in my brain (p 16).
Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in various publications including Poetry NZ, Landfall, Brief and takahē. She also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film, Television, and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.