Mark Pirie, Rock & Roll: Selected Poems in Five Sets.
Australia, Brisbane: Bareknuckle Poets Pocket Series No. 3 (2016).
(Distributed in NZ only by HeadworX).
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Wellington writer, Mark Pirie is an important figure in New Zealand literature. Not only is he author of an impressive list of poetry collections, of fiction and critical essays, but as the publisher HeadworX, he has produced more than 60 collections by New Zealand and Australian poets.
For Rock & Roll: Selected Poems in Five Sets, Bareknuckle Books has selected work from 1992 to 2016. The sets gather together poems about music, film/tv, love poems, sporting poems, and poems about Australia, particularly Australian poets. There’s a huge variety of voices, characters, and the tone ranges from head-over-heels love of sporting, music and poetry heroes, to acerbic commentary on aspects of modern culture, to lines of piercing beauty.
Much about this collection is remarkable, not least the fact that in few poems does the poet take centre stage. This spot is given to giants. Here are some names: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Elvis, BB King. These are from Set 1, the rock and roll poems, and include many more, whose musical virtuosity, whose passion, and often pain and broken life stories are honoured here as inspirational. In particular, Pirie honours raw honesty and courage, as here, in “Cyndi Lauper”:
… her ditty
‘True Colours’ striking home
with those who weren’t fake.
She knew love’s danger zone … (p 19).
This is a world where addictions, despair, and early death are facts of life. Some poems are bleak:
… this highway’s
all there is, and night’s about to fall, so
Lord, hear my prayer, ‘cause I’m
down here at the crossroads,
getting dumber. (“The Dumber Blues” p 39).
In Set 2, the voice changes. The contrast is powerful as the intensity of the music poems is set against the cool tone that presents reality as mediated through the screens of movies and tv. Here, say the poems, nothing is real. Pirie is clever and original. In “News Reel” he inserts the ampersand logogram, @, so that its trendiness, indeed, its cleverness, drains surrounding words of meaning:
a murder … (p 43).
1 The Opening
you lean against
& draw your cigarette
the frame … (p 55).
In Set 3 are the love poems, and there’s nothing detached about this voice. I’d guess that these are the experiences for which the music of Set 1 was the sound-track. Here are beautifully drawn characters in pared-back mini-narratives, in which the young, clueless, would-be lover suffers and causes suffering. From “Departures”:
… I should’ve said,
‘I’ll call you next week.’
But that would be lying. (p 94).
Sometimes the voice is beautiful, with a vulnerable sensitivity, as in “The Tunnel”:
… you had given me a torch, but with each step
the light faded, waned, the batteries ran low,
and there we were, separated by time
and space, and edging further
into the darkness, knowing that our voices
would (again) struggle to be heard. (p 91).
Set 4 celebrates sporting heroes. This set left me a bit cold because I’m in that tiny minority of New Zealanders who do not really get sport. That said, even I recognise that these names have power in themselves. Some of the poems rock with rhythms of a stadium packed with fans:
… No need to ‘Bring back Buck’,
Now Kieran’s in the ruck.
Read gets there, hits ‘em hard;
No need to ‘Bring back Buck’… (“Kieran Read: Tape Man” p 105).
Homage is paid to many, mostly the All Blacks, but stars from other sporting codes get the occasional mention, even one woman. The relative invisibility of women as anything other than love/lust objects is a major irritant throughout the five sets. In a poem about the retirement of cricketer Daniel Vettori:
…announces he will no longer walk
with the gods of cricket. I hear Zeus
express his sadness. … (“Daniel Vettori” p 107).
These are the poems of a true believer, but in the last section, Pirie honours another category of hero, and these I could appreciate more. Shelton Lea, John Kinsella, Kevin Hart, are among the Australian poets (all male, incredibly) he either writes about, or addresses in his poems. This section is thematically looser, and includes echoes of previous sets: music, the banality of tv news. He also writes about Australia itself. I loved “Outback Jimjams”. The words run in a thin, unbroken fall down the page. They feel relentless, like drought:
… of dry earthy
only in the
Australian desert. (p 153).
Each of the five sets has the coherence of a complete collection, but in Rock & Roll, Selected Poems in Five Sets, Bareknuckle Poets have set Mark Pirie’s versatility and passion on colourful, rollicking display. It’s an exhilarating, unpredictable ride.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.