Cards on the Table by Jeremy Roberts.
Carindale: Interactive Press (2015).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Cards on the Table is Jeremy Roberts’ first collection of poetry. His book is packed with poetry that is outspoken, often pugnacious, clearly it is meant to be performed – and he is described, on the back cover, as a performance poet. This poet looks at the world irreverently, expressing strong opinions on subjects such as materialism and terrorism, thus it comes as a surprise in what seems at first to be a strident book when he is also tender, and sometimes profound, about the everyday.
In “Money $hot” we read: ‘the celebration of the buck / is alive everywhere -// in the penthouses & caves,/ school & work/ fucking,/ & in the bugle call of every country.// money -/ is a soul-balm which kicks religion’s ass/ right out of the spiritual park!’ In “White napkins” he writes cynically about: ‘what life is now – waiting for texts & drinking/ expensive coffee…’
Contrast the above with excerpts from “Waiting to see Iggy & the Stooges”: ‘three young women// … in summer dresses & sandals/ were dancing in a field// …in licking, light blue/ rain… & though so many things/ lay waiting on the path ahead -/ so many/ many things// it seemed nothing was hiding from them/ that afternoon.” And “The Missing Child”: ‘a father’s lesson.// I think it worked like this:// I gave you my version of the world -/ which you slowly no longer needed…// which is how it should be.// you grew into yourself’. There is gentleness, no pugnacity, in these words.
Titles such as “Bomb the Poetry Factories”, “Surf Nazis”, “Cyanide Love” and “Green Bluez” might give the book a distinctive rock flavour but there is such a mixture of material that it cannot be branded as such. It is a huge feast of poetry, a smorgasbord, a varied selection to choose from which does include the music scene. We get a look at all aspects of life through the eyes of an observant performance poet and musician.
Roberts is also well-travelled and presents to his readers a particular, clear picture, giving a very good sense of place. In “Irish Bar in Takapuna” we can almost smell the Guinness whilst: ‘here/ the bow sweeps across the fiddle/ & an accordion squeezes/ out the tears – ’.
“Kemang Raya Walk” places us firmly in Indonesia, walking through streets, with flashed details in list form: ‘…steaming blue smoke -/ flower stalls, motorbike babies, rotting rubbish,/ orange & black bajajs, oversize Stupid Ugly Vehicles/ & 3rd dead rat of week – nicely squashed: guts squeezed out -/ like the poor here in Indonesia… …crumbled footpath, perfumed dust, street-food &/ carbonated petrol clouds -’. We feel empathy alongside the poet in this poem.
“Lost & Free on a Street in Jakarta” lists again: ‘zigzagging in rain – among strange rubbish, dirt,/ busted concrete, & revving monster motorcycle-mash of/ commuters…’ and brings us to a gentle conclusion with: ‘new doorways/ tickets to shadow plays/ calls to prayer.’
Cards on the Table is not short on humour. “Push It” is one example: ‘I invented a game called/ “Think Up a Punk Band Name”.// I came up with The Rotting Nuns-/ disgusting everyone/…which… ended the game.’ Another is a one-line poem, “Philosophy” which asks: ‘shall we seek Satan’s help when the aliens come?’
Despite the grim subject, and title, “What IXTAB – the Mayan Goddess of Suicide – Whispered to Me”, Roberts presents to his readers, in prose form, a very funny selection if you have, in fact, ‘had enough of life’s windmill of flying fists’.
This is a densely filled book of over one hundred poems; such a collection in one volume is a credit to the poet’s hard work. Here we have many styles, attitudes and emotions – there’s much going on, a lot being expressed, a great deal to notice – and some grouping of poems or section divisions might have been of assistance to the reader. Attempting to read Cards on the Table in one sitting cannot be recommended; it becomes an ambush. Editors and publishers do well to note this and to remember that the reader likes space and a sturdy cover for work that benefits from being picked up and dipped into.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.