Exits and Entrances: stories and poems by Barry Southam.
Nelson: Copy Press Book (2016).
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
In Exits and Entrances, by Christchurch writer, Barry Southam, the voices of his prose and poetry engage with one another in subtle, sometimes argumentative, conversation. It makes for a whole that has considerable impact.
Here is a sharp eye, a deft wordsmith, contemplating the small dramas of human life from a point nearer to the exit than the entrance. The wonderfully surreal cover image sums it up. A door, brightly painted, and with a solid-looking bolt and padlock, hangs in a door-frame at the end of a path. The frame is attached to nothing. Is there any point coming in and going out through this door? The poems and the prose give various, slanted answers.
This is a long look back, over decades of Aotearoa New Zealand life, but in particular it’s a wry examination of the 1960s. Some of the fiction depicts male/female relationships where the characters struggle with their ‘multiplying wounds’. There’s a depth of loneliness in these stories, and a powerful sense that this NZ was indeed the ‘land of the long grey shroud’, as a character maintains towards the end of the book. Occasionally, as in “Praising the X-Men”, there are flashes of generosity that blaze as they deserve in a context of mean conformity.
I enjoyed the humour in the poetry, such as the dry political comment of “As Time Goes By”, the laid-back playfulness of jazz in “Continental Drift”, and the stark view of mortality in “The Meeting”. The tone of regret becomes self-mocking in “The Anthology Arrives”. It begins:
Smither and Stead
my lone poem sits.
I spent too many nights
playing poker or pool
and falling down holes
on daytime side roads
too interesting to stop
and record the moments.
The tone changes in the final section, ‘Two Memoirs’. These reminiscences are lively with dialogue, characters that delight, kindness as a way of life, thoughtful, intelligent conversation.
In the first memoir, “Walking With Jim”, the writer and his friend discuss their experiences of Aotearoa New Zealand. This is where Jim declares his view of the “grey shroud”. The writer takes issue with the image and makes the case that there was vitality aplenty if you looked in the right places, such as a Wellington café and its colourful proprietor with her bird’s nest hair.
The second memoir, “Another Town, Another Time”, tells of Southam’s time living in Kawhia in the 1960s. When he asked whether there might be cottages for sale in the area, the answer was: ‘How many do you want?’ Frank, the reluctant electrician tells him: ‘Reality is a black void, and life is a grand illusion. As you get older, the illusions get less grand, that is all’.
Exits and Entrances gives this proposition its serious consideration. Some of the stories, some of the poems peer into that void. The memoirs laugh and say: not so simple, not so black. The useless door of the cover is a beautiful colour, and the sun shines on the grass. But lest the reader suspect easy illusion, we are given a final poem with a golden title, “On Daffodil Day”. The man on the cancer ward reads a comic, ‘without a single smile’. The poem finishes, ‘The cartoon book snaps shut, / his number has been called’.
This collection affirms life that is lived without illusion, and finds that clarity away from the conventional and the customary. In Exits and Entrances, Barry Southam sings the complexities and authenticity of life on the fringes. There is hard-earned wisdom here and a deep humanity.
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 (Wellington: Makaro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.
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