Songs of the City by MaryJane Thomson.
Wellington: HeadworX Publishers (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Songs of the City is MaryJane Thomson’s third collection of poetry. She is a Wellington writer and has published a memoir Sarah Vaughan is Not My Mother, a poetry sequence Fallen Grace and a full-length collection Lonely Earth. Songs of the City contains a mixture of long and short poems, grouped by thematic Links: “Finding Your Light” (Big Issue poems), “Watch” (faith and spiritual poems), “Funny Sun Kissed Fantasy” (love poems) and “Conversations and Songs” (music and letter poems).
The first section, “Finding Your Light”, consists for the most part of short lyrics: delicate, well-judged and living primarily in their closely observed details. There is a fine sensuousness in the language. “Evolution”, for example, begins
The world starts every morning, and stops
Every night, people sleep,
The earth’s hours determining people’s
“Our favourite things” describes the fact that they are ‘not always, The things that bring us peace, // Stuck to perpetual thrill.’ Many of these lyrics are subtly haunted by modern dilemmas: white people being responsible for many of the world’s problems, women fighting for equal pay, the screen demanding persistence. This tendency is perhaps exemplified in the poem “If modern day”, which begins:
If modern narcissism is anything to go by
We’ve skipped a war,
A generation went by without quite so many
In a world without a generation of “Narcissists” (as the poet calls them), the poem imagines: ‘Social media putting people on pedestals, / Creating false emotions, / Setting off lust and envy, / Leading to slothfulness, / They go nowhere …’
The next section, “Watch”, focuses on faith and the spiritual life. These poems are engaging and more complex. The grasp of detail is confident, the language precise, the phrasing sure across line breaks, as we see in “The greatest love in time”:
I raise my voice, can you hear me,
Do you fear me,
With my deep tone,
In “Not sadness, contemplation”, the contrast between the poet feeling sure of herself, although ‘words do not translate between East and West, lends vigour to the poem. Occasionally, as in “Lord above in the know”, Thomson refers to her interest in music to balance her thoughts about the fate of mankind:
I look back at my sick mind,
The state of time has not changed,
But my mind it is in the life of music,
I search for meaning in something I
Can turn off and on,
I choose what to play and when,
The music of my life,
The third section, “Funny Sun Kissed Fantasy”, contains love poems. The title poem is a brilliant and funny lyric that succeeds by means of its jaunty rhythms:
I was at the train station,
I had been there all night,
Last time I saw you,
You said we were on the same
I thought it would last forever.
Enjoyment of Thomson’s poems lies as much in their visual qualities as in their aural patterns. Thomson’s masterly command of metre and tone is much in evidence in the vigour of her verse, as we see in “Not a hero”:
Every day I say, “I’ll get there,”
I don’t know where that is,
To a foreign place or the arms
Of love, very few are lucky, to
Get that, most make do.
“Dignity” heralds many of the themes in this section: the backward glance, strains of life, freedom, the tendency towards positivity:
There is a right person for everyone,
Don’t walk past ones shrouded in
The longer poem, “You have gone somewhere” is less concerned with surface and more with depth. It bears witness to a physical relationship that has ceased to exist:
You have gone somewhere, or perhaps AA,
Or perhaps you’re just a dry drunk,
Winking at the world …
Thomson’s language is suggestive, imagining ‘The tragedy of life, growing past your master, / But still looking down,’ but much is achieved here simply by the choice of words, more conative than denotative. Thomson’s poem, “My love is out of time”, is concerned with “living in an age where / Love is sex”. Among the poem’s formal experiments in representation are, for example, its use of capitals, its repetition and its stanza breaks.
In “Conversations and Songs”, we find the juxtaposition of her attitudes, smooth formal control and startling revelations. As, for example, in the elegant “The barbarian”:
I hear the barbarian,
It’s me. They think, I think,
My pupils dilate, but
I have not taken
This is a mature lyric about being a victim of circumstances, thrown into relief by the poem’s engagement with the themes of its time. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Thomson’s work is its range of tone. As well as satire, there is powerful and evocative narrative, as in the poem “The great contralto mezzo soprano”; where a melancholy excurses on clubbing in “Night clubs” and a tenderness in “Where are you Martin?”
It’s best when the love
Is shared and hate is
When a few speak kindly
Amongst the noise of
Thomson’s restless lyricism is always punched by a delating self-awareness, as in the long poem “Keep on”:
I will never be them,
I see racial hatred boiling over,
In 2015 people still use the word
And white people are bagels
Who shouldn’t mix with coffee.
“A scary race” is a provocative poem about modern times. She asks: ‘Will you meet me in the middle, / America you’re killing me.’ “Antidote” is a lyrical poem focusing on the beauty of a rose seed as
A symbol sitting in a city,
In a room,
Reminding me to plant
Generously and pick wisely.
Thomson’s collection is rich in observed intensity; the poems radiating out from the poet’s imagination, observation and sensibility. Her energy is productively engaged with the experiencing and voicing of the world in all its richness, while challenge and description are darker elements which the poet explores and masters.
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).
First published takahē 90 August 2017.