Better than Deaker
I think it was Tom Scott who defined illness as the body's version of a vote of no confidence. For the last couple of days my stomach has been voting no confidence in me; my flamates call it food poisoning, and I've sworn to myself not to eat steak again for at least a week. Abstaining from red meat isn't as bad, though, as having to spend all day in bed. Normally lying in bed in the daytime is a luxury, an opportunity to finish dodgy novels or surf the net on my laptop. But when my stomach periodically revolts against its treatment and goes on strike, so that the sight of text of any sort makes me seasick, then a strange sort of torpor overcomes me, and I find myself turning the dials on the radio and TV, searching for something diverting, even if it is the Murray Deaker Show on Radio Sport or a Harry Potter movie on TV.
Thank goodness, then, for Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance, the brand-new anthology put together by Jack Ross and Jan Kemp. Thanks to the two full-length CDs that accompany this book I was able to give Deaker short shrift, lie back in bed and close my eyes, and spend Sunday afternoon and evening luxuriating in the dulcet tones of a young Fleur Adcock, the otherworldy rhetoric of an even younger RAK Mason, and the impish lyrics of Hone Tuwhare. Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance contains work by these poets and twenty-four others; every poem is presented on the page as well as on disc, and Ross and Kemp supply useful biographical and bibliographical notes.
The editors have been thorough, but not over-zealous. Some of the older recordings Ross and Kemp present are marked by a certain distortion, but the editors have wisely refrained from any sort of sonic 'clean up'. Even if it irritates some pedantic listeners, the trace left by primitive recording equipment is an essential part of performances like James K Baxter's reading of his 'Poem in the Matukituki Valley'. It is a sort of aural patina, a reminder of the distance between Baxter's era and our own.
Lying back and listening to the tracks roll by, I was tempted to compare Ross and Kemp's gathering to some of my favourite double albums, like the Beatles' White Album or Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes. A double album is a sprawling thing, with plenty of room for experiment and surprise as well as the expected anthems. Ross and Kemp serve up a number of certified Kiwi classics, like Dennis Glover's 'Magpies' and Allen Curnow's 'House and Land', but they also provide some surprises. The uncanonised MK Joseph is given more tracks than either Baxter or Charles Brasch; postmodern maverick Michael Harlow rubs up against sturdy realists Peter Bland and Vincent O'Sullivan; and CK Stead's oft-slighted variations on Catullus are preferred over his less adventurous work.
A particularly welcome surprise is the young David Mitchell. The last time I saw Mitchell he was jumping up and down in a puddle outside a shopping mall in Newmarket; here he is, though, on page 124 and track 51, with his 'my lai/ remuera/ ponsonby'. Written at the fag-end of the sixties and included in Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby , Mitchell's only book, the poem seems at once dated and urgently contemporary. The acid-drenched hippy counterculture Mitchell symbolised may have faded from view, and the fashion for lower case-only texts full of ampersands may have gone with it, but US imperialism has not disappeared, even if the stage for its atrocities has shifted from Indochina to the Middle East.
When I saw Mitchell read at the Shakespeare Tavern in the early nineties his back was bent and his voice was broken. Sometimes his shaking hands would drop his tattered copy of Pipe Dreams and he would lapse into silence, aiming a psychotic stare at the audience. On track 51, though, the young Mitchell's voice is firm and clear; there is a sad promise in its sureness, and in the cadences of the poem it carries:
holds th mirror to her eye
whole villages burn.
2 million years have proved nothing
did not already know.
Kendrick Smithyman's voice is another that surprises. Ross and Kemp take only one of their four Smithyman poems from Closing the Chocolate Factory, the short film that shows the great man reading and discussing his poems a few days before his death in 1995. That last performance was a triumph of the will over the flesh, as Smithyman's thin, tired voice struggled with the silence that was about to overwhelm it. Ross and Kemp give us three poems - 'Communicating', 'Inlet', and 'Near Ellon' - read crisply and firmly by a younger and much healthier Smithyman. Fans used to encountering the 'sly old fox of New Zealand verse' on the page may be startled by how well-suited these three poems are to performance. It has long been fashionable to pigeonhole Smithyman as a 'difficult', 'academic' poet, but his delight in the cadences of 'Communicating' shows that he was influenced by tub-thumpers like Dylan Thomas, as well as the cryptic crossword puzzle:
We communicate. We do not say
our words into meaning that a day
is as it goes beside the fluent Channel.
I can recommend Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance, then, to anyone laid low by a dodgy stomach on a wet weekend. For sheer entertainment value, Ross and Kemp's anthology easily beats Murray the Mouth, let alone that Harry Potter rerun on TV 2. Who says poetry is dead?