The terrible twos
On April the 12th Titus Books launched three new volumes of poetry - you can read about the riotous proceedings of that night here, here, and here.
Claudia Westmoreland has written a review of the three books, which she's kindly allowed me to reproduce below.
The Terrible Twos
Will Christie, Luce Canon, Titus Books, 2007
Richard Taylor, Conversation with a Stone, Titus Books, 2007
Scott Hamilton, To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, Titus Books, 2007
Two year olds tend to divide opinion. Some people dote on the cute little things, knitting them jumpers that will soon be too small, reading them bedside stories they can’t understand, and hanging on their every mispronounced word. Other, possibly more objective adults speak of the ‘terrible twos’, and hope the little horrors will soon grow out of midnight tantrums and food flinging.
It seems only natural, then, that Titus Books should be dividing writers and readers up and down the country, two years after it threw its first stone into the small and rather stagnant pond known as New Zealand literature. In the most recent issue of Landfall, this country’s oldest literary rag, Katherine Liddy gave the new boy the thumbs up, declaring that ‘with Titus, New Zealand literature just got a whole lot more interesting’. Reviewing Bill Direen’s Titus-published novel Song of the Brakeman in the Autumn 2007 issue of New Zealand Books, Heather Murray took a far less indulgent view of the little brat, accusing it of a ‘personal anarchy’ that makes ‘successful writing’ impossible. Ouch.
Mairangi Bay shock-blogger and rising literary star Jack Ross has weighed into the debate, by calling Titus ‘the Flying Nun of the twentieth century’. The comparison isn’t quite as silly as it might seem. Like the legendary Flying Nun Records, Titus is a low budget, high art operation designed to preserve and publicise work that the mainstream culture industry either marginalises or ignores altogether. While the big university-based publishers roll on down the middle of the literary road, Titus specialises in finding interesting things in that dangerous-looking ditch beside the left lane.
The Flying Nun comparison works, too, when we consider that a couple of the three latest poets to be published by Titus are seasoned live performers, as familiar with the dodgy PAs and flying glasses of Auckland’s seedier pubs as any sad middle-aged muso. Richard Taylor was a member of the drunken, drugged up Poetry Brats, the dominant gang on Auckland’s live poetry scene in the early 1990s. Will Christie was a mainstay of the same scene in the first years of the noughties, when she was known for the bizarre, Goth-influenced aerobics exercises that accompanied her readings.
If Titus is the Flying Nun of Kiwi literature, then Will Christie is the Dead C. Like that chaotic but sometimes exhilarating band, she has chosen to make an art form out of fragmentation and dissonance. The Dead C torture guitars, to produce exquisite bursts of feedback and fragments of mangled melody; Christie tortures her language, and gets a similar effect:
Lady fOR GO
Broken sentences, hyperactive syntax, and runaway punning give Christie’s writing a deliberately unfinished feel. These poems are like open-ended jams. Christie wants you to take your hands off you ears, pick up a guitar, and play with her, or against her - to lay a solo or a slab of feedback over her unsteady riffing.
Richard Taylor perhaps deserves to be called the Chris Knox of Titus Books. Taylor has Knox’s quirkiness, his tirelessness, and his disconcerting tendency to veer from highfalutin’ phraseology to Kiwi crudity at the drop of a beer:
God lives in the stone these days, terrified of his child, paralysed by insanity or the surprise of something leaping, like that wave by Hokusai. Suffering piles - he can’t think of anything else: of nothing else think he. Everything blowing to fuck.
Taylor’s book is divided between the wild and often wildly funny poems that he performed in the ’90s, and the more sober - I use that adjective advisedly - pieces of recent years. The ‘bridge’ between the two groups is ‘Hospital’, a long poem-journal that Taylor kept during a sometimes nightmarish stay in Middlemore Hospital in 2004. Lying in a crowded and noisy ward, deprived of drugs and alcohol, and forced to listen to the nihilistic monologues of a patient who has just done a seventeen year tour of duty in Paremoremo Prison, Taylor finds a new directness, and perhaps a new honesty:
The short dream shifts. Am I now awake? The night nurse talks to an arthritic young man called Garth about his infected leg. Spider Man, Third Man, is asleep, I think. The old man was coughing. I say (in a loutish voice, as if rallying): ‘How are we team!’ I can’t move far with my leg cast so I can’t hold the old bugger’s hand. Night is the time of fear. We are visited. The nurse take my piss bottle. Moves on, returns. My toes wiggle more - more feeling…
The manic wordplay of Taylor’s early poetry and the wry, sometimes self-deprecatory exercises of more recent years sit beside one another a little uneasily, like strangers forced together on an overcrowded train. Perhaps the sequel to Conversation with a Stone will see them talking to one another?
Scott Hamilton’s favourite Flying Nun band is probably The Verlaines. Hamilton shares with Graeme Downes’ outfit a taste for complex structures, a fondness for allusion, and - let’s face it - a tendency to walk the fine line between intelligence and pretension. Like Downes and his cronies, Hamilton seems to have spent too long in a university library. Reading his prose poems is like going to a cool but boring party and being trapped with the weird guy you haven’t seen since seventh form - the guy wearing brown-rimmed glasses and a brown dufflecoat, and drinking someone else’s Corona - who wants to talk about his pet obsession. Part of you wants to get away, to mingle with the beautiful people and talk about cars or designer drugs, but another part of you somehow wants to know more about Bob Dylan’s unreleased recordings, or socialism in Venezuela, or the differences between a pole and a post.
A typical Hamilton poem begins as a slightly stuffy discourse about some specific subject, before becoming first strangely obsessive, and then obsessively strange, as pedantry turns into poetry. Here’s the end of a poem which began as a guide to the theory of evolution:
Before the flood dinosaurs, mammoths, and humans were contemporaries. Then the rock-strata were laid down, like backing tracks. The dinosaurs sank fastest, of course…Noah ran aground on an alpine peak, discovering a clinic that housed wealthy TB patients. We have been sickly and wasteful ever since, and we can only change by hiding ourselves. Cut off your tongue, and you will become telepathic. Pluck out your eyes, and you will hear extinct native birds chiming in the boughs. Crush your scrotum between two stones, and you will be able to fall in love. This is called evolution.
I’d wager that Hamilton is one of that generation of males raised in the shadow of Dr Who. He seems obsessed by history - the silly and obscure bits, as well as the famous dates - and the heroes of many of his poems are adept at time travel. One of the section of his book is called ‘My Experiences in the Maori Wars’, and one of his poems positively invites us to tamper with the laws of temporal displacement:
Please, put down the bow and look at my diagram. This dot is you. You lived your life, thousands of years ago, and died. Your skeleton proves my proposition: there it sits, almost invisibly, under your flesh, like a wicker chair holding a corpulent man. The bones are cruel and ambitious, and long to emerge, but they did not reckon with my time machine. Borrow the machine again, if you need to go home, to test my argument, but remember to drop it back before you leave.
Well, that’d sure beat traveling to Ashburton with Owen Marshall.
Titus is two years old and, like most two year olds, it’s a noisy, restless, unpredictable creature, little taken with the rules and routines of the adult world. I suppose that, given time, the brat will grow up, and publish safer, more predictable writers, and even carry off the odd Montana Book award. In the meantime, though, let’s enjoy the enfant terrible, and the shrieks of horror it is summoning from some of the more timid members of New Zealand’s literary establishment.
The books Claudia has reviewed can be acquired via the Titus website, and from these fine bookshops:
Parson's (Auckland CBD, cnr Wellesley and Lorne Streets)
Time Out (Auckland, Mt Eden village)
Unity Books Auckland (Auckland CBD, 19 High St)
Dear Reader (Auckland, 436 Richmond Rd Grey Lynn)
Cherry Bomb (Auckland, 41 New North Rd Eden Tce)
Unity Books Wellington (57 Willis St)
University Bookshop Dunedin (378 Great King St Dunedin North)