new zealand electronic poetry centre

Bernadette Hall


Three Short Reviews: O’Brien/Brown, Cochrane/Were, Bilbrough/Sullivan

the art being to try to say something
ithin the tiny confines they allow

Review of Winter I Was by Gregory O’Brien and Lemon by James Brown. Evening Post, January 2000.

I wonder how many people will reach for James Brown’s Lemon in the mistaken belief that it is a cookbook. (More I suspect than the number who would knowingly reach for a book of poems. But never mind.) The front cover shows only a dazzlingly electric lemon skidding at high speed just out of arm’s reach. The design is attributed, on the back, to the Society for the Protection of Postmodernity. The dedication is to a ‘century of fakers.’ Right from the start, there are signs of the mischief, the acid that marked his award-winning first collection, Go Round, Power Please.

Where so many poets are beguiled by nostalgia or the seductive present, Brown takes on the future. In a world of increasingly delectable surfaces, of brand names that can annex a city, of Lottolanguage and computerspeak, ‘word perfect, so pleased and pretty with itself,’ he warns that the choices will be tough: ‘should we lose our heads and forsake speech / to communicate solely through touch?’

Tracking through stories of nightmare and terror, delivering his unsettling observations with wit and anarchic humour, the poet uses carefully chosen words, speaking out of his sense of outrage, compassion and sometimes, sheer exhaustion. I enjoyed the politics: New Zealand birdsong as a chorus of human unhappiness; land issues tellingly debated between Custer and Crazy Horse. And the conclusion, ‘there will still be stories / for we will always have the need / to be guided by voices.’ Human voices. Human stories.

The kind of stories that lie at the heart of Gregory O’Brien’s collection, Winter I Was. The title comes from a folk song, rich with twisty metaphors, which along with the lovely collages designed by the poet’s brother, Brendan, hold the text together. As always with O’Brien, you get the sense of someone who is working in an environment he trusts. He uses words as he uses paint, trusting them to open up heart stuff, not to set traps for him. His poetry is serene and lyrical, rich in surprising metaphor.

There are charming love poems here and a marvellous thirty page verse-novella (small shades of his great novel Diesel Mystic) which recreates a tragic episode that might be from any war, based on the stories of a Polish refugee. As in the film Dead Man, the narrator’s voice comes to us from beyond death, providing a kind of religious calm and reassurance in the midst of horror.

In a world which can so easily go mad, the poet offers as saving graces, children, creativity, love – ‘We have lifted ourselves up above the alps / on a single thread of hair // and all the instruments of sorrow / are forgotten, never to be // remembered.’ He is the psalmist where Brown is the alarmist (in the best possible sense). I think we need them both.


Review of Into India by Geoff Cochrane and Jump Start by Virginia Were. Evening Post , April 1999.

After months of a Canterbury drought, how refreshing to feel soft rain on my face. And no surprise to find myself reading these two new collections of poetry in terms of water. The one, a deep dark well, stilled and glinty. The other, a bright dispersion, a fan, like the one I make when I squeeze my finger over the end of the hose when I’m watering the garden.

In an earlier autobiographical essay, ‘The Flooded Steps,’ Geoff Cochrane spoke of his fondness for ‘the wintry and the sorrowful.’ And this is the climate of his second collection of poetry, Into India. Rain. The dark gloss on things. Love and love lost. The sombre turnings of memory. Our awful, human capacity to do harm.

Yet this is not a depressing book, nor one weighted with self-pity. The poet writes with a huge compassion. At times a cautious delight – ‘I bathe in numinous joy. / I’m washed in it – truly.’ Some raunchiness. And always a fastidious choice of words for these mobile, elegant texts that are full of music – ‘I’ll create a pool / and quicken it with fish / slim fish with silver cheeks. // Thereafter will I have / quiet, and light on the water.’ What a great definition of poetry and the making of it.

Virginia Were is not so much after quiet in her second collection, a combination of poetry and short prose pieces, as after an electrical charge, evinced by the jump-leads held in the strong fist of the bare breasted woman in the cover photo. An invitation or a threat? The image is as dramatic and disturbing as most photographs by Fiona Pardington. And what about the logo ME on the waistband of the knickers where the denim fly is open, just enough?

The poet gives this big, cheesy grin from the back cover, and I’m thinking, good one, she’s acute, bold, switched-on, yet still finds it all a bit of a laugh.

Jump Start is a densely inhabited book. There are painters, photographers, travellers, ‘the world is big and perplexing,’ film makers and writers here, most of them on edge, in a state of stasis, needing to be jolted out of their discomfort.

Were writes in a straightforward style using relaxed, leisurely rhythms. I felt there was some loss of torque in her poems, a lessening of the internal pressure that might push them into the extraordinary. Whereas in her prose narratives, the tightened, poetic technique she uses produces considerable energy. I particularly enjoyed the story of Penny Arcade, an anarchic performer whose show ‘Bad Girls – a Work in Progress’ is one you must make sure you always miss.


Review of Bell Tongue by Paola Bilbrough and Star Waka by Robert Sullivan. Evening Post, 2000.

As a child, I remember the thrill of the Sisters’ warning, that one day we would have to go out Into The World. There was only one World in their imaginings and it was definitely second-best. Faced with the same warning today, I know I would have to be smart and ask, which world? For a multiplicity of worlds, just like ‘a village of selves is something we have now got our minds around.

In Bell Tongue, her first collection of poetry, Paola Bilbrough ranges through many ‘worlds’: Japan, Ireland, Mexico, the New Zealand of her childhood and of sentimental memory – ‘I woke thinking of land – / how countries lodge in the body / long after you have moved elsewhere.’ Using a cinematic technique, she constructs short, oblique dramas where image and scraps of conversation play against memory and imagination. Pieces of people’s lives are caught and consumed, including the grotesque and bizarre.

In a kind of boutique language, she puts things on display, turning them into icons. ‘Countries and occupations: delicacies / on a revolving sushi counter.’ Sometimes there are curiously old-fashioned excesses in the poems, and infelicities like ‘a sudden thought takes his hand.’ But then there are the amazing pictures: ‘a child / with bare legs, a red dress, /   riding a rusty bicycle across the ice.’ They stay in your mind.

Star Waka is Robert Sullivan’s third collection and it’s a stunning book, full of attitude. A big book and a big concept – ‘101 poems / stroking Y2K / stanzas peopled with stars and waka.’ 2001 words so this is all very millennial. Playful, political, full of ‘intricate knowledge.’ You may think you have a handle on this ‘world’ of Aotearoa, but I bet Robert Sullivan will still give you a bit of a shake-up.

He does what Seamus Heaney does, takes the language of the coloniser, in which he is a specialist, and turns it inside out. With rigour, good grace and a sense of fun. he is not into nostalgia or romanticised mythology which ducks contemporary issues. Language itself is a waka, a vehicle for revival. ‘star waka is a knife through time. Crews / change, language of each crew changes’ – the position is generous and embracing, the politics specific and challenging.

From Hawaiki to Honda, from computer waka to a starship in AD2140, you’ll enjoy being a navigator, along with Kupe and Tane, Tangaroa, Maui, Odysseus, Goldie, Elsdon Best, Dr Jung and that anonymous settler from Bristol. There is analysis of what has gone on, what is still going on. The whole text fizzes with excitement. If you read only one book of poetry this year, make sure it’s this one.

Bernadette Hall

Last updated 25 March, 2005