Book Review: Shaggy Magpie Songs, by Murray Edmond

cv_shaggy_magpie_songsAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

On first impressions, this new offering from Murray Edmond could be mistaken for an Australian book, its native magpie superimposed over a busker near the aptly named Story Bridge in Brisbane. But it’s an image New Zealanders will relate to nonetheless, as the magpie, the trickster, collector and master of mimicry is a recognisable character. In ‘Conversations with my Uncle’ we see Edmond give the nod to the Glover poem.

It makes sense for an experienced dramaturge and playwright such as Edmond to explore the world from a multiplicity of voices and disguises. We know that magpies can mimic up to 35 species of birds, animals and of course humans. At this point in his career, Edmond has indeed developed his own ‘lexicon of whistles’ (from Clowns on Skates). This collection has a strong lilt and lyricism that is lighter than some of his previous work. It is cheeky, but as always from Edmond, accomplished and sharp poetry. At times it does veer into twee territory with heavy rhyme, but it feels like jive talking. Not quite beat poetry, but perhaps a magpie listening in a children’s playground and showing off to his mates back in the bush.

This book is both songbook (divided into praise, blues and pop) and museum of curiosities. Swooping across continents and locales, the images tumble into each other, (fluffy little rabbit tail, silken rose…tattooed by a nun, Navajo blankets, all tightly wrapped and swaddled…). Edmond is himself a collector of the curious, the absurd and sometimes even the surreal. He makes a point of this especially in the glorious, rich cornucopia of “Forty-two boxes”.

His use of onomatopoeia is not heavy handed, but adds a cheeky, stuttering effect to several of the poems. Edmond is well-read and well-travelled and we see more evidence of this in this book than in some of his others. He references writers from a wide variety of oeuvres, from Conrad to Leonard Cohen.

Alongside being an astute commander of words, Edmond also manages to cast his beady eye over societal issues, from the Ice Bucket Challenge (The Poet Returns to New York) to the strangeness of colonialism (Romantics in search of adventures in music). Having lived in New Zealand and also the colonial motherland, Edmond is well-placed to comment on the curious peculiarities of colonial life, such as in the final stanza of Matakitaki, 1822:

when the Queen of England drinks her tea
she points her little pinky oh she points her pinky
and points that pinky at the likes of you and me

It is interesting to note that these two poems are in the ‘blues’ section of the book. The categories are loosely named, and never rely too heavily on tropes of the musical genres, but give the occasional acknowledgement in the form of a repeated refrain or a reference to rock ‘n roll / Jelly Roll (Morton).

Here is a book showcasing a true lover of language. It sings, without being cliché. It is an acknowledgement, as Edmond puts it, that we ‘live in a language game’. Some, like Edmond himself, are truly adept at it.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Shaggy Magpie Songs
by Murray Edmond
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408411

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