Book Review: Sidelights – Rugby Poems, by Mark Pirie

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sidelights_rugby_poems.jpgRugby is often regarded as New Zealand’s national sport; although analysis of sporting options and participation rates in schools and clubs may render this assertion as contentious. Nevertheless, rugby has played a crucial role in New Zealand’s economic, social, and political development over the last century or so. Rugby is a looking-glass on New Zealand; the glorious, the despicable, the fatuous, and the fortuitous can be discerned.

Mark Pirie’s work Sidelights – Rugby Poems serves as a personalised account of his relationship with rugby; several poems are remembrances to family members that played rugby in New Zealand at various levels. One suspects that these family members are, as Ron Palenski suggests, in his instructive foreword ‘not himself a great player but a player of a type which made the game great.’

The book is divided into three sections: The Open Side, The Blind Side, and The All Blacks.

In broad-brush terms the poems that feature in The Open Side section relate to the pre-professional era. An era without scientific analysis of every footstep a player makes on the paddock. There is reference to the supposed simplicity of rugby in the poem Rugby Explained. Pirie makes comment on the female rugby experience in the poems Women Playing Rugby and Portia Woodman as a result of his experience as a spectator.

The late Sir Colin Meads was regarded as a chief exponent of the great values of rugby; solitary dedication, humility in victory and defeat, rugby’s after-match function camaraderie. There is reference to this in the poem Heartland Rugby.

Rugby served as a vital morale-boosting pastime during wartime. Pirie recounts that experience of some servicemen during a match in the poem A Letter About The War. Schools are the nurseries for young players in New Zealand. At high schools keen, fit, strong, and fast young players vie for selection into the prestigious First XV. In older and especially boys’ schools, support for the top team is fierce. The poems Two Rugby Epigrams show this. Pirie completes the section with dedicatory poems to his grandfather and mother.

The Blind Side section relates to Pirie’s personal experience of rugby players and matches. As Pirie is a Wellington poet, Hurricanes players, feature as poem topics. The demise of Jerry Collins, the success of Piri Weepu, the crowd adoration of Ma’a Nonu all feature in poems. The poem Patu ’81 is a reference to Merata Mita’s 1983 documentary film on the 1981 Springbok Tour. The last three lines: ‘a girl / watching her parents / cried in my film class’ is indicative of many New Zealand families at the time; fractured, tense, and forthright.

The poem Super Final exposes the common problem of ticket profiteering in the professional era. The poem Sevens recounts a comment that was indicative of the demise of the Wellington Sevens tournament that was ruined by the ‘fun police.’ The poem The Divided Country illustrates the tribalism between the provinces in New Zealand. Chris Laidlaw once wrote that ‘beer and rugby are more or less synonymous.’ Pirie continues this theme in the poem Ode To Molly Malones.

The last section is dedicated to The All Blacks. Prominent modern-day All Blacks feature in a number of poems in this section. Dan Carter, The Exquisite Cory Jane, Kieran Read: Tape Man, and Jonah Lomu are all titles of poems that present and extol the virtues of these players. The poem The Cup describes the time Ritchie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011. This poem signifies a major national moment for many New Zealanders. The poem Covered In Boks’ Glory is testament to the All Blacks greatest rival and the muscular battles over nearly a century. The poem Ode, In the Bellevue captures the viewing experience of many followers watching matches in pubs and clubs throughout the country.

The book ends with an epilogue: Two Poems For Tom Lawn. These are ruminations on a grandfather ‘the man I never knew.’ The book is dedicated to Pirie’s late grandfather.

Rugby has changed over the decades and generations to be what it is today. Mark Pirie’s poems are the result of being a match observer, enthusiast, crowd listener, player, and thinker on the effects rugby has on families, players, and New Zealand society. This work is, as the late Bill McLaren often declared, a ‘thundering run.’

Reviewed by C.A.J. Williams

Sidelights Rugby Poems
by Mark Pirie
Published by HeadworX Publishers
ISBN 978047340868-8

Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677

Book Review: Songs of the City, by MaryJane Thomson

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_songs_of_the_citySongs of the City is a collection that explores the contemporary world through a voice that seeks to look beyond the surface. Thomson splits the book into four different sections; each section focuses on a specific aspect of life with a slightly different voice.

In the first section, Finding Your Light, Thomson brings in a sharp voice that clearly expresses what it thinks of the world. Evolution is a poem that wonderfully describes life as “falling with the minutes / Building up hours”. The poem effectively highlights the preoccupation with time that defines modern life. Another piece, titled Just Surfing, criticises the modern day and age that’s caught up in digital screens. Although the voice in this poem is much severe, and borders on preaching, it clearly pinpoints the dangers of the digital world.

The tone slows down in the next section, Watch, where Thomson moves to reflections on faith. Prophet Nina Love is a piece that sees the world through the lens of the spiritual; Thomson sees “lines of David in the songs, / prophets in the poems”. Here, a prophet is not a grand person who only lives in heaven. Thomson states that these prophets are also “on earth through and through”.

This is followed by Funny Sun Kissed Fantasy, a section of poems on love. This is clarity of reality is a simple poem that expresses the realisation and epiphany that comes with a breakup: the change from moping to moving. There were some moments when Thomson’s expressions of love involved cliché phrases. Nevertheless, this second remove away from the critical and further into the personal worked well.

Conversations and Songs is the final section, and these are poems about music and letters. Some of these are positive and light, while others portray harsh realities. Night clubs depicts the negative truth of nights out in town. Although there is a feeling of excitement that kicks in, Thomson also reminds herself of the people out there with “motives they will / Forget in the morning”. Meanwhile, in The great contralto mezzo soprano, Thomson writes of the delight and freedom that comes with music. The poem, in describing music, has its own music too. The title itself rolls off the tongue and the piece is a tightly written poem with short, effective lines that roll in one after the other like dancers.

Overall, Songs of the City is a collection of poetry that looks at modern life with a keen eye. Thomson is not afraid to criticise and this results in a sharp and strong voice in her pieces. However, she also brings a nice sense of subjectivity in exploring her own personal thoughts. Her spiritual poems and love poems are two sections that add this depth. Each section is a different lens against the contemporary world and Thomson reveals that there is good and bad in all of these lenses. She introduces them to the reader and lets them dwell on these issues against their own lives.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Songs of the City
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Headworx
ISBN 9780473365660

Book Review: Lonely Earth by MaryJane Thomson

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_lonely_earth.jpgIn her second collection of poems, Lonely Earth, MaryJane Thomson explores the far reaches of the human mind in the 21st century, weighed down with concerns about humanity and the fate of the planet. Her poems are both universal and personal, striking up intense conversations with the reader, while still giving enough space to breathe. There is a mix of longer and shorter poems throughout the collection, the spaces in between allowing for the reader to think about the different ideas that Thomson explores. But intensity is felt in a few words just as much as in a page of text, and a single line can change the whole feeling of the writing.

Thomson engages with many of the ideas that we deal with in a daily basis, from questions about humanity and the environment, to capitalism and consumerism. In poems like Burger and Fries and Adidas, she questions our unquestioning obedience to our consumeristic lifestyle in the West.

Disgusting how they use words to motivate / movements of people, / physically speaking, telling you what to do / and while you do it what to think, and again the same sentiment is repeated Just show the people what to do / and they’ll do it. / Just like the ad, / all day I dream about sugar. / Adidas on your face.

These issues, while not resolved, are brought to the readers attention, placing us in a position of confrontation with ourselves.

In poems like Humanity and Which channel? we are faced with questions about our complacency towards human problems, ‘it’s always in TV, / someone else can handle it’. In the poem The Work Force Thomson looks at our repetitive lifestyle of working from 9 to 5, ending with ‘You open the bottle and pour / the day out. 5pm.’ These issues that we face every day are brought up again and again in Thomson’s writing, confronting the reader and causing us to think about how we live our lives.

But there are also other poems that appeal in a very different way. In particular, a poem like Without Love appeals more to our sentimentality, and the emotions portrayed are perhaps more human than any other found in Lonely Earth. This duality in the work, on one hand asking us to question our society and way of life, on the other appealing to our most human emotions, creates a very strange and unique experience. Whether you take away from this collection one or the other, or perhaps a bit of both, there is certainly something within these pages that appeals to everyone.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Lonely Earth
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473339739

Book Review: Main Trunk Lines: Collected Railway Poems, by Michael O’Leary

Available now in selected bookshops.

cv_main_trunk_linesFor prolific poet, author and jack-of-all poetry trades, Michael O’Leary, this latest thematic collection represents an impressive array of his railway-related poems. Railways and all their quirks have long occupied O’Leary and have formed a backdrop to his life in various guises. Spanning 30 years of his writing, Main Trunk Lines travels with him across the width and breadth of Aotearoa, via its railways. It is a bumpy ride showcasing the picturesque vistas on offer through train windows, both past and present. Historical asides peppered throughout add context and enlightening detail to the poems.

On working on the S9 track gang north of Dunedin (To the S9 Track Gang), O’Leary doesn’t pull any punches: ‘And the rails on which it ran, cut my young life in two.’ We learn that one fellow worker, Maia, ‘lost his fight for survival’ during the works (Waiata – a chant: te manga aho o te rerewe ki Seacliff). From the introductory poem, Self Deception, the reader is immediately reminded of this life’s journey on the ‘death express’, taking us to an eventual demise. O’Leary draws parallels between his younger self (an evaporating vision) and the children boarding the kinder transport to the death camps during the second world war. It is a sobering, if not morbid note with which to preface the wide-ranging selection. Overall, the book has enough light relief thanks to O’Leary’s signature cheekiness, to keep us buoyant.

As you would expect from a subject so rich in rhythmic material to draw from, we are treated to many lines deserving of performance or musical accompaniment. A fine example is the rap-like lines from the poem Make Love and War:
From the stations of My Lai and Lidice and Fallujah
It doesn’t matter who’s killing ya
If you’re being killed –

There is a lyrical lilt throughout, with a special treat in the middle section which features six Waiata chants – the perfect marriage of onomatopoeia and waiata form. They are of course a nod to the railway gang songs of days past, combined with O’Leary’s Maori heritage. One can only imagine the fun to be had from a public performance of this set of poems, with their humour, for example:

Clickety clack, Karakiti karakati – HUROA

It’s not a slinky cat nor a winged bat – it’s a rat.
From poem Te manga aho o te rerewe ki Taumaranui

These are an absolute delight to read, rich with delicious idiosyncratic images: ‘Rotorua projectionist, swaying loin-mat, the fat of the land handed down the valley on a saucer.’ At times absurdist, the reader is reminded of the work of fellow New Zealand poet, David Eggleton, employing rapid fire and sometimes surreal imagery.

Any reader living in New Zealand will find a familiar scene to relate to. For those of us less well travelled in our own nation, the book is a virtual tour that sparks a desire to explore more of New Zealand’s hidden pockets and quaint small towns. Overall, it’s a sublime collection, capturing the tracks and trajectories of a nation and a poet.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Main Trunk Lines: Collected Railway Poems
by Michael O’Leary
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473329174