Book Review: Beyond the Ohlala Mountains / Poems 1968-2002, by Alan Brunton

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On the cover of Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, a paper mask purses a pair of glossy red cv_beyond_the_ohlala_mountainslips. The mask looks determined, and those lips look ready to scold you. The illustrations list tells me the mask was made by Sally Rodwell, Alan Brunton’s partner with whom he established the experimental theatre group Red Mole. Brunton also worked as a tutor, literary critic, community arts worker, was the founding editor of Freed, and co-edited the tabloid-format arts magazine Spleen. In 1998, Brunton was the University of Canterbury’s Writer in Residence, and the thick spine of Beyond the Ohlala Mountains attests to his prolific output as a poet. Maybe the mask on the cover suggests Brunton’s theatricality – as the editors state, “For Alan Brunton poetry was inextricable from performance” – but also the many masks he wore as an artist.

This exquisite selected works is split into five sections which move chronologically from 1968 to 2002. They represent twelve published collections as well as what the editor’s discovered in Brunton’s papers, letters, and notebooks. Each section opens with a photograph of a Red Mole mask or puppet, and they are comical, strange, and confronting: a signal for what is ahead.

My favourite poems of the selected works come from the second section, ‘1970—1973 On The Road’, a time when Brunton journeyed through Australia to Calcutta, and then crossed the Nepalese border and spent two months in Kathmandu (although many poems from this period were lost when Brunton’s bag was stolen). Brunton then ended up in London (via India and Afghanistan) where he lived for a time with poet Ian Wedde. The introduction is full of these details that give the reader insight into the connections and friendships that fuelled New Zealand poetry during these years.

It is impossible to summarise four decades of work in a short review, but Brunton’s poems are energetic and inquisitive; they are experimental and ring with voice; they are of their time, the poems from the late 60s and 70s eschewing capitalisation and liberally using the ampersand; they have what the editors call “linguistic bravura”. This makes it sound like all of his poems are ripping with energy, but some such as ‘In My Wake & Silent Time’ (from ‘1970—1973 On The Road’) are quieter as the poet works in a place that is “between”:

most this day i’ve crawled amongst
the simple vowels of nothingness
trying to fix it again
the direction
the prevailing wind in that town
between two seas
where a birdsong & knowing child
stammered taking wot of things

highwater broke at my window
gunning for the little tern
in the west & secret air,
half a distance away blackbirds
fell from the footbridge
where the black widow spun

bird’s-foot makes me forget
the pipefish
& the trade wind drift
yet i have not wandered aimlessly

all creatures live under the sun
on backshore reaches
but for the prodigal who sings

There is something of sadness in these pages with Brunton’s sudden death from a heart attack in Amsterdam in 2002, and then his partner Rodwell’s suicide four years later. The editors Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond have done a huge amount of work to find and select these poems, and to contextualise them in the generous introduction, which also serves as a biography for Burton. It’s a homage to the poet, and with this selection the editors have certainly achieved what they wished, which is for the poems to be “a resource for those who wish to continue the work: encoding strangeness in the quotidian, tracking the esoteric to and from its home in the words we all use, discovering a depthless meaning in the ordinary music of our lives.”

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Beyond the Ohlala Mountains / Poems 1968-2002
by Alan Brunton
Edited by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond
Titus Books, 2014
ISBN 9781877441479
$38 RRP, 316pp, paperback