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James Norcliffe is a well-known name in New Zealand poetry and the soft, subtle writing of his newest collection confirms why this is so. Norcliffe’s restrained and delicate style crafts Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe into an atmospherically cohesive collection that portrays a variety of different lives.
His poem Double Indemnity conveys the quick and suave style of the Film Noir movie the piece is based on. The narrator sounds just like a hard-boiled detective of the genre, a man who describes how his “glass / clinked with the sudden ice in my heart”. Norcliffe portrays Phyllis, the femme fatale, as alluring and dangerous as she is in the movie. The poem focuses on a snapshot of images that make up the heart of this classic black and white movie.
Meanwhile, in James Dean, two characters describe the image of this eponymous and captivating figure; the tilt of a grin, the recurring cigarette. Stories become concrete once written, and through this metaphor, the piece acknowledges the permanence of the past. James Dean will forever be immortalised as the man before his death: young, handsome, and always grappling with danger like that perpetually smoking cigarette.
In another poem, Laika, Norcliffe writes about the first animal to orbit the earth, a stray dog from Moscow named Laika. Norcliffe’s note at the back of the book explains how Laika would have probably died after a few hours in space. And so, Norcliffe renders her brief life in the cosmos into something strange and wonderful but also especially sad. It is a world where human achievement happens at the cost of an animal’s life, a world where “we will keep the cosmos company… as what remains of Laika / falls like incandescent snow”.
The Amnesia Aquarium is an especially beautiful piece. In the depth of the aquarium, snippets of memory are like brief flashes of light that reflect off the scales of fish. The accumulation of this memory becomes a whirlpool of images; Norcliffe poignantly describes them as “nebulae you can barely remember / shining in a familiar sky”, mixing the cosmos into his aquarium of memory.
The scope of well-known figures and those less familiar creates a collection of poems that are fragments of both stories and lives. The final life, a poem titled The death of Seneca, closes off Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe. It portrays the indifference of Seneca who, when ordered to commit suicide, could only go through the motions in a strange, disassociated way, telling his servants to “bring him sharp blades, bring him pomegranates”. Here, Seneca is another character who captures a moment of frailty. This moment is so striking that Seneca has been remembered for thousands of years after his death.
Although death is a common theme for the characters Norcliffe presents, his writing is reassuring in its subtle beauty. Since many of these characters are stuck within concrete events that have already happened, Norcliffe also shows how emotions like longing are timeless. He renders this feeling across multiple stories and lives, each character or creature with their own experience of pleasure and pain.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe
by James Norcliffe
Published by VUP