For 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