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

Two great women at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Sunday – Keri Hulme and Patricia Grace

A follow-on from the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Sunday 18 May, by Gillian Whalley Torckler

Next on the agenda was an event described Hulme_Keri_from_webas the largest book club discussion
ever. It was a celebration of “The Great Kiwi Classic” − The Bone People by Keri Hulme.
There was some discussion at the start about the definition of a classic. What defines a classic? Does everyone have to like it? Can it be a classic if some people are offended by it?

Peter Biggs chaired the session, which included a reading by Keri Hulme and commentary from Eimear McBride (a novelist from Ireland) and Reina Whaitiri (a NZ academic). The hour started with a ten-minute reading by Hulme herself. She read from a copy she had presented to her uncle who upon hearing she was writing a book, advised her to write in the style of Wilbur Smith. Thankfully she ignored him. The Bone People is a very kiwi book, set on the rugged west coast of New Zealand. It is interesting to note that both of our Booker prize-winning books were set in this wild landscape, that some might even describe as a savage landscape.cv_the_bone_people

But this book had an inauspicious start – Hulme says that every publisher in Australia and New Zealand turned it down. That’s music to every author’s ears. From the envelopes of rejection come the … well, let’s be realistic, it won’t be the Booker every time.

The audience participation in this session was a more significant component than many. There were accolades – some glowing, some not so. There were tears from the audience when more than once victims of abuse thanked Keri for writing the book, for lifting the lid. Despite it being a violent, savage book, it was deemed positive because it has reached so many people. One person admitted it took him three reads to finally “get” this book – the first time he hated it but now it’s his favourite book.

In writing the book, Hulme loved the characters but made them do some heinous things in order to show how much damage we do to each other and how much damage we do to the earth.

keri_hulme_reading

Keri Hulme, about to read from The Bone People

And if you were wondering, there will never be a film made of The Bone People because Keri doesn’t want one. And after all these years, one is left feeling very much like Keri is still calling the shots. And it seems, from the sign on her gate, which reads “Unknown cats and dogs will be shot on sight. Unless I know you or you have contacted me first, do not come in,” she always will.

The end of the day was here. Grace_Patricia_2The last session – Patricia Grace in conversation with her long-time publisher Geoff Walker (formerly of Penguin Books). Patricia Grace (right) grew up reading books about other places, other places that were not New Zealand, well not her New Zealand anyway. She wanted to write about the people she knew, and the communities she grew up in, and in so doing she pioneered Maori writing.

Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson were early role models, but although she appreciated Mansfield’s way with words, the settings and stories were far removed from her own world. She didn’t recognise Mansfield’s voice, whereas she did hear an authentic kiwi voice in Sargeson’s writing. She realised this was important and started to seek out kiwi voices. Soon realising she had her own voice, she began to write. At first, on the kitchen table, after she had got her seven children into bed at 8 o’clock each night.

Although many of Grace’s books have political undertones (and maybe even overtones) she says the characters always come first. Once they are invented, then their behaviour comes from who they are. Grace showed in a quiet and confident way that she more than deserved to be the 2014 Honored New Zealand Writer.

patricia_grace_Waiata

A waiata for Patricia Grace

The final curtain has been closed and the Festival was declared over for another year. But it was the biggest yet – over 50,000 tickets and a whopping 45% increase from 2013. The Aotea Centre was buzzing all day. And from what I saw, Sarah-Kate Lynch would have been happy to see lots and lots of readers buying books.

Events attended and reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler, on behalf of Booksellers NZ.