Sport 11: Spring 1993
An image recurs of the young, reluctant schoolteacher Baxter at
Epuni Primary School. He is horizontal atop the jungle gym. The sky
above is turbulent, the skyline interrupted only by trees and the
roofs of surrounding houses. Scarves of smoke flap from the
chimneys. Baxter is wrestling with the jungle gym as if it were a
diabolical monster—a mechanical mutation of something invented
by Fuseli. Baxter is riding the back of the beast. The air above the
surrounding Weld shifts ever so slightly. The grass twitches. But he
is going nowhere.
It’s worth noting that the suburban/family life so slagged off in Baxter’s poems—the suburban malaise, as he thought of it—has reappeared in recent poetry in quite a different guise. Jenny Bornholdt, Andrew Johnston and Damien Wilkins * are three youngish poets brought up in Lower Hutt who feel that their origins are worth a serious, affectionate yet often ironic look. This supposed battle-zone between Calvinism/Capitalism and the Individual page 134 can be glimpsed in the work of these poets as a curious, paradoxical place bathed in golden evening light—hardly a Celtic twilight, more like a Robin Morrison photograph—implying people growing up and living in such settings can have rich inner lives. And the suburban ground can, after all, yield meaningful images and symbols. It’s a site as valid as Hiruharama or the Matukituki Valley (but without the inbuilt, auto-pilot Romanticism of the wilderness).
In the current batch of poets, there’s a glee, a Dadaist indulgence in word and image—a mobility or levity—reflecting the fact that, for much of post-Baby Boom New Zealand, the most important formative reading experience wasn’t necessarily the Bible (or, for that matter, the NZ Tablet), but was just as likely to have beeen that eccentric mass-market journal The Reader’s Digest.
The newer generation is more accepting of the surface
chaos of life, without resorting to radical political or spiritual
remedies. Their poems imply that the view from a speeding bicycle is
at least as valid as the view from an ivory tower or pulpit.
Pedal at first, then let the road take you down
into the dark as black as underground
broken by circles of yellow lowered by the street lights
(‘Instructions for how to get ahead of yourself while the light
still shines‘, from Moving House, Jenny
Bornholdt, VUP 1989)
You can also track a general movement away from symbolism and towards imagism in poetry like that quoted above. Here light and darkness don’t rely on theological connotations or conundrums to attain many layers of meaning—the world is seen as multilayered and profound enough as it is. And, as life is experienced as a series of disorderly, often inexplicable fragments, a viable method of ‘writing it’ is as a series of poetic fragments. Particularly in the work of Bornholdt and Johnston, there is no searching for blueprints or master plans, just an acceptance that life is, essentially, as it is experienced—ie. all over the place. (You could light-heartedly source this authorial stance and ‘momentary’ focus to The Reader’s Digest’s ‘Life’s Like That’ column.)
* The autobiographical focus in Wilkins’ The Idles contrasts markedly with the ‘autobiographical’ in Baxter. Whereas Wilkins’s poetry is a fictional recreation (keeping its own carefully monitored distance), Baxter’s is an unashamed outpouring. (The book that The Idles is, in fact, conversing with is Janet Frame’s The Pocket Mirror.)