Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 6. 1969.
Books — The Elegant Barbarian
The Elegant Barbarian
A Volume of Poems by Neil Wright
The parts of Neil Wright's apparently endless epic continue to drop like horse-feathers from the Pegasus Press. The latest. The Elegant Barbarian is volume seven comprising books 19 to 21. A strange title since the verse is neither elegant nor barbarous, but the reference is probably another blow at the bloodied head of mankind rather in the spirit of The Naked Ape.
Meanwhile the epic awaits a clue to its resolution or a key volume which could show that these pieces are not just hairs of Wright's over-conscious thought contrived into rhyme laced with erudite references, but parts of a whole pelt of suitably heroic proportions. Avoiding the pun (something Wright never manages to do) it could be said that a writer can choose or manipulate any form he wishes, to say what he has to say, but in this case the reader has been told that despite appearances, in the end, Wright will be shown to be right. We who have read earlier volumes are waiting.
Taking the poems as they are, the archaic diction is merely archaic, not ironic or even quaint, and the "voice" comes through better when he dispenses with it. He is at his best in a Chaucerian style of tale-telling where he relies more on word order than word revival to set the time. Usually the stories make their point in a neat twist over the final few stanzas. Not that any allegorical meaning is made clear. But you have the impression that someone or some institution or some element of Wright's own personality is being got at. The best of the present collection is A Matter of Life and Death, in which the watcher over death has his face spited by the loss of nose and ears. This is followed by an interesting variation in an old yarn about a drunk In a Cemetery.
When Wright is brief it is usually to play tricky games with sound and meaning in a way which is smart rather than clever, while in anything over half a dozen lines he becomes not as he says "over-verbal" but limply and repetitiously verbose. Sometimes as in The Tomb an intriguing conception is almost lost by too many loose words. His ear for metre is uncertain and this combined with full or double rhymes is something like trimeter couplets produces a nursery-song effect which makes it difficult to take many poems seriously, even as light verse.
Wright does not rely on sharp surprising imagery to imply or reflect meaning. He prefers to amble into explanatory exposition wielding rather doughey adjectives matched with commonplace nouns: "lovely, living flesh", "strange mein", never flagging quest", "roomy chamber" and will sometimes repeat himself for no obvious gain:
" . . . From my hut
which stood on a hill of some height
. . . At this hour the checkered paddocks receive
An added illumination, a greater glow
. . . on the terene
Quilt that stretches below my gaze".
The theme of the collection, according to its introduction is his own brand of nihilism or as he declares Neilism. What really emerges is a brittle defensiveness flaunted at a rejecting and mis-understanding society. A picture of a man standing in a tomb sealed in with mirrors thumbing his nose at a hypothetical world. Excellent protection against the kind of feeling needed to make The Man from Hiroshima or The Flower convincing, not as a triumph for extinction, but to believe that he feels what he says he does. I don't share the apparent enthusiasm for personal or mass extermination, but nihilism is the poet's bedmate and one he had better seduce if he's not to be left naked and speechless in miserable contemplation at the futility of his genitals.
If Wright means what he implies, volume eight should be set not with blank verse but blank pages.