I found the first half of the book quite unengaging. The poems were talkative (verging on didactic), rather than evocative. Phrases like ‘read the metaphor / incumbent in the glass’ (“Grass”), ‘there are times I feel beholden to / that small faithful body and nylon strap’ (“Instamatic”), and ‘locate / a strip of already focused ground’ (“White Wind”) aren’t bad, but are representative of the language of the first half of the collection, which establishes a slightly fussy, formal and reserved tone. Kind of like meeting your casual-squeeze’s disapproving parents.
Fortunately the voice does (gradually) warm to the reader’s presence as the book progresses. And it’s worth braving the chill, because there are some good poems here in the ice water. I particularly enjoyed “The Polar Captain’s Wife” – it feels a bit like Sheenagh Pugh’s “Lady Franklin” poems meeting Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife”. “Dunedin Postcard” is another that I found myself smiling at, although I’d argue the poem didn’t need the two final couplets.
A couple of annoyances in these early poems – “Firmament” begins: ‘Light or heat—what reaches you first / When you wear your skin as an organ of sense?’. Umm, yes, well you see most people do wear their skin as an organ of sense. That’s what it’s for. Was there a point to the question, or is it just an empty rhetorical gesture?
And then there’s this image in “Making Waves”:
For Science is a railway carriage
rocking with big ideas, sometimes
stalled on the sidings or slowed
on branch lines near rural stations.
It’s an oddly fanciful little analogy, and not really earned. The only link I can come up with between Maurice Wilkins and railways is the vague similarity of shape between railroad tracks and the linked double strands of DNA, assuming they were untwisted and laid out flat. Which completely eliminates the thing he was famous for – contributing to the discovery that the shape was a double helix. So there goes that justification. And it’s a bad analogy anyway – change ‘railway carriage’ to ‘panelvan’, ‘sidings’ to ‘driveway’, and ‘branch lines’ and ‘rural stations’ to ‘traffic’ and ‘motorway on-ramps’, and the analogy is just as apt. Although more disturbing. (I like this game … headache, morning, pillow, latest nightmare?) There’s nothing else in the poem that even hints at a railway image, so this little conceit feels something like having the back line of the All Black scrum suddenly break off from the pack and go to the middle of the paddock to perform the can-can for five minutes, then return to their positions, and engage.
(Ahem. Lets blow this whistle on this one, shall we? Time for a plate of oranges and a brisk rub-down. Ahem.)
That Antarctica made a huge impression on Chris Orsman probably sounds obvious. But reading the second half of the book, the two Antarctic sequences “The Lakes of Mars” and “The Book of the Dead”, really brings this home. This is where the poet steps through, and where he drops his guard. The poems all seem to have a breathless ‘Oh!’ quality to them – I can’t think of any other way of phrasing it. The tone has changed, and there is phrase after phrase of wonder:
Call this the Gate of the Universe
(“Into the Taylor Valley”)
the white knuckle of the Taylor Glacier
is a begging bowl
brimming with light
Gorgeous lines. And I loved “What the Flesh Feels”, which evoked the hazards of urinating in Antarctic temperatures (be honest; we’ve all wondered) well enough so that bits I don’t have shrank in sympathy.
But it wasn’t until the final Antarctic sequence, “The Book of the Dead”, that I agreed with this book’s place in the shortlist for best poetry collection. And it’s hard to say exactly why it is that these poems, of all of them, moved me so much. There’s no obvious extra technical skill; no one poem that stands out. And although the subject matter – Erebus, and the echoes of Robert Falcon Scott – is more sombre than that of “The Lakes of Mars”, it doesn’t receive a sombre treatment. It’s not an appeal to emotion that makes these poems shine. (If it was, “Volunteer”, his Parihaka poem, or “Grass”, his elegy for Yitzhak Rabin might have saved the first section.) But poem after poem slips into place, and you’re left feeling grateful for poetry all over again. And he doesn’t do this by effacing himself – I don’t think there’s anywhere in the book that you are more aware of Chris Orsman. But everything is laid out calmly and simply for you to see. He doesn’t lecture; he doesn’t exhort; he doesn’t even insist. He just … speaks. There’s no excerpt that could do them justice. It’s like the best elegies, the best speeches – the ones that are almost wordless, the ones that don’t survive being related to someone else later because the who and the how is as essential a part of the magic as the what. It’s eleven pages of you had to be there, and this time you can be, again and again. It’s the words that disappear in translation, that can’t be paraphrased.
It’s bloody good poetry.
Lets turn our gazes to the Montana Judging Guidelines:
i) Language: What does the poet do with language? Is language used in original ways to fasten the poetry in the imagination and memory?
Yes, he does. I don’t think I’ll ever forget ’penis … / an acorn, hard to prise out‘ (“What the Flesh Feels”) or ‘The valley / is a begging bowl / brimming with light’ (“Frost”).
ii) Technique: Is the poet proficient in the use of form, patterning, rhyme scheme and lineation?
There’s no dazzling display of technical mastery. But everything works well, and it’s definitely poetry, so you’d have to give him a tick on that basis.
iii) Originality: Does the overall aesthetic effect and appeal of the work go beyond technical proficiency? Are issues explored in real depth in nuanced tones?
More difficult to answer. Probably a pass mark here too, rather than an enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s not about fireworks or flash. It does its job quietly and efficiently, and the effect lingers after you put the book down. As to ‘is it original’ … hard to imagine it in someone else’s voice.
iv) Integrated whole: Does the work produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts? Do the poems work together harmoniously to create a sense of unity, clarity and completeness? Are themes developed coherently?
(I’m beginning to resent the way that each of these questions is defined by a couple of other questions that don’t necessarily follow from the original.) Does it produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts? Yes, absolutely. Do the poems work together … etc? Harder to answer. Yes, because they are all themed. And yes again, because there is an emotional progression through the book that is dependent on the order of appearance. And how nifty is it that a book of poems (mainly) about Antarctica should ‘thaw’ as it progresses?
So there you have it. Of the three collections, this is the one that I’d give the award to. Although it doesn’t really fire in the first half for me, there’s not really anything wrong with it as poetry – certainly no lack of skill. More a question of perceived stance. (Which in retrospect may have been intentional? See final comment to question iv above.) The final sequence virtually earns the award by itself.