Dark Days at the Oxygen Café by James Norcliffe

Dark Days at the Oxygen Café. James Norcliffe (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016). ISBN 9781776560837. RRP $25. 80pp.

Reviewed by Alex Lister

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Dark Days at the Oxygen Café by James Norcliffe is a love letter to stopping as the world races forward. Broken into five sections, Norcliffe’s poems find reason in hopelessness, loss in progress, and playfulness in despair. He encourages the reader to slow down and look for the small details of life, in a world insistent on racing forward with the angst of modernity. Perhaps it is the titular poem that displays this the best:

Why isn’t there linen
anymore? I like linen.
A man shouldn’t have
to live in a world of Kleenex.
(“Dark days at the Oxygen Café”)

Norcliffe is not displaying a man’s love for fabric. He is displaying the despair of a world leaving him behind and discarded, much like the Kleenex he is now forced to use.

Where Norcliffe’s genius truly shines is when he turns the ordinary into the extraodinary. By using playful rhyme schemes and rich imagery, Norcliffe achieves poems that at first glance seem off-kilter. But with further thought, these poems show depths of the like that I have not before experienced. In his poems, he is asking the reader to not look solely at the words he has written, but what they mean beyond their immediate impression.

While there are many great poems found in this book, my favourite was “Laika”. This is largely due to two stanzas:

White as the froth of the Milky Way
flowers fall to the street below

As what remains of Laika
falls like incandescent snow.

These stanzas show just how masterful Norcliffe is with his craft. It is simultaneously depressing and uplifting, real and surreal. Each word is a joy to read, as every poem crafts their own unique yet familiar world within the mind of the reader.

Norcliffe’s works connect in a way that is unexpected, but welcome. I often found myself thinking about his poems long after I had put the book down, and as such found myself coming back to reimmerse myself in his worlds. This is not a bad thing, far from it. It is a testament to just how enjoyable, relatable, and re-readable his works are. I cannot tell you what poetry to like, what to look for, or what your experience may be. But if you are looking for something a bit odd, awe inspiring or thought provoking, then Dark Days at the Oxygen Café is not a bad place to begin.

Alex Lister is a postgraduate student at Otago who writes poetry as an escape from uni work, writing on the themes of nature, connectivity, and the distinctly human.

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