Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo by David Beach

(VUP, 2015)

Review by Barbara Bailey

David Beach was born in England in 1959 to New Zealand parents. His parents returned to New Zealand with David when he was five years old. In Wellington, he attended Onslow College and Victoria University.

From 1986 to March 2002, Beach lived in Sydney, where his poems were widely published.

He returned to New Zealand in 2002, during which time he published poems in The Listener, Poetry New Zealand, JAAM and Takahē.

Beach is the author of Scenery and Agriculture (2012), The End of Atlantic City (2008) and Abandoned Novel (2006). Abandoned Novel is his first book of poems, for which he won the biennial Prize in Modern Letters (2008).

Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo is a collection of 50 poems, each 14 lines long and all poems numbered. These works are not sonnets-as-we-know-them. They have the right number of lines, three themes that vaguely explore universal elements in human life, but have no iambic pentameter, organised stanzas, set rhyme scheme, volta or poetic devices.

At school, I learned to love Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate.’ John Donne’s “Death be not proud” caused homework headaches but generated a love of imagery and language: ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful…’

Unlike these, Beach’s sonnets do not stir me. There are no three-stanza rhythms or rhyming couplets, and they do not flow. The fourteen unrhymed lines of his poems do not appear to rely on the form for effect.

His book jacket blurb refers to his approach as ‘unsoulful’. These poems are matter-of-fact, flat and, for me, no spirits are lifted. Nor is one’s heart filled with joy when reading this collection. Beach’s poems mould observational phrases into a non-speculative sonnet form.

There is, however, humour tucked in among it all, as in ‘The Lord doesn’t expect lice-infected beard / to be put up with…’ These first lines of “Jerusalem Sonnets 2” (p.8) makes me smile and the rabbiting-on that follows evokes memories of being well-and-truly told off at school.

The Lord doesn’t expect lice-infected beards
to be put up with, and a good start is
to shave off the beard. But Baxter not even
considering losing the beard is the least
of self-satire. One might point to the
solitary, early morning devotions – which
he tells the whole world about. This
boastful piety is precisely the failing
of the Pharisees and the bible’s phrase
for them – ‘white sepulchres’ – can be felt
behind Baxter’s grooming issue as, right at
the work’s commencement, he sabotages
himself, puts the focus on the faults he
displays rather than those he confesses.

Beach’s four “Jerusalem Sonnets” are a reflection on James K. Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets. In “Jerusalem Sonnets 2” (p.8), Baxter is criticised for his hygiene and his religious beliefs.

By extension, Beach’s general reflections in his “Love Sonnets” are analytical — not passionate or celebratory. In his poem “Love 1” (p.11), he asks, ‘is there such a thing as true love ?’ Yet Beach often writes affectionately about the zoo’s inhabitants. In “Wellington Zoo 4” (p.18), regarding a white faced gibbon he writes, ‘His days of hurling himself through the / jungle, if he had ever had them, were / gone…’

Fun scenarios weave into Beach’s sonnets about the zoo creatures. In “Wellington Zoo 45”, a Happy Feet fantasy is portrayed as follows:

The tracking device just fell off (of course
it did), and Happy Feet made it back to
his colony. There were problems though – he
had decided he was back from the dead,
which led to the other penguins mocking
him for being unsure if he’d gone to
hell (the heat) or heaven (the fish at the
zoo). Eventually, in a theological
funk, he headed South Pole-wards, this time
not to return. But he left a mark on
penguin culture, and ever after, as the
birds stood nesting amidst the Antarctic
blast, the call liable to go out – ‘Hey,
tell them to send some of those fish up here’.

The Wellington Zoo collection of poems has a lighter, though still flat narrative. In them, Beach describes animal habitats, and feeding-times feature frequently. Of otters, Beach writes

                                       Asian small-clawed
otters had been given an enclosure
directly through the entrance: and one of
the reliably inquisitive creatures was
‘at work’, motionless on a branch above
a pool,

Most zoo inhabitants get a mention in these poems:

the cotton-topped tamarin, scratched up some
dust near the wire,

A spider monkey, nibbling on grass near
the channel which formed Monkey Island,

          the shock of the huge head – too huge,
surely even to be a lion’s, and still as
stone – looking out from its den roof.

The tiger didn’t need a cage in order
to pace, the gate to its enclosure enough
to set off the to and fro:

In the “Wellington Zoo” poems, the menagerie is closely observed, with scenes clearly drawn. Another example is “Wellington Zoo 39” (p.53):

The ostrich, on the hunt for bugs, appeared
out to earn the epithet ‘the poor
zoo’s elephant’, its neck a worthy
alternative marvel to the trunk, such
strength and flexibility shown as the
no-nonsense killer delivered rapid
action, bunker-busting pecks, the slaughter
upon the bug population so grievous
that for an adequate comparison one
might feel drawn to whales and their plankton
eating, even while coming to the view
that with the ground at the birds’ feet a
perpetual smorgasbord the economic
case for ostriches was unassailable.

Chimpanzees appear more than other animals in this collection, suggesting that humans are kin to them and dwell in otherworldly cages. This idea finds echoes on the book’s cover, with its image of Ronnie van Hout’s Sick Chimp (2002), the monkey character alluding to the evolution theory.

Give this collection a go. It is different and one often finds surprises, with poems that do generate chuckles.