A Little Book of Sonnets by Julie Leibrich and Big Love Songs by Vaughan Gunson

A Little Book of Sonnets. Julie Leibrich (Steele Roberts, 2013)

Big Love Songs. Vaughan Gunson (Amazon Kindle ebook, 2016).

Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

I have coupled these two slim collections of poetry in one review, because there are certain similarities between them:

  1. They are indeed slim, The Leibrich is 64 pages in a pocket size hard cover edition; the Gunson slightly larger to grasp, yet is unpaged – at about 52 sides.
  2. They are essentially self-published. Given that the Leibrich edition is distributed under the name of Steele Roberts, I do believe that a measure of the poet’s own funds and certainly all her own colour photographs went into the overall production of the book — and if I am mistaken, aroha mai. The Gunson volume is most definitely all the work of Vaughan Gunson, from printing to distribution. Perhaps, then, these two books are what are sometimes called vanity projects: I prefer to denote them as the sincere work of poets determined to be heard, seen, read. For, as Gunson pointed out to me in an email correspondence, ‘There’s limited opportunities for publishing in NZ anyway, and many are variations on self-publishing at the end of the day…’
  3. More, neither volume is strikingly Antipodean. As Gunson states, ‘Intentionally there’s nothing obviously New Zealand about it.’ And one only learns that many of the photographs in Leibrich are of New Zealand scenes when one scans the last pages, denoting where they were taken.
  4. Overall, both of these volumes are romantic in tone, ambition, ambience, topoi. There is a positive and rather sunny cadence popping through both sets of poems. Even the sadder poems lilt. There is nothing remotely depressing or dirge-like, given that serious issues are sometimes raised. Love in all its permutations, is the big agenda for both.
  5. Both volumes are modest in scope and style; indeed the Leibrich book is rather constrained by being twelve well-crafted sonnets – one for each month of the year – written strictly to the abab cdcd efef gg pattern. Gunson’s 50 poems are often koan type reflections and several are rather condensed, as here —

 

 

20

The promise

of last night

we smile

in the morning.

 

Indeed, Gunson is deliberately crafting poems of elegance and restraint which, when read alone, pale somewhat into insignificance when compared to the cumulative effect of reading several, one after another, as one can discern the care he has put into the volume.

There is, then, nothing strikingly original formatically and, often, linguistically in either volume. Not a great deal of original language play per se, given that Leibrich does come up with apposite lines such as,

 

This autumn is an endless afternoon

(“Harvest”)

 

…while Gunson is not exactly bereft of a succinct image or three, such as in the extended metaphor of number 13, whereby,

 

Lost, an empty volume on the sea,

My words roll about, sickened.

 

  1. But this is my main point. These books have been produced primarily to reflect deeply personal aspects of the poet’s own lives: their partners, their friends, their experiences and exultations over several years. As Leibrich writes in her pre-section, January, ‘I set out to make a little book for friends at the end of the year.’ For her, reflections, reminiscences and recollections are primary, as in her First tomato, where she pays homage to her father,

 

My first tomato’s redolence is true

I’ve cut it in four. Dad, here’s a piece for you.

 

In many ways, then, both books come across to me as thank-you presents, or koha that are to be cherished. After all, Gunson dedicates his book with the words ‘for you.’

So, these are not earth-shattering sets of poems and I do not believe either poet ever aimed in that direction, given that Gunson is sighting his poetic rifle slightly higher, for he also wishes to frame many of his poetic and often ambiguous aphorisms as being influenced by ‘some Renaissance poets writing about love [thus references to Quevedo and Mavilis among others]… Another influence is… Bob Dylan.’ He admits his work, as depicted in this book at least, ‘sits outside of… poetry “fashions.”’ Good on him for being so staunch to his kaupapa or project.

So, both poets have come up more with modest poems that are vital for them and which are intended to be shared vitally with others, most especially of their own close acquaintance. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, eh.

The pity is that our skinny country just hasn’t the resources and sales — or perhaps vision — for poets to be more widely published, to attempt to say and frame things that are important for them. Neither book will sell in big numbers, but – again – that does not matter, because these two sets of verse are earnest gifts to us all. Kia ora mō ngā koha.

I will conclude with a poem from Gunson, which essentially captures everything I have written above about both collections containing simple poems, expressing a simple thoughts, yet often with an added cachet:

 

14

A boat sailing through

the narrow gap in the reef

from the still blue of the lagoon

to the deep unrest of the ocean.

 

A boat sailing through

the narrow gap in the reef

from the deep unrest of the ocean

to the still blue of the lagoon.

 

Enough said. Although I did wonder why a fine poem — published online in The Tuesday Poem (2014) as coming from Big Love Songs — never did make his collection…

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