Rock & Roll: Selected Poems in Five Sets by Mark Pirie

(Bareknuckle Poets, 2016)

Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

The title says it all really. Rock & roll, rock music as such, movies, and certainly sports – especially cricket – are among the fascinations of this very versatile and variegated poet. These interests serve to partition the book into three of five rather distinct sets, along with a section devoted to his relationships – or not – with women, and a final one – perhaps his best – which relates and relays the poet’s Australian influence as well as the ambience of said nation. The collection, after all, was published in Australia.

Mark Pirie is still a young man, age-wise and certainly attitudinally, even given that these poems are drawn from his prolific and lengthy career as a poet, and are not all contemporary. Indeed, he notes that the poems here collected in this ‘Best of’ LP of a book, date from 1992. Pirie was 18 back then.

Yet I will venture to say that the poems almost unilaterally reveal an idealistic, ever-enthusiastic Kiwi, unencumbered by the vicissitudes and rebarbative cynicism of old age. Pirie seems honestly positive no matter the weather and, in many ways, remains an unfazed 18-year-old in spirit. Perhaps critic Harry Ricketts, in relation to the 2003 book entitled Gallery: a selection, best sums up this integral approach: ‘A stubborn integrity characterises these poems.’ I tend to concur.

Pirie is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, not only as a person with hands on everything from promoting bands to garnering and running poetic archives and poetry publications, such as JAAM, but also – relatedly – as a poet.

At his best, he is very good; at his nadir, some pieces in this pocketbook edition swerve rather close to doggerel – particularly when one drinks in the sports bar series. He can be frustratingly banal at times, yet in the next, a bloody good crafter, who is not afraid to experiment with format (see “News Reel”, pp.43-4, and “Slaves to Love [Money]”, p.71, as exemplars). Sometimes with font (in “iv ‘Just the Sex, Please’”, p.64) and shape (as in “A Funeral of a Guitar”, p.14). Pirie also likes to repeat lines (see “Racing Cars”, p.116) and manufacture rhymes across some of his work, given that he is never wildly experimental and the term postmodern would probably strike him as an expletive. Indeed, the most non-mainstream poem in this collection is “techno: a rough guide”, p.139, the format of which parallels the kaupapa. Accordingly, he rarely employs thesaurus-sought vocabulary and sesquipedalian is a completely erroneous term to apply to his poetry.

There is also a definite beat or musical rhythm to several poems within, echoing this poet’s considerable interest in music of whatever genre, as stimulated by his early-in-life exposure in ‘Mississippi and New Orleans [to] the sounds of jazz and blues’ (from “The Thrill is Gone”, p.35), to the degree that Pirie was also known as DJ Mad Poet in one younger incarnation. This permeation in sounds not only serves as the guts of several poems, but also in the way they appear on the page as chants, songs, rants, quasi-nursery rhymes, that would be best served as spoken, performed, staged. One such poem crying out for such delivery is the fine “Elegy at Lyall Bay” on page 121.

I think he is deliberately aware of his ability to run the gamut of skill and craft, and – to a degree – genre. He makes an interesting and cogent observation with regard to the poet Shelton Lea, when he muses that Lea did not have any time for him, at least initially, because – as Pirie puts it – ‘I sensed that poetry for you was deeper’ (from “For Shelton Lea: An Elegy”, p.129). For a lot of the time, Pirie swims much closer to a clearer surface.

Now I don’t want to dwell on the semi-sports chants and this poet’s Filmograms and Popigrams. These are Piriesque peculiarities better left to the casual reader. I also pause to ponder his tip-of-the-hat slant towards a sort of Sam Hunt sexism in such poems as “Sonnet then, for Love” (p.78), “Good Looks” (p.90) and “Fetish” (p.95). While the hugely ironic paean “Full” (pp.80-1) claims,

this woman is no longer
an object to me

and then goes on to culminate a contradictory refrain of complete ontological disdain,

and so I lie in wait,
ready to swallow her whole –
raw with spite.

Tut-tut. I would very much like to think Mark has evolved away from suchlike, eh.

No, I will show just how good a poet he can be, by referencing several of his finely imaginative lines. As below,

A man spews like a punctured dinghy…
… as stage jumpers bail out
Into a sea of sweating bodies
(“Pavement Gig, Victoria University, 1993”, p.26)


the James Dean comments
flake from your mouth.
(from “ii ‘The Catharsis’”, p.50)


& you want
your words to touch her
in a way your hands
never can
(from “3. The Discovery”, pp.56-7).


she says
‘what are you
                         doing here?’
                         and glances
                                                 away from his
(from “ii ‘Taking a Chance’”, p.62)


He swims towards her,
like a language
she can’t understand,
(from “The Language”, p.84)

More – despite my earlier caveat about the sports goods section – there are a few rather clever metaphorical catches in and on the boundaries of poems such as “Jonah Lomu” (p.101), “Going to the Basin” (p.108), and “Bradman, in Wellington” (p.112).

Mark Pirie, then, is to be applauded as a professional player across several codes — most especially as an instigator/editor/publisher/ archivist/ stalwart supporter of Aotearoa New Zealand poetics and poetry, where he really makes his mark. He can also be a more-than-competent poet, sometimes deserving of a standing ovation for his more mature, well-rounded work, such as “Ode, in Melbourne (for Brentley Frazer)” written in October 2003, here reproduced in full,

when j f k was shot
history was re-loaded
in film, literature and politics –
                         back then it seemed like his death

had brought to attention
for the first time the black heart
that eats America – and so yesterday
                         in Melbourne, when we walked

the length of bridge rd
passing shop after shop
of decadent commercialism
                         I started to remember j f k

as if my heart too was being
re-enacted, assassinated once again –
& remembering what it was
                         he stood for

i glanced around
and saw a McDonald’s sign
positioned justifiably above us
                         like a sniper on the roof

In this memorable poetic innings, Pirie wins the match in the last stanza with a mighty six out over the grandstand, and into Wellington harbour.