Review by Vaughan Rapatahana
I read this first collection by Wellington poet Morgan Bach several times, with considerable interest. My overall reaction each time I read through the 92 pages was mixed.
I will adumbrate my concerns first, then turn to the many positive aspects of the collection.
- The book has too many poems and too many poems that – for me, at least – don’t work. Indeed some – a minority – come across as somewhat banal. “When I think of beginnings” is one such, as is “Woke in them”. “The plot flaw” attempts to fly but never takes off. There was a need for culling, well before any collection was compiled.
- In places there are just too many words: that is there is a sort of endemic wordiness throughout. The titular poem is one such garrulous example, as are the loquacious prose pieces, which sail very near Eliot’s ‘quiet and meaningless’. It is as if there has been a deliberate veneer of lexis applied to almost every poem here and, in some cases, the veneer is several coats thick, in a sort of compulsive logodaedaly where the poet as a person becomes several steps removed. Bach’s poems work best where she dons an economical potae.
- Some images are not quite ‘there’, so to speak. I got lost in the jejune jungle a few times. As just one exercise, try following the following:
In that time we ate only the darkest snow,
and felled lights, brittle paintings. Burnished
in the sitting rooms of our children,
that ovarian rhythm a prayer to the morning pills
and blackening of teacups.
It was suspicious.
And what about this silliness:
We want to be
a bandage until
we are, then we want
to be the wound.
(“Raw ginger”, pp.91-92)
…& ‘Your skin, a Viking raft to take me / into the cold ocean of the year’ (“Mutt”, p.73).
Nicholas Reid, in a recent Landfall Review Online (November, 2015), has also touched well on the failed fellatio strokes of
…the tequila shots
sat thick and used, sticky with fingerprints
and citrus like the unwashed morning
tongues on a cock.
(“Even to my face”, p.85)
…which Reid categorises as ‘some of the worst lines I have ever read’, although an earlier image from this poem, ‘you make me feel dyslexic,’ is a killer.
The collection required a stricter editing and I think that Bach’s final acknowledgement to her friend-editor is rather too hyperbolic here: “I owe you about six million beers for this”. Rather the reverse: Ashleigh Young owes you a few stiff shots.
Now for the good stuff. Bach has copious ability to craft fine poems and lines and images: she is a poet of promising potential, as well displayed throughout the tripartite sectors here presented, which fall into general categories of The Past; Travels; Relationships. Indeed her best poem in the book, succinct and not overblown, is “Postcards” (p.47), which I here reproduce in full:
There are never the right postcards.
The first thing I saw in Mexico
as we halted in traffic funnelling to the centre
was a boy gripping his cloth and wiper
by the taxi window, wanting
the work of washing for a dollar
and wearing a T-shirt saying
I am the American Dream.
No pretentiousness here, but a plethora of pertinence, especially after Trump’s triumph. Here also the poet is more the centrifugal force, merely an alert outsiderobserver. Bach is at her brightest when she is the ‘sole dissenter’ (“Study in eyes”, pp.27-28); the ‘lonely child’ (“When I think of beginnings”, p.34) looking in and on. Interestingly enough, here she doesn’t localise her topoi much: Aotearoa New Zealand is a bit of a side issue throughout, with scant glimpses of earthquaked Christchurch and capital city Wellington; while Tokyo, Central America, Wales et al tend to ride more roughshod over her range.
Wordplay clever-tricks are rife also, as in the poet’s near homophonic interplays with words such as ‘tinder’ and ‘tender’ (from “Performance”, pp.64-71), and ‘cordate’ and ‘cordite’ (“Hardest”, p.90), as well as the internal rhyme sunk into “Mutt” (p.73.) More, Bach does also wield some mighty imagery in places. As here:
Tension builds in me like a low front
coming in, my barometer head
temples condensing with pressure.
(“Season edge”, pp.40-41)
into a sauna of exhaust and J-pop
innocent as a snack
The truth was a plethora
of girls. He’d be in the next
before the last was dry.
How a map grows in your
mind in thread. The eyes sewing
corners up to tighten the world
(“What I think about when they are shooting laser beams into my skin”, p.89)
Bach is never afraid to get down and dirty about her seemingly interminable broken and snapped relationships with unnamed and sometimes headless men (p.49), including her several reminiscences regarding her father (as in “His binding land” and “The Valleys”), although her fixation with her own past does sometimes veer near the volute (as in “In Pictures”). Some fine patches portray the man-disease in her series of anonymous ‘him’ and ‘he’ verses, with:
The kiwifruit chutney, two years
after you’ve gone, proving
what can be preserved.
(“Defrosting the fridge”, p.83)
I don’t want to leave the dark cacophony,
the bursting forest, the clotted scent of the land
and go back to the two of us, just fire ants stinging
every time we try to touch.
(“When we unfurled”, pp.50-52)
…being two such exemplars of her mild misandry.
I don’t really have too much else to add. I sincerely wish Morgan Bach the best in her future poems but want to get across my own feeling about poetry: that there is an abiding requirement to be less cerebral and more visceral, less convolute and more concise. And maybe just a bit more vocal about the local.
I believe that when this poet discovers her authentic voice without striving to cover too wide an octave range – as she has in this initial collection – she will be a poetic power, he manu māori ki he reo reka. It’s time to focus, to hone, to choose. She does in a sense say this, after all:
I hold my passports in my hands
and try to weigh them.
The young country, easily swayed
The old, unknown country…
(“Why don’t you choose”, pp.77-78)