The Conch Trumpet. David Eggleton (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2015). ISBN: 9781877578939. RRP: $25. Paperback. 124pp.
Reviewed by Thomas Hamill
As I march around the house, loudly spouting verse from David Eggleton’s The Conch Trumpet, I wonder at what stage this will become wearisome for my suffering housemates. Not that long apparently, as despite my protestations, I am soon sent to a quiet corner of our small house, designated very loosely as the Music Room. I am totally unrepentant. Since I have been offered the chance to review this work by a fine line, I have decided that, to do it justice, I should follow in the footsteps of Eggleton. Eggleton himself is a well-known performance poet, and I have decided to read as much of his work aloud as I am able. Initially it pays dividends, and I am soon drawn into Eggleton’s sonic world of onomatopoeia and lyricism.
Never is this more obvious than in “Sound and Fury”, where there is a real immediacy to phrases like ‘the blether of sheep, the blither of wind, / road gangs scraping shovels in two-four time’. The gentle sibilance in ‘scraping shovels’ is a timely counter to the noisy sheep and wind. Phrases such as these leap from the page when spoken.
The early sections of the book continue to reward my initial approach. It is easy to picture Eggleton himself reading aloud in a Dunedin pub, entrancing his listeners with a powerful rendition of “Fiord Haka”:
Rūamoko slaps thighs, thumps
Torso, and groans heavily,
Busting moves to rattle gravity.
Or the even more astonishing “Whakapapa of Rangi the Melody-Maker”, in which suggestive internal rhymes sing out and grip a reader with their beauty:
A pūtōrino chrysalis sings to katydids,
Uenuku casts rainbows for kōkopu,
a ponga forest scars with flame’s moko.
But eventually, I stopped reading aloud and realised I was finding myself more and more quietened and chastened by The Conch Trumpet. There is a preaching quality and an archaic tone behind many of the poems. This is almost a warning to the reader about venerating the past. I realised in my early assertion — that I could present Eggleton’s works as well as Eggleton himself — I was the brash “Colonial Pidgin”, searching for a beauty in “Erewhon” that I could loudly and unjustly proclaim as my own. I had ignored the gentle politicism Eggleton imbues in The Conch Trumpet, something that reveals itself to a reader on their second and third reading. This is the real strength of this work, its reward of patience and reflection.
The book itself is broken into five sections, and it initially appears to be a journey through a magical Aotearoa. On my first reading, this feels true of the first four sections. The final section, “Fire”, is a cautionary warning about the encroachment of modernity and industrialism. In the poem “Omarama: Place of Moonlight”, in the third section “Waitaha”, we are entranced by ‘gold pollen flares in a black beech forest’ and how ‘ochre pigment nets the soaring pouākai’. Whereas in “Fire”, ‘We’re vajazzled, bedazzled’ in “Your Call May Be Recorded” and forced to reconcile the fact that ‘the statue of liberty is in a body bag’, in “Where Gods Live”.
But as I reread The Conch Trumpet, I realised the same warnings actually permeate throughout the book. There is a loss of innocence in all five sections. The final section, “Fire”, is therefore just the logical endpoint for a journey we have been inexorably on the whole time.
On my first reading, it is wondrously easy to get lost in poems such as “River”, where Eggleton’s mastery of painting Aotearoa is laid bare:
On steep range.
in light sing,
glance off things,
shimmer by swimmers,
swirl green as willows,
stirring tips in summer;
surface under bridges,
while land turns,
But perversely, it is because of the distraction of such beauty that it is easy to miss the ‘curses that conterminously reign’ (“On Recrudescence of Waterfalls After All-Night Rain”) throughout the book. I begin to feel Eggleton’s anxiety that his own words are ‘mined as popcorn additive for Lord of The Rings’ because of the beautiful land he describes.
Here then is the book’s greatest challenge. At some points, Eggleton overloads the reader with a relentless barrage of obsequious adjectives. These often mask the meaning of his poems. Without the time to truly delve deep into the hidden meanings of each piece (as I have so enjoyed), it would be easy to feel overwhelmed and miss your own delight in the clearer metaphors he presents. The Conch Trumpet’s greatest strength is also its Achilles heel.
That said, I am staunchly attached to The Conch Trumpet. It is easy to see why it won the Poetry Award at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and why Eggleton himself was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in poetry in the same year. There is pure majesty in his writing and a real ‘wind-swept … accelerando’ (“Between Two Harbours”) of social commentary, all mixed with breathtaking imagery. If you find yourself, like I was, admonished and banished to a quiet corner of the house, you could do a lot worse than to take The Conch Trumpet with you and begin your own journey searching for truths in Eggleton’s multifaceted Aotearoa wonderland.
Thomas Hamill is an English Literature graduate of the University of Warwick in the UK now living in Tāmaki Makaurau. He is inspired by nature in Aotearoa and loves exploring this theme in his own writing.