The Lifers by Michael Steven, Back Before You Know by Murray Edmond, Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint

The Lifers. Michael Steven (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2020).
 ISBN 9781988592077. RRP $27.50. 92pp.

Back Before You Know. Murray Edmond (Auckland: Compound Press, 2019).
 ISBN 9780994112392. RRP $20. 80pp.

Lay Studies. Steven Toussaint (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2019). ISBN 9781776562404. RRP $25. 105pp.

Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

These are three interesting and rather diverse collections by three Pākehā male poets. Other than this similarity, the collections have substantial difference in common.

Michael Steven’s second recent collection is essentially a continuation of depictions of bruising street life, except that this time there is more of an international tenor to the poems. New York; Singapore; Stratford, England; India are all in the mix, and in one sprawling poem, “Dropped Pin: Omitted Entries”, several cities are all in the sample together.

Still, this time around, wherever the fix, drugs, death, and decadence spew through the lines, Steven tempers the downside with more positive paeans to his young son in poems like “Reading to My Son” and “Summer/Haszard Road”. 

He also reveals another, antipodal side. Steven is a mystic-in-the-making. His mighty poem about Baxter and beyond — “Yellow Plums” — transcends the vitriolic crime infestations of several of the surrounding pieces; after hunting the poet’s grave in Hiruhārama, it offers up ‘tiny benedictions’. By the time we detour to Tiruvannamalai and encounter a charas-whacked initiate epiphanising by a fire (“Strains: Shiva Shanty”), we are ready for “Dropped Pin: Woodhill Forest, Muriwai”. Here, the poet encounters a calm ‘etheric’ zone of transcendence away from street life and street strife. In Muriwai, he will,

wait for darkness
hold fast for the hush
that it is endless
and beyond all things.

There is, then, redemption. Away from the early demise of some of his friends, as conveyed in poems such as “Dropped Pin: Three Lamps”, “Ponsonby”, and “At Eastern Southland”, Steven conveys the koha that the escape of time progressing gives us, if we choose to listen. Just like Ron Jorgensen ostensibly managed as he vanished from Kaikoura (“The 8:50 Freighter from Picton”) to perhaps reappear in Perth. By the time we reach the final poem in this slim volume, “Last Pastoral”, there is the sense of solace, of sanctuary, of a settled soul,

A sleepy inlet reflects the scene back.
Sometimes the bay is also an amphitheatre.

The Lifers, after all, does not just connate the prisoners, as in “Strains: Big Bud” and in part seven of “Leviathan”, but also refers to individuals who grasp life and don’t let go. It is ironic, this title, given the number of dead men littering the body of this collection, that the poet is evolving into more life, not less.

Topoi aside, Steven always writes well. Concise, taut lines fuelled by right-on vocabulary and verbs that weren’t but are now, as well as verbs used in a new way. Such as,

I decode you to keep warm
(“The Old Town”)


Dubbed-out guitars, fried-food and glasses of craft beer
drowsy the lunch customers.
(“Late Pastoral”)

… my third friend deducted this year.
(“Eastern Southland”)

While personification strafes the poems like hailstorms,
Spires are climbing the sky.
(“The Old Town”)

He does not play around with shape or font or concrete crafting, although Steven does gift us a couple of prose poems. He is a clever poet too, notwithstanding his litany of literary references, in the way he winds words around themselves, as here:

Those who work to stay high
and stay high to keep working…
(“Tower, 1996”)

He catches scenes so well. I reckon Steven has cameras for eyes.

A critic is quoted on the Otago University Press flyer accompanying the collection, as saying, ‘I have seen the future of Aotearoa New Zealand poetry. Michael Steven is slap bang in its nexus’.

I reckon the future is already here.

The two long balladry poems by Murray Edmond are characterised by the poet’s wry humour: indeed, the first poem “The Ballad of Jonas Bones” makes me laugh out loud with its dreadful yet delicious irony. It has an especially apposite title too, given the literal skulduggery on display throughout its 20-odd pages. Or should that be dugskullery? The dastardly colonial murderers unknowingly murder their own son, returned as he is replete with wealth from his American endeavours.

Edmond’s singular take on poetry carries over to the physical book, as described by the director of Compound Press as, ‘… an idiosyncratic thing, made from largely recycled materials, the jacket in particular coming from repurposed filing cabinet folders. We would say this construction fits with the poems within’. This chapbook is indeed ludic entertainment rather than the stark roadkill scenarios forcefully painted by Steven.

Accordingly, there are sudden time juxtapositions and regularly irregular rhyme schemes in the first shorter waiata, featuring as it does the fickleness of fate and the grab of greed. The past is set in the King Country right on the aukati or line between that rohe (or region) and the more accessible Waikato, and this flicks forward three times during the poem to the site in the present day. The rhyme scheme is abab and rhyming couplet, and sometimes neither. Waiata? Yes, because the entire piece comes across as a minstrel’s frolic, singing out — if you will — for performance on stage, which did occur in 1984 at the Mercury Theatre.

Edmond is having fun here, while winking with both eyes as he gifts us the requisite moral tenets intrinsic to the verse of the jongleur. The poet jabs you in the jugular with regular aphorisms such as,

There is always a line
you must not step over,
and it’s always a line
you want to step over.
(“The Ballad of Jonas Bones”)


Luck is the stick to measure a life.
And luck is a bird and luck has got wings.
(“The Ballad of Jonas Bones”)

The second looooonger piece, titled “The Fancier Pigeon”, is also set in Aotearoa New Zealand, with interspersed jaunts to Australia; this time in the more immediate past.  While the plot concerns further misdeeds about a golden ring — here between a set of young protagonists — I did have to read it more than once in an effort to decipher Edmond’s intricacies of storyline. Essentially, there is a sort of distanced ménage-à-trois between genders, who themselves sometimes dress crosswise. A nasty man in a fez crops up here and there too, somewhat complicating the interrelationships.

Once more, nature in the form of birds and water beasts — eels in the earlier piece, fish in this one — sees cases of these creatures swallowing the treasure and later regurgitating it, here via evisceration. Once more, fate proves quite fantastic as a pigeon flies in and snatches up the ring, leaving a scrap of paper with the titular ‘Back Before You Know It’ scrawled across it. After all is said and done then,

There is symmetry
and there is entropy
and they go together
(“The Fancier Pigeon”)

Edmond writes throughout this second, generally unrhyming tale, with his tongue very much in cheek too. He plays around with pigeons — the name of the café is ‘The Pigeon’. There is the fancier pigeon, and — of course — the pigeon fancier. Inevitably there is a stool pigeon.

Then we have lines such as,

Her mea culpa was her sine qua non
(“The Fancier Pigeon”)


When the troubadour-poet is not Latinising, he crafts other wonderful lines like,

The brown murk of the lake
spread round them like
a bourgeois bedspread
(“The Fancier Pigeon”)


before too long
those galloping messengers of morn
had turned to tired old nags the hour the sun sat down
             To pasture.
(“The Fancier Pigeon”)

Marvellous stuff.

Steven Toussaint writes on the back cover that Edmond’s work here, ‘joins the rich tradition of late modernist folk poetry,’ which is true. I would append the words ‘with a spectacular Kiwi patina everywhere’.

And it is to Toussaint I now turn.

If Steven is a serious dude, Toussaint is severe. An ascetic. Reading these tracts reminds me of the Good Friday procession outside our house in Pampanga (Philippines). Self-laceration, blood flowing copiously from men and boys flagellating themselves with barbed whips, and a stooped Christ figure struggling to maintain his hold on a mighty wooden crucifix. Intense.

This is heavy, dense, and sometimes impenetrable vocabulary layered on thick. Toussaint loves loooong words, the more arcane the better. It is almost as if he has a ledger next to him, replete with obscure, often religion-themed words — often nouns — which he slots into his ley lines and then rules a line through once he has included them. Can a reader decipher — at least on first reading, and then second — lines such as these?

The liturgy is aeviform
or boomerang of movements.
No moon of Aufhebung.
Only emanation then return.
(“Pickstock Improvisations”)

Unless the layman reader is au fait with Latin and the intricacies of theological doctrine, the answer has to be no, even despite Toussaint’s learned Notes at the rear of the book. In effect, this poet has created his own opaque language, stemming from his own deep religiosity. As Susan Whaley noted in her Bookseller’s review of Lay Studies, ‘If you are searching for the poems’ meanings, then it is not a light read’. 

The poet is an articulate and intelligent scholar and has researched the technique of melopoeia — words ‘charged’ beyond their normal meaning with some musical property, which further directs their meaning, inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech. And this Ezra-Poundian effect is certainly achieved, although I will iterate that it is at the expense of ‘normal meaning’. Some examples of this overlayed effect are:

The new corn’s tassel like a crucifix
pierce the vaulted manure.
(“In Memoriam”)


Let pagans stuff
their young with slaughtered
(“Hymn Before a Feast”)


flashes through transom.
(“Oak Park”)

Notwithstanding the comments above, Toussaint does hit home runs with some of his imagery:

The wind is animal with cannabis.
(“Jesus Green”)


theology down
like a starved wind with
every concord conquered

Finally, there is not much reference to physical locales in Aotearoa New Zealand, given that the young poet is American born — a 1986 nascency he does refer to in the poem “Sts. Peter and Paul”:

It could have been worse.
I could have surfaced
upside down

With this international tenor suffusing many of his poems, Toussaint resembles Steven. Other than this, however, the two men are almost complete polar opposites, existentially grounded in different metaphysics, given that Toussaint too, at times nears the numinous. As in the poem “Agnus Dei”:

I believe in a God who can learn
to work new spindles

Both are young men: Steven born in 1977. Accordingly, both are — to a degree — striving to find themselves via verse.

Murray Edmond already has.

I look forward to sighting all of these poets’ next collections.

Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines, and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genres in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian, Spanish.

To read more reviews, poetry, and articles, join the NZPS here. You can also find more poetry reviews on our website here.