Mark Young, Lunch Poems, Soapbox Press, Auckland, 2009.
Michael Steven, Centreville Springs, Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2009.
Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON
From 1951 until his violent death in 1966, Frank O’Hara spent his weekdays at the Museum of Modern Art, working his way from the gift shop till to a senior curator’s office. In his lunch hours O’Hara liked to walk the streets around the museum, eat a sandwich, drink a coffee, and write a poem or two about whatever he saw and whatever was on his mind. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press had published the Lunch Poems in 1964, O’Hara was established as one of the leading members of the ‘New York School’ of postwar poets that also included John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.
O’Hara was a man who lived for the moment, and he would probably be amused to know that his lunchtime compositions can nowadays be read for their historical value, as well as their wit and energy. By following the movements of his body and mind so attentively, O’Hara’s poems provide readers with an impressionistic portrait of the social and intellectual life of a city that had become the de facto capital of the postwar world.
The Lunch Poems are famously ebullient. As he walks amongst ‘the hum-colored cabs’ of Manhattan, O’Hara celebrates the energy of America, and his own appetite for life. O’Hara recognises no distinction between high and low art, and can be as enthusiastic about the second-rate Hollywood actress Lana Turner as he is about Charlie Parker. He looks lustfully at the Puerto Rican construction workers who make the streets of Manhattan ‘beautiful and warm’, and takes extraordinary pleasure in eating a sandwich and downing a coffee, but he can also fall on his knees before a canvas by Mark Rothko or another of the stern metaphysicians of the Abstract Expressionist school of art. If the embittered, cynical Philip Larkin is the voice of the postwar decline of the British Empire, then his contemporary O’Hara is the bard of American society during the zenith of its power and self-belief.
Mark Young lives far from any centre of imperial power, in the north Queensland town of Rockhampton, and his own Lunch Poems can be read as both a tribute to and an adaption of O’Hara’s masterpiece. Wandering the hot streets and half-deserted strip mall of his adopted home, Young employs a casual, self-deprecating tone, and often finds his subject matter accidentally, but he is able to find complex strata of meaning in the most mundane objects and events. In this, of course, he resembles his New York hero.
The upbeat mood of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems is absent from Young’s book, and it is hard not to relate this absence to the very different times that Young is writing in. The ‘late capitalist’ consumer society that was being born in O’Hara’s America has spread around the world, and long ago colonised the little towns that cling to the interstices of sea, rainforest, cane field and swamp in Australia’s far north. American-style capitalism has been tremendously successful at perpetuating and extending itself, but the environmental damage and economic chaos that seem to be its corollaries have inspired fear and loathing around the world. It is hard, in the era of global warming and chronic financial crisis, for a poet to feel the same instinctive optimism about the future that marks O’Hara’s oeuvre. Certainly, Young’s Lunch Poems lack the swagger and assurance of O’Hara’s work, as they struggle with a reality which seems chaotic and inscrutable:
Nothing makes sense
It would be easy to suggest that the glum tone of many of Young’s poems reflects the frustrations of writing poetry in one of the most conservative, philistine regions of Australia, the heartland of Pauline Hanson’s xenophobic political movement. Young does complain occasionally about the ‘town of the/ collectively unconscious’ in which he lives and works, but the source of the unease of his Lunch Poems is just as often located far away:
Having to step
over the urine stream
left by a just-passed
cattle truck causes
me to lose my
right at the moment
when I was about
to comprehend the
intricacies of the effect
of subprime mortgages
on the economy of
the United States.
Young’s poems are full of satisfying jibes at the apostles of ‘economic liberalism’:
At the sandwich shop
Paul Simon is
busy telling me that
I can call him Al just
as a bus goes past
whose emblazoned arse
tells me that local
real estate broker Al
Lewis is above the
crowd, ahead of
the pack – though
if that’s true, then
what’s he doing at the
back of the bus?
I wonder whether Al Lewis’ ebullience has survived the worldwide slump in housing prices over the last year. Perhaps Young’s ‘provincial’ position in Rockhampton makes him more rather than less representative of the billions of people around the world who are worrying right now about the minutae of economics. Perhaps, in this era of unprecedented globalisation, we are all living on the margins, far from obscure economic and political forces that determine our fates, buffeted by storms that always blow in from over the horizon.
Lunch Poems is the latest product from Soapbox Press, the publishing company founded two years ago in Michael Steven’s Grey Lynn bedroom. It’s unlikely that Steven will make Unlimited’s next list of Up and Coming Entrepeneurs – like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he publishes out of a love for poetry, not a love of money – but his indefatigable work as a publisher, proofreader, critic, and organiser of readings makes him worthy of a place near the top of any list of leading cultural activists in today’s Auckland. Steven is best-known for encouraging and publishing other people’s work, but he is a poet in his own right, and Dunedin’s Killmog Press has given him his due by issuing a handsome selection of his texts.
Steven is a well-read and immensely serious man, and he has participated enthusiastically in the good-natured polemics about poetic style which have been a feature of the Auckland literary scene in recent times. In one riposte to a critic, Steven linked his work to that of his friend Jen Crawford, claiming that they are both members of the ‘despised school of sentimental abstraction’. Few other poets would have the courage to take a pejorative term like ‘sentimental’ and pin it to their chest.
Like Mark Young, Steven is influenced by the New York poets of the fifties and sixties, but the poems of Centreville Springs look to John Ashbery rather than Frank O’Hara for their main inspiration. Ashbery was always a much more solemn, serious man than his friend O’Hara, and his work is usually less personal and more abstract than the Lunch Poems. Ashbery himself once compared reading one of his poems to sitting in a restaurant and hearing fragments of several conversations simultaneously. A poem called ‘Event(s)’ shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of the style Steven has learnt from Ashbery:
Glasses quarrel, slapping the tabletops –
ice-cubes refract a measured assurance.
Tonight we have chartered the same return
succumbing to a clock’s ceaseless drift,
the recess of our darkening music.
Reading these lines is a little like eating a large bowl of whipped cream: what seems at first delicious eventually becomes a little too rich, and we long for more ordinary fare to give it contrast. By refusing to attach his pronouns to any recognisable characters, Steven disappoints the expectations that his own poem has aroused. He offers us a mystery, but no clues. Some of his images, like the ceaselessly drifting clock, are splendidly vivid, but others, like the one in the last line, seem vague and pretentious.
In two of the best poems in Centreville Springs, Steven retreats from ‘pure’ abstraction and creates portraits of milieux in which he has lived. In ‘Worcester Street’, the poet recalls Christchurch’s druggy, nihilistic underworld:
Johnny (the Pirate)
dealt Ritalin and morphine
across the hall,
teaching the young girls
who caught their first habits
in his crowded room,
how to walk Latimer Square
& Manchester St.
in the communal bathroom,
I would watch his girls
rinsing their syringes
about how much money
they’d really made
& how much they still owed.
In the lengthy ‘Matakana’ Steven finds a balance between the abstraction of poems like ‘Event(s)’ and the no-frills realism of ‘Worcester Street’. Mixing mysterious personal details with sociological observation, Steven builds up a complex portrait of a small coastal town north of Auckland:
The town matriarch spends
her winters in the south of Spain;
the schnauzer boards at a private kennel.
Her son’s a speed dealer…
The fish merchant is busy,
readying his store for Labour weekend…
In that neglected carpark, thick with
we watched kids growing up into boredom…
I sit at the porch
losing my mind in a cup of tea –
moths leap eagerly at the windowpane.
It won’t be popular with the Tourism Board, but ‘Matakana’ is a subtle, sophisticated poem which opens up a new road for Michael Steven to travel down.
Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.