Kevin Ireland, Dreamy days & nothing done (Steele Roberts, 2012)
Jan Kemp, Voicetracks (Puriri Press, 2012)
Kevin Ireland has been publishing poetry since the early 1960s, Jan Kemp since the early 1970s, and both these collections show the benefits of practicing the craft of poetry over many decades. Although very different kinds of poet, Ireland and Kemp share similar qualities of flexible control of voice, of form, and a sure sense of poetic line.
If my arithmetic is correct, Dreamy days & nothing done is Kevin Ireland’s nineteenth volume of poetry and I can therefore only assume the title of his new book is in some way ironic. It is in two parts, the first – ‘Hats Off’ – being a sustained sequence of love poems. These are wry, tender, occasionally puzzled but always affirmative. There are no ‘end of the affair’ poems, nor any of unrequited love. They are, to my ear, sometimes Audenesque in tone but without Auden’s recurring plaint, ‘O tell me the truth about love’. It is as if these poems have found, if not the truth about love, at least a truth. As a whole they form a kind of modern epithalamium.
The second section of the volume – ‘Accidental Poems’ – is at first sight more miscellaneous. There is a poem to Katherine Mansfield (Jan Kemp goes one better and writes two), witty sardonic ones of social and political commentary, poems about Central Otago where Ireland had a residency while this book was taking shape, and a fine obliquely angled poem about the Christchurch earthquake. Threaded through this section, however, is the theme of writingitself: why and how we (or at least he), takes the trouble. Sometimes it is sheer drudgery from which a day off is to be celebrated; a number of poems are in praise of rest or idleness. But writing is also a vocation, even a salvation, and those special moments when a poem really takes are especially celebrated, if not fully understood. This, I take it, is the ‘accident’ of the section’s title.
This assured and engaging collection ends with a rather homely image of the mystery of writing well, or even at all, that of the poet’s ‘good old pen’, the one that ‘writes poems with a mind of its own.’
Many of the earlier poems in Jan Kemp’s Voicetracks are in that wonderfully flexible tradition of the conversation poem, most of them addressed to other writers and artists. Kemp addresses figures such as Salvador Dali, Goethe, Katherine Mansfield, and Walter Benjamin who is atutory figure throughout. These are poems of travel as well as address in which the voicetracksof the poet follow the pathways of these and other figures across Europe. Making up roughly the first half of the book, they are on the whole affirmative, celebratory, sometimes exuberant (a particularly attractive note in Kemp’s writing).
Shadowing them, however, is the tragic history of modern Europe, a theme exposed to a harsh light in a group of poems around mid-point beginning with ‘Cecilienhof, Potsdam’ (where Stalin, Truman and Churchill carved up Germany). These are poems of atrocity and loss, of nature dead and the death of friends.
After this sombre group the mood reverts to the life and energy of the earlier poems but is now more personal. There is a group of love poems, gently erotic, touching, witty. Just about the only direct reference to New Zealand in the volume is near the end, in ‘Dream’, a poem set atCape Reinga where, as Hone Tuwhare wrote, ‘two oceans froth’ and spirits depart. This is amoving poem of exile and loss.
The concluding poem of this fine collection, ‘the steps that lead to nowhere’, reverses a recurring figure of the book in which steps lead down to death. Here, in a scene I take it of New Zealand childhood, some discarded backdoor steps left lying around lead upward to nowhere, a secret place in which children play and, of course, where poets write.