Two mates, with a prolific track record in poetry, launched new collections at Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden recently. Peter Bland and Kevin Ireland rank as a pair of our poetry elders, and their writing has much in common with their ability to muse, to harness striking views of land, air and city, to write with economy, and to permit intimate self-exposure. People matter when they write – family, friends, fellow poets. Daily life is always worth poetic attention. In a sweet act of synchronicity, both new books feature paintings by Bland’s adult children on the covers; Joanna Bland on Ireland’s Looking Out to Sea and Carl Bland on his father’s Expecting Miracles.
Ireland’s collection is pitch perfect – a keepsake album that stands head and shoulders above his last few collections. It gets under your skin with its vulnerability, tenderness, sure-footed lines, edgy admission, witty scrutiny. Ireland is the miniature storyteller, the inquisitive archaeologist, a part-time philosopher as much as he is a keen wordsmith. The end result: poems that engage thought as much as heart and lines that stick.
The title poem (an elegy for Ireland’s brother) is looking back to sea as much it is looking out to sea. The book features poems with a backward gaze and a sheen of nostalgia, but the little switches and shifts lift the commonplace memory to one that moves profoundly. In this example, the competitive youngsters skim rocks over the pool, the pool becomes beer, the beer becomes dream and the ocean takes over:
In my sleep we were sipping his home brew silently
in love and peace when we heard the tide change
with a swish of seaweed and a lapping of water
against the black edge of the reef.
Younger selves overlap aged self (‘unreliable and unfocused’) as Ireland digs deep. He owns ‘up/ to the dozen or possibly the score of beings/ I know I tried to be.’ The personal becomes universal in the light of departure, loss, hunger, affection, love. Always love, and that, to me, is the vital pulse of the poems.
A number of poems pivot upon the whole business of writing poetry – poems are elusive, comforting, necessary. To keep returning to such notions might become tiresome, but Ireland finds a different slant each time. As much as this is a keepsake album for those he cares about, a love handbook if you like, this is also a pocket guide to poetry. I was particularly drawn to ‘Another one that got away,’ where Ireland compares an elusive poem to his old man racing for the bus at the last minute, and then just catching it in the nick of time. In the final lines, you meet the switch, the shift, the bit that startles and glows:
It’s the itch that’s always at work
under the skin of settled existence.
Or was, in my youth. Now it’s the poems
that rise early and go streaking away.
Every now and then I hit a collection that I want to write about for hours – to salute the way simplicity and complexity melds a satisfying poetry brew for ear and mind. This is one of them. At one point Ireland offers, ‘losing one’s bearings everything makes sense.’ He has no sure map to his past; he has fudged co-ordinates, the confession that you are never too old to love, and an ability to make a single line sparkle. I love this collection.
Bland’s terrific new collection also navigates what matters, casts a backward eye, draws in family and writing companions, exposes grief, loss, departures, ghosts, dreams and failings. Like Ireland, he contemplates the business of writing. He, too, puts himself under a stark spotlight. Yet these poems go roving in unexpected directions – you meet zombies, French cricket, Bach, a French painter, Wild Strawberries, shoes that give up the ghost, Elizabeth Nannestad.
The first section, ‘Expecting Miracles,’ is dedicated to his wife and at times it is feels like you are trespassing upon private whispers. Bland is digging and searching through the pockets of those former selves – husband, father, lover, friend. I would have liked to see the poems spread out so they had white space enabling greater pause, but perhaps the tightness of layout reflects the tightness and insistence of grief. The yearning of these poems is a potent undercurrent throughout the book — the shadow wife buried in the love that shapes the roaming pen.
Aside from the standout individual poems that hook startling light and revelation, perhaps my favourite sequence is the return to Mr Maui poems. Age and time passing. Whichever way I look, it is mood that gets me in this collection. As in ‘Big Sad’:
But now it’s too late
to do more than wave
from an increasingly
too late to feel more
than their breath
on the page, too late even
to send a few flowers.
The connections between Looking Out to Sea and Expecting Miracles form one of the delights of reading the books side by side — that and the sharpish blade of reflecting back from old age. One poem that really caught the deep-seated affection (like an informal poetry club) between these two men is ‘Afterglow,’ Bland’s poem for Ireland. Bland puts his finger on the pulse of Ireland’s new poems and, like me, discovers love beating between the lines. You could turn the lines back on Bland himself. He is facing love lost, but his new collection confirms that love is the ink that drives his pen. Two old mates who write out of love, without a doubt.
Nothing else can begin to explain
what sends you forth
on a freezing day
to feed wild birds, except
clinging to your skin.