Monday, 25 February 2013

The 'eminently buyable' Family Songbook

It was one of those 'Can't beat Wellington on a good day' days last Thursday when John Newton's third book of poetry, Family Songbook, was launched at the Stout centre by Mark Williams. Attendees spilled out into the hall and onto the sunny deck from the packed room. We enjoyed Mark's launch speech so much we convinced him to share it with you all below:

A study in poetic contemplation.


Reading John’s new book, Family Songbook, carried me back nearly thirty years to his first book, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, published by Untold Books’ Simon Garrett, who showed what could be done in Christchurch in those faraway days. Family Songbook and Tales speak to each other in several ways. They are the same size, have almost the same number of pages, are both elegantly simple in design, and they both channel a poetics of place tied to childhood, the South Island, Canterbury, Marlborough, the landscape seen through the haze of the odd joint as well as its painters, poets and sportswriters.

John is a parsimonious author when it comes to publication. The value of this slow delivery shows in the way so many of the poems in the 1985 book have stood the distance and remain vigorous, slightly out of reach, full of sinewy phrases knotted together from odd sources. This from ‘The Chicken Factory’:


…Bacteria
huff and steam till the culture’s

polythene seal turns hot to the touch
promising friable, worm-purple dirt by the barrowload.

The poems in Family Songbook are less compact than those in The Angler’s Eldorado, the voice less tightly reserved–almost relaxed. And there is direct expression of emotion, as in ‘Small Farmers’ where the bully of the school dorm, Frank, gets an enraged stanza all to himself. ‘Small Farmers’ is a poem I have heard before. John read it to a second year NZ literature class at Victoria a couple of years back. At the time I was disconcerted, shocked even, by the poem’s directness and personal animus. Why was the poet stepping so nakedly into the light? At this distance I am grateful that he has stepped out, as it were, capable both of righteous indignation and of light humour.

I love the poem ‘Small Farmers’ for its unlikely combination of dog-dosing strip and Apollo 11, for the sudden slip in register from listening to ‘Red Rubber Ball’ to noting something is wrong with the neighbours, for the attention to ordinary exchanges and sympathies—to ‘small, kind things’ in an often brutal world. I like the heroic literary discovery of Barry Crump in the boy’s world: ‘so this was reading!’ And the disappointment of the actual man—the back-country man of letters—on a school visit.

Another poem, ‘Great Days in New Zealand Painting’, has one of those John Newton titles like Tales of the Anger’s Eldorado or ‘Trout Fishing and Sport in Maoriland’ that take us back to a curious literary source, in this case, I assume, Alan Mulgan’s Great Days in New Zealand Writing. They push at that literary filtration of nature and the country we find in the splendid ‘Opening the Book’, where Baxter’s ‘mountains crouch like tigers’ between us and the landscape. But in ‘Great Days’ the river named for Matthew Arnold is now ‘soaked like stewed tea in the gruel of the Grey’ and ‘back in the scenic zone’ we meet ‘a worshipper!/In ten-gallon hat and psychedelic lederhosen’

This is a terrific book, full of the cadences of country music, of leisured and weighty memory of fishing, guitar plucking and smoking and of beautifully tight images like that of hay bales ‘broadcast over the prairie/like megalithic knucklebones’.

In between Tales and Family Songbook there has been just one book of poems, Lives of the Poets, which appeared in 2010. He’s speeding up, perhaps because he is no longer an academic, especially one at poor old Canterbury University. But I’d happily wait another twenty years for something as beautifully fitted together and as full of verbal energy and surprise as this eminently buyable book.

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