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July 17, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Abandoned Novel

For anyone who believes that VUP only ever publishes confessional verse, full of nature, New Zealand references and tidy line breaks and has only been born after a long gestation period in a creative writing class, I suggest you seek out a copy of Abandoned Novel immediately. From the author photo that resembles a police mugshot to the stubborn adherence to the sonnet form, Beach’s book is unusual. How many contemporary Wellington poets can you name who write freely from God’s point of view, produce series of poems with titles like ‘The Crusades’ and ‘Saints’ and compare Saint George to George W. Bush? Not many at all really. Until now.

When I mentioned sonnets just before, I used the term loosely, as it so often is these days. Sonnet, in this case, means fourteen lines of reasonably regular length, gloriously lacking end rhyme and brimming with weird internal and half rhymes – (‘…long after/ I’m gone people will be gasping at my/ skillful eschewal of rhyme…’ from ‘Literary Immortality 1). On the back cover, the book’s contents are described as “59 chopped-up prose sonnets”. There is also a disclaimer, or explanation, of Beach’s poetry: “forget ‘the creative use of language’, the aim here is to simply write well.” I think this imperative is designed to ward off questions like, ‘Why chop up prose?’ and ‘How is this poetry?’ By differentiating between good writing and “the creative use of language”, Beach suggests that his choice of form is not excused merely by being creative, but because it is well-written – it is, in fact, the most effective way of making the statements he wants to make.

Nearly every one of Beach’s poems are brought to life by the statement they make – they have senses of humour, conscience, anger, fear and politics and are unflinching in the expression of their ideas about war, celebrity, religion, death and writing. Without such diverse subject material, the unrelenting sonnet form would no doubt have staled, for me. But by interspersing poems that lean heavily on historical fact (The Crusades) with more personal expositions (Self Portrait and Literary Immortality), Beach manages to modulate the tone of the book and keep the reader on his team, so to speak.

The only aspect of this collection that wearied me after a while was the line between humour and smart-arsery on which several of the poems teetered dangerously. I’m all for puns, just not multiple ones in poetry. And, I think it’s appropriate for poetry to sometimes resemble equations and tackle problems, but when it starts to read like a particularly curly sentence from Kant I can’t help but furrow my brow. I don’t think I’d have had so much trouble with lines such as:

…Then came the Civil War and an end to such frivolity, many who saw Blondin at his ease aloft destined to tread that really hairy tightrope the battle field. (from ‘Stunts 1’)

if I hadn’t tried to read them aloud. On the page, the eye has less reason to pause at line breaks and the sentences are less likely to get tangled, but, out loud, I had no luck finding any of the rhythm I must have been expecting. I look forward to an opportunity to hear Beach himself trying to read them aloud.

As a first collection, I was very pleasantly surprised by Abandoned Novel. At first, I was expecting something predictable. Then, once I’d begun reading, I was expecting to get bored or repelled by the superficial roughness of the form. However, at each poem I warmed a little more into Beach’s style. Hopefully there will be more to come from this relatively new New Zealand writer.

Written by DAVID BEACH

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