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A new poetry book published by Auckland University Press surprised me yesterday. It’s called get some and is written – and bricolaged – by Sonja Yelich, a New Zealand/Aotearoa poet whose book Clung (AUP 2004) I also like a lot. But they are very different books, and in the zone of archipelago poetics get some is a rider, by which I mean it goes on a wave that activates those oceanic differentials that help dislocate the normally isolated islandic discourses we’re all characterized by. I am not as often tremored by those differentials as I’d like to be, but I am with get some. Not least because of the astonishingly low-key, affectively-focused, way that Yelich juxtaposes and melds U.S and New Zealand discourses.
The conceit of Yelich’s book is well summarized on the back cover: “Edgar is a United States Marine in bad need of a wash and a gun. . . . we follow Ed in Iraq and the responses of his brother, mother, and girlfriend to his tour of ‘doody’—but other voices break through the perpetual static of gunfire and electronic noise.”
So far, so American, but Yelich hybridizes her lexicon between U.S. sources and New Zealand discourses. For a couple of examples: “The Head” goes like this:
From looking at my brother you wouldn’t pick out
anything dodgy. There is the careful way his hair sits in
loops when it is longer or tufts more clumps now that he
has begun cutting it himself. I am going for the shave off
soon he says. It will be good to see my skull for the first
time in the shape it was when I was born. I will be domey.
And, two pages later, “Smelling” goes like this:
I was a small wooden baby who you
could see in the photos wrapped up tight
from the black & white of day & night.
Most babies will forget the colour of the street
Light or the wet of cloth nappies. But I was
no easy baby with a nose for the smell of things
& a memory for infancy.
So to everything I attached a smell. The cot while
blue with a yellow duckling had the smell of a cupboard.
The cotsheets the smell of a desert.
And my thumb –
the smell of my mouth.
Right now this hotel lobby has the smell of the comb
of my mother.
In the U.S. we wouldn’t use the “u” in the word “colour” nor call diapers “nappies” nor a crib a “cot.” Nor would we often call someone “dodgy.” But we do in New Zealand. Since the linking narrative never lets up, the figure of “Ed” becomes a discursive hybrid of this female New Zealand writer and the imagined U.S. Marine, compiled into “a virtual war that I wove together from a bricolage of the internet, radio, print & TV,” as Yelich writes in her “Notes and acknowledgements”.
That language mixing matters in activating the apparently dormant but suffusive situation of archipelago poetics. We know global Englishes are not a single unit, but we don’t know it as actively as we know that “English” is not Maori nor Spanish. I remember working hard to change my spelling, comma, and quotation habits when I moved from a British high school to a U.S. university years back. Now I am having to change again here in New Zealand, and I find myself often mixing lexical and punctuation habits. Yelich is brave and bold and moving in such mixing, and it’s a broader linguistic world when we read lines like these from “Less”:
Brad from Medevac who is generous with his instructions
showed me the sharp end of the thing that made
the whole lot spin. What you do is put that in there.
In New Zealand “the whole lot” is “the whole thing” or “everything” or “all of it.” In the U.S. the dislocation of the third line here might be interpreted as a “lot” (a place where one drives a vehicle) spinning in a dizzying way. The non-indexed deixis that follows that dizziness – “What you do is put that in there” – situates us as present inserters who understand little of what is going on. Kind of like Ed. We put ourselves in where Yelich has put herself in where Ed went who knows where. Such heady centripetal squeezes characterize this very alive book.
Nor is its life located only in the mixed discourses. Yelich also moves in a ratcheting fashion among various ingredients of Ed, the microcosm character of the U.S. fighter in Iraq: from his childhood and teenage brutalities and lusts (see for example the keen erotic nausea of ‘Lara Croft’) to death encounters in Iraq. The book ends with a poem that suggests that Ed is going to the garage, back home and legless, to commit suicide; that terminus drives home a sense of the book as a morality tale and a unified field of fictive encounter couched as a series of usually-raw-feeling lyrics. Such a description might summarize the book’s representational arc, but it does not sum up the moving specificities of its character sketches and electric images. I’ll end with another of the desolations that Yelich delivers so tenderly: here is “Room With A View”:
It filled him with so much pleasure to shut the wood door
in a leafy street and get lost in a 4x4 room with cabling
for all the electronics that only he could drive – his mother
was good at cleaning & making the odd cake but as for the
operational stuff of PlayStation of the setting of controls for
movies on Pay TV she was lost. Bankrupt for all the switches.
Unaware of the porn he was buying and the way the blanky
he’d had his whole life smoothed him with its wear & caress
& hid everything to do with the way a hand can deliver bliss.
Lisa Samuels teaches at the University of Auckland. Her new poetry books are The Invention of Culture (Shearsman, 2008), Tomorrowland (Shearsman, 2009), and Throe (Oystercatcher Press, 2009), and she has recent poems in Landfall, Veer Off, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. Current projects include Metropolis, a fantasy of urbanization, and Anti M, a book of omitted prose.