MARK YOUNG Engages
Beyond The Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968-2002 by Alan Brunton, Edited by Michele Leggott & Martin Edmond
(Titus Books, Pokeno, New Zealand, 2014)
I have written elsewhere—as have others—of the twenty-five years I spent away from poetry, a period that roughly coincided with the last quarter of last century. I touch on it only to point out that one outcome of this absence was that I had an essentially non-existent knowledge of Alan Brunton & his work until the anthology, Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975, of which Alan was one of the three editors, began its compilative stage in the late 1990s.
It transpires Alan & I had overlapped since the late 1960s. We had friends & acquaintances in common. But since I didn’t know about him, I was unaware of the commonalities. Six degrees of separation had been postulated 40 years before, but unlike the Beatles, it hadn’t yet reached the shores we both walked along. I never met Alan though in, was it?, 1969, he directed a production of Picasso’s Desire Caught By The Tail & I was one of the actors. I must have met him. I never met him. I never did meet him, & his premature death in 2002 meant that I never would, at least this side of The Ohlala Mountains.
We corresponded. I showed him more of the poems I had written during the period Big Smoke covered. He liked them, &, subsequently, his Bumper Books brought those poems out as my first collection, The right foot of the giant, in 2000. For me, it was an outside affirmation of my work. My gratitude to Alan is infinite.
But, regret piled upon regret, I never heard him read, never saw him perform, never saw Red Mole, the peripatetic theater company he was a principal of—if not the principal principal—& on which so much praise has been heaped. & it is that not knowing the accompanying voice that may minimize my appreciation of Beyond The Ohlala Mountains. Am I missing something? Or are extraneous things—the insertion of a personal knowledge, the impact of an obvious charisma, the import of intimate ghost movies that track over & under & through the words—the critical factors embellishing Alan Brunton’s reputation as a poet.
At a distance—& it has always been that way even when there was no geographical distance—I have found New Zealand poetry to be defined & inflated by hagiographies of certain poets. James K. Baxter, Kendrick Smithyman, Brunton, Hone Tuwhare, &, more recently, David Mitchell, have all, to me, been elevated by the process of their death beyond the level their poetry deserves.
Brunton obviously had a way with words: Ohlala is proof of that. The launch blurb describes the book as an exemplar of “his trademark linguistic bravura.” There are many reports, contemporary & retrospective, that touch on his commanding presence on stage, a presence that embellished the words he wrote. He seemed to many to be larger than life, a view shared by himself:
life’s supreme uranic poet. . .”
The editors write in their introduction: “Alan’s particular cave is the archive which houses the aftermath of breath, words set down or spoken on magnetic fragments, attended to in detail as the shows, books and films accumulated and now preserved at the University of Auckland. This selection of poems is the first instance of its value, a step into Alan Brunton’s future as a resource for those who wish to continue the work: encoding strangeness in the quotidian, tracking the esoteric to and from its home in the words we all use, discovering a depthless meaning in the ordinary music of our lives.”
But take away the voice, the presence, the hype, the belief in & academic slavering at the “future . . . resource,” & the sampler of a wide-word-ranging-smith that Ohlala is reduces in size, dehydrates as it were. Sometimes the voice comes through unbidden, adds that missing dimension, & one realizes what could be. More often though, to this reader, what is included here remains poetry of a time & place, undoubtedly given breadth when given breath, but not here, in the vacuum of the printed page, with Pygmalion gone.
David Eggleton, writing in the Landfall Review*, believes “Brunton requires readers who, if not initiates, are at least aware of the context in which he lived and operated.” It’s an astute comment, a lone considered voice in the plethora of paeans that have accompanied the launch of Ohlala, but, even so, the second part of that sentence is still a little further than I would go.
Born in Hokitika, New Zealand, & now living in North Queensland in Australia, Mark Young has been publishing poetry for fifty-five years. His work has been widely anthologized, & his essays & poetry translated into a number of languages. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, primarily poetry but also including speculative fiction & art history. His most recent books are the eclectic world from gradient books of Finland, & a chapbook of visual poems, Arachnid Nebula, from Luna Bisonte Prods. A new collection, HOTUS POTUS, will be published by Meritage Press in 2015.