Book Review: Cornelius & Co, Collected Working-Class Verse 1996-2009

I posted John O’Connor’s poem A Left Hook as my Tuesday Poem this week, and now it’s time to review the collection from which it comes, which is published by Post Pressed in Queensland and costs NZ $25.00 from its New Zealand distributor.

This is the eighth book of poetry from Christchurch poet John O’Connor, and it consists of a selection of poems from John’s previous collections, plus a number of new poems, and is a generous 144 pages long.

I have to confess (and I’m not saying it speaks well of me) that when I saw the subtitle “Collected Working-Class Verse” I thought the collection might be too polemical for me to enjoy. Regular – or even occasional – readers of this blog will know that I can get pretty durn polemical myself, especially about environmental issues, but, with a few exceptions, I usually avoid this in my poetry.

Well, there would be nothing wrong with a book of polemical poems, but “Cornelius & Co” isn’t that book. Instead, as the Preface and Notes to this book make clear, the poems in this book are drawn from lived experience, as a resident of the working-class Christchurch suburb of Addington, as a boy growing up in an Irish-Catholic household and parish, and as a taxi driver observing the coming and goings of his fares.

These poems of full of observation, compassion, and a dry and sometimes dark humour. If I was reminded of any other New Zealand poet, it was Mark Pirie: there’s the same sense of a wry narrator who’s slightly – but not very – removed from the goings-on he describes, though the characters John O’Connor is writing about are far removed in class, age and circumstances from those Mark often uses in his poems.

Another aspect of the book I expected to find off-putting, but didn’t in practice, was its experiments with typography: experiments it’s difficult to reproduce here, with text running across and even up the page, and words replaced by dingbats. I like to focus on the words, not the presentation, so I can’t say that these innovations strengthened the poems for me – but, once I got used to them, they didn’t pose any barrier to my understanding and enjoyment of the poems.

The bottom line: this is an excellent book that gives poetic voice to people and lives which rarely make an appearance in modern New Zealand poetry. Well worth reading, well worth having in your collection.

The NZ distributor is: David & Wendy Ault, Madras Café Books, 165 Madras Street, Otautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand 8011; Phone 03 365 8585, Fax 03 365 8584, Mobile 021 284 8585, email info (at) madrascafebooks.co.nz

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