Reviewed: Michael Steven’s Bartering Lines (2009) and Daybook Fragments (2010), published by Kilmog Press.
Book availability: Currently the books are available at Parsons Books in Auckland or Dunedin Public Art Gallery in Dunedin, and online from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery: Bartering Lines and Daybook Fragments. The RRP for both books is $45.00.
Dunedin’s Kilmog Press has built an excellent track record of producing high-quality, limited edition poetry collections. These two books by Michael Steven are no exception. Both are short hardcovers – under forty pages – with striking cover art; Daybook Fragments has the more attractive interior, with a better paper stock and font, but they are both fine examples of the book as artefact.
I had little idea what to expect from Michael Steven’s poetry, having read very few poems by him previously. I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed these books. Bartering Lines made the greater impression on me, but I think that’s because I read it first, rather than because Daybook Fragments a lesser book.
Most of the poems in Bartering Lines are short lyrics, some with a surreal twist. “Lyric” is one of the more straightforward:
was a palimpsest –
worn through by rain.
Our cups of tea
cooling on the desk.
Your hair spread
like pale fire
across the pillow’s
Literary references abound in both books: there are poems after Cesar Vallejo and Samuel Beckett, poems dedicated to Bob Orr, Jack Ross, John Ashbery and Jim Carroll. Some of Daybook Fragments reminded me of the kind of hipster poetry many male New Zealand poets wrote in the 1960s and 1970s, of which “Blackburn’s Last Strut”, with its hat-tip to Louis Zukofsky, is, I suspect, a parody, with its:
troubadour in a Stetson
Daybook Fragments finishes on a very strong note with the sequence “Maia’s Song” and the closing “Here, the Lovers”, which ends:
born again, as bones, the lovers
laid down on vellum pages,
exhumed from poems,
these graves of fragments.
It’s a fundamentally Romantic poetry, and I think it works best like this, unencumbered by irony and the anxiety of influence. The best poems in these books are very good indeed, and both books are well worth reading.