BACK Before You Know
(Compound Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Paula Green
Originally published on the NZ Poetry Shelf.
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Jonas Bones, Jonas Bones esquire,
great hands held like tongs in the fire,
JONAS: Never did have no blasted luck,
every plan came unstuck—
Always up to his ears in muck
couldn’t make two ends meet.
So one last chance to call a stop
one last throw on a crumbling life,
on the King Country line he set up shop,
with one lone child and one sharp wife.
from ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’
Murray Edmond is a playwright, poet and fiction writer; he has worked as an editor, critic and dramaturge. Several of his poetry collections have been finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards: Letters and Paragraphs, Fool Moon and Shaggy Magpie Songs. He has worked extensively in theatre including twenty years with Indian Ink on the creation of all the company’s scripts.
Murray’s new collection comprises two long poems that play with other sources; with fable, allegory, history, theatre, poetics, the ballad form. The first poem, ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’ steps off from Robert Penn Warren’s ‘The Ballad of Billie Potts’ (1943), from Kentucky to the Waikato / King Country. Murray claims his version as a palimpsest or adaptation, leaving traces of the original version, ghost-like and haunting. We may find vestiges of place, the story that gets passed down the line from ear to mouth, the innkeepers who rob their well-off guests, a character’s return to origins, the cutting shards of history, the kaleidoscopic turns of humanity. I haven’t read Warren’s poem but I sense its eerie presence.
Murray’s fluctuating rhythm and rhymes are like shifting river currents, his poem a river poem carrying the debris of story, hand-me-down anecdote. There’s gold and there’s mud, there’s error and there’s incident, there’s greed and there’s survival. Dialogue gives it life as a theatre piece, staged to the point I invent the presence of audience and a live version runs through my head. I am watching as the past is made present and the future present is gestured at in the revised story along with the original skelton. A wider context is superimposed and hides in the seams: ‘frontier’ stories that mutate in the telling, the more significant misrepresentations that shaped our histories, the way individual stories are muffled within the dominant narratives.
Ah but alongside these fertile underground veins is the fact this is a cracking good story with its blinding twists and wounding heart. For some reason I kept thinking of Blanche Baughan’s affecting long ballad, ‘Shingle Short’.
The second poem, ‘The Fancier Pigeon’, is equally arresting with Murray characteristically playful. I am reading with a wry smile, every sense provoked, my reading momentum both fluid and addictive. We meet the fancier pigeon and the pigeon fancier (she with her hair aglint) when they meet perched on stools at a bar:
She had hair the colour of apricot
she smelt like a cake just taken
from the oven and her father played
drums in a band in the only night club
I am always reluctant to spoil the unfolding of a poem, long or short, in ways that ruin the reading experience, that spotlight the darkened nooks and crannies, the poem’s pauses or digressions. That dampens the joy of reading. But I will say when the two characters kiss a pigeon drops a ring at their feet – they decide they will each keep the ring for a week and then only met when they exchange the ring. Such an emblematic hook.
The poem feels cinematic (visually sharp, moody hued), theatrical (with both dialogue and action body gripping) and fable-like (overlaying universal themes of love, betrayal, mishap and destiny). The poem also feels cinematic with its smudged lighting as though we can’t quite be sure what happens between this scene and the next, with the cue to fable never far off, the characters, a quartet, shifting and sliding in and out of view.
and it was there
the girl had stopped her
as she walked
“Has he come asking for me”
of course he had so she said “No”
and as if she were granting wishes
“You wanna come out on the lake
with me in the canoe?”
and she had lead her down
among the bulrushes
What I love about the poem – beyond the supple language play and the sensual images, the addictive and offbeat characters, and the narrative tug – is the way the world adheres. As reader you can’t just stick to the poet’s diverting fable – because the real world intrudes, the hurt and broken world if you hold the bigger picture, and the miniature daily stories if you hold the way humanity is formed by individuals. Both things matter at the level of the humane.
The book’s punning title, like a cypher, a tease, is also a ‘dropped ring’. It is re-sited as the last line: ‘BACK AGAIN BEFORE YOU KNOW’. And I am looping back on the unknown and the achingly familiar, the beginning that is ending that is beginning and so on, the switch back roads and the clifftop vantage points, the downright miraculous and the daily mundane. Ah setting sail on this poetic loop, with its blurs and its epiphanies, is sheer bliss. Poetry bliss.