Human Language: The Poetry of Michael Steven
Unlike many New Zealand poets of his generation, Michael Steven is not part of the literary establishment. Steven has been writing and performing poetry in New Zealand “in fits and starts”[i] for more than twenty-five years, but has not pursued an MA in creative writing or yet published a monograph with a university press. Rather, as Jack Ross explains, Steven “combines his job as an industrial electrician with his vocation as a poetic craftsman.”[ii] In addition, Steven is not aligned with a New Zealand stable or school of poets, which is partly why, when Ross introduced his poetry to Jacket2 (2011), he positioned him as an amateur. Here, Ross describes Steven as part of a “varied undergrowth of experimentalists, zealots, eccentrics, and prophets of various stripes: amateurs (in the very best sense of the word).”[iii] Since that appraisal, Steven’s position has changed somewhat and his poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies.[iv] Recently, Steven also received an honorable mention for the essay “Origin of ‘A Vale Undelivered’” and a poem of the same name, in the latest issue of the New Zealand literary journal Landfall.[v] Although Steven’s poetry is becoming better known in New Zealand and abroad, the idea of the amateur, and also of the autodidact, provide a useful context in which to consider his writing. Thus, “The Tape” is a fitting poem to open with because it concerns the perspective of a not-yet-becoming poet, a poet in training.
below the cliff at the end of our section.
Pine branches thrash against the garage,
television antennae rattle on rooftops.
My parents snore in their room upstairs.
I’m awake under the covers of my single bed.
I put the C-60 tape, handed to me by Matt Klee
at Engineering class, into my blue Walkman.
When I hit the Play button, spools click and spin.
There’s feedback, distortion in reverse.
There’s the blistering wail of a Stratocaster;
the louche yet gentle voice of a prophet:
‘Well I’m standing next to a mountain
and I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”
I sit bolt upright. It’s as if a god has spoken
to me, directly. And this is the first time
I feel the power of human language as poetry.
In “The Tape,” the child is learning about poetry. He notices the language of things by and in their sound, and converts these sounds into words so that pine branches “thrash,” television antennae “rattle,” and parents “snore.” The poem apprehends the excitement of an alchemical cosmos in which the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” and, crucially, the lyrics, evince the magic of language. In addition to a lesson in the conjury of poetic language, “The Tape” functions like a time capsule. Some of the details date the scene — the C-60 tape — while “Mat Klee / in Engineering class” and a “blue Walkman” provide a back story. Story-telling is a recurrent feature of Steven’s poetry and many of his narratives are about growing up in New Zealand.
Steven’s poems often underscore their stories with titles that clue us into places and localities.[vi] Steven sets his tales mostly in recognizable places in New Zealand, such as well-known cities and the main streets of towns. In this way, the poems serve to locate events and people literally and literarily in the scene. In “Geography,” a group of school students coast through their small town in what has become an iconic Australian car, the Holden Torana, on their way to buy marijuana.
in a white Holden Torana navigated
by a hoodlum with scraggly blond hair
(just like the famous Seattle grunge musician)
recently ejected from the Presbyterian
private school. The Peace Frog chorus rising
in our ears each time the tape was rewound.
We flew past the motel where the VACANCY
sign glowed day and night, past the list
MP’s office, the strip mall where mothers
queued in line for supermarket car parks.
We flew at ninety kilometres an hour
past the gladed front yards of brick and tile
houses reaching down to the estuary
of moored barges and tiny pleasure craft
blurring against the blue firmament,
overtaking the school buses into oncoming
traffic; fielding the cold glare of drivers
as intermediate kids watched on bewildered
as we floored it across the two lane bridge
leading us into the suburb of the tinnie house.
for this weekly excursion into a neighbourhood
where the risk of arrest or mugging made
the mission more dangerous. Parked in the street
of anonymous and run-down state houses,
we pooled our money together and tossed
a coin for who would make the transaction (the driver
was always excluded) the unlucky approaching
the fortified gate and door with trepidation,
still dressed in school uniform, visibly trembling,
you would rap your knuckles three times
against the steel panel with a hole the size
of a fifty-cent coin cut into it. The gruff response:
‘how many?’ Meekly you muttered the number
and slid your money through, where it was
snatched up by a web-tattooed-hand.
The wait ⎯
scanning back to the car, the street, back to the hole ⎯
seemed indefinite. Then came the silver cylindrical
parcels poked back through the hole: taking
them quickly, no need for thanking here, jamming
them down into your socks as you moved
rapidly back to the idling vehicle and were gone
to find ourselves a park in scenic places,
to alight fugitively in the most public of spaces.
With all four windows wound up the most skilled
would roll the joints on a Wises map book ⎯
we smoked and smoked until our voices cracked
from the heat of the blue smoke we held down
until we were close to passing out, then the onset
of an uncontrollable laughter, which needed
no further stimulus, or prompting, it just happened.
The focus on place in “Geography” also tells the story of local and overseas influences. The poem moves from America’s The Doors singing about the big city streets of Chicago and LA and the reference to the famous blond Seattle musician to small town New Zealand’s “two-lane bridge” (the need to mention it has two lanes is distinctive), “weatherboard dwellings,” “tiny pleasure craft” and “tinnie house.”[vii] Steven sets these icons, and others such as the web-tattooed hand and the comic image of a packet of dope shoved down a school sock, against a blurry filmic background. He offers a glimpse of what it is like to grow up in New Zealand feeling caught between two worlds: one world is over there in the Northern hemisphere with its rock, its roll, and its cool while the other is down here at the bottom of the world with its own brands, the Holden car and the “Wises map” employed for its flat surface to roll joints. This New Zealand is both the centre of the universe (isn’t everywhere?) and simultaneously at the bottom of the globe (something few places can claim).
Steven’s emphasis on place operates as a kind of psycho-geographic strategy to underscore local memories and knowledges and the feeling of small settlements in a sparsely populated country. Indeed, Steven paints scenarios that evoke a sense of New Zealand in an isolated place and time with its own peculiar town dramas, everyday problems and tragedies. “Peninsula” tells the story of people who have died prematurely.
They come back
from illegal drag wrecks on the back roads of Papakura,
from nooses in wardrobes in flats on Symonds St,
from overdoses in dingy Kings Cross basements ⎯
ambling down wind-scoured avenues with school bags
and six packs and flagons of rough red wine [viii]
In “Peninsula” (full poem below), the prematurely dead return, not to haunt the place but to see what they have been missing. They come through the poem as though it were the portal of a time machine. The poet is here too hovering above the past as if he were astral travelling. This cartographic account of people and events has several effects. With lyrical and diagrammatic economy, the poem tells us how these people died, but as importantly, it shows us where. Thus, references to Kings Cross (Australia) and Symonds Street (New Zealand) concretize and democratize the tragedies. These are also the places where people work, eat fish and chips, go to school, and attend church. The effect of naming places tends to level out an uneven social ground that is inclined to frown upon the drug user, the suicidal, the depressive, and the poor, relegating them to newspaper inches, social work reports, and the courts. Steven’s attention toward the lives and deaths of those who are socially invalidated recalls the compassion of one of his major influences, James K. Baxter, New Zealand’s most well-known poet and a social justice activist. Like Baxter, whose poems “The Junky and the Fuzz” and “Ode to Auckland” defend the drug user, the poor, and the depressed against an intolerant mainstream view, many of Steven’s poems are empathetic toward those regarded as outsiders by a bureaucratic and moral apparatus that labels them misfits. By focusing on place, on the physical proximity of those who are neglected and those who tacitly judge them, Steven draws a new map of the city.
In this way, psycho-mapping would be a better description of Steven’s poems of place than psychogeography. For example, where Guy Debord’s Situationist concept of psychogeography encourages the walker in the city to be led from place to place by curiosity and a feeling for experiment within “distinct psychic atmospheres,” Steven’s personalized maps are direct narratives that lead towards a destination and involve habits and desires rather than a detached openness to chance. Filled with an implicit sense of need and purpose, the figures who populate Steven’s poems imbue his mappings with inherent drama, giving rise to intersectional worlds of action, scenery and characters. The poem “Walking to Jutland Street” exemplifies this map-making. It recounts the passage through Dunedin (a Southern New Zealand city) of a small group of friends on their way to and from scoring some form of opiate. The characters’ itinerary, the places they traverse, and the events they observe along the way, unfold step by step.
-for Dene Barnes and Merrin Sinclair-
It is a backdrop from some long forgotten
spy drama, where the viewer watches the swarthy hero
escape carrying secret armament agendas
of an enemy country on microfilm,
hidden inside the lining of his dinner jacket.
Disheveled, bruised, limping slowly away
while Eastern-bloc government agents with cold gray eyes
and crop-cuts lie slumped over the dashboard
and steering wheel of their green or tan Mercedes Benz,
as the closing credits roll, after the shootout.
But not tonight. Because these sorts of things
don’t ever really happen, do they? And if they did, well,
we are nowhere near Europe, we are in a hurry
making our way across the footbridge, stepping down
into a slumbering precinct of brick and stone
factories whose giant kilns and smelters and chimneys bellow
smoke plumes of a hard commerce into the big sky.
No passenger trains run here anymore.
Only freighters the colour of clay, or maybe rust,
rumbling their cargo down the tracks
to Port Chalmers or back north from Invercargill.
With its desolate concrete bowls, its ramps
and steel curbing, the skate park might once have been
some Cubist sculptor’s masterwork: abandoned
fragments aglow under sodium-vapours. Did your pulse
jump a little when the police car rolled past?
shivering right there across the dark harbour ⎯
how quickly they disappear, as if we had imagined them,
somewhere deep inside the mist rolling off the ocean
reclaiming the streets of this southern port city
laid out by developers like spokes from the hub of a giant wheel.
Yes. We have taken this constitutional so many times.
Always at this hour, and at this pace, leaving
behind the garish aisles and counter of the Night ‘n’ Day
with the lonely shift manager taking his break
on the footpath, a one-man tabagie, leering at female
customers wearing black heels and mini-skirts,
stumbling through the door seeking radiated comfort
foods and energy drinks. We have said goodnight
to the future lawmakers and lawyers, the Zizëkian sociologists,
the apocryphal text scholars, the chemistry majors
working hard at isolating a miracle molecule,
the architects and engineers of unmade buildings,
the aeronautic physicists set on traveling to outer space,
the Poundian polymaths, the neo-Dadaists,
the Lucretian cosmologists cavorting wildly from bar to bar,
nightclub to nightclub. We have said goodnight
to fans of the home team, to fans of the visiting team,
to carloads of blitzed thrill-seekers hailing from satellite towns,
loaded-up on premixed spirits and synthetic cannabis
hitting the door panels of their Aussie sedans like drum skins ⎯
each one a whirling dervish lapping the carnival of George Street.
musician and aspirant Sinologist, high on acid,
chased the moon up Rattray Street while rowdy middle-aged
punks screamed inside over abrasive bursts of detuned
guitars. We have left behind empty jugs and twelve-ounce
sipping glasses on the tables of the Crown Hotel.
We have left behind the bedrooms and lounges of worker’s
cottages where dealers with swollen hands and faces
wait on anemic clients, gauging the need of the unappeasable
before setting their prices. We have said goodnight
to the ghost ship plotting its fated co-ordinates
through the icy lower reaches of the South Pacific,
making our way back to your warehouse with new pouches
of tobacco, chocolate milkshakes, and a warm pass
to the mystery, in our coat pockets. What money we had was gone
before it arrived. Our penury: both consistent and comical.
What then was there left for us to offer the world
except a currency of humour and a willful and well-refined indolence?
Your laughter: hard and sharp as the southerly’s
edge during a season when the cold seemed interminable.
The walk, always ending among the relics in your lounge,
beside a fire of sawn up pallets and packing crates
where we would set ourselves dreaming on the milk products
of poppies grown in a secret field somewhere in Tasmania.
Now, all of this has become memory, has broken down
into incidental data. These lines I am writing to you
from another city. I am writing these lines from another life.
The objects, people, buildings, and structures the protagonists encounter on their drug-buying pilgrimage are woven into the purpose of their journey and offer constant and varying signs of their sense of otherness. Steven’s travelogue offers an alternative city walk around the margins, one that is framed and complicated by time and distance: the dealer’s house, the virtually empty streets, and the late night/early morning punk bands. This kind of map-making is also a portrait, partially derisive, of the city: a university town, a sports-mad city, a hub for even smaller boring towns, a city for intoxication. Driven by their goal, the protagonists draw a durational impression of their town, and ultimately a complex but inhabitable psycho-map of a time and place.
However, the travelers are not dandified flâneurs and Steven’s sardonic use of “constitutional” is one of several indications that this walk is not for health. Notably, the first section and closing line act as parentheses indicating Steven’s acknowledgement of the allure of romanticization. In the first scene, the image of Dunedin’s iconic Victorian railway station gives rise to a film noir fantasy of espionage and danger. Yet Steven is quick to disabuse us of the illusion. The enjambment leading to the laconic line, “we are nowhere near Europe and we are in a hurry,” throws us into a more precarious setting. Aware of New Zealand’s geographical isolation, and its tendency to idealize an elsewhere, the narrator signals that a demanding task lies ahead, while the police car rolling stealthily past alerts us to its dangers. Similarly, at the end of the poem, we learn that the poet is recounting the journey from another life, one in which he has undoubtedly become an other to himself.
The level of detail in “Walking to Jutland Street” and other poems about narcotics also involves drug vernacular,[x] which adds specialist to the attributes Jack Ross lists under amateur poet. The nomenclature of the trades is another specialist language for Steven. His profession as an electrician and his experiences working with his father have provided him with a knowledgeable repertoire of technical words. He uses a language that does not often appear outside technical manuals or the workshop. For example, in “The Panel Shop” Steven marries his father’s attention to detail as a custom spray-painter with his own keen eye for a world of work benches, sandwich bars, porn mags, the smoko room, home brew, machines, oil, and tools.
– Herbert Read
standing at the mixing bench assembling
his silver spray gun from a shallow tub of solvents.
Abraded nerves diode alerts throughout
his body to the task of a life, building networks
of tiny scratches on his palms, crowning each finger
with calluses: how the slow spreading chemical sting
gives form to memory: brings shape to the gloveless
geography of each hand before evaporating,
every weekend in the panel shop, finishing
his ‘urgent overtime.’ My mother was occupied
nursing my younger sister, and as she had
during her three pregnancies, suffered severely.
Between motionless lips his cigarette
balanced precariously. Glowing through dust clouds,
this spit-welded beacon, my father studying folders
of swatches of coded squares of colour
wedged open beside the scales, callipers, mixing jars,
screwdrivers, monolithic piles of paint tins
with lacquer beards covering the floor. Perhaps
thought our together, some act of covalent bonding.
I was expected to sit and keep myself occupied in the dank
jaundiced smoko room where the only life to be found
was in the pages of old comics and porn magazines.
Things happened in the yard. I was encouraged
not to say. There was the other who would never
hear compressors belching out lines of dead air,
watch fan blades rotate ineffectually beneath a roof
tarred with pigeon shit where the skylights blanked out any sun
to this algae-patched brick-walled chemical den,
this housing shelter for battered vehicles: small trucks,
motorbikes, sedans and coupes, hatchbacks
station wagons with mangled panels, dented doors,
twisted bumpers, chassis weakened by cancerous rust blooms.
(numbed by pies and dope, mugs of instant coffee)
with sanding blocks, tubs of filler, cold water in buckets,
humming along with the radio station
‘rolling out another half-hour of rock.’
Those vehicles I could never
find a way of controlling. Would always be three and stuck in the back seat of one —
pearlescent green with gold pinstripes and chrome twelve-slot wheels —
at the centre of an old bridge once used to connect
the cement works and wharf with the southern parts of the city.
Brought back here from a house at the foot of a mountain,
returned by this dream: scale-eyed, calliper-jawed, sighting ticks, crosses,
initials on red ledger columns, bills of high denomination
in brown envelopes, dog-eared facsimiles of policy claims,
quotations and counterclaims, data from the motor world’s collisions
collusions and conversions.
From folders with swatches of coded
squares of colours, matching his mixtures to magnetic test strips
held up against the rest of the vehicle: one eye factors the possible paths of lumens,
one eye squints from smoke for the detail man of a rebirthing scheme
by way of sinister acquaintance.
There was always the loaded rifle in the office,
but what was in the wooden chest, hidden down the back beneath
a pile of old car parts, painted dark blue and nailed shut like a tiny coffin.
Like his father, who with “one eye” “factors the possible paths of lumens” and with the other “squints from smoke,” Steven studies the scene with an expertise that can only come from accumulated experience. For instance, with the lines “Small orange ember, long wick of silver ashes” and “spit-welded beacon,” he paints an image of his father’s habitual cigarette and quiet concentration that blends seamlessly with the color charts.
Steven’s knowledge of trades such as panel beating and car spray-painting gives this poem a technical complexity rarely found outside of the trades themselves. In stanzas 2 and 3, this technical knowledge enables Steven to list tools, materials, and functional items in a manner that renders them symbolic and emblematic of the world they constitute. His technical knowledge allows him the economy to piece together terms and images in a way that breathes poetic life into the world of these seemingly manual tasks and cluttered workshops.
Steven’s eye for detail and his knowledge of lives outside the conventional realm of poetry coupled with an acute sensitivity to his stance as the other have enabled him to develop a unique body of work. In many ways, his narratival style belies the complexity of his craft insofar as he manages to evoke places and people from the position of both an insider and an observer. In this way, Steven avoids the dead ends of romanticization, idealization, and the claim to some anthropological authority.
the chain of the roller door through his hands,
and as that steel door shirks and shudders
and shrieks as it rolls up, he will most certainly
be wearing his red waist-cut woolen Swandri,
the one that used to smell of cigarettes and the sea.
When the roller door makes its final revolution
around the steel pole, graunching into place,
while impressions from the cold iron chain links
were still laddered dents across his palms, my father,
most certainly, with the gentle light of dawn
suffusing the asphalt yard before us with a newness
would take a packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes
and lighter from the pocket of his red Swandri.
My father, standing with his back to me, tamping
against the gold packet, the cigarette he will soon light.
Deep in reverie: what is it he was contemplating?
Was it the way the dew settling again on the windows
of his ute would glisten like broken particles of iridium?
Or was it the sad piles of spent cardboard tubes,
around which were once wrapped the vinyl and fabrics
the upholsterers named Mark and Terry, who sported
mullets and wore black jeans and flannel shirts,
used to cover couches and chairs and car interiors?
As he stood there, my father, with his back to me,
was he watching the breasts of a woman named Sandy
⎯ the blonde my mother insists he had an affair with ⎯
moving beneath her apron as she bent and lifted
a tray of bread at the lunch bar across the driveway,
while I waited among the wrecks inside his workshop?
Is it too late to ask him if he was looking at the metal
halide streetlamps, craned in vigil like haloed icons
over the nights of Neilson Street? Did my father stare
past the wire lattice fence of the freight yards, into the stacks
of battered grey and green containers? Instead of reading
an impenetrable lexicon, did the names of mysterious ports
ring in his mind like fragments from ancient poems or koans?
When the sun rose above the corrugated iron factories
and Kenworth trucks with trailers arrived at the freight yard
and men wearing blue overalls who worked as upholsterers,
car wreckers, mechanics, panel beaters, spray-painters,
auto-electricians, scrap dealers, forklift operators,
lined up to buy pies, ham sandwiches, cold cans of soft drink
and cigarettes from Sandy’s lunch bar, did my father wonder
if I, too, standing behind him, was sharing the very same reverie?
They come back tonight like a long forgotten
weather system or some foreign illness.
Walking along each of the peninsula’s twenty
streets they come back now to claim the exam
results they missed out on two decades ago,
to see what the girl they left the party to meet
made of her life after the car and passengers
were deducted by a parked truck.
They come back
from illegal drag wrecks on the back roads of Papakura,
from nooses in wardrobes in flats on Symonds St,
from overdoses in dingy Kings Cross basements ⎯
ambling down wind-scoured avenues with school bags
and six packs and flagons of rough red wine
and toolkits to repair the errors of the terrible clock.
Coming back, to be among these weatherboard houses
where the only warmth is the cathode glare of televisions
Found him back there this morning sitting on an upturned blue paint bucket
holding open a Picador paperback copy of Mailer’s ‘Ancient Evenings’
right index finger still hooked still pointing to a line somewhere at the middle
of page three hundred and seventy where he was always by the front door
of the two-room cottage once standing in the far corner of the Telstra car park
at 239 Hereford Street with his wife adjacently suffering the same affliction
shaking his head slowly as he started to mumble until the mumbling slowly became
‘The baker hasn’t been today. I’m still out of double. Best to pop back later,’
which I’d heard enough times to know as the joke he told before each transaction
sighting the corner of a hundred-dollar packet folded up in glossy black paper
catching light from the left breast pocket of his short-sleeve denim shirt
with his wife still hovering behind the scene in the kitchenette like a kabuki ghost
nodding out over an endless book with the right index finger still pointing towards
the line he has just read and already forgotten because it was a morning in early summer
because the southern sun had just licked away the last winter chill from his dark skin
sitting there on an upturned blue paint bucket beside the dahlias the freesias
the lavender plants dressed in rugby shorts and denim shirt palming me the packet
he was smiling because the dope and the southern sun were inside him singing together.
Grey pills the shape and size of sea mines roll down
this staircase I run up now: treading my exit
from a further implication in a modern allegory of spoons.
It is hailing inside. It is hailing speed crystals
from the ceiling while the windows
and doors of the rooms to this ramshackle house
named the past I try to escape through
are either sealed shut or locked from the outside,
and just as those oily waters of regret
and wasted opportunity rise up past my neck,
I’ve landed myself a part in a group therapy circle
supervised by gangsters in branded leisurewear
posing as psychotherapists with semi-automatic pistols
stashed away in laptop cases. No. It’s not the menace
lurking behind their similes, but the artificial
empathy of their well-taxed redemption messages
that has me wailing out for a probable cause
to excuse myself for some grainy scene
where the pick is always blunt, the barrel always jammed,
where I am probing and always probing deeper
for that elusive last line to joy, and when I make it through:
the whiteness spreading slowly to the farthest suburbs of my body
from an epicentre somewhere deep inside my chest
has me waking here, beneath your hand, gasping at the icy air.
rests a Glock-9 on his left thigh.
He studies the face of his watch.
The minute hand jumps into place. It’s time.
His pulse lifts. He rolls the woolen balaclava
over his face. An Armourguard truck
parks in front of the bank, the door opens.
A voice inside his head yells out: “Go!”
Iron sands. Nikau palms. Prehistoric vistas.
The Tasman’s relentless hydraulic surging.
At his bach, our great modernist poet
enjoys Pascal’s Penseés and a pipe of tobacco.
An austere metaphysician, the modernist poet
considers kelp fronds, oystercatchers,
mussel-beds on jagged rocks. He knows the colour
at the heart of all matter is not even a colour.
we were fading over our scientific calculators, unfinished equations,
and textbooks already out of date, and there up the front was Mr. Brower,
the front of his walk shorts had got there by rubbing himself up against
the first row of desks, which had been chalked on by those who were eager
whipping his chair with the wooden ruler, and before he even got close
to the part about there being no gate at the school to keep us in or out,
rang sounding in the end of the lesson, the end of the term, the end of year, our shoes
were off. We were gone. We were halfway across a field of seaward leaning clover.
[i] Michael Steven, e-mail message to author, July 12, 2016.
[iv] Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems, ed. Paula Green(New Zealand: Random House, 2012); Deep South, eds. Catherine Dale and Lynley Edmeades, 2013; Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political poems An Anthology of Political Poetry, eds. Philip Temple and Emma Neale (New Zealand: Otago University Press, July 2017).
[v] “A Vale Undelivered,” Landfall 232 (Spring 2016): 36-42.
[vi] Many of Steven’s poems are situated in small New Zealand locations, and place is often in the title, “Jollie Street” and “Worcester Street” in Christchurch, “Opahi Bay,” in the North Island, “Walking to Jutland Street” in Dunedin.
[vii] This is the name for a house where cannabis is sold. Tinny refers to the tinfoil within which portions of cannabis is wrapped.
[xi] “The Panel Shop,” brief 47, ed. Alex Wild (March 2013).