Celebrating National Poetry Day

Today (Friday 27 July) is National Poetry Day. Celebrate by reading, writing, speaking poetry. Below is a review of the first collection of Kāpiti poet Nicola Easthope.

Nicola Easthope’s first collection of poems, Leaving my arms free to fly around you, is slightly let down by its cover a gannet flying against a mottled blue backdrop of sky. It’s a generic image of individuality and freedom, apotheosized in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

But it’s not just a metaphor: seabirds gulls, gannets, shags, oystercatchers are observed in these poems, with an eye to a human significance, sure, but also for the joy of really looking. Thus when oystercatchers are seen to ‘stoop / tired old men in suits’, the identification is there to help us see these birds as the speaker does; the metaphor is a means to that end.

These are the honoured traditions of the ode, the sweetness and instruction that are the dividends of close observation. I’m increasingly impatient with poems that tilt towards instruction: poems whose default mode is ecstatic, constantly finding in nature lessons to help us lead our lives more richly. I suspect Nicola Easthope is, too: at any rate, it is the intrinsic pleasures of attention that make the best of these poems so rewarding. To distil meaning from the object of the poems’ focus is secondary to this attention.

The book is divided into three sections dealing, in turn, with travel, career, and family in sum, the rites of adulthood. Some of the experiences represented here are familiar: in ‘The Spanish Vagrant’, for example, we recognise the busker who is always in the same place, only to vanish one day, never to be seen again. What lifts the poem beyond the familiar is the surprising language the rapid-fire, vivid metaphors and deft rhymes that suggest the influence of Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage (and behind Armitage, another Yorkshire poet, Ted Hughes). It’s a fine poem, one that demonstrates Easthope’s technical skill.

A few poems are less successful at assimilating their influences: ‘Ten ways of looking at Saturn’, for example, a riff on Stevens, smacks a bit of the poetry workshop. That is, it’s a well-wrought turn, an exercise, an admirable performance adroitly done yet which doesn’t quite justify the doing. This is a minor criticism of what is, in the parlance, an assured debut.

Reviewed by TIM UPPERTON