Dark Days in the Oxygen Café
Publications - Poetry
Deadpan was brought out by Otago University Press in 2019. The cover features that famous exponent of deadpannery, Buster Keaton.
The blurb reads: The title of James Norcliffe's tenth poetry collection points deftly to the way it conveys big emotions without cracking a smile or shedding a tear. In Deadpan, Norcliffe writes in an alert, compassionate yet sceptical voice.
The books first section, 'Poor Yorick', shares the thoughts of an introspective narrator as he contends with the travails of later life. 'In his hospital pyjamas', Yorick is by turns cheerful and beset by loss, laughing and weeping, comparing the stages of life (and death). The following sections - 'Scan', 'Trumpet Vine', 'Telegraph Road' and 'Five Travellers in a Small Ford' - reach around to mine experience in a world where 'nothing lasts'; not childhood, place nor identity.
An appropriate response to this ephemeral world is to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty, absurdity and surrealsim. 'Deadpan,' writes the author in his introductory essay, 'is the porter in Macbeth pausing to take a piss while there is that urgent banging at the gate. It is Buster Keaton standing unmoved as the building crashes down on top of him. It is my poker-faced Yorkshire grandfather playing two little dicky birds sitting on the wall.'
These poems are concise and contained, using supple, precise language and a gleam of dry and mordant wit. Deadpan is the work of a mature and technically astute poet who is one of New Zealand's leading writers.
London Grip Poetry Review of Deadpan by Emily Storr March 16, 2020 Poetry review – Deadpan: Emma Storr examines the art of masterful understatement as displayed in a new collection by James Norcliffe Deadpan James Norcliffe Otago University Press 2019 ISBN: 9781988531755 98pp £14 The enigmatic Buster Keaton, comedian of silent films, stares at us from behind prison bars on the front cover of James Norcliffe’s tenth poetry collection, Deadpan. Keaton’s facial expression is difficult to interpret: is he hanging on to the bars for security to keep the world out, or is he is hoping to be released? The reticence and ambiguity implied by the term ‘deadpan’, appeals to Norcliffe, who says he enjoys reading and writing poetry that is ‘allusive, elusive, wry and surprising’. These are good adjectives for describing the detached emotional tone he adopts throughout the five sections of the book: ‘Poor Yorick’, ‘Scan’, ‘Trumpet Vine’, ‘Telegraph Road’ and ‘Five Travellers in a Small Ford’. Understatement and wit are used to evoke recognition of our fragile human state that can make us laugh and cry at the same time. In the opening section of the book, adopting the persona of Yorick, allows Norcliffe to play with ideas of ageing, loss and sincerity. ‘Yorick’s Heart’ introduces us to the elderly jester in hospital, infantilised in his new red and yellow aeroplane pyjamas and stripped of any equipment that he might use to self-harm – shoelaces and scissors. Norcliffe demonstrates his skill in using different poetic forms in this sequence of twelve poems to create humorous and poignant reflections on the transient nature of life and the inevitability of death. The repetition and rhyme scheme in ‘Yorick laughs’ and ‘Yorick weeps’ makes these two poems sound like invocations: Yorick laughs: like a yew berry like a diagnosis like an ambassador of grief An ominous tone lurks underneath the humour in all four stanzas which end: like an interloper like a no hoper like a groping thief The mood becomes darker in Yorick weeps: like a dull blade like a muddied spade like an opened grave It is a shame that the two poems do not appear on opposite pages in the collection to highlight their similarities and contrasts even more. The following four sections of the book range in time and location. There are windy, empty beaches in New Zealand, urban environments in Europe and unnamed landscapes in which human identity seems fluid and transmutable. Norcliffe excels in writing short poems that raise profound issues in uncomplicated language. The surreal and absurd often reflect the mood of the narrator in unexpected ways. In ‘There are times I feel like an egg’, the speaker describes how depression permeates his days: ‘there are no shortcuts/ through the suburbs of my malaise.’ The egg metaphor suggests fragility and possible breakdown. We return to this image in the last line of the poem after the indifferent public who offer ‘cheap lessons’ in clichés, scurry home to their ‘bitter tea and scrambled eggs’. Norcliffe enjoys using imagery from the natural world, sometimes in playful ways as in the delightful and lyrical ‘Reforestation in the living room’. Other poems reveal how closely decay and death hover on the margins of our everyday lives. His language is sparse and succinct, often presented in two or three line stanzas without punctuation, as in ‘scrim’, a poem that paints a bleak landscape where ‘what were once buildings / crouch in their sorrow’. The theme of a post-apocalyptic world is also suggested in ‘Site content’. The speaker explores a silent, eerie place bereft of animal or human life. Everything is ‘Long gone. Like the moon itself, long gone.’ The sense of loss and bewilderment is tangible in the repetition in this single last line. Norcliffe describes himself as a ‘plant buff’, which is perhaps why he names particular trees, bushes and fruits in many of his poems. In ‘The poets at Makara’, the wind and crashing waves rip away and destroy the poets’ words and images: all analogy, all comparison lost, sucked into a vortex of wailing snagged flapping on spinifex and matagouri…… Both these plants are spiky and hostile, a fact you can induce from the following three stanzas in which the poets give up their creative endeavours and drive home through green valleys of willow and hydrangeas where ‘arum lilies poke out / their yellow tongues’, teasing the silent, subdued writers. Norcliffe’s sardonic tone and wit emphasise the insignificance and impotence of human beings (particularly poets!) faced with elemental forces. A different and more sinister interruption to human acitivity is evoked in ‘Pursued by crabs’ with its short stanzas spaced out on the page. The narrator is reflecting on a time when he was on a beach, ‘the site of my stupidity’. He and the crabs are both observing, making notes, taking evidence. The anthropomorphic transformation of the crabs into witnesses is a clever device to suggest that the narrator is guilty of the same crime he is purporting to watch: ‘beyond the dunes: the grey water where the bigamists were sporting, frolicking,’ The crabs have the last word when they emerge from ‘their pencil holes’ and use their small black eyes as ‘full stops to end my sentence.’ The surreal tone of this poem suggests a certain degree of paranoia on the part of the narrator. The crabs seem to know what is going on and the double meaning of the word ‘sentence’ raises unanswered questions about who has committed bigamy and the legal consequences. In other poems such as ‘She moved through the silence’ and ‘Leaves’, images of the sea and autumn respectively capture those painful periods in relationships where communication goes awry: ‘your eyes were filled with layers / before you turned away’ prevents the narrator asking a question we imagine is a very important one. The longed-for rain that never arrives mirrors the suppressed grief of the couple and the absence of water to renew and refresh the situation. Norcliffe is a New Zealander of Yorkshire and Scottish ancestry, which he thinks might explain his preference for privileging ‘reticence over passion’ and ‘jokes over engagement’. The result is a masterful collection of poems that rely on understatement, a nudge instead of a shove. We view the human condition with humour and affection in language that is precise, plain and deadpan in its delivery and wit. London Grip Poetry
Dark Days in the Oxygen Café
Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe was brought out by Victoria University Press in 2016. It was launched at the Christchurch Word Festival in August. The striking cover is from a painting by Noel McKenna 'Food on table, dog begging' (2015).
The blurb reads:
In Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe, James Norcliffe looks over the shoulders of many characters and creatures, bit real and imagined. Poems about Seneca and James Dean sit alongside poems about a Turkmen dictator and an owl man. We share a portentous UFO sighting, a small celebration for Laika the space dog, and Peter the Great being offered an Air New Zealand lolly. These scenes from myth, history, pop culture and personal experience make for a wryly funny, deeply felt collection that contemplates the quirks of shared and personal histories.
- David Eggleton -
- Emma Shi from BooksellersNZ -
- Paula Green on her blog Poetry Box -
'What I love about James as a poet is that he is prepared to test out all kinds of things when he writes. His poems can make you think about things differently and feel things differently. He writes about all kinds of subjects from sports to celebrations to superstitions to dressing for peace.'
Shadow Play brings together many of the poems written between Villon in Millerton and 2010 or thereabouts. As a result in includes poems written in Tasmania during my time on the Islands of Residencies programme and my time in Iowa during the three months I enjoyed on the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa. In an earlier incarnation and under a different title, the book was one of the three finalists in the inaugural Kathleen Grattan Award as judged by Fleur Adcock. The winner of that competition was Joanna Preston with her terrific collection The Summer King.
I tinkered with the set and sometime later submitted it to the Proverse International Writing Prize at the suggestion of Vaughan Rapatahana who had had success there with Home, Away, Elsewhere and for which I provided an introduction. Shadow Play was a finalist in 2011 and published in 2012. Dr Gillian Bickley of Proverse felt the book should include an audio CD of the contents and while I was at Otago University this year as children’s writer in residence at the College of Education I took the opportunity to record the entire collection at the audio-visual centre in the Owheo Building, Union Street.
The cover design includes a sculpted figure by Salvador Dali which seems nicely appropriate. Proverse volumes include a preface introducing the book and the writer and I was delighted when my old friend and fellow writer Bernadette Hall agreed to provide one for me. It is both warm and judicious. Proverse also asked me to provide ‘garlands’ or blurby endorsements, and I am grateful to various writers and editors who agreed to supply these: Mike Bartholomew-Biggs of London Grip, Don Bogen of Cincinnati Review, David Eggleton of Landfall, Fiona Farrell, Michael Harlow, and Richard Peabody of Gargoyle.
Packing a Bag For Mars
Packing a Bag for Mars came out in 2012 from Clerestory Press. It comprised original poems and poems from the back catalogue accessible to younger readers. The back cover reads:
Commissioned by the School for Young Writers, Packing a Bag for Mars packs poems of every punch and variety into a kitbag that can barely keep them contained.
The poems along with Jenny Cooper's witty illustrations, reveal what most teachers and nearly all pupils secretly know - that poetry can be fun to read and fun to write.
Here you'll find poems that play, poems that pick your pocket, poems that put a smile on your face and pepper your pizza! For the most part they are easily accessible but in case they do puzzle and perplex at times, there are explanatory notes and a guide to the main poetic techniques used.
Villon in Millerton
The poems in Villon in Millerton were largely written in the period following my time in Dunedin and the publication of Along Blueskin Road and before my time in Iowa with the International Writing Program.
The book’s blurb announces the three sequences that anchor the collection and goes on: “The title sequence imagines a fifteenth-century French poet, Francois Villon, fetching up in the isolated and deserted West Coast town of Millerton; another sequence brilliantly evokes the mysteries of the Indian Rope Trick, while a concluding group focuses on the contradictory character of the nineteenth-century missionary Samuel Marsden. The range of subjects – from the red admiral butterfly to the attack on Baghdad – and tones – from meditation to satire – along with the poet’s acute ear and sharp eye make this book always unexpected and illuminating.”
Along Blueskin Road
Along Blueskin Road was largely the product of my time as Burns Fellow at Otago University in 2000. The road in the title is a road on the Otago Peninsula which heads north towards Blueskin Bay. That Canterbury University Press published the book came about as a result of a chance meeting with the late Richard King who was managing editor and Jeff Field the then director of the press at the Raspberry Cafe in Tai Tapu. The cover is a painting Lyric Rider by Eion Stevens. This was doubly appropriate as the painting not only expresses the tone of the many of the poems but also as two poems in the book Sleep Sleep and The Plug were prompted by Eion's paintings.
Rat Tickling came out under the imprint of Sudden Valley Press, a poetry dedicated publishing project developed by Christchurch poet John O’Connor with David Gregory’s help. Its confidence and energy was astonishing. On one occasion they must have set a New Zealand record by launching seven books on a single occasion. Among the poets they have published (in addition to themselves) are Graham Lindsay, Helen Jacobs, John Allison, Mark Pirie, Nick Williamson, Helen Bascand, Frankie McMillan and Tony Beyer. I was hugely grateful to my friend, artist Rudolf Boelee who agreed to design the cover and the book and who did so, assisted by Jayne Joyce, with stylised letter forms inspired by the ‘60’s covers of jazz label Blue Note. Many of the poems were influenced by the time in Borneo as were the poems in the second section of A Kind of Kingdom.
A Kind of Kingdom
Whereas Letters to Dr Dee was an especially skinny book A Kind of Kingdom turned out to be a somewhat fat collection. I had sent Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press a manuscript I’d called Blue Heart which he liked an agreed to publish. This corresponded with our leaving for Brunei Darussalam and my entering quite a creative period and my beginning to send my work beyond New Zealand. This was partly prompted by my friend and fellow poet John Allison’s successes in having his work accepted offshore. Thus we entered a friendly competition and to this day I continue to send much of my work to journals in the USA, the UK and elsewhere. There were eventually so many new poems that Fergus contemplated a second book, but then had the idea of a breaking with the tradition of a “slim volume” and adding the new poems to the original collection, albeit in two parts Blue Heart and Disney Fingers, corresponding largely with pre Brunei and Brunei periods. The title comes from a line in the poem June which is in the collection.
Letters to Dr Dee
I am still very fond of this collection. It was published as one of an ambitious series of collections Hazard Press was issuing of NZ and Australian poetry. Rob Jackaman was the series and NZ editor and Philip Mead the Australian editor. In the event, not too many Oz poets featured – I recall Pete Hay and Jill Jones, but a long list of New Zealand poets had their work included: Rob Jackaman himself and, among others, John Allison, David Howard, Riemke Ensing, Kevin Ireland, Alan Loney, Graham Lindsay, Peter Olds, Stephen Oliver, Alan Riach, Own Marshall, Bill Sewell, Kon Kuiper and Tom Weston.
Letters to Dr Dee was launched at a book festival in Dunedin in 1994 in the beautiful Staff Club at the university. For some reason Quentin had used a very lightweight paper so the book appeared flimsy to say the least and this was disappointing. Not disappointing was the cover which used an image of a feather, in fact the huge Neil Dawson feather which hangs in the Aotea Centre in Auckland. Neil was a good friend and happy to let us use the feather. He had been a party to the crowd who holidayed at Oaro near Kaikoura, the setting of the opening sequence, dedicated to the memory Jossie Craig another of the party, who had died before the book came out.
The book was one of the three shortlisted for the Poetry Award at the NZ Book Awards the following year.
Hard Echo Press, 1986. Shortlisted for the PEN Jessie McKay Award
In the late eighties, I had been publishing occasionally in journals and
magazines here and there in New Zealand including some of our best
(Robin Duddings Islands, which published the title sequence, and
Landfall). When I had gathered sufficient material I sent the ms off to
Hard Echo Press an imprint of Warwick Jordan of the Hard to Find
Bookshop in Onehunga. Warwick was himself a poet and had printed a
number of books by already well-known writers including my friend
David Howard, as well as Tony Beyer, Paddy Richardson, Rosie Scott,
Iain Sharp and Mike Johnson. He liked the material very much and
obtained a publishing grant from the NZ Literary Fund, the forerunner of
Warwick used a very old-fashioned handset and linotype process in
those pre-digital days. The book’s binding was poor (side staples) and
the cover quite bizarre. Warwick thought it appropriate given the title and
the fact that, at the time of publication – 1987 - Auckland was hosting the
first rugby world cup. We were living in China when it was released and
I don’t think I saw the actual book until our return in the beginning of ’88.
It was my first book and I was proud of course, but pride was tempered
by the cover and production standards…