P.S. Cottier Reviews Mark Pirie

20 February 2012

‘A Tingling Catch’: A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009 edited by Mark Pirie
HeadworX, 2010

While waiting for this book to arrive, I found myself wondering what the best known cricket poem in the world might be. I’d say that it’s still the absurdly patriotic ‘Vitai Lampada’ by Henry Newbolt. Fortunately, many of the poems in this New Zealand anthology, ‘A Tingling Catch’ (the name drawn from a 1907 poem by Seaforth Mackenzie) are less thumpingly patriotic and rather more challenging than Newbolt’s less than subtle hymn to unshrinking school-boy masculinity.

This book is edited by Mark Pirie, a poet who runs the press that published it, HeadworX, located in the New Zealand capital. In it we find poems ranging from crude satire to poems using cricket as a metaphor for exclusion and marginalisation. We find a wealth of footnotes that form a kind of catalogue of loss, of players and matches, punctuated by sudden haiku of victory. Richard Hadlee strides through the book like a more modest Ozymandias, pre the desert working its inevitable evil ways. We find Brett Lee, in all his well-groomed beauty, terrifying an unfortunate Kiwi batsman. We even find women, as in Elizabeth Smither’s ‘A Woman watching cricket’:

No woman will ever commentate
even if she is fluent in the positions
or be let into the secret of how
they remove the red ball stains from trousers

The archness and quiet regret of this work combine well. The single well-chosen word “ball” in the last line changes the meaning of the sentence considerably, and the irony of the fact that it probably is women who know the secret of removing all red stains is quietly subversive. I suppose she’s right, too. Writing a review of a cricket book for Cordite is as near to commentary as this little player will get, come to think of it. (I just noticed that Margaret Henley makes a similar point in her review of the book in NZ literary journal Takahe.)

In the website that links to this book Mark Pirie addresses the fact that the section on children’s cricket, called Boys’ Songs, contains no poems about girls. I refuse to believe that no such bird as a poem about girls playing cricket exists in New Zealand (a kind of kakapo of sporting literature, it must be out there, somewhere) and I feel this is an unfortunate lacuna in an otherwise comprehensive collection. However, women play cricket in Brian Turner’s ‘Cricket at Oturehua’ and watch cricket quite a lot throughout the collection. There is even a poem called ‘Ten Ways to Get Out’ from The Ladies’ Guide to Cricket by A Lover Of Both (real name William Outhwaite) that goes back to 1883. (Mark Pirie goes one better in his ’11 Ways of Being Dismissed’. I’ll leave the reader to find the difference.)

The Maori influence on New Zealand cricket seems to have been less significant that it has been on rugby. This is entering an area in which I do not feel sufficiently educated to engage. I just don’t know the historical and racial context well enough. And of course, the writing of poems about cricket raises different issues from the playing of same. But I can say that the elegy by poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell for his brother Stuart who died fighting in the Maori Battalion during WWII is achingly beautiful:

    I see you turn and run up
to the crease. I see your 
   arm swing over. I see the 
      ball in flight – and that is all.

Some might question the worth of any anthology on a subject or activity, whether love or music or cricket. I disagree. There is as much interest in diversity and the quirks of odd juxtaposition as there is in the carefully developed collection of a single poet. I disliked some of the poems in this book, notably the jolly lyrical contribution of a musical group called Colin Croft and the Maiden Overs, which nevertheless has an historical interest in recalling an incident in which a visiting West Indian bowler knocked over an umpire. (And in the fact that New Zealand won the series. No wonder there are so many references to it.) Some of the humorous poetry is excellent though, for example, Scott Kendrick’s ‘Catches I Have Dropped’ which begins: “Catches I Have Dropped / is a longer poem than / Catches I Have Taken.”

Other poems here caught my breath. For pure imagination, I particularly recommend the weird works of Michael O’Leary (drawn from his novel Out of It, which has just been republished by HeadworX) which have such diverse characters as Lord Byron, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix facing up to a New Zealand eleven. (Byron did play in the Eton v Harrow match at Lord’s by the way, complete with runner to make up for the infamous foot, but he never actually played against New Zealand. Unsurprisingly.)

Even the well-known ‘A Time Will Come’ by Arnold Wall (1922) takes on a new significance when placed between poems celebrating the beautiful game on the fields of New Zealand (and cricket took that title long before Pelé gave it to another, here unmentionable, sport):

Yet a time will come, a time will come,
Come to use all as we watch, and seem
To be heart and soul in the beautiful game,
When we shall remember and dream -

Dream of the boys who never were here,
Born in the days of evil chance,
Who never knew sport or easy days,
But played their game in the fields of France.

And with both New Zealand and Australian soldiers off “playing” in foreign fields again, that time, it seems, is still yet to come. (When the red sphere’s sphere of influence will be the only type of colonial legacy left to a grateful world … Sorry, that last unseemly sentence seems to have come out of my hands most strangely, and be about to sneak past the keeper for an undeserved (?) boundary.)

It would be churlish of me to review this book without mentioning Bellerive Oval, December 2011, where New Zealand beat Australia in a Test. Although Australia held onto the trophy (the series was drawn, and as previous holders, we kept it) it was really New Zealand’s series. I won’t mention it at length, though, because I suspect rather a large number of poems are currently being written about it in New Zealand, even as you read this review. I look forward to another rare triumphant footnote in the next edition of this fascinating collection. What, I wonder, rhymes with Bracewell?

‘A Tingling Catch’: A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009 can be ordered from here.

P.S. Cottier’s second book of poetry The Cancellation of Clouds is published by Ginninderra Press, and she has a weblog.

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