This hefty and handsome gathering of forty years of David Eggleton’s poetry is an opportunity to celebrate his exceptional contribution to literature in Aotearoa and the Pacific, and to survey his evolution as a poet. Currently the national Poet Laureate, and the winner of a raft of accolades including an Ockham for The Conch Trumpet, Eggleton started out as a fringy street poet, the self-described ‘Mad Kiwi Ranter’ delivering linguistic, imagistic, political torrents. (He was voted London’s TimeOut Street Poet of the Year in 1986.) Over the years, he partly migrated to the page, but not from any kind of conforming — no, he brought his audience with him; he educated his audience. By the sheer scope and whammy-power of his voice and intellect, he is iconic on stage and page alike. Very few poets transcend spoken and written; The Wilder Years is glorious testament to a poet who has done just that.
The 300 poems here are selected by the author from his nine collections published between 1986 and 2018, with eight new poems added. It’s always revealing to see how a writer regards their own oeuvre to date. Notably, Eggleton gives his early volumes a severe haircut and favours his later work — perhaps because he tends to write of the moment. There is no foreword; the poet doesn’t blow his own conch trumpet. A thumbnail biography of Eggleton — Fiji-born (of Rotuma, Tonga and Pākehā ancestry), Auckland-raised, and a long-time Dunedin resident — is useful because place looms large in his work, from his early portraits of a fecund, culturally diverse, crazy Auckland, to poems that look at Aotearoa with a cooler authorial distance but still plant their stake in the ground politically. That seemingly effortless yet searing rhetoric is Eggleton’s genius.
To cover a selection as extensive as The Wilder Years in detail in a review is impossible, so I’m going to talk big-picture to show exactly why this survey is important reading, and cherry-pick key moments from the collections.
Eggleton’s customary stance is that of the seemingly innocent observer who reports a tumble of images, metaphors and events of time and place that nevertheless find truths. A poem from his first book, South Pacific Sunrise, epitomises the poet’s love/hate view of a pulsingly capitalist yet desolate Auckland.
A bus sways forward concertina-style.
A finance house stacks up its cool vertical lines,
This town stands as open as an airport lounge.
Everyone looks like a new arrival.
(‘Big City Rush Hour’)
From the same collection, ‘Wings of Ponsonby’ is indicative of the poet’s two-pronged, chuckling lament.
… On the chunderous Waitematā
the rusty scows growl, and screw the sea into a batter
of white foam, like pus bubbling in a lung,
or like firemen’s chemical suds, or draught flagons you unbung.
Linguistically, Eggleton has always been fearless, using a rich array of features — assonance, alliteration, repetition, rhyme, and puns aplenty. He’s unafraid to be funny or tragic: ‘Auckland Airport Massacre in B minor’, or ‘Titirangi Considered as Wearable Art’.
Hand-in-glove with his semantic MO is Eggleton’s practice of referencing like crazy. His poems are suffused with an encyclopaedic litany of pop culture, history, turns of phrase both old and new, and the all-important news of the day. From the suburban greengrocer’s watermelons in the first poem in this book, to the Zespri in the last, product placement is a Trojan horse subverting the messages of nationalism and corporatisation: ‘Hedgetrimmer, fruit juicer, a shapely finger, / say cheese, think butter, think milk, think bigger’ (‘Pictures of Home’).
While the focus here is mostly of-the-moment, the sorry path of colonisation inevitably receives the Eggleton treatment. The impressive, sustained ‘Waipounamu: The Lakes District’, builds up a language-y, enjambing, history-toting head of steam: ‘Wanaka’s Roman-sandalled summer holiday season / is hot enough to boil the radiator of a slow Tin Lizzie, / steaming like a tea-billy at a saw-mill smoko’.
Eggleton’s concerns are many and varied. As well as being a prolific and acclaimed book reviewer (six-time winner of reviewer of the year), his Ready to Fly: The Story of New Zealand Rock Music is an ebullient trove of information. The ekphrastic seam in his poetry is similarly knowledgeable; in ‘Meditation on Colin McCahon’, he writes about the paint, the ‘hot blacks and ghostly whites’, as well as the land. This teaming array of interests — things, happenings, language — is one with Eggleton’s poetic style.
Eggleton’s pyrotechnics of word and reference uncover complexities lurking in the language and in society. With these assemblages, he invites the reader to join his gaze in a democratic way; we have all somehow found ourselves here.
One of the advantages of having these poems under one roof is being able to see how Eggleton’s work has developed over time. (I hope this book will spark a torrent of close readings and criticism of Eggleton’s work because, despite his appeal, he has been relatively overlooked among commentators. Toward this, and as an aid to the general reader, an index of poem titles would have been helpful.) Overall, it seems the confident soap-box poet of the early years has become not so much ‘wilder’ as more controlled, more sustained, and therefore more daring.
In the second book, People of the Land (1988), it’s exciting to see the emergence of inventive rhyme and scheme used satirically, as in the Eliot-ish, ‘Whatever next, whatever next, as the wind flicks over the text’.
By the third book Rhyming Planet (2001), Eggleton has emerged as nothing short of a virtuoso, high-wiring his trademark voice to magnificent intent:
standing bush went up in smoke,
burnt to a frazzle, cleared like throats
hurrumphing catarrh-rah-rah- boom-de-ay,
with a rumpty-tumpty rhythm track
of a colonial militia, in full fig, marching past
the rotunda built on Rūaumoko’s roly-poly belly
as possums acted the giddy goat.
(‘Farms: A Sequence’)
Rhyming Planet ends with the profound, gritty ‘Republic of Fiji’: ‘rain white as mosquito net, white as grated coconut / white as the helmets of ex-Governor-Generals’.
In such an overview, patterns and practices become evident. For instance, Eggleton shuns the much-exercised lyric ‘I’, yet ‘I’ and ‘we’ stalk the text, especially in the early work. But this is the poet in their external world, detached but full of feeling: ‘I came out of the Manukau City shopping centre / doing the Manukau Mall Walk – / the shoeshine shuffle, the hotfoot floogie, the baby elephant…’ (from Rhyming Planet). This ‘I’ could be you or me.
Over time, form becomes slightly but noticeably more measured. The eponymous ‘The Wilder Years’, from the 2018 Edgeland, assembles the iconic vocalization of agony and ecstasy: ‘A clinking canticle of glasses is poured / as all Kiwiland gets on board– / in sheep’s clothing looking wolfish, a teeth-gnashing nation’. But here, the orderly, waste-not-want-not stanzas perhaps reflect a late-style solemnity.
That the book finished with eight new poems including the poignant ‘Two Mosques, Christchurch’ is a good move, as Eggleton is mostly topical, always imperative.
This beautiful hardback edition is a long-awaited polymath Eggleton’s dazzling, momentous, glee-filled, horror-filled highlights-plus-more. The Wilder Years, the first forty years, is a book to own and treasure.