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Book: James Norcliffe, Deadpan

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About Deadpan

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 book’s 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 ‘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 surrealism. ‘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.

The book launched this month in Christchurch – sponsored by Otago University Press and Scorpio Books.



The madness of crowds

First published in The Hawaii Review (USA)

The only shells on the beach are the high priced shells on the stall tables. High priced shells sheltered by canvas. The beach itself cannot be seen. Bodies. You manoeuvre gingerly between them and make your way to the water. Bodies. You make your way between them. Legs. Arms. Heads covered in towels. There is no delineation between the sandline and the waterline because of the bodies. Bodies massed at the unseen border. Two worlds merged into one. As you move into the water the bodies grow shorter, lose legs, lose thighs, waists, midriffs. As you move further out the bodies become disembodied. Lose chests, breasts, shoulders. Now just heads neckdeep in water. Heads and beach balls. Bodyless beachballs bobbing among the bodied heads. Now you must tiptoe and bounce to keep your head above the water, now visible beyond the heads, beyond the beachballs. Somewhere beyond these there is water moving, heaving water. Somewhere beyond is the sea. Somewhere beyond the sea are continents, bodies.

Control Tower

First published in The Southeast Review (USA)

Roger desired a control tower.
Joanne saw through him immediately.
In the garden, said Roger.
No, said Joanne.
It would be nice, Roger insisted, positioned between the Cercis Forest Pansy and the Cornus Eddie’s White Wonder.
It would clash.
It would have a certain majesty. A garden sculpture. It would out-sculpture all other garden sculptures, but slender, towering.
No, said Joanne.
It would make a statement, said Roger. It would have stature, height, lights.
I have read Freud, said Joanne.
Red for port, green for starboard, and blue for the ineffable sadness of the world, said Roger.
No colours, said Joanne.
And it would be useful, said Roger, for the control of air traffic.
We don’t have air traffic, said Joanne, but I do believe now we’re really getting to the nub of it.
There is air traffic, said Roger. Lights high in the sky, vapour trails like ribbons to paradise.
You don’t want to control ribbons or vapour, said Joanne. Let them be.
It would make a statement, said Roger.
No, said Joanne. No control tower.
But, said Roger.
No buts, said Joanne. No colours. No traffic. No lights. No tower.

The confession

It always gets back, officer, to that moment when crime is possible;
consequence-free crime, the possibility we rarely expect to see on offer,
the moment our ethical self, our superego if you will, officer, spontaneously combusts.

These hot, hot days when the tar bubbles on the road, the footpath, the soles of your
shoes stick momentarily with a faint squish as you run. So hot, the air swells with the crack of cicadas, the crackle of broom pods snapping.

It is the last day of this world, officer. The next day you leave. Your life is in cartons, strapped, labelled, waiting for dispatch.

We are talking crime, officer, not sin. A sound, not noise.

We are talking of a moment it is possible. And it is possible. So you act.

And the moment lasts forever.

James Norcliffe has published nine collections of poetry, most recently Dark Days at the Oxygen Café. He is the award-winning writer of eleven novels for children and young people, including the YA fantasy The Loblolly Boy, which made the USSBY list of best foreign children’s books published in the USA. He has a long-time association with takahē magazine and the Canterbury Poets’ Collective, and is an editor for the online journal Flash Frontier. He has edited anthologies of poetry and the annual ReDraft anthologies of writing by young people, and has co-edited major poetry and short fiction anthologies, most recently Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (with Michelle Elvy & Frankie McMillan). He has been awarded the Burns Fellowship, the Iowa International Writers Programme residency, the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Fellowship for Children’s Writing and, most recently, the Randell Cottage Residency in Wellington. With Bernadette Hall, he was presented with a Press Literary Liaisons Honour Award for lasting contribution to literature in the South Island. His new project is an anthology he is editing with Paula Morris and Michelle Elvy: Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand.

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