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.