Saturday 30 October 2021


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


Great Works by Oscar Mardell   {Reviewed by STELLA}

Oscar Mardell's freezing works poems are a clever addition to the tradition of New Zealand gothic literature. Think Ronald Hugh Morrison’s The Scarecrow and  David Ballantyne's Sydney Bridge Upside Down and you’ll get a sense of the macabre that edges its ways through these poems like entrails. There’s the nostalgia for the stink of the slaughter yards, the adherence to the architects of such vast structures on our landscapes, and the pithy analysis of our colonial pastoral history. That smell so evocative of hot summer days cooped up in a car travelling somewhere along a straight road drifts in as you read 'Horotiu' with its direct insult to the yards and its references to offal. In these poems, there is the thrust and violence of killing alongside the almost balletic rhythm of the work — the work as described on the floor as well as the poetic structure of Mardell’s verse. 

“      th sticking knife th steel th saw
        th skinning knife th hook th hammer
        th spreader the chop & th claw   "

“      the dull thud resonates
        through bodies / still
        swings rhythmically & out of time
        pours out of me / equivocal   ”

Most of the poems note the architect and the date of construction for these ominous structures, which had a strange grandeur — simultaneously horrific and glorious. One of the outstanding architects was J.C. Maddison, a designer known for both his slaughterhouses and churches, alongside other stately public buildings. In 'Belfast', Mardell cleverly bridges these divides — the lambs, the worship, the elation.

“      did he who set a compass
        to port levy & amberly
        who traced th wooden hymnhouses
        for st pauls / divided
        & th holy innocents / drowned   ”

There are plenty of other cultural references tucked away in these poems. Minnie Dean makes an appearance in Mataura and James K Baxter in Ngauranga Abattoir. In the latter, Mardell slips in Baxter's line "sterile whore of a thousand bureaucrats". Yet the poems go beyond nostalgia or clever nods to literature, to sharpen our gaze on our colonial relationship. 'Burnside' tells it perfectly:

“      & ws new zealands little lamb
        to britains highest tables led
        & were th final works performed
        out here in godsown killing shed   ”

Mardell’s collection, Great Works, is pithy and ironic with its clever nods to cultural and social history, gothic in imagery, and all wrapped up like a perfectly trussed lamb in our ‘God’s Own Country’ nostalgia, with a large drop of sauce and a knife waiting to slice. 

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