Book Review: Back Before You Know by Murray Edmonds

Reviewed for Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020, first published in March 2020:

Back Before You Know stands out from other New Zealand poetry book of the last year both in its physical and poetic forms. Physically it’s a beautiful little book, appearing handmade and wrapped in card. Compound Press, who print and bind books in Auckland and say they ‘maintain a particular though non-exclusive commitment to poetry of the Pacific Region while sea-levels still permit,’ obviously create books to be artworks in their construction as well as their content.

Poetically it is a collection of two poem-fables, the first ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’ draws you deep into a style of long form poetic storytelling so rare these days. It tells the tragic story of Jonas Bones who likes to cheat and murder, a highway man’s nightmare in the colonial frontier lands of Southwest Waikato (it purposely plays on the form and story of American ballad, ‘The Ballad of Billie Potts’). Jonas’ son, Rascal Bones, goes away (after some rascally business goes wrong); having made his fortune he returns to celebrate with his parents and a dramatic ending unfolds.

Author Murray Edmonds mostly uses a variety of rhyming quatrains (typical of a ballad) in a clearly deliberate way, breaking form at times when the content dictates – for example in a stanza which brings you forward in time (out of the ballad tale) the poem drops into free, unrhymed modern verse. He mixes these quatrains with speech and the odd couplet to create a story which roars along and is an example of doing some very-clever-poetic-things while creating something readable and enjoyable which I could happy hand to a poetry novice (or sceptic). This combination seems rare these days when instagram poets rack up thousands of readers to the most basic of quatrains while literary poets take pride in how few people are able to comprehend (or be bothered to finish) their books. ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’ was first performed on stage in late 1984 and it will be interesting to see if the printing of it this year revives any interest in performing it – you can certainly read it aloud to an audience of one.

The second poem-fable in the collection, ‘The Fancier Pigeon’, is very different in many ways. In this poem three interwoven characters share possession of a ring in a painful and intermittent love triangle which they can’t all survive. This poem, though there is the odd rhyming verse, is told mostly in free verse which suits the more modern timeframe of its events.

Though separate, the two poems are connected through the narrative of objects lost in water (which itself acts as a symbol for hiding truth) and through sea creations who reveal these hidden things to us and the characters. In ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’ for example –
“Under the willows the eel’s nose rises.
The duck breaks from her enclave of water.
Frog already in flight, back legs in limbo,
but all that you see after the splash
is the black hole of water
as the jaws close over…”

While in ‘The Fancier Pigeon’ –
“Books in the library
told her where the fishes went
her study was to find out where
those fishes hid
with whom
and when and where and even why…”

Edmonds has been a poet and writer as well as a thinker and critic in New Zealand for over 40 years. Both the poems in Back Before You Know have aspects of Edmonds the poet, the playwright and the critic and it would be a great introduction to his work.