By Chris Orsman
AUP, NZ$24.95 | Reviewed by L M Wallace

THE TITLE sequence of the book The Lakes of Mars begins with a quote from Stephen Pyne’s The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica. “The microbiosphere of Antarctica has more in common with Mars than with Earth”, and it is on this premise that Chris Orsman invites the reader into the unfamiliar landscape the collection meditates on.

This is Orsman’s third major volume of poetry. His first, Ornamental Gorse, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana Book Awards in 1995, and was soon followed by South (1996), a sequence retelling Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic.

In The Lakes of Mars, the first section of the book is concerned with finding a way to look at the world. It deals with the difficulties of being able to capture ‘all’ of life. Orsman reflects upon how we are forced to document moments only, through photos and memory, and are then left to reconstruct a whole from these pieces.

While its primary focus is not Antarctica, the first section still deals with exploration and the unknown through a variety of fields including art and science. There is admiration in the poet’s voice for these historical pioneers, the way they set off into uncharted territory and detach themselves from familiar life, as well as an acknowledgement of the ignorance or errors that at times go hand in hand with the successes of such pursuits. In a poem dedicated to scientist Maurice Wilkins, Orsman writes:

        ... Gifted clumsiness?
        Genius? You are there at the start of it,
        a chiropractor of the biophysical,
        clicking the backbone of DNA into place.

There is also a lot of warmth in these pages. The value and meaning Orsman finds in personal relationships is evident from the many dedications amongst the poems. Though his landscapes are often barren and harsh, he appeals to us through recognisable scenes; children holding toetoe in the wind in ‘Instamatic’ and a woman’s longing in ‘The Polar Captain’s Wife’.

It is Orsman’s ability to sculpt a scene that is truly remarkable. He draws a situation by describing the peripheries, not by ‘telling’ us directly. In ‘Volunteer’ he sets the scene without ever showing his hand to the reader:

        Parihaka lay under a bluish haze,
        deft with the chink chink of bit and rein;

        on the perimeter you could hear
        rifles being cocked like knuckles cracking.

In Orsman’s work, you get the feeling that every word has been thought-out; every line is a careful construction of concise sounds that demand an alert reader. He is a craftsman concerned with getting as close to a ‘pure’ nature or science as one can, and the various pursuits that allow this. Objects are reduced to elements, and as you read you feel as though the poems themselves have been chiselled from a block of ice, pared down until it is clear that every word left is crisp and necessary. This is apparent in lines such as “the reddish teething of mountains” from ‘Primer of Ice and Stone’ and a passage like the following from ‘Grass’:

        Stone out the windows

        of the changing-shed,
        call it the barn of the rich man

        after his soul was demanded,
        emptied of all but the living

        granaries of seed heads
        carried in by the wind.

After this first section with its familiar notes of family and location, we are then ushered into the second, comprised of two sequences inspired by Orsman’s own Antarctic expedition. In 1998, Orsman travelled to Antarctica on the Artists to Antarctica Fellowship, along with poet Bill Manhire and painter Nigel Brown.

The first sequence, ‘The Lakes of Mars’, reads as if a diary of Orsman’s Antarctic journey, and the reader accompanies the poet as a foreigner in a strange land. A sense of menace in the landscape is acknowledged, and you are made to see that all you have in such extremities is your presence – ice rules in Antarctica.

In the second sequence, ‘The Book of the Dead’, Orsman follows the path of explorers who have visited the Antarctic before him. In these poems only relics of human life remain, and a sense of holiness becomes attached to Scott and his men. Loss and loneliness surround the poems. What becomes clear is that some idea of faith is needed in such a landscape, whether your faith is in God, literature, or something else entirely, it seems essential to have something to hold onto. Perhaps it is this idea of the forces and tensions between man and nature that Orsman has fallen for, hinted at in the collection’s closing lines:

        I take a slow slow breath
        through the baffles of the nose, repeat

        the single line burned into the crossbeam:
        to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield...

With more than a ten year gap between his last collection South, and The Lakes of Mars, you get the feeling that what is contained in these pages has been building for a long time, and the collection certainly delivers on such weighty expectation. However, as with anything a poet falls for, it seems impossible that Orsman will ever be able to say all he means and feels about Antarctica, and the effect the visit had on him. It is an impossibility that Orsman acknowledges throughout the collection, particularly through the idea of the camera. In ‘What the Camera Missed’, he ends with the line “The camera misses everything really”, and as a reader I hope there are still more gaps in New Zealand’s growing Antarctic canon for Orsman to try and fill.