Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Makeover by John Horrocks

In muted light by the electric bath
nameless forms of naked patients
wait passively in the enamel tub.
They lie there white as axolotls,
amphibious creatures with
tiny foreshortened legs, their
feathery gills hidden in steam.

They face their faint reflections
in the enamel and the tiles, each
head half-obscured by the rim.

Companions to forsaken
angels who lived for themselves,
they think only of their beauty.
Everything else is refusal.

The white-jacketed attendant
touches the plastic switch.
There is a spluttering flash
of orange and vermilion.
The translucent skin of each
wavering body ripples
in brief mimicry of action.


How to get you into the spirit of the weird and wonderful book where Makeover resides? A Wellington poet who has a long relationship with Rotorua, John Horrocks' new collection Something in the Waters looks at the history of this North Island town - a thermal spa where visitors went to bathhouses to be offered mud, massage, electric shocks and x-rays for a range of conditions.

'In Something in the Waters,' says the book blurb, 'we see how these intimate treatments, like many contemporary makeovers, fuelled belief in bodily and mental transformations.'

John's poems delve into this bizarre sulphurous world accompanied by a fantastic collection of photographs from the archives (one of which is on the cover.) The photograph accompanying Makeover cannot be reproduced here, but it shows the 'white-jacketed attendant' - standing like a bus conductor - with his hand on a device that is attached, via wires, to a man in a deep claw bath filled to the brim. 

We only see the back of a man's head and some dim legs under the water. The room is tiled, white. There is a repulsive clinical feel, the back of the patient's head is unbearably poignant.

I find the poem disturbing and fascinating at the same time. I am repelled by the white things in the poem - the technician with his hand on the switch, the naked patients like axolotls, the enamel and tiles - and I feel such sadness for the patients. The short three line stanza does that - stepping in after the muted naked creatures at the start, and drowning them, reducing them to nothing but a faint reflection.

I am also smitten by the line, 'Everything else is refusal', not - until this evening - knowing its genesis. I rang John, who lives not far from me, and he directed me to his comments in the book referring to the Rotorua Bathhouse as 'structured like the worlds of Dante's Divine Comedy, with a hellish subterranean basement where the gases chew at the structure itself. ... The other levels are more like Dante's Purgatory, where redemption through uncomfortable treatments could take place.' John explained that the 'grand refusal' was made by the 'cowardly fence-sitters' at the entrance to hell who were neither evil enough for hell nor good enough for heaven. Which is just perfect.

Again, if you don't know Rotorua, you won't know that one of the attractions is Hell's Gate - a place of hot pools and steaming water that George Bernard Shaw said was the most damnable place he'd ever been to. Echoing that, is the deliciously Frankensteinish moment at the end of the poem that mimics the moment when the first Man was vivified.

There are many more poems about the people using the baths and the strange contraptions that were, astonishingly, used, and then there are the poems about Rotorua the place. As the poem Panoramic says, in Rotorua, 'there is still the pungent/taste of the past, the steaming/imprint of ancient explosions.' John's poems go a long way towards making that history pungent again, deepening the imprint.

Very cool indeed. 

John Horrocks (right) bantering with publisher Roger Steele
at the launch of Something in the Waters
at Rona Gallery, Eastbourne 2010

About the Author

John Horrocks spent much of his childhood at his grandparents’ house at Rotorua. His poems recall the lake at this time — when the water was clear and many of the surrounding hills were covered in bush — and the town itself, with the spa in the Government Gardens in its final years. 

John is a research co-ordinator in the School of Health Sciences at the Wellington Institute of Technology. His previous volume of poems, Raw Places (2006) was based on his experiences as a farmer in the Tararua foothills.
For more Tuesday Poems click on the QUILL in the sidebar. Fabulous stuff at your fingertips. Start with US poet Sarah Lindsay at the hub.


lillyanne said...

Well son of a gun, Mary - I knew John Horrocks light years ago when we were both students at Auckland Uni. I had heard he wrote poetry now but I hadn't managed to track it down before you posted this one, so I am very grateful for that. It's a fascinating, unsettling, intriguing poem and I am very glad to have encountered it. Thanks for posting it.


Melissa Green said...

Oh, Mary, completely chilling and creepy; I flashed onto One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Very eerie. but I might be more likely than another reader to latch onto Kesey.

AJ Ponder said...

his work is amazing, Mary. Good on you for posting it. He really manages to express the weirdness of the pseudo-scientific gadgetry.