Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941-1997
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86940 162 X
On the cover a reproduction of Colin McCahon’s 1965 painting Floodgate conveys ideas of power, compression and explosive force. At the point of emergence through the floodgate, the focal point of the painting’s dynamics, the flood is luminous with energy. These are metaphors perfectly apt to the remarkable character of Allen Curnow’s poetry and apt, too, to the remarkable durability of his creative power. Just how remarkable can be seen by comparison with that of W B Yeats. Yeats’ period of intensive poetic output, measured from his first mature volume to his last, covered a little over 50 years, 1889 to 1939. Curnow’s new collected volume, with its earliest poems dating from the late 1930s, covers almost 60 years.
It could have gone back 64 years to 1933 and his first volume, Valley of Decision. But Curnow has long since lost interest in his youthful work and excludes it from this volume, together with the other 1930s volumes, Enemies and Not in Narrow Seas. He did include these in his first Collected Poems 1933 – 1973 (1974) but he made it clear in his author’s note to that volume that it was not until the 1941 volume, Island and Time, that he really came into his own. “I had to get past the severities, not to say rigidities, of our New Zealand anti-myth: away from questions which present themselves as public and answerable, towards the questions which are private and unanswerable.” Including a small selection from Island and Time (1941) (only eight of the original 25 poems) and more generous selections from Sailing or Drowning (1943) and At Dead Low Water (1949), the contents of Early Days Yet reflect the spirit of that 1974 author’s note and include as well all the poems that were collected in Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972 – 1988 (1988) and all that have followed to this current year.
Almost all. Even as I write this the latest issue of Sport arrives with yet another new poem by Curnow in it. New and Collected Poems 1941-1997 seems an interim subtitle already.
Curnow’s awareness that his great accumulation of years has not diminished his creative energies is perfectly caught in the flaunting irony of the volume’s idiomatic title, Early Days Yet. And in keeping with the stylistic economy of means by which all possible readings of such idioms are put to work in Curnow’s poetry, the phrase also points to the powerful presence of the past. Of the 12 new poems grouped under the title The Game of Tag (1989-1997), seven are directly concerned with his childhood and the generations of his parents and grandparents. Personal and family history has always been there among the poems. A critical tendency to emphasise the public and national significance of poems such as “House and Land” and “Tomb of an Ancestor: In Memoriam R L M G”, for example, justifiable as it is, has had the effect of blurring the fact that wholly or in large part these poems grew out of personal and family experience. The relation between poetry and memory was touched on briefly in the note to Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972):
A poet never stops trying to save poetry from poetry, to make something of it, not a spurious everything. Memory is always something but if memory were ever good enough — even of a moment ago! — would we want poetry? Isn’t this the necessary irritant? Because of it, memory is a thing of the present, a thing of the future too, if that is not already taken care of.
Poetry compensates for the inadequacies of memory by reimagining the “something” that memory always is, an activity in the present revitalising the particulars of the “past”. Curnow’s continuing interest in this process is signalled by the lengthy preface or epigraph to Early Days Yet taken from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, a source-book for not only much of Curnow’s imagery but for some of his characteristic ways of thinking as well. The passage used is from ch19, “The world of the unborn”, part of the mythology of the Erewhonians, beginning: “The Erewhonians say that we are drawn into life backwards; or again, that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor… The Erewhonians say it was by chance only that the earth and stars and all the heavenly worlds began to roll from east to west and not from west to east and in like manner that man is drawn thrrough life with his face to the past instead of the future. For the future is there as much as the past, only that we may not see it…” To make poetry of the past involves a kind of divination perhaps, being a realisation of it and a bringing to perfection. It implies a control over it.
This might account for the use Curnow makes of the future-perfect tense about remembered things, as a means of fetching out and completing the possibilities latent in the past of the poem and hence of making memory a dynamic and constructive process and not just a matter of simple recall. This is a new stylistic strategy in his work. In Continuum and The Loop in Lone Kauri Road, poems set in the past like “Survivors”, “The Pug-Mill”, “A Time of Day”, “A Raised Voice” and “A Sight for Sore Eyes” have been written in the simple present tense: “…where tomorrow was / encloses me now”, as the conclusion of “A Time of Day” puts it, echoing the “memory is a thing of the present” in the note above.
Among the newer poems, however, “The Unclosed Door”, while it begins in the present tense, closes in the future-perfect. The young Curnow and a small friend unexpectedly witness the slaughter of a lamb in a slaughterhouse “cool as a church inside”. In the shock of this violence it is as though time stops and the tense changes abruptly from the present to the future-perfect:
They’re all busy now, the hosing down
will have started…
the round stain dilates. An enrichment.
I think the children had been silent, all
this time. I will have pulled my bike, off
his, on the tree. Nothing alters this.
“A South Island Night’s Entertainment” is about going to a movie in a shed miles from anywhere only to find it’s the wrong day:
the day, or how
will we have found
Shut out. Wrong day.
Wrong side of the screen
where a New Age
was to have unreeled…
The bang of the new 1919 Model T’s engine firing in “Early days Yet” suggests the beginning of the world, with
hey, ho Bang!
And where will it all
have ended? That
was a long way off.
In the new poems Curnow manipulates time more subtly than ever before, emphasising the interdependence of past, present and future and the narrative fluidities this awareness makes possible. Above all, the future-perfect implies completion and closure, from whatever tense it is regarded. “Another Weekend at the Beach” traces much the same route down to the sea at Karekare as “You will Know When You Get There” and has much the same burden of mortality. In the course of the descent,
The western horizon will have slid
behind the mask of an eye-levelled
next eyeballing wave.
Like most of the new poems, the title poem, “Early Days Yet”, possesses great brio and lucidity. When Curnow read the poem on National Radio’s “Top of the Morning” programme recently, interviewer Brian Edwards’ surprised response was: “I could understand all that!” Edwards’ surprise reflects an attitude towards Curnow’s work neatly summarised by David Eggleton in his excellent Listener review: “Sometimes his poetry seems too clever, too obscure, too hermetic — so self-involved it risks disappearing up its own fundament.” In poems like “Early Days Yet” and others here, however, Curnow is a most open and sociable poet and the emotions liberated are as often those of the heart as of the mind. The poem recalls the poet’s father, the Anglican minister, Tremayne Curnow, driving his 1919 Model T around his large rural parish for holy communions and burials, having filled the tank with Big Tree motor spirit,
…the right image
for the poor The Lord be
with you and the pews creak back
And with thy spirit.
The poem is elegiac at its core, when the dust of the road through his father’s own landscape towards the Torlesse range evokes the “Dust to dust” of the committal prayer and
see him any more
dust of the earth,
his own. It closes
The wit and liveliness and lyricism of this poem recapture an evidently enormously likeable character. This is the same deeply spiritual figure first encountered years ago in the stately “Elegy on my Father” and in more minor keys more recently in “A Raised Voice” and “Survivors” and, among the new poems, in “An Evening Light”, in which Curnow dwells on his father’s ability to heighten and intensify for him even the simplest of experiences:
The smallest leaf’s alight where he looks
at the riverside willows, the painted iron
glows cold where he holds the garden gate.
“Early Days Yet” returns to the dust at its conclusion but it is the quality of that energetic personality and the vitality of that relationship that endure:
at our eyes already,
with a high warm wind,
with a whiff of japanned
seat-cushion, a shudder
with a skitter of rubber
on a rutted macadam,
with hey, ho, Bang!
And with thy spirit.
The poet’s mother is present also in a couple of the new poems. In “A Facing Page”, a sonnet in Baxterian couplets, he remembers when, “tucked and kissed for the dark” he would shut his eyes “too tight on a picture-book / for waking to loosen”, retaining in memory the engraving of “the giant in the sky” on the facing page of Bram Stoker’s Under the Sunset, and sharing the experience with his mother,
my mother’s copy in green cloth board 8vo
has nearly lost the spine, a few threads hold,
her childhood and mine.
His remembered mother and “the giant in the sky” belong to a lost but unforgettable world like the lost world of Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith”, as Curnow’s mind stays “Locked on to where people / believe in themselves, engraved fingers point down.”
The poet and his father and mother and his mother’s mother are all present in “A South Island Night’s Entertainment”, the poem about turning up for a movie on the wrong night. With its dark and isolated landscape in which nothing happens the poem calls to mind the “ghastly peace” of Tregear’s “Te Whetu Plains”. The weight of migration’s cultural dislocation is borne by the grandmother:
What’s visible here?
Not the crab tropic’s
on my grandmother’s
wedding night, swapped
now, for a sphere
beyond the circuit
of the shuddering Bear.
The collapse of order and meaning climaxing T S Eliot’s “Gerontion” is here relocated as the condition of life for the settlers. But the poem is about a migration across historical borders as well as geographical ones, about the massive cultural and sensibility changes involved in the shift from a late Victorian-Edwardian world to the beginnings of modernism. And the New Age movie that was to have been shown is imagined in a sequence of brief discontinuous clips punctuated by silences, images of grotesquerie and war and the terror caught by Munch:
scream. Silent, only
for the lady playing
“Rustle of Spring”
in an empty dark
shed of a hall.
The poem is brilliant in its bleakness. And its minutely detailed particularity is a forceful reminder of the power of mimesis in Curnow’s work, a rich field most rewardingly explored in Mac Jackson’s Landfall review of Continuum, but rather often overlooked in favour of Curnow’s more philosophical interests in reality, language, knowledge and so on. Similar richnesses of texture and surface are the source of strength in other new poems with a social orientation like “A Busy Port”, “The Scrap-Book” and “Investigations at the Public Baths”.
The title poem of the group of new poems 1989-1997 is “A Game of Tag”. The setting is Karekare with its Lone Kauri road, and the subject is the tagger. The poem’s epigraph seems likely to have been a real tag on the “Hefty / planks mounted strap- / wise, post to post”, forming a protective fence on the upper road following a landslide: AFRIKA POET HERO DODGER FELIX DEVOE CURSE EXIT CICERO BEASTIE SAINT THANKS FOR THE TAG AFRIKA POET ’93. The tagger with his gift for words becomes an analogue for the poet, “my spray- / gun-toting rival”, whose wild life (“powering the old / Falcon around, like / a bat out of Hell”) and wild words elide into images of violent death as a car crashes through the safety fence, a death in which the poet is implicated:
A crumbling road.
Where have they all
gone, with CICERO
BEASTIE and me
and which of us
leads the way down…
It is a surprisingly demonic image of poetry and the poet for one usually as Apollonian as Curnow, though the recollection of poems like “To Forget Self and All” and “Organo ad Libitum” surely moderates that adjective rather quickly. But the game itself is the thing. And the poetry endures. “THANKS FOR THE TAG” as the poem ends.
Twenty-two years ago Terry Sturm reviewed Curnow’s first Collected Poems in Islands in a splendid essay that continues to the present to comprehend the fullest range of achievement and potential in Curnow’s work. In the course of it he considers the poet’s “characteristic attitude to language … what we think of as the density of verbal texture in Curnow’s mature poetry is primarily a celebration of language, exploiting its capacity for ‘limitless disclosure, or invention’. Not surprisingly, given this kind of commitment, language itself is frequently a theme in the later poems, a way of focusing on the nature of the world to which it refers, often ambiguously or uncertainly.” It is a line of thought plainly relevant to “A Game of Tag” and other late poems. It is even more relevant to “Another Weekend at the Beach”.
The beach is once again Karekare, the beautiful windswept and surf-pounded beach on the Tasman sea west of Auckland that has long been the site of many of Curnow’s major poems. The poem’s title, with its holiday connotations, has an immediately trivialising effect. This is not how Karekare, matrix of major themes, has usually seemed. It is now a popular language cluster that has to be read through. From the opening sentence, “Turn left at the sign”, the Karekare of this poem becomes for a time a world of signs. “Look out / for the waterfall … Park here … Proceed / on foot.” Linguistically the place is a mess, with its “pohutukawa glade” (there are no glades in Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English) and the dunnies labelled demurely MALE and FEMALE. Culturally, too, there are incongruities. The grass is mown; “a figtree / thicket, wrong hemisphere, (is) implausibly / fruiting.” Surviving this shambles and nearing the beach, the poet traverses an unsigned landscape …
the wind-sifting dune
skyline of unkempt lupin, marram,
spinifex’s incontinent seed—
vessels bowling downwind,
…incontinent because it is unstoppable and an island reality uncontainable in the stereotypical signs of an international language. Inexpressible, too, is the experience foreshadowed by the poet’s reaching “no other conclusion (than) the back / of a broken wave,” the same “heavy wave” of death encountered at the end of “You Will Know When You Get there”, for which in this poem’s repeated quest he
…found no word
or forgot or omitted to write
The event and the possibility of any language but the most generalised being found to accomodate it are deferred indefinitely in a clever play on Derrida’s différence. In this deferral the local realities assert themselves as words, words not equal to the task of imaging death but real, local and highly specific: phytoplankton, algoid bloom, beached medusa, polythene waste, bubbled sea-froth and “…these tides may / secrete indigenous toxins.” Death, too, will thus be indigenous, local and specific. “Deadly / to the text”, as Curnow goes on, wittily taking Barthes’ “dead author”-replacing text as a personal metaphor. “Shall I copy it again?” A duplication like that, a Canon copying-machine clone, would be a form of self-renewal or palengenesis, a recurring interest in Curnow’s poetry. Language-play is circular, language returning upon itself as it does. This looping de loop in Lone Kauri road is a virtuoso, gravity-defying play on the most central of all the questions touching life and death. The questions and the linguistic bravura sustain one another perfectly in this extraordinary poetry.
The lucidity and invention and the sheer liveliness of Early Days Yet are those of a poet at the utmost reach of his power. This is not the first time such a remark has been made nor the first remembrance of Curnow’s enviably great age. Living so long is no doubt in some measure a gift. Staying so wide awake so long, however, is a rare skill.
Ken Arvidson is professor of English at Waikato University