C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $21.95,
Amongst our intelligentsia the bald dome of C K Stead looms large. In the identity parade of contemporary New Zealand culture, he is one of those controversialists, one of those hard-headed Mr Punch figures, who go against the flow and court notoriety by saying what they think in a small, close-knit society overly given to the repetition of polite bromides and anodyne discourse. He is a necessary voice for our pious times: the essayist and poet who – even if sometimes a trifle hamfistedly – is wont to follow a logical thought through to the place where a number of logical thoughts, each followed through to its conclusion, end up clashing.
Divided into three sections, Dog tackles a variety of subjects, beginning with a series of poems prompted by Stead getting the King’s Lynn Poetry Award – a cash prize requiring the recipient to celebrate the maritime history of the ancient Norfolk port of King’s Lynn.
Stead’s 13-poem sequence, “King’s Lynn and the Pacific”, elects to set off in the wake of Captain James Cook’s second and third voyages to the Pacific, using the linking device of the adventures of James Burney and George Vancouver, two seafarers from King’s Lynn who accompanied Cook. And so the poems record incidents from those revelatory and revolutionary journeys of exploration, those celebrations of two worlds colliding:
a front-to-back, downside-up
world he imagined it, as if
the Beginning hadn’t begun
and the Word was Dog.
These are essentially picaresque and picturesque poems (a sailor becomes the centrepiece of a cannibal feast; icebergs are skirted). Stead is a Europhile to his fingertips, a believer in the vision of progress known as the Enlightenment, and so he offers this sequence as transformative: the European tourist encountering the savage Other and all the exoticism that suggests. Thus we get the perfumes of seduction – “leaf-mould and loam, frangipani and over-ripe fruit” – and other paradisial indicators, before the leader Cook is literally absorbed into this new world. A martyr to progress, god-like, Cook becomes a kind of dog-star, symbol of a continuous translation between contexts that, here, forms much of the impetus of Stead’s exercise in intellectual arbitrage. In turn, the sequence is versified evidence of our persisting entanglement with Mother England’s apron-strings. In this endeavour, Stead is perhaps our last modernist, a figure himself of transition.
The second section of Dog confirms Stead’s globe-trotting symptoms. Entitled “Creation etc”, it consists of 23 occasional poems written for friends, for places and for events. The two back-handed elegies for Allen Curnow are at first – and even second – glance the most attention-getting, as they grapple with the mystery of personality and sketch the speculative metaphysician with a cartoon-like succinctness:
he was towed at the last
headlong into the westerly,
tottering, leashed to his Dog.
Fascinated as he is by the oracle of Tohunga Crescent, Stead allows Curnovian echoes to sometimes sound out grace-notes amongst his own verbal music-making, which in turn hints at ideas of apostolic succession. Certainly Stead – dubbed by Michael Morrissey “a chameleon” – has here and there assumed Curnow’s trademark strict syllabic metre. But in the end that merely confirms Stead as a maker of technically accomplished verses, willing to rework a variety of formulae, including the mathematical (“Shapely Fact Number Poem”) and the alphabetical or concrete poem (“Lost Dog”).
While these poems scrape by on their wits, other poems attempting to tag-wrestle philosophers ranging from Wittgenstein to Locke, Kant and Hume are leaden, muffled and dull as a dutiful respectfulness hobbles Stead’s instinctive iconoclasm. Wearing his erudition on his sleeve – and possibly on his armband – Stead is, in such poems, the trendy local vicar or progressive parson singing from yesteryear’s hymn-sheet, his posture a colonial cringe.
Poems which self-consciously evoke a second-hand Graeco-Roman cultural heritage by critiquing American presidents – the gung-ho tactics of George W Bush, the windy rhetoric of Richard Nixon, the dissembling of John F Kennedy – in the styles of Horace, Suetonius and Catullus show Stead as the good citizen of poetry, promoting community standards and literary truisms in a reedy warble. So too do poems to fabulous friends in far-off places (take a bow Karl Miller, British literary lion and founding editor of the London Review of Books). However, what sounds like the true voice of feeling emerges most clearly in the poems of homegrown opposition – that querulous or carping voice arguing the toss with such wily lucidity that it becomes an absolute value.
Stead, the self-styled “Bald Caesarion”, is a master of a certain kind of Kiwi irony – galvanised irony, perhaps – that he has wielded for decades now with a gladiator’s skill. A cage-rattler as well as a swashbuckler, with scores to settle and axes to grind, in Dog he once again provides an exhibition of the deadly rapier-thrusts of the pugnacious satirist: the skewerer of conceits, pretensions and mis-steps. So, there is a poem in praise of the vibrating molecules of his beloved Auckland, but his poem about Wellington is a Baxterian boarding-house blues sung with an entertaining snideness that slides off into a cheerful sneer.
Another poem, “Of Irony” defines the poem’s subject with a glorious unfairness by suggesting that Ian Wedde’s recent emergence from a decade of poetic silence to declaim in the Horation mode is an example of it. And in another poem, “Waitangi Day 2002”, Stead plays the barging and shoving reactionary to the hilt by scrutinising, in a faithful demotic, the carnival of protest that is the Waitangi Day celebrations. “Even Newer English Bible (2)” offers a modernised version of the cod-Anglican Lord’s Prayer as if voiced from heartland Kiwiana – “Please feed us/and go easy on us/as we go easy on/those other bastards” – while “Psalm” reads like a paean to the iconic New Zealand farm dog.
And so here once again you notice the “faithful friend”, loping through the text as if to deflect the collection’s sense of ad-hockery and cumulative inconsequence. Stead, providing episodes, stories, allegories and parables, undertakes his nosing investigations, bright-eyed, ear cocked to the vernacular, as if “dog” were an analogue for “self”. Nietzsche famously declared God is dead, but has He, in our animist age, transmogrified into god’s echo, dog – the god of little things, the worrier circling the question of faith? The dog motif pops up so frequently – the last section “At Wagner’s Tomb” highlights the story of Richard Wagner’s dog Pohl – that you could assume Stead is showing that there is no such thing as disconnected facts, there is only complex structure: it all connects. Thus we remain God-bothered.
“At Wagner’s Tomb” records Stead’s response to a visit to Bayreuth to hear the complete Wagner Ring Cycle. It’s rendered with a stern syllabic beat whose rhythm sounds starkly Sargesonian, and thus perhaps incongruous pitched against the neo-classical grandiosity of Wagner and his circle – Ludwig II the Mad King, Friedrich Nietzsche the Mad Philosopher, and Richard Wagner himself – the overblown Romantic. It’s no wonder that Stead barely keeps his plink-plonk line stress under control. And in the end do we care?
At this last, Dog subsides, collapsing the tension (between exotic and indigenous elements) by revealing itself as a bookish book, a pedagogue’s haul, smacking of chalk-dust and cribbed texts with a dunce’s cap and a high stool in the corner for those who fall behind. Here Dog announces its unevenness. You sense the earnest droning presence of a teacher apt to rap knuckles with a wooden ruler to keep a drowsy class-room awake. Best then to ignore these boorish incidences of try-hard learning, of dogged earnestness, and seek out instead the snapping and biting irreverence of the poems hailed by the witty book-cover graphic. Like a good guard dog, they’ll wake you up.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin writer. He has won the Reviewer of the Year Award four times.