Ludwig and God slug it out, Anne French

Nice morning for it, Adam
Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734735

Vincent O’Sullivan’s poetry falls into three broad periods. The early books are not only forgotten, they are also impossible to find, though I once came across a copy of Revenants (1969) in a dusty corner of Foyles. The first two seem to have vanished without trace from the nation’s library holdings; the last volume of the trio, Bearings (1973), the one the author didn’t bother to suppress, is rare. The O’Sullivan you find in their pages is largely unfamiliar: one of those mannered, hermetic, wordy Oxford poets of the 1960s, writing clever poems with classical stuff in them. Thank goodness he left, if it made the Butcher poems possible.

Middle period O’Sullivan is robust, vernacular, vigorous. The preoccupations of these books recur in different forms. Travel was a subject in Revenants, but flowered into the Poems from the Indian Funeral (1976) that documented several months spent in Central America. They pointed up the strangeness of “here” as seen in the light of what was experienced “there”: New Zealand, land of the green sward and Anchor butter, a place where milk bottles get put out, where sunrise isn’t akin to an attack with a knife.

The poems of suburban New Zealand that reached their apotheosis in the two Butcher sequences and the “Westmere Replays” took the familiar and made it strange, twanging the banal so it resonated with meaning. In Butcher, O’Sullivan created one of the most successful and enduring characters in New Zealand poetry to date: as fully realised poetically as Glover’s Harry or Arawata Bill, a more successful commentator than the protagonist of Curnow’s An Abominable Temper, more quotable than Stead’s Quesada. Butcher first emerged in Butcher & Co (1977), along with the iconic missus Sheila and the clever academic cousin, Baldy Criticus. They were given a second outing in The Butcher Papers (1982), in which Butcher’s obsession with The Rider (the Marlborough Man, whose cool blue eyes scan the distant horizon) competed with trouble at home with Sheila. Bluff Butcher manages to accommodate tenderness within a crudely reductive frame: scattering parsley like an artist or standing in sawdust, lost in his contemplation of the evancescent beauty of a teenage girl, whose virginity will last only until New Year’s Eve on Mount Maunganui: “This is pure sentiment, Butcher!/Give the girl her chops.”

The “Westmere Replays” mined the same rich lode of colloquialism and rough wisdom, with poems about the family and the neighbours, harking back to the late 1940s and early 50s, when O’Sullivan was growing up in the Auckland suburb of Westmere. The poems are populated with tough blokes who survived the war (but never talk about it), women dying or going quietly nuts, appalling relations.

The third poetic strand is the religious one, interwoven at points with the fourth, philosophy. The Pilate Tapes (1986), the most explicitly religious book so far, had a cast of characters that included Jix (aka “Jesus from Hicksville”), Rat, God, and of course Pilate (“a man like you”) caught together in a far corner of the Roman Empire and a plot whose inevitability did not detract in the slightest from its moral force. O’Sullivan’s genius for updating the timeless produced powerful poems whose verbal inventiveness did not undermine their serious intent. “TELEX FOR JIX RE SUNDAY” purported to be final instructions from God for the crucifixion and resurrection, such as “OPEN YOUR HANDS” and “THOMAS NO/PROBLEM HANDLED CORRECTLY”. Finishing WELL DONE BELOVED”, it was signed “∞”.

A few years earlier, the exquisitely crafted poems in the Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka sequence (1980) had explored both ends of the spectrum that runs from belief to existentialism, from the certainties of the 18th century New England philosopher Jonathan Edwards to the obsessive nightmare fictions of Franz Kafka. Late period O’Sullivan is explicitly philosophical once more. In Seeing You Asked (1998), it was Wittgenstein who provided the impetus for many of the poems, worrying away at problems of perception and language. In the present book, Nice morning for it, Adam, Ludwig and God are still slugging it out, assisted here and there by some characters from books gone by. Maureen McGuire, Bob Delaney, and the other kids from “1945” are straight out of the “Westmere Replays”:

                           Then we practise,
very earnestly, for war ….
In case the Japs, the Japs
Come ….
“Don’t
cry,” Sister instructs, “That’s what
they like most.”

There is even a dialogue worthy of Butcher and Sheila in “Metaphysics for beginners”:

He thinks on fact as fact, her husband,
the stinging of salt on a crack between
his knuckles, sun gradually on his back,
the pouring in of seasons as we apprehend.
“’Let there be Nouns’ does me.”

 

The river imagery in “River road, due south” can be found in any collection from Bearings onwards (“water/lying heavy” and “the current’s muscling”), but the huge irresistible bulk of the poem, the one sentence uncoiling through 28 lines, its syntax pushing the reader onward, from sunset (when “late evening smeared/its flaring rag across the mirror of the river”) into “the string of lights that thicken to suburbs”, is a late O’Sullivan characteristic.

Much of Lucky Table (2001) and Seeing You Asked have the same bulk, the same powerful syntax pumping away, propelling readers willy-nilly to the end, whether the poem’s meaning accompanies them there or not. It wouldn’t be so distinctive a device if the poems themselves were more accessible. But these are for the most part not very accessible poems, I fear, though “1945” and “River road” are straightforward enough. O’Sullivan has never been an easy poet, but Nice morning for it, Adam is probably his most difficult book so far.

Not that being an easy read is everything. I carried a copy of Brother Jonathan around with me for weeks when it was first published, reading and re-reading the poems until they yielded themselves up to me, one by one. Neither I nor the poems suffered from such close attention being paid to the text. I’ve done the same with this book, but it has taken me much longer to get properly inside.

When they open up, there is a good deal of fun being had, albeit of an intellectual kind, such as in “Nightmare on Cape Aesthete” or the broad anti-NZQA satire of “Mission statement”, in which

                                     Excellence,

the noun, is what we measure ourselves
by, a lovely fat glinty prosperous
noun that the tongue delights to lolly
about, one cheek to the other.

 

For instance, take the two neighbours in “But never say so”, who both stand for a point of view. One (with a nod to “Two pedestrians with one thought”)

    walks a Doberman called Plato,
his one tendency towards overstatement.
For as long as I attend I indeed believe him.
A good man with Plato beside him – of course one listens.

 

The other is a sybarite who “feeds puha to his rabbit Nietzsche,/stands as well at a window watching schoolgirls,/digits busy at his pocket”, recalling the poet who called to the possum in his Saint Francis voice whenever he fed it bread. Between them lives “the natural man”, “bored with the middle way”, “neither a skull on my desk nor a nude/gracing my settee”, who slavers “for God qua God, and the fabled trough”.

He lies, of course (or else is a persona not to be taken for O’Sullivan); there is a skull on the desk inscribed with the words “Memento mori” in many other poems in the book. In “Facts not withstanding”, for instance, where

                     Nothing
is quite lost we like to say,
facts not withstanding, only
This, This, This, the clock’s
insistent nagging. Everything gnawed
by the rodent whose front tooth is time.

(Note the Baxterian echo in that last image.) And in “Mid-sentence, so to speak”, where dying is the subject. And in “The colour of going”, about a suicide:

    only love in the offing
then, gone out now, quite,
blue, far as that, as a tide
out, not turning.

 

But there is tenderness here, too, as well as death. Although O’Sullivan knows “poetry’s an ice-rink anything skids on”, love is also possible – as in “Simply”, where the awareness that “everything so ordinary/is so special of a sudden/is because I am waiting for you”. Elsewhere, in “Jealousy’s not in it”:

                   I like to think of a beach,
a beach so long while light’s at one end shadow
laces the other. And lovers with backs as red as
danger, happy to lie where it’s bright, stinging or not.

 

As for Plato (the dog) and Nietzsche (the rabbit) posing their flawed alternatives, black and white, night and day, good and bad oppose each other in so many of these poems – as is to be expected of a book whose title deftly summarises Book 9 of Paradise Lost. In the “Child playing drafts”, a voice asks ”’Which do you want?’”, black or white; and the reply is “Night and day, that’s all.” All anyone wants, the ability to live in the present for as long as it lasts:

                            the sun worn
as by right and the promises, promises
of evening, night, next week, a life-
time …
He too
in the moment’s sunlight, believing it his.
(“The cat on the mat and the man watching”)

 

And if more is possible, “there is nothing like the nude to make/tomorrow distant, yesterday not at all”:

Ah, the good old bonfire that lights
the world! A story, and we’re starring in it!
Keep talking, while I misconstrue.
(“The note the lover tore up”)

 

Anne French’s latest collection of poems Wild is reviewed on p10.

 

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