History’s ghosts, Hugh Roberts

The Dark Lord of Savaiki: Collected Poems
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Hazard Press, $40.00,
ISBN 1877393002

Poems 1946-2005
W H Oliver
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864735189

There are few readers now, I imagine, who could guess at more than one or two members of the so-called “Wellington Group” of 1950s poets, or who could remember the nature of its controversy with Allen Curnow and his nationalist “empty land” myth. Nonetheless, the Group identity was clearly an important shaping experience for both Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Bill Oliver. Campbell’s “Poets in Our Youth” is a series of verse letters to fellow “Group” members that perfectly capture the unstable mix of good-keen-man-ism and enthusiastic intellectual engagement so characteristic of New Zealand’s arts scene in the 1950s:

In your last letter to me, you paint
a vivid picture of Jim Baxter “sitting
on my floor at 3 Oriental Terrace
earnestly telling me which of my latest
batch of poems were good and which weren’t”.
… we used to sit
drinking beer, talking poetry, listening
to cricket matches, and once to a Joe Louis
fight. They were good times, Pat. Beer played
an important part in them. Remember the weekend
when we helped Eric Schwimmer
build his A-frame
house at Te Marua. All of us pitched in –
Bill Oliver, John Thomson, John’s architect
friend, Frank Stockman, Gordon Orr,
Harry
Orsman, and others.
(“Letter to Pat Wilson”)

The verse of the young Campbell is immediately comprehensible as a product of this milieu. Highly wrought and full of learned allusions, this is poetry anxious not to betray any embarrassing tokens of provinciality. Perhaps the title alone of “Homage to Swinburne” (!) would suffice to make the point:

This is Eve then? The temptress Eve?
O stark, stark as the Renaissance vision
Of grief’s anatomy, or today’s sheer
Falling away of lovers,
She’d inhabit you again as ghosts

 

This sort of empty pretension is “cosmopolitan” only in the sense that a callow outsider might have written it anywhere from Bombay to Brisbane to Birmingham. What saves the work of the early Campbell is his innate lyrical gift – unmatched, I think, by any other New Zealand poet. Campbell is almost incapable of writing a line that insults the ear. One thinks of the masterly “Elegy” sequence for his friend Roy Dickson, for example, or even of more minor poems such as “Coming of Spring”:

Already a brittle light chills
And hardens the wind-bent trees.
A post away a morepork shrills
In sudden short alarm. Cows on knees,

Deep-buried in the grass, turn
Ceremoniously a steaming head
As we walk past. How strangely burn
The daffodils in your arms!

A contemporary reader of these early poems, though, will perhaps be most struck by what is missing: any hint of Campbell’s complex ethnic and family background. Born to a Cook Islands Maori mother and a Pakeha father and raised for his first seven years on remote Penrhyn island (Tongareva), Campbell was shipped along with his elder brother to a Dunedin orphanage in 1933 after the deaths of both his parents.

The appeal of the Wellington Group’s cosmopolitanism seems in retrospect entirely understandable for someone as doubly, even triply, an “outsider” as the young Campbell. Not truly at home in either Maori or Pakeha New Zealand, how attractive it must have seemed to, in Allen Curnow’s sceptical phrase, “forget self and all” in his writing. But the story of Campbell’s later poetic development could be subtitled “Curnow’s Revenge”, as questions of identity come to haunt Campbell more and more urgently.

As early as his second collection (Sanctuary of Spirits, 1963) we find Campbell turning to a “Polynesian” theme: the bloody history of Te Rauparaha:

This island is alive with ghosts.
Tonight every leaf is an ear
attuned to your heartbeat,
every stick a spear
gripped by a crouching figure … .
(“Kapiti”)

 

This sense of the past as a haunting, by turns hostile and indifferent, demanding our recognition, but able to offer us little in return, becomes a leitmotif of Campbell’s poetry. In particular, his mother, Teu, and maternal grandfather, Bosini, become insistent revenants throughout the later poetry. His 1980 collection The Dark Lord of Savaiki is the most sustained attempt to pull together the shattered fragments of his family history. The “dark lord” – death, discontinuity, loss – remains at work, however. Campbell cannot entirely shake his outsider status:

All those bright
moments
strung together
on the thread of
childhood!
The thread long ago
was snapped,
and the landcrabs,
keepers of secrets,
fought over them,
and drew them
into their holes.
(“Elegy for Anzac Day”)

 

In later works, Campbell picks up other “snapped threads” from the tangled skein of his family history: his father’s traumatic experience at Gallipoli generates a sequence of poems, his brother’s pointless death by “friendly fire” in the last weeks of WWII sparks a poetic history of the Maori Battalion. In both of these series Campbell makes his insider/outsider status an asset. His personal connection to these events is downplayed, while Campbell proves wonderfully adept in both sequences at inhabiting multiple perspectives, multiple voices: from the ordinary soldier (“I could drink a pub dry in this/bloody heat”); to a soldier’s mother writing anxiously from home (“Hone, don’t believe the story/that your Amiria is going out/with an American serviceman”); to a disembodied lyric voice that imagines the departure of the spirits of the dead:

Now it is safe to be going.
There’s a sound of sighing
as they part from their
bodies and take to the air,
and along both fronts
the living are afraid.

 

Both sequences seem to represent a coming to terms with history’s inevitable reticences, its cross-purposes, its untidiness. If history breaks all threads eventually, why should Campbell feel singled out by history’s ghosts?

The later lyric poetry is largely concerned with domestic satisfactions. There is a poem from the sequence “Cages for the Wind” (the title itself referring to Campbell’s windswept, hilltop house) which seems to be almost a manifesto of what survives after the quest for historical roots has come to its end. With history’s ghosts laid, the self is not forgotten but freed to an intensely observed encounter with the immediate environment: his house, his wife (and fellow poet) Meg, his pets, the landscape:

XIV Roots

The wind blew hard again today,
tried to blow away my poems,
but to no avail,
for they had sunk their roots
deep into the hillside,
deep into the stones, the grass,
the trees, the songs of birds,
the light on land and sea
that never dies,
the light in your eyes.

 

W H Oliver writes of the young Campbell, in his 1980 “Portraits”, that he had

an eloquence so true it made him
a natural victim. It was rare to be simply
happy, hurt, desolate and joyous
without taking too much thought, not trying
to be clever. He has kept to that. His
reticence is a reproach we still merit.

If ever a poet took “too much thought” it was the young Oliver. The poems in his first collection (Fire Without Phoenix, 1957) are the kinds of poems critics would write if they were fool enough to try; they have everything a poem should have – and more – but no, well, fire. It’s telling that a poem about writing poetry should be called “Ceremony of Pain”:

Come with sufficient reverence to write
The act’s a sacrament. Do not bring here
The folly or the fashion you can offer,
Nor yet your time’s inexpert wisdom, gained
At greater cost than it can ever pay.
Bring only solitude, and stand in silence.

 

After Fire Without Phoenix, Oliver all but disappeared from the literary scene (historians having little time for crafting sestinas). When he returned with Out of Season in 1980, too often, still, the poems were marred by the kind of bullying sententiousness we find in “Ceremony of Pain”: “Hope as you will for the shallows/but do not place bets” (“Under the Wave”); “Take care you do not disbelieve the wind,/nor fail to heed the lessons no-one meant/to teach you in a wintry childhood” (“Midwinter Spring”); “Better/a voice for anger than a complaining silence” (“Ancestors”).

From Poor Richard (1982) onwards, however, Oliver’s work underwent a remarkable reinvention. A sequence of poems in that volume arising from a sabbatical in Europe is particularly felicitous:

I walked to the cliff path
passing a house named Mordros
wondering if it might mean
in the forgotten tongue
something to do with death
and followed the fishing boats
the coasters creeping west
the horizon smudged with ships
the jet trails frayed by the wind
converging out of sight.
(“Mordros”)

 

The complex interweavings of alliteration (path/passing, might/mean, coasters/creeping etc) and assonance (tongue/something, boats/coasters, trails/frayed etc) help create the poem’s sustained mood of quiet meditation without showily drawing attention to technique. The younger Oliver would have found out what “Mordros” meant and beaten us about the head with it. Here we make of it what we will. Are the boats “creeping west” metaphors for lives nearing their ends? Oliver resists the urge to point the moral.

The best poems in the book are the most recent, previously uncollected, ones. Here we find poems of sustained unselfconscious concentration on the thing at hand, like “Naked Ladies”, or “Diptych”, and poems of goofy humour like “At Makara”, which are all the more welcome for being so apparently unlikely in view of what had come before. In “Sundowner”, Oliver pictures himself as “like … that poet in To the Lighthouse/who had years before written/a dozen or so good lines” and is now at best to be gently indulged. This volume tells, to me, a quite different story: that of a young man who attempted to become a poet by sheer force of will, and who eventually – and somewhat miraculously – succeeded.

Let me end with a quibble. Hazard Press’s new “Collected Poems” of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell is a handsome volume, but it provides no editorial apparatus of any kind (not even an index of first lines or titles) and it has also been sloppily proofread. It is, moreover, a “Selected Poems”, not a “Collected”. Victoria University Press, by contrast, has done a superb job with Oliver’s Poems: 1946-2005. This is a volume for both scholars and ordinary readers. It will be a great shame if Hazard Press’s new volume delays the production of an equally thorough collection of Campbell’s works.

 

Hugh Roberts teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine.

 

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