Intimations of mortality, Michael Hulse

Blame Vermeer
Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9780864735515

The Black River
C K Stead 
Auckland University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 978869403850

Sol
Andrew Johnston
Victoria University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9789864735492

The Ponies
Bernadette Hall
Victoria University Press, $25.00, 
ISBN 9780864735522

Airports
Kevin Ireland
Hazard Press, $24.99,
ISBN 9781877393341

Vincent O’Sullivan and Karl Stead are now, in the post-Curnow era, the presiding intellectual elder statesmen among male New Zealand writers. Too close for comfort, their paths in literature have moved upon virtually identical territory. Each is a distinguished and prolific poet, each a distinguished Katherine Mansfield scholar, each a highly accomplished fiction writer, critic and commentator. If O’Sullivan is also a searching playwright and biographer, Stead is the one with the shelf-load of public honours. With Stead in his mid-70s now and O’Sullivan notching up three score and 10 this year, they are the twin standard-bearers of a generation with its feet on empirical ground, recognisably distinct in temper, craftsmanship and aesthetic instinct from those (like Bill Manhire) who, following at a brief decade’s distance, differ in their ironic embrace of the whole post-modern package.

It’s in the nature of things that both elders are possessed with death. Blame Vermeer ends with a poem about burying a dead starling in the garden. “How things are” concludes:

The earth and the rain then, the sun
and a man scraping his boots at the door
at six twenty seven, Monday, early
autumn, is one of the ways to say,
This is how things are. The bird gone.
The man here. One of the ways.

 

That is the focus, put as simply as he can, of all O’Sullivan’s endeavour: saying how things are. One way of saying it is to acknowledge mortality, the commonplace everyday nature of death: “Grin,/he never stopped grinning. See it now?” he writes in “Yorick’s shoulder”, and the casual tone displaces Hamlet’s fixation on one specific death, putting in its place a more down-to-earth recognition of the seamlessness of life and death. An individual death will always be a terrible discontinuity; in the overall picture, it paradoxically underwrites continuity. O’Sullivan’s emphasis passim on the things we can relish here and now is of a piece with this.

That continuity, that ongoing flow, understood against the foil of death’s continuity-in-discontinuity, has emerged as arguably the main concern of O’Sullivan’s poetry over the past decade. It is a short step from “Right on”, the poem about a dead beetle that opened Lucky Table, to “How things are” with its dead starling, and similarly the title poem of this new collection insists on that ceaseless flow of things that’s been preoccupying the poet:

                                       Something
will happen after every painting for a long
time yet. It may have been war,
a sudden wrenching of implacable grief,
diseases arrived from the unburied,
children clattering in only days until
they are shunted east.

 

There’s real complexity of understanding in this simplicity. The lines not only insist that, in life, things happen; they are a reminder that the moment highlighted by art, whether seen as possessing importance or not, is merely one moment in the never-ending sequence of moments; and they imply too that the work of art is itself simply one of the things that happen, one of the moments in the sequence, and doesn’t necessarily enjoy privileged status.

Old men, George Steiner noted, don’t read novels. It may be so; but they write them, and they write poems too, and the mystery is why. They have had time enough, after all, to see for themselves that the world does not spin off its axis because of a sonnet. At the heart of O’Sullivan’s writing is a paradox: he may undermine the privileged status of art, but his belief in the real thing is clearly unshakeable. You can tell from his points of reference. Not just Hamlet. In recent years his poetry has been in conversation with Rilke, Stevens, Wittgenstein, and many more who command our attention. In this new book, when he writes of “the human whirr/when more limbs than nature allows/helicopter the famous staircase, woman/on the move”, his description of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase includes high respect alongside the tongue-in-cheek tone. By the same token, Ondaatje’s The English Patient is glimpsed in another poem as “a love novel he finds/quite unbelievable, actually”, and the impression that remains is of an aesthetic judgement confidently made, pronounced in passing, as it might be in conversation with a friend. Only those who are continuously debating writing and art, with others but above all with themselves, write like this; the debate’s inscription into everyday thought and response signals the seriousness.

There’s much more to be said about this book, especially about O’Sullivan’s steady pursuit of a persuasive conversational register in poetry, a pursuit that grows out of a profound engagement with poetic form and tone. Blame Vermeer is the real thing, wise beyond the attitudes of wisdom, deft beyond the posturing of deftness, brimming with O’Sullivan’s exciting ability simply to talk his understated way into sheer bloody poetry.

Stead’s The Black River is in many ways a similar book. It too prefers a relaxed, conversational manner. It too has the confidence of mature understanding, unstrained language, settled address. It too offers thoughts on the place of the individual in the ongoing flux. And it too is overshadowed by the prospect of death: the mild stroke Stead suffered two years ago concentrated the mind, in notebook poems which were his first post-stroke attempt to establish whether he could still write, and resulted in lines such as “no wish/to be part of the past/fuck history/give me the now”. Not the best poetry Stead’s ever written, perhaps, but there’s no arguing with the immediacy of this plea to go on living. None of us would say it any other way.

And in fact that’s where the universal appeal of this book originates – in its touching of emotional bases. On the one hand, there’s the meditation on death, which takes many forms here: “Today would be my mother’s/one hundredth birthday.//She’s there/somewhere/the ferryman/assures me.//He tells me/she was reluctant to go/but silent –/stood in the prow/no tears/and never looked back.” On the other, there’s the same valuation on the things of the here and now as we see in O’Sullivan, coinciding similarly with an aesthetic code: in the first of three poems titled “The Art of Poetry”, Stead cites as his aesthetic “the/pied stilts stepping/it out on the bay//in low-tide light,/the bottle-brush bush/shaking with//warblers at work” and, still the Poundian, salutes “the prisoner/poet who made//a life of observing/the ant”. All of the poems in The Black River were written following his stroke, and all are marked by a transformed, enhanced wonder at the simple pleasures of this world: an orange container ship, a gull, a tern, clouds, a purple and yellow viola. The poetry, you might say, is in the convalescence. It’s in the tenderness too.

And it’s not only there. Stead has always been fascinated by the 20th century’s rethinking of poetry’s place on the page, and here he has stanzas of various straggly shapes; he returns to the box-like patterns using lines variously justified to left and right, familiar from earlier work (the lines on his mother quoted above benefit greatly from this formatting, as does a longer poem on Italy in WWII); or he idly strolls through free verse, without any fuss. In “S//crapbook” there are brief verses, mainly light in tone, that might have been left in the notebook by the earlier Stead, but are in fact very appealing. He worries at our life in dreams, at semblance and reality, and, in “CK”, at the face he’s been perceived as presenting to the New Zealand public:

There’s a Stead I
recognise only by
his picture
 
in the papers
and what’s said of him
behind the lines —

 

It’s a Stead who doesn’t smile often, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but it’s not the man in whom Karl Stead can recognise himself:

I protest
“this is not the man
who eats my lunch, reads
 
my newspaper, sleeps
in my bed” – but who’s
listening?
 
The world’s sure it
knows you better than
you know yourself.

 

The Stead of this collection is decidedly a more amiable man than the public image has tended to suppose. I can vouch for the self-portrait. The Black River, darkened though it is by the poet’s intimations of death, is an arresting, human, even a buoyant book, full of mortal insight, a maker’s skill, adult-yet-boyish humour, and an unfeigned tenderness.

In my years as international editor of Arc, a UK poetry press, I was able not only to bring Karl Stead’s poetry into print in Britain but also to introduce Andrew Johnston to UK readers, and I’ve been pleased to see him grow steadily stronger from book to book. His first two collections had an appealing whiff of both Manhire and Ashbery; Birds of Europe relished the pleasure of married life in his adoptive France; and Sol, humanly enriched by a twofold sense of mortality (the death of his father and the birth of a son are behind fine poems here), is his most substantial collection to date.

The hallmark delicacy of Johnston’s characteristic couplets, which memorably quavered on the brink of silence in the title poem of How to Talk, is preserved in Sol. Here, however, that delicacy has acquired a cross-linear rhythmic flexibility that clearly owes something to Paul Muldoon but doesn’t imitate. This is the whole of “Z’habitants”:

The rivers teemed with
enormous freshwater shrimps
 
but that was Martinique
and I was thinking of Louisiana —
 
backroads strewn with sugar cane,
your swampboat cousin at Atchafalaya — 
 
bless you. We’d both caught colds
from running in the rain across New Orleans.
 
Z’habitants, écrevisses, ouassous, crawfish – 
whatever you call them, they’re so good
 
we could push the boat out, every night
and every morning
 
sleep late, talk, turn the boat around,
head for another shore.

 

Muldoon stood godfather here to the rhythmic momentum that drives the poem forward, through what seems a narrative, almost too quickly for the reader to disentangle what’s going on. Ashbery perhaps survives in the jokiness with which “bless you” responds to the ghost of “atchoo” in the name “Atchafalaya” and is itself picked up by the colds caught in the rain. Either might be behind the playfulness with which the boat is left somewhere between an idiomatic and a literal meaning, blithely.

That poem is typical of the zestfulness Johnston brings to his writing, and nicely illustrates his affiliations, but the elegiac feeling that darkens and deepens this book is perhaps best seen in these lines from “The Present”, a breathtaking poem which shares with some of Stead’s a position between the worlds of the dream and the real:

My father was surprised –
not, as I would have expected
to receive a carved stone figure –
but that I thought it necessary
 
to give him a present at all –
it wasn’t Christmas, it wasn’t
his birthday, it was just
a fine clear day in spring or autumn
 
so I told him
it was because he’d had a rough year,
what with his having
died and everything.

 

At the heart of Bernadette Hall’s new collection, The Ponies, are poems that grew out of the death of her niece in the London bombings of July 7th, 2005. There can be no question of comparing griefs; but I find that those closing lines from Johnston’s “The Present” convey to a stranger what seems the authentic experience of grief in a way that Hall’s “How We All Died With Her in the London Bombing” cannot. This is Hall:

We don’t want to share her, we’ve swallowed her
                                                up,
we hold her safe in our bellies, her father, her 
                                             mothers,
her brothers, her cousins, her aunt, her lovers, 
                                        her friends,
we’re all groaning and weeping and holding onto
                                         each other
and laughing and swearing and screaming in this
                                    terrible birth.

 

The shrillness of this tone makes a jarring contrast with Johnston’s quiet, and the strident phrase “terrible birth” too self-consciously makes a writerly job of the death.

This sense of the poet striving somewhat too hard for effect mars a good deal of the work in this book. In particular, the Antarctic poems that make up half of the collection could have been pared back; 130 lines of prosing on about an Irish polar explorer misguidedly changed to a Scot in a Kenneth Branagh film tell us only that the Antarctica New Zealand fellowship can take a heavy toll. “The Ice Bear” is delightful, though, with its glimpses of the mother bear that “warms her daughter/in the fluff of her paw”, and so too is an elegy for Chloe, a dog that “grew fat on cashew nuts, chocolate,/pavlova and smoked chicken” and is now, unsurprisingly after such stuffing, dead.

Kevin Ireland has moved substantially into fiction and non-fiction over the past 10 or 12 years, but, with more than four decades of poetry behind him, it’s as a poet that he’s still chiefly perceived. I’ve always found his ear unfailingly prosy, and Airports does nothing to help me, because if ever a writer could fuel the philistines’ notion that contemporary poetry is chopped-up prose, that writer is Kevin Ireland. “The longest wait I ever had during a flight/was seventeen hours trapped in LA airport/during the DC10 scare” begins one piece here. This tone of some fellow at the bar drawing breath to launch into a story is fairly typical. When Stead or O’Sullivan are at their ease, it’s on a fundament of deep and serious lifelong engagement with poetry; Ireland’s buttonholing bonhomie is prosy in thought and word.

 

Michael Hulse is an English poet and translator, and editor of The Warwick Review.

 

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