Huddle and glut, Michael Hulse

Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1998-2008
Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press, $35.00, 
ISBN 9780864736062

In “Being here”, the first of the 44 new poems in this generous book, Vincent O’Sullivan states explicitly for the first time an important position:

It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for
an emblem at every turn, if you cannot see 
                                                   bees
arcing and mining the soft decaying galaxies
of the laden apricot tree without wanting
symbols – which of course are manifold – 
                                             symbols
of so much else? What’s amiss with simply the 
                                                   huddle
and glut of bees, with those fuzzed globes
by the hundred and the clipped out sky
beyond them and the leaves that are black
if you angle the sun directly behind them,
being themselves, for themselves?

 

The question has been gathering weight in recent centuries. The urge to graft a symbolic dimension onto our understanding of the world is inseparable from the impulse to underwrite the given with a god. In Christian cultures, Enlightenment scepticism, Biblical scholarship, and scientific advances and autonomy – to name only some key factors – have steadily pointed us toward a conviction that the great stories are simply stories. This conviction operates at many levels of western societies at present, from street-talk and stand-up wisecracks to the considered discourse of the culture critic or philosopher, but I’d argue that one place to see it at its most nuanced and sensitive is in lines such as O’Sullivan’s.

The stance of the language is characteristic: to read this poem is like eavesdropping on the inner dialogue-with-the-self of a man accustomed to checking over the fundamentals of existence. The language enacts the thought with all the casual, reflex naturalness of a man patting his jacket pocket for the keys as he heads out the door. This is high thought in its everyday clothes, sitting under a tree to puzzle out bees and apricots. From the cast of the inquiry we’d infer, even if we didn’t know O’Sullivan’s earlier poetry, that this poem expresses habitual concerns of the spirit, just as the down-to-earth manner would tell us that this is a writer who has no interest in tricking out his thinking in the fancy wig, gown and gaiters of the coat-trailing intellectual. In a poem that’s telling us that the things of the world can be valued for themselves rather than for pointing symbolically to something else, the writing is perfectly pitched.

There’s something to be said about the temper of Vincent O’Sullivan’s poetry in old age, and how it compares with the temper of other styles of old age, say the late Czeslaw Milosz’s. “This,” declared Milosz – just that one word – in the poem titled “This”, written as he approached 90. “Which signifies knocking against a stone wall and knowing that the wall will not yield to any imploration.” That is no-nonsense in an O’Sullivan sort of way, and has a similar acceptance of what is. There’s a difference, though, insofar as even Milosz’s seemingly casual constructions have an air of the studiously unstudied; O’Sullivan’s read as if they came naturally, readily, swiftly – transcripts of thought scribbled on a napkin or envelope. Milosz had found, a decade earlier, that he was “called …/To glorify things just because they are.” That is exactly how O’Sullivan feels about his apricots and bees, as he turns away from emblems and symbols. But here too there’s an interesting difference, one that resides in the timbre of the language and in that deeper, hard-wired place that language is born in. While Milosz characteristically leaves us with the sense that he sat down with the intention of writing a poem, O’Sullivan appears to have reached up almost absently above his head and snapped off a length of ongoing thought-in-the-making, in the process of talking to itself. (I don’t say either species of poem is “better” or “worse” – we wouldn’t care to be without either.)

Through the whole span of his poetry, and particularly in the stunning output of the past decade, Vincent O’Sullivan’s writing strikes me as being most vital and alive, and having the most affecting and cogent claims on us, when it is conceived and written as “Being here” is. Together with the rich provision of new poems, Further Convictions Pending selects about 40 poems apiece from Seeing You Asked (1998), Lucky Table (2001), Nice Morning for it, Adam (2004) and Blame Vermeer (2007) – the poetry of his sixties – and it’s possible to trace his central vein of inquiry into the things of this world, and their numinous or no-more-than-earthly significance, throughout this late work.

To read the poems “Seeing you asked”, “Right on”, “As is, is”, “River road, due south”, “Still waiting, are we?”, “How things are”, and now “Being here”, together with the body of work that surrounds and extends and illuminates these, is to read a fellow being at work on the most serious and compelling of quests that the human spirit ever engages on. It’s possible to read O’Sullivan with Heidegger, Kant et al in the other hand, and we can imagine the worthy, cack-handed exegesis that would result – but for the moment, as we try with mounting admiration to keep up with O’Sullivan’s extraordinary fertility, the important thing to say is very simple: Further Convictions Pending is the work of a major poet, imaginatively profound, unpretentiously deft, generous in feeling and understanding.

If I’m highlighting the line in his poetry that runs from Butcher and Pilate and the Rawleigh’s man through to these new poems, I don’t mean to suggest that O’Sullivan’s wide-ranging curiosity has deserted him. Quite the contrary. There’s a poem here about an astronaut disappointing an audience by speaking over-casually of an achievement they want him to present in heroic terms; there’s a poem about a victim (in a conflict that could be anywhere) who “will not/be shot with his laces undone”; there’s a poem about a boy trying hard, at his grandmother’s wake, to work up a sense of a special, unique relationship with the dead Gran; and there’s a beautiful poem, with the muted, lower-case title “lines”, that joins the watch-winding poem in Blame Vermeer as an evocation of the great succession from father to son:

A quick sliver of wind bends the grass on the 
                                                      slope.
God knows why, I think of my father
brushing his palm across his still black hair.
No more than a gesture, a passing slip of wind.
He crosses the tall grass as if on his way.

 

In a writer averse to loftiness, and in an age that’s tried its damnedest to eliminate greatness from its aesthetic vocabulary, the moving simplicity of this sounds an immortal register that puts most contemporary poetry to shame. Can we account for the poem’s affecting power? We can point to those slightly unexpected, alliterating, thin-sounding words that go with the wind (“sliver”, “slip”); we can point to the knife-edge of literalness on which the words “God knows why” are balanced; we can point to the enigmatic identification of father and wind, strong in the final line; we can point to the questions implied in those closing words, “as if on his way”; we can talk of Imagism, and the power of a few understated words to say so very much (about mortality, and love, and the interconnectedness of things). But the discussion will leave the entrails splattered across the dissecting table, and the soul still unlocated.

If we are still undecided whether the truer statement is Auden’s “We must love one another or die” or his later emendation “We must love one another and die”, O’Sullivan offers his own resolution in the penultimate new poem here: “There is finally little to love, that is not each other.” That tenderness, and the ambiguity that characteristically endures in its phrasing, is a crucial part of the mood in Further Convictions Pending. Writing out of a rich understanding that poems may be stays against confusion but can never allay the confusion, O’Sullivan has produced a body of work in recent years that should be read alongside the poetry written by Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney over the same period; the contrasts illuminate all three poets. So, does the poet in old age believe in the enduring power of poetry?

When the sun cavorted on every leaf,
What else could he do but write his 
                                      Winterreise?
Now that sleet ticks his window,
“Give me the pen,” he says, “that talks mid
                                             summer.
I will hand you a nectarine that craves to be 
                                                    held.”

 

That’s the entirety of a poem with the deliciously self-deprecating title “Ho hum”. Beyond the realm of the literal-minded, the artist makes the “real”. These are O’Sullivan’s nectarines. Hold them. Take a bite. Feel the juice dribble down your chin.

 

Michael Hulse’s new book of poems, The Secret History, is published next month by Arc in the UK.

 

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