Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (1925-2009)
A death at the age of 84 cannot be called unexpected. But at any age the loss of a person close to us leaves an absence that will not be filled. In the case of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, many people felt that he was close to them, even some he had never met. On one level, his poetry spoke a simple language that seemed to go straight to the hearts of those who were willing to listen.
On another level, however, there was always a mystery, even for those who were close to him. There is darkness in his poetry, even at its most tender and loving, let alone when it becomes savage and angry, and there was darkness in the man as well. It can be given names like melancholy, depression, social withdrawal, emotional control and so on, and yet the labels never quite explain the mystery.
There was an element of evasiveness as well. At his funeral, family members spoke of the way, whenever he rang them, he would pass the telephone on to his wife, Meg. But before he did so he invariably asked, “How are you?” and you felt that he really wanted to know. The paradoxical mixture of compassion and distance, concern and indifference, made you feel that he had both a deeper understanding of the nature of life and a desire not to engage with it.
Campbell’s poetry is never obscure in its language – although the use of words, names rather, from the Tongarevan dialect of Cook Island Maori might make you think otherwise. It has none of the twists and turns or the veils and red herrings of experimental verse. But there is an obscurity nevertheless, an obscurity of feeling, resulting from the darkness and the paradox, and leaving a permanent sense of mystery. For many readers, that is fascinating. Doesn’t all life contain mystery? Would his poems, then, be so vividly alive without it? It is no coincidence that many musicians loved his verse, because his art comes close to theirs, seemingly clear and articulate yet never revealing all of itself.
Partly, of course, this effect comes from Campbell’s double heritage. When his first book of poems Mine Eyes Dazzle appeared in 1950, apart from a few doubters most critics were indeed dazzled and felt that a bright new star had appeared in the constellation of New Zealand poetry. He was an inheritor of the English Romantic tradition but giving a voice to the New Zealand landscape: an English poet in the antipodes.
That is also how he presented himself at that time. Recently I came across a note in his hand, written on the back of a playscript. It was written just after he married Fleur Adcock (1952), and it recorded his embarrassment when his full name, including a Polynesian middle name, was read out in the crowded church. “My secret is out,” he scribbled, apparently in some distress. Don’t worry, Alistair – your secret is still not out.
At that time there were doubtless good reasons for hiding “The Polynesian Strain” (the subtitle of Stone Rain, 1992). When as small children he, his two brothers and their sister were sent from their birthplace in Rarotonga to Dunedin, they found themselves in a world that was hard to relate to. From tropical warmth to southern winter (it was July), and from a warm, safe existence in a loving family to the colder comfort of strangers – uncles, aunts and an elderly grandmother, who placed them in an orphanage. English was not their native language, but they learned it quickly. They seem to have learned the foreign customs of their surroundings quickly as well. Forgetting their first culture and adapting to another was a matter of survival.
The term “home” for an orphanage is well meant, but ironic. Campbell adapted outwardly but not in his soul. The place where he had felt at home was no longer available to him. The same may be said of all phases of his life: he was outwardly a part of his surroundings yet still a stranger to them. The search for a sense of home, a reliable turangawaewae, dominated much of his life. When he was welcomed into Fleur Adcock’s family, he felt he had left the homelessness of his childhood behind him. But it was not that simple. A series of complex events and feelings – which are yet to be told in full – led to separation and divorce.
Married again, this time to the actor Meg Anderson, who later became a poet too, he built a home on an isolated height above Pukerua Bay. From there he commuted to Wellington and engaged in much social and cultural life. His adventurous spirit led him into “wild living” and philandering, and yet there was something unreal about it: outside the city was the family he could always return to, and its hold on him was powerful.
When he finally returned to the Cook Islands on a visit, he was genuinely astonished at the warm reception he received from his extended family there. After 50 years away, he thought he would have been forgotten, but people remembered him in person or from stories they had been told of Jock Campbell and his bright family of children. After such a long absence, however, he could not feel at ease there, either. He loved his island home and was proud of his status there, but he continued to live out his life in Pukerua Bay.
Death takes many forms in Campbell’s poetry, from the “Elegy” for a friend in his first book through memories of the dead in “Personal Sonnets” and predications of his own death. He even wrote an epitaph for himself. He wrote letter-poems addressed to the dead. In a long poem called “Death and the Tagua”, the reference is to a ship travelled by his trader father. Campbell’s own death, after so much turbulence, was peaceful. He will not be forgotten.