Victoria University Press, $28.00,
The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-20013
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
Life and Customs
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
“But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” wrote Andrew Marvell in the late 1640s. An irrefutable notion, but you could think that the phrasing here, as throughout the famous “To His Coy Mistress”, had the shine of youth to it. The work of time is something the poet has heard of in classical sources but not yet lived through. Time and its rueful processes run likewise through these three volumes, but, as compared to the young Marvell, all three poets have been writing and reflecting for a long time. They have earned the right to cast through the world and report back on it to us. To group them as “senior poets’’ is not by any means to suggest their gifts are waning. Rather I’d recommend all three moderately priced volumes, reflecting back on the world in poems shaped to be sinuous and engaging. Those by O’Sullivan and Hall are timely reminders that Victoria University Press has a considerable poetry list, extending well beyond supporting the newly famous Eleanor Catton.
“ ‘Take it easy, but take it.’ / That’s the name I’d like,” O’Sullivan writes at the end of “Words to Attend”, quoting the American Studs Terkel. Not take it easy in the sense of slacking off, for this is a very full volume of poems, and runs alongside the massive new edition of Mansfield’s complete fiction O’Sullivan has just published. Rather, I think that the words should be easy to take, deft and well-turned. That they should have the sense, apparently so effortless throughout this collection, of a conversation starting, or of the reader or listener just dropping in to a discussion mid-flow. And yet that is an ease hard won. With this characteristic tone, O’Sullivan can shift gears quite readily as well as locations, from St Clair Beach to Texas in the present, or back in time to the Waikato in the summer of 1968, in “When, exactly?”:
In the 3 o’clock steaming silence
you could hear the minute rustling of jaws – “Army
worm” they were called, taking their luck, their
time, on the uncut crop. It was hearing yourself
age. It was here, surrounded by before and after
Like “Words to Attend”, this reads like a kind of mission statement, and aptly suggests the tactic of these poems, alternately reflecting on the present moment and looking back to the past. Frequently they end on this kind of quiet epiphany, a moment shared sometimes with a friend, sometimes just with the reader. What they show of the world is less certain, difficult to abstract. The tone is well caught at the end of “As one does, alas, cobber”, though in this collection this poem stands out with its formal scheme, three six-line stanzas, each made of three sets of rhyming couplets:
We sit without saying much, glad the river
holds its calm, the long afternoon not over,
watching the flared west so casually ignite
the story the peaks reflect before the night,
before the night quite makes its stand, whatever
we take it to be, the odd star studding the river.
This rapt attention to the New Zealand twilight might suggest a retreat into the landscape, away from daily concerns. Us, Then, however, ranges widely among human affairs, glancing at the follies of foreign poets and fellow critics, mordantly accepting of their ways. O’Sullivan has not lost his taste for the sharp epigram, styled after Roman poets, skewering the Jackson Hobbit film with its “grey unspeakably boring wizard” (“This time in 3-D”) or imagining a form of social media (“Only connect”) where “The Führer is now connected / to Josef Goebbels … / What a wonderful world.”
O’Sullivan’s recent collections have shown great commitment to using fixed forms for wide ranging purposes, encouraging readers to forage for themselves, isolating themes and preoccupations. Wedde, in contrast, has long resisted the single moment of lyric (or satiric attention) around which a poem might build. Instead, he has consistently experimented with variations on the long poem, or sequences strung together in a makeshift way, looking for the amplitude of epic, which can consider so many things along the way, without adopting the vatic stance of the prophet. Like O’Sullivan, in the end Wedde’s commitments are “earthly”, as he puts it in his great book of sonnets. Yet even in those, which adhere rigidly to the given 14-line, ten-syllable format, the voice is seeking a larger, more looping conversation than having to sign off a couplet allows. That is the case here in the opening and closing parts of The Lifeguard, which begins with a nine-section sequence, “The Lifeguard”, and ends in a poem in 20 sections, “Shadow Stands Up”. “The Lifeguard” voyages widely along nautical themes and locations. The poet roams from the east and west coasts of Auckland:
To your right,
on the suave east, are the glittering lights
of private properties as far
as the eye can see ….
The voice here uses unrhymed couplets, of varying length throughout all nine sections. The effect of the couplets is not to finish off thought and speech but rather to lead us ever onward, as each is, in a sense, hesitant and uncertain. The Lifeguard is, I suppose, an avatar or persona for Wedde, allowing him to remember his own past as well as to reach back to the tradition, reworking sections of Theocritus and Ovid, reinventing pastoral form for us, as well as bringing shape-changing or metamorphosing up to date. The conceit allows him to celebrate the local and the ordinary but gives him access to a high poetic style, when required. The effect is accomplished and assured, at times rhapsodic.
If this opening section looks outward to sea, watchful for portents and signs of life, “Shadow Stands Up”, which closes the book, looks to the land. Here Wedde records scenes of Auckland life, as seen from the Link bus which circles the inner suburbs. A local bus might not seem a natural location for poetry, but spared driving duties, the poet is of course free to observe, and to mix, as Wedde is so fond of doing, the high and the low, the obvious and the obscure. He takes in a Kathmandu store and a greengrocer selling avocados; he revels in the meshing of nature with the city, at Victoria Park, or at Cox’s Bay creek, where we see a “Kingfisher on a branch / … and a menacing heron.” The birds cast shadows, as the title of the sequence suggests; dappled shade follows him everywhere on his poetic tour. He observes, quite literally, what his eye can see, and then casts back to shadows, of other poets (like Rimbaud) and of the shade from his mother’s womb of his twin brother. The sequence is powerfully immersive, one I feel the need to return to frequently and keep safe alongside other Wedde classics, like “Pathway to the Sea” or “Driving into the Storm: the Art of Poetry”.
Another way of putting this is that here both O’Sullivan and Wedde shape new ways of doing what they have done, serving up lovely new versions of their poetic selves. Life and Customs is Bernadette Hall’s 10th book of poems, so she rightly ranks with them as a major and continuing force in contemporary New Zealand poetry. She is no less wryly observant than they, but is wider ranging, more experimental in the forms she uses.
Alongside lyric poems, we get scripted dialogue, several prose poems and an adventurous, enigmatic sequence of prose poems, “Sul: A Ballet That Awaits Performance”. Sul grows up by the sea, in a faraway land. Throughout her life, the Ice King calls to her, leaving “bracelets of ice beads in the plum tree. And frost kisses on the window.” The sequence is in the condensed form of the fairytale for adults, so it is not clear what this means, or indeed whether this might be taken and shaped as a ballet for live performance. Placed as the balancing middle between two longer sections, what it does make clear is the attraction of wintriness and death.
Hall was privileged to be one of the writers who went to the Antarctic, and this leaves its mark here as well, most notably in “Millennia of silence and no rain”. The theme of the ordinariness of death is clearest in “The day Death turned up on the beach”. His down-home ease with the effects of time speaks across many of Hall’s calm and assured poems: “We’ll see, he said. Take care, he said. Have a nice day.”
Mark Houlahan teaches in the English Programme at the University of Waikato.