Civilised, precise and somewhat quizzical, Bill Sewell

Winter Walk at Morning
Iain Lonie,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1991, $16.95

The cover of this posthumous collection shows a pair of dividers resting on a chart, which on closer examination turns out to juxtapose Western Scotland and an unidentified part of Greece. It tells us about Iain Lonie: his nautical bent, his exactitude as poet and scholar, perhaps his spiritual heartlands.

And yet it does not tell us enough. For some of these poems chronicle Lonie’s uneasy relationship with New Zealand. Lonie had no reason to feel kindly disposed towards these islands: they gave him little enough recognition as a poet, and even though he was not one to market himself, the fact that he has featured in none of the major anthologies is as mystifying as it is unjust. His response to New Zealand ranges from perplexity:

This is exile – being among people one will never understand however smooth the trunks of trees, renewed endlessly in the green water, however blue the sky. (‘Exile’)

to an appreciation of its uniqueness:

One needs to get a sense of history, as member of a small nomadic family, or nearly so picnicking by a young river’s babble, learning, if you listen carefully, its idiolect.
(‘Nearly So’)

and even to a reluctant sense of belonging:

I had to be brought here once myself on a particularly uninviting day.
Squinting up the dark green slopes I knew I’d come home.
(‘Proposal at Allan’s Beach’).

 

If Lonie feels displaced in space, then he also does in time; and perhaps both these states find expression in his ingenious use of anachronism. Thus ‘Odysseus in Travelland’, ‘Philemon and Baucis’, and ‘Exile’ juxtapose the classical and contemporary worlds, giving an ironic gloss on the latter. Sometimes he is unable or unwilling to focus on the present, as in ‘Distances’, where the poet describes a pause while cycling on the Otago Peninsula:

Through my telescope I can just make out our house, and almost the verandah where I might be reading now. Is that the past or the future? don’t I want to be here?

The answer is that very often he doesn’t, and for two reasons. First because the present plays such mean tricks with its very transience:

Why do we live as if for ever, memory always failing to warn us of the winter for which it hoards so obsessively? (‘Holy Loch’)

And secondly, because the past tends to be less arid, both emotionally and intellectually. As for the future, it seems to offer mainly death, which, in the earlier volumes Courting Death (1984) and The Entrance to Purgatory (1986), Lonie was never shy of confronting.

But death does not play the leading role in Winter Walk at Morning. Where before it was a source of anguish, however quietly articulated, here in ‘Mirror Language’, for example, he sees his preoccupation with death as something of a self-indulgence (‘We can’t go on meeting like this…’); and in ‘Hanging the Washing Out’, he feels able to pun atrociously (and yet aptly) in its presence:

What’s spun is spun. It’s time to go and hang the washing out.

Such lines quickly dispel any impression of dourness. If Lonie is by no means an exuberant poet in the mould of Cilla McQueen or David Eggleton, his poems can often be playful, even wicked, and yet also intensely lyrical. ‘Nuages’, for instance, is a beautifully poised lyric sustained by a simple leading idea:

Clouds do not move.
Our world travels eastward
mole, lighthouse, priory
under the Alps of night.

 

This is also a poem which shows how technically proficient Lonie is. Like Kevin Ireland he is a master of the extended metaphor, and far from pushing it into absurdity or archness, he is able to harness it to a satisfying logic. ‘Hanging the Washing Out’, which traverses almost every conceivable laundry image, is perhaps the best example of this. But technique is almost never obtrusive in these poems, or if it is, then only to achieve a calculated, intensifying effect, as in ‘My Toaster Tells the Time’.

What marks these poems above all, however, whether playful, lyrical or sombre, is a distinctive voice. A voice, which to those who knew Iain Lonie, is remarkably close to his everyday one: civilized, precise, somewhat quizzical, and at the same time immensely likeable. A voice, which with the publication of this final collection can only grow in authority.

 

Bill Sewell is a Wellington poet and the current President of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

 

 

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