Selected Poems 1940-1989
Viking hardback, $49.95 (Penguin paperback, Auckland, 1990, $27.95)
When Allen Curnow published Continuum, his collected poems 1972-1988, he organized the book back-to-front: most recent poems at the beginning, earliest at the end. The selection, a career summary in three sections, is even more inclined to rearrange the poetry at the expense of chronology. It opens with two late poems, scenes from Curnow’s childhood, and closes with ‘An Evening Light’, a snapshot of Christchurch circa 1890.
The purpose of this is, as Curnow explains in a short preface, to ‘describe a kind of circle joining age and youth, a loop in the road’. ‘An Evening Light’ widens the circle to make imaginative loops in the road, placing Curnow’s father, who was ten in 1890, alongside himself, although he was not born until 1911. They meet in the aftermath of a spectacular sunset, a time of ‘radiant discoloration’ when ‘The smallest leaf’s alight’, and the poem’s luminous insights are the best possible justification of its fiction.
For Curnow, poetry is the perfect vehicle for this kind of creation. It can, he proclaimed to Peter Simpson, ‘substitute a … simultaneous order for the linear, chronological … order that we assume for most practical purposes’. Thirty-five years separate ‘Discovery’ from ‘Moro Assassinato’ (1979), yet the later poem takes up where the earlier left off:
all earth one island
And all our travel circumnavigation
can be put alongside:
All the seas are one sea,
the blood one blood
and the hands one hand.
Ever is always today.
I make this comparison partly because of something C H Sisson says about a poet’s development, that it is less a matter of advancement for the sake of advancement than one of ‘making a poem that will not be the same as the last one’. ‘Discovery’ – excluded from this selection, as is most of the poetry Curnow published before 1972 – is not the same as ‘Moro Assassinato’, but it is recognisably the work of the same writer.
This continuity is an important part of Curnow’s achievement, its central source the fact that his major preoccupation has not changed. It is, has always been, himself. Just three lines into ‘Continuum’ he admits that ‘I am talking about myself’. The first two lines, though, have found a context for that self in the night outside his front door:
The moon rolls over the roof and falls behind
my house, and the moon does neither of these things
Another appropriation of the natural world – ‘I think the rock /thinks and my thought is what it thinks’ – occurs in ‘Dialogue with Four rocks’. The title of that poem, and its self-exploration, brings to mind Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’ and Yeats’s ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’. But, unlike either Marvell or Yeats, Curnow sets his dialogue in a specific geographical location, the beach at Karekare, and uses features of the landscape as points of departure for his thought.
The sea’s effect on the beach – ‘exposing more rocks than anybody I imagined’ – reminds Curnow that ‘nothing’s either/ covered or uncovered for ever’. It is characteristic of his poetry to use what the eye sees as a way of getting at a situation’s underlying dynamics as in ‘House and Land’:
Moping under the bluegums
The dog trailed his chain
From the privy as far as the fowlhouse
And back to the privy again
In these well-judged lines the longer third snaps back into a shorter fourth, illustrating the dog’s inability to go beyond the end of his chain and contributing to the overall picture of the ‘great gloom/ … With never a soul at home’ that the poem paints.
This particular dog is found at ‘the site … / of the original homestead’ on a Canterbury farm, while that which Curnow hears in ‘An Oppressive Climate, a Populous Neighbourhood’ is tied up in ‘the hinder-precinct of some brownstone’ East 85th Street, New York. Unlike the Cantabrian dog it howls, which is lucky for Curnow as it gives him an opportunity to measure its ‘speech’ against that of humans. Of course, the observation that ‘If we don’t make ourselves intelligible/ We make ourselves heard’ goes for both species, and in later poems Curnow has often explored the world as a place in which we’re ‘all of us talking all/ at once in our own language’.
The role he has created for himself is that of a discoverer, and perhaps translator, of these languages, of ‘the monologue of the morning sun’ or ‘the fluent silences of the/ eel in the pool’. Whereas in early poems like ‘House and Land’ or ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa’ the subject matter brooded and moped, its ‘interesting failure’ to do much else becoming the subject, Karekare and the Christchurch of ‘An Evening Light’ seem to talk to Curnow, and the resulting poems are records of the conversation.
Like the sun in ‘A Balanced Bait in Handy Pellet Form’, he aspires to speak ‘in all the languages dead or living’. Not content with having what ‘To Introduce the Landscape’ calls ‘all points and no view’, he wants to make the world intelligible, to match the ‘inhuman frequencies’ of a dog’s howl with the dog itself. In fifty years of trying ‘to do better each time and not repeat anything’, he has produced a body of work that mediates skilfully between his private languages and those of the world, and which is one of contemporary poetry’s most significant achievements.
Max Anderson lives in Wellington, and studies English at Victoria University.