Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1992, $24.95
Vincent O’Sullivan’s Selected Poems provides a timely conspectus on the poetry department of this one-man literary industry. It prints twenty-four new poems with a ruthless selection of the early work – from an output of over 400 pages it gathers 130, completely bypassing Our Burning Time (1965) and Revenants (1969).
O’Sullivan has created an idiosyncratic style, highly metaphorical, precise and pictorial, restless, omnivorous and vigilant. His use of the vernacular is well-known. And Selected Poems shows his light touch with it, although the lightness is part of the chiaroscuro – a word which his figures would scoff at. For while using contemporary idiolects, including jargon, O’Sullivan undercuts the pretensions and designs which they often serve.
Ellipses, staccato rhythms, nouns as verbs, abrupt shifts of register and perspective, these are characteristic of this fast-moving poetry. O’Sullivan develops a lyric mood, then breaks it, reminding us of the materiality of the poem, as his most-famous character, Butcher, does in another guise. Commentators have linked the colloquialisms of oral speech with national identity, and seen Butcher as kin to Glover’s Harry and Arawata Bill, representatives of a national mythos.
O’Sullivan however forestalls such strategies. What butcher meditates sex, death, and aesthetics as compulsively as Butcher? Some readers criticised Butcher’s obsessions precisely because they interfere with a national realistic interpretation of the poems – which they do. Butcher, like his off-sider Baldy, is less a ‘well-rounded character’ than a position to adopt and explore. What Butcher enables us to explore are (following Curnow) the traces of reality in local ways of speaking; the poems attend to the textures of language as much as to those of meat. Rather than presenting the idiomatic as the authentic national voice, O’Sullivan explores the problems of language and perception:
And not fifty feet from the spur/ a hawk lifted/ and for two turns turned like one wing/
was tacked to the air/ and then she’s away/ beak a glint as she’s turning/
so the grunt sighs like in church/
and even Butcher/ yes Butcher too/ thinks hawkarc curries the eye all right/
gives your blood that push/ with ‘proportion’ ‘accuracy’ etcetera/
those stones we lift with our tongues trying to say/ ah! feathered guts!/
And she’s closing sweet on something,/ death that perfect hinge.
The description of the hawk is evocative and visceral in the way we expect from the best lyrics. It is immensely seductive poetry, and seemingly underwrites an independent reality. But the pull of the image is inseparable from the rhetoric. Paraphrase the lines and you realise how the effect depends upon O’Sullivan’s skill – which doesn’t invalidate the effect, but emphasises the poem’s title ‘Still Shines When You Think of It’.
Where a character watches landscape, O’Sullivan watches the watcher, and the landscape, while considering how the landscape might define the watcher. There are numerous flashes of nature-lyricism in O’Sullivan’s poetry, but what he celebrates is the mind, the ‘thinking of it’ and its accompanying ‘shine’.
Interest in language and symbols leads O’Sullivan to revisions of mythology and rituals, or else to other writers. Along with his asides – ‘let’s call him’, ‘as I say’ – the revisions and allusions reinforce the point that as language-creatures we are also reflexive animals. Not that nothing is beyond discourse: the hawk is. The probing of viewpoints indicates that until the hawk drops, while we can think, we will think about things and how they ‘shine’.
In a recent poem, ‘As the eye alters so the squares concede’, O’Sullivan takes the example of a chess-board. The board can be read from white to white square, or from black to black. Each reading is exclusive. Neither conclusive. Each has its logic, and its conclusion. The poem could suggest allegorical readings – political, epistemological. But O’Sullivan eludes foreclosure, not to escape into polysemic mist, but to emphasise the importance of choice, of making an interpretation knowing that you have made it, and perhaps finding that ‘as the eye alters so the squares concede’. Still it is no surprise that O’Sullivan ends the poem with another of those agile metaphors, drawing us into the play as he sidesteps conclusion.
Lawrence Bourke lives in Perth. His book on Les Murray, A Vivid Steady State, was recently published.