Auckland University Press, $18.95
The poem is a place where language listens to itself. Often it can be an occasion for acute soundings, where nods and glances tug at every cadence. Poetry today can be edgy with knowingness. The ear of most good poets is full of historic repertoire, yesterday’s street idiom, the grave vocalic measure of ‘The Cantos’. . . till honesty and freshness become as elusive as a koan.
Ian Wedde has always tackled this problem head on. Knowing, yet sensuous, impatient, his poems take on board the whole question of trial, rejection, discovery. The reader rides Wedde’s more mental images uneasily, then meets with relief an earthy contradiction, a spike of clarity out of the blue. In places, a lyric voice scorns anything less than sexy, centred living. In others, a civic voice speaks blunt with social purpose. The poet twists and turns. In ‘Castaly’ (1980), Wedde writes of his ‘attempts to remain alert in the world’. No poet in our country has more insistently questioned the problematic role of poetry as a way of coming clean, of staying alert. Getting back behind the gestures, wringing out a true modern song after all the acknowledgements, the nods, the glances – this is Wedde territory.
A sense of almost yearning keens through the busy. Half-reluctant, half-defiant, plain then polysyllabic-smooth poems of this new collection. The Drummer is Wedde’s first volume since Tendering (1988). In the last volume the word ‘treeferns’ leapt out at me. Either the mood of the poem or an unassociated mood of my own saw it as a respelling of referents. An absurd reshuffling ‑ not even one vowel left over for a lyric poet to play with! So much kicked alive and real in the words. So much does here. Yet the koan kicks too. An ache of conscious writing, looking for deeper, unconscious answers. This is, in turns, a fiercely wilful and fiercely wishful poetry. It has touches of mad Clare’s simplicity, and a more lavish pride in a whole classic tradition of eloquence. Voices briefly of Shelley and Keats. The voice of homespun Ian facing the muse over a bottle of whisky. The voice of successful Wedde. The voice of Worser Heberley, honest with his own eloquence, salting in good factual information. … Occasions of finding and occasions of loss, all shared with friends more physically in the second-person than ever. Through it all, an impatient questioning of form and purpose often throws up fresh form, fresh purpose – almost as if by accident. Even the precariously faux-naif ballads angle in to some sharp contemporary ploys.
The Drummer clearly continues a venture. The themes that discover themselves are the embedded themes of a lifetime – never imposed. The flirting with ‘meta-poetry’, the denying of traditional themes, the announcing of them, the programmatic ballads written to sound impromptu for intimate readings, the ‘Six False Starts’ that toy with Eliot, all break the gilded frame with sharp splinters of life that surrounds.
The venture is single, long-term, integrated. Wedde’s poetry has sustained a great unity under its switches and changes. The front cover of The Drummer irresistibly offers a fresh viewpoint to the aqueous cover illustration of Tendering. That landlocked deadbeat sprawled on the wooden jetty, head dangling, could be gazing down at the water-and-dream-defined shapes of 1988. On the back covers, the thematic sense of ‘tender’ in the poet’s earlier note is echoed closely by the later key-word ‘transport’ – as Wedde spells them out. Back and forth poems commentate, agree, tug the same matter in different directions. It binds poems, short stories, novels, even criticisms, as one central act with many versions.
The sea, everywhere now in Wedde’s work, also binds. The sea frees and binds the conscience of steersman, anti-hero, dreamer, sailor, casualty of every odyssey. The figure on the jetty is also Palinurus, in black jeans. A poem simply called ‘Odysseus’ leads us into this volume. …But he is no doubt also the ‘apahsic privateer’ of Tendering. A wryly web-chosen cover, yet I feel the title should have more of a sea-tang about it. With ‘Barbary Coast’ (the single poem imported from Tendering), ‘Odysseus’, ‘The Stowaway’, and the substantial ballad of Worser Heberley – not to mention other glimpses of the sea – this is a volume of salty airs and salty dreams, none of them lulling. Alertness rules under the ‘fishscale glitter of noon’.
And so on with the compelling venture, its twists and sidesteps. These poems look for a way to continue the direction, yet also to break free from gestures of the past. Often they succeed magically, and even the less successful attempts finally persuade that they too are part of the process. It is a process that accumulates a sense of worth and interest, both within the poetry and beyond its inscrutable koan – out there where the living can seem so artlessly fresh.
Peter Crisp is a freelance reader and writer. He lives in Napier.