Auckland University Press, $19.95
Moontalk is Keith Sinclair’s fifth volume of poetry, coming some twenty years after his last collection, The Firewheel Tree (1973). As the sub-title implies, this volume includes a selection (which the blurb rightly describes as generous) from Sinclair’s previous works – Songs for a Summer (1952), Strangers or Beasts (1954), A Time to Embrace (1963) and The Firewheel Tree, together with almost thirty new poems. As such it provides a comprehensive record of Sinclair’s poetic writing over more than fifty years, displaying a rich variety of forms and of tones, of styles and of subject matter.
Three things seem to dominate Sinclair’s early poetry: love, landscape, and history; and the three are woven together in a variety of ways. History is a matter of people who live within a particular landscape, and poems like ‘Memorial to a Missionary’ and ‘The Chronicle of Meola Creek’ seek to record landscapes, and the people within them. Love poems, too, are rich in images drawn from a particular landscape, washed for the most part with the colours of spring and summer. Equally, love can be written of with the playful inventiveness of a poem like ‘The Poet Encounters His Next Sonnet Arriving at a Party’, in which the poet makes light of himself and his rhetoric. By contrast, ‘Moors. Angels, and Civil Wars’ locates historical events and attitudes not so much within a particular landscape, but as products of conflicting beliefs, and conflicting loves. But however varied the ways in which Sinclair’s subjects are handled, there is always a lively energy in the treatment.
The new poems presented here, though perhaps more cosmopolitan in their scope, still focus closely on the New Zealand landscape. One of the pieces within the poem ‘Kendrick Country’ is entitled Flora and Fauna, and it might well stand as an alternative title for a number of the poems, which seek to observe and record such details. Indeed, in ‘Lucky Numbers’ this attention to the land becomes an imperative:
first stare at the hills
what is to be learned is
not in books and on the desk
but down the harbour
I see not sea but self
There is still a strong sense, too, of the impact of the lives of other people, whether political figures like Mao or Lenin, personal friends like Ken Smithyman and Mike Stenson, or (usually nameless) characters met in chance encounters. But the character of the poems which deal with love seems to have changed somewhat – suggested, in a way, by the neatly ambiguous title ‘A Stuffed-Up Love Poem’.
There are changes, too, in the style of the poetry. One of the new pieces, ‘Nightcat’, is reminiscent of some of Ted Hughes’s poetry in the way it celebrates natural energies which are carefully harnessed and expended with precision:
when it is still
something is in danger
when it runs it is there already
climbs trees faster than birds fly
what cat does is absolutely
That careful harnessing and precise expending of energy suggests to me something of the way Sinclair’s later poetry works. The exuberance, the fecundity which could be seen in some of the early writing seems to have been replaced with a more measured, and to a degree, more controlled style, and with a more reflective tone which recognises that ‘not all is history/ but we are blown along/ willy-nilly’. The dying cadence of those lines provides a beautifully sombre reflection from an eminent historian. This will stand as his final volume of poetry, and as a memorial to that side of his creative writing.
Peter Whiteford is a lecturer in English at Victoria University.