Seeing You Asked
Victoria University Press
ISBN 0 86473352 6
Seeing You Asked is Vincent O’Sullivan’s tenth volume of new poetry, the first since The Pilate Tapes of 1986. In The Pilate Tapes and before that in The Butcher Papers (1982) and Butcher and Co. (1977), lively characterizations of Pilate and Butcher gave the volumes their distinctive stylistic tones, the teasing liberal skepticisms of Pilate, the crude vernacular metaphysics of Butcher. Other volumes similarly dominated by powerful stylistic homogeneities have been Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka (1980) with its explorations of the paradoxical interactions of radical belief and radical despair, and From the Indian Funeral (1976), the most sombre and perhaps the most brilliant of these volumes, with its bleak vision of human nature at a primitive mythic extremity.
What surprises in Seeing You Asked is the breadth of its tonal range, the sheer diversity of the many voices among its 60-odd new poems. If one tone finally feels to have more timbre than any other it is that derived from European and American modernism.
We’ll set that aside for a while. A number of these new poems achieve a strikingly direct lyrical clarity. In “July, July” the dreariness of mid-winter Wellington when “loves as slack as an old glove” is suddenly dispelled on “a day when you don’t expect it, / sheer glitter ringing about / as if all the cutlery drawers of Kelburn / had been tipped out”. The abrupt bright image seems somehow essential O’Sullivan.
A similar vitality pervades “Learner’s Slope”, where you’re a novice on skis surviving a turn and in your excitement all you want to say is “‘Made it, have I?’ Your breath / a marvellous feather, everything with new names”. More reflectively in “It is one thing …”, like Hopkins’ “Margaret” intuiting the mortal message of “goldengrove unleaving”, a child finding an empty nest in a hedge reads “the message franked / from places we do not understand, but fear. / The child consoles the cup of woven air.” This perfectly turned brief poem introduces one of the volume’s major themes.
Several poems tell stories, or are about telling stories. Narrative comes very naturally to O’Sullivan, and not just in his roles as novelist, short story writer and raconteur. Vignettes, tableaux, episodes, incidents, scenes, characters and so on occur much more frequently in his poetry than pure lyrics. The human condition is typically objectified, distanced, regarded. The title poem “Seeing You Asked” is such a poem:
There’s a dozen things I might tell you.
There is a Chinese poem to begin with
of a woman folding curtains as she leaves
a man, forever. There is a Roman writing
from the edge of ice-fields, a vista
of dull silver beyond clicking reeds,
to a woman who watches a blue smoking
mountain in almost unbearable heat.
The lucid narrative surface, at once limpid and suggestive, “has no desperate turns, the vase / on the bedside table burns with azaleas / whatever happens.” But, in what is another of the major themes in this collection, there is always more, the mysteries and meanings that lie beyond the logic of narrative or any other kind of discursive representation, reachable only through metaphor: “there are fragments in each hour, / when the notes drift back, the ones / scarcely heard . . . something like the glint of a hook . . . trolling too fast to speak of.”
Long a presence in O’Sullivan’s poems of human situations, Hardy is active here in “Remembering Mrs Hardy”, a poem one might imagine Emma Gifford herself writing in 1912-13 remembering Mr Hardy if their situations had been reversed:
All the dozen or so blue miles
into the town were a joy,
those miles beneath the simplest sky
easing my way
to the one man I loved, the one
I would have eaten grass for.
And the miles back, the unending red miles
Of what I let myself in for.
There is something uncanny about ventriloquism of such fidelity.
But Hardy’s style is not the only one here. Ironically self-regarding and culturally questioning, “Check-up” begins with a TV demonstration of how to test one’s testicles, the doctor running his finger along the slope of an egg, inducing “that awkward male twinge”. “‘Testes’, he says, and one hears / the distant Roman, hand slipped in his toga, / agreeing, ‘My word, yes’.” Contemporary medical emphasis on the physicality of life marginalises the “sad little bugger of a soul”. The poem is about the way things change: “I dream of shelved eggs, conversing in Latin. / A finger we used to call God. A man who isn’t me.”
In the wittily titled “Not Leaping but Waving” the context of Erwin Schrödinger’s 1925 wave equation is drawn from biographical data outlined in a headnote, the scientist taking two and a half weeks’ vacation in a Swiss town with an old Viennese girlfriend and two pearls:
He placed a pearl in each ear to screen out distractions, and set to work on the structure of matter. His “wave equation” was published a few weeks later, displacing the assumption of quantum mechanics that electrons leap from one fixed orbit to another. What was once a discrete particle is now to be thought of as a continuous wave.
The force of sexuality between the scientist and his Viennese lover becomes an analogue of the elemental forces Schrödinger’s equation draws together, as the poem has him observe: “A force even sweeter / than fact, its tide, its beaching, drenches us here as there.” This is pretty audacious stuff. In this poem mathematics are metaphorical, one more term in the chain of association that the poem implies begins not in theory but in the human story. Among O’Sullivan’s narrative poems this one sits most firmly perhaps within the frame of European modernism.
Among the narrative poems one particularly worth noting is “Troy Talk”. (And of a different kind so too no doubt is the cleverly crude “Troyilism”, with its glimpses of the aftermath of that war, “Helen, according to some, in Egypt, a late career. / All, thanks to the poets. And her gift of tongues”.) “Troy Talk” looks at Helen ironically, seeing her not as the face that launched a thousand ships but as a bimbo “with a wad of gum between her / teeth”, bored witless by Troy: “Closed her eyes out of sheer relief, / opened them again – walls again, only / higher, same erections different / faces”. At last,
When her jaw puffed out,
her tits sagged, she
at last perked up. They’d
at least now look at something else.
To sit there, still
as she liked, a cocoon
that would come to nothing.
Ah, the bliss of that!
The drollery of archetypal revisionism like this is its own reward. But for those coming fresh to O’Sullivan’s poetry it will provide an entrance into what is a substantial minor genre in his work, of poems derived from classical Greek texts. The genre goes all the way back to “Imagine Yourself a Troy” and the “Poems of Place” sequence in his first volume Our Buying Time (1965). Central to this sequence is “Argos” (birthplace of Helen), in which the representation of Helen is more traditional than in “Troy Talk”, with some hints of Robert Graves: “Many her names. When she spoke, / Or others of her, wildly, a flame / Walked from her mouth that made / Plaything of Pentecost / in later minds.”
Homer is the poet most often returned to, as in the poems about Helen and Achilles and “A Good Joker’s Homer” in The Butcher Papers. Other authors are Sophocles – “Return to Sender” with its epigraph reading Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis in The Pilate Tapes – and Euripides, “Talk About Mates!” in the New Poems section of the Selected Poems (1992). From the time of the Butcher sequences the earlier Gravesian reverential approach to the classical subjects has been replaced by an energetically vernacular and familiar treatment that makes these poems among the liveliest of all O’Sullivan has written. The opening of “Talk About Mates” is typical of the style: “Alcestis. The story none of us likes. Death / turning up uninvited in his stretch-limo, / his string tie, his rings jazzy on pencil- / thin fingers”. There are not enough perhaps for a volume yet, but some future editor may well be bold enough. They are poems that will remind many of the imaginative sources now virtually out of reach that were available to O’Sullivan and those of his generation who double-majored in English and Greek in the 1950s.
Social and cultural commentary has always been a prominent feature of O’Sullivan’s poetry, and there is no falling off in Seeing You Asked. About half the poems deal with life in New Zealand, in studies and evocations of contemporary attitudes, activities, personality-types, and sensibilities. In “In Time of Thanks and Praise” a feminist friend’s “19th-century ornamental lamp … hisses when a man says as much as two words . . . It is discourse rather than essence / makes me unattractive.” She is willing “to help me tape my head back on. / But facing, Dea gratias, the other way.” The feminine inflection transforming the masculine liturgical formula is neat thematic word-play.
In “In My Father’s House” the messianic allusion of the title is swiftly cut down to size: “The day Richard got back into Parliament / my cat, not for the first time, vomited / in my shoe”, part of a “high-class inscrutable Act”. Poetry with plenty of attitude, plainly. “Remembering Westmere” recalls in the idiom of the streets the gross rumours, legends and prejudices of the streets of Westmere in the 1940s. “Remembering Sixth Form” describes without much amusement the disdain and aloofness that shielded the adolescent girl from her “over-heated” admirers: “Venus, at sixteen, held the skies as hers”. In “Purely Local Matters” a local truth is drawn from an epigraph by Brecht: “Tigers were not much trouble, / you could always cope with the sharks./ It’s the lice that really / shag us in the end. / That must be what is meant / by a universal statement.”
A couple of poems consider with relish households that recall Baxter a bit, in which dad is a raffish oversexed showman, “an illicit substance / in the body politic of family life” as “The Grieving Process” has it. “He’s a dirty old myth, our dad”, part of our cultural typology. There’s a similar dad in “Confessional Verse and Why I Don’t Like It”, involved in a furtive affair with mum’s sister Maureen, “a smiling, gentle, forty- / year-old nymphomaniac with a tendency / to self-mutilation and depression”. The grotesque amplification of banal domesticity and infidelity in this poem should discourage even the most insensitive from trying to read anything by O’Sullivan as autobiography.
In the epilogue to the remarkable 1980 sequence Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka, O’Sullivan proposes an existential intensity of being as the only solution to the bafflement inherent in the alternatives of belief and despair: “Between the two follies I return and return to / between: the dancing place, / the breath’s ritzy colosseum”. Numerous poems in Seeing You Asked urge the same solution, and do so in variations of that imagery. The metaphor of the colosseum, metamorphosed in the title of a later volume into The Rose Ballroom (1982), is essentially a public space in which the human condition is under gaze, contained, and dramatised. Its analogues in the present collection of poems are museums, zoos, circuses, art galleries, cafés, waiting rooms, theatres, stages, stadiums.
Typical stylised life-enactments are those perfumed by maestros, actors, artists, artists’ models, magicians, speakers. O’Sullivan’s complex manipulation of this culturally-determined register of metaphors relates his work directly to European modernism. These images are the vocabulary of Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Picasso, of Dowson, Symons, Wilde, early Eliot, Yeats: the model in “Keep Telling the Artist” is “it is possible to say, enough / portraits to provide more galleries / than your eye could handle . . . I am in love, you see, with an image, / some casual tyranny of perspective / impossible to arrive at”.
The images and values, the whole elaborately articulated latticework of symbolistic metaphor, are the ideology of a number of poets who are themselves the subjects of poems here, some of O’Sullivan’s lares et penates – Trakl, Rilke, Valery. “The Reader on the Beach” begins “Our mentor M. Valery found it impossible – he says so – / to take objects seriously qua objects.” His eyes become “full, at last, with everything not there”, the ultimate imaginative liberation closing 25 or so lines of meditation on the relation between language and reality. The reflexivity of heightened self-consciousness in this tradition, the risk of solipsism, is dramatised ironically, as in “Too Much Act Two”: “Our eyes blur / with tears, thinking of ourselves thinking / how emotion – such a butterfly – quite / rides us down.”
Wittgenstein and Wallace Stevens are also called into play. In “Imagine, Mr Wittgenstein”, what is imagined is not amenable to belief but is real: “as if it were real to begin with, / and then, real as I see it”; and the colosseum asserts itself again:
And the moment itself, that skewering occasion,
the naked flexing of sustaining fiction,
the ice there, the fire there, magical
walkers on all that:
can never be, searing is, is, is. . ..
It is a vision that sustains all of O’Sullivan’s work, and one that could be far more extensively illustrated from this new volume alone. What can one say finally to summarise a volume of such generic and stylistic range as this? Technically one must note the perfect judgment with which syntax is related to line in these poems, the brilliance of so much of the imagery, the cultural sharpness, the wit and the humour, the persuasive sense of the depth of the civilisation we cling to. Ultimately, the volume demonstrates anew O’Sullivan’s insatiable curiosity about human nature and language. Seeing You Asked is a very remarkable collection of poems.
Ken Arvidson is Professor in the English Department at Waikato University.