A sense of completeness, John O’Connor

Gallipoli & Other Poems
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Wai-te-ata Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877159 08 5

In 1971 I wandered into a Christchurch bookshop and asked for the poems of Ezra “Pond”. I was doing UE at night tech; someone had told me Pond was a real modern poet. The owner dropped his usual acerbic manner, showed me the Selected Cantos, and suggested I also buy a volume of Alistair Campbell’s: “You’ll find out a lot about poetry from him.”

Time passed. I gained an education, Pond regained his “u” and Campbell his “Te Ariki”. Some time later I reflected that Gordon Tait had made a sensible choice. Of modern masters, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell is one of the most accessible, versatile and responsible – a fine yet practical guide for a reader new to modern poetry.

Arguably, major poets often reach their highest level at the cost of some enabling limitation or limitations. In Pound’s case the limitations are notorious and don’t require elaboration. But one may usefully note Eliot’s hermetic propriety and obscurity, Baxter’s derivativeness, egotism and more than occasional sloppiness, Curnow’s chilly intellectualism, Stead’s literary cleverness, and so on. (And however much one admires their best, such things cannot simply be ignored.) In contrast, Campbell’s oeuvre is vital, and varied in subject, voice and structure; it is also essentially original, finely crafted and spans the objective world of sensation and the inner world of spirit or presence. As this suggests, he is intelligent but never ostentatious, humane but never simplistic, candid but never moralistic. There is a virtuosity, a range, an integrity, which together give his poetry its sense of completeness.

Gallipoli & Other Poems comprises two fourteen-part sequences: “Gallipoli: Visions and Reflections”, and “Cages for the Wind”, love poems for Campbell’s wife Meg, herself a gifted poet. “Gallipoli” is a medley of voices telling parts of their stories: Freyberg, a Turkish soldier, Achilles (the mythopoeic element remains strong), William Malone, Jock Campbell (the poet’s father), a stretcher-bearer etc – the cast of Gallipoli in the broadest sense. The sequence opens with an anonymous English voice: “You get the picture: the ruined / medieval fortress, the gravelly beach, / the enemy dislodged by our naval fire / and driven out, the sea calm” (“The 29th British Division”). The clipped, colloquial report soon gives way to the range of tones and inflexions we have come to expect from Campbell. This from a sardonic Turkish officer: “What did they know of our ways, / these Huns – von this, von that … and my troops, / silent men from the hills, lean men / from the plains, tough fighters all, / grown flabby from running away.” Or (from the ironically titled “Lest We Forget”): “the green recruit, / the butt of every joke in his platoon, / gazing in comical disbelief / at his stomach flopping out / on to the sand” as if his mates had played one final practical joke.

And so it goes. The generative Campbell imagery is there also: “hillsides of smoking bodies” (“Burning”) recalling the “smoking bodies of his people!” (“Sanctuary of Spirits” from 1963) and perhaps most famously echoing the imagery of “The Return” (1949), which is only a step or two away. Also present is Campbell’s often noted ability to empathise with an environment and its people. Thus his Achilles doesn’t reflect a modern antiwar sensibility derived from Sassoon et al; rather, the Hector he pursued, killed and defiled at Troy is (in Achilles’ eyes) “noble”. Recalling, in parallel context, Te Rauparaha’s son Tamihana saying of his father’s actions: “All that he did was tika, / strictly correct” (also “Sanctuary of Spirits”). Different ethical codes; yet also different – and less easily acknowledged – parts of the self. Despite this, Campbell is not glorifying war; quite the reverse. But he never uses less than credible means to take a position.

And so to “Cages for the Wind”. When Te Rauparaha (as was always likely) turns up here, he is characteristically unrepentant of past misdeeds. Or, put differently, he remains true to his time and place – a man who lamented (in “Te Rauparaha in Old Age”) of contemporary warfare: “The musket / changed all that … the victor / no longer loves the man he kills / nor is he loved in return”. As we know, this image of the “old murderer” is also Campbell’s other self. So it is significant that in “Hauntings” (the seventh part of “Cages”) the poet challenges him: “‘What do you want of me?’ / I could be addressing myself / for all the answer I get.” Eventually the poet of light wins out and the old cannibal “wanders slowly away” – recalling an earlier confrontation and dismissal.

Largely in the absence of this influence, “Cages for the Wind” is an agile sequence full of domestic detail, comedy and mischievous wit. From “Request to Saku”: “Whitey, our resident Blackbird, / is hardly the elegant fellow / a respectable Blackbird should be. / It’s true his beak is bright orange, / but he’s also shabby and dusty, / like a clergyman down on his luck.” Such apparent trivialities – dogs, mice, bumblebees – more than balance the mythic elements, the occasional darkness, the open declarations of love. There is a touch of the Roman in “Cages”, perhaps also of the Elizabethan – something particular, timeless and light: “In short, dear Meg, it would be / a sad day for the world / were we to lose / an absurd creature that defies / the laws of aerodynamics / and flies.” (“Plea for the Bumblebee”) Roger Robinson noted in 1995 that “In Campbell ecstasy is always endangered” (Introduction to Pocket Collected Poems). The counterpoint remains; but in “Cages” the elegiac (in its broadest sense) is more than moderated by a love which is now transcendent, as in the final poem of the sequence, “Roots”:

The wind blew hard again today,
tried to blow away my poems,
but to no avail,
for they had sunk their roots
deep into the hillside,
deep into the stones, the grass,
the trees, the songs of birds,
the light on land and sea
that never dies,
the light in your eyes.

John O’Connor is a Christchurch poet and critic.

 

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