Careless of landfall, Roger Robinson

Selected Poems
Peter Bland
Carcanet, $40.00 (approx),
ISBN 1 85754 357 2

A Selected Poems published in the UK by Carcanet is a statement from a usually reliable source that the poet is worth considering seriously and reading in some degree of totality. When a third of the book collects for the first time nearly 40 poems that have appeared in good journals internationally since 1991, there is the added statement that the work is ongoing, not to be taken as only a retrospective.

Both statements are justified by this richly rewarding and enjoyable book. If Peter Bland has been tucked away as a brief blip on the screen of New Zealand poetry, a 1950s-1960s transient with an actor’s gift for mimickry and an eye for suburban realism, this book vigorously blows the dust off such dated dismissiveness.  Bland may not now be part of our literary networks, woven as they are partly to exclude writers like him, but these poems show him as a quite big and very colourful fish.

The old problem of national definition arises again. If Selected Poems is published in England, where Bland was born and now lives apparently permanently, how can he be a New Zealand poet? The convenient answer was given by the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, which “gratefully acknowledged” his “contribution” but left him out, calling him “Peter Bland (UK)”, like a guest entrant in the national marathon. Ironically, that was the year (1985) that he returned for a second extended and poetically active residence. A different question may be put, however: how does it reflect on us, readers of poetry in and of New Zealand, that we have given much less attention to this productive and now mature poet who often writes about New Zealand than we would if he had fallen under the Naenae bus in 1968?

If Live Bodies is about a significant New Zealand experience, so is Peter Bland’s poetry. It even includes one poem, as painful and poignant and wry as anything in Maurice Gee’s fine novel, about being Jewish in New Zealand. Bland isn’t, in fact, but looks as if he might be: “I do not know who I am, and this / Sometimes gives me a headache.” (“The Nose”)

Such questions of identity and intimations of alienation recur in these poems. They are highlighted by the arrangement of the book, with its introductory section of “The Old Country”, then alternating sections for the periods in New Zealand and England, and a final complex and unresolved section called “Embarkations”. There are a lot more embarkations than arrivals, open-ended questions than resolutions. These are poems built on an extraordinary mix, vigour of voice and eye mingling with underlying angst, poems with an intensely realised sense of place and date taking us at the same time into the void.

Bland’s previous Selected Poems (John McIndoe, 1987) was arranged in terms of the five main collections he had then published; this one seems more explicitly biographical, with its dated groupings (“New Zealand 1958-1966”). In fact many poems have been shunted around out of chronological sequence, the opening “Old Country” section, for instance, including poems from four of the first five volumes, mixing mature poems like “Northern Funerals” with early ones like “The Parental Bedroom”. Even if the reader doesn’t know that, there are so many poems of memory – one experience is so often being examined through the lens of others – that the effect is always of a complex whole rather than journal-like sequence. To put it simply, England and New Zealand are both always vital presences in the poet’s imagination, wherever he happens to be at the time. Memory needs no visa.

Since he chooses that biographical structure, however, and since he is an interesting figure on the edge of being forgotten here, I will follow the same arrangement, moving into individual poems from that base. He was born in Scarborough, on Yorkshire’s east coast, in 1934. His voice retains the robust resonance of that area, and his imagery hankers habitually after the sea and its possibilities of departure. His childhood was constrained by modest circumstances in the late Depression and World War 2 (“conceived in the slump; brought up in shelters and under the stairs”), part of it on a Liverpool council estate near a munitions factory that left its own stain. One of the best “home front” poems I know evokes the cancerous yellow skin his mother suffered from working there: “She shone as bright as our pet canary / who sang when they switched the searchlights on.”  New Zealand did not suffer these experiences, but plenty of us who now live here did. The memories have not often been so sharply and pertinently evoked.

After the war he was one of the “lost generation … drab, insular, short of vitamin C” with their “lasting doubt / about the next good time”. Few poets are willing to be as self-deprecating about their own ordinariness as Bland in that poem, which he places first in the book. It’s funny, it’s poignant, and it exactly catches those colourless ration-book years from 1945 when the war was over but nothing improved.

The sympathy for the marginalised and unfashionable, the sense of alienation, the role of the acutely observant but often indignant outsider began, in other words, before Bland reached New Zealand. Their roots are in English class and English mid-century sufferings. He sought to escape them by emigrating at the age of 20, with a load of people seeking “to build small lives in distant places / with only a chip on their backs”, on a sea where “Light scalds. Space sinks in. / Personal history flakes like burnt skin.” Such searingly ambivalent images of light and heat recur, like the canary already quoted or the “funeral roast” in “Northern Funerals”.

In Wellington, Bland studied English at Victoria University (1955-59), won the Macmillan Brown Creative Writing Prize for his poetry, and then worked in radio, editing the Poetry programme, and in theatre. He has a permanent place in theatrical history as one of the four founders of Downstage, and was artistic director from 1964-68. He also edited Numbers, and was a key member, with Louis Johnson, Charles Doyle and sometimes James K Baxter, of the “Wellington Group”, whose achievement was to enable poetry to take in the images and idiom of everyday reality in the New Zealand suburbs, and move away from the high-minded blend of nationalism and scenery which they associated with the approved Curnow canon.

His career as an actor and director was well established. The handiest indicator of his quality as an actor (though somewhat later in date) is his inspired performance in the film of Came a Hot Friday, where he was a match for Billy T James, which is saying a lot. With two of his own plays produced, he moved back to England in 1968, working mainly in stage and TV acting and gaining notoriety for some comic TV commercials. Though his next volume, The Man With the Carpet-Bag (1972), was published by Caxton and mainly concerned with New Zealand, he was also establishing himself in English poetry, especially with the London Magazine, which published Mr Maui (1976), Stone Tents (1981) and The Crusoe Factor (1985). Often poems of disjunction and displacement, these draw on his experience as a returned migrant, especially through the Maui and Crusoe personae: “Like an exile in his own land … He’s only happy when newly marooned.”

When he moved back to New Zealand in 1985, intending to stay in “that island home / that so mysteriously has chosen us”, the sense of exile remained. The poems of that time are haunted by the inevitability that “For the rest of your life / there’ll be two sets of voices”, by the sense, as one poem quotes Louis Johnson saying, that we are all “Just passing through … a frank outsider still.” And another dimension is increasingly evident, deeper and darker. It’s an injustice to think of Bland as interesting only because he can’t decide where he belongs. That very question is now shown as only the surface of a deeper enquiry: “but ‘belonging’ isn’t just roots put in, / it’s fences falling, fields with no edge, / a looking up that lifts the heart into vagrancy / and leaves it breathless with nomadic bliss.”

Thus in this later vision belonging and nomadism merge. Displacement is freedom (quoting Johnson again, this time in the fine valedictory poem with which Bland won an Arvon Award). The poems reject “ ‘digging in’ / … that old Kiwi regressive thing / disguised as growing roots” in favour of writing “poems adrift / like paper boats or messages in bottles, / careless of landfall, happy to be themselves.” I don’t find this resolution sentimental or self-deluding – Bland’s voice remains too aphoristic, too comic, and too self-mocking. What it does is to move his clearly expressed and vividly evoked realism onto a different plane, one often near to surrealism.

Back in England from 1990, Bland lived at Putney, writing unpredictable poems about travellers, tourists and refugees. He now lives, unlikely though it seems for such a quirky mix of plebeian Yorkshire and thespian Kiwi, in the respectable Sussex seaside resort of Worthing. Perhaps the town and its railway’s association with Lady Bracknell, left luggage and lost identity was irresistible. Or perhaps there he can feel permanently marooned. Probably it’s just the sea. At least one new poem (not in the Selected) is about floating away from the “beached world” in drifting search for “Something to do with space.” That evocation of being adrift, placeless, timeless, yet with a sharp and watchful eye always on the changing shoreline clutter of the everyday, catches much that is pivotal to this strong and often moving collection, especially its closing “Embarkations” section: “It’s / amazing what richness arrives when / one’s feet aren’t firmly planted.”

The things for which Bland has been more conventionally admired are also amply on display, and provide much enjoyment. Here is evidence of the way he and Johnson “loosened local speech” in the 50s and early 60s. Here are funny poems, and poems of intense visual detail, where sometimes Bland’s eye swings from object to acutely observed object like the camera in “NYPD Blue”. Here are poems that well express things that have often been thought. It will be a long time before I can encounter an elderly dog without thinking it “smells / like stale crumbs / or a dishcloth left in the sun” (“Poems for Jo”); or go to Taranaki without seeing “Mt Egmont’s frosty tit / and the little tight towns clenched like fists” (“I.m. Ronald Hugh Morrieson”); or encounter yet another self-referential poem about language without smiling about Bland’s witty exercise in that faded mode and his sane remark that “I miss some sense of a living body / that someone, somewhere, has known and loved” (“A Potential Poem for More than Passing Strangers”).

Here, too, are his engaging conversation pieces, and his star-turn dramatic monologues enlivened by the actor’s ear for timing, inflection and idiolect. He can write as Guthrie-Smith, Gauguin, an amorous middle-aged husband or an old codger of an aged Dracula and make them work dramatically, vocally, visually, comically, yet without limiting their ability as poems to go beyond, to go again into that extra timeless dimension, “the other silences that go on and on / like the sky through this open window / for ever” (“Bear Dance”), to where “memory trembles with sad occasions, / with crowded wharfs and wayside stations / where the numberless dead wander / lost between trains.” Like a great actor, Bland surprises and moves you most when he suddenly stops acting.

I don’t believe that he is truly careless of landfall, however. Nothing would delight him more than to become recognised again in the place that back in 1958 gave the young utility-grey man, with his carbolic after-shave and persistent impulse towards the Plutonic dark, a glimpse of “blue infinities” and “huge horizons beached outside”, the place where “I let the light sink in.”

Roger Robinson is Professor in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington and co-editor of the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, reviewed  in our December 1998 issue.

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