Trusting the peripheral vision, John Allison

Unmanned
Stephen Oliver
HeadworX, $19.95, ISBN 0 473 05753 0

Pingandy
Harvey McQueen
HeadworX, $24.95, ISBN 0 473 05752 2

Drought and other intimacies
Pat White
Steele Roberts, $19.95, ISBN 1 877228 15 X

On surveying trips, my father taught me something that his father, who had served in the Royal Navy, had previously taught him: to let the eyes wander along the horizon, trusting one’s sure peripheral vision to snag on the stand-out feature – a mast, for my grandfather on watch on HMS Philomel; a trig-station, for my father in the field at Kaikoura; and for me now at my desk, a word, an image, “a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche” (as Gaston Bachelard so attractively put it).

In one book, a sequence called “Word Maps”; another is titled Drought; on the cover of the third, an old map with compass rose. They arrived in the post, I glanced at them, wrote the above paragraph and went to bed, wondering if my peripheral vision really had snagged on anything.

2

There is a sense in which all the poems in Stephen Oliver’s book are “word maps”; the reader’s first task is one of orientation amidst language. This writing is richly textured, a sensual music to be read aloud:

If a delph-glazed moon with its O so
delicate pattern pans over Holland, flat as
a tack, it also comes by way of the
Antarctic circle right to your doorstep …

Oliver has a way of modulating sounds through several lines, for instance, in “Down by the Station” (bungled / bumpy / tangled / stubbled / cannibal / tribal girl) or in “Sheet Music” (sticks / Lakes / likes). I was enchanted by such effects:

                                  The removal of limbs.
The images dim to an impotent mauve
and the stage act begins.

The rhythms are muscular, pointed by a sure sense for lineation. Oliver’s technical resources are flexible enough to ensure that “form is an extension of content” (or, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, an “in/tension” of content). So on page 62 Harold Lloyd plunges unpunctuated down 20 floors and 32 lines. On the page opposite, in “Conrad & Wells & Co.”, the punctuation tightly controls the considered movement of reflection. In the following poem, “Hoppalong Cassidy”, another syntax and lack of punctuation again accelerate the narrative, this time with a testosteroned lurch, in the back seats at the flicks.

The book is equally rich in images. Sometimes these are marvellously evocative:

The sea falls into

suburbs of light, a topiary of
islands could be mist.

Just occasionally I feel the metaphor is clever rather than really perceived:

                    A
floppy disc of moon lies reflected
there in an Excalibur beam of light.

“Floppy disc”? It’s a good phrase in itself but the word-play cannot be won over from the distinctly non-lunar appearance of the computer disc-cassette. Together with the sword image, this is an overwrought mixed metaphor, trying too hard.

Title-poems are to be noticed. “Unmanned” consists of elliptical verse-paragraphs presenting a series of impressions, heightened perhaps by circumstance. A question is raised early in the poem: which came first, meaning or memory? This resounds behind the narrative until we get to the point:

an intimate scene: a family shock still: the
overhanging forest imaged on the coffin-lid …

Then, the meaning: “the world will change to that which forgets you”, and instead of finding that memory is our meaning, “here / where life recedes further into distance // you will know yourself as unmanned”.

At the end of the book a substantial sequence (“The Still Watches”) forms a kind of millennial summation. There are the characteristic precisions of language:

The balloon that is so majestic on
the plump air tumbles as heavy
as a plumb-bob onto the countryside 

Oliver presents often quite surreal word-pictures (paintings rather than maps); these poems are crammed with multi-layered images of our contemporary world. Memory is the Mystery. He fast-forwards through space and time, until:

                                        mist drowns
streetlights, the earth for a time puts aside
its hunger, and a delayed flight
fills in for the evening star of Autumn.

The thickened texture of this sequence is perhaps its own meaning, impressive through its insistent pressure. But the poem remaining most evocatively in my memory is “Bob Orr”. Unlike many of Oliver’s poems, this is voiced tenderly in the first person, and is a remarkable work, a kind of orienteering map of loving friendship.

3

Harvey McQueen’s Pingandy is a New and Selected, prefaced by reminiscences which usefully contextualise the collection. The first two sections feature new work, the remaining four sections being from earlier publications.

Initially, his “distinctive voice as a poet in a bureaucratic landscape” made it hard for me to relate to the opening sequence, “Beehive”. Then I became interested in the story: McQueen’s time on David Lange’s education staff, falling under the spell (“old mule you’re on the sliding / slope to loyalty”) of the Leader, fascinated by his way with words. I wanted to find more of a way with words in these poems; there is too much reportage, which sharper editing might have turned into poetry. Yet the cumulative effect is engaging. So much allusion and evocation drawn together into the form field of the poem creates a certain pressure; the fragmentary nature of post-modernism appears exemplified in politics where everything must be moving always “instanter” (Olson’s in/famous passage, following on from “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception”, seems very relevant here).

Eventually, “[t]ime reveals the spearheads in bleached bones”. I’m not sure that the Lange-as-kauri image coheres in my imagination; it seems a merely technical device (McQueen wonders about it also: “yeah stubborn mule stick to your metaphor”), and I begin to read it ironically, which might suit Lange but seems unfair to the kauri. But I’m more pleased with this sequence than at first I wanted to be, just as I’m pleased with much of Pound’s Cantos for mostly similar reasons.

The second section, “Pingandy”, includes the other recent poems. We are in St Helena, Pingandy, Berlin, Kyoto, Akaroa … A quiet phlegmatic mood, a peaceable contrast to his early poems Against the Maelstrom (1981). These new poems are rather pleasurable to read. Why? I think, in the first place, it is because McQueen is attentive to such a wide range of perceptions; his poems are full of things: sense-impressions, memories, an often-wry commentary (so tangible a voice I include it among “things”). And these are well-made poems, which allow the voice to have its say without straining. While the poet as personality/persona is prominent, generally the craftsman “is present everywhere and visible nowhere”. Nothing gets in the way:

A rusty folly of a continent –
outside art
such and so much red
seems improbable, overhead a blazing blue,
purple on the horizon,
sprinklers keep the homestead kikiyu green.
If I stayed I’d become an artist.

Working back in time through the book, Room (1988) lets us into a house becoming a home. Objects, memories and reflections are established in a new setting:

Every space has its own rituals,
trampolines from which we spring to other spheres

A selection from Oasis Motel & Other Poems (1986) reveals the craftsman finding his ease with a propensity for “a meditative, discursive interior monologue”. The poems calmly reflect impermanence and its effects on lives: nostalgia, and a stoic endurance. There are occasional fine resonances: “the burnt / stumps & butter churns”.

Stoat Spring (1983) is another of those sequences where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Numerous particulars coalesce:

The system to be opposed, the moneylender
destroyed, we need more arrows, missiles.
Anne said this morning we both distrust happiness.

This, after a series of images associated only by proximity and a tone of world-weariness. The central metaphor of the stoat figures as doppelgänger. It is an effective device; reading the spare staccato phrases, one becomes aware of one’s teeth.

And so to the beginnings at the end of this retrospective collection. Sometimes the last lines of poems really tell us where we are. Although McQueen in his preface states that “the poems in Against the Maelstrom range from domestic quiet to the then current chaos of my life”, the endings of most of the poems in fact signal disquiet:

they cannot always give security

(“About Security”)

Most things work, but not for long.

(“Two Sparrows Dead”)

Some cuttings strike, most come to grief

(“Why Remind Me”)

The title sequence of this section, “Against the Maelstrom”, begins with love and drifts towards unlove, until:

now I’m aware
under the jasmine the trellis rots

The last part of the sequence summarises the state of things under headings. All is not well, and considering the tone of the more recent poems, I would have liked another conclusion to the book.

This sequence made me think about form. McQueen mentions in his preface that at the time he conversed a lot with Alistair Paterson, “and his ideas about field form influenced me”. The result seems evident in Against the Maelstrom. In getting to know a poem, at an early stage I like to take it for a walk, to sense its movement through my body-rhythms. But in the “field” a different kind of rhythm is perceptible: more a nerve-sense process than a blood process, in my experience. An orientating amongst, rather than a moving through.

I once saw a weka’s nest up the Ruakituri. Arrayed about it were the accumulated pilfered shiny objects: coins, milk bottle tops, a child’s compass, a buckle, a chocolate wrapper… Each was placed presumably at random, yet in that first moment of seeing, each seemed to have reference to all else. The best visual art is like this, and so too are the best parts of this poem. It seems we encounter rhythm in such a poem as we do in a painting, as a simultaneity of patterned effects; not so much to be walked with, but rather, to borrow a felicitous phrase from Alan Loney, “a location to be dwelt in”.

Overall, this book is worth the indwelling.

4

Some covers have a good feel to them, as well as good looks, and with Pat White’s sixth book, Drought and other intimacies, Steele Roberts has achieved this again. A painting by the poet complements the title. Inside, on soft-textured paper, the poems and accompanying pictures (by the poet) are pleasant to approach.

The book is divided into three sections. By the time I’d read through the first, my attention was flagging. Too many nor’westers! I know that’s the problem in a drought, but it should not become a problem in poems. As I thought about this, I sensed what the issue was. The blurb tells us that “the verse is uncompromising and spare in the telling, the language direct without losing the rhythm that goes with living close to the seasons that have their own timing”. The poems in this first section could have been more uncompromising, more spare. While the language is direct, the rhythms seem a bit enervated. Too amiable. I feel that these poems lack the tension the seasons have:

there’s a lot going on out there but
getting up to another nor’west day
that’s bloody near enough
how are you coping?

The reader’s thirst remains unslaked. In a recent article in Kite, Lauris Edmond listed five criteria by which she assessed poems: freshness, energy, economy, immediacy, and mystery. In the particulars of his life, Pat White has all the makings, but I sense that, in terms of these criteria, too many of the poems are not yet fully made. There are some exceptions: the simplicity of poems like “Words at Sunset” appeals, and the honed strength of “When I think of Sidi Rezegh: New Year ’97” is a satisfying finale:

such a big planet to be lost on, with
no known secret of flight

John Allison is a poet and teacher.

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