Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Vincent O’Sullivan is not – and has never been – one of our noisier poets. He’s not known, like Denis Glover or James K Baxter, for extravagant behaviour; or, like Sam Hunt or Cilla McQueen, for performance work; or, like Fleur Adcock or Lauris Edmond, for flourishing his own life in his poems. He’s not even known, like the earlier Ian Wedde or Michele Leggott, for pushing out the boundaries (although he can be as daring with language as any of his peers). He is the classical quiet achiever of a poet – like Louis MacNeice in mid-20th century British verse, perhaps – of whom we suddenly become aware that he has long been an essential part of the canon. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I count this as a great virtue.
Does he seem less obtrusive as a poet because he has never been satisfied with poetry alone, but has tried his hand – and succeeded – in the other major genres? It does come as something of a surprise that so soon after his recent substantial award-winning collection, Seeing You Asked (1998), he should produce another meaty collection, his eleventh. As an editor and reviewer, I often feel suspicious of writers who publish in too rapid a succession – as if we’re being given too much information, as if the necessary sifting process of time has not taken place. But in the case of Lucky Table I couldn’t have been more wrong. These are poems that needed to be published.
Seeing You Asked had a number of high points, like the exhilarating “July, July” and the sardonic “Check-up”, but it is exceeded in these by the new collection. Lucky Table is full of anthology pieces, poems that will become part of our cultural capital: exquisite love poems like “Before You Go”; portrait poems like “Hearing Aunt M. out”; poems about the nature of reality like “As is, is”; and poems about poetry like “Reading the Russians”. But what is most striking about this collection is the extent to which O’Sullivan is prepared to foreground simple emotion, and to express a serenity, warmth and acceptance of things as they are that, interestingly, is also the hallmark of Ian Wedde’s new volume, The Commonplace Odes.
When O’Sullivan wrote a short memoir for the New Zealand Listener following Lauris Edmond’s death last year, he was candid about their rather different approach to writing poetry. “Oddly, perhaps, Lauris and I hardly ever talked together about our own writing,” he disclosed, feeling she considered his poems “a bit cerebral”, while he was wary of the confessional poetry that Lauris championed because “on an off day, [it] was rather too like a clothesline that the neighbours were assumed to be interested in.” And in his review of Seeing You Asked in the December 1998 issue of this journal, Ken Arvidson warned, rightly, about “trying to read anything by O’Sullivan as autobiography”. But it does seem that in Lucky Table he has allowed himself to be touched by the confessional to an unprecedented extent. For there are poems in this volume – love poems, autobiographical poems and poems about his art – that one could only describe as intimate, that go to the very heart.
Perhaps this is a bold statement. But previously O’Sullivan tended to approach such subjects behind the shield of irony. The more lyrical of the Butcher poems of the late 1970s and ’80s are a case in point. Something was being withheld, you felt, or deflected. But this could not be said, for example, of “Elegy: again” in the new volume, a moving account of a memory of a former lover, which ends: “And the utter ashes of it now, the same / as if I’d read about someone else, un- / moved. And you, caged in freedoms beyond flame.” Or of “A bit late, but still”, which reminiscences about two teachers, Sister Gabriel and Brother Remigius, and concludes with the simple regret of the lines, “To hear you both talking / of that would be something. And something, / I suppose, in its sad, distant way, / to say even this – how good it would be.” Or of “Reading the Russians”, which limpidly states the limited but unparalleled possibilities of poetry, and perhaps why we poets go on writing it:
It throws something
into the dark, poetry; it tells you, tomorrow
it will look different, it will look
the same. You take both on trust, as you
trust, because you have to, words like
It is such a tiny
mound, poetry, to draw the horizons closer,
to wear the world like a sleeve you move
at ease in. Yet what you absorb
is strange, and the glow of strangeness
is what you hope to say. And the words
patiently waiting, helping you say it.
In this last example, the image of “wear[ing] the world like a sleeve you move / at ease in” is particularly apt, because O’Sullivan himself does move at ease in so many of these poems, without false inhibition or false pathos.
The three poems just highlighted are obvious examples of where the shield is put aside. They illustrate what I mean on a macro level. However, it is evident too in more subtle ways. One of O’Sullivan’s distancing techniques has always been to insert conversational fillers like “as we say”, “that’s it”, “see”, “I ask you”, “imagine”, “yep”. He has recourse to this technique here too: as a dramatist and master of vernacular dialogue he can hardly resist them. But they are absent in many of the poems where we feel the shield is down, as if no such hesitation is necessary. And in others, where they do appear, he does not always allow them to colour the final impression of the poem.
A good example is the title piece, a magisterial poem about wishful thinking, in which the persona muses about the transformational effects of even a very small change in physique or personality. It begins in a shambling way:
It doesn’t happen often, but today it did –
to think of what, ideally, one might have been
with a slightly alternative whisking of the cards –
the difference, say, of additional height, that
would do to begin with …
but concludes, after traversing the opportunities such a modification might open up, with a lyrical cadence as pure and beautiful as anything in recent New Zealand poetry: “The smile that opens simply as a dove’s wings / and what is in flight is everything, everything.” What this poem offers up is little enough, and yet somehow its shy blossoming illuminates the whole collection.
Many of the poems in this collection are accessible in the sense that they hit the reader in the solar plexus on a first reading, but not in the sense that they are done with after that first reading. They are poems to mine repeatedly, for O’Sullivan is a very sophisticated and, at times, challenging poet. He stretches vocabulary and syntax; he crafts his images out of unlikely juxtapositions. Broken mirrors are “zagged across” in “Sleeping Beauty reflects”; the vicar’s tongue “lollies away” in “One more, for spring”; the harbour is “half-huffed” in “Lines of approach”. Sometimes he seems to push language too far, as in the phrase “reality togged in the clobber of its instant stroll” (“As is, is”) or “morse / to the recently mort” (“One more, for spring”), or “the whole / yawp of the lake” (“The truth about realism”). But whether these experiments work or not is largely a matter of personal taste. It is a poet’s job to take such risks, and, here, the risk is mostly worth taking.
As for the syntax, he often allows it to reel outwards, like fishing-line, before pulling it taut, sometimes making the reader sweat a little in following its trajectory. This is the method in “Lucky Table”, whose syntax neatly reflects the musings of an imagination. Or he spits the syntax out in short bursts, often at the conclusion of a poem, to bring it to an emphatic stop – as in “Mrs Dempsey’s bright side”, a rhymed poem in sestets, reminiscent of Baxter’s “Ballad of Calvary Street”, which ends: “Last thing at night / she thinks how stars drill darkness. Then it’s light.”
Finally, some of the images are so felicitous that they threaten to dominate the whole poem. Like Rilke in his Dinggedichte, O’Sullivan knows how to put new life into that rather discredited figure of speech, the simile. Indeed, the collection opens with a startling and very witty one:
A dead overturned beetle can look as if
it’s feeling in several fob-pockets at once,
checking the beetle version of time
when the ticking stopped on cue.
It closes with one that captures perfectly how a sub-text should work, how the many readings of a successful story, poem or drama should insinuate themselves into the reader’s imagination:
At the end of the story I want you
to remember only the important things
that walk between the congregations of print
like a bride you’ve read of between the torches
of the story you thought you read.
(“No harm in hoping”)
And, ultimately, this is something that can happen only with a quiet insistence. There is no need to be noisy about it.
Bill Sewell is a Wellington poet and co-editor of New Zealand Books. He is also co-editor (with Lauris Edmond) of Essential New Zealand Poems, which is reviewed on p17.