The Bells of Saint Babel’s: Poems 1997-2001
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
There is much to admire in Curnow’s first completely new book since The Loop in Lone Kauri Road (1986). To the fore is his great technical skill – his compression and control of tone and emotion. And despite the studied difficulty such restraints sometimes give his poems, Curnow’s breadth of interest and humanity are as big as his choice of words continues to be precise and exacting.
Compression. The poems occupy a modest 47 pages and there are but twelve. The favoured form is slim, two-line stanzas, clipping down the middle of the page. This form, always hinting but never quite arriving at stability, is well chosen. Invitingly simple, it allows for narrative flow yet also fragments the syntax and throws up combinations that demand rereading.
Repression. Ian Wedde said in a recent New Zealand Listener interview that he wanted to get away from “the patently dishonest flattening out of tone of so much contemporary writing”. It’s a strange remark. Curnow is a master of the flat tone and uses it, as he has used it throughout his career, to relay material that, were it not delivered in such deadpan fashion, would shriek and howl. Giving a poem full and unfettered voice in the name of honesty seems to miss an important point about the nature of art and representation. Even Grahame Sydney knows that realism tells lies.
“The Kindest Thing” features a dog dragged behind a ute by its lead and subsequently put down – “kindest thing, most times”. It’s an extremely shocking poem, but, by keeping a tight rein on the tone, Curnow is able to deliver the horror in graphic detail:
what was concealed
only heard, the dog
by the neck, raving,
clawing at the tailboard
Another element the flat tone brings to the poem is ordinariness. It’s just “one of those / bright spring mornings”. The vet has seen it all before. So, although the poem could be seen as a comment on the callousness of stoners or farmers, the flat tone’s everydayness fingers cruelty as perhaps less isolated than we might wish to believe.
The horror in “The Cake Uncut” is more complex for being tangled with love. Narrated primarily by the mother, the poem tells of the death of a child whose parents refuse him conventional cancer treatment:
We very religious
people. We sing,
we pray to God
to make the lump
go away …
The tone is flattened by the narrator’s plain vocabulary and English-as-a-Second-Language diction, which sketches and restrains the action and emotion perfectly. There’s real skill in getting such simplicity right, in making the plain and colloquial speak louder than the eloquent and articulate. The way the mother refers to her husband as “Dad”, for example, is a brilliant signifier for a certain sort of family unit. It also subtly brings the absent child into the poem – rather uncomfortably in section III, but then that’s exactly what the poem is about, uncomfortable levels of love and ignorance. A flat tone keeps a lid on emotion, but it doesn’t mean Curnow is an emotionless poet. In many respects, this is a very personal collection.
In “The Pocket Compass” he recalls a compass rose drawn onto a wooden railing by “GET”, a railing that “years after … will have been replaced”, and meditates how “pencil or chisel can’t replicate / the rose in the mind’s eye, indelibly true”. Curnow has always located reality within the perceptions of the individual mind, and in this instance his allowance that his memory is “indelibly true” is both a high personal tribute to “GET”and perhaps an example of why his poetry is considered more modern than postmodern.
In “Fantasia and Fugue for Pan-pipe” the memory trigger is a “plaintively / lovelorn” poem, “Pan”, by his father in an early book of New Zealand Verse, which also contains a similar poem by Maud, the subject of his father’s poem. The two poems seem to speak obliquely to each other of the pain of love, and Curnow interprets the cause as his father’s and Maud’s inexplicably broken-off engagement. It’s incredibly personal territory, though when Curnow takes up his father’s Pan image, his usage is unswervingly contemporary:
Had a hand groped,
grabbed, come away
with a moist fist-
ful to play black
hole tunes, the ones
the galaxies with?
One’s parents’ bedroom is no place to linger, but the possible gropings of one’s father with an ex-fiancée are even more disquieting. After all, Curnow realises, had his father married Maud, where would that have left him? “Lost names. Try not to / think about that.”
Perhaps the best example of compression and a flat tone is the emotion and layers of meaning Curnow gets into this couplet. It’s precisely by thinking his way toward what is normally exclusively the heart’s domain, and in doing so repressing and flattening the tone, that Curnow achieves a dazzling multi-layered emotional depth. The old adage of less being more was never better exemplified.
Four of the twelve poems are styled “after Pushkin”. “When and Where”, a meditation on youth, age and the inevitability of death in rhymed quatrains, mixes a Victorian tone – “your time to bud, and bloom, / while my late leaves wither and drop” – with what better resembles contemporary Curnow:
Cadavers couldn’t care less where they rot,
yet living tissue leans (as best it may)
toward the long-loved familiar spot
for its rest. Mine does, think of it that way.
Curnow has always looked at death through the eyes of a determined rationalist, and even at 90 he’s not about to turn his consciousness and senses over to abstract intimations of spirituality. His poems remain very much anchored in the land of the living, as they must because Curnow’s fascination is with social and physical processes – how people and nature collide and negotiate to create ease, beauty, suffering and death.
“Winter Evening” likewise utilises an ABAB rhyme, which Curnow cleverly loosens up just as the speaker reaches for the grog, but is perhaps more impressive for its variations in rhythm:
Let’s drink! That’s the stuff
to make us both feel
better, old mate of my sad
While the East-European voice is spot-on, you can see Curnow varying the rhythm in the lyrical refrain in order to steer clear of bad rhymed verse:
while this pig of a gale
now screams, now drops
to a baby’s wail
and it wraps
cloud-cover around the sky
with its gusts that blow
those twisters of snow
that fall and flake as they fly.
I’m not sure he manages it; lyricism has never been one of Curnow’s strengths.
“The Talisman” spins the tale of its deathly charm:
when cheating eyes
meet and you’re aroused
when it kicks in
never be two-timed
left for dead bleeding
newly from the heart!
with much more style than the pedantic “The Upas Tree”:
“Find that tree
Bring back the deadly stuff”
his imperial master said
and off he went …
This is a rare instance, especially the last stanza, where Curnow’s writing plods out the story in a way that simply isn’t engaging enough.
Rare because this collection nevertheless confirms Curnow as one of the best contemporary poets anywhere. The intensities that marked the sequences of his middle period are still in evidence, even in poems that are easier and more relaxed in subject matter. What the stand-out poems have in common is edge – edge which seems to stem from the juxtaposition of Curnow’s impeccable technical control with the poems’ constant awareness of their own and the world’s partiality. Even as Curnow is able to look back with an irreverent joke, “Sorry, Mister Dean, / can’t hear a word / for those DAMNED BELLS” (“The Bells of Saint Babel’s”), he’s still staring into the face of the uncontainable in “Ten Steps to the Sea”:
The pain is this wind, which blows the whole
In your face.
In this physical, philosophical, fragmented poem – which at times reads like a set of clues for reading Curnow – the speaker moves through a landscape both solidly real – “the high dunes, the hollows of / wetted sand, rabbit shit” – and sneakily aware of its own artifice – “is arranged the sky / for inspection”. Lines like:
I try to balance
the two, as little pain
as possible, as much reality
could be a sort of Curnowic manifesto: the visceral and vicarious as the primary ways of knowing.
“A remark / for the rising sun. I see / by what blinds me” seems almost instantly quotable and perhaps demonstrates why Curnow has been able to produce such quality over such a long period. His subjects are often big and blinding, and therefore inexhaustible, but it’s his intelligence and economy that give him standing room in the present. It’s amazing how quotable Curnow is. His poems have gained a foothold in our language, our consciousness.
James Brown is this year’s writer in residence at the University of Canterbury.
The Bells of Saint Babel’s has been shortlisted in the Poetry Section of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.