Not all freckles and nostalgia, Dougal McNeill

The Movie May Be Slightly Different
Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 97800864736437


Adorno’s term for those last, wild works of Beethoven’s was “late style”, describing a maturity that is for the most part not round, but furrowed and even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art and they show more traces of history than growth.

Certainly, O’Sullivan’s marvellous poems from the last dozen years announce their distance from his earlier works with quite some daring and cheek. Compare a few of the solemn titles collected in 1973’s Bearings – “Ariadne”, “Interview with Theseus”, “I Have Taken a Thrush” – with the openings that, since Seeing You Asked (1998), we’ve come to expect: “No nostalgia, please!”, “Funny thing, romance”, “Mid-sentence, so to speak” or, my favourite, “Getting off proper on le temps perdu”! The Butcher Papers, from this distance, read as a dry run, preparing readers for personae who will, in the fullness of O’Sullivan’s late style, play a gleefully cantankerous role in the poems’ process.

Lost time occupies a great deal of The Movie May Be Slightly Different, full as it is with poems on funerals, lost friends and colleagues, such as “Late tribute” to a “boy at the other side of Tirotai Crescent” and “the breathing I’m hearing now he’s stopped”. Mostly, though, the persona whose presence one feels most often operates with a Brechtian slyness, registering both death’s intrusions and the undignified but pleasing pursuit of survival:

                        But I bellow
the last farewell, I don’t mind my voice
My hankie’s fresh. “A nice send-off”, how often
that’s said over sausage rolls? I’m glad I went.
I don’t like her a jot more. But I’m glad I went.

I’m tempted to read these poems as offering a lyrical sort of a case for longevity as class struggle. Death’s imminence sharpens the question, certainly, as “Class envy, simply” in Blame Vermeer (2007) reminds us:

So much on the cheap the rich acquire –
central heating as well as fire,
history delivered by the cartload,
centuries instead of each sweated minute
to while their time, to smooth their road,
so many approaches to the infinite.
And more camels, note, than you’d ever credit.
Only one needle needed. Don’t forget it.

“Laying it on a bit, cobber” (another of these titles!) is how The Movie May Be Slightly Different might respond to that particular account, the O’Sullivan habit of dressing intellectual reflection in carefully understated language persisting. Still, figuring longevity as a move in the class struggle helps account for the impudent eroticism and spry sexiness of this new verse – “the sprinkling of pale/dots on the shoulders of a pretty girl/could give a jolt that lasted an after-/noon in the days which hardly happened” – and its location alongside saltier, occasionally quite vicious pieces on literary society and middle-class practices and pieties. It’s not all freckles and nostalgia, either: I can’t think of another poet who uses the term “shagged” as often, or as enthusiastically. “Not that you’d let on, mostly”, as another title prepares us for this move, in part because its operations are of necessity indirect. “I’d love to be able to say ‘No pasarán’/as they did in those fabled days/I’ve always wished I’d been part of”, one poem runs. But this is now, for a “Deprived generation”, an impossibility:

    But I stand in my sixties
at a window looking across to houses
that look back to houses mirroring theirs
and take on board the worst of fates
in the best of times: no one wanting to pass,
no one giving a toss should I deny them,
even if they did.

This isn’t the standard manner of praising O’Sullivan’s achievement: Victoria University Press cites praise for “luminous spirituality”, poems that “shimmer with skill and vigour” and so on. I’m persisting because these “lyrical” accounts, to my ear, miss the aggressively wayward tack of the work. Thinking about late style helps account for the odd pitch of the verse, what O’Sullivan’s opponents class as its failings (Stead’s line that he never “aspires to ‘music’ ”), and allows us to place that cumbersomeness as part of the poems’ reach and message. There’s the Brechtian inheritance again, as in “Poetry, oh yes!” from Lucky Table (2001):

And the one time sex raises
what you go and call ‘its ugly head’ is
to be a joke entitled ‘Irish Toothache.’ Any
wonder I’m put out? That poetry doesn’t
to the average man? That we actually dislike it?


And a politics at work:

“Poetry alters nothing”,
that’s more my line. I’m seldom impressed
when I hear some Generalissimo kept Dante
by his bedside

Too smooth a line, or too bountiful a beauty, can be an immorality, and the jerky, difficult rhythms of O’Sullivan’s poems insist on modesty and reflection. (Adorno helps again: “scars of damage and disruption are the modern’s seal of authenticity.”) What The Movie May Be Slightly Different reveals as the source of that damage and disruption has always been central to O’Sullivan’s work, biography and prose as much as poetry: “the war before” and “the war we talk of” (Blame Vermeer). Now, though, “nudge to a cobber sort of thing”, this historical dependence emerges as topic and, behind it, there is the motivation of report on inexperience. “Once, as a student” remembers how “I was the only one in the room who had never/killed a man, or waded in an Italian river” and goes on:

                  I thought how
I would hardly equal one of them, ever; and now
know I was right

All but the very last of that generation are now dead. Their history and memory suffuse The Movie May Be Slightly Different and lend its poems, for all their occasional mannerisms, seriousness and care. To observe, then, that this latest collection carries on pretty much as its predecessors, feels a wholly appropriate sort of a compliment.


Dougal McNeill is a Wellington reviewer.


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