The Yellow Buoy
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
The Blue Coat
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
Collected Poems 1956-2011
Steele Roberts, $46.00,
These writers are past their three-score-and-ten – Elizabeth Smither is the youngest at (excuse my mentioning it) 71, Peter Bland will be 79 by the time this review appears, and Karl Stead is 80 – so I’ve been thinking about late styles.
In some poets, the most striking feature of a late style is the persistence in refining a manner found to be successful decades earlier: Ezra Pound’s progress to the late Cantos is the paradigm here. Currently, Writers Writing Dying – the new collection by C K Williams – shows the American poet writing (formidably) in the long line that has served him so well for almost 40 years. A late style of a different sort is marked by relaxation of the tried-and-tested manner, accompanied by a tacit awareness that the poet’s earned status guarantees that attention will be paid even to slight production. In Provinces, the collection published in English when he was 80, the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz began a poem, “We were drinking vodka together, Brodsky, Venclova / With his beautiful Swedish girl, myself, Richard, / Near the Art Gallery” – lines no one would claim any distinction for. They are lines relaxed in manner, using the everyday details of literary life as part of the subject (as if supplying a note to a future biographer), and the poet no longer seems to care so much about “poetry” as he does about “life”. A third sort of late style, that of Milosz’s coaeval Allen Curnow, is best described as a commitment to continually re-thinking and re-modelling the poetics shaped over several decades (a process different, I’d contend, to the fine-tuning of the first type). Curnow’s poetry from An Incorrigible Music (1979) to The Bells of Saint Babel’s (2001) was virtually a paradigm of this unresting drive. Goethe (no direct comparison intended) is the exemplar here, unceasingly subjecting his own poetics to re-conceiving.
There’s a high element of self-awareness and professional self-esteem (by which I don’t mean conceit) in all three of these versions of late style. Of the writers under review, Smither is most emphatically a poet of the first kind, perfecting her quiet manner of understated grace, writing chiefly in quatrains or tercets uninhibited by formal constraints, pointedly taking her subject matter from even the most unprepossessing of everyday situations and observations. I’ve been reading her poetry with pleasure for 30 years or more and the only substantial shift I’ve seen is the stifling of her early interest in conceiving a book as a sequence (as in Casanova’s Ankle or the phantom limb of the St Teresa poems in The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni’s Wife). Bland is essentially a writer of the first kind as well, since he’s preferred from the start (as this Collected makes clear) to trust to a strong harmony of voice and gesture – as we might expect of a theatre man. When the bonhomie falters, in late poems written after the death of his wife, it’s the consistent resilience of the training that serves Bland best. The show goes on, movingly. Stead has the most complex late style of these three poets. He has Milosz’s relaxed manner, as well as the instinct to use poetry as a running commentary on the writer’s life, but there’s also a variant on the perfecting instinct: Stead in old age can no longer be bothered with the less appealing “experiments” of his early work (the inclusion of Venn diagrams, say), nor with the dutiful chewing-over of material that doesn’t fall naturally within his poetry’s catchment (as in the commissioned Voices), but instead concentrates on core strategies – the Catullus alter ego, the left-and-right-justified poem-in-a-box, the syllabics (of the Bridges/Gunn kind rather than Moore/Smithyman), and so on.
The Yellow Buoy is a fine, civilised collection, its bookish skeleton nicely fleshed with sense experience – the scarlet of strawberries at a Zagreb market, swimming in the Adriatic, the fruit and music and yellow cabs and beautiful women of Colombia, “the pricking of something like lust”. Stead’s whetted awareness of the approach of death is here on every page, in the relish of all that life still offers and in his meditations on the dead. It is a book full-bodied in its embrace of life, and the presence of the dying or dead underscores the strength of that embrace. Understood as a sustained reflection on the approach of death, The Yellow Buoy is the most moving and most satisfying of all Stead’s books of poetry.
Looked at from another angle, it is also a book without a subject. The poems are almost without exception footnotes to the writer’s life, occasional pieces, a blog by another name. We read of time spent with a Croatian translator, at poetry festivals in Colombia and Venezuela, in an Italian writers’ retreat; there are dreams and memories of Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, and other friends such as Barry Humphries; we are given translations of Montale and Jaccottet. This isn’t poetry about a green linnet or a butterfly, nor is it about the killing of Aldo Moro. It isn’t poetry about the things or events of the world. It is the poetry that poets write when they stop writing about subjects – when the one true subject that remains is the Subject.
That proves to be the book’s strength. A number of poems stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, and “The Silence”, which nods to Dante, Yeats and Eliot and borrows a manner from Heaney’s “Station Island” sequence, is one of the strongest. For all its allusiveness, this 24-line poem achieves a limpid simplicity that is unstrained, personal, and resonant. We’re told that Frank Sargeson “in Hell” tells Stead/moi to “ ‘listen / always to the silence until / you hear it whisper its name’ ” –
he faded into fire, and I,
half-waking, wrote to remember
all that he’d said – and listened for
the silence, and could not hear it.
The self is breathing on the world’s mirror, to see if it will mist. The moment is magnificent.
The self in Smither’s The Blue Coat presents a different order of sublime. Stead’s is founded on assurance and sovereignty, Smither’s on modesty and accommodation. True, a couple of poems here show her on the international circuit, but more characteristically she is found reading in utter absorption with a friend, or registering the quality of another friend’s contemplation of her own hands, or reflecting on a fine plate which, being damaged, has been demoted to everyday use. The subject matter is low-key, everyday, and the friends who appear in titles or dedications are Tonia, Diana, Joe, Chris, Beth – if any of these are “famous”, we do not learn it from the poem, because the category of eminence is of no real consequence in Smither’s world.
Because many of Smither’s poems are unassuming and anecdotal – describing a bra fitting, an appointment with a publisher, everyday tasks in the garden – it can be tempting to overlook the larger dimensions she works in. But the human figures in her poems, whether family, friends or strangers, occupy their places rather as figures in Vermeer do: there is an almost radiant stillness in them that suggests they might be the key to understanding the world much better, if only we knew how; and in Smither’s poems, as in Vermeer’s paintings, the true token of artistry lies quite as much in the decision to take this, or this, as the subject of the work in the first place, as it does in the execution.
Smither’s temperament is religious, and this gives to simple observations a symbolic dimension. A tram in autumn, whirling up leaves behind it, triggers her reverence because those inside “are unaware / of what beauty follows them”, a thought that leads her to celebrate “a bliss not in front of us // but behind, a double / blessing, made more beautiful / because we don’t see it”. And that word “blessing”, so delicately underscored by the sound patterning here, is the note on which Smither concludes this immaculate book, blessing a house at departure, “blessing the paintings // to keep their eyes open, to know / they are regarded and prayed over / now the house is properly closed / and the taxi is heard in the drive.” The Blue Coat achieves that unforced harmony of moral and aesthetic understatement which I take to have been the tacit project of all Smither’s poetry.
Bland has had two callings, in theatre/radio and in poetry, and two countries he’s thought of as home, his native England and his adoptive New Zealand. His Collected Poems programmatically opens with the poem “Wellington”, which speculates that anywhere could seem a “new Jerusalem” after an upbringing in “a British council house”; and something of the duality hardwired into his life can be tracked through the poems that face each other even in the early pages of this book (one set in Oriental Bay opposite another remembering his mother who died in Staffordshire only a few miles from where I sit writing this review). A good deal of his poetry has emerged from the attempt to recreate for himself the England of his childhood and youth, and the New Zealand he had to make real for his imagination. His protagonist Mr. Maui is best read as an attempt to project the tensions involved in that attempt into a cross between Berryman’s Henry and Herbert’s Mr Cogito.
Bland’s capacity for friendship is clear from the recurrence of Louis Johnson’s name, or a fine piece in memory of Alan Ross. (Whether Brigitte Bardot and Anthony Hopkins should be counted friends or acquaintances I can’t tell from the poems in which they appear.) The most affecting poems, however, are addressed to his late wife. Poems “for Beryl” appear throughout the book, and one of the 1980s, “Bliss”, in which he’s forever just missing his wife, movingly foreshadows what’s to come: “The trouble is / you’re always one step ahead. // I’m fated to arrive / where you’ve just been … .” The last 50 pages take us through her terminal illness to the sequence “Loss”, written after her death in 2009: “I was telling you off / when you died”, the first poem candidly begins. The last words of the last poem in the book read, “Tell me you’re waiting, / knowing I’m almost there.”
Michael Hulse co-edited The Twentieth Century in Poetry in 2011; his new poetry collection Half-Life (Arc) will appear soon.