Being Here: Selected Poems
Victoria University Press, $40.00
Let the Writer Stand
Judith Dell Panny
Steele Roberts, $30.00
Vincent O’Sullivan is a writer of such prodigious gifts that the Collected Poems I can’t be alone in longing for simply isn’t feasible. In the time such an edition would take to assemble, O’Sullivan would have written another collection or two. Just as the ironic, intellectual and psychological positions of his writing routinely pre-empt and outdistance critical responses, so too his extraordinary rate of production, not only in poetry, is ceaselessly speeding away from us. So this wonderful selection, Being Here, the first attempt to showcase his whole work in poetry since the 1992 Selected Poems, will have to do for now.
It’s a stunningly good book. This year marks 50 years since Vincent O’Sullivan’s first collection appeared, and one indicator of his accomplishment is that the poems chosen from books published since he turned 60, from Seeing You Asked (1998) to Us, Then (2013), occupy almost three-fifths of the selection. This isn’t only because the mature wit and moral deftness of his late style match the fertility of the late period, as we’ll learn to call it – a period which has additionally seen two more collections of short stories, massive editorial labours concluded on the fiction and letters of Katherine Mansfield, the Mulgan biography, the essay On Longing, and a whole fistful of collaborations with composer Ross Harris. It’s also because O’Sullivan has been rigorous to a fault in choosing sparsely from his first 30-odd years.
Being Here, like the 1992 Selected, prints nothing earlier than his fourth book, Bearings (1973). In fact, his debut collection was Our Burning Time (1965). Only quite recently, I finally read this book when an old friend and fellow admirer, English critic Chris Miller, made a gift of it to me. It’s full of things we see little of as O’Sullivan’s life in poetry lengthens – sonnets, poems on classical (as distinct from Biblical) antiquity, poems that marry early affinities as different as Mason and Baxter, or the elaborate stanza shape, part 17th century and part Dylan Thomas, of “Girl in October”. There’s first-book brilliance everywhere, and a strong vein of the religious and moral inquiry that serves as the hard wiring of all O’Sullivan’s writing. One poem, “Elegy for a Schoolmate”, seems not only superbly achieved in itself, but the sure sign of a strength that will run through all his poetry. It opens by telling us of the death of a former schoolmate who put her head in an oven. The speaker never bullied or bothered her, he recalls. He remembers her as stupid and wet-nosed. She wore dirty clothes. He almost wishes he’d thrown rocks at her or snitched on her for smoking: “Then I could feel pent-up for a day / And forget her.” Instead, the poem comes to rest like this:
But she takes her place among immortal things.
With the potter’s wheel at the bottom of a dry pit,
With the hands of Egyptian ladies held like thin,
Their collars of beaten gold, and a basalt dog.
O’Sullivan has always had this ability to establish a metaphoric world, and place his true subject in an equally true but wholly different dimension, with a few economic strokes.
“Elegy for a Schoolmate” would have opened this selection perfectly, anticipating O’Sullivan’s lifelong habit of seeing fellow-beings in the round, seeing himself critically in the act of thinking about them, and including an understanding of the wider context. But the mature O’Sullivan, with his preference for matching plain speaking to big subjects, places a different emphasis. He has set his key signature in Being Here with “Morning”, an appealing piece from Bearings that speaks of moving two goats from the unpropitious place they’ve got themselves into, and of cats, mist by a river, and a birch tree at the start of autumn. That’s it. It’s a gloriously understated poem, both in its played-down free verse and in its moral acceptance that the peace of life is found in taking pleasure in one’s everyday existence and the things in it. It wasn’t among the poems from Bearings that made it into the 1992 Selected but, in making this striking change, O’Sullivan shows how well he understands what is strongest in his own poetry: the tireless affectionate scrutiny of fellow-beings (animal as well as human), and the ripened conviction that it is not a god but the acceptance of a here-and-now, free of “deeper” or symbolic meanings, that underwrites whatever harmony we find.
O’Sullivan’s evolution as a poet is manifest in Being Here. There are the towering accomplishments of his 40s: the persona of Butcher, the inquiry into the shadowlands of Pilate, and the monumental Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka, all rich in proof of his Jesuitical taste for seeing several angles of a conceptual problem simultaneously, all eloquent of his talents for dialogue, continuity, and images shining like seams of ore in rock. Leaner years (for poetry) follow in his 50s, a 12-year gap from The Pilate Tapes to Seeing You Asked, with only the 1992 Selected at midpoint. But then he settles to a steady rhythm, publishing a new book every three years, and of late every two. From his beginnings to the present, he examines and re-examines the life of the mind, through writers, painters, composers; he writes of animals, of his father, of children, of other people and ourselves, and of the large patterns of thought and human comedy that overarch these; and, above all, he writes out of his Catholic formative years and his adult rational thinking, as a man fully conscious of how the world and its deities, myths and stories work, endeavouring to take the ill good-humouredly and the good as cause for celebration. Patently his life has been rich, in heart and mind as much as in circumstance, but no one who knows him will be surprised to find Judith Dell Panny reporting his lack of interest in writing an autobiography. He is one of only a very few writers I’ve known who will speak of their work only if asked a direct question. This modesty, and his formidable ability to maintain high standards of seriousness even at his most casual and jesting, make him a rare creature indeed.
There are a handful of poets writing in English whose every book I await in the confidence that it will possess real meaning for me. The Australian Robert Gray is one such, and O’Sullivan is another. Touchstone poems I return to again and again include “Waikato-Taniwha-Rau”, “Seeing You Asked”, “Right on”, “The Child in the Gardens: Winter”, “River Road, Due South”, “Still Waiting, are We?”, “How Things are”, and “Being Here”. I think of these as among the finest poems written in the language in my lifetime, and I think of O’Sullivan as unquestionably a major poet.
In the intertwining of the river and the principle of fiction in “Waikato-Taniwha-Rau”; in the variation on the expulsion from Eden that ends “We / are not coming back to this place. Are we, Dad?” in “The Child in the Gardens: Winter”; in the intentness of looking and listening, of breaking-off and keeping-on, of wanting-to-stay and needing-to-go, that marks the devotion to savouring time and what it yields to the senses in “Still Waiting, are We?” – in these and other unforced fusions of high myth and everyday experience, I see in O’Sullivan’s poetry a working-through of all the traumas, doubts and agonies that accompany the historical transition to a post-belief condition in developed, sceptical societies literate in the scrutiny and dismantling of what they once collectively believed. Where Robert Gray gives me the strong-mindedness of an atheist untroubled by either aggressive recoil or reflex doubt, O’Sullivan gives me the interior of the spirit working its lifelong way through the painful maze.
At the end of the labour might come the serene acceptance signalled by the title Being Here, were it not that O’Sullivan’s undercutting ironies won’t altogether permit it. The selection closes with a low-key, deceptively simple companion piece to the opening “Morning”, a new poem comparing birds at a garden feeder to the keys of an old typewriter:
I don’t quite
catch at what it is they’re typing,
something, one fancies, about enjoying
the fact of again and again.
The most important fact about life is that we want it to go on, day after day. Repetition is so very fundamental to our human experience (from liturgy to music to poems, from a child’s bedtime rituals to the replicated motifs of architecture), because it acts as a guarantor that the sun will rise again on another day in our lives. Or indeed on a continuation of life, after. In this respect “The Sentiment of Goodly Things” is existentially an old man’s poem rather than merely an expression of late style. For all their radical simplicity, the final lines express a self-subverting thought: hope for the resurrection, for continuation after death, is qualified by the tacit knowledge that typewriter keys tap out the words, words, words of a supreme fiction:
I hope that’s
what they’re writing. It must be,
the way the keys keep coming back.
O’Sullivan is too canny a writer not to know that there’s no “must” about it. The hope must co-exist with the knowledge that “must” is a word without traction here.
Because his surfaces seem reader-friendly, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of writing at all well on O’Sullivan’s work. Between explaining the bleeding obvious and grasping that under his seeming transparency lie strata of complexity no less demanding than those in Geoffrey Hill, there are many traps a critic can blithely fall into. Let the Writer Stand is a bundle of essays mainly by Dell Panny, but including two by Peter Whiteford and one apiece by Paul Millar and Sebastian Black. Whiteford is very good on the Pilate poems, and all four critics have real strengths, but in attempting a critical overview of every aspect of Vincent O’Sullivan’s work the book is sometimes betrayed into re-telling of plots and sixth-form blandness. It is high time substantial critical attention was paid to this outstanding and versatile writer, and we can at least hope that Let the Writer Stand signals a beginning.
Michael Hulse teaches poetry and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.