Forces for good, Damian Love

And So It Is
Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 97817765650592

Fits and Starts
Andrew Johnston
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 97817765650592

“There is”: for the last two decades these words have been the key note of Vincent O’Sullivan’s poetry. “There is this,” it says, and it shows us what this is in considerable sensuous detail, but especially it insists on the act of drawing our attention to this, this thing here. His titles make the point again and again: “As is, is”, “How things are”, “Being here”. And So It Is. He is a man pointing. At the same time, he is a fantasist, and nothing more effectively expresses the storyteller’s privilege of summoning things into being than a bald “There is”. To wed these two stances together has been his major occupation.

And So It Is marks no epoch in his work. This collection gathers another year or two of poems in the voice he has been refining since the 1990s. We have come to know what to expect. That it goes on being interesting is part of the sense of abundance his volumes always bring. Here, again, we have the bland colloquial shuffles – “this or that”, “but there it is”, “push that line”, “in the offing” – finessed into just the rhythm needed to sustain the pulse of a poem, or touched with just enough extra meaning to redeem cliché. Many poets do thus, but few have wrought such a living persona from it, a speaker who strolls in and out of contemplation in various states of dress. Here, too, we have the pleasures of seeing – “She sits on the up- / turned wheel-less barrow with its lovely coloured / leprosy rusting what’s left of red / tin” – with a relish that William Carlos Williams might have recognized. We have the leaps into metaphor – “a dozen penguins, not / knowing they’re spotted, carved as totems, / gazing, one supposes, to what must be south” – that take us with them as casually as they seem to be made. And, of course, there is his abiding charismatic fancy.

The poems are happily unconstrained by ambition. There is little sense that any one of them is pushing the frontiers of the author’s powers or striving to become a magnum opus. This is, on the whole, a liberating factor. They succeed each other with a mellow and relaxed self-sufficiency that, given their richness, is one of the pleasures of an O’Sullivan volume. The late works of many a good poet have declined into notebook jottings that mistake paucity for compressed autumnal mastery of elemental speech. It is hard to imagine him ever falling into that trap: he is too permanently immersed in the textures of his language and his world. The poems could never be called complacent. Perhaps, rather, profoundly adequate. To feel that there is something lacking here would be, I think, to look for it in the wrong place.

And So It Is is not, thankfully, a “Dunedin book”, but it is something better, a book clearly written in Dunedin. O’Sullivan’s anonymous hes and shes, his abrupt leaps into scenarios, his sometimes whimsical conceits, often seem to locate his poems nowhere and everywhere, as indeed happens in this collection. Such poems rub shoulders, though, with the poet in propria persona wandering his local habitation, whether or not he chooses to name it. These unforced glimpses of place are the more satisfying for the feeling that nowhere and everywhere are going on all around them. Some readers will enjoy recognising the town, the harbour, the peninsula, the Otago hinterland, without the labour of set-piece landscapes. “Season” is set nowhere less or more specific than a bus stop next to a cut-back stump, and yet to me (perhaps idiosyncratically) feels intensely in and of Dunedin, and not just because Dunedin has seasons. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this, at least to my mind, is the most deeply felt, necessitous poem in the book.

The writer whose most suasive theme is writing can have little complaint if the public yawns. O’Sullivan’s reflections on his art subordinate themselves deftly to more universal concerns, or saturate themselves in the physical world, or set out to charm with wit, or indeed, more usually, all of these at once. The theme remains persistently present, however, in “Season”, for example, or “Has to be a line somewhere”, “The less than genuine article”, “Think of the girl, for once”. As in previous collections, the aims of poetry and the relation of word to world are a constant thread. If the only conclusion that really emerges is a desire to have his cake and eat it – “Those / things as my friends say it, they’re worth saying too. / Just I’m not the one to say them. Just ‘this’, then ‘this’ ” – I must grant that the desire to have one’s cake and eat it is among life’s more absorbing necessities.

Collective wisdom has it that O’Sullivan’s poetry keeps getting better and better. I am not so sure. Neither this book, nor his last few, possess quite the verve he achieved in Nice Morning For It, Adam and the best of his earlier work – most of all, Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka, which strikes me as, if less capacious, ultimately fuller. But this may be a matter of personal preference. There is too much in this latest volume for anyone to want to quibble.

Andrew Johnston’s new collection, his sixth, should maintain his reputation as one of the most consistently interesting and linguistically agile New Zealand poets. Not that Fits & Starts is in any overt way a New Zealand book – it is quite reassuringly at home, or rather surefootedly abroad, in a cosmopolitan landscape. The classical figure of Echo wanders (nymphomanically) through a series of poems that start from books of the Old Testament, then pops up repeatedly in another sequence based on the radio alphabet. Old Testament and radio alphabet is a revealing juxtaposition, the randomness of the latter, its found treasures, its quirky points of departure encapsulating his general approach to the Western heritage with which he makes free.

Form is clearly a preoccupation: a grid of five-couplet poems spans the two sequences. There is an arbitrariness in this regularity imposed on the material, an awareness of the act of imposing, that serves to affirm the poet’s role of making his own necessarily personal, provisional order. Bodiless Echo passes in and out of his forms. There is a productive tension between the “fits and starts” and the honed 10-line stanza into which each “start” is worked.

Not least among the book’s successes is its capacity to be suggestive at an abstract level. The structure invites the reader to make a wealth of connections. The real pull, though, is towards the phrase. In the absence of a clear narrative the lines themselves – generally terse, often playful, sardonic, plaintive or enigmatic – enjoy a large degree of liberty. One has the impression that the overall structure is first and foremost a pretext for this sustained tonal exercise. The effect is rather like a set of musical variations, sometimes striking an improvisatory note – “Comes a day – hey hey – you know you’ll never go / some places in your life” – sometimes portentous – “Echo’s thought-boat rode / the overlapping line / of thriving and dying” – sometimes whimsical – “Only at fifteen, Vladimir, / were clouds allowed to wear trousers”. It has a fair claim to be called a virtuosic performance.

“Virtuosic” and “exercise” are terms, of course, that any writer would regard with caution. The very title of the collection courts the notion that these are exercises in being poetic, more than poems, written because they have something urgent to say. The volumes with which Johnston has followed up his superb debut How to Talk have been invariably well-wrought and stimulating, but I doubt I am alone in feeling that none of them really seems to matter as much. There was an élan to that book, as well as an emotional resonance, that he has never quite recaptured. However, poets can but say what is in them to say, and his poetry has never flagged in its ability to think. His inventive, firmly concrete, yet intellectually acute style, is one of the forces for good in New Zealand literature.

The first group of poems in the tripartite Fits & Starts, entitled “Half-Life”, contains some of the most engaging material. “Agnes”, a found poem from a public message board on ancestry.com, is unabashedly charming: “I have one Moonlight / who married into my tree …”. “So Dad” is no less surreal than any of the Echo poems:

Now
that you’re a xylophone,

monsieur, life is soft,
but there are moments of striving

to hear, above the sodden ground,
the sound of padded hammers.

This seems to me, though, to possess, along with its strangeness, a plangency that is not quite there in riffs such as the following:

Echo ran her hands
over their last stands,

picked away thick hammered flakes
to stroke the inner bark ‒

forgetfully smooth.
Grief does not soothe.

A longer poem, “Afghanistan”, is perhaps the most ambitious and also most impressive work in the book. To write on this subject, and to do so moreover partly in the voice of an Afghani, is to risk charges of voyeurism, or at least opportunism. Poetic success is the only convincing rebuttal there can be of such charges, and he succeeds thoroughly:

the Mughal night,
the Durrani night,
the Victorian night,
the Edwardian night,
the Barakzai night,
the Soviet night,
the Mujahed night,
the Taliban night

and now because you are sending more men
you want us to say the sun has risen.

It is an exemplary justification of poetry’s role as public conscience. I hope there is more to come in the same vein.

Damian Love is a Wellington editor and reviewer.

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