Rewards, challenges, surprise, Roger Robinson

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781776560677

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell always surprised us. He surprised the severely nationalistic poetry establishment of the post-WWII era with laments and elegies and mythic landscapes of unabashed romanticism, drawing his title from Jacobean drama (Mine Eyes Dazzle, 1950), yet evoking an intensely New Zealand resonance.  He surprised the 1960s with a searingly different poetry that fused private psychological agony with reworkings of violent Māori history (Sanctuary of Spirits, 1963). Always deeply informed and allusive in English and Classical poetry, he surprised the late century by coming out as a Polynesian. He added “Te Ariki” to his name, and published new poems of the Pacific that are (perversely) dark, spare and complex, as well as exquisitely musical (Soul Traps, 1985; Stone Rain: The Polynesian Strain, 1992; Death and the “Tagua”, 1995). Just when the Pocket Collected Poems (1996) had lulled us into pontificating about his overall evolution as a poet, elegiac Romantic to bicultural post-nationalist, a Kiwi recycling of Yeats, Campbell blindsided us again with a new subject, the horrific reality of 20th-century wars, and another mode, semi-narrative sequences of linked dramatic monologues in many voices (Gallipoli, 1999; Māori Battalion, 2001), the authentic realism heightened in the latter by battlefield images.

Then, another feint and swerve, and he moved back into his personal history and that of the New Zealand literary community, with long anecdotal reminiscences that ramble on the very edge of prose, the epistolary Poets in Our Youth (2002). Where were the songs of spring? The long pouring headland? For readers of New Zealand Books that year, I tried to define the bare autumnal plainness of language by linking it to his enthusiasm for the Latin Horace.

His next transformation came at age 82 (a remarkable statement in itself). Now he emerged as a poet of intimate, domestic lyrics, writing lovingly about his dogs and grandchildren, doddering about the garden, versifying about the birds and the weather. Some of these look like children’s poems; but look again (Just Poetry, 2007). Last scene of all, a long way from mere oblivion, Campbell’s final collection was love poems, jointly with his wife Meg Campbell (recently reprinted by HeadworX). I can’t think of another poet whose priority at age 83, a year before his death, was to publish or republish passionate love poems. This habit of poetic re-imaging every few years came, in part, from the understanding that a poet’s oeuvre is inevitably in a way a single poem, liable to be read as a whole. But there’s a touch of sheer mischief about it, too, wrong-footing the critics, defying the labels.

(A favourite Alistair moment:  One beery Friday pub night with Harry Orsman and Lauris Edmond, we were approached by a Salvation Army officer ardent to sell us War Cry. Alistair looked at him straightfaced, and said with earnest politeness: “Oh, no, thank you. I have a subscription.”)

True to form, this new Collected Poems rewards, challenges, and surprises us. It’s arranged thematically, not chronologically, by contrast with the Pocket Collected of 1996, which was a summative autobiographical statement, with every poem dated and arranged in that order. Instead of dates and development, this Collected gives us six parallel Campbells – landscape lyricist, Polynesian poet, love poet, war poet, verse autobiographer, domestic poet. That structure makes some reference to the zigzag progression that I’ve outlined in an over-simplified way above, but the section titles avoid words like “early” or “late”, and most of the six sections draw poems from across his whole output, in sequences that are only loosely chronological. The book’s essence is in theme and sound, not celebrity life narrative, and the selection and placement are designed to make a pleasing and cohesive collection. Unusually for poetry, it is best read start to finish. It asks us to read and enjoy, not to study.

In that spirit, I’ll offer one reader’s impression of the Campbell who emerges. First, he is an unfailing master of word music, even when he seems to be spurning it. Even the seemingly prosy Poets in Our Youth, the often fragmented and slangy Māori Battalion, and the modest little domestic lyrics are cadenced with an ear for every subtle modulation. It’s who he is. Second, he is a mythopoeic writer who creates myth compulsively, and compellingly, not only out of epic subjects like war and Māori legend, but of his own life and landscape, his identity as poet, his lovers, his long-dead workmates and drinking pals, his home. And third, more than ever evident now we can see him whole, he is one of the finest of all poets of loss. He and almost all his poems are inhabited by those he has lost – his parents, his brother, his birthplace, his cultural heritage. Even a lustful love affair implies its melancholy ending. In the harmonious Campbell word music, it’s the dying fall that sets the tone.

Appropriate to the quality of the poetry, the excellence of this book’s production is a welcome surprise in our age of shoddy grey paperbacks. It’s a big hard-cover volume (the right word), with a striking dust-jacket (personal in front, literary at the back); it’s attractively designed, poems perfectly spaced, never crammed, all dignified, distinguished – no, let’s say it, it’s a beautiful book. Thank you, Victoria University Press. It’s spot-on for a poet who often chose to publish with small private presses like Wai-te-ata that value the book as art object.

Robert Sullivan provides a worthy foreword – expert, insightful, and eloquent. Along with Wattie’s preliminary “introductory biography” (2011), and his launch speech (published in Poetry Notes, Spring 2016), it’s the only commentary so far with the advantage of full oversight.

Or not quite full. These are the collected, not the complete poems. The word “definitive” inside the dust jacket is a bit misleading. An editorial note tells us “This collection is based on a spiral-bound manuscript found among … Campbell’s papers after his death in 2009.” With some poems typed and some photocopied, this MS was entitled “Complete Poems 1947-2007”. Sounds exciting! So this is the ageing poet’s final definition of his work? Again, not quite. The editorial note then cryptically says: “Every poem in this volume is in the manuscript, though not every poem in the manuscript is in this volume.” Huh? Thirty-one poems in the 1996 Pocket Collective are omitted, and six from the later Just Poetry, but no clue is given as to who excised which – the poet or the editors.

The thematic six-section arrangement, too, is confessedly the editors’. They say that they chose the sequence within each section “to improve the flow or enhance the reading experience.” They have succeeded in that aim. No complaints. The task was well conceived and has been sensitively executed. The editorial note is signed by the “Estate”, and the work was mainly, I gather, done by Campbell’s son Greg, with Sullivan’s “assistance”.

But, but … Granted this is not a scholar’s book, I still wish I knew which poems had been so terminally rejected by the old poet himself. Does this choice truly represent his dying self-makeover? The publisher’s claim that it’s “the definitive edition” throws down a gauntlet. So, here goes. My definitive Campbell would have to include the gauche but powerful early poem “Narcissus”, which as late as “Letter to Harry Orsman” still pleased him: “In the caravan I continued writing, / but only ‘Narcissus’ was any good.”

Did he change his mind after 2002? I’d be surprised. My definitive Campbell would include “Dazzling Driftwood”, which beautifully shows that a richly metaphoric male poem about sexual love for a woman can be adoringly erotic without being in the slightest Donald Trump. And I’d keep the perfectly crafted haiku of 1960 (“Listlessly on a bare bough / a cicada scrapes with his bow / a few dry notes”) and the ingeniously sad “A Poem in Negatives”. And definitely “For Lauris Edmond”, not only because I think their long friendship was important in shaping Campbell’s poetic mind, but because it’s a terrific poem of Wellington’s weather, and death, poetry, family, friendship, love.

My point is not to squeeze into the editorial driving seat, but to say that this revision of his revision is something new for him. Campbell controlled his output fiercely. He compulsively revised, reordered, and rejected his own work. He habitually recycled past poems in retrospective collections or selections. He did it in 1972 with Kapiti, in 1981 with Collected Poems, 1992 with Stone Rain, 1996 with Pocket Collected. Each collection was chosen, shaped, edited, and at some points revised entirely by the poet. Each thus had some claim to be read as a poetic work in its own right.

Yeats was probably the role model for the concept of the total oeuvre as a single coherent poetic reading experience. That’s what drove Campbell in his last year to assemble this final spiral-bound manuscript. He also trod softly in Yeats’s footsteps in the attention he gave to choosing poems to open and close each of those retrospective collections. His pick as opener was always “Green”. This time it’s “The Return”.  That muscular poem performs wonderfully top of the order, hitting sixes all over – but, sorry, I wish again that I knew whose idea it was to place it there.

Then – which poem to end with? I suspect that Campbell (who was never lacking in the egotistical sublime) always wanted to find his equivalent of “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” or Baxter’s “High Country Weather”, the elliptical three- or four-line valediction packed with resonantly cryptic significance, one for the gravestone and all the anthologies. In Kapiti, he tried “Walk the Black Path”, in Pocket Collected the rising and falling cadence that ends “Death and the ‘Tagua’”: “until the dawn / quickens, and you fade into the light.” Good, very good, but not quite it. In Collected Poems, he’s nailed it. (Or they have.) It’s musical, mythopoeic, and melancholy, the perfect Campbell dying fall. It perfectly ends a rich, handsome and important book:


This is the dearest of my wishes,
The last leaf shaken from the tree:
Sow the southerly with my ashes
To fall in tears on Kapiti.

Roger Robinson wrote the introduction to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s Pocket Collected Poems.

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