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.

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