An account of trauma, Michael Hulse

Allen Curnow: Collected Poems
Elizabeth Caffin and Terry Sturm (eds)
Auckland University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869408510

Allen Curnow’s poetry is a transcript of trauma. “Morning by morning incorruption / Puts on corruption”: this most fundamental of thoughts, borne in upon every one of us as the time of our lives moves from childhood to what we call understanding, and onward, is not Curnow’s alone. The experiences of mutability, transience, and destruction, are universal. “A child returned / Discerns in quicksand his own footprint / Brimming and fading, vanishing.” The evidence that whatever begins in joy, hope and openness is swept away in the indifferent whirlwind lies before us everywhere. Time with a gift of tears. 

Curnow was fortunate, and heaven lay about him in his infancy: “I shall never have a horizon more rich with mystery, of deeper majesty of receding blue, than from the back-door step of the vicarage in Belfast.” That couldn’t last. The world has other things in mind, for us and for others, some of them terrible things: “the days heap / Sorrow upon sorrow for all he could not keep.” The great answer, given by ages past and taught to Curnow in childhood, was always to have faith in a transcendent world in which all would be well. By his early 20s, however, he could no longer accept the teaching. When he told his parents that he no longer wished to follow his father into the Anglican ministry, they responded with kind understanding, even relief. That much was good. Still, it meant that whatever quarrel Curnow had, like all the most productive quarrels, was with himself.

Very few writers, in poetry or prose, have ever left us so passionate and ramified an account of life lived in a twofold state of exile – from the world of childhood, and from faith – as Curnow’s. That account, to my mind, is an account of trauma.

To some, it would not be: time and again, I talk with people who seem to have next to no recollection of their early years of life, next to no sensitivity toward the childhood wonder they have apparently forgotten, and invariably I am shocked that that most extraordinary phase in life should seemingly have passed from them without trace.

From my very first meeting with Curnow in October 1985, I knew, among other things, that we shared an acute sense of the continuing presence in adult life of childhood. That sense, which is in the poetry from “Country School” or “Self-Portrait” to “The Pug-Mill” or “An Evening Light”, was in Curnow’s body language and facial expressions to such an extent, whenever he spoke of childhood moments, that you might well have said he was that boy again. Take another look at that part of Shirley Horrocks’s documentary in which Curnow, returning in old age to St. David’s church in Belfast and talking of “A Raised Voice”, describes shopkeeper Gordon Brown, a tall man, pushing a hanging oil lamp out of his way as he enters the pew. He’s inhabiting the scene at Sunday service once again.

But there’s no going back to childhood, nor any returning to the comfort of faith once it has been lost. The trails we may follow through Curnow’s poetry – Descartes’s or Bergson’s, say, or Nietzsche’s, even Derrida’s – all document the vigour of his mind, yes, but most especially they tell of the quandary of a sensibility left with a vacuum where once there was God. That is one defining characteristic of Curnow’s poetry, and another is the understanding that life requires victims. The victims have many names and natures – Jan Tyssen in “A Victim”, Isaac, Iphigenia and Caesar in “Bring Your Own Victim”, Giuliano de’ Medici in “In the Duomo”, Aldo Moro in “Moro Assassinato”, lambs in “What Was That?” and “The Unclosed Door”, to mention only a few on a list that extends to trees and slugs – but always they are kin to Jesus Christ.

The thinking is ramified and, yes, it is religious, in the sense that childhood’s learning of the Christian sacrifice lies beneath all slaughter in his poems. Killing is taken to be an occurrence of life, and in that sense not only horrific but also natural. This recognition that killing is a part of nature in no way diminishes the horror with which Curnow recoils from it. When he writes, at the time of his mother’s dying, of babies smothered “in the Bronx or the Urewera”, and of splashed brain tissue after a shooting, he unites these deaths and those of Christ and Socrates and a “lambsblood bath” in a meditation on “all our deaths”, turning repeatedly to the word “unison” in his recognition that (to put it in terms a Sebald might have used) destruction has its own natural history. It is telling that this dark understanding accompanies that most intimate of losses, the death of a parent.

At no point in his writing does Curnow revel in horror, or in his own ability to take a hard look at the worst. His moral sense and his modesty would have forbidden any such posturing. The Curnow I got to know was sensitive, open, inquiring, compassionate, diffident, in some regards insecure, vulnerable. A poet I admire greatly, Andrew Johnston, writing a decade ago, quoted a sentence from Curnow’s introduction to his 1974 Collected Poems – “They are the best I can do, so far; the little of the little I know, of myself and my world” – before highlighting “know”, “myself” and “my world” as the “three crucial terms” in the sentence, terms that Johnston related to a larger insistence on knowing, mastery and control in Curnow’s writing. What’s striking here is not only the arbitrary determination that the epistemological quest, and the attempt to follow the ancient injunction to “know thyself”, are to be re-branded as reprehensible, but also the wilful decision to ignore Curnow’s modesty, which I feel satisfied in my own mind was authentic. This deformation of response on Johnston’s part, and the assault he made on Curnow in the course of an essay-load of similar deformations, produced in me the sensation of seeing a man cross the street to another who’d been mugged, only to punch him anew.

The trauma in Curnow’s poetry is apparent in the very aspects Johnston took issue with: its struggle to locate a safe house; its transfixed recital of horrors; its instability of self, issuing in an assertion of self. By a safe house, I mean a psychological position from which to articulate a state of mind comparable, say, to shell shock. It’s true that there is a great deal of violence in his poetry, but if it be objected that there is a proportional imbalance, I answer that that is precisely my point: the traumatised return again and again to the cause of their pain, and their gift for small talk atrophies.

Johnston’s contention that Curnow was closed to contingency, and that his “furiously knowing self” was the very opposite of a “contingent self”, seems to me to do violence to the underlying problem Curnow grappled with over and over: that writing any poem must necessarily be pointless, since an arrangement of words can never fill the vacuum left by God or reclaim the world of childhood or compensate for the atrocities hardwired into the cycle of life. Any of his poems might, to that extent, have ended with the words that conclude “A Raised Voice”: “That can’t be it.” Every attempt to “be it” was contingent, every attempt fell short, every new attempt was a new contingency. Johnston is looking in the wrong place: because contemporary culture demands that process be privileged over finished artefact, he complains that Curnow doesn’t wear his contingency on his sleeve, not seeing that it’s located elsewhere.

But trauma isn’t finally the point, since what counts is not the wounded sensibility itself, but the poems that it produced. Thirty years ago, I described Curnow as a great poet, and this new Collected Poems, edited with a light touch by his old Auckland University Press editor and his late biographer, only confirms me in that view.

Under the civil and civilised surface of Curnow’s poetry, there is always a pagan at work, a pagan glimpsed in the 1930s photo of Curnow nude by a waterfall in Terry Sturm’s biography, a Lawrentian exulting in sheer being. This Curnow delights in the flesh, pays attention to animals, enjoys to a minute degree the shifts in weather and the changes they entail in the natural scene, loves the blueness of distance, and relishes, in one of his last poems, the appearances as Pan and Syrinx of his father and a woman who might, in other circumstances, have become his mother – a densely-packed thought, if the poet’s Anglican minister father appears in the role of a pagan god superseded by Christ. The pagan and post-Christian Curnow exist comfortably side by side in his personality, without tension.

Curnow’s attention to the natural world not only has dimensions that put us in mind of our ur-ancestors, but also touches the nerve of ecological concerns in recent decades. “A Fellow Being” brings together the destruction of the kauri forests and Curnow’s lifelong moral revulsion at the exploitative practices of business: in 1937, he described (under a pseudonym) the typical huckster as “doing ‘business’ with the brute concentration and unwavering determination of a pig nosing the last rotten apple out of the sty-floor slime”. That stance on economic power, apparent in his massive satirical output as Whim Wham too, lay behind the blistering title poem of his 1937 book Enemies, voiced for the moneyed classes:

Detestable gutter child, if you knew
how we hate you, I and my kind,
you would scramble bawling with
terror
to that refuge behind
the sodden stinking privy at the back
of the two rooms stuck by the railway
track.

Numerous threads run through Curnow’s poetry. To a reader in his own country, his attitude to the complex matter of New Zealand nationalism must be of great interest, and some who have heard a performance of “Landfall in Unknown Seas” or read his sonnet on the skeleton of the great moa may be startled to know that in 1940 he described “nationality”, in a letter to Douglas Lilburn, as “the most destructive, most enslaving idea in history”. This remained his conviction when I knew him in the last 15 years of his life, and the frame around poems that place the human subject virtually alone in existence (such as “You Will Know When You Get There”) is subtly altered if we bear this knowledge in mind. The existential self does not carry a passport. Another great theme is fellow beings, some of them (such as Mr Prisk, or Madame in “Gare SNCF Garavan”) no more than thumbnail sketches, and others (the pianist in “Canto of Signs without Wonders”, say) barely even that, but all of them vivid, sharp, individual. Memory unsurprisingly became a great subject for the boy who continually saw, writ large behind the altar at St. David’s, the words of 1 Corinthian 11:24: “This do in remembrance of me.”

When he assembled his 1974 Collected Poems, Curnow was struck by the continuity in his themes, describing himself in a letter to Denis Glover as “the same animal gnawing the same bone” – but poetry is always and necessarily more than its subject matter. The poet who wrote “You Will Know When You Get There” and “Wild Iron”, “A Reliable Service” and “House and Land”, “An Oppressive Climate, a Populous Neighbourhood” and “Do Not Touch the Exhibits” has as much to show anyone learning to write today – about use of concrete detail, about smooth and roughened rhythms, about simple and complex syntax, about the self in relation to the subject – as an Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Gray or Charles Simic. And Curnow’s endings are to die for: “Climb up and see”; “That can’t be it”; “That will be all, I suppose.” This new Collected Poems is simply an indispensable book.

Michael Hulse is a poet and translator and a professor at Warwick University.

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