Shivers of emotion, Tom McLean

Dan Davin: A Field Officer’s Notebook: Selected Poems
Robert McLean (ed)
Cold Hub Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780473430689

Robert McLean here presents an edited selection of Dan Davin’s poetry, collecting a body of verse seen as having value in itself rather than attempting a scholarly edition or detailed exegesis. A brief contextualising introduction emphasises the influence of WWII on Davin.

It is difficult, as the introduction concedes, to call Davin anything but a minor poet: “by which I mean his vision was narrow, his themes limited, and his technique eccentric”. The majority of these poems might have been comfortably left to the oblivion they so often evoke. However, in isolated poems, shivers of emotion come through constraints and limitations; for me, at least, especially in those on a departed youth, rather than on war. If nothing else, the poems can draw attention to the far more significant prose – “Recent Irish Immigrants, c. 1928” is an obvious antecedent for the loving description of Galway immigrants in his Southland stories, and the “whiskied afternoons / When we talked our time away” of “Gone, gone, all our yesterdays” reminded me, although set in Dunedin, of Davin’s celebration of departed friends in Closing Times.

McLean divides the poems into three sections: before the war, during it, and after it. The poems are not ordered chronologically within these periods but, presumably, thematically, and one of those in the pre-war selection was written well into Davin’s military career.

The poems of the first section tend to emphasise Davin’s remembered youth and the sense of loss that his life has bought: of remembered hills, lovers, the ambivalent results of talk and scholarship. There is something a little posed about this loss: Davin as a young man presenting himself as a creature of melancholy memories. Perhaps for this reason, the finest poetry, to McLean, comes later. He sees this poetry as unique and of great value precisely because it is a product of wartime experience. A distinction is drawn between Davin’s poetry and that of Denis Glover and M K Joseph, because Davin wrote “in the field and in extremis”. This seems an artificial division. Only 14 of the 68 selected poems were written in wartime according to McLean’s count; 15 by mine. Eight of these were written before Davin saw combat, four in the fetid safety of Cairo, two undated here (one, in fact, on a troopship) and two well behind the lines in a radio intercept unit at a time of “not much doing”. McLean’s characterisation is that they were “literally rendered in the heat of battle”.

Perhaps such a tendentious claim is necessary to support the argument that Davin’s war was a traumatic experience which led to a nihilism and collapse of the self for him and for other “Desert Poets” faced with meaningless death. The biographical evidence suggests otherwise: Davin introduces a collection of war stories by claiming: “there is nothing like the continual sense of an imminent ending to give one an acuter sense of the value of men and of life.”

The most numerous poems come after the war, part of a late and almost compulsive return to poetry: in Davin’s phrase, unquoted by McLean, “a very severe attack of persecution by poetry” leading to “a very large corpus of unrevised verse”. I doubt that all of these – sometimes only a few lines, a fragment of thought – were intended for publication, or even for rereading. Some referents are recoverable – mocking reminiscences of Ravelstein, meditations on love after sex, the street names of Invercargill – but others seem personal and obscure. Why, for example, are the Goodwin Sands called Don Goodwin’s sands?

At moments like these, a greater effort to annotate or explain the poems would have been helpful. This absence points to larger issues with editorial practice. The exact sourcing of poems is not given and changes have been made to their text and punctuation “when confronted with what I have taken to be mistakes on Davin’s part”. The dating of poems also seems inconsistent, and sometimes inaccurate.

This approach, when combined with the romanticism of the highly-coloured version of Davin’s wartime career given in the introduction, is likely to lead to readerly misapprehensions. For example, “A Hope Against Hope” is dated to “6th April 1941, Olympus”. The text is, in fact, not that of 1941, but that of a different, later, publication. Similarly, “Night Before Maleme” follows one publication in Citadel, since reprinted by Janet Wilson, but neither of these publications is listed as a source: instead New Writing & Daylight is mentioned in the afterword, where even the title of the poem was different. Most worryingly, “Morning Fatigue in the Canteen”, an undated poem here, lacks clauses which are present in the draft version in Davin’s diaries. It is impossible to know whether these have been removed in an editorial intervention, or some other untraced version exists.

It is therefore difficult to value this edition as a historical or cultural source – using Davin’s work to examine parallel trends in New Zealand poetry, or as a way into wartime experience. Its value lies instead in presenting and collecting a variety of unpublished or uncollected poems for the pleasure of a new readership.

Tom McLean is studying towards a DPhil at Oxford; his MA thesis was an edition of Dan Davin’s wartime diaries.

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