Thoughts well-wrought, Damian Love

View from the South
Owen Marshall (Grahame Sydney photographer)
Vintage, $40.00, ISBN 9780143771845

It often seems to be the case that novelists, when they turn to verse, move with a more relaxed gait, a less self-conscious regard, than those whose passport to the Republic of Letters declares them to be Poets. I am glad that Owen Marshall is not a Poet. This happy circumstance leaves him free to write poetry. There is no straining for originality in his verse, no exhibitionist sensitivity, just a quiet confidence in the value of well-wrought thought.

Perhaps this basic integrity is what makes his south so convincing. View from the South, his collected poems, is rather more than High Country georgics: it includes sections on “Family and Friends”, “History and Art”, “Heart and Mind”, and the title proclaims clearly enough that he is a southerner contemplating a wider world. Indeed, this amounts more or less to a personal ethic, marked out in the book’s prologue: 

Don’t let me die in Auckland

Let me go with the old Southerly
Buster: river stones in the grey
flecked sky and that white wind
to keep your chin up.

The south, he seems to be implying, has provided him with essential touchstones, things to be true to as he takes in the view beyond them. His views in the south, naturally enough, come early in the book. 

This “Nature and Place” section is bound to be a favourite of those of us who share the heritage. “Winter Sun”, for instance:

I sit behind the rough stone wall
shielded from the cutting breeze
but in the full face of a winter sun
that is sliding down the blue sheen
sky in a hurry to be home.

The scene is a very “modest” one, but its precision eases into a beautifully recognisable moment: 

                          In summer
such modest warmth would pass
unnoticed, but now I am relaxed
eyes half-closed as if in the gratitude
of unspoken prayer, the touch on
a welcome ministration.

And this moment, too, retains a fundamental modesty, an absence of rhetorical afflatus, although he is relaxed, not casual, in the mention of “prayer”. He has earned, by the time we come to them, the “two bonded / paradise duck” and the shades that Yeats would have called deepening. “I must up / and head away before the freeze begins.” The final pentameter tows the poem almost imperceptibly into tradition, where it seems to be at home. The scene, if not quite the style, could belong to R S Thomas or, for that matter, Edward Thomas, although, in its timelessness, it remains true to the place that gave rise to it. If there is significance in the poet facing north, his back firmly planted against an old stone wall with a breeze from the Southern Ocean overhead, then the reader can take the hint gently, although the critic may feel portentous remarking on it. 

Some of the most touching poems in the book, such as “Grandchild”, eschew any claim to novelty: 

You will not remember that I 
                 horseback you to bed
your short arms fiercely strong …
                        or remember wonder
at a tabby snail crouched at the end of silver trail …

… our audacious venture
                  across the paddling
pool. You will not remember, so I
                     do for both of us.

The sentiment is prehistoric, and the particulars mundane, and our awareness of this is part of what makes the poem sing. A child’s wonder at the discovery of a tabby snail is not so very different in kind from a grandfather’s wonder at the rediscovery of paternity. But what really lifts the poem is that ambiguous ending: the poignancy of the child’s forgetting, the knowledge that his memory will cease to be a shared memory, but the affirmation that, in writing it, he will, in some sense, in some future, be able to share it with the grown child, that he writes “for both of us”. A delicate exploration of bonding and separation runs also through the paired poem “Aftermath Blues”. 

The intimacies of family relations rise at times to more intense emotion, perhaps most strikingly in “Abul-Abbas and My Father”: 

My father has never proffered any
instruction, but likes, on the rare
we are alone, to talk of history, the
of man.

There is a reserve of gentleness conveyed here, or maybe rather a gentleness that is comfortable in its reserve, and it is deepened rather than disturbed by the climax of the poem:

                          cancer is white upon
my father’s face: he has begun the
                               journey to

another place, where great Charle-
                            magne, high
on Abul-Abbas, leads out the Franks
                                  to war.

Tellingly, the poem appears not under the rubric of “Family and Friends”, but in the “History and Arts” section. If we are to learn about the continuity of man, formal instruction alone is of limited avail. Another poem, “Wearing Things Out”, suggests that the writer has taken lessons from his father in art as well as history: “He surveyed his modest wardrobe / when he turned eighty, deciding to buy / no more clothes or footwear.” This spartan choice necessitates a peacock phase: 

           Thus in the last years he was
resplendent even sitting in the
or walking round the block …
When he was gone there were no
or footwear worth dispensation.
                               He would
have been quietly satisfied to have
even Death itself material

I do not suppose that Marshall is making an Aesthetic Statement here. He may, however, be intimating some of the deeper and oblique sources of a poetry whose economy and lack of fuss do not preclude richness of texture.

He requires no cheesy pretext to philosophise, although when he does address himself to the abstract, he tends to climb into it with a ladder of images. “Something More” is the most explicit case in point: 

The scratching behind an opaque,
sky, like a dog left desolate.

The mouthing significance in a
                              salad swirl
of leaves the wind makes in the
walnut tree … .

What urgency in all of this to pass
                               a message
that there is more, a hidden door,
                          another place
that once we knew, but now are
                         dispossessed … .

I have elided most of the rungs, but glimpses of the natural world predominate in this haiku-like succession of stanzas. He wastes no words linking them together. This is perhaps as close as he comes to putting those touchstones into literal action, those “river stones in the grey / flecked sky”. This is a moment, too, when poem and photograph come together with particular urgency. The book includes a rich selection of photographs by Grahame Sydney, discreetly interspersed, sometimes speaking directly to a neighbouring poem, sometimes obliquely reflecting, sometimes just sharing space in a homeland common to both. Here we see a skeletal tree, the lower half plunged in shadow, the upper picked out in exquisite twilight clarity. 

Anyone who has encountered Sydney’s paintings will find a familiar visual vocabulary in the photographs. Indeed, it is notable how painterly some of his photos manage to be. I think especially of a snowy verge (pictured above) a road to one side and a fence to the other, all receding into mist, and a ramshackle telegraph pole foreground centre like some tree or cross migrated from a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Needless to say, it is a truncated cross, as if to imply a distance between Sydney’s world and that of the German pietist. But there is, I think, and always has been, a striking affinity of tone and mood, and sometimes imagery, between these artists. I do not know whether there is anything so blatant as a God behind Sydney’s work, but it surely depicts a world of things passing “a message / that there is more”. The book is a remarkably congenial marriage. 

Damian Love is an editor in Wellington.

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