A Place to Go On From: The collected poems of Iain Lonie, edited by David Howard (Otago University Press, 2015), 392 pp., $50
‘There is some measure of distinction, perhaps, in being the foremost poet ignored by one’s compatriots.’ The opening sentence of Damian Love’s superb essay, ‘Dead Reckoning: The poetry of Iain Lonie’, which precedes the poems in this fine collection, points to a situation that the volume aims at changing. Certainly if one looks for Lonie in standard histories, reference books and anthologies dealing with New Zealand literature since 1950, his name and work seldom appear.
He is mentioned in neither The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1990, 1998), nor the Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (1990). He does receive a brief but strong biographical–critical entry by Peter Whiteford in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998) – followed by briefer entries by Whiteford on Lonie’s two poet wives, Jean and Judith – pointing out that Lonie was ‘deeply disturbed’ by his ‘lack of recognition, even at times rejection within New Zealand literary circles’. In Paula Green and Harry Ricketts’ 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (2010) he is named along with Bill Sewell as examples of ‘maverick’ poets ‘whose work demands but has not yet received the attention it deserves’; while Sewell himself in his 1988 elegiac memoir of Lonie (included in this volume) quietly remarked that ‘during his lifetime Iain was not given his due as a poet in this country’.
When Mark Williams and Jane Stafford’s huge New Zealand anthology appeared in 2012 without Lonie being included, I checked a dozen anthologies of recent New Zealand poetry on my shelves and found Lonie represented in only two of them: six poems in the big Bornholdt/O’Brien/Williams Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poems in English (1997), and, appropriately, two poems in Lauris Edmond’s Oxford anthology, New Zealand Love Poems (2000). Surprisingly, he was not represented in Andrew Johnston’s Moonlight: New Zealand poems on death and dying (2008) – how could the editor not include at least ‘Ancestral grounds’? Even the self-consciously inclusive Evans/Wedde/McQueen The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry: Nga Kupu Titohu o Aotearoa (1989) omitted his work.
One possible reason for this relative lack of recognition could have been literary fashion. Fashion changes in the world of literary criticism are as frequent and arbitrary as in women’s clothing, and in some literary circles to be called ‘old fashioned’ in theme or method is as bad as being charged with wearing last year’s colours in the world of fashion. Thus Damian Love argues that Lonie’s ‘classical style’ with its ‘precision and passionate restraint’, its emphasis on private grief, and its sense of New Zealand as a ‘deracinated culture’ was out of fashion in the decades when he published. Sewell similarly noted, ‘Iain refused to submit to modish dictates of what a poem should be’; and Vincent O’Sullivan commented that Lonie was ‘patiently indifferent to passing fashions, with his own more enduring touchstones’.
It could be argued, however, that a major reason for Lonie’s lack of recognition was not that his work was rejected as unfashionable, but that it was simply not visible enough, for poems have to be seen and read to be accepted or rejected. Lonie’s poetry was not highly visible. O’Sullivan did not include any poems by Lonie in any of the three editions of his hugely influential Oxford text, An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry (1970, 1976, 1987), but in his statement on the back cover of this volume, and on his Poet Laureate blog, he admits ‘a certain shame for not realizing until now how fine and important a writer Lonie was’. He credits this volume for his arriving at that late realisation, because it made the full range of that work visible. Significantly, two of the five poems from the volume he selected to put on his blog had not been previously collected; he not only could not have seen all these poems together until now but he also could not have seen many of them at all, for they had been left in manuscript until this edition.
Of the 222 poems in this volume, 118 had not been previously collected, although some had appeared in periodicals. Lonie published only four mostly quite slim collections in his lifetime: Recreations (Wai-te-ata Press, 1960, 1967) – 27 poems, 17 pp. in this edition; Letters from Ephesus (Bibliography Room, University of Otago, 1970) – 6 poems, 12 pp. in this edition; Courting Death (Wai-te-ata Press, 1984) – 12 poems, 12 pp. in this edition; The Entrance to Purgatory (John McIndoe, 1986) – 33 poems, 37 pp. in this edition. The first three were booklets published by small presses, and only the last was the standard ‘slim volume’ from a commercial publisher. The most substantial Lonie volume before this edition was Winter Walk at Morning – 30 poems filling 40 pages in this edition. It was published in 1991, three years after Lonie’s death, but drew heavily on a folder left among his papers marked ‘Winter Walk – originals fair copy’; thus the book is not a selection from a whole career but rather a reconstruction of the volume Lonie had himself planned for collecting his recent poems. Edited by Bill Manhire and Don McKenzie, who were also consulting variant manuscript versions of the poems, and published by Victoria University Press, it was the most visible of Lonie’s publications; it is significant that four of the six poems selected by Bornholdt, O’Brien and Williams for their big anthology were from this book, supplemented by two from Courting Death.
Sewell, writing only a month after his friend’s death, found it ‘too early’ for him ‘to give an objective appraisal’ of the poems; while Whiteford, in reviewing Winter Walk at Morning along with two other 1991 collections in the March 1992 Landfall said, ‘This is not the occasion to attempt an assessment of Iain Lonie as a poet, though the time is certainly right for such an assessment.’ Certainly a relatively brief discussion of a single volume in an omnibus review did not allow him much scope for such an assessment; six years later, in the Oxford Companion, constraints of length allowed for such an assessment only in general terms, but he packed much into his final descriptive sentence: ‘Firmly located within particular places, and enriched by traditional cultural echoes, his poetry reveals a strong lyric voice and intense feeling, always tempered by controlled handling of verse forms and by very discriminating choice of language.’ Now, 27 years after Lonie’s death and 17 years after Whiteford’s reference book entry, this volume at last provides the texts and supporting material for such assessments to be made. In the intervening years there had been no selected poems volume to bring the best of his poems together and provide an occasion for a general assessment.
In this definitive gathering the texts, of course, are central. All the poems that Lonie collected are there, in their original order, put in sections bearing the original titles of the collections, but with some textual changes made in some poems in light of later decisions by Lonie. The five sections containing Lonie’s five published collections are preceded, separated and followed by six other sections compiled from manuscripts, chosen and arranged by the editor, David Howard: ‘While editing I have made thousands of decisions about which poems and which versions of which poems to adopt’ (introduction to his editorial notes). The manuscripts have been given approximate dates where possible and the poems chosen have been put in an estimated chronological order.
The section titles have been chosen by Howard from passages from poems within the sections. Section I begins with the poem Lonie considered to be ‘the first coherent poem that I ever wrote’, extends through 50 poems and fragments to ‘Cunning Odysseus’ from the 1966 Otago University Review, and includes, along with much else, his early uncollected poems published in Landfall. That first poem, like many of the other juvenilia, uses ‘poetic’ syntactic inversion for rhyme and/or rhythm, but it also shows an early gift for using literal images metaphorically or symbolically, while the first Landfall poem, ‘Letter from a distance’, published in the September 1952 issue, combines image and sound well with its use of ‘bed’, ‘light’, and ‘waters’ as the end words in each stanza. By the time of the uncollected poems of 1965, the juvenilia have been left far behind and the qualities of the mature poet are becoming evident: in the sequence ‘The wind at Rimini’, published in the June 1965 Landfall, the strong sense of place and the poetry of loss; in the dramatic monologue, ‘Elegy to Maecenas’, the sense of place, the theme of dealing with the inexorable passage of time, and the speaking voice of Horace. Such poems belong with the poems Lonie collected, adding to them.
The third section, placed between the sections for Recreations and Letters for Ephesus, entitled ‘Living for Others’, contains only 19 uncollected poems from the late 1960s, but they include some of Lonie’s most moving ones, such as ‘Ugolino and his sons’, dealing with his relationship with his sons following the break-up of his first marriage, with the reference to Dante’s characters in the title strangely counterpointing the speaker’s situation in the poem: not an infernal divinely ordained punishment, but a sad and painful reality springing from his own choices, to be lived with and accepted without denying the pain involved. Another is ‘“We return from a walk together”’, with its celebration of intimacy and its memorable image of the worm in the apple for the hidden threat of remembered mental instability:
There is a clear
Shape, a defined volume, an apple
Hard and round and ripened by frost –
Something to hold in the hand. I did not
Think I would know it again: the worm in my mind
Had bitten so deep, so deep he lay
Alone curled and showed
No sign of moving. The whole world
Had dissolved in his abrasion: soft, brown,
No thing had its taste or substance, only the bitter
Worm, like a rusted nail upon the tongue
Or a nail through the heart –
Nail or worm, small curled worm
How could you cure it?
The reader can only be grateful that such poetry has been made available to us.
The other odd-numbered sections similarly combine to supplement the collections that Lonie made (or, in the case of the last one, planned) with the poems previously uncollected – all of which help to build a sense of the poet and his development, and the best of which rescue from oblivion some poems that on their own merits deserve such treatment. Even at the last, in the previously unpublished translations from Eugenio Montale that make up Section XI, there are discoveries to be made, as in the following revealing lines from his translation ‘Letter from the Riviera di Levante’, which Lonie sent to Ann Somerville because he thought it spoke for him of their relationship:
it’s this that united us long ago –
our common awareness of being wounded
by some obscure spite in the universe.
This invaluable collection brings together in one place all of Lonie’s previously collected poems, along with a large range of previously uncollected ones from which we may make our own assessments of his work – while also providing extremely helpful supporting material. There is David Howard’s brief, eloquently suggestive Preface, stating that ‘it is the saving grace of compassion’ which often accompanies the irony ‘that calls the mature poetry into account, that is the measure of its quality’, helping to form ‘the most poised body of elegiac poetry that New Zealand has’.
At the other end of the book there are Howard’s useful notes to the poems, 32 pages of them. While for the generations that know not Homer, Greek mythology, Virgil and Dante there are not enough explanatory notes on allusions, parallels and references, usually the poems themselves give the reader clues as to what to Google. Howard’s notes, quoting Lonie’s correspondence and his discussions of his own work, and pointing to textual rearrangements and modifications, give important information that cannot be located through Google. Then there is Bill Sewell’s sympathetic memoir of his ‘wounded’ friend, who perhaps ‘just felt everything too deeply’; and there is Bridie Lonie’s useful chronology of the main events of her father’s life, something to which I found myself repeatedly returning to place poems in their biographical context, especially concerning relationship, loss and travel.
Finally there is Damian Love’s essay, the first critical fruits of this edition. Although Love focuses primarily on poems from the last two published collections, he also points to important early ones not previously collected. His chronological and developmental discussion, which culminates in his placing Lonie’s work next to that of Curnow and Baxter, ‘the peers with whom he belongs’, and in his insistence that ‘there are not so many achievements in our literature that we can afford to neglect one of them’, has standing behind it the testimony provided by the full volume. For this reader, previously aware only of a few infrequently anthologised Lonie poems, A Place to Go on From is a revelation, living up to its title in one sense, although it is also a place to return to. For this book – as attractive in its format as it is rich in its content – David Howard, the others involved in its preparation, and the Otago University Press deserve our thanks.
LAWRENCE JONES is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago. His books include Picking up the Traces: The making of a New Zealand literary culture 1932–1945, published by Victoria University Press.