Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Us, Then, by Vincent O’Sullivan, (Victoria University Press, 2013), 111 pp., $28.00;
The White Clock, by Owen Marshall, (Otago University Press, 2014), 94 pp., $25.00
When two books of poetry arrive in the same envelope, new work by two of the country’s literary heavyweights to be assessed alongside each other, I have to set aside my resistance to the practice of multiple reviews. It seems illogical to have Owen Marshall and Vincent O’Sullivan on the same table: so long-lived and long-legged, so different in style and approach, and genre mastery – and yet of the same generation. O’Sullivan, born in 1937 of Irish Catholic parentage, an urbane Aucklander and later, Wellingtonian; Marshall, a son of the manse from Te Kuiti, born in 1941 and a dweller mostly in the provinces ever since. Both are eminent in every sense, representing very different writing cultures: from Oxford and academia in the former case, to Canterbury and rural high-school teaching in the latter.
O’Sullivan – our present poet laureate – has a literary track record covering the entire field; there is almost no genre he has not worked and succeeded in, most memorably recently an acclaimed war requiem with Ross Harris and The New Zealand String Quartet. Since publishing his first collection of poetry almost fifty years ago, he has established himself as one of the country’s finest. Marshall, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to verse, entering the lists in 2004 with Occasional and following this Hazard Press book with 2010’s Sleepwalking in Antarctica and other poems from Canterbury University Press – all built on his reputation as our foremost writer of short fiction, with a move in 1999 to writing novels as well (O’Sullivan has called him ‘New Zealand’s best prose writer’).
In a recent Radio New Zealand interview (Nine to Noon, 28 February 2014), O’Sullivan observed that the short story and the poem had much in common; in a novel you could perhaps cover your tracks if you got into difficulty, but in these forms, there was no room for a wasted word or an inappropriate image. Prose in the short story form was akin to poetry, in the service of a glimpse or a sensation, imagery and suggestion, as much as narrative and plotting (I may be doing him a disservice here, but that is my recall). All of this raises that almost insoluble question – decided by taste as much as by proofs – as to what is prose and what is poetry, and can any old writer switch from one to the other at will? O’Sullivan certainly has, and spoke in the same interview of the different needs of prose writing and the composition of a poem: prose is more willed it seems, and can be summoned and prolonged. Poems tend to arrive and give what they have when they have it to give.
the white clock cover image
In an interview with Paula Green recently (www.nzpoetryshelf.com) Marshall observed – as did O’Sullivan – the link between poetry and short fiction: ‘In my writing the inclination is perhaps to the short story, which itself tends towards the associative effects of poetry because of the need for economy.’ His poetic relies on ‘emotional intensity’, his poetry is more personal than the fiction, and it is something he – like O’Sullivan – can’t will, as he can his prose. They have this much at least in common; however, where his yardstick is the ‘sincerely felt’ allied to ‘cadence, insight and originality’, with O’Sullivan, there is a complex and fierce intelligence that one minute might trade in irony and the next, the verbal fireworks of vowels and consonants colliding into music: ‘I miss pure evil. / I miss the hiss when glaring iron / goes dunk into water’ (‘Freedom’).
His lapsed-Catholic jousts with theocracy (as in ‘Cross over, wise guys’, or ‘Not included in the footnotes’) bespeak a religious culture rejected yet inescapable. The man from Timaru is more likely to be heard ruminating on mortality with a rueful, philosophical mien in a landscape familiar to Wordsworth, ‘… some / times your spirit leaves your body … looks down on you, diminished, / motionless, but not unhappy / much as you will be in death’ (‘Spirit Image’). While there may be some thematic crossovers to do with late middle age on this mortal coil, it is really language and the varied deployment of its arsenal that separates the practice of these writers.
You can’t read far into Us, Then (even the title tells you something) without sensing the pressure O’Sullivan puts upon language to do something new for a change, and the remarkable variety of voice and register across the book in individual poems. A retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story as a kind of family dysfunction is a prime example, with its lithe couplets: ‘ “That’s the last time,” my real Gran said, “you’ll go / into the woods.” And my sister seething, “Little slut!” ’ (If we all went on like this there’d be no stories.) Time and again, the weird and wonderful show up in a determination to usurp the instrumentality and banality of the verbal bilge slopping about in our media-soaked environment. Snake wranglers in Texas are as likely to figure as Rasputin, all in the service of making the language talk anew, ‘Russia not being a country so much as a sentence / that goes off and on in various directions’ (‘Nice try’’). It’s a questioning, testy intelligence at work here; and yet in a change of direction, pace and compassion, O’Sullivan can produce something as plain and profound as ‘Road from the Camp’ (you will not look at caged bears in the same way again), beginning with a disarming sincerity, ‘A story here I wish I hadn’t heard –.’ Well, maybe – it’s hard to imagine him refusing the opportunity to turn any good story, with a twist, into a telling poem.
With Marshall, another agenda seems to be operating: how to turn stories, how to convert a narrative sensibility into the stuff of poetry. There are a number of meaty situations laid out on the page as poetry where the enjambments don’t seem to be doing much work for the line, where the whole looks and feels like prose: ‘… I wish I was clean, in the / shade of a pub with a beer and a pay cheque in / hand’ (‘On The End of a Shovel’). When he does experiment and play with line length and rhyme, the euphony can seemed forced onto the subject (‘Hanging In’). The standout poem, ‘Reverie Cascade’, is a series of thirty vignettes: people, places and events that have mattered to him over a life richly observed.
In this sequence of unrhymed quatrains, each self-contained and non-linear as the poem progresses, Marshall creates a vehicle which compresses his acute powers of observation, his openness to experience, his economy with language and his compassion for others. Here is the personal element he spoke of in the discussion with Paula Green: pushing his wheelchair-bound brother around a zoo; returning to the home places of his parents; visits to Italy; his time as the Burns Fellow in 1992; his father’s den: ‘Books from floor to ceiling. Sermons stored in shoe / boxes to serve for saving souls. Mottled fountain pens / … A place of quiet reason. This is where my father lived’. Here, the impulse and the line seem less like strangers, his own peculiar rhythms and cadence elevating the image beyond the prosaic and the descriptive to resonate in our hearing and memory: ‘The swing bridge is gone, the kennels too, but / the hills still crowd together shoulder to shoulder.’
It is not just the skinny-dipping shedhands we see here in Nelson’s Lee Valley, but the muscularity of the surrounding hills standing up almost in support of the day’s sweaty labour. It’s a personal approach laced with a nostalgia you won’t find much of in O’Sullivan (the delicate and delightful ‘Screensaver’, a man and his year-old grandchild, an exception here). When people turn up they are often less individuals than types, and at risk of being skewered by a mordant wit: ‘He laces his fingers so very like / an interesting cleric who has, believe / me, a lot you’ll be more than glad / to attend’ (‘On the pleasure of former colleagues’). A couple engaged in kinky sex become vehicles, not so much for erotic excitement, as for semantic fireworks; lovers lost in space, ‘Cosmonauts, as they like to say, are scarcely confined / by timing from mundane downtown earthly clocks’ (‘Spacing out, they will tell you’).
The ironic distance the writer puts between himself and the subject – and thus the reader – is central to his attitude to language. It is the words themselves – the syntax, the sonic landscape, the timing – that are sexy, and not the lovers (if that is what they really are). In this O’Sullivan seems heir to the Metaphysical poets of Donne’s generation. If the Big Questions – Time, Mortality, God and Infinity, Language – need taking on, then here is your man. An attack by the rapacious Army Worm on a peaceful Waikato pasture (dated in time and place, ‘3 o’clock … summer 1968’) becomes a meditation on the eternal moment and our dying within it, accompanied by ‘the rustling of jaws’ as the worms devour ‘the uncut crop’ (‘When, exactly’). He takes little for granted and neither can his readers.
Where O’Sullivan turns philosophy – and physics – into poetry, Marshall’s approach is more to reframe the homespun and the proverbial by another set of ironic means. In ‘Common Knowledge’, he wittily assembles a cod-litany of home truths – ‘They say … They say … They say …’, until the reader is well aware that whatever they say, it is unlikely to be the truth. Using a form of parallelism, where the rhyme is achieved by opposing ideas or statements (as in Hebrew biblical proverbs and psalms), he makes the point through successive stanzas: ‘They say out of sight out of mind, and / absence makes the heart grow fonder. / Both can’t be true.’ Trawling the vernacular works well, for someone clearly exposed to a lifetime of cracker-barrel philosophy on the margins and in the marketplace, where poetry is as available to the listening ear as it is to the wit of the cloisters.
There are riches to be had in both these collections; they proceed from and will perhaps speak to, very different branches of the poetry tree. The old master who can play almost any tune on an orchestra’s-worth of instruments; the late-life poetry apprentice who has much to say and keeps on getting better at saying it. Each writer is about the same business: catching life as it passes, in the butterfly net of language. O’Sullivan: ‘… in the total story, which of course / I do not remember, but the shining / tie pin for sure, the word as he / turned that caught him. I remember that’ (‘On the odd eventful morning’). Marshall: ‘Winter wind is the starving bitch/ heeding no one’s whistle, baring / cold white teeth if faced, with ribs / of adversity and a muzzle-up howl.’ (‘Dog Winds’)
JEFFREY PAPAROA HOLMAN writes poetry and non-fiction. He lives in Christchurch.