Beyond Puketapu by Dunstan Ward (Steele Roberts, September 2015), 68 pp., $19.99; Shaggy Magpie Songs by Murray Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2015), 64 pp., $24.99; Looking Out To Sea by Kevin Ireland (Steele Roberts, 2015), 57 pp., $19.99
At 73, Dunstan Ward is not a typical ‘first book poet’. As an editor and scholar he is a veteran of poetics, particularly the work of Robert Graves, a major figure in twentieth-century poetry and poetic mythography. Ward is resident in Paris. The poetry of Beyond Puketapu straddles an early life in New Zealand and a later life lived, both in the light of Mediterranean classicism and of contemporary Europe.
The title poem sets up the dialogue between childhood on an Otago hill farm at Puketapu and the present, witnessed on the Greek island of Patmos where ‘the sea below me glowed with an older name’, reminding us that the human naming of Aotearoa/New Zealand happened, not millennia, but just seven or eight centuries before now. The austerity of the Greek islands and the dry landscapes of Puketapu have obvious affinities. Seeing islands like Patmos in later life brings to the fore existential questions that had their beginnings in New Zealand. To ‘live alone, learn to endure, learn how to die’ may be learned on Patmos, but echoes back to Otago:
each day raised, until the rough hills
yield their grain:
how the road
makes its way, like these thoughts
that have too long been with me, sealed …
Enriched by human history and art, Ward is nonetheless a loner, looking in to things in themselves – the phenomena of the world – for clues as to their ultimate significance. This seeking is linked to neologism – the human act of naming. ‘Stone’ hints at this:
This stone has a name …
It takes an arctic eye
a wintry patience, or
the tides’ prescience
to gaze in it, turn
it, till it discloses
a shadowy stillness
To net, to shape it
is also to name it.
Ward’s strongly searching intellect reads history in a penetrating way. ‘Channel Crossing’ speaks of complex interactions that took place in France during World War II with its Nazi occupiers. These are symbolised by bunkers remaining on the Atlantic coast:
intact as a neutron-bombed city,
a network of hidden connections.
My friend’s landlord, the neighbours claim,
built them for the Germans …
Resident in Paris, he detects a crucial difference between the French and the ancient Athenians when each was faced by invasion:
they chose not to submit …
we, the French,
and Paris –
le voilà, intact! …
They had the future to defend:
we had only the past.
Despite his long European residence, Ward has not lost a clear memory of his life in New Zealand. The stress of drought on his farming father, and the effects of that on his mother and himself are vividly recounted in the poem ‘Drought’. The child flees the house:
runs down the hill to the flat
and lies on his back in the dry grass.
All round him there’s nothing else.
He looks up into the endless blue.
Who can he tell?
No one is here but himself, alone
with the dying grass, the empty sky.
This poet has clear diction in his chosen subjects and an intellectual power that sees issues without in the least ‘drying up’ the poetic anima within him. Intellect and generative power are in good balance. Here’s hoping we have more volumes from him.
Murray Edmond’s Shaggy Magpie Songs is an accomplished, all-over-the-place collection that succeeds in being what he was aiming for:
the kind of songs that magpies might
sing if they were into making up words:
a little bubbly, a little bitter, a little absurd …
More is at work here than the mocking comedic agenda of magpies, however. There is a theory that we are defined in language; there are moments of human (as contrasted with avian) lyricism; there is poetry as a political and social critique of the past in this and other countries; there is literary history as in the referencing of Garcia Lorca’s famous visit to New York and the towering ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’ he wrote as his reaction to that city. Here Edmond writes ‘The Poet Returns to New York’, an anti-ode that places the Spanish poet in a city of jest, absurdity and doggerel deliberately alien to the emotional and cultural content of Lorca’s original poetry in America.
This collection also references local literary history. ‘Conversation With My Uncle’ recalls Sargeson in its title and Glover in its contents: a treatment of the classic, impoverished rural New Zealand. In a more acerbic voice than Glover’s ‘The Magpies’ it lays out its tale of blasted hope:
Now they’re both dead the farm’s been sold
he was a bastard she had a screw loose
or at least that’s the story I was told
by that magpie in that tree
Two longish poems central in the book respectively point up the absurdity of human objects and the vanishing of God from his universe. ‘Forty-Two Boxes’ unpacks our jumble of artefacts:
religious map of
Addis Ababa the sights
of a redundant rifle,
tram tickets from old Stockholm
– thereby implying an anti-heroic narrative of our civilization. ‘A Train Wreck in the Universe’ is a singular negative-affirmative poem in which two lovers do not obey God’s order to cease making love (because the end of time is beginning). They continue, as God and all things vanish, leaving them, the lovers, as the only likely source of renewal at a later time.
The success of this collection is its accommodation of a large range of subject matter, its variety of language and verse patternings. The contrast of verse structure, rhythm and voice can be seen between the critique of the colonisation project – ‘In the Purple Mists of Last Evening’ – which has a continuous narrative flow, and the much more discontinuous verse and sectional structure of ‘Tongatapu Dream Choruses’, which read like widely differing voices in a play. As a theatre teacher, actor and dramaturge it is not surprising that Edmond has attained suppleness with his poetic structures and diction – a suppleness that enables him to address actuality in many forms.
Surprising then that he seems still a little beguiled by the absolute claims of language made over the past thirty years – namely that it is the arbiter of reality. Hints of this appear in ‘The Ancient Mariner in Avondale’ where the Chinese mariner says, ‘Only language takes you back to Paradise.’
And in ‘Pablo the Cat’ we hear that:
No-one knows better than you
we live in a language game …
But we live in so many things antecedent to human speech, including the biosphere and, as all performers know, our bodies. Luckily, in this volume Edmond does not really practise the language theory. The poems largely treat the things of the world as existent in their own right, not just through our words.
The shaggy magpie is more a sharp satirist than lyricist and can sometimes edge his way into disenchantment without the relief of cathartic song. That may be intentional. The magpie as harsh jester will at times push aside the softer resolutions of the life problem for abrupt statement such as
the laughing clowns are frowning
they’ve sussed existence is a place for drowning.
Kevin Ireland is the most amiable of poets – until he is read closely. Then he turns out to be highly searching – a lover of living, certainly, but also a subtle and wry questioner of life. His convivial, satiric, entertaining persona is more than a mask, much more, but very much less than the totality of perception and talent that add up to one of our most shrewdly humane poets, who brings to us the gift of his very long literary experience. Ireland was writing before A.R.D. Fairburn died in 1957. He’s writing now, with no sign of a slackening of performance.
This is his 22nd collection. It is assembled around three outstanding poems: ‘Looking Out to Sea’, ‘Flying Across Australia’ and ‘The First Viola War’. These are the pillars of the book, but it is a house strongly constructed with other ‘uprights’ as well.
To start with, his diction: he is one of our most effortless poets, his language adroit and elegant. Its directness makes no claim on any literary theory. The poem is always about something as well as itself; and Ireland can reel the ‘something’ in, explore it in a way that makes it yield its details up to the felicity, the suppleness of the language. Subject matter is never snuffed out by semiotics.
This is not to say his subject matter is ironclad, rigorous and unambiguous. Far from it. ‘A Very Brief Biography’ makes it clear that even the poet, as subject, during a lifetime, passes through many identities:
How can I be sure that they could all
have been the person I am now?
The person he is now can recall strongly in ‘Looking Out to Sea’ the boy he was in relation to his younger brother, competing in skimming stones across the water; and then make the beautiful modulation, by way of a dream, to a final meeting, a lifetime later with his brother dying:
In my sleep we were sipping his home brew silently
In love and peace when we heard the tide change
with a swish of seaweed and a lapping of water
… I saw him stand, turn his back, raise one hand
and slip slowly into the whirlpool of the deep.
‘Flying Across Australia’, an essay in seeing into nature, treats, not the romantic sublime, but a cross-grained immensity – one that does not lend itself easily to the conventions of art and poetry that had their birth in Europe with painters like Salvatore Rosa (1615–1673) and poets like James Thomson (1700–1748). Procrustean, mighty Australia is another order of the sublime, as Ireland well knows:
all those patched bolts of crumpled scenery unrolling
For what could be ever-and-ever – like fate, history
or the hereafter …
Faced with this vastness with its mysterious meaning, in the phenomenal world, the poet resists the temptation to hypothesise:
It called for some sort of theory
to tidy up everything. I didn’t feel it was down to me
to figure it out.
Yet he manages to make an image of nature that is magisterial and that sticks in the mind.
‘The First Viola War’ records the defeat of the musician in his father, a member of an army orchestra at the end of the World War I. A viola player, he set aside his talents under the pressures exerted by a utilitarian society:
He told us later that poverty and music were best mates
and that though a genius or a fool might play an instrument
people of good sense played radios …
The achievement of such poems is that they speak the perennial themes, but the message is never preached, the diction is unforced. They remain poetically undamaged by the weight of the material they are handling.
There are shorter pieces here also, equally successful. ‘The Lost Children of the 1930s’, in 21 lines, vividly tells of the scars the Depression left on its victims. Ireland is both unsentimental and understanding about these kids of damage and loss, who, in adulthood, have:
glass-sharp glance, black ice in the heart –
and who will blame them when a few sweets
and crumbs are all they know of goals and good.
This volume also celebrates the daily incidents and routines that are absolutely essential to keep us going. Is this a sentimentality about the quotidian, or something much more? I think the latter. In pieces like ‘Who Wouldn’t’ there is a realisation that grace subsists in the smallest things and that ‘The endless miracle is that it happens every day.’
DENYS TRUSSELL is an Auckland-based poet, biographer, musician and ecologist. His books include the award-winning Fairburn (Auckland University Press) – a biography of the poet A.R.D. Fairburn; The Blue Marvel: Shorter poems 1993–2012 (Brick Row); and The Expressive Forest: Essays on the arts and ecology in Oceania (Brick Row).