Monday, July 22, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“US, THEN” by Vincent O’Sullivan  (Victoria University Press, $NZ28)

I will begin like an unpoetic fool by giving you the statistics.

Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection Us, then contains 78 poems. They are divided into three sections. Now why should I bother to mention this, as if I were a conscientious bibliographer rather than a reviewer? Because the way poems are arranged in a new book always bothers me, that’s why. I am always afraid that I will miss some subtle connections, some stylistic or thematic reason for the arrangement - in this case into three sections.

Three weeks ago, reviewing on this blog Ian Wedde’s The Lifeguard and Elizabeth Smither’s The Blue Coat, I noted how one volume consisted of long sequences of poems thematically linked; while the other appeared to me to be a volume of individual poems, albeit expressive of the poet’s typical concerns. My own inclination is always to read each poem as an individual thing in itself.  So why is Us, then arranged as it is? Maybe it simply means that Vincent O’Sullivan liked them in this order, or wrote them in this order? But I plunge in and proceed to confuse myself by seeking to find the links.

The first section (of 22 poems) seems to wrestle with matters of perception and belief.  The poem “According to the doco” considers how a snake-handler sees a vicious snake (unlike the way you or I would see it). “Speech Day” begins with the words “There is more to the eye than meets it”, a veritable motto of subjective rationalism. “Cruise ship Afternoon” has our poetic narrator looking at and not understanding an American tourist and commenting “How / much goes on behind our fences, / our palisades, our ungift of tongues.” We think we are the pinnacle of creation, but in “Against the Drift”, nature is indifferent to us, no matter how dramatic we think the works of nature are. In the poem “And”, at least as I read it, the Platonic, rationalist mind holds the sensual moment in check. All this concerns the mode of perception.

And then there are those matters of belief, of styles of religion living or dead. “Cross over wise guys”, for example, reconstructs the moment when the certainties of the old Roman Empire and its gods crumble, and this new Christian stuff is establishing itself. “Nice try”, a poem about Rasputin, does the same for the old Russian Empire, where the winter ice is about to crack. In “Well, not this afternoon”, the old gods are given another spin before being gently set aside; while “Freedom” gives the stark alternative of God or no God. Then there’s that matter of perception again when, in “This time in 3-D” O’Sullivan protests, as I do, against the uninvolving special effects of new movie computer wizardry, at the sight of which “I yearn for a piece of human flesh stabbing / for dear life at another piece. I want us / as we’ve always been. I want Reality / for God’s sake, the way it was trickily made.” God – and how we see things – neatly yoked in one poem.

So, in reading these first 22 poems, I have cleverly nailed down what O’Sullivan is on about, haven’t I?

In fact, I have done no such thing, as I have merely cherry-picked poems of like interest. I have ignored the fact that the volume’s first section also contains “Uninvited Tribute”, eight poems as homage to Allen Curnow of whom O’Sullivan writes in his intro “a not altogether likeable man (I knew him only slightly), but our finest poet. I will commit an act of cowardice as a reviewer by saying that how you respond to this sequence will depend on how well you know Curnow’s work.

By the time I read the volume’s second section (of 28 poems), I think I see a theme of faith under stress in a new world in poems such as “That time of year” or “Imago: Three” (does Darwin de-sacralise the world?) or “Act Five”. There are tilts at new technologies in “Infra-red” and “Only connect”; while “On the pleasure of former colleagues” and “From the ‘Culture’ column” could basically be tilts at current intellectual trends. The poem “Trade aid” certainly wonders if high culture is worth a damn in the workaday world. (And which nerdy intellectual hasn’t spent at least some time wondering if the honest tradesman isn’t being more creative than the writing fool?)

But my attempts to sort out the book’s thematic order are floundering. When I get to the third section (of 28 poems) I’m defeated. I can only suppose the poet has gathered them into this order because he damned well wants to. But I do see poems facing each other across opposite pages that deal with cognate themes. For example “Fine distinctions” (on p.84) and “Nothing truer, mind” (on p.85) both approach philosophy in terms of its academic propositions and their relation to sensual experience. And yet the poem “Random as” takes us back to the matter of perception – in this case, a child’s moment of not-quite-understanding adult reality, but knowing it is not reality as explained by adults. And the poem “Not included in the footnotes” is another tussle with implacable Yahweh in the Old Testament. And the book’s title poem “Us, then” once again wonders how secure we are as kings of creation.

I admit it. I can see how some individual poems are connected with other individual poems, but I can’t see the overall structure of the volume.

So, this not being the place for lengthy exegeses of individual poems, I’m forced back into generalizations.

First and most obvious – this is a book of experience, not innocence; and experience means an awareness that life is short and time’s winged chariot is doing its business and closing time isn’t too far away. “Words to Attend” seeks words “which I’d like to sign off on”. “News from out the Heads” tells us that age and youth don’t see things the same way. In “Screensaver”, grandfather poet reflects that life is short. The erotic impulse is being burnt out in “Spacing out, they will tell you”. “Still” is most definitely a poem about ending and “one’s dying / to know who played me, the man / one has almost been, at least / in that other epic, the one whose / script one implied if not performed - / the man who picks off the copper- / heads at twenty paces, the Armani / cuffs at another locale, lord of / visible realms….” Mortality, reminiscence and the grim reaper are featured players. The poem “After reading the warnings” gives us mortality in the habit of smoking; “Listen, this isn’t easy”, using the conceit of an earthquake, has an ageing couple talk and feel their infirmities creeping in. “Ciao!” is literally about the earth-to-earth at a funeral. “Closer though than one may think” approaches death like a dream monologue; and “As one does, alas, cobber” is definitely a closing time poem. At least two other poems sound the chimes at midnight and babble of green fields by recalling films seen in childhood.

Second, there are poems of erotic love, which point to the limitations of poetry, none better than “Love, assuming nothing”.

Third – and this has always been one of O’Sullivan’s strongest suits – these are poems of metrical skill with an ear for sounds and the patterns of sound (which, dear reader, is not as common in current poetry as one would hope). Knowing fully where this craft stands in the current hierarchy of critical respect, O’Sullivan sometimes chooses traditional forms. “Getting the Picture” is in rhyming iambic pentameters. The lines of “Against the Drift” are longer than alexandrines and are rhymed couplets. Rhymed couplets are used with satirical intent in “As the boy, the man”. There are triplets of rhymes in “That time of year”. A sequence of 17 four-lined observations is called “Loose Change”, being separate and variously wry and satirical brief observations something like the “Shorts” W.H. Auden put in his collected poems. But then there’s nothing “loose” about these pithy rhymed ones. In “Guests are invited to consider”, O’Sullivan notes that “one takes the risk of rhyme” even though “one may be shelved near McGonagall”. This is a statement of belief in the traditional craft of poetry. As for the purpose of poetry, its ability to flash and dazzle is defended in “Puritan Sunday”.

Having done little more in this review than name-check and tick off some of the book’s contents, with brief asides, I will conclude with the unacceptable game of choosing favourites. The historian and New Zealander in me read and re-read with delight and engagement “Nowhere further from Belgium”, it being a bleak and effective presentation of small-town New Zealand and its war memorials, and the inherited mythology of them both. And, fortuitously (or by design?) facing it on the opposite page, there is “The incentives, south”, with that yearning New Zealand impulse towards somewhere else, as seen in indifferent clouds. Brilliant.

For the record, I read out loud O’Sullivan’s very rude “Only connect” at the dinner table, where it got the intended laugh from my teenage daughters. Than which no poet can aspire to greater recognition.


  1. His titles are better than most poets ' poems. And his poems are too, I reckon.

  2. Agreed. He is a clever beggar and really ticks me off with the way he makes its seem effortless.