Monday, July 29, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
China-resident American journalist and environmentalist Craig Simons nails his colours to the mast very early in The Devouring Dragon, which is subtitled How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World.
In the book’s prologue, he visits an American small town, which used to have a booming economy based on coalmining. The town has been in economic decline for years, because American and European demand for coal has fallen away drastically in more environmentally conscious times. American and European factories and power-plants are no longer coal-fired. But suddenly the small town is booming again, because an important foreign customer wants coal – China. In fact, across much of the world (including New Zealand), old coalmines are being re-opened to feed this gigantic customer.
As Simons remarks:
“I suspected that China was more than a peripheral part of [the American small town’s] story. In 2009, China burned 3.5 billion tons of coal, almost half the world’s total. But it was China’s potential demand that was creating a global mining renaissance. In 1976, when Mao Zedong…. died, the country had used only 550 million tons of coal each year, one sixth of today’s total. By 1997, its demand had exceeded that of the United States, but it still used what now looks like a quaint number: 1.4 billion tons. Then – in the thirteen years from 1997 to 2009 – China added over 2 billion tons of annual coal demand, the equivalent of two new nations as voracious as the United States, which – until China surpassed it – had been the world’s biggest coal consumer. And experts predicted that China’s growing energy appetite wouldn’t peak for many years.” (Prologue Pg.2)
So, after a quick survey of China’s impact on global economies and the global environment, Simons announces his main theme:
“This is a book about how China’s rise is changing the physical planet. For many readers the facts about how quickly China has grown since the late 1970s and what that means for the global economy and geopolitics will be familiar, even if we don’t always keep the facts straight. Many will have heard that China is not only the world’s fastest-growing large economy, but also that it is the only large economy that has ever sustained such a high growth rate – roughly 10 per cent each year for the last three decades, enough that it has moved from being the world’s tenth largest economy (in 1979 wedged between the Netherlands and Spain) to its second largest today. Only the United States earns more each year, and much of that is derived from investments and outsourcing, not from actually making anything. Most economists predict that the Middle Kingdom…. will surpass the United States as the world’s top economy during the next two decades.” (Prologue Pg. 8)
But this unprecedented economic growth of China is happening at the very time that the world is becoming choked with pollutants and environmentally degraded by greenhouse gases and perceptible global warming. “The more I read, the more I realised that China was hitting its stride just as the planet is reaching environmental tipping point”, says Simons (Prologue Pg.17). He illustrates how China’s fossil-fuel-burning economic boom has created great middle-class wealth in China itself, and a huge appetite for all the material goodies associated with the capitalist West. But it has also created huge social inequality. And, more crucially for the rest of the world, it has battered China’s ecological systems and threatens the “commons” (the Earth’s shared environment). Sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China, where the urban air is almost unbreathable. The great Yangtze River is rapidly becoming a running sewer. Species are being made extinct (such as the Yangtze River dolphin).
Thus says Simons in his 20-page prologue.
The rest of The Devouring Dragon is essentially an illustration of this thesis.
Three chapters (1,2 and 3) focus on the Yangtze River and the colossal Three Gorges Dam, which has destroyed much of the environment, and much of China’s essential fresh-water supply. This ecological disaster could have been avoided (as even some Chinese commentators noted) if a series of more modest dams – capable of generating just as much power - had been built on the Yangtze’s tributaries. But the Three Gorges Dam became a prestige project for China’s leadership; a symbol of Chinese power and technological modernity; and they could not cancel the project without losing “face”. As it is, the great river is now unable to flush out toxins like mercury and cadmium, creating massive pollution and wiping out species that have lived there for millions of years – the Chinese sturgeon among them. With little unpolluted water supply, farming in its neighbouring provinces becomes less practicable.
While Simons does not write his polemic with any xenophobic agenda, he does suggest that there is something ancient in the Chinese mentality that leads to an extreme exploitation of the environment:
“To understand China’s modern environmental crisis, one needs to grasp those historical roots: Confucian ideology both bolstered the belief that the natural world should be controlled to serve man and created a top-down political system with weak support for civil society – the checks on power provided by democratic elections, a free press, an active nongovernmental sector, and the rule of law. Mao Zedong sharpened those historical forces by nurturing a revolutionary zeal that often ignored and silenced science and common sense. And China’s post-Mao era has greatly increased the speed of environmental damage and pushed it far beyond the nation’s borders.” (Chapter Two, Pg.48)
Turning from China itself, Simons then devotes three chapters (4, 5 and 6) to the way the Chinese demand for traditional medicines has become a major threat to species in many parts of the world. Tiger bones, shark fins, pangolin shells and rhinoceros horns are all components of traditional Chinese medicine, and turtle is regarded as a great delicacy. However, before the recent exponential growth of a wealthy Chinese middle class, most Chinese were unable to afford these things. Now there is a huge paying market for them, even though most of them offer no real medicinal benefit whatsoever (apart, perhaps, from a placebo effect).
Result? The existence of India’s few remaining tigers is threatened by a huge illegal trade with China. Turtles have virtually been wiped out of southern Asia. China is becoming “the vacuum cleaner” of marginal species.
In like fashion, three chapters (7,8 and 9) deal with the loss of ancient and native forests elsewhere, because of China’s demand for both hardwood furniture and palm oil. Simons takes the example of the extinction of the kwila tree in New Guinea to service markets in Shanghai and the new cities of China’s hinterland. Russia’s far eastern forests are rapidly disappearing for the same reason; while every year hundreds of square miles of Amazonian rain forest are destroyed so that palm oil can be harvested.
The final two chapters (10 and 11) move to the impact of China’s use of fossil fuels on the Earth’s atmosphere. Simons first looks at apparently idyllic environments, but then shows how each of them is being affected by climate change, related to China’s pumping out of greenhouse gases. There is the example of pockets of rural China itself, where the air is still breathable but perhaps won’t be for long. There is the example of the Pacific atoll of Tuvalu, which may soon sink beneath rising seas. There is India’s Bihar province, where the monsoons become more intense and destructive each year. Simons gives a disenchanted account of the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate, complete with the grandstanding of some Western countries, but also with China’s firm veto of any attempts to curb the burning of fossil fuels.
“If China maintains its current policies, its total demand [for energy] is expected to almost double again by 2035, adding demand equivalent to what the United States now uses. According to the International Energy Agency…. it would meet that demand roughly as it does today: 87 per cent would be generated by burning fossil fuels. And it has become a model for other rapidly developing nations [such as India, Russia and Brazil]” (Chapter 10 pp.187-188)
As you might expect, the book ends with a call to real action on climate and conservation.
One major point I take away from this book is the sheer scale of the Chinese enterprise. To quote one example of the many hundreds that are given in The Devouring Dragon, by 2025, China will have 221 cities with populations above one million. Europe has only 35 such cities. (p.201)
It must be emphasized that Simons is not pointing the finger at a people, but at a system. It is often said that what China is doing today is no more nor less than what Western countries have done in the past in order to accumulate wealth – destroying whole environments to feed coal-fired industry, and creating massive ecological messes. Simons is fully aware of this. When he discusses the pollution of the Yangtze, he compares it with similar pollution in the United States in earlier phases of American capitalism. When he speaks of the extinction of species, he discusses the fate of the North American bison.
He understands that the problems China now creates spring from its people’s desire to have a wasteful consumerist life based on a Western model. He also notes that individual Chinese consumers are far less prodigal with the Earth’s resources than individual American consumers are. Per capita, Chinese still drive only a fraction of the automobiles that Americans do. Per capita, Chinese use far less petrol and oil. Indeed, says Simons, if Chinese were as wasteful of paper and wood as Americans are, then China would consume the world’s total yield of timber. The desire to do as Americans do also inspires those New Guineans who wield chainsaws against native forests in return for hard Chinese cash. They too want to have colour televisions and i-pods and air conditioners and all the commodities of the American home. Simons quotes the remarks of environmental biologist Thomas Lovejoy:
“Everybody’s basically mimicking what America did, but the reality is that in the end, there’s just not enough world to go around for everyone to live a top-of-the-food-chain American or European lifestyle…. Biodiversity loss can look sort of like a stream – and with the addition of China it’s a much more rapidly flowing stream now – but we have to realise that there are going to be some big thresholds that are crossed and there’ll be large chunks of biodiversity lost.” (Chapter 6 pp.117-118)
As a very minor criticism of this book, I should note that there are some sections in which Simons becomes perhaps a little too lyrical. He comes over all mystic when he sees a tiger in its (protected) natural environment in India’s Corbett National Park. He can’t help (a little unrealistically, I think) comparing Hindu oneness-with-nature favourably with more pragmatic and hierarchical Confucianism. Sometimes he quotes from the nineteenth century writings of Alfred Russel Wallace to remind us of how pristine the forests of the Malay Archipelago once were.
But I’m quibbling. This is a very forceful polemic, well indexed, and substantiated with forty pages of endnotes. In simply summarising my reading of it, I hope I have given you an accurate idea of how worth reading it is.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“CHAOS AND NIGHT” (“Le Chaos et la Nuit”) by Henry de Montherlant (first published 1963; Terence Kilmartin’s English translation first published 1964)
One day, when I have the time and patience, I will set out on this blog my reactions to one of the greatest, and at the same time one of the most repellent, sequences of novels in modern literature. I refer to Henry de Montherlant’s tetralogy usually known as Les Jeunes Filles (“The Girls” or “The Young Girls”) after the first novel in the sequence; but just as widely remembered as Pitie Pour Les Femmes (“Pity for Women”) after the second novel in the sequence.
As de Montherlant’s critics never tired of pointing out, it is a sequence of novels about the battle of the sexes as seen by a bitter, misogynistic, phallocentric, egotistical, heterosexual man, for whom women are at one and the same time necessities and complete nuisances. Much here to arouse the wrath not only of doctrinaire feminist critics, but also of anyone with a more balanced view of the sexes. And yet, as the merest dabbler in literature should know, it is not necessarily admirable or sympathetic viewpoints which make great literature. In fact lack of balance, maybe even mild craziness, seems almost a necessary part of literary greatness. And Les Jeunes Filles is still essential reading.
Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972) certainly was an odd human being, and not solely for the fact that his first name was spelt English-style (“Henry”) rather than French-style (Henri”). In spite of the heterosexual persona adopted in many of his novels – including his great tetralogy – he was homosexual by inclination and, as was gleefully made public after his death, he appears also to have been a paedophile. His views were right wing and reactionary. His ancestors were minor French aristocracy and he carried a heavy baggage of inherited prejudice. He has been accused of being a collaborator at the time of the German occupation during the Second World War, but in this particular he appears to have been no more guilty than three-quarters of French intellectuals. Sometimes, too, the term “Catholic” has been attached to him; but despite his Catholic family background, and the Catholic institutional settings of some of his novels based on his childhood, it is hard to find anything specifically Catholic in his outlook. Indeed the way his characters live their lives, and the way de Montherlant depicts them, is quite contrary to any church teaching. My own suggestion is that the term “Catholic” is often applied rather lazily to any French writers of his generation who were not specifically socialist or otherwise left wing.
In spite of all this, de Montherlant had admirers in France (where he was as well known for his plays as his novels) from all quarters of the political compass. He was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1960. By fellow writers like the communist Louis Aragon, the existentialist Albert Camus or the conservative Catholic Georges Bernanos, he was recognised as a master, whatever they might have thought of his views. He may have been perverse, but he could write and was a brilliant stylist in the classic French tradition.
Which, after all this throat-clearing, brings me at last to the novel I’ve chosen as this week’s “Something Old”. Chaos and Night came late in de Montherlant’s career and shows the writer at his most merciless. Its chief issues are not sexual but political, and it has at least something in it to offend just about every political ideology.
The story is set specifically in 1959, exactly twenty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Celestino Marcilla is an old Spanish anarchist, living in exile in Paris with his daughter Pasqualita. He despises the French and their bourgeois democracy. He despises his fellow Spanish exiles, who seem to him a futile bunch. He deliberately breaks off contact with his best friends Marcial Pineda and Ruiz. Their talk has become the tiresome self-justifications of the defeated, as when:
“Ruiz used to claim that a moment always came when wars and revolutions turned into sombre farces, and that he was glad that the Left had been defeated in Spain, because it would have been corrupted by victory, whereas now it was a potentiality and therefore something pure and good.” (Chapter 2)
Being an anarchist, Celestino hates equally the church and all forms of Marxism. He regards himself as a complete individualist, musing that “Nobody really understands the human condition unless he realizes that apart from one or two persons, there is not one soul who is interested in whether he lives or dies.” (Chapter 2)
Constantly he thinks of Spain and of the bullfights, sometimes playing at being matador to the passing Parisian traffic.
The first part of the novel is as comic as it is serious: the portrait of an uncompromisingly cranky old man who repeatedly bites the hand that feeds him and clearly has an inflated idea of what his importance was in the civil war. This is reflected in the political articles he keeps writing, which nobody ever publishes.
Then the story becomes much darker in tone. From Madrid he receives news from his (middle-class and Francoist) brother-in-law Vicente, telling him that he has come into an inheritance, which he can collect if he goes to Madrid. His daughter Pasqualita, quite clearly indifferent to politics, wants to go back to the homeland.
So they go to Franco’s Spain.
At first, some of the tone of cranky comedy persists amidst the growing darkness. Celestino constantly imagines that Fascists are about to pounce on him and arrest him. In fact, somewhat offending his amour propre, what he discovers in Spain is complete indifference to him. Nobody cares. The country under Franco is not depicted in glowing terms, but it is presented as a place of relative material prosperity, where life goes on with no consciousness of the slogans and ideals Celestino held so dear in the civil war twenty years previously.
Celestino realizes he is now an old man, an anomaly and an anachronism. His epiphany comes when he goes to a bullfight (described graphically in Chapter 7) and at last realizes that it is the bull which is his representative – not the nimble matador he imagined himself to be in Paris. The bull is a beast worn down by the spikes of the picadors and the deceits of the matadors and fated to die. Mortality is our common destiny, not the flashy tricks of the matador. Life is chaos – a series of delusive shows – followed by night – complete oblivion.
Celestino goes back to his hotel room and dies in the realization that death is stronger than all slogans and all political creeds. Before his death, his rambling and often nihilistic thoughts set the final power of death against the ultimate triviality of politics:
“… it was he who had so often repeated Trotsky’s words: ‘If human life is sacred, we must abandon the revolution.’ The fall of Franco, the conquest of the world by Communism, the outbreak of world war, the blowing up of the planet by the hydrogen bomb – all these were as nothing compared to this single fact; that he was going to die, that there was no hope and that it was immanent…. Then he saw that Franco was Stalin. Contrary to what he had always imagined, there was no ‘yes’ and ‘no’; everything was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time…. In discovering that Franco was Stalin he had discovered the promised land, he had discovered everything. A hallowed but godless atmosphere now surrounded him.” (Chapter 8)
This is a novel that transcends politics. Whatever de Montherlant’s politics may have been at the time of the Spanish Civil War (as a right-wing reactionary he favoured the Franco side), the novel promotes no political ideology. The left-wing Spanish exiles are shown as an ineffectual bunch, living off obsolete slogans, their brains fixated on a conflict that is long over. (In this particular, some of the novel anticipates the mood of Alain Resnais’s famous film about Spanish exiles, La Guerre est Finie, which appeared four years after this novel was published.) On the other hand, though it seems to be materially thriving, Franco’s Spain is clearly a police state. There is an odd little sting in the tail to the novel where, after Celestino’s death, the Civil Guard really do crash into his hotel room with the intention of arresting him as a political troublemaker.
I admit at once that the ultimate political outlook of Chaos and Night is despairing. There is no programme to cling to. There is no character who neatly articulates a means of bettering the world. This could outrage many readers, just as de Montherlant’s sexual politics in his other novels outrage many readers. Again, I find myself circling about the term “nihilistic”. Please note, too, that there is no religious salvation – death, in an atmosphere that is “hallowed but godless”, promises only oblivion. So much for the notion that de Montherlant was a Catholic.
In part, this is a brutal novel. Chapter 6 gives us the following happy anecdote: “Narvaez, a Spanish general of the nineteenth century, asked on his death bed if he forgave his enemies, replied ‘I have no enemies. I’ve had them all shot.’ ” Like much in the novel, this is indicative of the extremes of the Spanish character as interpreted by de Montherlant – leading to the civil war’s mutual destructiveness of anarchism/communism on the one hand and fascism on the other. It is reflected, too, in the central image of bullfighting.
In an article, which I have not been able to trace, Malcolm Muggeridge once interpreted de Montherlant (who wrote other works, like Les Bestiaires, centring on bullfighting) as one of those weak men – like Ernest Hemingway – who were obsessed with their own virility and found vicarious compensation in the extreme macho image that bullfighting provided. There may be some truth to this. And there is certainly throughout Chaos and Night the sense of dying male potency. In effect, chaos is what descends as the old man’s penis fails to function and he ceases to have a purpose in life. Like Hemingway, de Montherlant eventually took his own life, both impotent matadors falling on their own swords.
But once we have taken all the nihilism, all the political quietism and all the rancid machismo on board, this is still a novel that conveys powerfully the finality of death. It is raw, shocking, despairing and real. As I said, great literature rarely emerges from a neat and rational philosophical balance; and de Montherlant’s horrible novel is a memorable one.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
A FERTILE LACK OF BALANCE
There’s a much-anthologised poem by Roy Fuller sometimes published as “War Poet” in which he lists the personal shortcomings and neuroses of a string of canonical poets, and then remarks on their “fertile lack of balance”.
I like that phrase and have often resorted to it when discussing literature, because it seems to me to sum up something essential about what literature is and what literature is not. I recall it to mind especially this week because I have just been discussing a misogynistic, misanthropic, perverse writer, Henry de Montherlant, who certainly lacked balance and yet who was undoubtedly a great writer.
Perhaps what I mean is this – there is something obsessional about the greatest literature. It may come from the very way works are written. Writers have to believe in their inspiration and their own viewpoint and stick with them and press on writing. Literature is not a matter of rationally weighing up sane options in human potentiality and thought, as good philosophers and sociologists should do. Literature is not balanced. It does not say, “well on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. It has to stick with its vision.
Sometimes this lack of balance can be quite pronounced and border on mental illness or even mania (Blake, Dostoievsky, Dickinson, Lawrence, Celine, de Montherlant – not to mention a string of illustrious madhouse poets). Sometimes it is much more subtle. And I am not for one moment saying that all obsessional writers who are unbalanced are good or great writers; any more than I am saying that there have been no sane and balanced great writers. I am saying that the act of great literature itself is not balanced. Yes, George Eliot was sane and balanced; but no, Middlemarch is not sane and balanced. It required a totally unbalanced leap of imagination.
Following on from this, I assert that great imaginative literature is not the place to go to if you want to find a solution to life’s great problems, answer a moral dilemma, heal some social ill or find a rational way to organise society. Go to the best philosophers, theologians, sociologists and occupational specialists if you are looking for such things. If you seek in literature a right-thinking programme for the world, then you are really in quest of propaganda, not literature.
So what is literature for?
Is it simply for the admiration of style?
If I believed that, I would cease commenting on issues and moral problems that are raised by the works of fiction I review and that, I believe, have to be discussed in any valid literary criticism. Not that I am underrating style, mind – it is the core of real literature.
I assert (for the second time in this rave) that literature is essentially about giving a perspective or conveying experience forcefully, skilfully and with appropriate language.
To recur to de Montherlant. His views on the relations between the sexes are nuts and are not to be espoused by any right-thinking person. But the way he dramatizes these views is forceful and convinces us of the reality of his characters’ experience. And they remind males that there is a corner of their brains that would like to dominate and then spurn women, immoral and not to be countenanced as such impulses are.
In saying this, I reject the “mimetic” view of literature, which says that it models behaviour for us. This theory might be all very well when “improving” books are taught to schoolchildren, whom we wish to shape into good citizens. But I note that Othello’s jealous frenzy is not something I wish to imitate, authentic though his experience clearly is.
I also note that my view on literature, expressed here, allows me to recognize the greatness of works by authors with whose views and opinions I strongly disagree.
Okay, okay. I’ve begged a lot of questions and, lawks missus, I have gone on a bit.
I must be unbalanced.
Monday, July 22, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
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.