Monday, May 4, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“BEING HERE: Selected Poems” by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
There is a foolish and, I now realize, pointless game I used to play when reviewing any new collection of poetry.
I attempted to guess why the poems had been arranged in the order in which they were arranged; and why they had been divided into different sections. Sometimes this game led me to fashion all manner of elaborate theories about the thematic connections between the poems in Section A as opposed to the poems in Section B of the same volume. I’m afraid I attempted this in the brief notice I wrote of Vincent O’Sullivan’s capacious 2011 collection The Movie May Be Slightly Different when I reviewed it for the NZ Listener (23 July 2011) and I played the silly game again when I reviewed on this blog [look it up on the index at right] O’Sullivan’s prize-winning 2013 collection Us, then.
But I have given up playing this game. A wise poet told me that the only reason he divided a collection into sections was to give readers a break. Readers might be happy to read 15 poems one after the other, but they could be daunted by the prospect of reading 35 poems one after the other. Therefore, said the poet, dividing a new collection into sections was for him simply a way of signalling to readers that it was okay for them to take a break in their reading.
So I have abandoned the game. I now tend to approach new collections of poetry as collections of individual poems, each to be considered on its own merits.
But the rules are rather different, are they not, when it comes to a volume surveying a poet’s whole career so far? Surely it’s legitimate for a reader to look at the development or persistence of the poet’s ideas, or at the changes in the poet’s style, when the volume presents the poems in chronological order?
Let’s situate this argument.
Being Here: Selected Poems gives us, in order of publication, selections from over forty years of Vincent O’Sullivan’s output. It covers 15 collections, beginning with Bearings (1973) and ending with Us, then (2013), with eight new poems appended at the end. En route an earlier Selected Poems (1992) is sampled. Being Here: Selected Poems is a handsome hardback in which the 230 pages of poems are followed by an alphabetical index of titles of poems.
There is no introduction and no apologia by the poet. I have to assume (and why not?) that these are the poems Vincent O’Sullivan has chosen to represent what he, at the present time, considers the best and most vital of his work so far.
Again, I have to assume that O’Sullivan has had to be severely self-critical to make such a selection, because it represents only a small part of all the poetry he has had published. His first two collections of poems (from the 1960s) don’t figure. The 120 poems of The Movie May Be Slightly Different (admittedly a bigger-than-average collection) are represented by16 poems in Being Here. The 78 poems of Us, then are represented by 23 poems. So I could rattle on, comparing the contents pages of earlier volumes with the contents pages of this one. All “selected” poems are provisional, especially when the poet is still writing. It does mean, however, that the reader might sometimes regret what isn’t here. I’m sorry not to sight “The incentives, south”, which I still think one of the best of Us, then. And (blowed if I rationally know why), I missed the cheery “Anglicans, good oh!” from The Movie May Be Slightly Different. Other readers might have different omissions to mourn.
Reading Being Here from cover to cover over the course of a couple of weeks, I met many familiar acquaintances and re-considered some earlier judgments I had made on them. In Butcher and Co. (1977) and The Butcher Papers (1982), the figure of Butcher has always puzzled me. Is this meat-chopper-wielding guy a satirical swipe at the materialistic Kiwi joker, who has no time for Culture, God and Higher Things? Is he the man for whom the beauty of catching a fish ends merely in dead meat? (As is implied in the poem “Fish for All That Rise as Rise Wet Stars”). Or is he an affirmation that inside even such a joker as he, there is still room for poetry, myth and legend? (The poem “Do You Ever Consider” would suggest so). As I now read what is representative of the Butcher poems in Being Here, there is a fruitful ambiguity to the character, in which respect he is as distant cousin to the similarly mythologised “Mr Maui” of Peter Bland.
O’Sullivan’s preoccupations have changed over the years, but there are some constants in what is represented in Being Here. One of his greatest skills is his ability to express complex philosophical and theological ideas without condescension and without too much abstraction. His language often sounds deceptively colloquial. He does not show off his learning. But the ideas ambush us anyway. There are those instantaneous connections between things, which prove to be the heart of the poem. “Kingfisher: Winter”, from the first represented collection Bearings (1973), flips from a literal wintry scene to archetypes of Greek mythology. In “Holy Thursday – 2” (from For the Indian Funeral, 1976) a bite into a sweet potato (kumara) suddenly flips the poem from Mexico to New Zealand. Similarly, and especially in the earlier poems represented, the metaphysical butts into everyday reality. Death, with his horse and scythe, lurks in doorway in “For a Third Birthday” from Butcher & Co. (1977). More pointedly, “Don’t Knock the Rawleigh’s Man” (from The Rose Ballroom, 1982) seems set to be piece of Kiwiana nostalgia. (It appealed as such to my wife and me as we read it out, and had to explain to our teenaged daughters what a Rawleigh’s man was.) It transmutes into a reflection on the temptation of Christ; and the congeries of flashy things that detract from the deep heart’s core.
Another of O’Sullivan’s special skills is his pithy way with titles. His titles are an intrinsic part of most of his poems. A certain book editor once remarked to me that O’Sullivan’s titles are often better than some people’s poems. True. Prime example? “Nice Morning for it, Adam” (from the 2004 collection of the same name). If the reader were a little inattentive, he/she might at first take this poem to be simply about a gardener and flowers. Add the title and we have Eden and God with shears clipping us.
None of this means that the O’Sullivan’s poems are all conundra waiting to puzzle us. The straight colloquial satire is here, in the likes of “Resthaven” (from Butcher & Co.), a devastating reportage on old people trapped in a nursing home like prisoners. And quotidian reality – what we literally see, hear, smell, taste and touch – is a constant preoccupation. In the selection from The Pilate Tapes (1986) there are just a few of the poems referencing Pilate and the Crucifixion. (I note O’Sullivan does not include the most explicit Crucifixion and Resurrection ones, “fault / line” and “TELEX FOR JIX RE SUNDAY”, which he chose among the poems that represented him when he edited the Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry.) More space is given to the sequence “The Westmere Replays” which tells us of a man trying unsuccessfully to chat up women (“Corner”); a woman dying (“Visitor”); women remembering American soldiers in New Zealand in the Second World War (“Was She?”) and the experience of meeting an old flame after a long separation (“Late Romantic”, which opens with that fine anti-romantic line “The moon mightn’t be so fat if it wasn’t for what we fed it.”)
Quotidian reality is not, however, as straightforward as it at first seems, and this brings me to another O’Sullivan preoccupation which I can only call “the thingness of things”.
Often, in his poems of the last twenty years, there is a resistance to overloading things with “meaning”, an attempt to see things as they are without philosophising and without imposing upon them a human perspective. I was getting a little lost in the poems selected from the collection Seeing You Asked (1998), whose allusions were, to me, somewhat opaque and whose philosophical speculations strained; when “Right on”, the first poem selected from Lucky Table (2001), slapped me alert with its opening lines “A dead overturned beetle can look as if / it’s feeling in several fob-pockets at once, / checking the beetle version of time / when the ticking stopped on cue. / A dead beetle looks as though / there’s nothing left to do, supposing / it stayed alive. Dead and complete”. Sure, there is the hint of anthropomorphism here (feeling in fob-pockets), but this is a brilliant reflection on the humanness of being human and the animalness of being animal. The beetle and its death are different from, and other than, the human. A similar idea is seen in the reflections on an elephant in “The monastic life” (from Nice morning for it, Adam, 2004)
From Seeing You Asked, the poem “As is, is” wishes for a world in which it were possible to meet reality face to face, with the line “Come down, each atom invites, come down to where things actually are”. But given the nature of human perception, given the human propensity for abstraction, and given language’s nets of metaphor and approximation, this is not possible.
In “River road, due south” (from Nice morning for it, Adam) we seem to be getting a picture of literal “reality” until we re-read the opening line and realize we are in an extended metaphor.
“Being here” (from Further Convictions Pending, 2009) wishes for direct experience of bees, apricots, the beauty of the day – the thingness of things. But metaphor and abstraction creep in. In other words, in high-falutin Kantian terms (of which O’Sullivan would never be guilty in his poetry), we can know only the phenomena, never the noumena. The noumena are the Eden that is never attainable. The screen of our humanity comes between us and nature. That O’Sullivan chooses “Being Here” as the title of this collection shows how central these concerns are to him.
Which, as I now realize, is a very lame way to sum up the man’s work. What of those poems about childhood? What of the ones that comment on high art – literature and especially paintings? What of the familial ones? To do justice to them all, I would have to write a notice much longer than this.
Time for the purely personal response.
First, I have to mention three poems that have stayed with me since I closed Being Here.
* “Poem 13” from the chilly, wintry collection Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka (1980) because of its severe and admonitory opening: “To be in a place for spring and not have lived its winter / is to get things on the cheap – it is asking from sky / as much as taking from earth, what has not been earned, / it is food without its growing, pay without labour.”
* “Saving the Image” from The Rose Ballroom (1982) is as perfect a poem about the persistence and wayward ways of memory, and the potential falsity of artificially-preserved images, as New Zealand has produced.
* The brilliant “No harm in hoping” from Lucky Table (2001), which I here quote cheekily in its entirety:
“At the end of the story I want you
to say, ‘I’ve forgotten the plot entirely.
It’s no use asking which character was which,
What name she used, what his job was.
Or where the bridge crossed the canal.’
At the end of the story I want you
to remember only the important things
that walk between the congregations of print
like a bride you’ve read of between the torches
of the story you thought you read.”
Second, a summary of this whole review.
It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? This is essential reading.