We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
THE POETRY OF ROBERT McLEAN
“FOR RENATO CURCIO” (Gumtree Press, Dunedin 2010); “GOAT SONGS” (Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2011);“A GRAVE YARD BY THE SEA” (Cold Hub Press, Lyttelton, 2012). All volumes of poetry by Robert McLean.
If one were to trust a recent hefty anthology of New Zealand poetry and prose, virtually the only worthwhile poetry currently being published in New Zealand comes from the major university presses, most notably Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press. In academe, there is some wariness about the poetry published by smaller craft printers. It does not have the proper imprimatur. There may often be good reasons for this wariness. Some small presses are almost in the nature of vanity presses, while others lack the editorial skills to discern what is and what is not worth publishing.
Yet it remains true that much of our best poetry is being published by smaller presses, rather than by the university presses. (Major commercial publishers bring out very little poetry and it is well understood that – except in very rare instances – poetry does not exactly fly off the shelves.)
I think I’ve cleared my throat enough now to justify devoting this “Something New” to a poet whose work has appeared outside the AUP/VUP axis. And, given the rate at which poetry actually meets its readers, I have no hesitation in calling three volumes published respectively in 2010, 2011 and 2012 “Something New”.
Robert McLean was born in Christchurch in 1974. His academic formation includes degrees in art theory and political science, as well as a Master of Fine Arts. When Alistair Paterson chose McLean as his “featured poet” in issue #40 of Poetry New Zealand, McLean had published only one collection, For the Coalition Dead (Kilmog Press, Dunedin). He introduced himself to Poetry New Zealand in terms of postmodern theory and “the cogency of the ‘linguistic turn’ in thinking about thinking and the world.” He is – theoretically – concerned with poems as linguistic acts in themselves rather than as reflections upon something else. And yet when I read McLean’s work I find myself more often in modernist territory rather than in the realm of postmodern theory. Frequently McLean’s work is difficult – opaque is my default term for some of his poems – but it references the great Western literary and philosophical/theological traditions, often engages directly with the world and has a degree of playfulness even in its more sombre reflections. I also note an ambiguity about God. Especially in the 2010 volume For Renato Curcio, McLean invokes a God (“Him”) Who sometimes appears believed in but is sometimes discarded brusquely; yet there is definitely an ache Thereunto in some poems. I’m not sure if this is God or “the God-sized hole in modern human consciousness”.
I also note and admire McLean’s craftsmanship. When he wishes to use more traditional forms, he works hard on rhyme and metre, but he does not confine himself to these, and he can also call on free form and prose-poetry. His “Discipline” is a villanelle suggesting need for discipline in art, including in its formal elements.
Craftsmanship is found in a perfectly-wrought poem like “A Postscript to the Death of Virgil” which opens the volume For Renato Curcio. It considers, in four stanzas, the experience of reading Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil, but turns this occasion into a contemplation of the whole process of reading, of the Logos, of the word as - perhaps - the creative Word of God. And yet with all this solemnity there is a wry humour as the poet is clearly in two minds about Broch’s modernism and speaks of “the place / where the poet Virgil will die / at the hand of Hermann Broch below / a firmament of / adjectives, quickened by his love / of words, as fleets of thoughts patrol / my mind.” We can lose ourselves in words. The double attraction-repulsion of verbal artifice is one of McLean’s obsessions.
In the same volume, “The Mirror Stage”, written in rhymed (sometimes half-rhymed) couplets, is a complex and in part opaque (that word again!) reflection on the changing self-image one has as one grows, tempered by the jolt of discovering love “Yet with the bloom of womanhood, / an adult’s lot is understood: / Between two poles the world divides. / We gravitate to what we know, / especially when the hormones flow; / like spheres in the Platonic sense, / true love collides with circumstance / and cracks the screen of vanity, / the boy then turns his eye to see / the point of difference ever present, / the source of self he now resents.”
This poem skates close by the risk of doggerel without ever falling in, and ends up on the credit side of traditional self-reflective ironies, its jolting, thorny metres somewhere in the vicinity of Donne’s riper satires.
Such literary comparisons are both right and inevitable with this poet. “Mr McLean and the Spider” is a very personal reflection on the meeting of poetry and mental unbalance (inclusive of depression, psychosis etc.). It holds out at least the minimal consolation that “My hands feel sore / from writing but neat stanzas may restore / my edge.” Craftsmanship keeps at bay a cruel mental universe. The mental unbalance of Christopher Smart, Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound is invoked.
I’m aware that I can overdo the suggestion that McLean is difficult or, for that matter, self-consciously “literary”. True, I did wrestle with the eighteen 14-line stanzas that make up his “Sequence for my Mother”, and wonder if other readers and I are missing highly personal references in the sequence. But some poems are quite deadpan straightforward accounts, such as “Sapphics for Physics” which, despite its title, applies photographic realism and understated irony to an account of a fair for alternative remedies. Indeed the poem I found the crown and cap of this collection – by which I mean the one I went back to read and re-read – is McLean’s tranparent “Aubade”, a poem about waking up and contemplating unemployment and idleness among much else; a self-deprecating and yet somehow heroic poem in showing the poet’s art chiselled from unpromising life. I see it as distilling the essence of the bohemian condition – hating it, loving it, knowing that any true creation sits uneasily with a 9-to-5 job.
I am not talking up For Renato Curcio as a flawless collection and I do not swallow the volume whole. I found the protest poems “Accounting (for Kosovo)” and “Dust and Shadow” too close to the damned obvious in their statements. When I first read the volume’s title poem “For Renato Curcio”, I was tempted to rebuke the poet for fashionably eulogising a man of destructive violence (Curcio having been a leading figure in Italy’s “Red Brigades”). Yet on repeated reading, I find the poem is poised, balanced, questioning both the man’s motivation and the processes of mythologisation – and certainly right to question, en route, the smug glibness of Curnow’s “Moro Assassinato” sequence.
McLean’s 2011 volume Goat Songs has aesthetics in its sights, but also more of tragedy (“goat song” being a literal translation of “tragedy”). Of aesthetics, both opening poems “Elias et Elias” and “Conversazione – ‘On Life and Letters’ ” consider sensibility and seeing – the subjective-objective and its connections. “McCahon” [an unfortunate literal renders the title as “MCACHON”] is a dissection of Colin McCahon’s Red and Black T-cross. “Triptych – After Grunewald” considers the persistence of Christian imagery in a postmodern age and “Memoirs of a Pig Hunting Man” is a prose poem on common images of masculinity and violence. “The Lay of Bellerephon” is a threnody on Greek mythic themes. In all of them, raw reality is seen through the web of art, mythology, preconceptions, received images – in other words aesthetic experience and its subsequent reproductions. This works strongly in favour of one of the volume’s hardiest pieces, “Boadicea’s Death Song”, a carefully-constructed death song panting with both ancient and modern imagery. Boadicea, the woman warrior, is also the woman scorned and the woman guarding ancient gods from the imposition of more facile ones. She ends “Pathetic and alone, / I die by candlelight - / its flame flags; querulous, / its oozing tallow scolds. / I am become a stranger. / After my day of death / I’ll be determined. It is / a fearful thing to fall / into these hands tonight - / the hands of dead and dying Gods.”
Aesthetic experience – or the formal interpretation of aesthetic experience – has its limits and can be exhausted. This concept underpins “Rimbaud at the Empty Inn”, a sequence of eight linked sonnets, perceiving Arthur Rimbaud in his African exile as having travelled through poetry and come out the other side both purified and emptied. [Other poets have imagined Rimbaud differently. Look up the posting “Arthur Rimbaud Twice Over” via the index at right.]
Once again, I note that in this later volume, McLean can also speak with a voice close to colloquial utterance. The language is direct in the elegy “Betelgeuse and Back Again”. While “Voyager” ponders a variation of the saw “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” in terms of music and its limitations against the great cosmic noise, it never becomes so opaque (third use in one review!) as to lose sight of the little eponymous machine chugging across infinity.
Like “Aubade” in For Renato Curcio, “Rex Nunquam Moritur” is the surprise hit of Goat Songs because of its combination of accessible colloquialism with real erudition. It has a free-running metre controlled principally by breath-pauses. It considers the relationship of torture with religious ritual - and perhaps our incorrigible tendency to prettify the former, where “our senses are annoyed / with stench, our sorrow consisting solely / in smelling the ordure and filth / of the Paschal lamb on a spit, / the spit submerged beneath the cross, / a gibbet of execution, the ‘ne plus ultra’ / of human suffering.”
In some respects, McLean’s short 2012 volume A Grave Yard by the Sea is his most ambitious work to date. It is a single poem of 62 six-lined stanzas, nearly all with an a-a-b-c-c-b rhyme scheme. From its title onwards it references specifically Paul Valery’s 1920 masterpiece Le Cimetiere Marin. Hence its long reflection on the cemetery at Rapaki on Lyttelton Harbour (enfolded by Banks Peninsula) sometimes comments on the disjunction between New Zealand landscape and received European images and mythologies.
Naturally a poem about a graveyard is also a reflection on the dead, and after long descriptions of place, it mixes concepts of subjectivity and selfhood with attempts to account for and to the dead, rejecting a future paradise in favour of present memory. Dare I say that its conclusion (“Life’s sole end is sailing onwards”) is a little bathetic? To me it smacks too much of George Bernard Shaw’s twittish formula “It is enough that there is a beyond” at the end of Back to Methuselah; or H.G.Wells’ hero “striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea” at the end of Tono-Bungay. What is your destination, poet? The line evades that existential necessity of choice; and blind sailing onwards could be sailing to a whirlpool. Do not lecture me on “negative capability”. I know theological ducking and weaving when I see it.
Having begun with this negative comment, however, I still judge A Grave Yard by the Sea an admirable and formidable piece of work. Given its strict form, maintaining the appropriate tone is a challenge for the poet. What is witty can, with this structure, too readily become merely whimsical or even facetious, as in “The beauty of this coastal shelf / is such that it describes itself. / Resistant to my paraphrase, / its limits and extent are such / that I could hardly hope to touch / what hemmed-in knowledge it displays.”
Yet, in its development of a this-worldly eschatology, I found many quotable stanzas, and that is the only unimpeachable criterion for judging poetry.
“As eminence grise Hart Crane said / (of Eliot) it’s so damned dead! / This is no Wasteland. Apropos, / the dead who’ve such vitality / they’d bilk at our attempts to see / them otherwise than here-below.”
“Pitched in the face of our absurd / betrayal, the power of the word / is able to wrench back the dead / from sheer indifference of the grave. / The rhythm of the barking wave / keep murmuring what we’d left unsaid.”
You will note that I have come to no general conclusions about Robert McLean’s poetry in this notice. I will leave it to some future PhD student to write an impenetrable thesis on his hermeneutics and poetic theory. I simply bracket McLean with the very different Richard Reeve as, according to my own reading, the two best New Zealand poets under the age of 40 who are currently working.
But I reserve my curmudgeonly right to quarrel with the ideas of both of them.
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