Tuesday, August 06, 2013

INTERCOLONIAL by Stephen Oliver

Reviewed by Denys Trussell

 This long poem is a welcome addition to the New Zealand sub-species of the form. Its literary type includes Fairburn’s Dominion (1938), Curnow’s Island and Time (1941) and my own Archipelago (1991). I name these three particularly because they all claim a territory, a geography that is oceanic as well as terrestrial and has geophysical as well as human and social dimensions. Oliver’s poem also contains the social, the historical, the ecological. It is ocean-dependent and details the evolving aspects of our cultural identity. All the above works are written by Pakeha, but that does not preclude their being at times very strongly affected by the mythos of Maori, and of Polynesia.

To this Intercolonial adds the concept of Australasia. Oliver is a trans-Tasman citizen, well placed because of his long residence in each country to speak of the Australasian. And he avoids the deflation that is in our lamentable name for the sea that separates us—the ditch. It is a naming that tells far too much of just how little we laconic Pakeha have understood that sea. Oliver realises it in its full power—no ditch, but a phenomenon of ecological and mythological richness, of great beauty and terrifying power.

All this is pretty solid content and allows for a poem that can develop beyond the subjectivity of the poet. Its words and its narratives become an artifact with a life of its own, dealing with worlds far larger than the solitary ego of the poet. It avoids the pitfalls of personal lyrics that can degenerate quickly into narcissism. And the territory covered by Intercolonial is sufficiently large and varied not to be parochial or excessively regional. The ‘supra-nation’ within which it moves is full of human complexities, peculiarities. This is not a nationalist epic. Nor is it the ‘trans-nationalism’ of which we hear so much. That is a purely commercial construct. It is rather, an imaginative structure that reveals the many sizes, the many scales of life lived, of nature in action, in the Southwest Pacific.

As land-masses Australia and New Zealand are dramatic opposites: the one immense, largely flat, stable, of great antiquity; the other, literally Australia’s ‘outwash child’, much smaller, young, turbulent, largely mountainous. Both arise from the parent material of Gondwanaland. These contrasts are well realised in the poem:

            “the northbound continent, rusty red and adrift

            carrying deep in her Jurassic hold a cargo of two million

            year old water, shadowy as a birthmark, and the Great Artesian

            Basin occupying (one fifth) the stony hull of that continent.”


New Zealand, represented principally by its central region, is seen as emergent in the hands of:

            “Hao-whenua, ‘earth-wrecker’ hard riding that

            quake breakneck through the Holocene and post-glacial ages,

            7000 years in his wake, the Wairarapa and Wellington

            fault lines wrapped around his wrists, tight as bush lawyer,

            pulling first at one, then the other, lifting basement blocks

            in a grand tilt under the Great Harbour of Tara . . .”

The poem is not just geophysics however. It jumps to the opposite, ‘unearthed’ extreme of the dream, and to the metamorphosis of the ‘real’ in the imagination. Thomas McCormack, an historical figure who happens also to have been the poet’s great-grandfather, is a nineteenth century ‘intercolonial’ who dreams in order

            “to capture past worlds or those yet to come”

as he voyages between New Zealand and Australia. His dreaming reaches back to an ancestral Ireland that is rich with its own mythos, and projects forward to take in ecological disasters in the making, such as the gigantic gyres of plastic that are increasingly choking our oceans.

The other big dreamer is Kupe. He not only finds our present islands, but envisions submarine structure, the geological past, and travels in his dream-self over the tops of mountains:


            “Kupe saw thousands of years back/ forward in an instant.

            Glaciers, white larvae eating out the U-shaped valleys,

            had barely contracted-expanded one arm’s length before his

            stunned senses could turn thought to memory into question.”


thereby representing the first human perception of New Zealand.

All this needs language much less minimalist than that of the vers libre that has dominated poetry for many decades. Founded on the succinctness of haiku, this idiom has limitations in writing extensive works. It has become a convention, as I discovered when giving a reading from Archipelago. I was sombrely warned by one of my peers after the event that I “would be punished” for the more expansive style I had used. So far, punishment has been unevenly, if not ineffectually applied. It is good therefore to welcome Oliver’s poem into the canon of a more elaborated language style in the knowledge that it is accomplished enough to survive any punishments that might be applied . . . .

Along with the big dreams Intercolonial has significant sections based on the poet’s childhood and adolescence spent high on the hillsides of Brooklyn, Wellington. These experiences act as anchor ropes tying the dream-kites down to the ground of actuality in a particular life. The last episode of this kind, printed in italics as a kind of chorus, reflects on the life and death of the poet’s father. It is an interesting variant on the unpunctuated poetic stream with which Molly Bloom finished James Joyce’s Ulysses. Its layout as verse adds a new dimension to the ‘stream’.

The poem is cast entirely in quatrains with long, un-metred, un-rhyming lines. Because of the sheer amount of data in it, there is pressure on these lines to become prose; a pressure that is largely resisted, offset by the density of metaphor which keeps the prosaic at bay and the poetics moving. Sometimes the poet pushes his luck. The first line of the poem is, for me, one of the least successful. “Tusked cauliflowers and herded carrots” is a tough opener, and I wondered about its accuracy in imagistic terms. I went to my nearest greengrocer and checked for tusk-like structures on cauliflowers. There were none. However, the next day I was in another greengrocer who had not trimmed the outer greenery off the heads of the cauliflowers. I saw that there were curved, thick, pale green, tuskish fingers curving up from the base of the head. I had to concede, but I am still unconvinced by the line, perhaps because it does not quite work melodically for me. I rest my case. I find the rest of Oliver’s imagery successful, accurate and telling. Don’t be put off by that first line. The other thirteen hundred-odd have plenty of felicities that make Intercolonial a poem of substance, a good and satisfying read.

Production by John Denny’s Auckland-based Puriri Press is excellent.

Puriri Press / contact details:  http://www.puriripress.co.nz.

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