Monday, October 05, 2009
POETRY IN MOTION
Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1998-2008by Vincent O'Sullivan(VUP $35)
A Canoe In Midstream: Poems Old And New by Apirana Taylor(Canterbury University Press $25)
James K. Baxter Poems selected by Sam Hunt(AUP $29.99)
Reviewed by Paula Green
Vincent O'Sullivan's recent book of selected poems clearly demonstrates why his poetry attracts awards and why there is much to admire about his writing. Further Convictions Pending assembles poems - Seeing You Asked, Lucky Table, Nice morning for it, Adam, and Blame Vermeer - from four books of the past decade, with 44 new poems.
O'Sullivan's poems gain much from the concrete details that make up our lives, and they frequently make the world in which we live satisfingly present. He is not afraid to use metaphor to make these details grow - sweetly, sharply, surprisingly - in the mind of the reader: "the yachts on the half-huffed harbour/ poised as the little fingers of elderly/ aunts."
Yet what makes O'Sullivan so endearing is his willingness to go against the sway of what some people might think - that philosophy and poetry are like oil and water. O'Sullivan lets ideas and abstract musings simmer above and below the surface of a poem so it is a way of thinking, and in that thinking a way of being.His new works continue the musical registers of the previous collections, but introduce a new tenderness into his key inquiries: how to engage with the world as a poet, and how to occupy a moment of living and make it vital. Being here does just this. The plump apricot at the poem's centre might very well stand, nostalgically, for whatever is lost and yearned for, or the memory savoured at some future point, but the poem relishes, with heart, vulnerability and insightfulness, the eternal present.This then is one of the gifts of O'Sullivan's poetry; it makes the humdrum moment matter, with intricate melodies, crisp metaphors and infectious trains of thought.
Apirana Taylor's anthology of new and old poems, A Canoe In Midstream, demonstrates that this poet-storyteller-playwright ranges wide. With a reputation to inspire secondary-school students to write, Taylor's poems leapfrog from the voice of the warrior to that of father, lover or friend.
While some poems are written, necessarily, out of loud, political rage and direct the reader to listen to the raw ache that seeps from cultural wounds, such as Sad Joke on a Marae, the anger becomes a quieter strength over the course of the book. Taylor's warrior poems are evidence that there are many ways to embody and voice "power."
On other occasions, Taylor simply takes delight in the deliciousness of words. With some poems, as in Soft Leaf Falls of Light, it is as though he throws a handful of words to be caught in the wind and then land, playfully and airily refreshed, upon the page.
The absolute tenderness of some poems is well matched by the graceful, bare bones of others. Haiku-like poems flutter alongside the melodies of songs and chants.
This lightness of touch is caught in the lines of Darts, a poem about the paltriness of words: "so I turn them/ into darts/ and give them/ wings."Taylor's poetry has wings, yet it faces rather than avoids serious issues. Every school should have a copy of this book.
Auckland University Press has produced an elegant, slender volume of James K. Baxter's poetry selected by Sam Hunt. Hunt's yardstick for selection was a poem's ability to stick in the head and the end result will surely draw a new audience from younger readers, perhaps secondary school students.
What is missing for the older Baxter fans are the Jerusalem poems that give the reader a different Baxter at work, not simply as a shift in rhythm and syntax, but as poetic channels into the spirituality and Maori beliefs that reshaped his life.
Hunt's candid introduction is a fitting entry into the Baxter poems that are, as Hunt declares, "high-octane, road-warranted, road-tested".
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and writer.
Her review first appeared in the New Zealand Herald's excellent Saturday magazine, Canvas, on 3 October 2009, and is reproduced here with the kind permssion of Books Editor Linda Herrick.