Stephen Oliver’s new book, Harmonic, is a tour de force, and I doubt that Australasian letters will see a more important volume of poems in this decade. If his gift in the past has been for the beautifully crafted lyric and the brilliant image, here we have the series of major poems that should cement his reputation, once and for all. It is a volume that takes on, centrally, the modernist inheritance and the difficult question of nature; and if its primary point of departure is Wallace Stevens (a claim which needs some qualification), the result is a Stevens updated by seventy years, a driven examination of the role of the poet and of the imagination in the twilight in which modernism disappears. And the volume as a whole has an architectonic, a movement from an early crisis of metaphysics to a final home-coming, in a brilliant series of poems that celebrate the real.
The volume begins with three strong poems that set out the problem:
You are facing the horizon and clouds
come at you lumbering off to the left and right in a
rising wind. (“Ionosphere,” p.11)
(Note the craft of this: the lumbering effect of the second line, and the rising tone of the third.) The problem is that of a landscape that refuses to signify when consciousness demands that it should. The poet asks:
what is missed that we
miss as though by total force of will we might
reach out and draw it in? (p.12)
For the poet is ‘compelled’ (‘A Tap on the Shoulder,’ p.13):
… we force ourselves upon disbelief
to mythologize the dark ….
And yet, in this very act, and as Yeats put it, ‘things fall apart’ (‘The Second Coming’). The third of the opening poems is called ‘An Avenue to the Sea,’ where the sea stands as traditionally for life, meaning and the unconscious. But if light is cast on those large themes, it is distant and revealing only of turmoil in the imagination:
the light, (barely larger than your pupil) is the
sea burning in its cauldron of watery fragmentation (p.14).
The final line here speaks powerfully of fragmentation; and the poet is left asking in a more demotic turn of phrase:
The next big thing no
one’s thought of why has it not happened yet:
what great revelation waits within …? (‘Ionosphere,’ p.11)
But lest the reader suspect that we have been here before (that the great New Zealand modernist, Allen Curnow—whose influence, incidentally, Oliver downplays—was asking similar questions in the 1970s), we should note that this is only the opening gambit. And if the tone is in places bardic, even apocalyptic, it is generally less hieratic than Stevens or Curnow. The modernist predicament is more personal, in part because the artist’s role is less secure than it had been for the modernists, for whom art was a secular religion. And the modernist element becomes progressively attenuated throughout the volume, until it has disappeared. For Oliver is really located in something that comes after modernism, something that is committed in ways that ‘post-modernism’ is not, but for which we currently have no term.
This turn away from the hieratic can be seen in the following poems, a number of which, like ‘Good Tom, Dead Then?’ are elegies or, like ‘Letter to David Mitchell,’ personal addresses. There are also several political poems (‘Herman the German,’ and ‘O Say Can You Hear,’ for instance), tentative essays in search for a public role for the poet. But time and again, the poet comes back, almost unwillingly, to the idea of landscape as something that has been written on (‘The Desert as Palimpsest,’ p.29). And while he concludes in ‘The Mysteries’ (p.28), and contra Blake, that ‘there is no / home for the “mental traveler”,’ he is nonetheless haunted by the echoes of ancient near-eastern thought, echoes described with a quiet meditativeness (and in the final words a delicate expansiveness) as:
winds that carried language throughout
the Mediterranean’s wide blue / white amphitheatre.
The volume reaches something of a turning point one third of the way through with ‘Unmannerly Weather Reported.’ The very title adopts a passive tense, and no reporter as such is identified. Instead, the poem offers six bare statements, beginning with:
Sydney’s late Autumn rains pass,
in blue-grey patches; to blue distances, not violet.
Like William Carlos Williams’ ‘To a Solitary Disciple,’ Oliver’s poem insists on the fact, and rejects the metaphor. Only in the seventh sentence do we leave the realm of prose, in a description of a cloudbank in the Gulf of Carpentaria which arrives with a rarified and lyrical heightening,
Like a wisdom that comes with a loss
that might even be expectation.
The following poem, ‘Ground Truthing’ (p.32), accepts metaphor but in a demotic register: ‘Curved back, light shoals – yes, birds.’ It’s a line which reveals Oliver’s gift for image but rejects any notion of metaphysics at the same time; and it’s followed by a series of images (effortlessly fresh) that capture the real:
Lordly ordnance banks up cloud on hill,
Rain shadows over patchwork,
makes of hill paddocks, perfect watercolours.
Poetry becomes (and the impulse here is to leave modernism far behind) a form of ‘ground explorations, by ground expeditions,’ a human product which we sow in the landscape and harvest:
The running line, in drills, under the pen’s furrow,
words turned or folded,
by remote sensing, by ground explorations,
through meaning and susurration, first
words sown black as gorse seeds.
But if there is an impulse here, it is not entirely assured: gorse is New Zealand’s major invasive weed; and the very concept of the ‘ground,’ for all that Oliver thinks of it as something to be ploughed, is also an implicitly metaphysical concept (the ‘ground’ of God, the ‘ground’ of reality). The poem ends with a resurgent metaphor: ‘Dark churning of ink filled cloud, and rushing.’
In the central part of the volume, Oliver thinks about vision, the muse, and lost love. If the poems allude, along the way, to Keats’s Belle Dame (p.42) and Lamia (p.47), to Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot (p.62), and to Venus and Circe (p.56), they are nonetheless firmly grounded in the demotic. ‘Lamia,’ for instance, asks ‘What is it about women and snakes?’ (p.47), and there is nothing romantic about the poem’s viewpoint: it is a meditation on perspective and the male gaze. There is even a tentative reaching out towards immediate human connection, as a response to the poet’s alienation, in ‘Finding Linda Bohe’ (p.36).
But if this reaching towards the human looks forward to the homecoming at the end of the volume, it is worth noting that the woman reached for here is dead! Oliver is still engaged in an excavation, an archeology of the mind, and the volume is far from reaching its conclusion. In the middle third of the volume, Oliver returns to the questions of nature, and considers a range of possible approaches to it. John Clare’s vision is admired, but comes at the cost of madness (p.49); and the ‘private world view’ of Charles Wright (p.16) has a more assured approach than Oliver can muster. In ‘Maneuvers’ (p.50), he tells us that:
To the pagan mind, everything
is present, unexplained, prescient
but that in the absence of that presence, Nature becomes (in tones of quiet loss) ‘Over-photographed, forlorn beauty.’ By the end of the middle third of the volume, however, he is still caught not so much by a Wordsworthian intimation of meaning in the landscape, as by the psychological need for such an intimation. He tells us:
We live in suspense, and duly, are suspended.
From sleep to wake did you in your passing
leave a past come back to haunt you long after life had left?
And in the following poems, he goes on to give a ‘prayer’ for the return of that sense of presence (pp.71-75).
But this is a final gasp of an untenable nostalgia, and the poet rejects metaphysics in ‘Should Angels Dance on a Pinhead’ (p.78), the poem that introduces the final part of the volume (and which, incidentally, also rejects the ‘post-modern’ alternative). The following poem presents simply a ‘mise en scene,’ a thoroughly materialized landscape. The next poem is entitled, significantly, ‘Outing the Ordinary,’ but it bears little resemblance to Wallace Stevens’s ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,’ for we have now fallen thoroughly (in the words of Bellow’s Herzog) into the quotidian. What follow are a series of poems of the real and of a return from Sydney (where Oliver lived for a couple of decades) to home. ‘Honest Ice’ (p.82) is set in New Zealand’s Dunedin, while ‘Winter Imprint’ is set in Port Chalmers, that city’s port.
The final poems are marked by a rejection of the romantic imagination (‘Marooned,’ p.86), and several poems addressed to or for friends—though human relationships are still fraught, as ‘Rapier’ reveals (pp.87-88). It might be best to end with a stanza from ‘Te Kuiti’ (non-New Zealand readers will need to know that in Maori, every letter is pronounced, quickly and with roughly equal stress). Oliver turns here to Auden, not for Auden’s vision of a forgiving God, but for his praise of limestone as a humanized landscape. And nature again achieves the Clare-like luminosity that it so often has in Oliver’s writing, this time with an assuredness that is not undercut.
Lush country south,
Te Kuiti snug in its valley;
limestone country! and lilies
in gullies trumpeting that same
full moon, deep beneath this land
a sky black under its tarp,
the star’s filaments, low, fuzzing.
The few trains that bi-sect
the town hoot once, passing
through. All night, driveways glow with a
white crushed rock
Though I have concentrated on the volume’s larger argument, it is full of such moments of luminosity, as it is of landscape newly and freshly seen. Lyricism, if less present than in some of Oliver’s earlier works, is thoroughly disciplined, and when released, thoroughly appropriate and beautifully realised. Harmonic is a major achievement, and were I still teaching, it would have a place on my courses on twentieth century poetry. It deserves to be widely appreciated.
This review first appeared in the December, 2007 issue of Antipodes, A North American Journal of Australian Literature.
Check out Stephen Oliver reading from his poem ‘A Simple Tale.’