Second Wind

C.K. Stead

  • Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972-1988 by Allen Curnow
    Auckland, 227 pp, £16.50, February 1989, ISBN 1 86940 025 9

Much of the best poetry in English at least since the Romantics, is, in a controversial phrase used by Allen Curnow in the introduction to one of his two anthologies of New Zealand poetry, ‘local and special at the point where we pick up the traces’. The phrase typically says what Curnow wants it to say – that the poet and therefore the poem are visibly products of a region – while protecting it-self against anticipated complaints that such a view is insular. When I last wrote about Curnow, in 1963, I backed my text with references to an essay by Allen Tate defending regionalism in literature against an internationalist position which Tate cleverly described as ‘the new provincialism’.

Allen Curnow (b. 1911) invented New Zealand poetry – or forced it into existence. Before his 1945 anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse, there had been only poets who were New Zealanders. In a similar way Frank Sargeson (1903-82) gathered around him a group of determined cohorts who made a distinct New Zealand fiction. There is an un-measurable calculus between what the history of a region requires and the talents of the writers who are called upon to supply it. One might argue that for a population the size of New Zealand’s to throw up two such men at the necessary moment is improbable – as if statistics should undermine one’s literary valuation – but only if one didn’t know (for example) the approximate population of Elizabethan England, or that of Classical Greece. Between them, Curnow and Sargeson brought one of the ‘new literatures in English’ into being.

Curnow arrived at poetic maturity as the great depression came to an end, the Second World War began, and New Zealand celebrated its first hundred years since the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by which the Maori tribes ceded sovereignty to the British Crown. He was a post-Eliot poet, keenly aware of the Auden generation, in tune with their politics and their poetics. Like them, he inherited that view common to modern poets that there is an unbridgeable gap between the official account of public events and occasions, and a poetic response to them. Yet like Yeats in ‘Easter 1916’, or Auden in ‘Spain 1937’, he found ways of writing poems about them. He made history over into poetry without averting his eyes from the pain and destruction of colonial settlement, and the depression that was somewhere built into the psyche of generations who had travelled so far, had neither the means nor the wish to return, but hadn’t entirely shaken off a sense of loss and alienation.

By the Fifties the public aspects of Curnow’s poetry had been largely internalised. He was now less a national poet, but still very clearly a regional one. Collective pain, blood sacrifice, simply the anguish of being conscious of place and history – it was all there: but so were the corresponding affirmations, rooted in particularities as ‘New Zealand’ as Lowell’s were ‘Boston’ or Yeats’s ‘Ireland’.

And then, about 1957, Curnow fell silent. There was an Audenesque piece from New York in 1961; there was a retrospective selection from OUP in London in 1963; there were some plays. But for fifteen years there was nothing else – no new poems. New Zealand poetry in the Sixties was dominated by James K. Baxter (born 1926) – a Byronic figure at once careless, prolific and brilliant who had (in the phrase I think Russians use of writers after Gogol) crawled out from Curnow’s overcoat, and who for a few years seemed destined to eclipse his master.

In 1972 Baxter died, aged 46, and Curnow published Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, a sequence of 17 poems. Baxter’s writing life was over and Curnow’s second had begun. Continuum represents Curnow’s second wind – his complete poems since that date, the six collections presented in reverse chronological order. In praising this book, I don’t want to seem to do it at the expense of, or in unfavourable comparison with, what he wrote up to 1957. His has been a major voice at every phase of his career. But poets who survive as poets seem to grow in cunning, and learn to use their talents without the wastage of false starts and mistaken directions. There are few pages of Continuum in which I don’t feel instantly in the presence of a rock-solid artisan-artist, knowing what he is about, moving at his own pace, inventive, unpredictable, writing poetry which strikes me, as it has done serially over the years, as unsurpassed by the work of any other poet at present writing in English.

There are two ways of talking about later Curnow, neither of them satisfactory. To describe his themes and structural devices misses the incidental felicities without which they might be just interesting, or profound, abstractions. To concentrate on the felicities is to lose the sense of larger patterns. The first is the academic vice, the second the journalist’s. But the measure of Curnow, as of any poet, is his language, line by line and phrase by phrase. He can pack it tight, so your head spins; or produce momentary explosions. But his best effects are a transparency that very simply gives you a ‘meaning’ and at the same time forces you to doubt or extend it. ‘An Upper Room’ begins:

Where is the world? Upstairs.
At the end of the corridor. The last room.
I have drawn the curtains back, under the window
I am waiting for my students, my sixty-first
year is high cloud that alters as it filters
the sun, good light while it lasts, for reading.
I can hear them growing up the stairs.

Why that opening phrase? One is forced to recall how much in the sequence in which this occurs (Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects) touches upon subjectivity and objectivity, the puzzle that the world ‘out there’ exists without us, yet is ‘ours’, each of us possessing a different one. So that which exists without us also dies with us. Here the world is ‘upstairs’ because that is where the poet is, waiting while the light lasts for his students who are ‘growing up the stairs’. They, like the light that will fail, promise the end of the world.

Five poems later, where ‘the turn’ is of the tide, the word ‘waiting’ is called in again for inspection:

Olive, olive-budded, mangroves wait for the turn,
little as it means, to call that waiting.
A green car follows a blue car passing a brown car
on the Shore Road beyond the mangroves which wait
no more than the tide does because nothing waits.
Everything happens at once. It is enough.

That is not to say there is nothing to cry about,
only that the poetry of tears is a dead cuckoo.

Curnow’s 1979 collection, An Incorrigible Music, concerns, I suppose one can say, murderers and victims, and each of us is both. The victims are various – a caught fish, a stabbed 15th-century Medici, poisoned snails, a murdered woman in a literary novel – and Curnow’s way to his subject is often oblique. Here is the opening of the poem about the poisoned snails:

Fluent in all the languages dead or living
the sun comes up with a word of worlds all spinning
in a world of words, the way the mountain answers
to its name and that’s the east and the sea das meer,
la mer, il mare Pacifico, and I am on my way to school

barefoot in frost beside the metalled road
which is beside the railway beside the water-race,
all spinning into the sun and all exorbitantly
expecting the one and identical, the concentric,
as the road, the rail, the water, and the bare feet run

eccentric to each other.

In every line the hand is sure: but that sudden bringing-down, which is a marvellous lift, of ‘and I am on my way to school/barefoot in frost’ is the touch of a master.

The book was to revolve around a poem in five parts, ‘In the Duomo’, about the murder of Giulano de’ Medici in the Cathedral at Florence in 1478 – a poem which begins and ends with images of fishing at Karekare on Auckland’s west coast where a favoured rock is called ‘the cathedral’ and is seen as an inversion of the interior forms of the Florentine duomo. The caught fish bleeding in a rock pool is both Christ and Leviathon. The blood at the altar flows from the veins of a sinner. Once again, to talk of the scaffolding may be to miss the poem. But Curnow, son of an Anglican priest who himself trained for the ministry before yielding to doubts and the world, seldom moves far, or for long, from the traditional symbolism that partly determined his habits of mind. He may stretch it, subvert it, secularise it, master it, but it has remained a vehicle, almost a second language which he commands as easily and inventively as he does his first:

         Here the linens, the sacred
silverware are arranged and the blood is poured
by experienced hands which do not shake

serving up to Messer Domeneddio god and lord
 the recycled eternity of his butchered son,
 this mouthful of himself alive and warm.

This is homoousianus, this is the cup
 to catch and keep him in, this is where he floats
 in a red cloud of himself, this is morning sun

blotting the columns, the ogives, the hollowed throne,
 smoking the kite-high concavity of the cliff.
 This is the question, Caught any fish? Say, No.

I am teaching Leviathon to swim

Defenders of Eliot’s Four Quartets are invited to make the comparison and measure the relative linguistic inventiveness and force.

What was intended to be the whole book was complete and in the hands of his publisher when Curnow, having retired from the English Department of the University of Auckland, took off for a sojourn in Italy. He was there throughout the 54 days of the Aldo Moro kidnapping, April to June 1978, which with extraordinary convenience (life obliging art) coincided with the 500th anniversary of the Medici murder, subject of ‘In the Duomo’, and ended with the body of the murdered prime minister in the boot of a car parked near Jesus Square in Rome. Curnow found himself ‘guest in a stricken house’ – but what a guest! It must now have looked as if his book, called back from the printer, had a large space waiting for this death.

All the seas are one sea.
the blood one blood
and the hands one hand

Ever is always today.

‘Moro Assassinato’ is one of the most powerful of his longer poems, a brutal aggregation of detail (Curnow working with the eye of a one-time journalist) given its place in history, in myth, in Christian iconography, but always with the imagination coming back to the fact that these, killers and victim, were ‘ordinary’ human beings, sharing the same lavatory in the ‘Prison of the People’, ironing a man’s shirt before sending him to his death, noticing too late that a pair of socks were being worn wrong side out.

The effect on the book as a whole is to humanise it, to remind the reader how much more urgent blood as reality is than blood as symbol. By that recognition the symbol is strengthened, and we are back where we began.

Christ set it going and ascended
leaving the engine running.

That is the engine of the R4 in which the victim is to die. His last word is imagined as ‘yes’ – repeated 11 times, once for each bullet entering his body.

The title poem, coming last in the book, brings us back to the local scene – Curnow trying to count herons on the mud flats at low tide:

The small wind instruments in the herons’ throats

play an incorrigible music on a scale
incommensurate with hautboys and baroque wigs.

There’s only one book in the world, and that’s the one

everyone accurately misquotes.

Coming and going, their numbers changing like the birds on Ezra Pound’s wire, the herons won’t be counted. Their ‘scale’ (size and music) is the natural one, and incorrigible. The world’s ‘one book’ is surely itself, and the only possible accuracy is a misquotation because it exists in time. Herons only stay still on Grecian urns.

The themes and preoccupations carry forward into Curnow’s 1982 collection, You will know when you get there, but in two long poems, ‘A Fellow Being’, and ‘Organo ad Libitum’, there is a new tone. One might describe these as comedies to the tragedy of ‘Moro Assassinato’ or as poems of wit – so long as neither description suggested a lesser scale or any sense of loss.

‘Organo ad Libitum’ begins with a funeral – your own. You’re ‘got up to kill’, carried shoulder-high in your box to the sound of organ music and to an accompaniment of verbal play hardly in keeping with the occasion. From this funeral scene we move, by the accident or non-sequitur of attending a Walerian Borowczyk movie on a wet day in Paris, to a nunnery where the nuns have poisoned the Mother Superior:

                and they danced
their hot pants down on the stony
gallery for joy of their nubility
crying ‘La Mère est morte!’ they
swung on the bellrope naked making the
bell-mouth boom in the sun.

After this bizarre and joyful eruption we return soberly (though the syntax continues to enjoy itself) to the

cards and flowers the municipal

oil-fired furnace the hole
in the ground one after after

another thereafter before you
know where you are you were.

Now eternity presents itself in the form of ‘sleeping off life’ in a motel room with only a Gideon’s Bible and a paperback to pass the absence of time. Our organist at his console becomes (‘dissolves to’, as they say in movie scripts) the pilot of the Air New Zealand DC 10 that crashed in Antarctica. The funeral car doors close with a discreet ‘chlomp’, and a decision on ‘belief in a hereafter’ is still pending. Why should there not be palingenesis? This thought, too, is given its head, but its possibilities prove to be, like everything else in the poem, largely verbal – an exercise of the mind. ‘What cannot be spoken about must be passed over in silence,’ Wittgenstein says – to which poetry might be heard adding: ‘and the silence spoken about at length.’

                     the organist
locks up his console
                    Handel
booms in the sun
                 Tiziano’s
rapt airborne virgin in the Frari
was an assumption
                     ...
                         chlomp
and they made the bell-mouth swing
swinging on the bell-rope
                         naked.

So the end of the poem brings us back to that Borowczyk movie, the presence of which seems, after all, to have a perfect logic. Think hard enough about death and if it doesn’t knock you flat your sense of life will be the richer for it.

‘A Fellow Being’ makes its 20-page way around the figure of an American, Dr Rayner, who came to New Zealand in the late 19th century and made a fortune as self-proclaimed ‘Originator of Painless Dentistry’ and as a ruthless exploiter of Auckland’s west coast kauri forests. 1931, the year of Rayner’s death, was the year when Curnow first came (from the South Island where he grew up) to that coast, and the poem ends with an imagined crossing of paths:

your soul could have dragged itself
as far as the dawn clifftop
over Anawhata or been torn

from death duties or been sucked
up and scaled off with the sea fog
or spilled into the creeks which drain
the steepnesses worming

its way the dragonflies and
the mosquitoes rise in their day
on wings of success humming
the way money hums and the saw-teeth

your life-cycle and mine
humming the hymn of it’s finished
to the tune of it’s just begun.

Even exploiters and despoilers of nature are one with it if the vision is generous.

You will know when you get there is all about death. It opens with a short poem about a ferry crossing in the Bay of Islands in which the phrase ‘at the end of the world’ takes on a double meaning, and ends with the title poem where the world’s end is once again simply one’s own. The poet walking down to Karekare beach at sundown to pick mussels off the rocks hears each wave breaking as the slamming of a door – less discreet, more final than that ‘chlomp’ of the funeral cars:

one hour’s light to be left and there’s the excrescent
moon sponging off the last of it. A door

slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

Since 1982, Curnow has published three or four poems each year. It seems they arrive singly, take their own time to reach a point where words go down on paper, and then are worked on, and over, at length. The concentration is steady and intense; and though they may sometimes spring from events and occasions abroad they are always written at home in an isolation that is not just geographical, but a state of mind:

                    As they pass down hill
away from you their backs, and uphill towards you
their faces, the ages, the sexes, the ways

they are dressed, even one ‘smile of recognition’,
beg an assurance the malice of your mind
withholds. Look down, confess it’s you or they:

so empty your eye and fill it again, with
the light, the shadow, the cloud, the other city.

That is one image of the poet, protecting the otherness out of which poems are made. Another is a long-ago memory of ‘Mr Prisk’(‘The Pug-Mill’) in his dug-out under the hill making bricks one at a time. At the sound of a bell his horse ‘Up above in the sun ... plods a muddy zodiac’ and another lump of clay drops down on to the work-bench. Mr Prisk is like one of those underground dwarf artisans in German mythology. He has become his function. He knows how to make bricks, and he will go on making them:

                                so long
as there’s a next there’s no last.

‘I am that child,’ Curnow says of the boy watching; but he is also Mr Prisk.