Reading C.K. Stead is like understanding the world in new ways. Such is the beautiful exploration of language throughout this collection which spans works from 2018 - 2022. Also, it's a refreshing lack of emphasis on COVID that so many of our poets fixated on during this time. Rather, it is the presentation of life with all its perfect imperfections.
For decades Stead has been a leading figure in the literary world across pretty well all forms of writing. His prowess has been long celebrated both locally and internationally - and rightly so. It is with a little trepidation that this review is written, such is the adoration for his writing.
Stead has always kept within the boundaries of poetry but with an eye on those parameters in order to walk the line between traditional and modern. And once again he brings forth a deft hand as he navigates everything from love, to loss, to taxes. Unlike some of his more youthful contemporaries, Stead retains a gentlemanly style to his word choice, using curse words to incite effects rather than as a part of a conversational style reflective of modern vernacular.
While the greats of the past stuck stoically to the forms of the bygone eras, Stead is constantly manipulating form and style to be something that works for him, rather than the other way around.
As with previous collections, it is the lesser known poems that stand out from the pack for me. One poem, the simply titled ‘Fin’ is such a beautiful evocation of connection and lyrical celebration.
There was ice on the pond
beyond the willows, and when
the whole world went quiet
I knew the forecast snow had begun to fall.
She was old, and dying, and had never seen it
she said (which I didn’t believe)
except in movies. So I went out into the night
and brought her back a small ball of it
and put it into her cupped hands
where together we watched it melt.
Just reading that aloud feels more like a homage to the English language and the soundscape that Stead is constantly creating effortlessly. It is in these moments that you see through the words on the page, and into the heart and mind of one of the finest writers that this country has known.
Stead has his usual quick wit and steely eye for his world and, at 90, has the linguistic dexterity that many thousands of aspiring writers can only dream about. The man is quite simply a living legend and this collection, once again, proves that.
Reviewer: Chris Reed
Auckland University Press