C K Stead’s new collection is a mixed bag of verse, long-held memories, old friends recalled, verse written while New Zealand's Poet Laureate (‘required writing’ was a phrase Philip Larkin used), and even fleeting memories of attending a literary festival in Christchurch. There are eighty-one poems in all.
There are plenty of familiar faces in this collection, Fleur Adcock, Peter Porter, Kevin Ireland. Poets we know and poets work is dedicated to. Ted Hughes is there, a personal favourite, in ‘Big Ted’ where:
‘even the foxes and crows in Regent’s Park
had read their Ted
and could be heard rehearsing
their terrible lines.’
In ‘2013 New Year cartoons’, news items from January cast a caustic eye across world events. Apparently the police in Ireland’s County Kerry are to issue the elderly with licences to permit them to drink and drive. Their rationale, if they shut them up at home the young will be deprived of their songs and stories, their ‘wit and wisdom and Irish lore’. There is also a lovely poke at both the Duchess of Cambridge and novelist Hilary Mantel:
The Duchess of
her plastic smile
dead eyes and
spindle limbs might
have been designed
by a committee
body clearly wasn’t
but whose novels
might have been.
There are lots of snippets which often mean more when reading a second time. Among the pieces written while Poet Laureate are some for the First World War centenary celebrations. They are not what you might expect, and I was pleased to find that the conscientious objector Archie Baxter features, because we need to remember that not all the horrors of war are inflicted by our enemies. There are some notes at the back of the book, which often help to lend a little context and background, such as the explain the presence of Catullus for those that might not have read other collections by C K Stead. A short series about the Christchurch Word festival of 2016 has some short powerful lines which capture the essence of the ruined city. One in particular that caught my eye is called 'Tenses'.
Here are the buildings cordoned off/ boarded up that have a were and perhaps a will be but no is, or are.
In the poem '14 x 14: Tercets in the spirit of Brecht' there are some wonderful challenges for the world imagined - a world where the Vatican sells off art to help refugees, Saudi girls drive taxis, Ireland embraces the condom and Americans give up guns. Each one progressively less likely than the previous.
Most of all you take away from this collection a sense of passing time, of a poet in his eighties who is witness to too many funerals for friends and acquaintances, who hoards memories of past events, people, loves and lost opportunities. They are poignant memories, beautifully told.
My advice to everyone about this collection; buy one, pick it up, read it, enjoy it. Put it down for a few weeks, then pick it up again and dip back in. Find new delights among what you read before. Appreciate it more and feel both the sadness and the laughter.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Auckland University Press, RRP $29.99