Unposted, Autumn Leaves by Stephen Oliver
The essay memoir form offers the writer all kinds of opportunities to develop their history. The episodic nature of the style creates vignettes of experiences, learnings and musings drawn from a fascinating and riveting life story. For Stephen Oliver’s new memoir Unposted, Autumn Leaves delivers a number of punches as he explores his history from strong Catholicism at school through to rubbing shoulders with the literati of the New Zealand poetry scene.
Being a poet, his writing is lyrical and flowing while delivering messages that are relevant and applicable in this modern context. As a poet, he has achieved what few do in our country. In this collection he looks at his own successes, and passes on timeless advice:
“Each poet, working within the tradition, must - given the allotted time-span - locate and make sense of it all for as long as the poet is functioning and prescient, and must continuously return that which is received from the the world back into the world, but charged, reality invigorated by vision.”
Each essay, as you would expect, takes a different subject or different time period from Oliver’s life and creates its own mystique around the events that have led to this remarkable life spent in the poetry world - as well as the radio and journalism world. Never far away from the writing is an imagery rich description of the world around him at any given time. In a piece from An Analogue Fantasy, Oliver writes: “The sun had reached an oblique angle and dissolved into sunken rainbows upon the oil slick of the inner harbour.” His vision of the world is captured beautifully in the rhythm and style of the words.
Throughout the text there are extracts and whole poems from his various collections that punctuate the narrative. Usually prefaced with a story to explain the context of the presented poem, they add another dimension to the whole celebration of Oliver’s life. His love for Beat Poetry comes through in many of the poems presented - much like his aforementioned penchant for receiving from the world and returning ‘back into the world’. Which, as a thought, is a wonderful concept.
Some aspects of the text are less eventful. There is a chapter largely dedicated to the architecture of Dunedin which, while interesting in its own right, didn’t overly connect or resonate as strongly as other points of the narrative. However, with the style of the essay form these short passages are certainly in no way drawn out.
A significant proportion of the content is centred in Wellington during a time when there was a real vibrancy to the city from an artistic point of view. Perhaps even more so than there is now. The bohemian lifestyle is celebrated in this sequence with wonderful anecdotes of Sam Hunt and James K Baxter - one of which finds Baxter passed out in a public urinal.
Quintessential iconography of New Zealand is developed - from the landscape to politics. In Unfreedoms Of Expression Oliver becomes a little more introspective and retrospective in his own art form: “But then, the 21st century is already an overstocked warehouse, and anybody is at liberty to choose from an endless supply of mask & costume!”
From his Irish heritage to his time at 4XO radio, Oliver navigates the seas of his own past with wonderful poetry, strong imagery and a darn good yarn. A stand out must be his poem “Still Life with Boulders” based on his current life in the middle of the north island. A knock out of a memoir and of essay form.
Reviewer: Chris Reed