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View from the South by Owen Marshall


Not only is this a glorious book of poetry, it also contains a stunning selection of photographs by Grahame Sydney. As you would expect from the title, the pictures are all of our barren, empty, and incredibly photogenic southern lands. Not just mountains and snow, but also farms and families, all capturing the spirit of the place. That Owen Marshall is true to his southern roots is obvious right from the start, with the prologue poem ‘South Island Prayer’ which begins “God Don’t let me die in Auckland.”


The book is made up of four sections; Nature and Place, Family and Friends, History and Arts and finally Heart and Mind. Many of the poems are looking backwards into the past, reminiscences of childhood, being on a farm, the young dog that did everything wrong, or the school mates who had an extra toe or could swallow air and belch at will. Tiny factoids from a full life.


I love the variety, things are familiar but not the same, surprises lurk everywhere, whether it is a moment a humour, needing to pee amid the splendours of Florence, or the hints of heartbreaks and sorrows. You are never quite sure where you will be as you turn to the next page.


I connected with the poem called ‘Whatsisname’ about that adversary who is always intent on stealing your girl, putting you down or coming in with the punchline to your favourite joke.


“He lives for my humiliation, failure

and pain, does effing Whatsisname.”


And like all such long remembered feuds, it is impossible to remember the actual cause of the feud in the first place. How very true to life.


Another poem of reminiscence is ‘From the back it was just like you’. Talking to a man ‘who didn’t matter’ about things ‘of no concern’ the poet sees a woman over the man’s shoulder – ‘A bullet to the heart.” He is reminded of singing together on a London bus, painting a shared basement flat in lilac, and, at a later time, of being called a selfish bastard.


‘Then you turned and it wasn’t you. Take a

second bullet to the heart. But I swear,

dear Jesus, from the back it was just like you.’


I love the way this little poem brings back a flood of memories, a fleeting glance of someone that has some element of familiarity prompting that rush of memories, both good and bad, of a happy time and then a sad one.


In a similar vein is ‘Dark Woman’s Smile’, which I will quote in full:


‘Then she smiled as I walked towards her.

An undeserving and accidental recipient

in her line of sight, I had no wish to turn

and seek the one for whom it was intended.

A smile of such true affection and affinity

that even as it passed I felt its glow and went

on the better for the knowledge of her love.’


In one of the longer poems called ‘Reverie Cascade’, Marshall uses four-line verses to capture twenty-four different locations on his travels around the world from Blenheim to the South Pole in one direction and then in the other to China, England, Wales, Crete, France, Italy and back to Oamaru. I like to simplicity of these scenes from a long life. That they don’t say too much is part of their appeal, they are tiny glimpses. Own Marshall is well known for his short stories and his novels but here he shows himself to be a fine poet too.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Vintage, RRP$45

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