Friday, October 17, 2014

Nicholas Reid on Stephen Oliver

This review will appear in the December 2014 Antipodes 

A transtasman epic

Oliver, Stephen.  Intercolonial.  Auckland:  Puriri Press, 2013, 76 pp.NZ $28.50 ISBN 978-0-908943-40-1

Nicholas Reid
University of Otago (formerly)

Stephen Oliver’s major new work is called Intercolonial, a., plying … between the Australian colonies … and New Zealand’.   It is a word which perfectly captures the kind of origin myth which Oliver wants to explore, for Oliver is that rarest of beasts, a transtasman poet who was born in New Zealand and who has spent much of his working (and writing) life in Australia.  This has given him a unique insight into an aspect of the developing consciousness of both countries which both countries have chosen to forget—and that is the memory of the time in the mid-to-late nineteenth century when New Zealand had ceased to be governed from New South Wales but when both countries were still intimately linked by their trading, sea-faring and colonial statuses.  

The poem itself is in one sense a Wordsworthian history of the mind, though far from the ordered history of The Prelude. Rather, it speaks with an oracular voice, melding past and present, myth and history, geography and psyche in what Patricia Prime calls ‘a romanticised quest’. For while it begins in the windy and fractured landscape of Oliver’s childhood in Wellington, it soon diverges into the story of Kupe, the mythic Polynesian sailor who fishes for the great octopus which presages the moon (8). Later, the poem segues to an ancestor, McCormack, a foundryman and mythic maker reminiscent of Phaestus the Greek blacksmith and his Nordic counterparts (42).  McCormack in turn dreams of more distant ancestors, Cormac the Icelandinc skald and Viking raiders in Ireland, where Oliver finds something of his mother’s ‘Celtic DNA’ (52). In between there are more domestic reflections on the world in which Oliver grew up, but the poem as a whole is characterised more by dream and myth
than by realism. Its transitions are those of the subconscious, and the poem has a wave structure, returning time and again to images and characters, for as the poem notes, ‘by that repetition, / each wave recalls the next in a chant that does not forget’ (40).

The poem begins with Oliver’s childhood home, ‘in Karepa street, perched high over the Wellington basin’ (1) and quickly presents us (in the image of the eye’s pupil) with what Geoffrey Hartman has taught us to recognise as an omphalos, a dark abyss through which we enter the unconscious:

Nightly, the harbour dilated black as a pupil; the Rimutaka
Range encircled, and drew closer; a border torn from the hem
of the sky….  (1)

The above describes Wellington’s vertiginous landscape but it also embodies Oliver’s gift for image, a gift which always rewards close attention. We see the darkness of a basin closed in by surrounding mountains; we are invited to see the black sillouette of the mountains as a tear in the fabric of the starlit sky; but the image of the black pupil both draws us in and makes us aware of the ways in which the see-er and the seen are mutually implicated. Oliver invites us to see the world freshly and sharply, while his images have resonant depth.

Intercolonial is founded on a kind of psychic geography, a set of bravura descriptions which move from the geology of Wellington to the clash of the Pacific and Australian plates—and, further afield, the North Sea.

But if the poem seeks a ‘geology of the spirit’, it is forced to ask:

Does there exist a model, grammar for the unknown, word which our forebears ‘applied to shipping, trade, etc
the unnamed, the Ding an Sich, in what language then—by
what construction or symbol can the mind compass,
beyond the approximation of things sought, plundered? (35)

This question is not resolved (it is the sort of question which good poems never do resolve). But if the waters over which the voyagers sail are largely those of the subconscious, it is worth noting in the quotations above the mention of ‘displacement’ and ‘plunder’, for the landscape is riven and the poem is beset with its share of violence and anxiety.

In this poem our histories are what make us (personal and mythic histories, not the grand Marxian schemes adopted by Oliver’s father (54, 55)). But here the histories are freighted with violence, from those of McCormack’s meeting in 1849 with the
Tasmanian hangman, Solomon Blay, to the brutality of the Australian goldfields and McCormack’s defence of the violent (but similarly Catholic and Irish) Ned Kelly (26). It is a violence which traces back past Viking ancestors—and forward to include
the casual violence of childhood play, like the time Oliver’s brothers tied another boy to a tree and set him on fire (20).

There is a deeper anxiety about the faculty of memory itself, for while the poem reminds us that ‘the flow and fall of water assisted memory’ (59),  it shares Wordsworth’s sense of the fraught nature of memory. And memory is at its most fraught in seeking to recover the child’s image of home, an ‘original sanctuary’ (2) in which identity is founded and perhaps secure.  Oliver asks of childhood memories:

    What ‘smells’ slow the caravan, allows you to study richly
    painted panels, busy as a circus, before it proceeds on its way
      through mountain passes grandly packed with cloud?
    Childhood scenes, before memory was invented to replace

the loss…. (51

The poem is a major addition to Oliver’s oeuvre, not least in reminding us of a phase in our history and identity which we have now mostly forgotten. It is a poem aware of its place within the poetic tradition, with its comfortable references to Coleridge (Kubla Khan’s ever flowing caverns (38)), Keats (the ‘thing of beauty’ (39)), and Wordsworth (‘Old Maori Bill’ as a kind of Wordsworthian solitary, ‘rare in his manner and mien’ (40)). But more deeply it finds its home in the voyage literatures, the Odyssey, and those of Iceland (Cormac the Scald), Ireland (The Voyage of Bran, The Voyage of St Brendan) and Polynesia (the voyages of Kupe, discovering New Zealand). To this can be added the esoteric Testament of Solomon (in the building of Tara sequence at the end of the poem).

The poem is consciously a ‘transtasman’ poem, largely structured in its second half on the voyage of Oliver’s alter ego, the mythic McCormack, from the Australian goldfields to Dunedin in New Zealand. As the title suggests, Oliver's identity has both Australian and New Zealand roots. The poem powerfully explores the ground of that identity in the dark realms of being, dream and the unconscious. The ambition is epic, the language driven and the structure balanced. Intercolonial reconfirms Oliver's status as our leading transtasman poet.

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