Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nicholas Reid's review of Stephen Oliver's GONE

GONE: Satirical Poems: New & Selected by Stephen Oliver
(Canberra: Greywacke Press, 2016), 102 pp., $NZ21.95 / $Aust19.95
ISBN 978-0-473-36004-7

The ballad is a demotic form, either celebrated for its expression of working class energy and protest or condemned for its casual misogyny. Some readers of Stephen Oliver’s new collection, Gone: Satirical Poems, New & Selected, will rush to the latter conclusion, finding a kind of sexism in its tales of fallen women, debauchery and hypocrites. But I think that they would be wrong to do so, partly because the collection is also full of tales of men behaving badly, from poets throwing up in taxis to professors lusting after students to French presidents, destroying the ecosphere. And I also think they’d be wrong because these are not casual celebrations of misogyny. Far from it, they come from a darkly satiric place, a place where all the actors are corrupt and no light emerges. Satire, as Frye argued, is the mythos of winter, a world without hope where even the poet is complicit. And for all the diversion and wit, I come away from this collection in part with a sense of the dark side of humanity.

The first poem, *‘Miss Goodbar’, is a case in point, for it features the sexually over-enthusiastic protagonist whose cries of passion keep the neighbours awake, a lady of the night who ‘did bondage to the two-backed beast’ and who is raped and murdered by Jock, the janitor. But if the satire is thus far predictable, the unsettling detail comes later in the poem, when we are told that:

They took Jock away and gave him a trial
then tied him to a chair and fried him for a while
yet no-one could account for that wayward smile
              Frozen on his face forever.

This is a world in which no-one holds the moral high ground, from the delinquent councilor to the cartoonish policeman or priest. And if the trial (apparently perfunctory) is undercut by the grotesque punishment, there is the even more disturbing suggestion that Jock, far from learning his lesson, thinks it was all worthwhile.

Nor is it clear where the poet stands, for on one level he has offered us a moralizing tale of female sexuality rewarded with death, the kind of tale calculated to make any right thinking feminist groan, and on another level he has undercut any possible standpoint for moral judgement both in Jock’s smile and in the characterization of the neighbours with their ill-thought out views:

we’ve all got a particular stock and trade
              who believe love lasts forever.

It’s worth thinking of morality in the light of Oliver’s models here, for (besides the film ‘Looking for Mr Goodbar’) the ballad is surely influenced by Auden’s ‘Miss Gee’ (as William Oxley suggests)[1] as well as Lawrence Durrell’s ‘The Good Lord Nelson’ and Baxter’s ‘Lament for Barny Flanagan’. If Auden’s poem is a satire on the unrecognised urges of the prim spinster, it is presumably motivated by Auden’s sense that his own sexuality was rejected by such people. And Durrell uses a low form, the bawdy ballad, to critique the repressed sexuality of his time.  In Baxter’s ‘Flanagan’ on the other hand one searches with more difficulty for a moral perspective on the death of the eponymous protagonist, a man who is ‘brandy rotten’, mourned if at all by fellow drunks in a world of dishonest barmen and lawyers. And yet it is tempting to read Baxter’s poem as a portrait of fallen man, and a suggestion of our need for grace—neither being features of Oliver’s world. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Oliver approves of the fate of his protagonist, for in every cynic is a disappointed idealist, but the view of humanity here is Swiftian.

More whimsical is the tale of ‘Miss Lily,’ a purely fictional character who grows a set of antlers on her head and who rescues Mount Wellington’s electrical grid (in Hobart). Like Sydney’s Beatrice Miles, who caught taxis and insisted on paying with extempore sonnets, Miss Lily’s fame:

… grew increasingly
you might say by public pranks—
she’d take off to the oddest spots
via bus stops and taxi ranks

In the Hilton Hotel foyer
she’d often pose as a hatstand
freaking out the maître d’hôtel,
next to the baby white grand.

Similarly whimsical is ‘Tupícya’, again a set of Belloc-like quatrains about the quest to find an exotic and entirely mythic bird, a quest:

to catch a Tupícya bird
who lays one egg twice a year,
round and black as a cannon ball
which many claim is square.

But underneath the whimsy, there is still a lacerating critique. In ‘Ballad of a Yobbo’ (illustrated as a number of the poems are, by the award winning artist Matt Ottley), the hyper-masculinist stockman, who drinks hard and views women as easy game, in a sense a kind of flesh, metamorphoses into his own signifier. He turns into meat, and is canned as dog food. In such a world, poems have become mere products, as ‘Blockbuster Ode’ and, in particular, ‘Poetry Day Blues’ suggest:

Poems on pavements, poems on walls
poems at bus stops, poems in halls
The true (a few) the old, the fake
a posse of poets—make or break.

But if Oliver laments a world without cultural memory, as he does in the title poem of the collection, ‘Gone’, he does at times show that supreme gift for image which makes him for me one of our major poets:

The sun rolls westward on its rusty rim.
Dusk dulls into pewter. Streetlights come on.

The most substantial poem in the collection is the ‘Letter to James K. Baxter,’ a piece Oliver first drafted at about the age of 23 and which is here republished in a much redacted form. As no one reading this review will need telling, Baxter was an iconic figure in New Zealand poetry in the post war period of Oliver’s youth, a long-haired hippie prophet who turned to Catholicism and ran his own commune.  The poem is addressed to Baxter’s ‘shade’ or ghost, and might loosely be called an exorcism, for in it Oliver seeks to work out his own, conflicted relationship with the master.

The poem is notable for its use of hippie language (‘man,’ ‘groovy,’ ‘dig,’ ‘gas’) which of course now seems affected and dated. And that, no doubt, is the point, for Oliver is satirizing the influences which formed him.  The poem caused me some difficulties when I first read it, for it is written in formal, seven line stanzas, with an ababbcc rhyming scheme—though many of the endings are half rhymes and some are closer to consonance. The poem’s form derives from Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, which also used the seven-line stanza (as opposed to Byron’s eight-line stanza in ‘Don Juan,’ the famous ottava rima). But where Auden adopts something of Byron’s voice, with its light, precisely pointed wit, and delight in bad puns, Oliver does not. For though some lines look at first blush Byronic (‘to find an emotional Plimsoll line’), the rhythms quickly frustrate an attempt to read the lines with a Byronic lightness of touch. What does work is the New Zealand vernacular voice, slower, with a flattening of the vowels, the wit dry rather than dandyish. This is something I’ve often found in Oliver: that one needs to see the rhythms, and that the poems only begin to work once one has found the voice.

Not that the rhythms are all difficult. A particularly strong stanza describes Oliver’s move from Wellington to the far south, to Dunedin, though if it’s in pursuit of his hero Baxter, it’s a conflicted move for unlike Baxter, Oliver is a Wellington boy:

Wellington: ‘city of the soulless’
or so you reckoned, too bad, I think of
buildings high as wheat on those husky hills
as a stamping ground, as my home city…
a scene you knocked about as a postie.
I packed up my books and pots, greased the car
and one bleak hour split on the Aramoana.

Oliver rejects Baxter’s spiritualism (and incidentally Curnow’s), sensing that New Zealanders are a ‘DIY’ people for whom ‘love is practical’ rather than mystical. And if he finds anything in Dunedin, it is how, unhappily, to follow Baxter out of a marriage. The poem ends with hippie language, the language of 1960s cliché, but also with a postscript in which the poet heads north again, back to his real heart land and accompanied only by his books: Hardy, Chaucer, the Bible and Shakespeare but, perhaps significantly, not Baxter.

For me, one of the discoveries in this collection is ‘Bad Aussee’, a poem about the town in the region of Styria in Austria. The point of the poem will be evident to anyone who reads the first stanza:

Yes, I remember Bad Aussee—
the name, because around midday,
mild and warm, the train shuffled in,
unhurriedly. It was mid-May

The immitation of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adelstrop’ is perfectly executed, a poem rafted with memories of (in this case) the ghosts of great artists, who:

… hung in the air
over mountains white as ice cream,
where I pined, there in Styria.

It is a poem which lightens the tone, a confection as sweet as icecream (and one accompanied, incidentally, by a translation into German by Heinz L. Kretzenbacher).

Gone: Satirical poems: New & Selected brings together a diverse range of metrical constructions including villanelles, sonnets, raunchy ballads and whimsical ballades. There is an invigorating, sardonic edge to Oliver’s poetic, driven by an often oblique and dark humour and at times with the bleak undersong of winter. This is not a collection which will please every reader, for satire is unfashionable and some will be attached to our age’s preference for the perfectly turned lyric, with its mixture of high seriousness, image and language.  Auden lamented the fate of light verse:

Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather;
    Except by Milne and persons of that kind
She’s treated as démodé altogether. (‘Letter to Lord Byron’)

But there ought to be a place in our aesthetics for satire—and also for the ballad, for the poet on holiday. It takes a particular skill (one Oliver owns to a high degree) to write with the kind of verve which enlivens rhythms which are comically rough, and to create characters with mythic reverberence. If this collection (which I must confess to having played some part in publishing) doesn’t display Oliver’s art in its highest form (though in places his unrivalled gift for image does burst through), it nonetheless represents a significant part of his oevre, and deserves our consideration.

Dr Nicholas Reid was a senior lecturer in English at the University of Otago, where he taught from 1990 to 2003.  He now resides in Canberra, where he sometimes works as a public servant at the Treasury. His academic passion is Coleridgean metaphysics and poetry. This review first appeared in Landfall Review Online:

[1] William Oxley, ‘Diversions and Divisions’, Stride Magazine, 2003.  Oxley talks well about the decline in the status of satire in current poetics.  John O’connor (JAAM 22, November 2004), and Jefferson Gaskin (Antipodes, December 2005).