Jack Ross, ed.: brief 32 (July 2005)
C. K. Stead. The Red Tram. ISBN 1-86940-330-4. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004. RRP $24.99.
C. K. Stead: The Red Tram (2004)
I remember, in my teens, spending a great deal of time combing through the poetry shelves in the school library looking for anything stimulating to my juvenile self-conceit (as head of the Library Committee, I always took care to arrogate the 800s to my personal care). I remember dutifully ploughing through Arnold, Pope, Spenser: the classics. Then discovering (with great joy, after initial reservations) Auden, Eliot, Yeats.
Was there anything of local interest there? Yes – Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun. I didn’t really get him then, but one of his images, Yuri from Doctor Zhivago climbing on a mound at his father’s funeral, stays with me still. I’d unfortunately conceived an irrational aversion to Allen Curnow which took years to get over. He seemed jangling and artificial to me, Baxter clumsy and raw (until I read In Fires of No Return, that is, but that was a bit later). Who else was there? Nobody that I can recall – except C. K. Stead. There was a copy of Crossing the Bar. I don’t remember too much about the book now except for a single poem about Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. It seemed so powerfully sensual and hard-edged in diction that I immediately concluded he was the real thing. Smith’s Dream had not yet achieved its apotheosis as Sleeping Dogs, so it still seemed appropriate to think of Stead as, principally, a poet: a good poet, one of the few.
Thirty years later, that C K Stead who seemed so formed, so finished, so accomplished in his early books of verse and prose, continues to produce new work – work that (significantly) seems far more tentative and less sure of itself. His 1997 volume of selected poems, Straw into Gold, was arranged in decades, which had the unfortunate effect of making him sound like of a ventriloquist echoing the dominant styles of each era: Lowellesque Life Studies to Black Mountain to L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry. It also left out some of his best poems (I felt) in the interests of this evolutionary schema.
I wouldn’t really know how to type The Red Tram, his latest book of poems, which seems to me a good thing. Some of the pieces, such as the title poem, are nostalgic complaints about old age (somewhat premature? But then Eliot starting whinging about getting old while he was still in his forties). Others seem more like make-work assignments, such as the list of his colleagues at a writing symposium (“My Fellow writers at Eaglereach”). Luckily there’s a substantial number of poems which stay in the imagination: more strong versions from the Latin: “It’s the habit of love, Catullus, / not the fact of it / that burdens you still”; and the haunting: “The thing that doesn’t happen lives for ever,” from “Takapuna,” his elegy for Janet Frame.
As a book of poems, The Red Tram seems unlikely to do Stead’s reputation any harm – or (to be honest) much good. What we really need to do now is to reassess his poetry as a whole. I suspect there will prove to be more there than anyone guessed.