Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017 (March 2017)
Nicholas Williamson / Antonios Papaspiropoulos /
Cilla McQueen / Jen Crawford
The subject of verse memoir and how best to approach it is, it seems, still as relevant to contemporary poets as it was to the Romantics. William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (subtitled ‘The Growth of a Poet’s Mind’) remains the usual starting point for the discussion, but it’s important to remember that only his closest associates were aware of the existence of this long poem during Wordsworth’s lifetime. It was first published posthumously in 1850, in a version very different from that written in white heat in the early years of the century, and it wasn’t until 1926 that this earlier (now canonical) text saw the light of day.
The books I’m reviewing here have all — arguably — been composed as mini-autobiographies, but the very different approaches each of them has taken to the form does perhaps lend scope for some reflections on the subject of poetic autobiography (not to be confused with ‘confessionalism’).
Nicholas Williamson. The Blue Outboard: New and Selected Poems. ISBN 978-0-473-32059-1. Port Chalmers: Black Doris Press, 2016. RRP $15. 93 pp.
Nicholas Williamson: The Blue Outboard (2016)
Nicholas Williamson’s The Blue Outboard is perhaps the most Wordsworthian of them all. Just as Wordsworth’s ‘egotistical sublime’ (in Keats’s phrase) takes for granted the immense significance of his growing perceptions of natural phenomena, so Williamson returns again and again to early memories of Rangitoto and the Waitematā Harbour, often to very powerful effect, and — in particular — to evocations of his father.
This is perhaps most explicit in the poem ‘Re-creating my father’:
When we wash up on RangitotoThe precise timing of this arrival is kept purposely vague. It could be in the ‘now’ of the poem: a visit to a lost childhood landscape, in which case the author’s father is not literally ‘here’ with him but there. Alternatively, the whole poem could record an expedition with his father to a place the two of them had visited before. In either case:
The water is calm and the sun
Is already rolling up the sky.
I enter the stunted pohutukawa
Looking for deer or the smoke house
I bumped into when I was ten. (p. 20)
My father stays on the beach. I watch himI think it’s apparent here just what an emotional charge Williamson generates through these evocations of lost time. As he himself puts it: ‘Coming closer / I can see varicose veins splashed like blue / lightning over his ankles.’
From the trees, gutting snapper.
The final revelation in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is of the depth and importance accrued by originally quite trivial moments and experiences when seen from the perspective of the life which has been lived in between. What Wordsworth, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, called ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ is — for Proust and Williamson — something more: it is the ‘blue lightning’ of the varicose veins which brings them alive. This mixture of quotidian detail with the ‘light that never was, on sea or land’ is the bedrock of Williamson’s whole collection.
As well as these father-based, memoir-like poems (‘The Blue Outboard,’ ‘Home Movie,’ ‘Broken Light’ and — perhaps especially — ‘Father comes home’), there are other currents within Williamson’s apologia, too. There are some particularly effective relationship poems:
And me? I wore marriage like a grey cardigan.Leading into such quintessentially local themes as Man Alone (‘Apples’), New Zealand artists (‘Colin McCahon’, ‘Portrait of Betty Curnow’) and Kiwi Gothic:
Now I’m on the gravel, saying goodbye. (p. 39)
Already Bede’s sparrow seems half wayI hope it’s apparent just how appealing Williamson can make this kind of thing. There’s a crafted precision and lack of pretentious effects which combine to make this book more than just another book of poems, but somehow — yes — the summation of a life, a profoundly experienced and sensuous experience which the author validates, finally, by giving it away: pouring it all out on the sand in front of an audience he can still hardly believe is there.
Through the bright hall:
Your mother keeps trying to kill herself
My father is heading for a prison cell (p. 91)
this morning a Spring swellBut we are there, and some of us — at least — are listening.
washes our feet as we make our way to kindy.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017. ISBN 978-0-9941363-5-0 (March 2017): 293-95.
Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017