Greywacke Press, Canberra
Reviewed by Nicholas Reid
Though I’ve never met Stephen Oliver in person, I’ve been reviewing his poetry for nearly twenty years and ought, in the interests of transparency, to acknowledge that I have played a role in the publication of his latest volume. It’s a significant work which should have found a home with a major press, and thereby hangs a tale for Otago University Press expressed an interest and would have published it were it not for equal measures of stubbornness from both poet and would-be editor. It’s a shame that that deal fell through. It’s a shame, more broadly, that the work of a major poet like Oliver, writing at the height of his powers, could find no other major press. But it is also pleasing to find the volume named in The Listener as one of the best ten poetry books published in 2018.
For the collection displays Oliver’s gifts with a more than usual intensity, the gift for writing well-formed short lyrics (and prose poems) with a complete mastery of voice and tone, along with a gift for imagism rarely to be found. Consider, for instance, the beginning of the poem ‘El Niño’ (p.4):
An argent sunset. And you know it is autumn
In Te Kuiti; a swift’s wing chips light into the barn.
The image captures autumnal light brilliantly. It helps to know that in Maori every vowel is sounded, and given equal weight, for that, once grasped, is the key to the flow of the lines. Constraint and release in the first line, quietly drawn back in in the repeated, ‘i’ sounds which with delicate precision cut the flow in the second line, reflecting aurally the strobing light and dark of the shadow of the swift. This gift for image is everywhere apparent in Luxembourg, there to be found by the reader who looks.
The collection largely eschews the kind of mythologising at the heart of his previous volume, Intercolonial, with its psycho-geographical exploration of the shared and repressed national identities of Australia and New Zealand. Instead, it focuses on an anxiety we often find in Oliver’s work (one thinks of Harmonic, for instance), for the centre that Yeats tells us cannot hold (Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’). As an epistemological anxiety, this lies at the heart of Oliver’s essentially modernist sensibility, but it is also an anxiety that is deeply personal. As Oliver put it in an email to me, this:
sense of yearning for something that does not exist , Saudade, Hiraeth – has always been strong in me. My poetry attempts more often than not, to open up such portals. It is a haunting – a reaching out – something that one can almost grasp. (Oliver, personal communication).
Saudade is a Portuguese and Brazilian word for ‘a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone, … the love that remains’ after someone is gone’ (Wikipedia). Hiraeth is a Welsh term for more than missing home; it is the missing of a time, an era or a person. Both emotions are central to this collection, and explain an existential unease, and at times an apocalyptic element, in Oliver’s poetry that I have in the past sometimes been too slow to credit.
But here they also have a personal dimension, and the volume is in part the response of a man who has returned to New Zealand after many years in Australia, to a country he no longer recognises. As he mordantly observes:
Absent twenty years, I left a country of sheep,
returned to a country of cattle. (p.11)
Worse, he finds himself living in ‘North King Country’, a world of:
… run-down rentals
and mouldering hatreds, hobbled by small
As he goes on to say, ‘this isn’t L.A. This is rural New/Zealand’. In another poem, he speaks of:
… this town, country-ransomed,
found on a map antique or rumoured. (p.7)
It is anywhere but the centre, and a place lived in mainly, I suspect, because of the poverty common to poets, the all too common material condition which makes them begin in gladness, but end in despondency and madness (Wordsworth, ‘Resolution and Independence’).
In the titular poem, the poet finds himself as a young man in the city of Luxembourg, looking for Radio Luxembourg, a pirate radio station broadcasting in the days when the BBC had a monopoly within the UK, and a station for which he hoped to work. Luxembourg might be thought of as a tiny state in the centre of Europe, rich, attractive and a long way from rural New Zealand. But, if so, the joke was on the young Oliver, for the station actually had its headquarters, in hiding, in London. And Oliver was fleeing the end of a love-affair. He imagines the girl, elsewhere:
Over my shoulder, within the vaulted amphitheatre
of Central Europe, her raised, jade-green eyes, gazed
out on the darkness from a balcony in Vienna (p.68).
If there is an ironic echo here of stout Cortez, gazing over the Pacific (Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’), the centre is not where Oliver is:
…. I had come to the city on
some false pretext, what I sought did not exist here.
This, then, is a collection founded on emotion, an uncentred sense of loss. The volume opens with the claim that:
we soon deluded ourselves in the belief
that panic did not exist by pursuing
rational exegesis …. (p.5)
And this claim is followed by the question, ‘Was memory a dangerous place?’ Some readers will think these lines overly portentous, but they do signal the volume’s thematic concerns from the beginning.
And in the poems that follow, we soon find Oliver pursuing the theme in fine form. The poem ‘Undercover’ (p.11) begins strikingly:
The moon was half. As though the act
of clearing a space in the partially clouded
sky had worn itself away.
The image is highly visual (it demands that the reader should visualise it), but though the moon as ‘imagination’ is a central romantic image, we are clearly in modernist territory here, the symbol here being conventional, a mere trope. We may not quite be in the territory of the symbolists, whose symbols spoke of their failure to speak, but for Oliver:
The entire rehearsal eddies to nothingness.
But what happens next (and folk will admit to
this), is nothing more nor less than weather. (p.12)
Symbolic resonance is disavowed. As so often in Oliver, I am reminded of Wallace Stevens’s use of the weather trope—for instance, ‘Today the mind is not part of the weather’ (‘A Clear Day and No Memories’, p.397)—though Oliver himself points to other influences (personal communication). I am similarly reminded of Stevens in another poem, ‘The Waiting’, which begins with an evocation of quiet stillness.
After rain, a still evening, the gathering dark
cloud cover a grey-blue. Quietness. Starter engine
of the morepork. (p.48)
What reminds me of Stevens here is the listing of natural features, almost reduced to abstractions, though here the morepork (bird and harbinger of death) does speak to more personal concerns than we usually find in Stevens. The ‘waiting’ of the title is a waiting for death, and the poem speaks again of the poet’s rural isolation.
The origins of this isolation are as much psychological as geographic, grounded in childhood self-consciousness. In ‘What Angels Throw’ (p.60), Oliver remembers the ‘Panels of light and shadow I studied as a child’ and recalls a formative moment:
One private act of knowing I was only half aware of,
mood shaded the colour of twilight I trusted, and as I did
so, aloneness turned to lonely …. (p.60)
It’s a moment of Wordsworthian self-consciousness, a moment of loss which led him on to the ‘uplands’ of his later, self-conscious life. In a later poem, ‘A Sunday,/lonesome sense pervades’ the rural town he now calls home.
While the note of loss provides the emotional grounding for the collection, I don’t want to leave the sense that the poems themselves are depressing, for the poems are marked everywhere by energy. At times they revel in fancy, as in ‘Titan Lovesong’ (p.32), where Oliver imagines his lovers admiring the rings of Saturn not ‘by the rivers of Babylon’ (Psalm 137), but in a kind of exile ‘By the dark regions of Senkyo, Aztlan, Fensal,’ on Saturn’s largest moon. The lovers have become an alien life-form breathing hydrocarbons in a world without oxygen:
Once upon the vast flood plains
of Titan we grazed the hydrocarbon sand dunes
and drank our fill of benzene.
There is similar wit in ‘Another Wow! Signal’, which imagines a secular quest for revelation and salvation (with allusions to St John of the Cross) fulfilled by the arrival of an extra-terrestrial radio signal (p.13). And, again, there is similar wit in ‘No pen or paper in paradise,’ which imagines the after-life.
But it is for his lyricism and his images that one reads Oliver, and I want to end with some examples. Consider, for instance the poem ‘Millefiori’, which takes its name from the use of glass beads to create patterns of colour in glassware. The poem is set in the pre-dawn of an April morning, a time when (as a later poem informs us) the season begins to look forward to ‘the first frosts’ (p.25). The speaker, perhaps suffering a bout of insomnia, is awakened by a night train which passes through the town without stopping—a metaphor for rural isolation. Oliver beautifully evokes the scene in quiet descriptive phrases before a brief moment of lyricism:
It is 4:30 AM, mist holds the valley,
rolled lightly, it floats there, a yellow-lit
ghostly tube. The glass bowl tilts overhead,
millefiori, galaxies, frequencies, spill. (p.15)
Here the quiet constraint of the earlier lines is released in the lyricism of the word ‘millefiori’, gradually subsiding again into the single syllable ‘spill’. If the ‘bowl of night’ come from Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubaiyat’, it has here become a many-beaded glass, reimagined and given lyrical expression.
If this is yet another example of Oliver’s gift for the visual, the poem is even more extraordinary for the way in which it transfers an imagist aesthetic into the realm of the aural. The poem begins with the lines ‘A drawer sliding on its wooden runners/suggests a brief, hushed sound, a dryness’. The reader will need to find such a drawer, and open it quietly, to appreciate the observation of sound here. The poem extends this attention to sound as image in its later description of the train:
It is 4:30 AM, at the close of April,
the smooth rasp of the abacus or accordion;
a goods train whose carriages run the
entire length of this town; closer, the sound
of an abacus—drawing away, that of an
accordion, exhaling, towards the dawn.
This power of observation could be exemplified in a hundred other places within the volume. One further example will have to do:
It’s that time of day when darkness
has clenched the outline of things; …. (p.16)
Readers attuned to such things will find in Luxembourg the work of a master, writing at the peak of his capacities. It is true that some will enjoy the occasional satiric remarks on post-structuralism more than others. But if some lines seem portentous, they need to be understood within the emotional economy of the collection. And these short-comings, minor as they are, are more than compensated for by the sheer number of fine lyrics and fresh observations. Interspersed is a series of short prose poems, a form for which criticism may not yet have the tools of analysis but which here often reveals the same powers of compression and observation we find in Oliver more generally.
I am at something of a loss to understand the critical neglect of Oliver’s work, though a certain stubbornness, mentioned above, may have something to do with it. In any case, Oliver is a poet who rewards close consideration. As Coleridge said, it is ‘Not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure,’ which ‘possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry’. And that is Oliver’s power. For the reader who looks, Oliver is one of those poets who make us see the world, in all its particulars, anew—a poet whose depth of imagination is everywhere apparent, an imagist whose poems catch consciousness at its very margins.
About the reviewer:
Nicholas Reid taught romanticism and contemporary poetry at the University of Otago from 1990 to 2003. In more recent years he has been a house builder and has worked for the Australian Commonwealth Treasury. He currently teaches at the ANU College in Canberra.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate [Princeton: PUP, 1983], Chapter 1, p.23.