The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell is the definitive edition of one of the most important bodies of work in New Zealand poetry. Based on a manuscript found among Campbell’s papers after his death, this is a substantial collection and the first to be published in hardback since 1981. Contained in the book are six thematic sections which map the work: “Of Wild Places”, “Tongareva to Aotearoa”, “Love Poems”, “War Poems” – powerful sequences exploring his father’s experiences at Gallipoli and the story of The 28th (Māori) Battalion, “Poets in Our Youth” and “Looking at Kapiti” – poems of everyday life in Pukerua Bay.
This is a magnificent collection of poems by a subtle genius who deserves a very wide audience. It is the atmosphere of the Polynesian and the European strains in Campbell’s personality and writing which, with their structure and discipline, both saturate and refine his poetic language, that make his disciplined poetry as he moves through life.
It could be said that this a poetry of careful observation, of graceful cadence and painstaking craft. But that would be to understate its cumulative power; Campbell does not shy away from difficult subjects such as war, descriptions of his home in Polynesia, his family and friends. His craft is flexible and adaptable enough to encompass historical subjects, descriptions and acute observations of the natural world, and many other themes.
The collection begins with the section “Of Wild Places”, in which the opening poem is called “The Return”, and which seems to be a dream vision of bird- or tree-like men with leaf-green bodies on a mist-shrouded beach, a poem that seems to anticipate the later recuperation of his Polynesian heritage. Here is the penultimate verse:
Plant gods, tree gods, gods of the middle world . . . Face downward
And in a small creek mouth all unperceived,
The drowned Dionysus, sand in his eyes and mouth,
In the dim tide lolling – beautiful, and the last harsh
Glare of divinity from lip and broad brow ebbing …
This is the first of a number of poems set in the land of the poet’s forebears. There is a characteristic liveliness and empathy on display here; one never feels that these are museum pieces or exercises in historicism. Among the poems in this section are several lyrics set among rugged South Island and Kapiti Coast landscapes. These are often subjects handled with a sensitivity and lightness of touch resulting in a large part from the tactful distance afforded by his skilful use of rhyme and metre, as we see in the poem “Bones”:
You, this bone beside me (bright bone)
Time can but make as beautiful as the sun,
Though sifting centuries
Reduce the tallest trees
To the glitter of a printed leaf on stone.
The regular rhymes and cadences of the verse have a lulling, consolatory quality to them.
In the second section, “Tongareva to Aotearoa”, the opening poem “Forgiveness” states:
Forgiveness is a journey I must take
Alone into my childish fears, and there
Confront my fathers for my children’s sake.
Elsewhere in this section, Campbell’s acute sense of the natural environment is striking. Poems such as “Sanctuary of the Spirit” and “Nobby Clark” are touched by the mystery of the natural world, even as they describe and celebrate aspects of it.
“Grandfather Bosini” recalls the poet’s grandfather:
About him I know next to nothing.
I would like to think
that he was fierce and proud,
with the fierce proud blood
of his ancestors beating
in his veins – his ancestors and mine
who ate human flesh.
While in “To My Father Jock Campbell”, the poet meditates on the father he never really knew:
Dear Papa, I’m drinking whisky
your favourite drink – your permit,
as the doggerel about you has it:
‘Campbell is a wily bird
To work he does not stop;
He simply packs his permit up,
And he’s off around the Group’
In the section, “Love Poems”, I do not think you can do better than “Green”, which is one of the finest love poems I have read: simple, sensuous and passionate – and economically short, displaying clear images, and a sure sense of rhythm and pace:
Dressed in green she came
and like a tulip
leaned her head against the door
and looked at me.
“A Mermaid for Sam Hunt” is a gift to a fellow poet:
A mermaid is my gift
to you, dear friend, who tread
the tilting floors of sleep
an island to command,
where every tree lets fall
poems bright as oranges,
and unicorns abound.
While “Wairaka Rock” is A Legend of Pukerua Bay:
A girl as slender as the toitoi
I thought you, buffeted
by feelings she could no
longer control. I first saw
you at Pukerua Bay
waiting for the train.
“War Poems” contains powerful sequences exploring Campbell’s father’s Gallipoli experiences and the story of the Maori Battalion. The Gallipoli section contains 14 poems, while the 28th (Māori) Battalion contains 66 poems. The following passage of the terrifying action of battle is from “X Lest We Forget”:
Can we forget the executions?
Can we forgive the men who carry
them out in the heat of battle?
A subaltern, straight out of Sandhurst,
shoots three young recruits,
who have fouled themselves, terrified
by the naked bayonets, the screams,
the flying bullets, the sight
of troops falling in swaths.
This passage from “XIV Green Lizards” gives the reader a brilliant idea of the landscape of Gallipoli and its beauty despite the terrors of war:
Mountainous country, deep wooded
gorges, villages clinging
to cliffsides by a fingernail,
waterfalls and swift streams,
ancient olive trees, a gritty
people generous with the little
they have, rain that never stops –
this was Greece to us.
In “Poets in Our Youth”, the focus is on letters addressed to Campbell’s student poet friends in late 1940s Wellington: John Mansfield Thomson, Harry Orsman, Pat Wilson, James K. Baxter and John Kelly. The poems take up several pages each, so I quote one passage from the “Letter to Harry Orsman”:
Dear Harry, in my imagination, I see you
dangling in space and attached to a module
that has broken free from the mother craft.
You’re not in pain as you drift slowly to the full
content of your tube and back again, tumbling
backwards and forwards with a kind of
The final section, “Looking at Kapiti” contains poems of everyday life in Pukerua Bay. The opening title poem begins:
Sleep, Leviathan, shouldering the Asian
Night sombre with fear, kindled by one star
Smouldering through the fog, while the goaded ocean
Recalls the fury of Te Rauparaha.
The penultimate poem in this magnificent collection is “Trumpet Voluntary” for Greg, in which Campbell writes:
This is the only place for us –
The cliff that slips down to the sea,
The house, our Castle Perilous
Linked to embattled Kapiti.
It is not possible here to cover the vast range of Campbell’s output within this collection. The linguistic dexterity is impressive, the cultural allusions positively stunning. Numerous poets, personalities, family members, soldiers and others form a kaleidoscope within the poems. The collection is rich in observed intensities, the poems radiating out from the poet’s imagination and sensibility. Place, and the inwardness of place, human relationships, memory, war and friendship are the compelling themes here. The poet’s energy is productively engaged with the experiencing and voicing of the world in all its values, while challenge and disruption are darker elements which the poet also explores and masters. Campbell’s work reveals a searching, scrupulous intelligence and an exacting willingness to engage language and experience at the deepest level, while retaining measure and control in form and content.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).
First published takahe 89