GONE: Satirical Poems: New & Selected by Stephen Oliver.
Canberra: Greywacke Press (2016).
RRP: NZ $21.95./ Aust.$19.95.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
GONE: Satirical Poems: New & Selected by Stephen Oliver brings together a diverse range of constructions including villanelles, sonnets, raunchy ballads and whimsical ballades. The book is illustrated by Matt Ottley.
Stephen Oliver is one of New Zealand’s finest poets. His poems, whether introspective or paying attention to what goes on in the world, remind us that since its beginnings, satirical poetry has been one of the ways we invent to get to know ourselves and to take stock of our personal predicaments. All must be done anew, all said anew and Oliver shows us again and again in this new collection of his poems that it can be done.
Working the vein he has developed in his previous volumes, Oliver’s version of satire continues to generate stylish poems of thoughtful reflections. GONE is a beautifully produced book divided into two sections (“Gone” and “New Poems”), suggesting progressively evolving concerns. The titles of individual poems frequently indicate Oliver’s themes: “Philip Larkin, Recalled”, “W. H. Auden”, “Letter to James K. Baxter”, “Ballade of the Poets” and “Ballad of a Yobbo”. Though superficially disorientating in their rhyme, various lengths and variety of verse forms, or their rapid changes of topic focus, the poems are built on profoundly long-serving strategies.
Like so many of the pieces collected here, “Ballade of a Glossy” is built on three rhyming parts, and an envoy, with a statement, a development and a resolution:
Now if you contend that life’s a bore
pause for a glass of dry, chilled Chianti
to toast Our Lady of Domestic Law,
and read the Australian Women’s Weekly.
“Heaven” generates a discussion of where Heaven might be:
Heard about it before but where?
no way rocket ships can get there.
A thought can’t and a thought is free
though requires far less energy.
Here the drama of identifying a place of which no-one can have any knowledge, is recast in ethical terms: we are “pre-occupied” by our own thoughts and desires, though it is implied that gravity will pull us back to earth, despite all our wonderings.
The lengthy poem, “Letter to James K. Baxter” is in six parts of rhyming stanzas and includes a P.S. The description of Baxter in the opening verse may be one that is familiar with readers:
Man (you’re coming across) I see you
shamble at a tangent, an ill-dressed shade
heading down to the river, a hairy Esau,
where Charon is waiting to have you weighed
to dump your pack, chuck costume aside –
the loosely tied dogma, the pet philosophies
and all the gear made for the mind to tease.
Oliver’s poem is about self and other; each person being himself, yet being in the process of a relationship with the other – and with everything else. It’s true of the poems’ techniques as well, for they are the poems of one person, and yet are driven to seek relationships with others (particularly poets and writers). Oliver names many of these people in his poems, as in “Swagman’s Song” (Concerning the author, Bob Orr, and a glass door):
Poets and artists are a rummy breed,
they take money from rich or poor,
stick to soup kitchens, empty the free feed,
and watch out for Bob Orr’s glass door.
Oliver constructs such wit with poetry proper, but it has been the business of poetry over the centuries to yoke wit and poetry together – and then to find ways for it to please readers. “Fridge Cat” (for Paul Sullivan), plays on rhyme and humour for its impact. The poem ends:
Winer, a chilly wind blows,
then I warm my Master’s toes.
The air is sharp, the moon’s high,
the fridge purrs and so do I.
Oliver’s poetry references feelings, as in “Of Poets & Peddlers” (for Allan MacGilliveray):
The laird in his castle spits at the night
and the sky turns sooty as bats take flight.
Waterfowl break cover out on the fen,
and laughter echoes loudly round the glen.
We feel that this may be a “serious” poem, but these lines don’t attempt to embody how such an experience might physically compel. Oliver’s rhythm and line-endings are a structuring of thought and position that requires our feeling rather than attempting to evoke it. While the poem ends with the laird’s curse:
‘A curse on all poets – that wheedling breed,
bring me my armour and saddle my steed!’
Stephen Oliver’s GONE strikes a beautiful balance between mystery and disclosure, bravery and tact, the kind of tact which nonetheless keeps his zeal in place. What underpins the whole collection is not a commonplace “accessibility”, but
his wit and humour; the lines are balanced and controlled, the vision never in question.
The book may be purchased at https:www.amazon.com/Gone-Satirical-Poems-New:Selected/dp/0473360047
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 takahē 91 December, 2017.