Selected Poems by Ian Wedde.
Auckland: AUP (2017).
RRP: $24.99. Pb/flaps, 340pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Ian Wedde has been a major presence in New Zealand poetry since the late 1960s. Selected Poems includes work from 1971’s Homage to Matisse through to 2013’s The Lifeguard.
The collection is a handsome size. It contains over three hundred pages and covers an on-going forty-year career. In it, Wedde curates collected poems that represent a life’s work. His readers are invited to read from cover to cover, not just dipping in and out for favourite poems from Homage to Matisse, his wonderful Sonnets for Carlos to The Lifeguard, to weigh the work and make their judgements.
It could be argued that some of the poetry in Selected Poems does not add up to a poem; at least not in a traditional sense. I might refer to sequential works such as “Georgicon” and “The Commonplace Odes”. This is poetry which has been combed for anything that might be considered ‘poetic’. The language is terse, amplified in a staccato rhythm and in the line breaks. The poems are composed in such a way than for no other reason but to reflect on one segment of an image delivered before the next.
In his opening essay ‘Enjoyment’, Wedde writes:
Not a few poems have been written about the passing of time and it’s good that they can make sense of that craziness, but often it’s better when they refuse to. I like it when language messes up the orderly sequentiality of time passing, the trustworthiness of grammar’s timetables, the reliability of rational thought – and especially the self as centred meaning-maker. (p x).
You would be hard pressed to come up with a better rationale.
The montage is of setting up relationships and connections – or with destroying familiar, conventional connections – the main thing being that something is disclosed. “Tales of Gotham City” (p 119) consists of four poems: “Lonely & afraid up here”, in seven parts, “Mahia April 1978”, in five parts, “Tales of Gotham City” and “Driving into the storm: the art of poetry”. Let’s look at the final page of this section. It begins:
the music leads you out
into a uniform evening landscape
with a wide shining blue-
grey body of water
dark smoky mountains
in the distance (p 131).
The object in this instance is the beauty of the landscape and the city in the distance, but the poem goes on to reveal that this is not paradise and there are ‘impossible objects’ ahead. It is this kind of writing that works to draw the reader’s attention to the use of language and how that use contributes to the creation of poetry.
A deep sense of meaning, or some angle of vision, is evident in the poems in ‘The Commonplace Odes’, which is divided into five books. Book 1 opens with “To the Muse” (p 184), and it is where Wedde draws his inspiration for the word ‘commonplace’:
Wine cup in hand, in the arbour’s shade – creaking
Cicadas, and the distant bleating of Pan’s kids –
It’s Quintus Horatius Flaccus I invoke
At his ‘Sabine Farm’, unheroic master
Of the commonplace. Horace would have called down Calliope.
With Wedde we often get this double disclosure. The first from his highly connective imagination which deals in the montaging of images and the meaning disclosed in his use of language. I would say that in his poetry we are shown either: the richness and beauty of the life we lead or the life we could be living.
The concluding section of Selected Poems is from The Lifeguard, which contains three poems: “The Lifeguard”, “The look” and “Shadow stands up”. “The Lifeguard” is a poem in ten sections, written in couplets. It begins:
You have to start somewhere
in these morose time,
a clearing in the forest, say,
filled with golden shafts of sunlight
and skirmishes. A little later
your itinerary will take you past
weathered churches on plains that stretch
as far as the eye can see. (p 278).
“The look” is in eight sections: one dedicated to Dr Helen Schofield, veterinarian, one to Geoff Park, ecologist and another to Bill Culbert, artist. Section 7 consists of this beautiful verse:
Towers of light filled clouds lift
their chords towards the curvature
of space, you can see, if you look, how the whole thing works,
because when you close your eyes it’s all
still there, the light-score dancing
across the backs of your eyelids. (p 312).
The final poem, “Shadow stands up” is in twenty sections. The poem begins:
Shadow stands up under the
trees in Victoria park
whose own filigree shadows lie
across matted russet leaves
on the sodden green turf that
the morning’s tai chi moves
barely mar – I see this from
the Link bus window . . . (p 314).
In other hands, poems addressed to dead people or focusing on family or friends would come off so obscure as to be of little interest outside of the poet’s immediate family, but Wedde has a flare for finding the personal that can surge out into the engaging universal. For example, in section four, we have this description of the veterinarian, Dr Helen Schofield:
I saw that her gaze was tawny, the colour of old bones,
or the mud-slate of delicate pachyderm skin
after a dust-bath. (p 309).
Of his father, he writes in section 20:
I’ll never know
what my father would have thought
of branches gripped by the hard
feet of windblown birds I saw
today where leaves had piled up
against the buttresses of
the western motorway that
crosses Victoria Park (p 326).
Each poem, each sequence, is self-contained, and the book provides a progressive arc through Wedde’s oeuvre. The book can be read from beginning to end to provide an overall view of his work or dipped into to provide momentary access to his world. Strange, sensuous and intriguing, there is nothing quite like Wedde’s Selected Poems.
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).