Luxembourg by Stephen Oliver
Auckland: Greywacke Press (2018)
RRP: $24.95. Sc, 112pp
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Stephen Oliver lived in Australia for a period of 20 years and should therefore be considered an Australasian poet. The poems in Luxembourg have appeared in print in journals, in online publications and in book form.
The book includes a wide variety of poems. It is an inclusive enterprise, full of innovation, continuity, contradiction and idiosyncrasy. The poems capture Oliver’s diversity of style, theme ad perspective. Here we find long poems, short poems, lyrics, narratives and confessions. Prose poems sit next to light verse and cohabit with elegiac verse. Stephen Oliver has one of the deepest and most enigmatic voices in New Zealand poetry. To be profound and enigmatic is this poet’s talent. Luxembourg contains over ninety poems, with such a wide range it is difficult to summarise the book in a review.
The collection opens with “Dreams of Flying” (p 3) and straightaway we are introduced to the poet’s skill, coupled with his sublime lyricism and absolute control of structure and metre:
A building of red brick
(once The Institute For The Blind);
an up-market café.
Desiccated, middle-aged matriarchs
come to water here,
where once the blind sat in the
open courtyard to take the early sun.
Oliver knows it is essential for a poem to have ‘life’. If, by this, we mean energy, vitality and intellectual stimulation, then his poems are teeming with life. Take “Undercover”, quite a lengthy poem that grips us from the start and carries us through a narrative that is threaded with the poet’s gift for directness, beauty and subtle humour. Midway through the poem, Oliver reminds his readers that he has been absent from New Zealand for several years:
Absent twenty years, I left a country of sheep,
returned to a country of cattle; rivers
wheeze through an iridescent landscape,
gorged on nutrient-rich run off. This is lower
socio-economic territory round here in the
North King Country, run-down rentals
and mouldering hatreds, hobbled by small
The poem tells us of the poet’s home and what he sees in rural New Zealand, after his long sojourn in Australia. I love the scenarios the poet sets up. At the end of the poem, he writes:
The entire rehearsal eddies to nothingness.
But, what happens next (and folk will admit to
this), is nothing more nor less than weather. (p 11)
Oliver has a natural and persistent curiosity about the world he inhabits, which he clearly delights in exercising. But his explorations are never tedious or long-winded: he revels in form, line and rhythm to produce precision. In “Tracking Rupert Brooke”, a prose poem, he imagines Brooke in New Zealand. The poem begins:
Had he stayed longer, one could easily have imagined Rupert Brooke
strolling down the country roads and lanes of the North island of
New Zealand, an Edwardian in an otherwise Victorian South Pacific
Country, knocking the heads off dandelions with a switch, but given
anything else, this is not possible. (p 19)
That he can address an icon of British poetry without a shadow of subjectivity – with an observer’s eye – and with musical power, is nothing short of amazing.
Threat, dread, dangerous and delicate balance, are served up in the finest language, as we see in “This Way Out”, a poem about the decay of the body and its fossil remains. He writes: “What we were awaits to be uplifted / by some mountain range yet to be born.” These poems fuse Oliver’s lyrical gifts with his fascinating contemplation of the physical’s relationship with the spiritual. In a lesser poet’s hands, such a venture would feel pretentious. But Oliver’s imagination, accessibility and wit, make these poems fulfilling to read. In “Lace” (p 37), he tells us: “Nothing begins or / ceases here. Nothing matters.” He goes on to describe the old house crumbling into ruin:
A tumble-down brick chimney smokes because
it is winter. An old house fallen into ruin
with the smoking chimney late winter. (p 31)
We’re into a mystery played out in a down-at-heel world, and a persona where this poem prompts, in the reader, sadness, elegy, lament, but – as so often with Oliver – it is laced with lightness, a celebration of human curiosity.
“Nocturne” takes the reader into the dread and darkness of night imaginings:
All night, the footpads of these ghosts
amongst the walls, harried as waiters between the
mortal, and some unseen command centre. (p 40)
Here, the clarity, simplicity ad understatement of Oliver’s writing accentuates the horror of the night. At the other extreme, in the prose poem “Dark Matter”, there is a lighter texture, complemented by Oliver’s wonderful descriptions:
The white moon, a wild mare, driven into the canyon, clouds churned
beneath its hooves; toadstools in pine plantations accumulate, some
grubby little act performed late at night; green and crinkled, the sheep-terraced hills, white and pink, the purple magnolia bloom. (p 45)
This delicacy, restraint and lyricism give a coherence to Oliver’s work, whether he is writing about landscape, memory or waiting for something to happen, as in “The Waiting”:
After rain, a still evening, the gathering dark,
cloud cover a grey-blue. Quietness. Starter engine
of the morepork. A test-run. (p 48)
“Comb” is a short poem about the destruction of a city, and is highly effective in its sparseness:
The razed city with its grids, blocks,
rectangles, edges worn as molars, as if to
say, “I am archaeology, seek me
out millennia hence; I am no longer a city
in a hurry – I am privation. (p 57)
At odds with this Zen-like simplicity are those poems which recall friendships with those now departed. In “Breaking Straws” (p 61) I.M. Jack Gilbert, Oliver recalls:
Jack Gilbert makes love sound
like loneliness because it is, as the happiness it generates
is too; and because he recalls this repeatedly in the
body of a lover as beauty – scent remembered starkly
as a Greek Island. He understood transparencies.
In the title poem, “Luxembourg” (p 68), Oliver is adept at using the senses, particularly sight and sound:
Heading toward Luxembourg, I picked up
a truck ride at the Belgium border one afternoon,
arriving at the old city centre around dusk,
late spring, 1979. One building drew me to it.
But there’s humour too. In his observations in “Open-Learning Workshops” (p 73), he gives advice to a novelist, a poet, a playwright and many others in sections called ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’. I enjoyed this ‘Advice to an in-house editor’:
Grammar is not an issue. Avoid alphabetical lists of first lines and
titles as end pages at all costs. In effect, you are a page collator with
aspirations toward a doctorate in English Literature and a career based upon your first novel, which remains unwritten.
This is an astonishingly rich collection of poems, showing that what is edgy, authentic and provocative can also awaken the sprit and make its readers quick with consciousness. These are poems of great personal force, helping us stay alive to the world and stay true to ourselves.
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).