You Fit the Description: The Selected Poems of Peter Olds
by Peter Olds.
Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press (2014).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
We sometimes speak of poets who have a “lifework”—a corpus that somehow comprises everything that they have chosen to publish. Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop come to mind immediately – and maybe James K. Baxter. Reading through this generous Cold Hub Press selection of Peter Olds’s poems, I’m struck by the conviction that Olds has known what sort of poems he’s wanted to write from the very start of his career.
The earliest poem in the book dates from 1970, when Olds was associated with the “Young New Zealand Poets” such as Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Jan Kemp, Bill Manhire, and Ian Wedde. Wedde, in his introduction to this book, characterises this time by its “surge of optimism” and “spirit of resistance”. Olds, like others, had reacted against the national identity-focussed verse of Brasch and Curnow and found useful expressive models in Beat poetry and the work of the San Francisco Renaissance. Drugs, cars, and trying not to be miserable or die (“& every lamppost lit / shines the body of another electrocuted / friend”) are some of Olds’s early subjects. This is understandable. Only a young writer, we think, would write a poem titled “A Celebration of Poverty”.
But no! As the years advance, Olds does not become noticeably rule-bound and respectable. In 1979’s “Thoughts of Jack Kerouac” we meet him working at the University Book Shop at Otago—and having a cheeky beer out back. “Beethoven’s Guitar” and “Nocturnal Salad” (from 1977 and 1978) and “Music Therapy” (from 2001) all describe institutionalisations or hospital visits. He spent time sleeping rough long after it might have seemed a “thing you did” when you were young. Amazingly, he recalls this time fondly (“They can’t see how cosy we can be”) in a 2011 poem about living “Under the Dundas Street Bridge” in Dunedin. And this isn’t even Olds’s only poem to mention the subterranean lifestyle. “Reading Frank Sargeson’s Letters”, from 2013, characteristically exhibits Olds’s satisfaction with humble circumstances. Note the exceptional generosity from one who has very little:
I would have cut your hedge for you, Frank,
If you’d asked me,
But you didn’t,
Because you didn’t know me,
Because you lived over the Bridge
Behind a hedge,
And I lived in Herne Bay
Under a church …
“It’s something us Methodists do,” he adds cleverly, as if that’s a sufficient justification for trimming a stranger’s macrocarpa.
But perhaps this Christian outlook—never made explicit (although his father was a minister) – is at the heart of Olds’s unwavering acceptance of hard simplicity. Olds would scarcely be the first hippie poet to embrace apostolic ethics, but his gratitude for small things defines him and has throughout his career. Animals, his limited travels, and especially food come in for praise. He appears to mention the same meal twice in two separate poems from 2001, “Letter from Seacliff” and “From the Hut Window”. That must have been some stuffed marrow, Peter.
Olds is undoubtedly a poet of local – in fact, almost entirely personal – experience. This is a limitation, but not a shortcoming. You don’t read Peter Olds to find out what has happened in the last forty-five years: the Cold War (or that it ended), or climate change, or even New Zealand politics above the level of the local council. You do read Olds to learn about a life spent finding contentment within constraints, as in “All Winter”:
All winter, I fished for my socks
like eels from the bottom of the bathtub.
All winter, the road to the pub
grew shorter; the stomach thinner.
All winter, the ashcan slept;
God chopped the sun in half
and nobody had the guts
to try out the bath.
All winter, your hair and these words
hung around like thick woodsmoke –
and the road to the pub grew
Erik Kennedy’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Curator, The Morning Star, Oxford Poetry, Poems in Which, The Rumpus, and Sabotage Reviews. Erik studied English at Rutgers and Princeton. He lives in Christchurch and blogs about poetry and poetics for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Erik is a member of the takahē Board and is the magazine’s Honorary Treasurer.