Beyond Puketapu by Dunstan Ward.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd (2014).
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
This very attractive collection carries us with it from the beginning. The opening poem – “Trees, Birds, River” – sets us up:
Above the river, the tall trees,
grey with evening, are still:
yet in the water’s light,
more harsh, pure, than the fading sky’s,
their darker selves stir, sway.
A bird swoops, within the river
its other soars more swiftly to meet it:
they touch: for an instant
the glass shivers –
intact as they curve apart,
their flight opposing arcs,
fragments of a broken circle.
Dunstan Ward1 is a Kiwi who has returned from many years overseas. His history sits lightly on the poems in this collection, but there are a variety of levels which slip back and forth, reminding us that he’s covering a lot of territory in a minimum of talk. We know that islands occur in many seas but are, when push comes to shove, still islands:
not only of the eye, or mind,
heightened by the presence of the sea,
immanent, always beyond, … (“Island”)
“Snow in Paris” moves from one world to another with no sense of dislocation:
… enough remains
to whiten the narrow
lines of slates,
tracks in frost
on early morning hillsides,
not yet effaced.
Two poems look at stones; one early in the collection starts briskly: ‘This stone has a name;/ geologists know it.// It is a pool, opaque/ with green deepness’ (“Stone”). But at the end of the collection, “Stones” is considerably heavier: ‘The standing stones that used to stand for something./ The stones brought home from places they fail to recall.’
The poems come in six tranches (not really separate sections), which bond in mood as much as topic. The third group concerns childhood and events from those years. Most of these strike me more as memories which have to be laid to rest rather than poems which have to be written down, and they don’t hint at the layers of meaning which make most of the other poems so enjoyable and so readable.
Coming in a variety of shapes and flavours, all of the poems are carefully drawn without feeling laboured. Three sonnets had an odd commonality – unwanted rubbish, an unwanted flower, and an unwanted boy, all swept up in some sense by a river. One of them – “Flower” – makes a one-sentence journey between the Seine and Otago, as smoothly as the snow in Paris did earlier.
Towards the end, there is a splendid trio of poems about poets. “At the Poet’s Grave” describes the Mallorca grave of the poet Robert Graves; “The Man on the Rocks” is the narrator of the previous poem; and “The Poet at the Window” is the old poet, waking early, who ‘looks down at the tide’s/ slow body of light’ and, although he doesn’t specifically wonder where It Has All Gone, he obviously has his suspicions.
Following the main collection of poems, there is a section of Arrière-Pensées: afterthoughts or dinner-party wit, which have been happily crafted but which are more lite than light – and to my mind, detract from the book. Perhaps it’s because they shout in a loud look-at-me voice, quite different from the subtle commentary of the main text. The first part of the book is all we need.
Better to end as we began, with light, flight, and touch of the evanescent (as hard to nail down as the Venerable Bede’s sparrow):
A day that alights
Like a bird on your table,
A bright ladybird
On the back of your hand:
‘Nothing stays’ –
Take wing with the day. (“Song”)
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.
First published takahe 87