And so it is by Vincent O’Sullivan.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Catherine Fitchett.
The first poem in Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection sets the tone for what is to come. A woman works carefully at setting free a bee that has become tangled in cobwebs.
This woman who’s the quiet one
in any group of women thinks it
a fair morning’s work, this setting free
a bee (p 13)
It’s an apt metaphor for the poems themselves. Any one of them might be the result of “a fair morning’s work”. These finely detailed verses seem to buzz with a hidden energy, as if they too might take off from the page at any moment.
At first sight, the tone seems philosophical. Closer reading reveals that it’s a philosophy that is rooted not in the abstract but in concrete detail. In “Season” he writes
I noticed shoots not much thicker than wire
and that colour between green and early russet
which will be pure green by the month’s end. (p 27)
The poet considers a friend who might call the new growth a ‘message’, and a promise of ‘brighter things to come’
things as my friends say it, they’re worth saying too.
Just, I’m not the one to say them. (p 27)
In “Talk about old hat”, he takes fifteen lines for a lovely description of something as simple as a gesture
A woman across a table from a man
leans back and raises her arms
to lift the heft of her hair (p 30)
And yet, for O’Sullivan, this sense of immediacy can encompass a very wide range of material. Here Derrida rubs shoulders with Tintin and Monty Python. We meet Mayakovsky’s dog, a blind poet, a World War I artist, a child playing computer games, a grandchild sending pictures from Australia, and many more. His descriptive powers are let loose not only on his daily surroundings, but also on scenes drawn from art works, photographs, memories, dreams and the imagination.
In “Think of the girl, for once” it is not so much the unnamed blind poet (Milton?) who is the figure of interest, but the dutiful daughter taking dictation. The father has heaven in mind, but the daughter’s concerns are more earthly.
She thinks more than once of nine
o’clock when they pause for milk.
She wonders if the cute larrikin
on the haywain will ever, again,
wear embarrassingly tight breeks. (p 18)
In fact, children and their imagination feature prominently in these poems. “Imaginative for her age” brings us a vivid description of a girl in an empty paddock conjuring up a scene of sinister black birds and crackling flames. Until she is called inside with the words
what the hell’s in a paddock scutted
with sheep-shit, gorse your father won’t this lifetime
anyway knock back? (p 35)
The girl, and the poet, both know the power of the imagination.
This is an elegant collection. From the Barry Cleavin image, Hereweka, two gulls and eucalypt on the cover, to the layout of the poems on the page, the visual impact matches the careful craft of the poems. Many of them are arranged in symmetrically grouped stanzas. Occasionally rhyme joins metre, never overly obtrusive, so that it is a pleasure to read halfway through a poem and realise its presence.
O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s most prolific poets, this being his seventeenth collection. The depth and breadth of the contents suggests that he is far from finished, and that we can expect many more.
Catherine Fitchett is a Christchurch poet. Her work has been published in various magazines and anthologies, most recently in Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes (Clerestory Press, 2016).
First published takahe 88