What know you, stars? by Ian Rockel.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa (2017).
RRP: $19.99. Softcover, 67pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
This collection of fifty poems by Ian Rockel spans fifty years. With intelligence and quiet consideration he reflects on mortality, companionship, and the place of the individual within the much greater cosmos. From an early focus on loss and remembrance on a personal scale he moves through to a more general world view, and tragedies at large. He looks at defeat against more powerful forces, as well as survival, which often comes down simply to shuffling forward. Much space and thought is given to the natural world and processes, particularly the night sky, ever-present as a backdrop, and plays of sun, light and darkness as they sweep across the landscape as well as alter moods. Meanwhile time is passing by and the human body and mind becoming slower and more reflective.
Rockel’s first section, Origins and Departures, is devoted to personal reminiscences from early childhood, which coincides with the beginning of the Second World War. Born in 1939, wartime conditions of frugality and extreme anxiety colour these years, where his mother has one eye to the domestic situation and one to the wider international scene. Thus: ‘I’m born the day/ my father’s called to camp’ (“1939”, p 12).
As he enters the world, ‘Hitler spits/ his troops across the border’ (ibid). It is a time of food rations, and of huddling around the one-bar heater as news comes in from foreign lands. Conflict moves are swinging back and forth in unsure fashion as the war begins to ‘bend’ towards New Zealand.
Also in this first section is a preoccupation with some of those nearest and dearest having passed away, either at birth or in old age, and the cherished last moments of the realisation of approaching death of a loved one. “Telling those close to us” is a poignant piece on saying goodbye, at watching as a familiar face starts to slip away: ‘In a few days you will not be with us/ I told her blue eyes,/ trying not to let slip/ that for us it would be tragedy’ (p 16).
The second section, ‘From Then till Now’, expands the space, pulling back to look at all the years that have gone before, with their myriad of experiences. Themes tumble between the personal: the ever-changing dynamics of companionship, such as in the pensive opening piece: ‘You circle my sleep/ like a waking hour –/ […]spilling notes from the next day’s noon’ (“Presence”, p 24), and habits melding into place, through the years: ‘The nightgown of another evening/ is pulled down tight across us/[…] and old bones crawl into chilled nightgowns’ (“Counterpane time”, p 34).
Rockel reflects on their advanced years: ‘We have grown so old/ our bodies rustle against each other,/ like dried stalks/ our heads rattle/ as blown seed boxes’ (“Stalks”, p 42), tying their aging into the natural turning of the seasons.
Other pieces look at a variety of moments from history, ranging from the macabre, where Jack the Ripper narrates: ‘I am the smiling subaltern/ of the sullen city’ (“Whitechapel”, p 36), to seascapes, and drowning. Modernist poet Hart Crane’s inner turmoil is imagined as he chooses suicide: ‘the adrenal sea within him/ lies dark,/ unanswered’ (“Shipboard”, p 30).
Or again, the last moments on the Titanic are pictured in “Breaching the unknown littoral”, where there is hope fading to an Andre Kostelanetz tune, and another, of ‘the clouds that harbour us/ from nullity beyond’ (“Cold harbour”, p 29); the vast rolling ocean devoid of any answers, a ripped, wrecked landscape with a torn ship that ‘floats its bodies out’. There is nothing more than death.
Others display a cynicism, or weariness, of a world that has been ruptured fully by war, a disenchantment; where fascist figures roam the land: ‘Il Duce’s men wear dark glasses now,/ exporting ‘Kultur’ to the States’ (“Fixing the books and marble”, p 26).
Part three, Endgame: A Certain Withdrawal from Past Experience really is about the ultimate endgame: the flickering out of the world due to human moves. From suicide, murder, war, and fascism we stagger through apocalyptic landscapes dried out by climate change, ruins of their former states, amongst haunted days, or where ash is choking the wind and weather as ‘cauterised forests alight’ (“Wind in the ocelot’s eye”, p 51). Everywhere birds and other wildlife are moving out; nightmares are littered with ‘fellow men crying to escape’ (“Nightmares”, p 55), and tanks that have been rolling out over the plains of Armageddon are perspiring.
Images have become dark, insistent, insidious. It is the ‘killer’s kiss’ that will now light up the sea (“The order of things”, p 53), where rockets sniff the air, and a cold Jupiter ‘locks’ its satellites. The last days of paradise are gone for all time. However, amongst all the foreboding we are all just small specks: the cosmos at large is beyond all earthly matters and an endless, indifferent space.
What know you, stars is a lucid and sophisticated collection, packed with fresh images; where the personal meets the political and environmental, and where over all else hangs the spectre of death. Yet Rockel posits it as an endgame on which to reflect, as beyond it we are nothing except the ‘substance of air’ (“Appearances of things”, p 63).
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.