Collected Poems 1981-2016 by Michel O’Leary.
Wellington: HeadworX Publishers (2017).
RRP: $35. Pb, 260pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Michael O’Leary is a poet, novelist, publisher, performer and bookshop proprietor. Collected Poems 1981-2016 is a thirty-five-year retrospective from an important Irish Māori influenced writer. The collection is divided into five parts, with an Introduction by Iain Sharp and a short biographical note by Michael 0’Leary. The book is illustrated with photographs and block drawings.
Part One, “T.A.B. Ula Rasa and Other Best Bets”, (p 16) begins with the long title poem, with its sublime lines about the boy’s first experience of art and artists:
But as he walked through the large,
Forbidding double doors he
Entered the world which emulated
The spirit of all the artists mentioned. In the shabby, fractured,
Flaking plaster statues and effigies
Surrounding the walls and altar
Of the suburban holy place he
Experienced the same grandeur and expectation inherent.
The references to artists, religion and spirituality hint at the primary influences on the poet’s life and work. These are not the only influences in these poems, however. O’Leary writes about many other influences on his life: art and artists, writers, musicians, railways, working-class values, his Irishness and Māoritanga.
For the most part these are lengthy lyrics, well-judged and living primarily in their closely observed detail. There is a fine sensuousness in the language.
“Shake Speer’s Faith” (p 21) is a lengthy poem in six parts, about the Third Reich, which ends with this verse from the “Epilogue – In Hell” (p 36):
So, the cycle of life turns yet further onwards
Grinding well beyond the historical inevitability
As each turn of the wheel reveals a new vulnerability
Enabling us to see, through each person’s story
The fight with themselves to discover the unknowable
Many of the poems are haunted by history. This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the poem, “Neo-Sticky Fingers” (p 39). It is easy to see why O’Leary was drawn to this subject. In a world filled with verbiage and babble the poem imagines moving south from the horrors of war:
The German in him left for the South with his sister, Morphine
AK Offenbach’s opera-bouffe, at once with two fingers
And the evil eye, rang out from the oversized stereo speakers
Bruno Il Piccolo Mondo – a filosofia e necessario amore!
Preparing a concoction of olive oil and beta Urbs
Part Two “The ‘Kia Aroha’ Poems” draws on O’Leary’s Māori heritage. Here there are short lyrical poems. The grasp of detail is confident, the language precise, the phrasing sure across line and stanza breaks, as we see in “Kia Aroha – toru” (p 43):
to describe thoughts and feelings
these in reality have already gone
what is left that lingers on
in fact has only just begun
the love that dares not speak
can only whisper
small, soft words.
“He Waiatanui kia Aroha” (p 45) is a lengthy poem in thirteen sections. The poem opens with these lovely lines:
among the large stone buildings
grey monoliths – but undemanding
to the modern eye
as we walked towards the taxi
I stopped and wanted to kiss you
And you said maybe
then we did kiss
“On the Death of your Mother” (p 55) begins:
That morning I woke up and I put around
My neck the black and white scarf
Which several years ago I stole from your house
As a close memento of you to wear.
Part Three “Sonnets Songs Satires” contains poems for various friends. A beautiful poem “Hone Tuwhare: A Personal Memoir” (p 64) celebrates the life and death of the famous Māori poet:
E hoa, you have gone to a place beyond
that tug-of-war which was your life: that
struggle between North and South which
even continued after you were laid to rest.
While “Only a Poem” (p 69), is a wonderful love poem, which begins with a description of Lion Rock:
In the large shadow of Lion Rock
I stood alone watching the breakers
Rolling across the horizon from the ocean
The moonlight and the cloud-cover conspired
To flood my mind with memories and
I longed to be part of you again.
Part Four: “e tangata, e tangata, e tangata” is composed mainly of short lyrics. The contrast between the styles of poetry in this volume is marked. “While Your Guitar Violently Wails” (to George Harrison), (p 117) is a brilliant and funny lyric that succeeds by means of its jaunty rhythms:
Despite the high-walls fortress
Of your many-roomed mansion
It seems that living in a convent retreat
Could not keep the madness out
The Beatle-Witch which you
Had become in the mind of a fellow
Liddypoolian was to be extinguished
As an aspect of evil in the material world.
The clarity, simplicity and understatedness in O’Leary’s lyrics have a lighter texture than poems in the previous sections. This delicacy, restraint and lyricism give a coherence to his work, whether he is writing about the nuclear family, his father and mother or about the senses, as in “Touch and Smell and Taste” (p 121). The poem begins:
touch and smell and taste
on my tongue of you
I remember these thigs
as I lie aloe in my bed
“Make Love and War”, (p129), which is a poem in three sections, is highly effective in its contradictory verses. The second section is a love poem:
My love comes to me
And baring her beautiful breasts
Before my loving gaze
And soft caress
She gives me the gift
Only a young woman
Can bestow on an older man …
At odds with this simplicity are the poems which include grief, such as the three-part poem, “Flip Side of the Ballad of John and Yoko” (p 133), bout the death of John Lennon. The poem begins:
There I was sitting on a sofa
By one of the southernmost cities of the world
Listening to the radio whilst thinking about cooking tea
Well, how can you be honest about how you feel?
I’d just turned the station over
To get the “real” news of the world
When I heard the words written above: well fuck me!
Another elegy is for Leonard Cohen: “So Long Leonard Cohen . . . A Farewell” (p 143):
Beginning life as a middle-class son
Comfortable in your Jewish Catholicism
Tailor-made for the family’s business
You chose the more difficult artist’s path.
In “The Ballad of Ryan O’Corky” (p 160), O’Leary is adept at using sound, particularly alliteration and rhythm to give life to the poem. So, we distinctly hear the rhyme in the opening stanza:
His skin was bumpy, pallid and chalky
Yet never held him back
For he was ethnic without being black
If you like a story that’s a little bit salty
Then listen to the ballad of Ryan O’Corky.
In Part Five, “Nga Taiwhanga a Nga Haerenga”, there are evocative descriptions of places in the poet’s life: Onhehunga, Oscar Wilde Park, his work as a Poet Hole Digger, train journeys, Torbay, Takapuna and more. This section opens with a rhyming poem in which O’Leary reminisces about his life and equates it with a train station: “Walking Beside Shadows in Soft Rain” (p 174):
Walking beside shadows in soft rain
I see faint images of what has been
These shadows form mirages on a wall
Which I see is my life and it is all
Behind me now. All that I have been
Is beyond me like a distant train
And as the train moves further from this station
I look on, filled with anticipation.
“Return Journey” (p179) is one of O’Leary’s ‘train’ poems:
Saturday evening, rain falling down
Waiting for the train
Black hat and dark night
I am taking flight
On some long ago lost express.
A fitting poem to end this review, is another ‘train’ poem, “ManukauHarbour” (p 188), which shows us the view from a train window:
looking from the train window
towards Mangare Bridge
between a redundant Southdown
and long re-aligned Otahuhu station
see the beauty of the natural cliffs
of the harbour heads
reflected in the stillness
of the Manukau Harbour
as shades of purple
enhance the land and water
the train pulls southward
out of Westfield.
The poems in Collected Poems 1981-2016 are simple, deceptively so – the language moves with ease. Though very moving, and at times sorrowful, there is tranquillity here. The poems mostly look back; there is found understanding, a resolution, sorrow rather than torment. They may sometimes be quiet and dignified, at other times, loud and raucous and forceful. The portraits of friends, lovers, poets and others are fascinating, layered, some of them soaked through with descriptions – or memories – of time, place and event. The images are haunting. The poems are told as small stories, with clarity and simplicity. A common thread runs through many of love, loss, wonderful people. The portraits are intensely profound; the poet present everywhere.
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).