Getting It Right: Poems 1968–2015 by Alan Roddick.
Dunedin: OUP (2016).
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
In his preface to Getting it Right, his second poetry collection, Alan Roddick tells us that the many years between this book and his first were spent not only in his day job (dentistry) but also prowling the support side of the literary world. His literary tasks (his phrase) included presenting the National Radio poetry programme, writing a monograph on Allen Curnow, and serving as Charles Brash’s literary executor and editor. In 2007, the Caselberg Trust included Roddick in their Fiordland Residency. This experience pushed him into writing poems again; the Fiordland poems in this collection are streets ahead of his other, earlier work, richer and more wide-ranging.
Over the years, the poet has changed from an observer to a participant. The first poem in the book shows him safe and dry in a shell where ‘only echoes of great winds, bewildered,/ whisper together’ (“The Shell”, p 13). Compare this with the three-dimensional description in the Fiordland poem “Seeing Things”, which begins:
Reared on the south-west fetch
three-metre swells come on
at a rising run
to lift us weightlessly.
I watch their muscular
shoulders hunker down
to surge away
landwards one last sea-mile. (p 41).
Two sections are the high points of the collection: “Six Fiordland Poems” and “Farthest South with Dr Sparrman”. We are thrown immediately into the landscape, into a vivid moment of truth, courtesy of supplejack:
(unhook your boot from) duck
each loop or trailing
tangle of cable: (p 43, “Ashore on Anchor Island”).
This is a far cry from the earlier, domesticated narrator, safe in his shell’s entrance or mowing the lawn or tacking balloons onto trees.
Anders Sparrman was a Swedish physician who joined Cook’s second voyage in Cape Town, to serve as assistant naturalist to the formidable Forsters, father and son. The eight poems (which quote Sparrman’s own words) begin with the nine-year-old Sparrman leaving his village to study with Carl Linnaeus, carry on through a posting in Cape Town, and sign on with Cook’s scientific team:
No new lands for Cook to chart, but a world of interest for us –
the artists and astronomers and botanists he calls his own
‘Experimental Gentlemen’. (p 51, “The Experimental Gentlemen, 14 December 1772”).
The seventh poem, “First Ascent, St George’s Day, 1773”, begins:
Botanists and navigators both live by finding, and by naming –
Point Five Fingers, Doubtfull Harbour.
and continues, through more supplejack, on a mountain-climbing expedition:
To celebrate St George’s Day
we set fire to dry grass on the peak.
The fire took hold and spread, to make a fine show when at sunset, our Captain
charted one more name: Mt Sparrman. (p 55).
This, by the way, seems to be the only place Anders Sparrman’s name appears in New Zealand. There are parts of the country where you can’t see your way forward through the banksias and forsteras: the two Forsters and Sir Joseph Banks (of the first voyage) appear in nearly two hundred specific and generic names, and that’s just the flora. In 1865, William Colenso wrote, ‘Dr Sparrman seems scarcely to have been done justice to; no New Zealand plant bears his name.’ This suite of poems goes a long way towards rehabilitating Dr Sparrman, and I hope this aspect of the chosen topic was calculated.
And I hope Alan Roddick writes more in this vein. The history of New Zealand botany often hides in museums and herbaria where not many non-specialists have the chance to enjoy it. Perhaps plants aren’t as sexy as bats or birds? Or do they not have much of a life separate from their taxonomic nomenclature? At any rate, the topic could do with wider circulation, and Roddick has a splendid feel for it.
 William Colenso, note in ‘Essay on the Botany of the North Island of New Zealand’ (for the first New Zealand Exhibition, 1865, Dunedin). The younger Linnaeus named a South African genus Sparrmannia, but that seems to be it.
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 takahē 90 August, 2017.