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Title: Deadly Pollen
Author: Oliver, Stephen, 1950-
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Deadly Pollen" ***

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Copyright (C) 2003 by Stephen Oliver.



 DEADLY POLLEN

Stephen Oliver


WORD RIOT PRESS



(c) Stephen Oliver, 2003

Books by Stephen Oliver

Henwise (1975)
& Interviews (1978)
Autumn Songs (1978)
Letter To James K. Baxter (1980)
Earthbound Mirrors (1984)
Guardians, Not Angels (1993)
Islands of Wilderness - A Romance (1996)
Unmanned (1999)
Election Year Blues (1999)
Night of Warehouses: Poems 1978 - 2000 (2001)
Deadly Pollen (2003)
Ballads, Satire & Salt (2003)

Recordings

Earthbound Mirrors, a selection, Stephen Oliver,
Ode Records Label, Auckland, (cassette) 1984


For more information on Stephen Oliver visit:
http://people.smartchat.net.au/~sao/

Cover design: Pina Ricciu.
Cover image: The Lithuanian Bison,
engraving from J. von Brincken, 1828.

Acknowledgements: Antipodes (USA), Biff's Quarterly (USA), Brief (NZ),
Catalyzer Journal (USA), Comet Magazine (San Francisco), JAAM (NZ),
Poetry NZ/26 featured poet, San Francisco Salvo, Spreadhead (USA),
Thylazine (Aust).

An Actual Encounter With the Sun On / My Balcony At France Street: a
parody on Frank O'Hara's 'A True Account Of Talking / To The Sun At
Fire Island' who in turn based his account on Mayakovsky's more robust
poem, 'A Most Extraordinary Adventure'. POETS' PALACE: a name given by
the author to an old Kauri, weatherboard guest house in France Street
(the upper story of which he occupied in the early '80s) near the
prostitute's strip off K'rd, Auckland. Various 'emerging' poets &
artists lived downstairs at intervals during this period. As the last
of its kind in Newton Gully this 100 year old wooden building was
finally demolished at the close of the decade.

Deadly Pollen is published by

Word Riot Press
PO Box 414
Middletown, NJ 07748
USA
http://www.wordriot.org/press

ISBN 0-9728200-2-7

Typeset by Word Riot Press in Bembo



Contents


Deadly Pollen

1. 'ZIONISM:'

2. 'You return to the stupa, yearly,'

3. 'The stones collected. Ground'

4. ' "With digital, there is no past," '

5. 'How is it the floating island'

6. 'Mediocre raiders lie in wait.'

7. 'Time passes - that pressure in'

8. 'Hugely, our indifference squats -'

9. 'Circuit; right hand wise,'

10. 'If streets had cobblestones'

11. 'A Public Works draughtsman'

12. 'Pyrrha, your dewy hair,'

13. 'The flames above the wall,'

14. 'Once cradle of civilization -'

15. 'Forty thousand tons. Space'

16. 'A giallo antico moon framed'

17. ''The Breaking of Nations' '

18. ''A line is taking a full-stop'

19. 'Buildings off the crustal shelf,'

20. 'Generalization of Old World'

21. 'CEOs in castles cascade'

22. 'Footprints for satellites?'

23. 'Is recollection seeing anew,'

24. 'So. Earth's most dramatic'

25. 'I wanted to reach my hand into'

26. ' 'Your breasts in the mirror,' '

27. 'Alcatraz not Minoan ruins.'

28. 'Do words bring to mind flat'

29. 'Serpent-backed bridge profiled:'

30. 'One quadrant of sky turns,'

31. 'Barrel of the sun, gun-wad,'

32. 'Rubbed off sky exposes an'

33. 'The day combustible as a'

34. 'Compression of bees,'

35. 'Scent makes the air visible,'


An Actual Encounter With The Sun On
                    My Balcony At France Street



Deadly Pollen



ZIONISM:
to carry forward the cultural gene -
O bright-lit destiny of the chosen!
The child's bouncing ball lands in mud
on the other side of the wire;
footsteps are paradoxical in a minefield.
His heart ticks fast as a metal detector,
slowly, the yellow ball rolls to a stop.
Proposition: to advance onto ancestral
territory, or return into gentle, familial lands,
a footfall journey backward. His eye
shrinks the land to desert.


*


You return to the stupa, yearly,
to seek your return. You wish to
come back as forest deer but
that deer is extinct. The stupa is a rock
upon which your dreams founder,
yearly, - you return that which
you do not have. Meanwhile, in the
West, under ragged skies and beneath a
hundred spires no longer dreamt of -
attendance comes tumbling down;
each stone, unturned, in an emptied
space within a space caved under.


*


The stones collected. Ground
levelled and swept. The first cubicle
erected with four windowed-walls,
an open doorway. One man
on a step looking out to sea. Civilization
open for business. Soon, marble
was made smooth and square. The Idea
locked into permanence. Curiosity
stimulated commerce; others came and
conquered then went away.
That first step never forgotten became
a throne - history's seat.



*


"With digital, there is no past,"
says Jean-Luc Godard. Either way,
the button is redundant. Voice-command
is thought - the fear deep and futureless
as history, desire to appease which
remains featureless, not the disorganized
weather it truly is, as much a part of
the breathing stars as constancy of rock.
The 'Mr Whippy Man' weaves
Greensleeves in and out of suburbia; a
caravan in search of a trade-route -
via the village that never existed.



8


*


How is it the floating island
detaches itself from horizon in dream -
its first appearance, otherworldly,
but of this world, a wheel loosened
from the world's ratchet, out of time,
riding above it and inhabited by
folk fixated upon a particular
theorem-thought; elevated imponderables,
whereby you access this island by door
set underneath as you sail under?
Islands, a dream of round towers!
the sudden rush of water under hulls.



*


Mediocre raiders lie in wait.
Teeth clack in sleep, dreams fraught
with ambush. Orders intercepted,
encrypted to the house style.
The litterateur tracked back through
his ISBN to no man's land -
the robotic verb activated, sent
in under barbed metaphor strung out
where trees once stood as
camouflage. The voices from his
hill-bunker a wind turbine. Accusations
tumbled in the night. For months he
heard soft hammering, mimicry;
they failed. Could not beat back the
weather on his chosen ground.


*


Time passes - that pressure in
space again - return of the unoriginals
tinkering with the power-box -
such fine work - setting traps out
for darkness. Time passes -
talons curve and hook - how the
mouth chokes with ash. Feet drag
muffled under dungeons. Time passes -
that pressure in space again - a
new proclamation from Semiotic City -
this custom built dome and
aquarium light, pulsing: henceforth,
no corners to hide around - no zone
permitted for surprise to leap.


*


Hugely, our indifference squats -
unleavened as fear, blood is contained
within news footage. Archaeologists
stop digging deserts because of
landmines. Camels wait for sand dunes
to drift into ridges - blue flags flutter
back at Fort Apache on brave
white trucks (what gets through
is the scent of coffee). A footless boy
hobbles past, bargain hunting,
a life at odds & ends - smoke drifts
over Manhattan, out across the Hudson
river as from a Bedouin campfire.


*


Circuit; right hand wise,
homage to the sun - as did ancient
Celts, Scythians, too - host to
the Milesians on their last leg to
Ireland as the first Celts castaway -
whose home precinct the Black Sea,
the right hand to the centre;
memoried in standing stone circles.
Yet homage to a sun as walking
pillar of fire, with hell for a coronet?
The world's breath and mystery
end here, earth's innards engorged -
sprawled redly coast to coast.


*


If streets had cobblestones
blood would flow in tatters - torn
flags to a revolution lost. Streets
smoothly ease to drains. The cut deep,
and blood wakes from its blackness,
crushed as berries in the runnels
of a wagon, oozes its oil from
the body's casket - til flesh becomes
porcelain, perfect surface for moon,
ice, the glass-edged sky to play upon;
in silences deep as birch in the
bayoneting dark - and leaves finally
resemble paper money piled up
under the turbined lamplight.


*


A Public Works draughtsman
spent thirty years designing the City
Sewerage Reticulation System
he eventually hoped to escape through -
a masterpiece! A prairie dog would
have been proud of it. Complex of
accented runs, angles, drops, sluices,
pumps, ditches, endless unbowed
archways, treatment ponds breaking into
sunlight - the architects of Athens
would have been proud of it.
Only on paper - not one trowel lifted!
miles and miles and miles of it.


*


Pyrrha, your dewy hair,
yellow, scented, doubly wreathed
in Jasmine, fresh from the trellis
this morning - your new lover yet to
arrive, breathless. Your tantrums
are as sea-storms, heart-wrecking
for that unsuspecting voyager - maybe
as survivor, I might warn him
against your squally lust, he won't
find safe haven in your arms! This note
is record enough - that I set down
against your lubricous hold.


See: Horace's 'Pyrrha' ode. I,v.


*


The flames above the wall,
private show for the Gods, the city
burned three days, at night, smoke
warmed the stars. Border forest
shifted with shields - scritch-owl,
a horse's impatient breath - the hawk
wheeled under a pennant moon.
In the grey dawn men turned North.
The druid notched these events
onto trunks that lead to deeper wood -
envisioned - silence, incantation;
the God found within the stone.


*


Once cradle of civilization -
now crucible, a sandstorm of tanks,
a battery of rocket-launchers
each one bright as a guiding star
slams home to its birth place, sand sprites
leap dervishly, limbs gad about,
horses buckle back upon themselves -
empty out like exhausted bellows.
A beggar (in nameless rags) calls
out in either prayer or curse to
the desert night first refuge for saints;
Cross and Crescent belch fire.


*


Forty thousand tons. Space
dust, diamond and sapphire, snips
of light, collect on earth yearly.
Dust breaks bread on our too dusty
planet; on our twice dusty planet;
on our overly dusty planet made
available to wind; dust breaks
down glaciers. Broken deserts from
sand storms deliver dinosaur dust,
highways loosen tyre dust, your
home a time capsule - our earth bent
dustward forsworn to decay.


*


A giallo antico moon framed
within cratered ruins. Country turned
up at the edges like a dirty postcard.
Poplars, broken spars of pine,
cypress. Dusty plane trees rubbed raw
by abrading tanks in the market
square. Two ambulances shoved aside.
Kabul. The Republic of Georgia's
snowy mountains [backdrop to some
desolate soccer field]. A few lean
men shouldering grenade launchers pass
by and grin, heading for the glacire.


*


'The Breaking of Nations'
a horse cough, as history laments
its own passing. What ghosts
urge these riots? Memory is dead,
flags and banners dissolve back
into thoroughfares. The East
is reliquary; bone splinter and shrapnel
mixed in daily. What ghosts urge
these riots? Barbarism looms in
the triumph of immediacy, a final exit
from the Garden of Eden, bombs
bristling moments ago at cockcrow.


*


'A line is taking a full-stop
for a walk,' said Klee. A straight
line is the supreme act of cruelty;
is intent without reprieve, ambush
and final judgement; Alpha
and Omega, the beginning and end,
(bullet-to-victim); the scroll of
credits, a squadron of lines;
the banding of speech, a geology
of sound; the blade tilt of horizon
that bloodies a sun; is gravity
compressed and a disk flung wide,
is flatness departing life to nothing -
spear cast on a plain at sunset.


*


Buildings off the crustal shelf,
drop shouldered - lean to, against the
sky in crazy surrealist back drop,
expressionist haze is shock amongst
rubble and safety helmets spotted
lamp-lit - an engine harvests an infant,
luckily, dead pale but pained; dust
cakes sudden caves by a broken
10th floor grounded, bedraggled beneath
re-inforcing caged. Tectonic plates
lock brake drums an instant on the
Richter scale. Taiwan slips
                on the tooth of a cog.


*


Generalization of Old World
caught in the plane's sweep. Look up!
sound makes memory after.
Dragging loss is violence; O ye
who suffer banishment, nourishment
grounded. Dearth 'tis. Rabble is
ordinary, a thing apart, the jackal
at play, toying with world's diamonds,
spittle aglitter. Laughter strewn,
down-compressed to mud. From whence
the swing and arc, blood's roar rose,
gave judder to the first step - before
the word, the wind in the word;
rabble speech was. In the beginning.


*


CEOs in castles cascade
in cash, silent as a cyber virus -
the invisible hides cause-and-effect,
stock taken, bartered in Japan -
via Belarus every back yard where
falls a city's shadow looming
over the last, dead chimney pot,
not even moon can empty its
chamber pot of yellow, silver slops
into alleyways crackling with
plastic syringes, used condoms,
blood trails, slewed off into a
wilderness of free ways, high rise.
O the dead arise in elevators nightly
as Pharisees burst into the Temple.


*


Footprints for satellites?
An old game. The Mayas knew it;
land forms camouflaged, star
charts, airy bestiaries, eagle, lama,
beastback mountain sides, white
pebbled Milky Way, an ancestral
footbridge. Look down or up,
backwards or forwards. Weirdly,
rotating our options, weighing odds;
caught in bristling cyberspace
or a stone corbelled chamber.
Either way, it'll make you dizzy.
Once is as it ever was, ever shall be:
Gods walk out upon a path of stars.


*


Is recollection seeing anew,
old pieces, rearranged, seemingly?
Letting go of nothing suggests: -
(like) air conditioning, computer hum.
Waiting for nothing. Omphalos;
world-centre, mind nadir, still point
about which everything revolves.
God's paper chase. Omphalos,
mind's umbilical. Stone sunk
to bottom of the lake is memory,
incarnation. Mind skip back before
instinct saw dark eclipse. Sky shield.
Moon boss. Through vast chthonic
reservoirs, horizon, swept aside.


*


So. Earth's most dramatic
'bald spot', (ozone hole) is down
to 15 million sq miles over
Antarctica as of Oct, 2002. Shrinkage,
Big Time. One year's reading on
reduced cfcs doth not a trend make.
Is this happy hour? Fewer recalcitrants
maced? Hair-gel instead of hair
spray? Asthmatic winds rake pebbles
in dry Arctic valleys. Presidents
and dictators square off. Puritanism
v Tribalism. Doomsday's a
syndicated affair. Life's Good.


*


I wanted to reach my hand into
the side of that mountain.
The Romans waited, the Jews died.
Made a sacrificial altar,
such as Abraham had to his God.
A small cave, pocketed at the
base of Massada. Better death than
surrender - a courageous act
for living against the odds. Day
by day danger renews, retribution
neither diminishes nor goes
away. To every Age a new generation,
bigger weapons to sound the void.


*


Your breasts in the mirror,
still life of gourds. Bossed shields.
The white-washed room peeled,
flaked, wooden shutters opened
on the small harbour quay -
a restaurateur tipped his garbage
casually into the Mediterranean.
A night of fish bones, cigarette butts,
bobbed in an oily slick. West,
into shadow, Ant’nošs anchored off
the headland, outboard silenced,
dynamite exploding like an octopus
under a shoal of fish beneath.


*


Alcatraz not Minoan ruins.
Morning mist hangs its garden off
Golden Gate bridge. Men in
fog loom large. Fog or ram's horn?
Container ship - warrior barge,
passes under with another load of
Japanese cars to feast upon
freeways. 'Straight guys are at a
premium' you said. (Or so I
overheard). Seven months under
your roof in your bed. I never got
to Texas - never hit Route 66.
Marooned on my Isle, deep within
that lustful, solitary confinement.


*


Do words bring to mind flat
sided buildings, cliff face, waterfall?
Each emotion to its respective
season and climate. Age means era,
epoch, each physical transformation
(our) body plays out. Journey
from foot to fossil print, the single
breath, misting to humidness.
Blood shadows a dense valley;
untidy buildings, an old saw-mill;
blood thins to Gods' ichor. I approach
you like a drive-in movie. Memory's
what we miss, we spool reels of it.


*


Serpent-backed bridge profiled:
the city, chalk-toned, laid out like a
shooting gallery. From Green
Point (sub-net ghosting to Georges
Head) a V of gulls speedily hugging
the harbour; its surface serried,
grey disturbances. Wind grain. Yachts
coasting, canvas slap. Manly ferries,
(green, beige upperwork) slide
between white, salt-shaker buoys.
Trouble in Paradise? Never!
Spring thunder ain't no car bomb.


*


One quadrant of sky turns,
face up, black as the ace of spades.
Much as a God can manage
muttering from the side of his mouth.
Star flecks, nova spittle. Rage of
emptiness pours through, for the hell
of it, endlessly. Looking back to
what beginning. The whole shebang
advances toward, beyond our
best efforts. We live under a Niagra
of star fall, huge optics dilate time,
blackness like velvet slips over
chrome. Sounds of nothingness
strung between a singlet of lights.


*


Barrel of the sun, gun-wad,
cloud packed, cools to Napoleonic
afterglow. The sun is soldier
and hero, after all; always on call
to strike the last pose, profiling
its rays across the grateful landscape.
Ragged mountains lift up to meet
it, plains puff out chests, the sea
a carnival of light, ice packs
bristle, glaciers growl. Time spins
on a coin. Horizon shakes its
dirty mat over cityscape, over glass
and concrete conspiracies -
roads burn fuses into nightways.


*


Rubbed off sky exposes an
undercoat of white that is really
fuzzed, mid-day heat. Birds
change over shifts. Things settle.
Shadow drops under eaves, tier
by tier. Melaleuca is a snowstorm
of bloom in a backyard.
Planes arrive from here and there;
holiday makers, the injured
and dead, today's interchangeable
destines. A night club blows up
in a tropical paradise. In the
slipstream above the stratosphere,
fear drifts about the globe
                as deadly pollen.


*


The day combustible as a
nightclub. Destruction works
in big, blunt gestures. An
explosion is no rediscovery, it's
return without guide to the
deepest sink hole from whence
hell's laughter issues. A
sucking into nothingness; void
behind the twin masks of
light and dark. Not repetition
but continuance. Pre-beginnings.
A precise point of death
qua death, not infinity but
limitlessness, pain's spectrum.



*


Compression of bees,
shrub-shaped, in proton loops,
on cushioned air. Spring!
See the counter, its bright ticking
with fail-safe growth. Who put
it there? this tubular, tight package,
green and red wires running to
hidden terminals - watch the numerals
flick over, air fill with warmth,
this thing ready to go off at a season's
notice, a bursting forth, flash
of filmic green and bloom
too quick to catch as we exit our
buildings in a rush to see it.


*


Scent makes the air visible,
seasonal; autumn lays its long
scaffolding of shadow under wood
smoke; winter smells of damp
brickwork; spring lifts the lid on
lighter smells - is something
between cleaning fluids or garden.
Only late at night true secrets
and scents are disclosed; summer
tightens. Scent is a map of an
ancient journey. The poem prints -
makes a seal of every season,
its message delivered and read.



An Actual Encounter With The Sun On
                  My Balcony At France Street

        ( for Gloria Schwartz )


When the moon slipped its knot
and left a ring for the night to drop
through, and a baggage of stars
thudded on the loading bay
at the other side of the world,


                                I heard,
"Ho! get up you slack-arse poet,
I want to have a word with you."


                It was the sun.


"This is a surprise," I yawned.


"Shouldn't be - you're the one whose
been whingeing about his own personal light."


                "I must admit," I conceded, "I
was worried there for a bit."


                "Right," answered
the sun. He spat at the window turning
it molten.


"You must know by now Stephen,
I visit with a poet every thirty years or so.
Last time it was Frank O'Hara,


                                and before that,
Mayakovsky. Can't say it's your turn
but I'll stop by anyway.


You're not a poet for all time but
for your own time. Don't worry about it.


And forget those supposed poets
the M=E=Z=Z=A=N=I=N=E=S as you call them


caught between the floors: they ain't going
nowhere.


        So get up and make a cup of tea!"


                "Sure, care to join me?"


"Only for a minute," he said, "I've got more
important things to do today, like glinting
off the Hauraki Gulf and the iron-clad poppy
of Sydney Tower.


                Oh, that reminds me,
then I'm off to San Francisco to wake up that
ex-girlfriend of yours you keep pissing
off with late night calls and false promises."


                        By now I could
see the sun was pretty worked up.


"C'mon, forget that crap.
You write some good stuff but you've got to
hang in there, and like me it'll
come to light."


                "Thanks sun."


"And knock off the guilt trips and stop
getting pissed (in your Sydney dreams, pal!) you'll
burn yourself out - I recognise the signs."


                "Yeah, seems I have been
a little preoccupied."


                The sun jumped onto my balcony
outside the window.


"You don't see much of me down here at
POETS' PALACE - do you?

Move over,
this is the only time I get a look in."


                I propped myself up
on one elbow.


                "Remember, you're not
writing bus-timetables and calling it
'performance poetry' like a few I
could name. Stick with the atmospherics,
the true essence of people.


That's your angle, as mine is now
to brow beat you.


And don't get into this doomsday kick
either, leave such things to the        (small minded).


                Honestly,
it's straight forward focus."


                By now my hangover had
evaporated.


                "Hold on sun,
I've a few questions."


"Sorry," called the sun, receding.


"We've had our little talk. Give my regards
to Greece again, if you ever get there."


                And he was gone
                                and I got up to
another beginning, and a day.



Stephen Oliver b. 1950. Grew in Brooklyn-west, Wellington, New
Zealand. One year Magazine Journalism course, Wellington
Polytechnic. Radio NZ Broadcasting School. Casual Radio Actor. Lived
in Paris, Vienna, London, San Francisco, Greece and Israel. Signed on
with the radio ship, 'The Voice of Peace' broadcasting in the
Mediterranean out of Jaffa. Free lanced as production voice,
newsreader, announcer, voice actor, journalist, radio producer, copy
and features writer. Poems widely represented in New Zealand,
Australia, Ireland, USA, UK, South Africa, Canada, etc. Recently
published, Ballads, Satire & Salt - A Book of Diversions, Greywacke
Press, Sydney, 2003. Recently completed a CD of poems and music,
titled: KING HIT Selected Readings - poems written and recorded by
Stephen Oliver with original music by Matt Ottley designed for
international release. He is a transtasman poet and writer who lives
in Sydney.


This book review is included by the request of the author,
and with permission of Nicholas Reid:


Stephen Oliver Deadly Pollen [Middletown NJ: Word Riot Press, 2003]; 
and Ballads, Satire & Salt [Sydney: Greywacke Press, 2003]. Review by 
Nicholas Reid. First Appeared: JAS Review of Books.

Stephen Oliver's anthology of 2001, Night of Warehouses, brought 
together the work of a poet who combines an astonishing facility for 
image with a complete assurance of voice, while showing a deep 
engagement with the poetic tradition .  Two new collections, Ballads, 
Satire & Salt and Deadly Pollen, will do much to extend that 
reputation. The former is subtitled 'A Book of Diversions' and 
displays Oliver's sardonic wit and verbal inventiveness,   along with 
a fine set of illustrations by Matt Ottley.  The book's light verse 
moves from political satire ('Think Big') to a series of reflections 
on the poets of this and the last generation,  ranging from Larkin 
and Auden to the major figures in recent  New Zealand writing. Wit 
explained is wit ruined,  however, and so I shall not comment at 
length on what is an impressive work.

Oliver's other new collection, Deadly Pollen, is an ambitious 
undertaking -  a meditation, in large measure, on Wallace Stevens and 
his legacy - and brings together thirty-five short lyrics into a 
loosely linked sequence which examines the state of the world after 
9/11. And the poem is not 'merely' political, for it diagnoses a 
state of spiritual malaise based on fear, a state of crisis in which 
the role of the poet is in question. So far, so good.  But if this is 
a crisis poem, it is also a crisis in which (and this is my 
reservation) I find it difficult to believe, though it has been the 
subject of much recent American commentary. And in any case, there is 
also an enormous amount to admire in the language and in the range of 
reference.

I can convey something of the fineness of Oliver's craftsmanship in 
his translation of Horace's 'Pyrrha' ode, a translation which  fits 
into Oliver's theme of disillusionment, and of his modernist distrust 
of beauty in person and in diction. The quiet intensity,  and the 
distanced,  almost intellectualized sensuality,  of the language in 
which Oliver brings alive the golden-haired Pyrrha, Horace's femme 
fatale, is perfect:

Pyrrha, your dewy hair,
yellow, scented, doubly wreathed
in Jasmine, fresh from the trellis
this morning.... (lyric 12)

Nor is Oliver's ambition here  as limited as it might seem, for in 
taking on such a translation Oliver is setting himself up against a 
history of translations,  and most notably one by Milton. It is a 
challenge in which he succeeds admirably.  And in the later lines of 
the lyric,  Oliver marks his disengagement  by a withdrawal into a 
more demotic register.  For while he is adept at finding occasion for 
the lyrical richness of which modernism was always suspicious, he 
also writes at times in a spare modern voice,  as in the following 
lines which may owe something to the New Zealand poet Curnow's 'Canto 
of Signs':

Rubbed off sky exposes an
undercoat of white that is really
fuzzed, mid-day heat. Birds 
change over shifts. Things settle.
Shadow drops under eaves, tier
by tier .... (lyric 32)

The language here has a powerful antipodean flatness, and depends on 
its laconic pauses. And if 'things settle', it is because, as the 
allusion to Yeats suggests,  things are about to fall apart;  and we 
move to images of Bali. Oliver goes on in a following lyric to 
demonstrate his gift for image, in his intense visualization of 
Spring's strange bloom, the terrorist's bomb:

Compression of bees,
shrub-shaped, in proton loops,
on cushioned air. Spring!
See the counter, its bright ticking
with fail-safe growth. (lyric 34)

Political poets do not always manage to capture so well the 
estrangement which is necessary for successful social comment.

Similarly, Oliver demonstrates an unsettled verbal mastery in a 
bravura display, a  description of architectural form:

... Complex of
accented runs, angles, drops, sluices,
pumps, ditches, endless unbowed
archways... (lyric 11)

The language here is finely controlled,  from the way in which the 
'x' sound is perfectly balanced in the opening phrase, to the series 
of falling monosyllables which are released in the enjambed 
expansiveness of the final phrase with its open vowels. The language 
is reminiscent of Les Murray's 'Bent Water' (surely Murray's 
masterpiece). But the lines I have just quoted continue in rhythms 
which, while still lyrical, are also more unsettling: 'archways, 
treatment ponds breaking into/sunlight'. For where Murray's language 
embodies a confident belief in God, Oliver's has been a celebration 
of a public sewer - and more to the point, a sewer envisioned but (in 
an act of creative failure) never built.

Late in the poem,  Oliver  brings together these themes in a grim 
reflection upon the role of the poet - in a voice in which the emotion 
is italicized but never allowed to run outside its bounds:

One quadrant of sky turns,
face up, black as the ace of spades.
Much as a God can manage
muttering from the side of his mouth.
Star flecks, nova spittle. Rage of
emptiness pours through, for the hell
of it, endlessly. Looking back to
what beginning. The whole shebang
advances toward, beyond our
best efforts. We live under a Niagra
of star fall, huge optics dilate time,
blackness like velvet slips over
chrome. Sounds of nothingness
strung between a singlet of lights.  (lyric 30).

This is vintage Oliver.  The language is elaborate, but perfectly 
judged, undercut by a colloquial impulse ('black as the ace of 
spades',  'for the hell / of it'). This undersong speaks of Oliver's 
awareness of his place as a poet of the vernacular republic; but it 
also speaks, in its use of cliche, of a loss of faith in the 
resources of poetic language. 

And something similar can be said of its use of Stevens,  for where 
Stevens is the poet who brought romantic metaphysics to its final 
crisis,  and with it the end of any hope of finding essential meaning 
in the world,  Oliver's use of Stevens here seems also an act of 
deliberate failure. The stanza  alludes to Stevens's Jove,  a false 
divinity who 'moved among us, as a muttering king' in 'Sunday 
Morning',  and to that poem's existential conclusion that  (contra 
Milton) 'We live in an old chaos of the sun'. Like Stevens in 'Key 
West', Oliver laments the 'Blessed rage for order',  the 'glassy 
lights' which gave a bogus sense of structure to the sea. But in a 
sense, and an important sense,  much of the language  of Oliver's 
stanza is the language of Stevens: it is an eloquent testament to a 
failure to find in the present a viable voice for poetry.

Clearly there is much in this sequence which I find powerful, and 
respond to warmly. Many of the lyrics are perfect, and thematically 
the poem  traverses many of the issues which are at the heart of 
poetry today:  from the modernist legacy of deep worries over memory 
and metaphor, to a more contemporary juxtaposition of dictions and 
registers, and a concern with post-modernism and the end of history.  
It is a sequence which is not afraid to take on Stevens, or Milton 
and Hardy and Auden. But I would like to see it slightly reshaped, 
for I feel that there is a great poem hiding in here somewhere, if 
only I could be persuaded more of its motivation. I think fear does 
lie at the heart of its psychology, but  the real fear is artistic 
rather than political; and if this could be worked more into the 
texture of the poem, along with some editing of the poem's  middle 
section, we would have a major achievement not only in Oliver's 
oeuvre, but in antipodean writing.





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