Anyone interested in writing from the First World War, or the towering figure of Robert Graves in twentieth century poetry, is likely to know Dunstan Ward as the editor, with Beryl Graves, of the splendid three volume Carcanet edition of Robert Graves: Complete Poems. He was also the editor of Gravesiana, and the president of the Graves Society.
Dunstan Ward. Photo by Véronique Ward-Viarnes.
Dunstan Ward grew up near Palmerston in Otago, took his degree at Canterbury, taught at Waikato University, and for the last forty years has lived in Paris, where he recently retired as Professor of English at the University of London Institute in Paris. I’ve admired him for decades as a scholar, critic and editor; I can now add as a poet, as a voice that brings fresh inflections to poems that are both commemorative and immediate, ruminative and acerbically direct. Steele Roberts will publish his Beyond Puketapu in May this year, and his work is soon to appear in the PN Review. In the meantime, here are some of his poems.
– Vincent O’Sullivan
Snow in Paris
It is snowing minutely,
too light to last
on the muted streets;
it lifts and spins
from grey slopes of roofs
above silent courtyards,
like spray from breakers
or sand that gusts
across windy beaches;
but enough remains
to whiten the narrow
lines of slates,
tracks in frost
on early morning hillsides,
not yet effaced.
His father is shouting.
He can hear him from the back yard
where he has been sent out
to the hard sunlight.
There’s another drought.
It’s worse than the last.
‘A curse on this place.’
‘I’m no more than a rouseabout.’
‘I wish I had never married you.’
‘A man could cut his throat.’
What does his mother reply?
He starts to feel afraid for her,
creeps into the kitchen again.
His father turns, stares. He tries to say
‘I’m sorry, please stop quarrelling.’
Carefully, his father explains
he is too young to understand.
‘Your mother and I are just talking.
Now you stay outside.’
His face is shaking.
The shouting gets louder.
He climbs over the Calf Paddock gate,
runs down the hill to the flat
and lies on his back in the dry grass.
All round him there’s nothing else.
He looks up into the endless blue.
Who can he tell?
No one is here but himself, alone
with the dying grass, the empty sky.
He lies and listens to the silence:
only, at times, faintly, the wind,
a sheep calling, a seagull crying...
Far away in the house
his father, he knows, is still shouting.
At the Poet's Grave
Carved on Don Roberto’s grave
by a villager with a simple stick
before the plain cement had set
is no verse, just his name, two dates,
one word to define the endless quest
that led to this height above the sea,
his fate ‘to die and die’ on the way.
Need for entrancement drew him here,
bemused by the shifting shapes of love,
girlish boy, boyish girl, goddess, witch;
nearing mid-point in his writing life
he wrote, ‘My health as a poet lies
in my mistrust of the comfortable
point-of-rest.’ Does he lie there at last?
Three last letters on his grave
wish him (in Spanish, not in Latin)
to rest in peace, but at its head
the cypress that stirs in the sea wind
seems to inscribe unrest, like
those green woods in lines he placed
on the final page of his last book.
Killed in battle at twenty-one,
drowned in nightmare of love’s dissolution,
did the poet then die as he’d foreseen –
muse-maddened, rabbiting on, until
lost in no-man’s-language between
and silence he feared beyond the line?
Did he lose his gift, or give it away?
Between his name and his life’s dates
just one word (Spanish, Latin)
to tell his story (one story only?) –
doomed pursuit of a high calling,
poetic life for love of the mythic
Muse-woman moon-Goddess: ‘Poeta’.
A day that alights
Like a bird on your table,
A bright ladybird
On the back of your hand:
‘Nothing stays’ –
Take wing with the day.
‘No, it’s not my country,’
admits the expat
with the panama hat
and disgruntled air
as he knocks back his pastis,
‘but that’s neither here nor there.’
What Henry Knew
Henry James knew
every turn of the screw.
Lesser lights might dread to be extinguished:
the Master greeted death as ‘distinguished’.
Ezra Pound who shouted ‘MAKE IT NEW’
renewed the same old hatred for ‘the jew’.
(creative writing class)
This is the first line of the poem.
It has four stresses, which is less stressful
than five, ‘inviting unfortunate comparisons’
as noted by a friend who’s a famous poet.
That feminine ending might prove problematic
(quite apart from the ‘gender question’),
setting a pattern that has to be broken (or kept).
As for what the poem’s about,
it’s best if the poet discovers this
only when the poem is finished (or stops);
knowing the ending can spoil the story
for the storyteller as well (teleology),
and anyway there should be no story to tell –
stories are written about something, whereas
a poem, ideally, is not about anything,
it unparaphrasably is (or so that story runs).
The poem’s supposed to ‘write itself’; however,
the poet’s more likely to write him/herself instead –
fine for a Byron or Heaney, but few of us are,
and while there may not be many reliable rules
when it comes to writing (or ‘composing’) poems,
this one, I find, almost always applies:
if your poem has the word ‘poem’ or ‘poet’ in it,
An Academic's Prayer
‘Lord, you are just. For my intellectual pride,
you kept me for decades under the puffy thumb
of a psychopathic mediocrity,
weasel-minded, aesthetically tone deaf,
abusing petty power to lie to committees
and block the lives of those whose talents he lacked.
Now we have both retired I only meet him,
still in the same clothes, still smelling the same,
at colleagues’ funerals, where I have to endure
hearing him praise lost friends that he despised.
In the night I see him stand above my coffin.
Let me not die, dear God, till after his death.
I will light a candle for him at your altar,
and one last time I’ll try to hold my breath.’