During the recent Dunedin Writers Festival Otago University Press launched the large and handsome A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie, edited by David Howard. Lonie, who worked in the Classics Department at Otago University, was an internationally respected medical historian, and died in Dunedin in 1988. My cover note for the volume touched briefly on my respect for his work:
I can’t imagine how we could over estimate just how much we owe to David Howard for this superb edition of Iain Lonie’s poems. Just as I, for one, can’t sidestep a certain shame at not realising until now how fine and important a writer Lonie was. He brought to his poetry the precision and clarity and intellectual force of a gifted classical scholar. He was patiently indifferent to passing fashions, with his own more enduring touchstones. And in a remarkable fidelity to the tides of his productive but troubled life, he wrote a body of poems on love and grief and the searing currents of remembrance that, in New Zealand writing, stands alone.
There’s so much more to be said about Lonie, and that is sure to be said now that this edition places him back among us. There’s a particular aptness too in my now being able to put a few of his poems on the National Library website. I began this laureate blog a couple of years ago with a poem of Allen Curnow’s, a tribute to the New Zealand poet who matters most to me. So how fitting that I end with the poet whose A Place To Go On From seems to me as significant as any single volume since Curnow’s own selected poems. As good a page as any to sign off on.
– Vincent O'Sullivan
Unattended crossing ahead
Some poems have no plan:
you simply have to be there to catch
the express when it whooshes through
and there’s no timetable.
Oh they’re not at all
like embroidery laid aside
taut in its drumlike frame
and awaiting a meditative hour.
Chance is all against them
they are unlikely as this love—
who knows when we’ll meet again?
And it’s not that we don’t want to—
but then the children, the grave demands
of time and place, our health even—
the years compacting around our roots—
perhaps it’ll always be like this?
Oh no, we say, we simply can’t!
seeing it all so clearly:
and yet we’re left breathless
standing here at the dusty crossing
while the red light bobs away
and the bell’s clang chokes in a country silence
thinking, I might have been on that train
thinking, it could have killed me.
I have not had the heart
to throw out these shoes, and so they lie
still mud-caked, at the bottom of a tin trunk.
Shoes should stand in neat pairs, or be walked in.
These lying in their bent shapes are like fragments
a boy breaks out from the context of a cliff
and stores in a box along with other stones
coins, cartridge cases, and other things labelled
with days and places, their native magic forgotten.
Death comes to all of us, watery eyed
trailing his black plastic bag and wanting things:
I’ve seen whole shopsfull of cracked shoes, in their pairs.
But today, woken early, just before dawn
by rain flung hard against the side of the house
I am not thinking of all that: today
we are going to take that famous walk
along the cliffs where the difficult path
lies deep in cowdung between the iron gates
past the cottage abandoned to the sea’s encroachment
down the dene, and over the little bridge
then up again to the cliffs on the other side
where, if we are lucky, we shall just see
parting through the mist, the castle’s twin towers
far to the north, and unattainable.
for Elizabeth Smither
With Everyman his owne Shipwright in one hand
this rusted chisel in the other, I pick up
the principles as I go
(I’m gouging a lot of trees)
We must start with detail
(I’m wasting a lot of time)
A treenail’s made from trees, that’s why
it’s called a treenail. Or because it holds
(I get things half right).
First fashion your treenail: everything
is in the detail: for servants of the Lord
this holds in carnal matters: carpentry
child-begetting, the chapel’s business.
From one treenail another will come
from many treenails a floatable canoe
(I am making a sensible advancement).
But first you must
open your tree
are close things
like one flesh, like
of earth and water
unwilling to be flayed
into dripping slabs.
your chisel’s made
a new surface, displayed
its whiteness to the light.
The Lord’s work, that.
Or a butcher’s.
Do nothing for a bit: listen to the surf
and think hard about trees: how, left alone
they turn themselves into banana shapes, or how
they hold a man’s curve like a hammock, ride
the big winds without going under.
Think then of canoes, how stem and prow
hold themselves together like hands in prayer:
how they’ll always want to be
splaying themselves back into trees again
lying horizontal under the heavy sands
and sending up the green shoots vertical.
I see something of the art, it has more
of woman’s witchcraft than it has of detail
a thinking yourself into things. The art
is to take trees apart in so gentle a way
that they’ll hold themselves together for you
in a different shape, the living vessel
that bounces on the waves. It’s not about detail—
it’s more like prayer. You have to ask for the shape.
It’s more like love. You have to pity the tree.
It’s more like grief. You have to let things die
in their own gentle way
to sail off from the island.
Cover image: The Centurion’s Servant (1914), Stanley Spencer, oil on canvas, © Tate, London. Book designed and typeset by Damian Love.
Long after the sun had gone
three poets sat on, talking.
The first said:
though not a religious man
I see that wrong we do ourselves
and the earth, sometimes righted by a natural good.
What else is there worth speaking of?
The second said:
though not a religious man
I hear sometimes voices penned in things
claim utterance such as makes the light
ripple out eastward over folded hills.
The third said:
though not a religious man
I think that if I shouted loud enough
the sound would not travel out forever
but find some foreign shore to break against.
And darkness fell
in its silent wave upon
all choices right and wrong;
upon the cities and the hills
silence upon silence.
The house of childhood
I watched you walk along that mile of beach
to the house at the end of the beach
the home I’d pointed out, the house of childhood.
How well I remembered the garden, its grey stone wall
the stone rest in the garden, overlooking the sea.
And so you set off bravely, to walk that mile
staggering now and then in the sand that ran to you until
the sun blazed overhead, to the right the sea shimmered
I watched you walking that mile, your figure grew smaller and smaller.
Out of the sea’s shimmer came the faint crying
of voices subdued by the sea and the view.
I remembered the stone rest, the thyme scent of the garden
and beyond the stone wall, the sea splashing in the evening.
I pointed all this out to you, this house of my childhood
and watched you set off towards it, staggering slightly
not looking back, growing smaller and smaller
until you passed into the sand, into the stone wall
and under the garden, the earth of the garden, under the sea.
The National Library thanks Otago University Press for their assistance in the preparation of this blog post.