Taking a Line for a Walk: The Poetry of Peter Olds

(Text of a talk I gave at Noticing Peter Olds, an informal symposium on the poetry of Peter Olds, organised by Jacob Edmond, Jenny Powell and Anna Jackson, and the University of Otago English Department, and held on Friday 27 September, 2019 in the University of Otago Business School building.)

New Zealand poet Peter Olds, photographed in Dunedin, October 2014 by Grutness. [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I want to argue that in the poetry of Peter Olds, any day is a good day for taking a line for a walk. As his numerous small publications over the years indicate, his poetry steadily accumulates day by day, made up of lines jotted down and going in and out of notebooks. These lines are the notations of a self-trained observer — gnostic gnawings on the bare bones of reality mayhap, but they always grounded in empirical observation, in tactile factuality. Whereas for some poets to make chin music is to offer a ruminative chewing on the cud of cliché at the pitch that flying insects enter the room, Olds resists falling into that trap by a certain alertness, a certain mental toughness, and by his hard graft of material fought for and processed in an attentive logic of sounds, as in the poem 'Bad Omakoroa' from the 2001 collection Music Therapy, published by the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, which opens:

            Walking past the place where Mrs D
            was smashed to death by a speeding car
            as she crossed the road to check her letterbox.
            A pheasant breaks loudly from
            the avocado, flies out of sight
            behind a hedge of feijoa.
             A blue heron circles the sky.
            Pukeko scatter from a vegetable plot.

Peter Olds, rather like Seamus Heaney, digs with his pen. He digs into his own sensibility, he digs up memories and so digs the song of himself, and we dig it, too, as we read, finger-clicking figuratively along with him, digging that bop, that beat, that mysterious current of energy that flows through the ordinary made strange, or at least made curious, absurd, wry, droll, memorious, and recalled as through a glass, darkly.

The poem 'Butcher shop' in the booklet Reaching for the Baxters (published by the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop in 2007) begins:

            I'm in the Rhubarb Café drinking delicious English breakfast.
            This café's a converted butcher shop ...
            ...                             you can imagine blood splattering up
            the pretty white tiles ...
            [and so on, and then the poem twists mordantly]
            ...                                 ... Trini Lopez begins to
            shout 'If I had a hammer' as I walk out into the blinding sun and
            across the bridge to the spot where I last saw L, late one night

            just before Christmas ...
            ...                                 and we walked together down the length of
            Highgate shouting and yakking our heads off, and hating Christmas.
            And three weeks later they found her dead in someone's woodshed.

Like James Joyce in his novel Ulysses, Peter Olds is interested in what a single day may be capacious enough to hold, but whereas for Joyce June 16th, Bloomsday, became the day of days, holding all others in a mystical chalice or Grail, day incarnate and revelatory, Peter olds positions every day as superabundant, or at least full of promise, full of quicksilvery essence, oceanic existence.

Take virtually any poem for proof of this. Take 'Graveyard Beach, Omimi', published in Music Therapy:

            And thousands of sandflies hover over
            the smooth-worn cow dead in the rocks
            skin blackened by salt & sun, goose eggs
            laid in its bones, belly evaporated.
            Two other fresh-dead cows fallen over
            the cliff at night,
            legs broken, wedged in rocks.
            One plucked goose stiffened in the
            attitude of flight. Four ewes
            dead from giving birth in a creek-slit
            on the edge of the slippery shore.
            Three paradise ducks circle the sky,
            their high-pitched calls mingling
            with the sounds of thousands of sandflies.

Quite an apocalyptic vision, a modest apocalypse, perhaps, but its sentiments endorse those of John Betjeman in his poem 'Slough': '... swarm over death!'

And so — life, death, greed, humanity, poverty, gentrification, Methodism, bees, love, spirituality, medication, buses, trains, clapped-out pre-War Fords, and an immaculately restored white Oldsmobile Convertible with pink vinyl hood: these are some of the threads, some of the chains of coincidence, continuity and being that run through and animate the verses of Peter Olds, his personal vision rolled round in earth's diurnal course with rocks and stones and trees.

Looking over the diary-like oeuvre, the  methodical corpus of this poet, it is inevitably now vast, a kind of moth-eaten musical brocade, to steal a line from Philip Larkin, embroidering on days where we live.

Poem titles give some idea of special days, through truly every day is special, even unique: 'Anzac Day in the Rooming House', 'Hiroshima day/ 11 am (for Yuri Matsuma)', 'A Cold August Night in the Captain Cook Tavern', 'Morning Picture of South Dunedin'.

Now, you may say such titles suggest a stasis, merely pictorial representations of one damned thing after another. But you would be wrong. Olds is a master of laconic comedy, offering us  delicate absurdist perceptions robustly expressed: childhood winter mornings in an antiquated Christchurch, a portrait of his father as 'a clergyman sitting up in bed ... rolling a racehorse cigarette', a glancing view of a dog described as ' a walking/ chucked-out bargain basement carpet'.

Bringing it all back home, nailing those thoughts, hunkered down in various attics, garrets, boarding houses, flats, Olds weaves a consciousness of the moment into a personal mythography, as in this from 'A plate of lamingtons' in You Fit the Description: the Selected Poems of Peter Olds, (Cold Hub Press, 2014):
            The smoke on the hill's from the crematorium,
            OK if you're into backyard fires and don't suffer delusions.
            You could have nightmares worrying about the future,
            who moves in next door,
            shall we sell the second car,
            you'll have to walk to work,
            jog off the cholesterol.
            You've got a job,
            you've got a cellphone,
            I've got a lamington —
            I must come again
            I must come again.

But if  Peter Olds is a bard of the modern urban alienated condition, where did it all begin? It began back when the word was God, and his voice palpable in a1940s Sunday School. It began when a girl asked Marlon Brando in the movie The Wild One as he revved up his motorcycle, where are you going? And he replied, 'Oh man, we just gonna go', echoing Jack Kerouac's On the Road: 'Where we going, man?''I don't know but we gotta go.' And so go became the watchword of the beat generation, reaching New Zealand and its 1950s bodgies and widgies, and reaching Peter Olds, too, as he recalled in his 2012 jukebox poem 'Love Me Do/1963':

            We helped the minister's wife cut layers
            of rotted cloth off drunks
            yellow-skinned with booze
            in the hostel shower ...
            we were 'The Boys',
            Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney imitators.
            At the slot of a coin on Ponsonby Road,
            Auckland turned on a needle.

That socio-cultural restlessness led him off the rails, too, as he wrote in 'On Probation' in Lady Moss Revived (Caveman Press, 1972):

            I their shiftless longhaired masterpiece
            edge towards the courthouse
            to face the animal of nightmares ...

These were the Elvis years, the Beatles years, the borstal years, the Dylan years, pop, hippies, psychedelics, the heart of the Sixties and out the other side, post-revolution, post Zabriskie Point, into R.D. Laing anti-psychiatry country, navel-gazing, boiled cabbage and rooming houses, sherry, port wine and roll-your-owns, and on into therapy, abstinence, Zen Buddhism — a relentless psychic cartography winding out of the beatified, beatnik self.

Peter Olds was one of Ginsberg's original angel-headed hipsters in this country, hopped up on Mandrax under the bright red neon HYDRA bacon factory sign that loomed over Ponsonby ridge at Three Lamps. In those days, poets had mana as figureheads of the counterculture, the spiritual children of William Blake, celebrating spontaneity of feeling and expression. Rejection of materialist values was a virtue and madness itself was considered a kind of holy state, a form of inner enlightenment. And yet the truth was always more complex. Peter Olds was there in slum landlord Spring Street, or in a doss house in Wellington Street, a crash pad in James K. Baxter's Boyle Crescent, and writing furiously, getting it all down day by day on paper, though days themselves were elastic back then and sometimes snapped back and even split into pieces.

There were the early phantasmagorias, compounded of amphetamine psychosis, delerium tremens and Visions of Johanna: words, words, words, the incurable itch leading to poet to commit pen to paper — all of a piece with the poet's quotidian routine, years ago today, when he shuttled like a yoyo between Auckland and Dunedin, thumb out looking for the ghost of a 1937 Ford with a V8 motor barrelling down the highway, and looking to catch a ride or a poem or both.

Even back then Olds was a flaneur, keenly observing, keenly noticing, while taking a line for a walk. As he wrote in 'In Auckland', published in 1972's Lady Moss Revived:

            Tonight I am walking to the point of your face.
            Climbing through another part of town,
            the boundaries of a large suburban shell —
            the junk-yard where the poverty-angels fade —
            where dark-skinned beer-lovers
            grab for the warmth of a dim pie-shop light,
            where the man seems to be going in circles,
            where each face beside me looks wild
                                    and driven from its home —
            lips kissing the sky of illusion goodbye
                                    into the crooked chimney tops —
            drunk for another day
            another dollar dead.

I'd like to finish with the first part of a poem which we could take as a kind of ongoing manifesto for this poet, one that emphasises a hunter-gatherer quest for experience, for epiphany, for spiritual sustenance. It's the start of a poem entitled 'Surfcasting instructions' which first appeared in the 2005 Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop booklet After Reaching for the Baxters, and the poem itself is dedicated to the late John Dickson, poet and legendary sidewinding raconteur.

            You need the agility of a spear-throwing warrior
            the feet of a high jumper

            and the deft hand of a pool-player.
            You need to run head first

            fearless into the frothing surf, and
            in an instant of non-thinking, cast your line —

            swivel round like a shot-putter and bolt back

            into the tussock sandhill like Jack lovelock
            bony finger extended skyward off

            the running line,
            the line itself streaming over your shoulder

            out of the twelve-foot rod's hot bamboo tip
            the bait sinking fast down through beery foam
            to the crab-holed floor.

No comments: