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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 2 4 March 1970

Book Review

page 14

Book Review

This slim but costly volume of verse contains work published since Our Burning Time (1965). The cover design (two rouge-royal rectangles on a field griseous) is by Ralph Hotere, and betrays the minimal nature of the writing it encloses. Indeed, the larger part of the verse self-destructs immediately upon entering the brain. Most of it is mediocre in conception and tedious in execution.

The central failing of this poet is his inconsistency of method. Most often his style is [unclear: grandiose] beyond the merits of his subject-matter. The irrelevance of his usually opaque imagery shrinks the mind with wonder, agonisingly so in the poem In Every Casual Flower. O'Sullivan attempts to manure his barren poetic plot with startling and profuse images which obscure rather than illuminate his meagre meanings. He should heed what Ogden Nash said wryly and rightly:

One thing literature would be greatly the better for Would be more restricted employment of simile and metaphor.

Like Matthew Arnold, O'Sullivan is fascinated by the sea as a symbol of human hope and reason. His Island Bay is almost an echo of Arnold's Isolation. Associated images of rivers, winds, harbours and bridges reinforce the poet's concern for what is unplumbed in this world. If one is a bad poet, one should always attempt to fathom the unfathomable. He writes that seas/Rub down rockiest quartz to smooth as glass, and does his best to convey intimations of a mystic way — entirely Other — of seeing the earth and men:

And the thin muffling, oh how far above,
Of nothing we name for certain.

And again:

I know the vase of flowers beside the game
Is on the verge of nothing,
Is on the edge of something.

He does tire one's patience, however, by re-opening the debate between passion and reason. His poems about women ('girls'), too, weary the reader with their one-sidedness. He sees women as mediocre and threatening, even cruel. Chaucer's Man of Law could see the serpent under femynynytee, and O'Sullivan associates snakes with women in three separate poems. Love is one of the many subjects which encourage the poet to subside into a slough of sentimentality: as he himself puts it — sentiment in my head/Roaring and roaring like some unnatural bird. The verse grows tacky and tear-spotted as O'Sullivan dedicates to his beloved some blades of grass her skirt has brushed: Hers too till earth on its last track has run . . . And, oh joy! when his soul claps with delight in In Every Casual Flower. The six stanzas of How to forget ... are not, after all, as maudlin as they first appear; but large tears of nausea trickled down the reviewer's cheeks as he read Each Poem I Write Is Yours. In matters poetical, sentimentality spreads a pall over this isolated land of ours.

O'Sullivan makes up for his loftiness of sensibility by occasionally posing as a man in the street. Well then, he will say in the middle of stanza; and where simile fails he can say almost, a kind of and or nearly. His uninventiveness in matters metaphoric drives him into neo-hopkinsian efforts like [unclear: guirky], skying, silkily and an odd group of negatives including ungems, unrusts, untins and many others. Poetry being an art which reveals essences and correspondences, it has no place for O'Sullivan's circumlocutions and obscurantist grammatical fantasies.

The reasons for the poet's failure are manifold but could be severally ascribed to his self-consciousness. This author, I feel, wants to be a 'poet'. He drops the occasional hint that his soul is not that of an ordinary mortal (as in No Secret and Evening), but he gives us meagre evidence to substantiate this claim. O'Sullivan is at his best when describing what affects him alone and not when he attempts to give strong thematic lines to his verse. So it is that his observations of nature are sometimes acute and startling, and almost always engaging.

Revenants is worth reading for the passable prose of Gaugin Painted a Lizard, the purely descriptive part of Time-piece and the wholly competent study of religious insanity in his prize-winning sonnet-sequence. As for the remainder, however, its obscurity, its violent shifts of tone, its perversity, its sentimentality and its self-consciousness will daunt all but the most selfless of readers.