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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 19. 3rd August 1972


page 12



Drawing of a baby

Last year, with considerable blarings and trumpetings, a little press started publication in Dunedin. In the short span of time since then this press has produced four books of poetry, a couple of broadsheets, and a literary magazine. To set the seal on this not inconsiderable achievement Trevor Reeves has now printed and published a volume of his own poetry.

Trevor Reeves has two styles of composition. One is a lighthumoured artificing with letters and words. He calls these creations 'concretes', as distinct from poetry. Stones shows another more serious Reeves. The poetry in this volume is, by contrast, restrained. There is even something wholesome and oldfashioned in it:

The evening's breath is tending day
as water washing the sand
wind whispers swell silver dawn
above compelling land
O for the light deepening in arches
the thrust in swirling darkness
to hold in warm embrace
my world immersed embalmed in peace

Reeves does not explore the human condition. Instead he conducts a painstaking description of objects and events, either of nature or domestic life, frequently finishing with some bland statement of attitude that other poets would be more likely to take as a starting point:

and her mother
are somewhere,
making up thin cow's milk
and the man has come
to stop the road leaking;
everything is flowing again
without being stained
by the earth

everyone is growing up

we are going to become old
without moaning

The wholesome feeling about his poems comes from the events Reeves concentrates on. Rambles in the countryside, Christmas at home with the family, the value and nature of 'love'; this is the material that he fashions. Nowhere is there mention of war, of violence, of the city, of alienation, of drugs, or of any deeply felt human relations. Reeves seems to be living in an oasis remote from the troubles and hangups of modern living. I cannot entirely remove from my mind the absurd picture of a righteous country squire, living a circumscribed but honest and satisfying existence.

Reeve's poetry has many limitations. His major flaw, apart from the elegant aloofness of his themes from modern existence, is that many poems are overwrought. The exquisiteness of the scene, instead of being conveyed by a few accurate brushstrokes, occasionally dominates the entire painting:

the sudden summer snow
topples under a fresh breath
untangling silt
to soft patterns
in the valley.

But this is rather a fault of the school of writing to which this poetry belongs, a school led by people like Curnow and Fairburn. Given the limitations of this romantic / descriptive style, Trevor Reeves wins many points. Though not as precise as Sam Hunt in his descriptions his imagination and humour are certainly greater. His sense of humour appears in poems such as Grimace:

The years have condemned their own passions
never forget that day bowed
grinding brush and soft polish
when you put fresh cream in your coiffure
and stirred yourself gently...

or Ressurexit:

and the stone
rolled away
and farmer brown's dog
howling at the frozen glow
of he
who moved uprightly out
into the children's and
the weepers air
bore in
and tore flesh
and he
lashed back
with his still bloody feet
then tore off
into the distant
and who followed?
a number of notebook-toting teetotallers

In his best poems the very stylised, unassuming, flat writing becomes honed to a masterfully controlled expression. The Fall shows Reeves at his best, and is worth quoting in full:

and they told
how Bela Bartok
leant his ear out
of his top story
nu york hotel
to listen to the
traffic sounds
and the dance hall
down the street
too far
and he fell out
glorying in the greatest
glissandi that man alone
had ever created
finishing on a diminished
as all his things do
rather mysteriously

Finally, I must comment on the standard of Bill MacKay's illustrations. The idea of having books of poetry illustrated is commendable especially when the drawing are of the standard shown in this volume. In fact the whole quality of production is excellent, in particular considering the limitations of working part-time on a secondhand press. Trevor Reeves should certainly be proud of this little volume.

Crossing the Bar:

Crossing the Bar is not, as one might suppose, reminiscences of a balmy sea voyage, it refers to the world record for the high jump, and here becomes Stead's celebration of imperfection -

"Only the whole man
jumps his own height."

Crossing the Bar is an interesting parabola of Stead's work, as always full of echoes and recording his susceptability to pulse and impulse. Like Smithyman he uses an impressionist technique, though more consistently lyrical: his are phrases to evoke and release; his tone of one constantly refreshed with the familiar and unfamiliar perspective of himself.

"Don't imagine
I'm going to lie beside you
as a young sibling
Like an ageing parent.
Don't believe
This mouth, these eyes
Speak for the whole man
or that the rational brow
Accounts for more of me
Than the goat in the thighs".

Stead has called his poems "Responses to occasions": insofar as each poem is an image concentrating on itself, this is true of Crossing the Bar, as in Heracles 3;

"Live in the present.
Lose yourself there.
Trees, children, those freesias
By the brick border
Become what you see."

However he never becomes what he sees in any abstract sense because his poetry is a frank reminder of the demands of personality, often with an ironic humour directed at himself, Lines concluding a Public Lecture on Poetry & Criticism 1966. Having once remarked that he thought poetry has no designs on the world, Stead, in Crossing the Bar, has not lost this happy perspective. He makes no attempt to inform, he simply expresses, often wry, and often delighted. The first section, You have a lot to lose, displays less of the more serious flavour apparent in the earlier poems in the third section, which contain, for me, a sometimes weighty apprehension of himself as a poet.

"Sing a waste of dreams that are
caressing, moist, familiar."

In the title poem there is a rather more caustic and sidelong glance

"Poets at the last are deft.
I contract to that end
My second-best art."

If at times, ther appears a somewhat dissonant note recalling the Elvis era

"Ceasar, you were everybody's baby
But not mine",

the more recent poems generally are more stringent:

"Happy birthday Shakespeare
the comedy of errors escalates"

(April Notebook). Stead's tone is sure, he is indeed deft, but more than that, he accepts the responsibility of his verse.

"What there was between us
Unique In no way extraordinary
Is a private world.
Today the public world is as before."

(Herakles VII Crossing the Bar is chiefly remarkable for its expression of lucid and often lyrical restraint.

"They told me hell
was full of noise. None of it came to me."

(Letter to the Enemy).

Earthquake Weather:

Reading Smithyman is again a kind of shadow boxing with syntax. But it is not merely the exercise of the gut intellectual, it is rather a need to be honest. He is the last poet to consider compromise, and his lyric flourishes

("Hard from the sun's heart sets a flight
a score of phoenix birds, superbly the late citizens
of night.")

are contained in colloquial and often adumbrated impressionist language, which is his testament to awareness. As in Transit lounge, Singapore, Smithyman recalls his U.S. Marine

"He does not approve or disapprove. He takes part", His verse follows (often abbreviated) through patterns not demands of metre, and Earthquake Weather presents a series of reflections on patterns, on moments, on possible significance, without ever including the dangers of being adamant. These are the musings and cogitations of a man aware of himself and what is around him. Smithyman's is the meticulous gesture.

"I have picked pockets
of several shrouds and more than one
fashion of shroud, for crummiest of crumbs
driest fragments, dust of droppings bone flakes."

(Research Project). Earthquake Weather illustrates a kind of resignation, a quieter, more sinewy (if sometimes contorted), tone than his earlier verse. It shows Smithyman now declining to supplicate or demand, but observing as in

"Stones, pavings, columns, the arches
they do not speak to you. Their point is abnegation
of metaphor, but how usefully they have you look
into the character of caring."

(Kirkstall Abbey). It is no longer the tone of Apologia (1965)

"which asks you to sustain my claim to move
your charity",

but the terser

"what remains stands literal
not inviting dramatics."

(Kirstall Abbey). The only positive stance taken by Smithyman in Earthquake Weather is the refusal to supply the comfort of definition. It is not mere abstraction, he combines sharp use of image with an atonal resonance, resulting at times in an almost geometric discipline — How To Make A Mountain In Six Modes. He represents both the power and inadequacy of language, leaving the rest to his reader:

"We communicate, in the reasonant silences
between my words. Also, are your words. "

— Lydia Wevers.