Salt River Songs by Sam Hunt (Potton and Burton, 2016), 72 pp., $24.99; And So It Is by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, 2016), 96 pp., $25
When I lived in Northland I once saw Sam Hunt sitting outside a cafe in Whangarei, like a piece of gnarly, bleached driftwood that had washed in on the tide. He must’ve popped over for the day from his home on the Kaipara Harbour. The Kaipara is one of those estuarine, liminal places where the sea fingers its way inland and edges are blurred; it has its own atmosphere and smell, mudflats and rock oysters and brine and mangroves. I nearly bought a beach cottage there: it was cheap and had a view of the water coming in and going out and the oystercatchers with their bright orange beaks patrolling up and down the shoreline. It seemed a sleepy, quiet place, where you noted things like that. Of course I didn’t buy it, it was too far from anywhere, but I felt the pull of it, of another kind of life. That’s the life Sam Hunt has always favoured, on the crepuscular, blurred edges of things, isolated, within sight and smell and sound of the sea:
Never the sparkling waters
or the beautiful daughters
as sparkling as they be –
it’s a muddy creek for me
twisting and turning
on Kaipara time
floating down stream.
On the next tide, returning.
(‘Salt river songs’)
The tide ebbs and flows throughout this collection, a trope for mortality. Death is much on Hunt’s mind:
On Kaipara time
he died and the family
joined hands like the five
salt rivers of the Kaipara
each of them knowing
it would soon be for them
the tidal clocks chime
on Kaipara time.
(‘Salt river songs’)
In its ceaseless repetition, the movement of tides raises questions about the meaning and value of life, beyond the natural cycle:
the lost are lost,
there is no finding them,
there’s no way home:
a fisherman dead, wet sand,
taken by a rogue wave
(‘Just in case’)
Yet within this bleak framework, Hunt does not despair. The human spirit may be all there is, but it is enough. The same poem ends:
But we keep on looking.
Tonight, under a blood moon.
Just in case.
At 70, Hunt is less fearful of death than he is curious. In an imagined phone call with his father, he asks, ‘What’s it like dead?’ (‘Nurse Hayes musings’). And in the following poem, ‘What’s that country through the Pass – / the Big Beyond – what’s it like?’ (‘The Big Beyond’). The speaker in these poems communes with animals and trees about these things in a way that should sound sentimental, mawkish, but doesn’t. Really he’s sort of muttering to himself, and we don’t so much read as overhear:
I was moving the cattle earlier,
told them We’re in this together,
we’re headed for the Works,
no one pumping the brakes:
no one, I told them,
is giving a damn –
the stock truck’s on its way.
And later found myself talking
to nodding tops of totara:
told them I’d no idea
how all of this started, or how
(when it does) it stops.
The trees agreed.
And it just got quieter.
That last line clicks into place, as so many of Hunt’s last lines do. Not all the poems are elegiac, though most of them look back more than they look forward. Hunt is consciously working within a literary tradition, and his borrowings and allusions are there for those who would look for them. Yeats, of course, and Keats, Dylan Thomas, Baxter and Allen Curnow are among his forebears. I don’t think many women feature in Hunt’s canon. In ‘My father’s waistcoats’ he riffs on Seamus Heaney’s early poem, ‘Digging’. Just as Heaney acknowledges he will never be the man with a spade his father was – ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’ – Hunt ‘never went with the law / like my father would have liked’. In Heaney’s poem, instead of a spade, he wields a pen: ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.’ Similarly, Hunt ‘got to swing juries – / like he said – swinging the lead’. ‘Swinging the lead’ puns on laziness and Hunt’s vocation, writing. In each poem, the poet expresses a sense of inferiority – the father looms large – but he does what is in him to do.
Vincent O’Sullivan is of Sam Hunt’s generation, more or less, and like Hunt’s, his poems tend towards elegy, recording losses with good grace and a wry stoicism. The world of O’Sullivan’s poems is one of reduced expectations, of making do, life’s small pleasures alleviating the general gloom. He doesn’t sentimentalise youth: when he says, ‘When I was a child most mornings shone as though / mornings weren’t quickly worn out’, he quickly adds, ‘I don’t believe as certain / big thinkers do I was trailing clouds of glory’ (‘Most mornings, sort of’). O’Sullivan is a post-romantic, well versed in the Romantics, and – again, like Hunt – in the Western literary tradition. His poems blend a local vernacular with an academic learnedness. At times that learnedness is a little wearyingly on display: in ‘The less than genuine article’, say, where O’Sullivan both complains about and exploits the use of the definite article at the end of a line of poetry, while slipping in the fact that Auden did it. Such poems have a kind of inconsequential wit: they’re clever, well made, but not worth the candle. Yet in a poem such as ‘Reading Akhmatova’, he conveys vividly what it is like to read the Russian poet’s work – and to imagine the life that fed the poems, while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility of doing so:
The closest we’re likely to come
is stirring a black pot on a kitchen
stove – and how distant that is,
you who were hungry not days but years,
and I, who have never gone to bed early
to dream about eating.
The slighter of the poems in this collection have a life’s-little-ironies feel to them; they begin with some small observation of the ‘A funny thing happened’ variety, without really opening up to something bigger, or deeper. So, over the space of a few pages, one poem begins, ‘I learned only this evening the name of the man …’; the next poem begins, ‘A new word I learned in Florence …’; and yet another begins, ‘Each day I receive a blog of “The choicest twenty / photos in the world today”.’ There is a magpie sensibility, a chatty amiability to such poems – a sly, lightly ironic, don’t-take-things-so-seriously tone that is charming and engaging. It’s the kind of thing Billy Collins does so well. But it’s the more sombre poems, in which irony is not the default mode, that touch the heart. In ‘Novel times’, for instance, O’Sullivan retrieves a poignant moment from the past, then sets it against a backdrop of an irrevocably changed present:
Walk there ten years later. The trees
have gone, but not the chimney. The words
not said, still almost said. And pigeons, pigeons
pale as knife blades toss one after the other.
TIM UPPERTON’S second collection, The Night We Ate the Baby (Haunui Press) was an Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalist in 2016. His poems are anthologised in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (Victoria University Press), Essential New Zealand Poems (Random House), Villanelles (Everyman), and Obsession: Sestinas in the twenty-first century (Dartmouth University Press).