The Lifeguard: Poems, 2008-2013, by Ian Wedde (Auckland University Press, 2013), 88 pp., $27.99
Where Ian Wedde’s new book of poetic sequences begins is where I’ll begin: ‘You have to start somewhere / in these morose times…’ (3).
This is a disturbing point of entry. What do we do about the mess we’ve made? And — because this is poetry — where do we start to make sense of it intellectually, psychologically, and creatively, day to day? The planet is the big topic of our times, and it is being tackled by the big writers of our times. As you would expect from Wedde, The Lifeguard — his fifteenth book of poetry, and the product among other things of his tenure as New Zealand Poet Laureate — is unsettling, extending, structurally daring, linguistically gymnastic, emotionally enormous, uplifting, and funny. Its ecopoetry calls us to action. Action comes from love, and at the heart of this book are a deep love for our histories and a hope for the future.
The five sequences in The Lifeguard, like the acts of a Greek play, allude even in their form to a literary history: we are not marooned in our times, nor isolated in our individualism. All the poems here explore the connections between our physical world and our intellectual and cultural affiliations, and as such create a glorious texturing of landscape, literature, food, bus routes, signs, dreams and, importantly, grandchildren. Wedde’s lyricism sews this soaring span together.
The first poem in the collection, the long (33-page), eponymous Lifeguard, is a hymn to a kind of beauty — Auckland’s — as well as a plaintive yet playful lament (in contrast to Baxter’s mingy ode, which I confess I always found simplistic). Wedde’s Auckland is a location layered with image, language, association. In ‘The Lifeguard’ he continues his giant conversation with other poets: with different kinds of classical poets and their descendants, from Theocritus to Ovid to Rimbaud to Mahmoud Darwish. And he continues his conversation with us, with the reader. It is impossible to read Wedde’s poetry without being aware of the other strands of his work, his art criticism, which is legion and legendary, and his innovative fiction. Wedde’s various genres cross-pollinate, and the result is that his poetry is rich in reference, is bristling with allusion.
And so ‘The Lifeguard’, the poem, embodies two ‘characters’, personifications of Auckland’s lotus-eating east and its majestic, laid-back west. These polar opposites (or, more specifically, latitudinal opposites) are depicted by two strange lifeguards, Theocritus’ swivel- eyed Cyclops Polyphemus, and the self-involved Narcissus of Ovid. This tricky pair emit a great love for Auckland, the landscape, the differences, the difficulties, all distilled through our guide, Wedde.
Here, among the useless, easy-to-please
recidivist idlers the lifeguard lolls,
but out west his counterpart
watches arms upraised
where the surf breaks against its own backwash
and the maws of hideous fate
gulp down every last gasp of air
the unfavoured sinkers every hoped to breathe (5).
If Wedde converses with other poets, that implies his presence in the dialogue; and certainly the poet, the persona, pops up and could be anything in these poems, a bit like we are in our dreams. This is trademark Wedde. His persona-control is second to none in New Zealand poetry. Like that of Frank O’Hara, Wedde’s technicality is simply there, inbuilt, and is what invites us in to the poems. We take part in intense and surprising language (‘recidivist idlers’, ‘unfavoured sinkers’), coupled with a trope-loving, tossed-offness (‘easy-to-please’, ‘every last gasp’). Wedde’s brilliance is to fuse a spectacular combination of high and low. He experiments, yet establishes a rapport with the reader with his trustworthy syntax; he sounds real.
By recalling everyday events and circumstances in heightened language, Wedde makes them shimmer with intangibility: ‘…the city might be a roiling fog-bank…’ (32). On the other hand, by bringing the unknown close, he makes it tangible: ‘I think I heard something / in that silence once…’ (34). ‘The Lifeguard’, then, is a Baedecker, a guidebook that takes the reader in to ‘these morose times’, in to Auckland, in to the personal. And for what purpose? If poetry could be so concrete.) Perhaps so we might realize that after ‘The tide sighs out / taking the city’s filth with it… ’, we are still treated to ‘…a kind of airy clearing / that almost goes unnoticed.’ (35).
In the second section’s two-sequence ‘Help!’, the cheery Beatle-esque title is offset by an overriding eco-sensibility. Dedicating these poems to his grandchildren and to a friend (a ‘thin man’, perhaps summoning a homage to another city, another poet), Wedde is at his most beguiling and cryptic. As he abseils down the cliff-face of these substantial poems, bouncing from metaphor to metaphor, the connections, the points of contact, require some leaps of our own. We are challenged to dream, because the real may not cut it. Yet Wedde warns about the possible uselessness of the esoteric: if one is freezing to death, for instance, ‘I must be dreaming!’ would be of no ‘help’. Wedde joshes about in his own poem, in his occupation even –— and we, the reader, we’re implicated, too. Nature’s idyll, however, is always close, as in ‘a quilt of pale / yellow autumn leaves’ (42).
In the end, though, ‘Help!’, and indeed the whole collection, is concerned with the responsibility of our gaze. Referring to one of his grandchildren, a dedicatee not just of the poem but of the book, Wedde profoundly undercuts with a conceit (foregrounded by the dreaming joke) his poetic situation and our reading of it: ‘But none of this exists / because Sebo isn’t looking at it’ (42).
Shifting smoothly into the third sequence, ‘The Look’, Wedde reinstates the place of the intellect, bundling up in poems a veterinarian, an ecologist, and an artist (rather than dedicating poems to them). What are we to think, if we don’t try to work things out? All that doubt about the validity of our view in ‘Help!’, it seems, was just so we would value it all the more. This is classic Wedde, weighing, balancing, tearing down, building up, within the poem and within the schema. (In his 2009 Good Business, for instance, his elegy for his father is flung wide open and made poignant by a series of names of Wellington businesses, to cite just one example.) And so a conversation with the artist, Bill Culbert (on whom Wedde authored a substantial and scholarly work, Making Light Work, also in 2009, a busy year for Wedde), approaches — formidably — journeys and compass points and light and being — indeed, joins in, breathtakingly, with the massive palette of The Lifeguard:
… Lest we clog the reticulations
of return journeys and marvellous dérives
that bewilder perspective, and lest we end up
plodding from A to B, from east to west,
dawn to dusk – from start to finish – let’s
at least lighten up a little and lift
a snifter to those petites mises en scènes,
those ‘little nothings’ that are the objects of our affection…(54)
This elegant and outrageous free-fall continues in ‘Three Elegies’, the fourth section of this collection. Notably, Wedde asks, in his interpretation of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Was Andalusia there / Or over there? On the earth… or in a poem?’ (62).
Finally the last sequence, ‘Shadow Stands Up’, completes with elegant literary architecture, the five ‘acts’ of The Lifeguard, which are linked and looped in a startling but inevitable scheme. The evocative phrase, ‘shadow stands up’, arises from a dream and asserts, once again, the role of the subconscious in how we might approach our ‘morose times’. The poet does what poets do, tries to make sense of what isn’t understood, in this case the strange image of an upright shadow.
Boarding The Link bus day after day, the poet traverses territory that Polyphemus and Narcissus might squabble over : not the east, not the west, but central, urban Auckland. If the journey links a litany of the most visceral images of the collection — skin, fruit, sky — it also yields stray texts. As signs prompt the poet to make associations, he arrows to the core of metaphor. A car yard whose name is reminiscent of Khartoum evokes that exotic city. The thought of looking into the past summons a Proustian joke, ‘Going in search of lost time’ (74).
At one point in the sequence, the poet stands back and observes: ‘No shadows for a while now’, chilling us with the thought that poetry, even ecopoetry, might abandon us, and, because of the associations in this book, that the planet might. (Later in the same poem, Baxter is reinstated for this reader, as Wedde reminds that Baxter ‘always saw more than was there’ ). But soon the poet establishes that the convergence of nature and history (‘…my father beyond the reach / of questions…’) and poetry can give us hope again (88). Without that triumvirate we are certainly doomed.
Wedde’s far-reaching and prodigious oeuvre has been crucial to our literature for a long time. Amongst his poetry, he has produced more classics than anyone else — Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos, Tales of Gotham City, Driving into the Storm, and more recently The Commonplace Odes, Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty — to name just a few. These books have become lodes for everyone interested in how we are located here. Wedde’s poetry of place resounds into the collective consciousness.
Even taking all this into account, The Lifeguard stands out as a landmark for poetry and for Wedde. This is an exhilarating and important book. Like coral, The Lifeguard is connected to its environment, connected to its history. It calls on us to care – it has a ‘purpose’, but is also a dreaming. These poems are myth as action; they constitute a living and breathing poetry.
ANNE KENNEDY’s most recent collection of poetry The Darling North, won the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. Her latest novel The Last Days of National Costume has just been published by Allen & Unwin.