Kiwi poet with his eye on here and beyond
CHRISTIAN Karlson Stead stares out from the dust jacket of this beautifully produced hardback like a well-fed antipodean Nosferatu. As a best-selling academic, Stead is clearly some kind of ‘‘ secular shaman’’, to use Stephen Greenblatt’s phrase, communing with the spirits of the dead. As a novelist, he seems to have been more witchdoctor, casting dark spells against the phantasms of the present.
An early New Zealand literary nationalist, a disciple of Allen Curnow and Frank Sargeson, Stead has been supported and celebrated by official organs of all kinds: he is a CBE, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of the Order of New Zealand, the recipient of honorary doctorates and other awards.
Yet reading the lifetime of work collected in this volume, it is clear he’s essaying not to be a mouthpiece for anybody else. As a poet, it’s more crucial to suck out the quintessence of the dead than simply transmit their wit or wisdom for future generations. Real poets need to vampirise others to enjoy a ‘‘ life beyond life’’, as John Milton put it. Or, to use Stead’s ambivalent terms in Play It Again , dedicated to Les Murray on the latter’s 60th birthday, you have to be a ‘‘ corporate raider / in the larder / of language’’.
This ancient poetic theme — how to live in order to live beyond life — runs throughout this massive book, unifying the staggering profusion of forms and contents and linguistic registers. Like an open secret, it emerges as ironic selfadmonition in On Fame : ‘‘ Who asks the gods for glory / and that his books may be read / throughout the world, should recall / the one whose prayer was answered’’.
And we find it, perhaps unsurprisingly, most nakedly in the poems that were written following Stead’s recovery from his stroke in 2005. In Into Extra Time , we read: ‘‘ A biographer’s wanting your life? / You read her letter as a word of warning’’. Pleasure mingles with disappointment in self-deprecation, the recoil from the oblivion that menaces the self on all sides.
To be a real poet your words have to live in the hearts and minds of others, but poets today cannot really believe somebody else might learn their words by heart. If flabbergasting vanity is the sine qua non of the enterprise, Stead paradoxically expresses this through restraint, dignity and decency. So we find an ode at the grave of Stead’s great-great-grandfather, with the striking lines: ‘‘ And I, between the child who could not read / And the blind inscription, counted / The generations’’. Then, almost next door, in yet another Birthday Poem, Stead counsels himself: ‘‘ No more grave poems’’. The pun here proffers a form of self-denying knowledge, a glister of reason squeezed from selffrustrating desire.
If you are already projecting your remains into the future while in the full flush of life, the problem of audience arises in an acute and tormented fashion. I can’t believe Stead isn’t ciphering his own nationalist literary dilemmas when he writes in his classic study, The New Poetic : ‘‘ While Yeats continues to hope for a national literature and a national audience, his fundamental agreement with the judgment of the [ 1890s] on popular Victorian poetry does not allow him to hope for a wide audience.’’
Fit audience though few, as Milton again would have said; this seems, too, to be Stead’s resolution to his poetic dilemmas. He wants to be an important national poet, not a popular one. So the necessary false modesty of the poet tends to refigure even political constitutions as just another ( relatively) successful form of poetic legislation. We don’t have to like our dead political masters to be affected by them: even if their legacies are not what they or we wanted, we remain in their debt.
As with the great modernists, Stead not only doesn’t believe in any end to violence but affirms the dissensions that are its inevitable aftermath. In the final stanza of the extraordinary At the Grave of Governor Hobson ( 1990), a meditation on the British official who negotiated the Treaty of Waitangi, Stead proposes: Let today be all the days we’ve lived in New Zealand: stench of whale meat, a rat cooked on a spit, morning boots frozen hard, the southern Maori ravaged by measles, rum, Te Rauparaha; wars in the north, gumfields, forests falling to ruminant grassland, cities climbing like trees; and everywhere this language both supple and strong. You didn’t start it, Governor. As we do, you fashioned what time, and the times that live in us, required. It doesn’t finish. These verses have no end. If Stead is prepared to sink his fangs into almost anything — Sappho and Catullus, childhood memories, inadmissible desires, personal terrors, national bloodshed — and suck out their vital essence to deposit as black letters in the vials of his book, he also ruminates on the fact that every great book is a tomb. If it is, it is one he will inhabit for some time to come, surviving life by means of his poetic powers. Justin Clemens lectures in English at the University of Melbourne.