Kiwi poet with his eye on here and be­yond

Justin Cle­mens

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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