Dusky Sounds, 2018
Like many other readers and writers in Aotearoa I was saddened by the news of Kevin Ireland’s recent passing. To see the outpouring of grief and commentary on social media and in print, reminded me of the width and depth of Kevin’s contribution to New Zealand literature. Significant, inspiring, connecting. I want to acknowledge this.
I have eight of Kevin’s poetry books on my shelves, but he published at least 27, along with short stories, novels and memoirs. Quentin Wilson Publishing published the third volume of his memoir, A Month at the Back of My Brain, in 2022. He received an honorary doctorate, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary achievement in 2004, and the AW Reed Award for his contribution to New Zealand writing in 2006.
Kevin’s poetry reflects the magnetic and insistent pull of writing poems. Writing feels like a necessary part of daily life, and the process of writing, that mysterious and wondrous arrival of words that sing and chime, at times with a cup of tea, at times at a bus stop or in the dark of the night, finds its way into Kevin’s books across the decades. This attention to writing keeps me reading each work compulsively.
From his very first collections, such as Educating the Body (Caxton Press, 1967), Kevin wrote with exquisite economy, deft rhythm and rhyme, unafraid of slender poems, longer poems, the unsaid, the contemplated and the anecdotal. I savour the recurring themes of sea, sky, day and night, sleeping not sleeping, tides and foreign cities, but it is the presence of people who elevate his poetry for me, give it heart: his loved ones, his writing mates, his drinking buddies. He dedicated many poems to other writers to whom he was close such as Graeme Lay, Stephen Stratford, Peter Bland. This matters. It matters that Kevin was part of a writing community, supportive, inspirational, vital.
Above all, it was his ability to write breathtaking love poems that has haunted me. He has caught my ear and heart as he wrote of and for the women he loved so deeply. He dedicated his penultimate collection, Shape of the Heart, (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2020) to people that mattered: his dear wife Janet, Fleur Adcock, Peter Bland, Bernard Brown, Maurice Gee, Vincent O’Sullivan and Karl Stead. He wrote of these friends ‘who have challenged, laughed, disputed, enriched and always entertained by turning words and ideas on their heads’.
To have taken my time to anchor within, and then find uplift, as I read the eight poetry collections feels like a private mourning, a personal celebration. Now when I want to speak of what Kevin’s poetry does, the words are like slippery eels in the night that skate and slide and feel inadequate. Instead I hold out six poems for you, as a tribute, as a eulogy, as an invitation to choose a poetry collection by Kevin, pick a private nook or cranny, and nestle into your own reading anchors and uplifts.
Kevin’s estate and publishers have kindly given me permission to share six of his poems. I have also included the review of Looking out to Sea that I wrote for The SpinOff in 2015.
My thoughts and best wishes are with Kevin’s loved ones, his family and writer and reader mates.
At the launch of Roger Hickin’s Roderick Finlayson, A Man from Another World
at Timeout Bookstore, Auckland, 15 October 2022
Words are like trees. They come in all shades
and surprises, fingering through the Braille
ridges and crevices of rocks, and groping
through dirt and dust and shreddings.
The roots of words grip the dark depths
of our history and cluster high above us
to spread canopies that shimmer in the light.
Yet we can lose ourselves in words.
We must find paths through confusions
of letters, for words become jungles filled
with mad-eyed beasts. Stand still and clichés
grow between our toes. Move timidly
and we step straight into thickets
of expressions that may cut us to the heart.
Words can grow inexorably and straight
or they may bend on every small breeze.
When we use words, we should choose
those that are green and supple, and weave into
boundless connections. We should never
box words into life sentences.
from How To Survive the Morning, Cape Catley Ltd, 2008
She asked me what
I might desire:
her flesh, her mind,
her eyes of fire?
I asked one wish
and one alone:
a kiss, a leaf,
a river stone.
From these I’ll build
a wall that’s vast,
a roof above
and love that lasts.
from Table Talk: New Poems, Cape Catley Ltd, 2009
A room with more than a view
Let me describe the room in which I try to work.
It has a desk, a chair, a cupboard — and the walls
have shelves, photographs, notes, paintings
and cartons. There are books and papers
strewn or stacked and tumbling everywhere.
For decades I have managed to avoid the oppression
of this mess by gazing though a window
at the far worse clutter of the view outside —
the shambles caused by tangled branches,
clouds, birds, falling leaves — and always
by the reckless carry-on of weather.
But never had it crossed my mind that out there,
one day, I’d endure a baffling and alarming
and deliberate attack. Yet through the glass —
so I can now record — the world I looked on
has turned out to be enraged, malevolent
and treacherous. A virus stalked the shadows
in our gardens, skulked above the trees,
leapt from roof to roof and stole across back fences.
It slithered, unmasked, up the driveways
to our houses and puffed through all our keyholes.
I had to close the curtains for the first time ever
then firmly shut the door. I’ve had no option
but to shift the desk — and I’ve confronted
face-to-face at last, the chaos that is mine.
from Just Like That: New Poems, Quentin Wilson Publishing 2021
for Bernard, Graeme, Peter & Stephen
It is impossible to imagine gatherings better than this:
ace company, best jokes, fine lunch, quality wines —
plus quips, absurdities, anecdotes, games, inventions
and outrageous bulletins from the shifty borderlands
between experience and the imaginary, though fortunately
too late and far too unlikely ever to be acted upon —
then Pete declaims his latest transcendental poem,
an ode to mystery, sorrow, joy, love and the everlasting,
which grew inside him yesterday glowing
with petals of flame inside his head in Prospect Lane.
Where all this goodness goes to after we’ve used it
only for the afternoon is a mystery to me.
We should build libraries of Happy Days free to borrow
in every High Street worthy of the name.
from Looking Out to Sea, Steele Roberts, 2015
Poems in the night
I found it hard to sleep last night
so sometime in the darkness
reached out from the duvet
to the toppling pile of books
I collect beside the bed.
Perhaps it was something
I had eaten. Too much cheese.
Or possibly the wine.
But I couldn’t work my way
into the lines I read. I thought
the books were far too tangled
and the writing came with effort —
which has its virtues, yet overdone
turns pages into cabbage
steamed far too long.
You sleep till daybreak better
when you dream of eyelids opening
to a poem in the waking moment
when they’re breathed on softly
by a single fluky word.
from Shape of the Heart, Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2020
A going away poem
All poems end in a blank space
at the foot of a page. Sooner or later
the lines will fail to link and the words
will excuse themselves briefly
by telling you they may be some time
as they set off into a frozen white-out
of end-papers and are lost to all sight
except for the tell-tale last tracks of ink.
This one will soon enough give up
and lay down its head in the snow.
These black marks will be all
that remains of its impossible journey
to signal that you will be missed
even more than i ever dare think.
from Feeding the Birds, Steele Roberts, 2014
Looking Out to Sea, Kevin Ireland, Steele Roberts, 2015
Ireland’s collection is pitch perfect – a keepsake album that stands head and shoulders above his last few collections. It gets under your skin with its vulnerability, tenderness, sure-footed lines, edgy admission, witty scrutiny. Ireland is the miniature storyteller, the inquisitive archaeologist, a part-time philosopher as much as he is a keen wordsmith. The end result: poems that engage thought as much as heart and lines that stick.
The title poem (an elegy for Ireland’s brother) is looking back to sea as much it is looking out to sea. The book features poems with a backward gaze and a sheen of nostalgia, but the little switches and shifts lift the commonplace memory to one that moves profoundly. In this example, the competitive youngsters skim rocks over the pool, the pool becomes beer, the beer becomes dream and the ocean takes over:
In my sleep we were sipping his home brew silently
in love and peace when we heard the tide change
with a swish of seaweed and a lapping of water
against the black edge of the reef.
Younger selves overlap aged self (‘unreliable and unfocused’) as Ireland digs deep. He owns ‘up/ to the dozen or possibly the score of beings/ I know I tried to be.’ The personal becomes universal in the light of departure, loss, hunger, affection, love. Always love, and that, to me, is the vital pulse of the poems.
A number of poems pivot upon the whole business of writing poetry – poems are elusive, comforting, necessary. To keep returning to such notions might become tiresome, but Ireland finds a different slant each time. As much as this is a keepsake album for those he cares about, a love handbook if you like, this is also a pocket guide to poetry. I was particularly drawn to ‘Another one that got away,’ where Ireland compares an elusive poem to his old man racing for the bus at the last minute, and then just catching it in the nick of time. In the final lines, you meet the switch, the shift, the bit that startles and glows:
It’s the itch that’s always at work
under the skin of settled existence.
Or was, in my youth. Now it’s the poems
that rise early and go streaking away.
Every now and then I hit a collection that I want to write about for hours – to salute the way simplicity and complexity melds a satisfying poetry brew for ear and mind. This is one of them. At one point Ireland offers, ‘losing one’s bearings everything makes sense.’ He has no sure map to his past; he has fudged co-ordinates, the confession that you are never too old to love, and an ability to make a single line sparkle. I love this collection.
Full review available at The SpinOff