Poetry Shelf Spring Season’s poetry fans: Philip Matthews picks C. K. Stead

Without

Crossing Cook Strait
going home to be
ordained in the

parish of his
father, while seas wished
by and the wind

had its say in the
wires, it came to
him there was no

God. Not that
God was sulking or had
turned His back—that

had happened
often. It was that God
wasn’t there, was

nowhere, a Word
without reference or
object. Who was

God? He was the
Lord. What Lord was
that? The Lord God. Back

and forth it went while
stern lifted, screw
shuddered, stars glowed

and faded. The
universe was losing
weight. It was

then he threw his
Bible into the
sea. He was a

poet and would
write his own. Happiness
was nothing

but not being
sad. It was your
self in this one and

only moment
without grief or
remorse, without God

or a future—sea,
sky, the decks
rolling underfoot.

 

CK Stead from The Red Tram (Auckland University Press, 2004)

 

Note from Philip:

‘Without’ takes a true story of a crisis of faith and makes it a founding myth of New Zealand literature. Allen Curnow had intended to follow in the footsteps of his father, an Anglican priest, and started his theological training at St John’s in Auckland. Curnow tells the story in Shirley Horrocks’ 2001 documentary Early Days Yet, as Horrocks follows the poet through the wooden Canterbury churches he had not seen since childhood. “I changed my mind about being ordained in the middle of Cook Strait,” he says. “It was rather a stormy night, and I was on my way back from north to south.”

Stead’s poem appeared in The Red Tram in 2004, three years after Curnow died. One of the great legends of New Zealand poetry is that Stead and Curnow lived on opposite sides of the same street in Parnell. They passed each other messages. Sometimes, Stead says in the documentary, they stood and talked in the middle of the road. Maybe Curnow told Stead this story during one of those times, when he popped out to get the mail or a newspaper. I like the idea that the poem is a personal tribute wrestled out of what must have been a time of doubt, disappointment and personal confusion for Curnow. It suggests that literature is worth the personal sacrifices that writers make, and that a kind of destiny drove his decision.
Stead is a rationalist who would view the loss of faith as a personal gain. I don’t know if Curnow’s doubt was as simple or complete as switching from God to no God, but the drama of the poem required something that decisive, as though we are reading a description of the closing scene in the first of three movies about the life of a great writer. It is the origin story. The final shot in that movie would be the black Bible sinking into the dark water. By now it is day, and you can see the emerging outlines of Lyttelton, where his own father had been the local priest. Now everything around him, familiar as it is, seems more present somehow: “This world’s the one you’re in,” as Curnow says in a poem about those times, also titled ‘Early Days Yet’.

 

Philip Matthews is a journalist and reviewer who works for The Press and Stuff. He lives in Christchurch.

C. K. Stead‘s tenure as New Zealand Poetry Laureate ended August 2017. To mark the occasion, Fernbank Studio, with support from The Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, published his new poetry collection: In the mirror, and dancing. The limited edition was designed and printed by Bendan O’Brien with drawings by Douglas MacDiarmid. His new novel, The Necessary Angel, was recently published by Allen & Unwin NZ.

 

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