The critic at sunset
They cling like snow to the line of the hill,
their proportion that of wave top
to its wave. Perched on a point,
the houses are an outpost. Just a strip
of habitation holding fast above
the massive plates on which they balance,
like one brave mind engaging
with the savage present.
The critic in him sweeps through shelves,
pouncing on those words that come unbidden;
these (after Dryden) he pronounces ‘hits’.
Brimming with connections, he looks to praise,
where he can find it, craft. He is vital
before time and illness and, when he thinks
a line, and we ourselves, will bear it, offers
his take on the last great human theme.
On its promontory, the strip of houses
flames at sunset. It makes a cultivated stand
against raw statement. Will it ebb, will it increase?
Are his lines over? We, who are sure of nothing,
see this present lapped in burnished distance:
cliffs brittle as bone, the hard-to-read
stance of the land, the role played in all
of this by an ever-ambiguous sea.
Diana Bridge has published seven collections of poems, including a new & selected. Her most recent book, two or more islands, came out in 2019 and was one of The Listener’s Top 10 poetry picks for the year. Although much of her adult life has been spent overseas, she was once dubbed a ‘quintessential Wellingtonian’. Her work combines home-grown and Asian, particularly Chinese and Indian, perspectives. She has a Ph.D. in classical Chinese poetry, and has taught in the Chinese Department at Hong Kong University. Her writing includes essays on the China-based poems of Robin Hyde and William Empson; she recently completed a collaborative translation of a selection of favourite Chinese classical poems.
Like many, the poem above foreshadows events. Although it was written before our Whakaari / White Island tragedy, it reflects a general feeling of precariousness stretching from physical catastrophe to the recent deaths of Clive James and Jonathan Miller. It was triggered by one of Clive James’s ‘Late Reading’ columns. I was thinking here of the poetry critic, and especially the author of Poetry Notebook, 2014.