Charles Brasch: Selected Poems edited by Alan Roddick, Otago University Press, 2015
Poet and scholar, Alan Roddick previously edited Charles Brash’s posthumous collection, Home Ground (1974) and his Collected Poems (1984). Charles published a number of collections in his lifetime, mentored younger poets and was the founder and initial editor of Landfall. With his books all out-of-print, this is a timely arrival. One of New Zealand’s most influential literary journals, Landfall has represented poetic trends over decades, and continues to endure with renewed vitality (currently edited by David Eggleton), but it is interesting to step aside from this legacy and explore Brasch’s own poetry. He was a contemporary of RK Mason and ARD Fairburn and was selected by Allen Curnow for A Book of New Zealand Verse in 1951. For many poets, this was a sign of having made it. For Brasch, it knocked back some of the self doubt and sent him traversing new poetic paths. It was indeed a turning point.
One fascination of a selected poems is the way they cover the arc of a poet’s life and, in particular, writing life; the way poems reflect interior changes, and the way a changing world rubs against the process of writing. Charles’s first collection, The Land and the People, was published in 1939 with looming threats of war and world instability. He wrote with an initial attachment to the Romantics but by the 1970s his poetry was freer. The language is less tied to loftiness, to the abstract, to tight rhythms. He writes in plainer language, everyday language, yet you still see resolute connections with the subject matter of his first book: the land and the people. In many ways, the poetic arc of Alan’s selection lays its roots in Brash’s attachment to home, and the poem becomes a frame or form for a navigation of this. A homage at times. A questioning of sorts. Charles held the war at arm’s length, he held the rumpus of the 1960s at arm’s length (you don’t see him in Big Smoke, the anthology that highlights the radical poetry of the 1960s and 1970s). In his last decade or so, he is not rupturing form and content across the page in ways that SHOUT and displace. He is splitting his poems in ways that promote new revelations, new confessions whilst always maintaining his private stance. Love is there; love is struggled with and acknowledged but it is never overt, never clear.
from ‘In Your Presence’
I practise to believe,
And work towards love.
How should I see
Until I study with your eye?
He is unafraid to bare the self portrait in ‘Cry Mercy’:
Getting older, I grow more personal,
Like more, dislike more
And more intensely than ever —
People, customs, the state,
The ghastly status quo,
And myself, black-hearted crow
In the canting off-white feathers.
I was interested to discover that he worked on one of his most famous poems, ‘The Islands’ (originally published in his second book in 1948) for twenty years until he felt like he got it right. This is the poem that contains one of the most often quoted lines in New Zealand poetry:
Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way;
And none knows where he will lie down at night.
The poem that has always resonated the most strongly with me is the sequence ‘Home Ground’ (from his last book, bearing that title) and a substantial part of the sequence is reproduced here. The language is sumptuous yet affords a degree of plainness. Individual lines stall and haunt you (‘I tramp my streets into recognition’). It feels open. It feels like writing this poem mattered greatly to the poet because it draws upon what matters. And within that, as with much great poetry, there is space, silence, mystery.
Silence will not let him go
Entirely; allowed a few notes
At the edge of dusk
He will be recalled before long
And folded into rock
Reassumed by the living stream.
Otago University Press have produced a terrific anthology with care taken over internal design and the cover. There is room for the poems to breathe both in terms of font choice and white space on the page. Alan’s introduction is useful but I do think there was room for more discussion of the poetry itself despite the witty inference in Charles’s ‘Pistol Point’ that poems ought to speak for themselves (‘Poems ask their own questions’). Selected Poems is a terrific introduction to Charles’s poetry; particularly to the way his poems shifted over time, on his own terms, and not at the behest of current poetic trends.
Endnote: I have a policy on this blog of using the first name of a poet. This is the first book I have reviewed by one of the key men poets who emerged in the mid-twentieth century in New Zealand, and it feels like I am transgressing a line by not using ‘Brasch.’ It feels like I have invited him into my kitchen to have a cup of tea informally. ‘Authority’ has sailed out the window.
Otago University Press page here
Gregory O’Brien’s terrific discussion with Kim Hill on the book here
NZ Book Council author page here