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  CHICKEN HAWK: REVIEW BY PATRICK ARMSTRONG

NIGHT OF WAREHOUSES by Stephen Oliver
HeadworX Publishers, 26 Grant Rd. Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand.

Stephen Oliver's Night of Warehouses, which contains selections from his five volumes of poetry, is, well, a book that's enjoyable to read. That's slight praise for poetry, which one hopes will be revelatory, singeing or even astonishing; but it is praise for poetry, which is often bewildering, long-winded and dull.

Oliver was born in
New Zealand and describes himself as a 'transtasman' poet, but he's lived in eight or so countries, and his poetry is that of a well-traveled, public man. His poems are outwardly written, never confessional or self-revealing, and they're often overtly political. He tends to write to Us, The Reader, as a politician or essayist might, and he eschews the inner-seeking search long promoted by poets looking for Inspiration and Imagination within. This approach often works against him, leading him toward bland pronouncement and unmusical prose. Consider the
beginning of 'Emblem for Dead Youth,' a poem from New Poems (2000), the most
recent of the five books Oliver includes in Night of Warehouses:

    Over the past five years in the Great South Land,
    a primary dissipation of energies – 2,500 youth suicides,
    in fact.  We pause to consider this phenomenon . . .

Such verses are certainly readable, but they seemed copied from a newspaper, and are neither inspired nor inspirational.

The title of the poem – 'Emblem for Dead Youth' – alludes to Wilfred Owen's masterful WWI sonnet, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth.'  Owen's poem, like Oliver's, is political, but is – in contrast to Oliver's – also musical and beautiful and terrible – and above all, passionate. Consider the beginning of Wilfred Owen's poem: 'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / – Only the monstrous anger of the guns.' These lines were written by a tormented soldier – and such torment is moving. But sincerity is not enough; a poem must succeed as a poem: it must be imaginative, eloquent, authentic - it's got to have the Truth and Beauty, Beauty and Truth stuff. Remember the moving last line of Wilfred Owen's poem? 'And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.' Here's a line from near the end of Oliver's poem: 'With each grief-prone parent, / pain inflates safe as an air-bag.' Oh my.

Many of the poems in Night of Warehouses have a tedious, podium-speaker's tone.  In Islands of Wilderness: A Romance’(1996), for instance, Oliver writes about Australian history:

    Sails whiter than an
    Opera House tilt toward the
    continent flat as a postage stamp,
    lift the Centre Point Tower.
    Discovery Day is, what it is.
    And give the blacks the old heave-ho
    in the wake of the first fleet.
    There's the balloon hike
    and Expo 88, there's the woodchip
    graft from a grateful parliament,
    futons and Snugglepot Awards.
    Discovery Day is, what it is.
    And give the blacks the old heave-ho
    in the wake of the first fleet.
       [from '98']

One can forgive the opening metaphors: they don't seem to lead anywhere, and 'flat as a postage stamp' is a clichι, but at least they're poetry. But the refrain - 'Discovery Day is, what it is. / And give the blacks the old heave-ho / in the wake of the first fleet' – is mere prose, and undistinguished prose. 'Discovery Day is, what it is' – what can one say about a statement as banal as that? And the remainder of the refrain alludes, one supposes, to an atrocity committed by Sydney's colonists: perhaps such an atrocity is a subject worthy of poetry, but Oliver simply juxtaposes modern Sydney with the evils of its past, and there is only one response a reader can have to such obvious social commentary: 'It was bad that they did such things.'  The poem fails because it is a Statement, a Political Statement, not an act of the Imagination. It reminds me of what Emerson said in 'The Poet':

    I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and
    extraordinary.  If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to
    that degree that he forgets the authors and the public, and heeds only this
    one dream, which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper.

Oliver is capable of such 'insanity': at his best he ceases instructing the public and writes imaginatively. Appearing just before the poem I quoted above, in the same book – Islands of Wilderness: A Romance – is the following poem, titled '91':

    Tank tracks down the
    arm of Afghanistan. Supertankers
    plunge into the Persian Gulf.
    We forever enact a terrible
    knowledge, that all of us contain
    the negative of the 'Big Bang',
    are those self-same atoms.
    Energy continuously surfaces as
    anger; creation turned inside-out.
    Sacred domes on the
    highest mountains revolve toward
    that farthest point of
    fleecy light.

Here Oliver begins with newspaper headlines, and the reader anticipates an essay-in-verse about the evils of war and domination; however, Oliver instead wanders off into the unknown: he proceeds, albeit ungracefully, into a contemplation of the Big Bang, etc., and arrives at an interesting conclusion, mid-poem: 'Energy continuously surfaces as anger.' This epiphany, a New Statement, seems arrived at, discovered, genuine. The last four lines of the poem are what I read poetry for: these 'Sacred domes' – both observatories and temples – look toward 'that farthest point of / fleecy light.' These lines have both Beauty and Truth to them: they link our most modern search for cosmic knowledge with our most ancient, and they do so eloquently, creating An Image?the observatories, the mountains, the far and fleecy light.

There are, throughout Night of Warehouses, many similarly ingenious and surprising lines and stanzas: they leap like little flames from the wooden poems they often are contained within. For instance, 'Halley's Comet,' from Guardians, Not Angels (1993), contains some rather prosaic and unsurprising lines:

    The anticlimax
    had been expected
    and surprised one.

    Without a scream
    the disasters continued
    unhurried, as if it

    were an appointment
    that had to be kept . . .

But the ending of the poem, is not an anticlimax?and it does surprise (note that 'his' in the second-to-last line below refers – according to Oliver – to the writings of the ancient Chinese poet, Wang):

    When
    the comet finally

    described the finitude
    of the heavens, coming
    back a millennium

    later, we remembered
    his words about the
    serpent consuming its tail.

The notion that the return of Halley's Comet indicates that the universe is finite is intellectually interesting, even revelatory, and the last line is unexpected and vaguely sinister.

Oliver's 'Autumn Songs,' a group of poems in & Interviews (1978), are my favorite poems in Night of Warehouses.  He gets a bit too fancy with punctuation in these poems, and sometimes too clever with fragments and line breaks, but the poems contain imaginative and fascinating lines:

    the airy carpentry of autumn
       [from 'The Gathering']


    Grape/shot of blackbird //

    Over the rise & fall of the tree/line

    such Black Concentrations!
        [from 'The Flight']


    Flies have short memories //

    the blackness of my anger
    settling to a stench.
       [from 'The Departure']


    You would think sparrows
    moved through pebbles.

    That sound that falls behind them
    that sound that flows behind them

    somewhere,
    a dog is boasting his bass notes.
       [from 'The Encounter']

These are strange lines: they defamiliarize – they challenge us to re-vision the world. They allow us glimpses of Oliver at his best, with his imagination turned on and his political and social wit turned off.

While Oliver can be strikingly imaginative, showing us the strange in the ordinary, he can also cuddle the ordinary lovingly. Toward the end of Night of Warehouses there is a poem called 'The Woolshed.' The language in the beginning is so earthy and descriptive, you can almost smell and touch the place the poet describes:

    I came upon it by a clough in the
    hill, an involuntary turn upland, wheels
    holding to the rub of an old bullock
    track, by backblock and tableland,

    to unminded paddocks. A kennel whiff
    of the grease-curled fleece, flumped
    on long benches in a low-slung woolshed,
    the fangled wool press fallen into

    wrack and ruin, the dust, grease coated
    floor planks. . . .

These are skillful and playful and engaging lines. These remind one of Hopkins, or of Dylan Thomas. Such control over language! Such beauty and music! I love the verb, 'flumped,' and the 'clough' and the 'bullock track' and 'tableland.' I can smell the 'kennel whiff' and I am not unmoved. It's hard to believe such lines were written by the same poet who wrote 'We pause to consider this phenomenon' and 'Discovery Day is, what it is.'

Oliver soars in Night of Warehouses – for a line here and a stanza there. When he succeeds, his successes seem effortless. Unfortunately, he's often too concerned with politics or cleverness to let his imagination and his skill with words lead him toward the new and unexplored. Oliver's not a chicken, not a bird that can fly but only with great effort and only for a few clumsy feet; he's a hawk who can soar with grace and ease, but chooses,too often, to peck among the pebbles.

       © Patrick Armstrong 2002


Patrick Armstrong teaches writing at Plymouth State College, in New Hampshire, USA. His poetry has appeared in Quarterly West, The Providence Journal Bulletin, Yemassee, Faultline, Stride and other places. One of his poems was selected by James DIckey for inclusion in One for One, a book of  Dickey's favorite fifty poems. An essay of his will appear in the upcoming  HarperCollins Introduction to  Literature anthology. He can be reached at patarms@ncia.net.