Either Side the Horizon, Stephen Oliver
(Waimauku West Auckland: Titus Books, 2005).

The epigraph to Stephen Oliver's new collection, Either Side the Horizon, comes from Luis Antonio De Villena, and is revealing:

     Walking through the snow of Gothic scents, on the long roads
     ... amidst cathedrals and towns of lengthened shadow, goes an
     ill-clothed man with a profound gaze. He has read Ovid, the
     Latins and bestiaries, perhaps drunk every wine on earth.... He
     knows that life is only a strange thread of unconnected things.

The epigraph nicely captures Oliver's sense of the poet's condition: ill clothed, widely read and deeply embedded in experience but lost in a history which has neither movement nor end. But where the epigraph continues to picture the traveller as a blithe spirit, 'happy and drunk', Oliver's collection speaks more of a malaise which is existential and which becomes a kind of aesthetic crisis. I'm not sure that Oliver resolves that crisis (I'm not sure that it can be resolved), but it nonetheless underlies the diverse and accomplished lyrics in this collection, as what Wordsworth would call a troubled presence and as what marks a new and interesting point in Oliver's career.

In part Oliver's is that old story, the mid-life crisis, as he reveals in his 'Letter to Peter Olds:' 'Peter, I guess some might say we are as pieces removed / from the chess board, out of the main game, set aside' (76). And it is also a crisis built on doubt, as  the allusion in the following lines suggests: 'Tonight here is Sydney, / the moon is rounding out full, (a torch held by an / invisible hand) tracking the waves ... in sea mist.' For the allusion is surely to Arnold's 'Dover Beach,' and a life in which the sea of faith has withdrawn. The sources of the malaise here are manifold, for the moon also tracks the waves across the Tasman from Sydney to Aramoana (actually on the east coast of New Zealand), marking the poet's transtasman status, a status which is problematic given the almost complete erasure of literary connection between the two countries. And if Aramoana is itself a troubled site (site of loan-gunman massacre in 1990), the moon is also dissolving
'the telegraph poles / along the beach' in that place, an image which may owe something to the fishing lights out on the bay in Wallace Stevens' 'Key West.' What we have here then is an accomplished confessional letter, confident in its allusions and moving from the poet's past to an unsettled present, which 'rings through the heart's emptied chambers, that deep / belling sound as tectonic places shift in the southern ocean.'

Doubt in Oliver comes in part from his 'faithless speculations' (19). In the powerful apocalyptic poem, 'A Dream Like a Torn Poster,' Oliver, alluding to the four horsemen, writes of 'The posse out to hunt down / God's kingdom,' of 'hoofbeats' which

                                  ... respond to

     the plains like shibboleth
     and testing ground for those who

     hear the coming of the Word.

But if the register here is raised, a hieratic language suitable to the topic, faith itself is a shibboleth, to be tested. And while retaining the raised gravity of its language, the poem quickly moves to catachresis (the linking of violently clashing images within a single metaphor): 'Prayer is a vast silence that / follows hard upon an auto accident.' Catachresis lies at the heart of much mid-twentieth century American poetry (Ginsberg's linking of low and high, of drugs and the divine), and Oliver has frequently explored catachresis in new and interesting ways in his earlier works. Here, he does not use it to explode metaphysics (he is no post-modernist), but rather it marks a point of unsettled disruption. For the same poem goes on to describe:

     Dugouts and trenches in cloudbanks -
     a machinegun nest of lightning busies itself

     in one corner of the sky - empty,
     except for the blazed signature at dawn.

The final lines here are typical of Stevens and Curnow: a moment of confident rejection (the sky is 'empty') is undercut by a nature which reaffirms itself boldly in the final line.

Metaphysics thus remains central for Oliver, whose poetry is marked by what Patricia Prime has called a persistent confrontation with truth, for emotionally Oliver is caught by what Bellow's Herzog calls 'the fall into the quotidian' (when, Herzog asks, did this happen?) For while there is no question of the prayer which is a vast silence being answered through a species of the via negativa, the poem is also a 'dream'Ńa state in which the unconscious teases us with a sense of the ineffable. And if the dream trope figures in many of these poems, so do figures of loss and of a kind of Fall, a 'curious, utterly dark nostalgia' (36) for a time 'When the world was, in fact, complete' (26). Oliver's sense of loss derives from his inability to recapture memories of that time; and hell, he tells us, 'is the absence of accessible memory.' Memory, which in Oliver's earlier collections has been a troubled presence in many personalised experiences, here becomes existential.

But the loss nonetheless remains personal. In the poem 'Intersection' Oliver tells us that 'Exactly what is lost cannot be known' and that 'Loss accretes over time into mythology.' Those mythologies are of course cultural and historical, but they are also products of the poet's art, and in speaking of 'The shattering realization of loss' poetry leads to the aesthetic crisis I spoke of earlier. For poetry is something to which  our best and brightest (amongst others) give themselves, and for which there is plainly very little demand. (Or a demand, at least, which is subject to the shifting tectonic plates of literary culture). And the poet's vocation only serves to bring him squarely against the loss of faith in the kinds of meanings which might give purpose to that vocation. In the poem 'Submersible,' Oliver asks: 'Breaking the unconscious what do you hear, / an exaltation of larks, a host of sparrows?' The brilliant expansiveness of 'exaltation' here is nicely balanced by the bathos of the sparrow, and the whole is consciously a deeply motivated question.

I hope that the quotations I have given above convey something of the fineness and mastery of Oliver's craft, for his ear is always perfect in a collection which ranges in voice from the personal to the hieratic, and from the prose poem to the finely crafted lyric. For me what is most impressive about Oliver is his gift for image (freighted, of course, in language), a genius on display throughout the volume and particularly evident in poems like 'Enmore / Impasto / 2,' where Oliver speaks of a Sydney of 'terra cotta roofs, burnt orange, late / afternoon sun giving them weight' (71). But I have concentrated more on theme or content in this review than I should have, in part because I wanted to convey something of Oliver's continuing engagement with the great modernist questions. For Oliver does more than turn out the perfect lyric: his is a major talent, marked by decades of reading and a serious attempt to grapple with questions in poetry which are still live and urgent.

        © Nicholas Reid 2006