Luxembourg – Google it to find a tiny European state with spires that point to infinity, cobbled streets, canels through the city. But the blurb on this collection of poems draws us away from Luxembourg, telling us that these are the poems of a New Zealand poet returning home after twenty years in Australia. It’s hard to ignore the word hiding in plain sight in the title – lux – meaning light. Indeed, there are stars and sunsets, twilights – in many poems the light carries with it a ‘darkening into dawn’ of old world versus new. Perhaps the light is the light of understanding.
I might start by saying that my mum picked up the book from my shelf and was unimpressed with the first page’s description of ‘Desiccated, middle-aged matriarchs’, in the poem Dreams of Flying. Further in, in a poem called Undercover I found:
…This is rural New
Zealand, where every woman over forty
looks like Janet Frame in a parallel universe
of the under privileged…
These gripes aside, Oliver has a well-respected place in Australasian poetry. It seems a ripe time to admit that these are the first poems of Oliver’s which I have read (though this is his nineteenth collecton). It is on the basis of this collection that I call him a landscape poet. He writes about people, but it is in his consideration and depiction of the hills and valleys, skies and trees, that the poems carry the most beauty, weight, and originality of phrase. The poet’s language and eye is that of the painter as sights are drawn, spilt like paint on canvas rather than described, as in the poem Undercover:
The moon was half. As though the act
of clearing a space in the partially clouded
sky had worn itself away…
…The glass bowl tilts overhead
In the poem Road Notes, there is ‘fog / broiling off rounded hills’, the poplars rising ‘wind washed’. The ordinary sometimes appears; in the poem Dilapidated Dream – the poplars are ‘sentinels’, but also the stunning, as in the poem In the Blink: ‘Drought is the story of absences, equidistant / and everywhere.’ In the poem Apocrypha, Oliver describes houses like ‘a handful of croutons thrown over lumped up hills’. Descriptions of ideas are also catching, as in the poem Road Notes: ‘Memory has pulled tent pegs and moved on. / A sadness of light is all that remains, the mould broken’.
With the exception of a few poems close to the end of the book which caught me with their real feeling and humanness (the poem The Lost German Girl, and the closing lament for the friend who has died), the people in this book seem to be mostly vessels for the poems’ ideas. Not that the human is absent – fossils are ‘substances by which we sense / ourselves’. But the poems are highly intellectual, philosophical, scientific even, asking how and why we exist – Oliver is a name-dropper, a myth-dropper, a place-dropper. I needed a dictionary. The translation of the title poem, ‘Luxembourg’, into German is a nice touch, and the occasional Spanish or Latin phrase contributes to a feeling of intense working. The book is interposed with prose poems, a form growing in popularity. These tell stories and develop character, following a similar rhythm to the free verse which is more numerous.
Places in New Zealand appear – Te Kuiti, Piopio – I am happy to find the poet on the West Coast. But they submerge beneath the ripples of global citizenship that dominates Luxembourg. I keep coming back to the question, what lies at the heart of this collection? Why is it by the lamplights of Luxembourg or Europe or even Alaska that the poems choose to find a place in the world? It will take more than my two readings to interpret the heart of Luxembourg.
I do love the cover, and I’ll admit that as an old-fashioned romantic who loves landscape descriptions I chose the book because of its cover – the opera singer rendered in black and white, her heavy made-up, haunting eyes, staring into the unknown. She seems set in time – quite unlike these poems.
Reviewed by Susannah Whaley
by Stephen Oliver
Published by Greywacke Press