Review: The Yellow Buoy – poems from 2007 – 2012 by CK Stead – Auckland University Press

Reading Stead’s new collection, I was reminded of another of his poems: Sonnet.

Today the water is so still, so clear,
looking down through the window of my mask
it seemed for a moment possible to fall
through fifteen, twenty feet of crystal nothing
in which the small fish, fork-tailed grey and black,
or silver with the faintest touch of blue,
hang like mobiles in a grandchild’s bedroom.

Who would dream this ambient element
could ever be harmful to health –
that such a rock-garden of weightless comfort
and the fatal reassurance of shifty light
might clap a bag over your breathless soul?
Here even the valley of the shadow of death
has taken upon itself the mantle of beauty.

It’s a clean and clear approach. It’s like lake water on a still warm morning. Stead is probably our best known novelist, poet, critic, teacher and all-around writer – after all his personal bookshelf has over 40 titles, and given his 80 years that’s a burn rate of 2 per year! Astounding. His practised fluency is evident in the The Yellow Buoy as the poems are controlled, structured poems. There’s the occasional meander off-topic, but always with an eye on the road and the clock. This literacy tiki tour has little time for toilet stops and lunch breaks as it is! There are no words wasted or energy expended unnecessarily on the part of the reader. That doesn’t mean he’s an economical write, just aware of the time limitations of his audience. I can’t see Karl penning the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or some such…”

The Yellow Buoy is mostly set in Europe, where Stead spends spends several months of each year now. Italy, France, Croatia as well as Colombia and Venezuela all get a mention, but often returning to weave in references to Kiwi poets and New Zealand customs when the reader least expects it.

A recurring theme is the piwakawaka. In some Maori legends, the bird is a sign of impending death when it appears inside a house.

Stead mentions the famous Maori myth about how death goddess Hine-nui-te-po killed Maui because the fantail couldn’t stop laughing as he tried to climb inside her, describing the twittering bird as “script-writer also of dark memorials”.

More prosaically, he also talks about how a fantail likes to hover around his compost bin, waiting for the lid to be lifted so it can catch fruit flies.

So it’s no surprise that in Nine Ways of Looking at a Fantail, Stead has his ghostly fantail serve Katherine Mansfield and her long-time friend Ida Baker:

A visitor (Ida
would have said)
from the other
side, like the
butterfly that carried
Katy’s secret

post-mortem codes
to the transcriber
of her letters.

Of course Stead’s a dedicated Mansfield scholar. He wrote the novel, Mansfield, on her life and is also compiling a collection of her letters and journal entries. Katherine Mansfield – Cornwall, May 1916 is set in the twin stone cottages where Mansfield, English novelist D.H. Lawrence and their respective partners shared a rocky relationship. The poem describes the fondness between Lawrence and Mansfield despite their firey clashes:

She’s seen him beat his wife
he’s watched her
emasculate her husband.
Between them there’s no need
of lies or pretence.

The poem before it, Isola Bella, was written for the 2008 Katherine Mansfield Centenary Conference in London. In the poem, Stead rehearses what he would say to Mansfield if they met in Menton, near Provence – “Friend or foe?” she calls to him. I can see why Mansfield would appeal to Stead. Both writers strongly identify with New Zealand but prefer to spend large chunks of their lives overseas, and both prize clarity and directness in their work over all else.

This is Stead’s fifteenth collection and Mansfield is not the only writer he talks about. Many others known to me and others and some not, Eugenio Montale and Carlo Vita are referenced in some way. But fear not, this is a collection with enough depth to dive but shallow enough not to drown. And there are simpleobservations that don’t need much to appreciate like Names: about a cat Debussy and the fantasies of his owner to travel once the commitment of his life has gone.

When Claude Debussy
Died our friend
Ljuba who live in
Amsterdam
By the canal

Decided from now on
Her life would be
Catless – no more
 midnight serenades,
 No more 2am. Scratching at the
 window, no more

Visits to the
vet with frost-bitten
Ears and battle
Wounds. Now she would
 Travel. She practised
Placenames aloud –

 ‘Grand Rapids’
 ‘Patagonia’
 Savouring the sound –

Until, that is, a
ginger stray, half grown
With paws like
Lion cub came
 By. His purr was consonant,

 His growl spoke
 Of the Caucasus. She
Called him Pushkin

To finish, I have to steal from the liner notes:  “These poems wisely urge the reader to stay alert, to pay attention , to the ‘poetic moment / so easily missed / so quickly lost ‘. “ Indeed!

You can read more about CK Stead on his biography page at NZ Book Council Website.

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