New Zealand's Poet Laureate, Ian Wedde, has written two of my all-time favourite poetry collections: The Commonplace Odes and Three Regrets And A Hymn To Beauty. Auckland University Press has released his laureate collection, The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013, and I was curious to see what would follow such poetic riches.
Wedde's poetry is steered by an intellectual fascination with the world, but the poems are never shuttered in a way that prevents reader engagement. His prodigious reading is coupled with a strong connection to both the living and to living. His lines generate the music we associate with lyric poetry, and his heart draws the reader in, along with a generous scattering of sensual detail.
This new collection contains nine poems of varying lengths, and two poems resonate deeply: the title poem and Shadow Stands Up, both works I want to read again and again, as something new comes to light each time.
The first long poem, The Lifeguard, is around 30 pages of couplets. Wedde frequently demonstrates that the distant past is a productive haunt for contemporary poets.
Here, he filters the narrative of a present-day lifeguard through ancient verse (Ovid's Metamorphoses and Theocritus' Idylls).
The Lifeguard provides a crackling beginning:
You have to start somewhere
in these morose times,
a clearing in a forest, say
filled with golden shafts of sunlight
He makes a "clearing" in his head and on the page for ideas. The swarthy lifeguard channels ideas more than feats of rescue (although following tracks of self-rescue is one option I took).
The tension between the physical and the abstract is just one link in a feast of oppositions. Not only do you go between the past (lines have been lifted from Ovid and Theocritus) and the present, but from east to west, wild to tame, dawn to dusk, silence to noise.
Such movement gives the work vitality, but individual lines become glittering veins of gold (not in an extravagant way, but quiet, measured, thoughtful). From "celebrating their windfall lives" you fall upon this several pages later: "This is a silence you may not hear/ the silent silence."
The final poem, Shadow Stands Up, is a breathtaking, subtle and reverberating bus trip through Auckland on different days and different routes, always ending up at home. It is a trip through whatever "mars the surface of the present"; through whatever stands up and comes to mind; through the shadows that may be either life or death.
Why even write? the poet is musing:
remembering why it is
necessary to do this,
to build these lattices and
filigrees of words through which
the light slips, where the shadow
stands up, and we remember.
Wedde's laureate collection is like fine wine - complex, flavoursome, enduring.
• Ian Wedde discusses NZ artist Bill Culbert's exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which opens June 1, as part of the Writers & Readers Festival, Auckland Art Gallery Auditorium today at 10.15am; at the Food For Thought panel session, Limelight Room, Aotea Centre, today at 5.30pm; and in conversation about The Lifeguard, Lower NZI Room, Aotea Centre, tomorrow at 11.30am.