Born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand, Stephen Oliver, after completing a journalism course, travelled and lived across Europe for many years. He then settled in Australia for 20 years before returning to New Zealand in 2007. Luxembourg is his nineteenth volume of poetry and its 70 poems, which include blank verse sonnets and many prose poems, range widely in history, place and person. The collection could be said to comprise journeys and portraits, real and imaginary, in lyrical, political and satirical modes.
The poem ‘Road Notes’ (24) is a good example of Oliver’s keen eye and use of vivid images in clipped, plain language and unexpected poetic logic. In its 31 parts, it recounts snapshots of encounters with the NZ landscape, while driving through it, and the creatures (horses, birds), buildings (childhood home, Huntley Power Station), and machinery (in particular, trains) that inhabit it and his memory:
Flat bottom clouds. Paperweights.Slide above the horizon on wires and pulleys realistic as false scenery.
Daylight. Interrogation light. The whiteburning circle. Locomotive rounds on me briefly.
Velvet sheen is maize stubble, combed backin lit rows, as I head north, buzz cut from sunrise to sunset. Paddocks either side. Autumn litter.
High beam hauls in the white line;the Milky Way, its skid mark slung across the sky, runs out of steam.
The title poem, Luxembourg (68) gives us another type of journey, taken from Oliver’s European adventures. It is dedicated to Jossy Gerö, whose photo (taken by Barbara Leytus neé Neustädtl at Vegagasse, Vienna), graces the cover. In free blank verse, the poem recounts his arrival in the city ‘late spring, 1979’ and briefly describes a building he is drawn to before expanding the description to the ‘quiet quarter of the old city’ with its Café and Bar, ‘light spilling onto the square, girl’s laughter’. The last three lines allude to Gerö herself:
Over my shoulder, within the vaulted amphitheater of Central Europe, her raised, jade-green eyes, gazed out on the darkness from a balcony in Vienna.
It’s not clear if it is the woman herself or the photo that has haunted the narrator during his travels across Europe, and this turn from the real, from the concrete, to the imaginary is a feature of a number of poems. In ‘Impress’ (91), Oliver explores the plight of refugees:
They speak in the language of a landscape that has vanished, before them and after them …
He notes the occasions for their flight and what they must do in the ‘new land’: ‘they must forget / in order to rebuild’. He then ends with an extended metaphor, the imagination at work, on the memories the refugees carry:
Big or small, recollectionis an ornamental dagger encrusted with precious stones placed on display, always within view, though never within reach, a ritual object laid out in its glass cabinet, ghostly, yet intensely still.
This poem combines the journey and the portrait, though the latter is a generalised one. However, scattered throughout the collection are more concrete portraits, a number of which are for departed friends. These use different approaches to convey the essence of the lost one.
In the prose poem ‘Black Swans’ (92), the piece is mainly a description of the place – the swans, the harbour, the ‘scattering of pine trees, marram grass and driftwood’ – where the friend lived: ‘Perhaps he saw this too, in his last moments, alone in that cottage at The Spit.’
‘Still Breathing’ (95), however, is a narrative description of a friend’s last months, using a vocabulary drawn from the life of the man:
The poem finishes with words from his ‘last, wilful email’:
an undiagnosedillness had your scent, pursued, hunted you down, woodsman.
‘We have to both survive as one of my goals is to come visit you while we are still breathing air.’ And you did.
Other portrait poems, real and imaginary, deal with the dreams of a woman in ‘the ruined house of grey planks … caught within the glare of her snow white/curtains (‘Lace’, 37); with the longing for far-off places of ‘a mother amongst vine leaves … on a Sardinian hillside’ (‘Amongst Vine Leaves’, 52); with the struggles of a monk, ‘his cell sweetened by the honey of his God’ (‘Written in the Margins’, 53); and with the ‘loss and despair’ of two German girls at the end of WW2, (‘The Lost German Girl’, 81).
Oliver constructs an evocative language that entices and draws the reader in. The image of the moon occurs frequently, each of them vivid and unexpected:
The moon was half. As though the act of clearing a space in the partially clouded sky had worn itself away.
('Undercover', 11)Broken eggshell moon …
('Camber Swing', 21)A scythe blade sharpened on the edge of the moon.
('Baked Potato', 34)The white moon, a wild mare, driven into the canyon, clouds churned beneath its hooves …
('Dark Matter', 45)
And then there is the poem ‘The Great Rogatus’ (66) about a funambulist of the same name, ‘La Grand Seigneur of empty air’ who treads the high wire ‘adept as translation into a second language’. The poem and image could be seen as an idealised allusion to the creative act itself, especially given that Oliver refers again to the image in ‘Advice to a poet’, the second short prose poem in the first section ('morning') of his long satirical sequence ‘Open Learning Workshop’ (73):
Oliver was once a copywriter, so he speaks with authority here. And in the last poem of the third section ('evening') of the sequence, ‘Advice to a young poet’, he states what is presumably his own poetic and ethos:
… Guard against becoming a funambulist sans balancing pole. Failure means you are one step away from becoming a successful copywriter. Success means you are one step closer to never having to write another lousy word.
… Poetry is the embodiment of memory and truthful record plays homage to it. The literary critic is the foreign agent in the camp. His job is to encode untruth and misinformation … Know this, and secure faith in your own poetic instincts—if for no other reason that to capture one elusive, revelatory moment.
There are many such moments in this collection. Luxembourg shows a confident and skilled Stephen Oliver at the height of his powers, employing different techniques and using striking language and images. His poems take the reader on evocative and insightful external and internal journeys of people, place and, most important of all, imagination.
Stephen Oliver, Luxembourg, Hughes, ACT: Greywacke Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780646986968