Late autumn’s good up around
The neighbourhood mountain’s misty flank in the morning
When the piss-trail of the morning promenade’s fresh
And even an old dog can still feel
The sac of earth trembling under his running feet.
How can language contain the world that spills
From its torn rinds, how can my ode hold
On to language that ejects itself like birdsong
From pine trees still shady with dawn,
How could the warm, shady womb contain
These vociferous twins, one wanting
To sing about flying, the other wanting to sing
About singing, how can the green pepper not
Split and spill its bellyfull of plump arborio,
How can the house not loose its young
Dogs into the street where, full of wine
And Sunday’s big pot of dolmade, they seem
To hesitate a little, to look back at the lights
Of the house and someone waving as the door shuts?
And then they are gone again, Quintus Horatius,
The young dogs from the house, the fragrant rice
From its green pepper womb, what I wanted to say
From this ode, the world from words that burst
Open, and this awful sadness spilling
Even so from the rapture that contains everything
About this poem
This poem was first published online as part of a SPL project, supported by Creative New Zealand, which commissioned Scottish writers to introduce a NZ poem. This introduction is by Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library since 2000, who was born and grew up in Wellington, NZ.
I re-read Ian Wedde's Commonplace Odes at a cruising height of 35,000 feet, on the interminable journey from Wellington to Glasgow. It was one way of carrying New Zealand with me: the 'grave cone' of Taranaki; the smoke of summer barbecues; the blowy wind; the palms on the Picton foreshore; even the honeysuckle vine planted by the poet at the millennium, scenting his backyard when we talked on the last day of 2008.
Writing about this collection of odes, Wedde said that he had rediscovered through this form 'the grand themes in ordinary details: the emotional truth of the commonplace'. Themes and subjects bind these 28 poems together: the comfort and artistry of cooking is one of them:
A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems
Any day, because it can't be any more pretentious
Than the produce you savour with friends as night falls.
There is the recurrent allusion to family photographs, taken by the father who doesn't appear in them; the death of his mother; the comings and goings of sons; and these commonplaces of our emotional life are given their sober and proper place.
Truth and Beauty, Art and Praxis – Wedde doesn't sidestep such grand themes, but he does avoid the incipient danger of pretentiousness, having been
Born in a land where art and praxis draw
Their strengths together in laconic music I'd know
Anywhere and have loved more than the carping
Sound of my own voice…
This is perhaps a mocking reference to his role in New Zealand culture as essayist on the visual arts as well as literature, to which he brings a rigorous and sophisticated understanding of the praxis of both.
The ode is a capacious form. In Pablo Neruda's hands, for example, it hymns the sock and the tomato (for Wedde the vegetable touchstone is the green pepper), it is digressive and irregular. Wedde takes his cue from Quintus Horatius Flaccus, whom he addresses in the apparently sprawling but in fact ingenious opening epode, which sounds the notes of all the poems that will follow, punctuated by Horace's own phrases. Descriptions of the Horatian ode always include urbanity, wit, tolerance, reflection as defining features, and Wedde's collection shows all these. The form is a way of holding conversations: with the classical master; with absent family members; with New Zealand artists.
As in a conversation, the tone changes subtly, from celebratory to sad, from irritated or frustrated to expansive, philosophical. The sweetness here is partly the poet's relish in finding a way to write poetry again, by using this accommodating yet carefully structured form of five-line five-stanza odes. They are best read together, their shared references and repeated lines in new combinations giving us sensory particularities and also broader historical and aesthetic concerns: neither 'small talk' nor 'grandiloquence', but the common concerns of the thinking person at the turn of our century.
Choosing one ode was difficult, but in the end I've settled on 'To Mount Victoria'. This was Wedde's neighbourhood, a mix of modern apartments and some commercial buildings alongside the wooden Victorian-era villas and cottages on steep inclines that characterise Wellington's suburbs, while at the top of the hill (196 metres) there's a view over the whole city round its harbour.
The dogs of the poem – old and young – are animal and also the poet and his sons, the latter off the leash, sniffing the traces of new adventures. The New Zealand travelling instinct is strong, and does not always bring the travellers home. The 'vociferous twins' are the poet and his brother, appearing elsewhere in the series, now homeless – not simply having been ejected from the ‘shady womb' of their mother, but having lost her.
The place-name locates the poem for Wellingtonians, but it would be hard to say – given its classical reference and Mediterranean cooking – that the poem wears an obvious New Zealand identity. Wedde achieves here a fine balance of the personal and universal that gives the poem its energy, its muscularity and its generosity. The poet tries to 'hold on to language', the world spilling out from the confines of the words formed to hold it steady, and in doing so he creates that ‘laconic music' that I also love.