Read an Excerpt
The Commonplace Odes
By Ian Wedde
Auckland University PressCopyright © 2001 Ian Wedde
All rights reserved.
1.1 To the Muse
Winecup in hand, in the arbour's shade – creaking
Cicadas, and the distant bleating of Pan's kids –
It's Quintus Horatius Flaccus I invoke
At his 'Sabine Farm', unheroic master
Of the commonplace. Horace would have called down Calliope
From heaven and did so, adding that strength without wisdom
Falls by its own weight. But for me, it's the master
Himself I invoke, whose odes have soothed Cerberus.
The green earth sweats and shakes with the effort
Of digesting its dead. Tomorrow is Saturday. I plan
To start the restful weekend with the lovely woman
Who is my dear friend and lover but not my muse
Because she's alive and has better things to do
With words than bring them to me in a basket bedecked
With laurels. She tells good jokes. I laugh.
And so I imagine does the wry spirit at the edge
Of my vision, where he's been for decades, sometimes called
By other names, like 'the kindly paediatrician',
Patron of sparrows, weedstalks, and plums, or 'the big
Guy', who could have written a great cookbook.
They taught me when to shut up, and when
To try again the delicate business of placing
One foot after the other across
The groaning meniscus of language, that great sac
Bulging with death, from which nourishment crawls.
1.2 To the cookbook
Turning east, I drove towards blue grey
Mountains down which cloud crawled
From summits which were already sky. High in it
A glare like grubby porcelain told me that morning
Was advanced. The nibbled winter paddocks were over-
Written in a language no one had ever taught me:
Glottal, almost choking, wet. Lines
Of leafless shelter-belt enwrapped the shorter
Rows of berryfruit trellises in need
Of pruning. My destination: an art gallery.
My mission: to speak about art and poetry.
It was going to be all over before I got there.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, help me
In my hour of need, help me turn my back
On landscape that wants to be art, on poetry with feet
Of clay. The lovely world has everything I need,
It has my kids, my sweetheart, my friends, it has a new book
With mouth-watering risotto recipes in it,
The kind of plump rice you might have relished,
Horace, in the Sabine noon, yellowed with saffron.
'The zen poet' is another of you, he wrote a poem
About making stew in the desert which changed my life.
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.
1.3 To Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere: art noir
Night falls and light spills across
The deck still speckled with summer's bastings,
The juices of rubifacient prawns, rock
Salt cracking on the hotplate, aubergines
Spitting juice through cracked, purple skins.
And just look at these two wily conspirators
Lurking in their dark limelight, standing at the end
Of what they've done, on the far side of it. Looking
Back at the beginning, where we are now. Want
To come across? It's not that easy.
You can't walk on this black water.
And there they are, nonchalant, on the farthest shore.
How did they get there? By aliking what they do. By putting
It together. By liking each other. By liking what art
Does. By liking art — this dory over black water.
And these beacons? Are there shoals? Shoals of meaning, keel-grinders?
Get lost. Nothing else for it. Get sunk.
Go to black. Go under. Go under meaning.
Learn to breathe under there where no one can.
Where you can. Just take the first breath
Like you always dreamed you could. Now, prove it.
Dreaming in art. If this was an automobile, its speed
Would be a sheen. Your dream so fast it's motionless –
An arrow of light, it left the moon long ago.
Along the flank of darkness time 'stands still'.
1.4 To my twin brother
There are some things I still need to know:
How can I talk to you when we have forgotten our language?
Can we meet now that our mother is long dead?
How can I bring you gifts when you
Are bringing me gifts? How could our father
Be in the picture when he was always taking it? What
Is this we hold up between us – is it a trophy,
Did we compete for it, is it alive or dead? And how can
My sons speak to your daughters
When they have never learned our language? Where
Can they meet now that their fathers have no place
To meet? How can they share what they have when they have
Nothing in common? And what is this they hold
Up between them? Is it their grandmother's wedding band,
That gateway through which their fathers entered
Life, through which their grandfather left it?
Why are you left handed while I am right handed?
Why did you have daughters while I had sons?
Which of us could have been the other's sister?
And what is this we hold up between us?
Is it perhaps a mirror? Or a moon trail
On the placid ocean where the reflections of our mother and father
Are not disturbed, sitting under Royal palms
On the Picton foreshore, tinkle of jazz from the ferry,
Sons unborn, cheek by cheek under Gemini?
1.5 To Donna's young dogs
You love him, born to be your true and constant
Guardian, because whenever rain darkens
The asphalt at the front of the big warm house
He turns hastily back with a look that beseeches –
I remember holding my face in a shower of pungent
Sawdust in a sunny yard long ago,
When a mother's rough cuff or the cool scent
Of her spit on my eyelids were enough to make me sleep
With my face in a sweet sibling's biscuity flank.
And I want to go there now and dream
Of building a place for young animals to play in,
Out of stuff as simple as that timber and that touch
And that look of love in the yard where I played when I was even
Younger. But out he goes anyway, shaking his rough
Hair in the wet light of the day he must now
Fill up with his naïve labour, only
Dreaming of his outrageous fortune, young pup
That he is, whose tough daytime is one risky,
Skating glissade towards a time when dreams
And days are driven apart by the disenchantments
That only romance will bring back. Seat me
Again at tables loaded with hope, in the baffling
Milieu of the tribe, in its dwelling that cannot be finished,
In a persistent shower of light like sawdust – your doggy
Boys running home through rain to be towelled.
2.1 To my mirror
Towelling myself before the mirror in a hotel far
From the unfinished dwelling of my life, I see
How gravely my weight wants to go to earth,
Tugged down by good living, by love,
And by spiteful tiredness brought on by the knuckle-
Cracking Cotton Mathers of cultural bureaucracy.
Was this your fate also, Horace,
To sit in meeting rooms filled with nodding
Heads — that semaphore of acquiescence signalling
An infantile need for the boss's caress, a desire
To sit at the high table, to learn the secret
Handshakes of power and the muscular exercises of gate-
Keeping? Your friends in high places trusted
Your amiable libations, and those who joined you in the shade
Of the Sabine farm's leafy awnings knew
That you loved life too much to learn
Those shameful trades. I heard Neruda in London
When my young ambition burned. His huge confidence
Was without ego or neediness and came from the sure
Knowledge that what he gave was his to give
And was wanted by the great crowd that stood on chairs
To applaud the poet. Then he just left –
And I walked out knowing it would be my fate
To see in the dark mirror of some shop window
The sad marks of remorse on my own face.
2.2 To Leone
I'm sad, Leone, and filled with remorse, because
On your birthday I pump out doggerel
And make you cry. It's an old arrangement we have.
Moonlight ices my neighbour's roof. Somewhere
In North Dakota thousands of ghost buffaloes
Are on the hoof, and despite the fact that I've just
Written two of them my relationship with lines of poetry gets more
And more aloof. It's been this way
For years now, a sense of fraudulence, an excess
Of sacred cowness, the shit-detector quivering
Madly every time I step up to the footlights
Of language and take my bow. So it was
With a feeling approaching dread that I entered my sweetheart's
Fabulously organised writing shed, switched
On the computer she daily overheats
With great stories, and clutched my aching head.
Outside (it was midday not night,
The moonlight-and-ice thing was just me
Trying to get my tone right, and the ghost
Buffaloes were there because I wanted my rhyme
On time) some rows of coloured plastic
Clothespegs pleased my sight, and I remembered
With affection the plain wooden ones our Sunday
School teacher used to explain the nativity,
The Joseph and Mary pegs dressed in paper.
2.3 To Leone II
The Joseph and Mary pegs dressed in paper
Stood before an expressive backdrop cut
From a sturdy Weetbix packet, a creche we pelted
With acorns while making an unholy racket, which I'm sure
God loved because we were innocent then
Though the Presbyterian Sunday school teacher often
Didn't hack it. The innocence we lose as we accumulate
Adult qualities like irony – that loss
Brings with it an admission that language can be
Completely insincere, and even the writers
We most revere are capable of horrid cynicism,
Self-service, and a kind of nodding compliance
Which is probably what I most fear I'll find in myself
One day, which is why I've kept poetry
At bay for a few years now, seeing
Language as a kind of virus which infects whatever
It was I was trying to say. Of course there's only one
Antidote for this, and it's love. When push comes
To shove and the glittering bead of water hanging
From the tamarillo or the sense of sap crazily
On the move in the tangle of jasmine on the back fence –
When stuff like this has to have sense made
Of it with words, it will only happen when love
Has cleared a way through the dense thickets of mistrust
And we find ourselves again in the midst of a must-
2.4 To Leone III
Happen sense of what's right, and so we do
Even though we know it's all dust
In the end, like everything words name, like you,
Like me. And now we've come to the nitty-
Gritty, dear Lee, which is where I thank you
For the fabulous birthday present I've got from you,
Which is that I've been made free again
By love to write a poem for you on your birthday
And to know it's true and simple and can be trusted,
Like our old friendship, darling, inexhaustible, bountiful,
Memorable, true blue. Whereupon I now
Consign the ghost buffaloes of North Dakota
To a bin reserved entirely for the fraudulent quota
Of words uttered in bad faith, and I ask you
All to raise your brimming glasses to dear
Leone and to salute her. These solemn rites,
This smoke drifting from the sacrificial meats,
These hands that swipe away tears
From world-weary eyes, this sentiment
Hastened by the vine, this recourse to memory,
These familiar faces into which we peer as though
Into mirrors, seeing the shadow of time pouring
Towards the silvered surface like night
Across the festive garden – these portents
Say, Do it now and do it right.
2.5 To the millennium
Do it right now. Now do it
Right — why should I admonish the stars?
Even heavenly bodies know there's no
Right way and no time to lose.
And not much left anyway. The knuckle-
Cracking cultural commissars whose nodding heads
Choreograph their passage to the high tables administered
By taste and class know there's no time
To lose. Twined top and tail with my dear
Friend and lover on a shady sofa on the deck
Still speckled with last summer's bastings
I know there's not much left anyway.
But today I have finished a work outlasting bronze,
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, and now I'm sure
I'll go on and on, kept forever young
By the praise in times to come for what I've done.
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, it's not the garland
Of Delphic laurels placed on my sunburned head
That will still be green when the old millennium ends,
But the honeysuckle vine my love and I transplanted
Today, showing our penpushers' skins
To the sun, from which we now hide, entwined.
epistle to a Virtuous Lieutenant
Beware in others, my plausible friend,
The virtues you most mistrust in yourself.
Already I see your ingenuous gaze narrow
Anticipating my sceptical retort.
In meeting rooms filled with nodding heads
Your nodding is the most athletic.
The muscles of your obsequious neck are exercised
In supporting your accommodating brain.
This capacious brain, my friend,
Has room for a great deal of thought
Most of it imported from your immediate superiors.
How delighted they must be with your perfect recall.
You recant your own ideas with such speed
You might as well not think at all.
The phrase "I absolutely agree!" you utter so promiscuously
You might as well agree to everything in advance.
Your mind is a loose louvre
Shuttering on meaningless brightness.
The illumination it brings to councils of war
Dapples the plans with pointillist decorations.
Not all your virtues, however, are of a cerebral nature.
You are also replete with earthy qualities.
If the smell of shit could be packaged
Yours would be a market leader.
It's clear from the way your grin precedes you down corridors
That you are determined to be going somewhere.
Your fistful of important documents
Waves farewell to an indifferent future
And what your own future holds
Is moulded by the buttock-shaped seats of the high table.
This is a place designed for arses
And you, my fortunate friend, are perfectly designed for it.
I find it touching to see
How grateful you are for your name-tag on this table:
It must warm the hearts of your superiors
To observe your biddable demeanour
Just as it warms your own vulnerable heart
To see how your virtue is rewarded.
Nothing induces peaceful sleep
Like memories of the general's caress.
But remember, we are all virtuous lieutenants –
No matter how high our office, there is always a higher.
We all wear caps with brims
Designed for obsequious fingers
And the more we ourselves are surrounded by virtuous lieutenants
The more we squirm and sweat
In the lonely hours of the night
Hurt by the rebukes of our own commanding hearts.
3.1 To art and praxis
Kilometres of shining sand in which the blue sky's
Clouds wave, mean nothing. The waves,
Too, are meaningless. So are the mountains whose peaks
Are flushed with dawn, or dusk, depending on the time
Of day. Time also means nothing.
Out there in the wilderness where art and praxis
Have yet to tangle, time is just another
Neurosis. It's the Sublime that now approaches through
The mountain passes, along the shining strand,
And filled with awe and terror we sense how time
Diminishes us, making monumental the mountains
And the strand, the avalanches and the shipwrecks. But now Science
Begins to measure the avalanches and the shipwrecks, recording
The roars of both until they become the kind
Of music that will make the mall's ordinary crowd
Into a choir, and this random festoon of blooms
Into a memorial drenched with tears, and this shy
Sideways look into a great allegory of passion,
In which huge bronze bells ring dooms
Of unrequited love, great empires
Crash and burn, dynasties go phut,
And just when you thought you knew how this would end
Its meaning, too, eludes you. It doesn't
End — instead, a little, laconic tune,
Like someone merely whistling, fades away.
3.2 To utopias
They always fade away, these nowheres,
There are streetlights in paradise, 'our golden children dance
On broken glass', dark, gothic and revived
The mitred peaks pierce the clouds and time
'Stands still'. Hamilton's jetboat is our brush
Now, painting its frothing wake through gorges
Bituminous, dark, and kind of Dutch. I want
To meet you for lunch and to eat rice noodles
In a broth with clams, prawns, and chopped scallions.
I want to watch you eating while I talk
And then I want to drink my soup while you
Impersonate the garrulous media types who chew
Your ear. I want to chew your ear at lunch-
Time while time stands still and broth
Froths around piquant peaks of cloud-piercing
Dreams. And then I want to walk with you
Through a golden city whose spires aspire to heaven
And beneath whose pavings rivers run down
To ripraps at the harbour's edge and those beaches of broken
Shining glass shards where children dance.
We dream. When you dream your body bucks
Like a jetboat in the bed, your hair gets wet,
And when you wake you have that nowhere look
Of someone who doesn't know what time it is
In this bituminous gorge of backlit peaks.
3.3 To Peter McLeavey
What is beautiful, Peter, in this bituminous gorge
Of life, what is constant and does not change,
What is the uncanny vessel of spirit, the taxi-
Cab with your lovely mother in it always departing
Through some filigreed Moorish gate
Excerpted from The Commonplace Odes by Ian Wedde. Copyright © 2001 Ian Wedde. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.