The Commonplace Odes

The Commonplace Odes

by Ian Wedde

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A strong new collection from an important poet, his first in seven years. It draws inspiration from the odes of Horace (and Keats), shows a new reflective and sober mood, but also evokes the rich world of the senses and the pleasures of the moment.


A strong new collection from an important poet, his first in seven years. It draws inspiration from the odes of Horace (and Keats), shows a new reflective and sober mood, but also evokes the rich world of the senses and the pleasures of the moment.

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Auckland University Press
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The Commonplace Odes

By Ian Wedde

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2001 Ian Wedde
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-86940-572-4


Book 1

    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.


Book 2

    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.


Book 3

    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.

Meet the Author

Ian Wedde is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, six novels, two collections of essays, a collection of short stories, a monograph on the artist Bill Culbert and several art catalogues. He has also been co-editor of two poetry anthologies. His own work has been widely anthologised, and has appeared in journals nationally and internationally. In 2010 he was awarded an ONZM in the Queen's Birthday Honours, and in 2011 was made New Zealand Poet Laureate.

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