Poetry review: Us, then, by Vincent O’Sullivan

by Tim Upperton / 08 August, 2013
There’s an unsettling viciousness in Vincent O’Sullivan’s poems unlike anything else in New Zealand verse.
Vincent O'Sullivan poetry review Us Then
Vincent O’Sullivan: downbeat, sardonic, wise. Photo/Ross Setford/NZ Herald


‘We see, half-seeing, such shape the image finds.” This line, in its succinct expression, technical facility and syntactical grace, could be lifted from an Elizabethan sonnet. It is, in fact, the close of Vincent O’Sullivan’s poem Get the picture? from his new collection, Us, then.

Few contemporary poets are as at home with the stately unfolding of iambic pentameters as O’Sullivan. The poem meditates on Barry Cleavin’s aquatints Exercising the Black Dog (the aquatints themselves are on the cover).

Seeing, in these poems, is active: it is, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sense, an act of the imagination, which half-perceives and half-creates.

Poetry that foregrounds technique risks generating more intellectual light than emotional heat, but O’Sullivan’s work also resembles that of the Elizabethans in the way it combines elegance and crudity, logic and metaphorical flights, erudition and bawdiness, mind and flesh. His tonal range is extraordinarily wide.

O’Sullivan is our own Philip Larkin, our best poet on the diminishments of age, the gentle resignation of the reach that never exceeded its grasp: “the achievement, or, almost always, the unachieved” (And). But he is capable of a variety of other voices, too, demonstrated most ably in a remarkable series of tributes to Allen Curnow that both hint at and echo Curnow’s difficult, mandarin persona.

An O’Sullivan poem is often downbeat, sardonic, wise – it comes bearing the fruit and the burden of accumulated experience. But another characteristic is an unsettling, flat viciousness, unlike anything else in New Zealand verse: when he begins a poem with the line “I miss pure evil”, you sense he isn’t merely posturing.

Book review poetry Us Then Vincent O'SullivanIf the title of this collection implies a looking back rather than looking forward, a kind of valediction, the poems themselves, in Curnow’s phrase, look back harder – sometimes bleakly, sometimes mischievously, but never nostalgically. They range in subject from small domestic failures to large-scale 20th-century horrors, and in many poems is an acute consciousness of individual lives against a broader historical-cultural canvas.

The technical sophistication of these poems acquires, over the course of the collection, a Mephistophelian glamour. The shades of Curnow and Wallace Stevens are felt here, as tutelary, civilising presences, but there is a sense, also, of something prowling beyond the campfire: not “pure evil”, maybe, but a danger to which we are continually drawn.

US, THEN, by Vincent O’Sullivan (VUP, $28).

Tim Upperton is author of the poetry collection A House on Fire.

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