Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Little River Cemetery

Surfing the net yesterday I was chuffed to find this review of Recessional which I had not seen. I was chuffed. I hesititated about putting it up but felt the analysis of 'Little River Cemetery' was so apt I decided to share it. Thank you Terry Locke.

'Recessional' by Harvey McQueen. Wellington: HeadworX (2004)
Reviewed by Terry Locke

A recessional is a hymn sung while clergy and choir are moving from the chancel of a church to the vestry at the close of a service. Harvey McQueen was born in Little River, on Banks Peninsula, in 1934, which makes him about 71 years of age or thereabouts. I first met Harvey when he was a curriculum officer in the Department of Education, at a time when Russell Marshall was supporting the development of a Peace Education syllabus for New Zealand schools. He was, and still is, a man passionate about the arts, literature and education.

‘Recessional’ is a gracious book written by a man who is ageing gracefully. Age permeates this book; indeed it provides a stance and a resource to be mined. McQueen has 70 plus years to play with and he does. I picture him, scotch in hand, eyeing some plant or other as he ambles around the garden, finding a wicker chair in the shade, reaching for a book as his mind drifts to some incident in the past, perhaps prompted by what he is reading, perhaps entering unannounced.

By the time a poem is hatched, there will be a particular slant on things, often with a political or ethical twist. McQueen knows state politics (as educational adviser to David Lange), educational politics and the politics of poetry. In respect of the latter, McQueen can take a lot of credit for moving New Zealand poetry anthologies in new directions (including bicultural ones) and for taking risks in inviting younger, unrecognized poets into the public spotlight. Many of these have a much securer place nowadays in the pantheon than McQueen has. But that's politics.

What is also politics is that it is Mark Pirie's publishing venture HeadworX which has chosen to bring out this book of Harvey's (as Mark did for Alistair Paterson's ‘Summer on the Côte d'Azur’ ). McQueen dedicates a poem to Pirie:


There are two theories of creation:
- sweat
cooled basalt stacked
to wall a garden

- inspiration
a thousand ships and just a song at twilight.’

McQueen's verse is in the former category. He is a crafter and a shaper of poems that are often rough-hewn. You'd want to wear gloves handling "cooled basalt"; you'd also be aware of its volcanic origins.

You could use a poem like this with secondary students. But you may be picking up that I'm hesitating about suggesting that this book would be a good one to use with secondary English students. The book speaks to me, both in terms of its content and its stance. However, old age is not something secondary students willingly reckon with when next weekend looms so large on the horizon. ( King Lear can be sold to students because they can identify with Edmond, especially those studying economics with aspirations to be IMF executives.) McQueen himself, in "The Old Poet", pictures himself as someone definitely out-of-step with his times.

However, so you can make your own judgement, let me introduce "Little River Cemetery". The poem begins with a musing and a clearly evoked setting, both of which typify McQueen's verse:

‘If sparrows were rare they'd be considered
beautiful. One squats on my father's tombstone.
Mum totters towards it.’

The language is spare, yet apt, with just enough disrespect in the choice of "squats" to raise a slight smile. The poem moves to a recount of other family members whose graves are close by. Then:

‘Leaning on an old stone
for support Mum peers at the words. "He
lived to a ripe old age. Always a lazy bugger."’

This is as close to a moment of truth as you can get; bedrock. Just two sentences and you have a whole family history unwrapped. Then there is a link sentence, with the use of a personification that marks a tonal shift...

‘The hills of Little River stand sentinel
as they did in my youth.’

And then the irruption, the disruption and the connection.

‘This morning
Columbia disintegrated re-entering
the earth's atmosphere, a spectacular
& public death for the crew. A beautiful
& peaceful day here as they search the
Texan landscape for debris. Every death
ends a unique combination of circumstances,
prejudices, embraces & experiences. Never

The idea of beauty returns as a motif. The astronauts become linked with the poet's father, sharing a common fate through circumstances that are inevitably unique: sameness and difference.

‘Spying a hen in the dust, the sparrow
darts down to mate with her, a rowdy process.’

I can imagine! McQueen will know that he joins a long line of poets making use of sparrows in this way - Yeats, Auden, W.C.Williams and many others. What is reasserted here is the tone just faintly suggested by the word "squats" in line two. It's an assertion of carnival, sexuality, rebirth and comedy. An assertion right there, in a setting (a cemetery) and at a time (disaster in space) when the conditions are not particularly propitious.

I'm glad HeadworX has done this job for Harvey McQueen. He deserves it. And if you're like me, you'll find this book an amusing, engrossing and absorbing read.

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