Seeing You Asked, by Vincent O’Sullivan
Believers to the Bright Coast, by Vincent O’Sullivan
Reviewed by Andrew Johnston
In print and in performance, Vincent O’Sullivan as poet reminds one of nothing so much as an antipodean Marist or Jesuit; with his trenchant mix of philosophical erudition and vernacular ease, he comes across as the defrocked priest of New Zealand literature. His poems display an irreverence that shades into reverence: God is spoken of with fondness and slight regret, as if O’Sullivan is remembering a character who belongs to a previous book (which, he might say, is what God is). Seeing You Ask ed displays the intelligence, biting wit, variety and learnedness that readers of O’Sullivan’s poetry have come to expect—and the tendency at times to talk too much, to carry on when what he should do is quietly point. His latest novel, however, is a significant departure—or, more accurately, a significant arrival. After three decades as poet, playwright and short story writer, O’Sullivan revealed in 1993 with his second novel, Let the River Stand (his 1976 novel, Miracle, he would rather we didn’t mention) that he could harness his considerable powers of characterisation, dramatisation and lyrical evocation in the service of a major work of fiction. Believers to the Bright Coast marks an astonishing ripening of those powers.
Seeing You Asked is a canny choice of title for a book of poems that deftly combine seeing and looking with asking and answering— and the title’s relaxed note conveys the more personal tone of these poems in comparison with the more rigorous intellectualism (however tempered with colloquial vigour) of much of O’Sullivan’s earlier work. The poems in the book’s first section are especially tender: ‘Primavera’ and ‘Secular Thoughts’ surprise with their lyricism. ‘Learner’s Slope’ captures an adult’s wonder at finding the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary:
‘Made it, have I?’ Your breath
‘Remembering Westmere’ and ‘Playback’ are remarkably like recent Curnow—our Protestant almost-priest to O’Sullivan’s Catholic—especially the closing lines of the latter: ‘. . . someone’s hands / hefting me high to watch how my father / bright as life blows out 42’.
As the book’s second section gets under way, the familiar roster of O’Sullivan’s intellectual preoccupations emerges—a typically modernist line-up (though often self-mockingly aware of its modernist heritage) that intermingles philosophy, mythology (‘Troy Talk’, ‘Troyilism’), references to other (mostly European) writers, with a strong dose of political, social and intellectual satire. ‘In Time of Thanks and Praise’ takes a dig at feminism, ‘The Cheyenne Party’ at liberal wishy-washyness. In poems such as these, and ‘In My Father’s House’ (‘The day Richard got back into Parliament / my cat, not for the first time, vomited / in my shoe . . .’) O’Sullivan adopts the role of a very public writer; elsewhere he touches on more private themes but always with a strong ironic undercurrent, as in the elegiac ‘The Grieving Process’. The third section is heavy on references to writers—Hardy, Brecht, Valéry, Stevens, Rilke—framed often by the kind of blokiness that seems designed somehow to sponsor (or excuse) such high-brow name-dropping: a title like ‘Trakl, Old Mate’ is so characteristically O’Sullivan that it seems like self-parody.
At his best O’Sullivan’s poems are brassy and funny (the public poet) or tender and finely judged (the private voice). At times they are forbiddingly difficult. It’s hard to do philosophy successfully in a poem—sometimes the result is philosophy but no longer poetry. O’Sullivan’s interest in Wittgenstein seems to stem from a strong sense that when we use (or make) language we are indeed playing games—and a sense that some of the questions we are inclined to ask may simply be the wrong questions. His most rewarding philosophical poems, for me, are those that stand slightly transfixed by phenomena—that are, like much of Stevens’s work, caught up in an attempt to understand something that lies perpetually just beyond understanding: ‘The Man on Platform 1’, ‘Saying Begins It’, ‘Reflections I’ and ‘Reflections II’. The least rewarding are those that are too keen to provide answers. ‘Seeing you asked,’ these poems suggest, ‘I’m going to tell you.’ When O’Sullivan decides to supply explanations, the poems can become bossy or stentorian, given to ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’, as Keats described it, rather than content to remain ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. The church may have been deconsecrated, but this poet-priest still mounts the pulpit from time to time.
The title poem, though, leans towards another kind of telling: not answers but stories: ‘There’s a dozen things I might tell you,’ it begins, and continues through a series of short, filmic sequences before suggesting ‘There is no ending to certain stories’ and finally ‘There is something like the glint of a hook, / there is something, love, in that shimmering / vault, trolling too fast to speak of’. O’Sullivan acknowledges Wittgenstein’s‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ while using resonant images and fragments of narrative to approach it nonetheless; it’s the most powerful piece in the book, and shows that O’Sullivan is capable of sublime poems when he restrains his urge to show us how much he knows.
It is significant that the book’s best poem points toward narrative; one can get the impression, reading O’Sullivan’s poems and then his new novel, that (if this isn’t a presumptuous suggestion) his longer fiction is what the rest of his career has been preparing him for. Believers to the Bright Coast is a complex, tangy novel that gave me the kind of excitement I felt reading The Bone People or Living in the Maniototo or All Visitors Ashore—the sense that a particularly rare, delicious fruit had ripened on the tree of New Zealand literature.
A note at the front of the book tells us of Dr Peter Crippen, hanged in London in 1910 for the murder of his wife, and of Mother Suzanne Aubert, founder of the Sisters of Compassion, by way of introducing the historical seeds for this fiction. Out of the rumours surrounding Crippen, O’Sullivan creates the character of Kate Cooper, the doctor’s mistress, who emigrates to become a brothel-keeper in Auckland; from the story of Mother Aubert he creates a fictional member of her order, the young Frenchwoman Marie-Claire Depoux, who becomes Sister Martine.
The novel falls fairly neatly into four sections. The first three introduce, in turn, ‘Mrs Cooper’ then Marie-Claire then Spicer, a tongue-tied, lumbering lad who is employed to work with both. The fourth, climactic section follows this trio on a car journey from Auckland to Hawkes Bay that turns nightmarish after they are hijacked by a mysterious fugitive gangster, ‘the Chow’.
In steady, confident, crystalline prose, O’Sullivan lays out the events of Kate Cooper’s London life that lead her to leave—and the turning point, as her lover is condemned to death, that will permit her to take up a new and wholly unexpected career once she reaches Auckland: ‘Before those long days in the courtroom are over, my new life will have begun. There will be nothing, once Peter goes, that I have respect for.’ O’Sullivan’s narrative draws considerable force from its spareness and restraint: it is remarkable how little he needs to tell us about the substance of Kate’s life, and how much he trusts us to fill in the gaps. The core of his story, he implies at every turn, is moral, and out of its unconventional alliances he builds a picture of the kind of trust and humanity that thrives beyond the borders of hypocritical mores and codes.
Marie-Claire’s French upbringing background and New Zealand life are similarly sketched for us astonishingly quickly and yet fully: the girl poised at the top of a sand dune has become, 50 pages later, a nun looking back at how lightly she was able to take her years of service. By this stage she has befriended Kate and helped her through the death of her close friend Miriam—and has just found out that she herself is dreadfully ill. This unlikely pair, the madam and the nun, decide to take a holiday together while Marie-Claire is still able to travel.
Their chauffeur will be Spicer, an inarticulate, rough-edged, awkward young man who has worked as an odd-job man first for Kate—alongside his father Darkie, the brothel’s bouncer—and then at Marie-Claire’s Herne Bay Home of Compassion. The novel’s third section belongs to Spicer, and O’Sullivan takes the chance to let loose a torrent of the florid vernacular that he showed his fondness for (and mastery of) in the Butcher poems and elsewhere. ‘ ‘You and your bleeding fucken nuns!’ Darkie shouts at me’ begins Spicer’s chapter. When Harry Orsman’s New Zealand dictionary was published in London last year, Robert McCrum in The Observer sneered that New Zealand English was dull in comparison to Australian slang. The pungency, inventiveness and sheer high spirits of the language in O’Sullivan’s novel proves just how uninformed such attitudes are.
Each of these three character sections moves the story on a little further, but it’s not until the fourth section that we get what might be called the plot proper. Not far into their trip south, Kate and Marie-Claire and Spicer are hijacked by the Chow. O’Sullivan teases out the tension of their ensuing dangerous journey, flitting from character to character and building in sequences that could stand on their own as well-honed short stories: a pause for sustenance at a remote roadside tearooms run by Mrs Campbell and her daughters Hine and Chook becomes a perfect miniature of repressed desire. I won’t spoil the story by giving away the ending, which packs a double surprise. But O’Sullivan is not content with one ending, tacking on a kind of epilogue (which echoes the novel’s puzzlingly slight prologue) in which a whole new set of characters are briefly introduced. The point seems to be to show the novel’s story already passing into myth, to show that there are no endings, only new beginnings. It’s a bit clumsy though, and the novel could have just as easily been sewn up without it. To my mind it’s the only significant flaw in an otherwise richly satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable novel.
© Andrew Johnston