In the mirror, and dancing

Last week at the Library we marked the conclusion of C. K. Stead's tenure as New Zealand Poet Laureate and celebrated the publication of his book of poetry, 'In the mirror, and dancing', with illustrations by Douglas MacDiarmid. Karl read from his new book and discussed poetry, art, youth, the creative life and related matters with Douglas MacDiarmid's niece and biographer Anna Cahill. They were joined on stage by hand-press printer Brendan O'Brien, who produced the book, along with poet Gregory O'Brien in the chair. What follows is Gregory O'Brien's introductory remarks from the evening's event, 8 August 2017. You can read about the process of hand-printing 'In the mirror, and dancing' in a follow-up blogpost by Brendan O'Brien.

Brendan O'Brien and C.K. Stead with their new book of poetry alongside the Albion printing press, an early iron hand printing press first designed in London in the early 19th century.Brendan O'Brien and C.K. Stead with their new book of poetry alongside the Albion printing press, an early iron hand printing press first designed in London in the early 19th century.

In the mirror, and dancing

I had the good fortune of being involved in the early stages of this book project. Having read a selection of Karl’s recent poems, my printer-brother Brendan and I were both struck by the freshness of the lines, the clarity of gaze, and a sense of the verse being rooted in both New Zealand and European culture. Musing over who could illustrate such a text, Taihape-born Douglas MacDiarmid, who has lived in Paris for the past 70 years, came to mind as a suitable and agreeably surprising proposition. I had met Douglas’s niece Anna Cahill, who is currently writing his biography, so we were all swiftly back in touch.

There’s a Mediterranean feeling to Douglas’s work—as to Karl’s: an Horatian love of the everyday, an embrace of the physical world, and a trembling awareness of the life (and also the death) of the body. Despite the combined age of the book’s two contributors amounting to a hefty—you could almost say monumental—180 years, there is something irresistibly youthful about the work of both. And that is the essence of this book—an integral part of its joie de vivre, its wairua, its warmth and understated gorgeousness. Herein we behold the great youthful virtues of lightness, vitality and the unrelenting stamina of these two artistic marathon dancers.

Gregory O’Brien, New Zealand poet, painter and editor, speaking at the National Library.Gregory O’Brien, New Zealand poet, painter and editor, speaking at the National Library.

To accompany the verbal choreography, there are mirrors throughout the book; reflections, impressions, backward glances, and a mirrored moon in the harbour of the first poem. In Karl’s ‘Christchurch Word’ sequence, ‘Four opposing mirrors / in the otherwise empty / hotel lift’ give rise to a poetic meditation on old age. That sequence reminded me of the fact that Douglas MacDiarmid spent his formative years in Christchurch during the 1940s, when he was part of a cultural milieu which also included Rita Angus, Douglas Lilburn, Fred and Eve Page, Colin McCahon and others. Peter Simpson reminded me the other day that Douglas is now the sole surviving member of this stellar group, which he made the subject of his recent book, Bloomsbury South: the Arts in Christchurch, 1933-53 .

Judith Fyfe, member of the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, and Brendan O'Brien. Judith Fyfe, member of the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, and Brendan O'Brien.

The question remains: What sort of a dance are we, the readers of In the mirror, and dancing, being led on: jitterbug, waltz, salsa, a stomp or line dance… a sarabande or a courante… or, maybe, all of these steps rolled together and rendered around the exterior of an ancient Greek vase? The book begins with a love poem for Karl’s wife Kay and ends with three poems written on her birthday last year. Bracketed by those glimmering artefacts, there are poems of friendship, loss and occasion. There is even a wedding invitation-poem which reflects a softening of the gnarly Catullus so evident in Karl’s earlier ‘Clodian Songbook’.

A notion of ‘craft’ permeates this book, in all its elements—it is manifest in the life-infused tremor of Douglas’s drawings as it is in the fine impress of Spectrum type on Zerkall paper, courtesy of Brendan O’Brien’s hand-printing. But the poetry is what we celebrate most tonight. Robert Graves used the word ‘craftsmanship’ rather than ‘technique’ when discussing verse—far preferring the word ‘craft’ because, unlike ‘technique’, it allowed room for magic. Magic is also very much a part of this book, with its dancing movement and many window-mirrors. In most cultures, dancing can be a summoning forth of worldly and otherworldly powers. Similarly, mirrors—like the one in the book’s title—are imbued with their own magic and are often laden with mythology and superstition…

National Librarian Bill McNaught with Anna Cahill, Douglas MacDiarmid's niece and biographer.National Librarian Bill McNaught with Anna Cahill, Douglas MacDiarmid's niece and biographer.

Deft-footed enough to appease the nine very fussy Muses of the Lively Arts, as Graves would describe them, Karl’s words glide across the page of this mirrored dance-studio of a book.

In the French tradition of les livres des artistes—the artist’s book—the refinement of the poems is matched by the fineness of the visual art and printing. The end result is a production in which all the elements are made intrinsic to one another. In the mirror, and dancing is poetry in its most exquisite and desirable habitat: a truly Fine Press edition.

Apart from an ISBN number on the final page, the last thing in the book is a printer’s flower, a laurel, on the foot of the Colophon page. It is an appropriate visual note to mark the end of Karl’s laureateship and celebrate his ongoing commitment to the craft which has been the cornerstone of a deeply literary life.

Gregory O'Brien and C.K. Stead. Gregory O'Brien and C.K. Stead.

A page from <em>In the mirror, and dancing</em> with the poem titled 'Three poems for Kay on her birthday'A page from In the mirror, and dancing with the poem titled 'Three poems for Kay on her birthday'.

By Gregory O'Brien

Gregory O'Brien is a Wellington-based poet, painter and editor.

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