It's dusk. The train glides out of the station and soon we're racing through flat snowy fields. The grey sky is streaked with primrose, I open CK Stead's The Yellow Buoy - and I'm hooked.
Stead needs no introduction. He's one of our most prolific, versatile and internationally renowned writers. Impressively, this new poetry collection is his 15th, and his contributions to fiction and non-fiction are no less impressive.
In light of his publishing record and public honours, it's disarming - and beautiful - to discover the two opening poems are titled Ego 1 and Ego 2. They perfectly contradict each other, staring each other down like well-matched opponents, one denigrating ego, the other affirming it.
Never encourage the Ego, advises the first, while the second states contrapuntally,
Never disparage the Ego. In the first poem, Ego is
a bird with one note, a yapping dog - but the second portrays it as
your surfboard / your sail, the thing that prevents you from drowning.
These opposed yet masterfully balanced poems set the tone for a multifaceted collection. Stead's sharp intelligence and academic knowledge are always partnered with a glinting humour, a love of visual imagery and an ability to appreciate - and exploit - both sides of a coin.
The Yellow Buoy is divided into three sections, representing five years of experiences and memories. Stead travels widely. His work traverses settings and centuries, from Croatia to France, Colombia to New Zealand. Many are tributes to friends or colleagues:
Hunting for a rhyme / on Lone Kauri Road I met / Allen Curnow's ghost (Dream-rhyme-Haiku).
Such turnings back to the past are clear-sighted and objective - but these qualities never preclude tenderness. The title poem appears early in the book, in the sequence 'Four kinds of love'.
Late in the day our Ovid fell in love / not with a woman but a yellow buoy. That casual claiming of Ovid! It's so perfect - and it's perfectly Stead, as are the last lines with their effortless wordplay:
Ovid avid for copy, whatever / it cost if he could make it a poem.
The third section consists of work from the year in which Stead turned 80. It's quizzical, yet also deeply contemplative. The final poem is the pitch-perfect Leaving Karekare, whose imagery of
green-brown light reflects back to the book's opening, where
wind / beats green waves brown (Ego 2).
The closing lines feel like both homage and elegy. Hoping for acknowledgement from the landscape, the poet is met with silence:
'Don't go,' I want it to sigh,
but today there's no wind
and not a word is spoken.
It's a masterful finish. When I close the book, I'm left with a curious feeling of duality. There's a world outside the sliding windows - and there's one in my hands: complex, complete, captured within two paper covers.