Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To Stuart by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Early spring, and a cold wet morning.
     The wind mooches about outside,
          planning a home invasion.
It’s Mary’s birthday, our Mary whom
     you’d have loved had the Fates
          spared you. I take you back
five years before you joined
     the Maori Battalion, and six before you
          died. I have many questions to put
to you, many that may not even have
     an answer. Why being blessed with
          enviable gifts did you abandon
your studies after only a year?
     You could have made your mark
          in any field that calls
for passion and imagination.
     As a boy I followed you about
          from match to match marvelling
at what you created with a
      cricket ball. Your bowling
          action and the flight of the ball,
gathering speed as it flew
     towards its target, were to me
           a work of art. As an admiring
younger brother, I celebrate
     this image of what you promised
          and never lived to fulfil.
‘Nature,’ wrote William Blake,
     ‘has no Outline, but Imagination has.’
          I see you turn and run up
to the crease. I see your
     arm swing over. I see the
           ball in flight – and that is all.

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

I selected this poem because of its personal connection with the Maori Battalion, and my admiration for Alistair Te Ariki Campbell who was the first Polynesian poet to have a book published in English, the spectacularly successful Mine Eyes Dazzle (Pegasus Press, 1950, 1951, 1956) with an Oxford revised edition called Wild Honey in 1964.

Campbell’s brother Stuart (named in his ‘Personal Sonnets’ as 446853 Private S.A. Campbell) was killed as a result of ‘friendly fire’ in 1945 while waiting to cross the Santerno River near Massa Lombarda, Italy. An RAF Bomber tragically dropped a 500 pound bomb near Stuart’s D Company unit of the 28th Maori Battalion. The poem shows the younger brother’s admiration for Stuart, and the tremendous promise that was never realized in Stuart whose sharpness of mind and athleticism is captured in the poignant image of the cricket ball in flight that never lands.

Campbell was continuously revising. In a previously published version of the poem the quote from Blake in the penultimate ‘stanza’ uses ‘Art’ rather than this most recent version which uses ‘Imagination’. It’s a revealing re-vision, emphasizing a five-senses aesthetic rather than the highly abstract term art. The quote also grounds Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s poem in Blake’s English tradition of visionary poetry, while keeping it in the same field of play as cricket, and the promises of university study “…that calls for passion and imagination.” It also shows Campbell’s tremendous artistry, continuing to reshape work well after it was first published.

There are technical aspects to notice. I put stanza in inverted quotes above because the poem moves in eleven stanza-like tercets. The tercet pattern:  the first line far-left, the second line indented, then the third line further indented, cleverly creates small spaces in the long-flowing lyric, or ‘spots in time’ during the bowler’s run-up and then release. The maestro also lays a regular pattern of three stresses per line, creating a sweet or dolce music when speaking of his deceased brother.

Campbell returned and returned to the theme of his brother’s death, perhaps beginning with his famous 1948-49 sequence ‘Elegy’ which mourned his friend the mountain climber Roy Dickson’s death, but  contains an edge of familial grief conjuring his brother’s recent death; through to the 1960 ‘Personal Sonnets I’, 1964’s ‘Grandfather Bosini’ who calls out for Maireriki (Stuart’s Tongarevan name) and then dies, and the 2001 Maori Battalion sequence where this poem “To Stuart” first appeared. An enduring theme of the orphaned Campbell’s poetry was family, and his yearning to re-connect with them.

More on Alistair Te Ariki Campbell here and here. The poem is posted with the kind permission of Andrew Campbell.

This week's Tuesday Poem editor is poet Robert Sullivan of Maori (Ngā Puhi, Kai Tahu) and Galway Irish descent. He has won several NZ literary awards for his poetry, children's writing and editing. His poetry collections include Star Waka, Captain Cook in the Underworld, Voice Carried My Family, and his most recent: Cassino City of Martyrs (Huia) and Shout Ha! to the Sky (Salt Publishing, UK). 

Robert co-edited Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English with Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri. Robert is the new Head of the School of Creative Writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland, and before that, directed Creative Writing at the University of Hawai'i.  He blogs here


Jennifer Compton said...

i didn't know this poem - so thanks - really wonderful - quite stunning

Helen Lowe said...

Thank you for this thoughtful poem, which also taps into an important aspect of NZ history with the Maori Battalion.

And welcome to the Tuesday Poem Blog community.

Elizabeth Welsh said...

The image of the cricket ball poised in midair and the re-imagining of this flight is truly heartbreaking. Welcome to Tuesday Poem, Robert, and thank you for posting such a beautiful poem!

Mark Pirie said...

Thanks Robert, the poem by Alistair also appears in my newly published anthology A Tingling Catch: A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009 (HeadworX, 2010); foreword by Don Neely. Before he died, Alistair was really stoked to be in a cricket anthology. He and Pat Wilson followed cricket as young students at Weir House. See Alistair's 'Letter to Pat Wilson'. I have a blog for the book at http://tinglingcatch.blogspot.com

Ben Hur said...

Yes, a beautiful poem. I've always been drawn to poems about family. It is, after all, a commonality to all human beings.

Kia Ora and welcome to the "family" of Tuesday Poets, Robert.

Zireaux said...

This is quality work by one of New Zealand's best poets. Most striking, to me, is how the poem begins, with the wind threatening invasion, and how it triggers the very sense of vulnerability that would make one reminisce about the loss of an elder brother (especially a soldier, a protector from invasion). Who will defend the home front? Who will protect "our Mary"?