Robert McLean (1974) lives at Lyttelton, New Zealand. His poetry has appeared in four limited editions: For the Coalition Dead (Kilmog Press, 2009), For Renato Curcio (Gumtree Press, 2010), Goat Songs (Kilmog Press, 2011) and Graveyard by the Sea (Cold Hub Press, 2012).
The two heaviest and most lasting influences on my writing have been Yvor Winters and Guy Davenport. With due deference to the latter, I'd say I am, like Koenraad Kuiper, a modernist; and I think it bespeaks of modernism's vitality that he and I produce such different poetry.
Jeffrey Wainwright's 'Thomas Muntzer’ and '1815', Donald Davie's 'In the Stopping Train' and 'Our Father', and Geoffrey Hill's 'Funeral Music' and 'The Pentecost Castle' – these are my favourite poems by some of my favourite poets. I suppose it is no coincidence then that, in my view, my best poems have come as sequences: 'Voyager', 'Entitlements and Divagations Begotten Anselm Keifer', 'Of Waxwings and Dayflies', 'For the Coalition Dead', ‘Rimbaud at the Empty Inn’. If readers like what they find below, they might like to seek out these poems, along with my long poem ‘A Graveyard by the Sea’, which was published as a chapbook by Cold Hub Press.
Navel gazing makes for bad poetry; looking back over my poems, I see that I was guilty of much navel gazing. There's much more that's juicy and liable to fascinate, and perennially so, outside oneself than within. Ezra Pound's relationship with Villon and the changing topography of the Somme is far more interesting than my relationship with my father and my involuntary response to the redolence of carob; or, at least, it ought to be. What have been interesting me lately are questions of intrinsic value and coherence, both of which should keep me occupied for quite some time.
By way of a disclaimer: I write with different means to different ends. Some of these poems are this and some are that. I’m certain there’s no formula for writing a good poem; I’m also certain that there are formulas for writing bad ones. I’ve selected poems where I hope I’ve proven able to avoid the latter.
I feel very blessed to have been published, and thereby – miracle of miracles! – read, so my gratitude goes out to all who have done me this service, especially Dean Havard at Kilmog Press, Rob Lamb at Gumtree Press, and Roger Hickin at Cold Hub Press. Thanks also to Alistair Paterson at Poetry New Zealand, whose partisan commitment to the cause goes beyond the call of duty. Like many other poets, I have cherished Alistair’s critical support over the years.
I dedicate these poems to my wife Kate. I have no doubt that in the light of her love I will write ever lovelier poems – no doubt at all.
Church Hill, Nelson
Heel follows toe: fifty-two steps.
This is my casual observance –
weekday, itinerant. Ordnance
still echoes here: forging friendships
and building character. Chelmer,
Colne, Wairau, Mary Ann Blakemore:
such names and places we endure.
Lying open, Psalm fifty-four:
people to whom God means nothing.
On Sunday, elders will collect
offerings, sing praise songs, earn respect.
The absent are beyond caring –
for now, I’m merely curious.
High windows will admit a light
filtered through lemon and violet –
I’m affected by the stained glass:
less cynical. Almost brand new.
The architect and the martyr
remain my heroes. And yet there
may be a place in here for you.
This is one of the first two or three poems I’ve written and the first to be published (Poetry New Zealand). I remain fond of it. I think it wears its allusions lightly and the syllabics – in retrospect an odd option for an apprentice poet – work well, in that they are quiet, intimate, and somehow neither prosaic nor ‘poetic.’ I’d been reading a great deal of theology around the time I visited the church and drafted this poem. The marvellous scandal of kenosis, and a subsequent theology – more properly a Christology – of emptiness, loom large within and without the frame of the poem.
The Death of Pan
There was neither wind nor wave:
a choked cry in the night
heralded the death of Pan.
the cadenced march was a recessional.
A few weeks later, the dead lay in piles.
Opprobrium and suspicions
of bribery were attached to the vanquished.
To judge by votive inscriptions
and epitaphs, by bitterness
and sharp practices: the unknown
is no mean thing.
The Medusa turned inward:
she showed-off her relics.
to her no more that day.
Music is regaining ancient ground,
wrested from it, held for a time,
by a musical figure: a tentative upward
arc and descent in the orchestra pit.
It holds one's breath towards the close –
opening the last door on the night.
Less a touchstone than a tuning fork
in our reduced condition,
the collapse-event may realise a universe
till now un-apprehended:
with something more wonderful,
because natural and understandable,
memory and conjecture inhabit us –
a passionate re-editing:
so inwardly shaped, it will be a place
as intricate, as lit by dreams, as was the way
or the steeple at Martinville.
Both worlds are a slow dance of the mind.
Because the realness of his inward world
lies behind him, the man of words,
the singer, will turn back,
and remain in the place of his necessary beloved,
in the place of shadows.
For the scientist time and light lie before.
Evenings point self-evidently
we open the doors
in Bluebeard's castle just because they’re there –
such examples can be multiplied.
And how obvious, how dazzling have been
his successes and failures:
the dead lie in piles
on the way to Combray
and below the steeple
This is the first poem in my first book, For the Coalition Dead, which was published by Kilmog Press in 2009. I’ve enjoyed making collages for as long as I can remember. As an ars poetica, I’d stand by it if pushed, audacious as it is. There’s a lot of George Steiner, some conscious, some less so. I’m more sympathetic to the Grand Proustian Yea to Art as time passes, and now Orpheus seems to more trickster than tragedian. And now I also tend to pay more attention to the carnival than the cortege, to the great relief of my friends and family.
We are enchanted by
brazen but delicate
juxtaposition of sport
and sacred black stone,
by blind pilgrims whom
we justify: the Prophet’s
Tensile strength and music
prevail in the pitch-light
of stairwells; shadows fall
uniformly in the most
your ashes burning in my eyes.
The Shahadah is the fundamental Islamic witness or testimony of faith. As such, it’s proved extremely powerful. This poem was first published in my feature issue of Poetry New Zealand.
Matai Street Postscript
All’s pell-mell flimflam,
overgrown and autumnal
– sodden aureate
to dank oxblood, crimp to curl
to sheer edge, spritzed blade, gnarled root,
filched twig, flustered hem.
‘Tidy up your own
backyard!’ sounds clear advice:
rake’s teeth, sundry blades
– rude mechanicals – snipped grass,
pruned branch, corralled leaf. Banked clouds
contemned. Wind and rain.
And, afterwards, sun –
Dame Nature, like Snug, plays her
and without feeling. Kempt lore
and studied grooming fall prey
to hoopla foresworn.
No drama. It thwarts,
all the same, my purposes.
I fizzle. Burnished
cherry sundown – Titian skies! –
reignites brief zest, till flushed
aphotic pitch retorts.
We sleep. Fanciful
night-flights stymie restiveness.
We wake. Yawn. Stoics:
sad comedians – best bless
Peter Quince. His mugging licks
Zeno’s iron soul.
I.e. make/believe –
weave faith. Players’ persistence
acts on in the face
of cat-calls, misspelling, chance:
it ennobles. My garden’s
And Athens’ dais,
too. Pansy sap, Trillium
root – shimmering, blurred,
indistinct: when the lights dim,
we can’t tell between them. Jeered,
cheered – both produce us.
We dream Bottom’s dream
and make Asses of ourselves
by such a ticket.
Damn tragedy. Wisdom laughs
in concert – tears come: each but
threads on Bottom’s loom.
So, now – not impressed
by a blind stylus, to till
let’s regard above
unsighted disegno; smell
turned soil; don’t grieve Goldengrove,
nor foliage lost.
So, now – we require
little to prosper save light:
somma luce. Act despite
critical churlishness. Set
down to work. Perspire.
So, now – said leaves dance,
wheedling. Best attend to this
in unmeasured time
between this present darkness
and the darkness yet to come.
Our rest – say, silence.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ provides easy access to this poem, which closes my collection Goat Songs (Kilmog Press 2011). I had fun writing it, and I hope it can be read in the same spirit.
After seeing, in the flesh, Red and Black at the Aigantighe Art Gallery, Timaru
Note: Red and Black – if our parochial
investments have paid off, can we repay
this fugitive lost in our figurative land?
Abstractions lend untenably cheap silver –
such as the ‘question of modernity.’
But other – older – objects lay at hand.
The Word made flesh. The Word proved insufficient.
His witnesses consist – belatedly –
of shearer, miner, wharfie, digger, drover.
His bright red cross transversed dark fields of black
(the Jewish T: man upside down: His Name:
paschal blood to spare firstborns at Passover) –
still, it hangs in Timaru. The cock has crowed,
time’s getting on; but – still –, it’s scarcely there:
we cannot bring ourselves to let it be.
A child, he’d seen hawks peck out eyes of lambs.
And this was hell enough. Put out yours, too –
he painted nothing that you’d wish to see.
This poem is also from Goat Songs. Too often we take our Gods for granted. I filched the schematics for it from the wonderful Australian poet and mischief/trouble-maker James McAuley.
All of my horses are called Athena,
except for Sandy:
and made from plastic,
except for one of her legs,
which is a wooden leg.
I don’t like her
like I like the others.
They’re made from a fuzzy kind of felt,
and they’re the ones I take to bed.
I cuddle them
before I fall
I love my little horses.
When they get sick,
I give them special horse medicine,
five lots of medicine,
which makes them feel better,
like magic does for me
when I’m feeling yucky –
my mummy knows magic.
I’m very lucky.
I take my horses
when I go
to the doctor,
the fuzzy felt ones,
I don’t like her –
I go with Mummy
on the bus,
and I can see other buses
and other people
from our bus,
but it’s not a magic bus,
which makes me feel really sad.
At the Rakaia, Lake Coleridge Basin
We see the light as movement of the water – light
itself seems fluent. Quickened ice in limning flux…
Heavenly effluvium…Purled turquoise stippling
ardent silver. The sky’s uninterrupted blue
pleats white-tipped bosky butte and fell. A wooden Star
of David crests a heap of frosty pinecones in
the plot behind us. A slight breeze sighs. The river flows
its easy way around the bend. You say – Paradise
is just around the corner. Where else could it be?
This is – more or less – a love poem. A beautiful time is to be had in Lake Coleridge Basin. It was first published in broadsheet, no. 9.
The beauty of the world (and universe)
is paragon of what must be; what's more,
if anything at all needs be, then it is thus:
too, absurdly simple things; but what on earth
Form's self-contained refinement was a clumsy vehicle for argument. Except when expressible in
an individual aperçu, thought is seldom self-contained; bless, then, the thinker
(who would take ten seconds to turn a bicycle saddle and a pair of handlebars into a bull's head
and expect to charge you a fortune for it, but when he was sixteen he could paint a cardinal's full-
length portrait that looked better than anything ever signed by Velázquez)
whose hand commands infinities of know-how,
the very hand employed to twist the knife
in beauty's back.
This is a hooray to modernism and an anti-anti poem of sorts. I strongly dislike anti for anti's sake.
The Rodanini Pieta
The soul turned in upon itself, suffering, distaste for life,
struggle against the dominance of matter…
is hardest thing
the hardest thing of all.
Marble yields –
it cannot help
itself. It is
that it disclose
its inner form.
And yet when
is all that needs
done ever done
Inventor delle porcherie –
my chisel renders liberty,
form cleaves the air
as it twists around
with the stone’s grain,
revealing in necessity
a human helix.
In this terrible embrace,
where does one body end
and the other begin?
And yet my hand
refusing my intelligence,
to terribilità –
in gouged Carrara,
glimpse our vestigial face:
shadow – life (forever
or less than that,
on brilliant whiteness
of death: O sure
Death promises much
but incompletion –
You, my brilliant
are my passionate
and none else
The Rodanini Pieta is an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo.
A View on 'The View from the Window at Le Gras'
From our perspective (above
and somewhat to the Left)
it appears such a compromised eidos:
shallow, estimable, prototypical
– whither ground, whither figure? -
but, all the same it qualifies
as memory, of a sort, nonetheless.
The vanguard of chemistry and optics
(science de jure/de facto)
set the stage: Monsieur Niépce
from his windowsill
‘takes a picture’
of a view of courtyard and outbuildings
from his house’s upstairs window,
or, as it were, he takes
what could be seen
simply by exposing a bitumen-coated plate
in a camera obscura
hours on his windowsill.
Subsequently, alembic ministrations
of Virginia Oldoini,
Countess of Castiglione,
another in the long line of lucklessly gifted types,
did not forestall
further European Wars.
Again all the same,
in this curious picture,
a Cézanne before Cézanne,
facets seem to slope away
into the plane, rooftops
and pediments alike. Restored
Bourbon Princes loom,
gracelessly, beyond the picture frame:
all, it would seem, is short-lived.
O for the wonders of Castilian chiaroscuro –
behold Toledo at sunset!
These were such marvelous developments:
so here – meaning from the window
at Le Gras,
the veritable Puerta del Sol –,
bathed in cool hermetic luminescence
and seduced by promises of truth,
see all that you shall ever love
set, apart, in light.
This best part of the title of this poem references what is reputed to be the first photograph.
A Landscape with Buildings
...it is provincial, in other words outside history...
- Max Frisch, I'm Not Stiller
We're nestled in a tawny cleft
portside a geologic chine-
our view exceeds the partial bay,
the Toparchia in our line of sight
– it strikes me, somehow, Grecian... –,
a diamond when the weather's fine.
Our papery yonder has been layered
with off-white palimpsests of cloud,
the welkin pierced by seven peaks
that shudder, wax, and yet stand proud
in smudged affronts. The vista makes
the most of prospects least endowed.
Regency here and Gothic there
– plus many more 'examples of –,
but Shadbolt House (Theatrical!
Constructivist!) stands out above
all else, its kindled turquoise stairwell
a highlight which most locals love.
To all intents and purposes,
all's sundered, parceled, and discrete:
the given and the made at odds.
Where fantasy and vision meet,
my outlay makes out Whakaraupo
plays host to Xerxes' Persian Fleet.
Abstractions actualize in slab
and pillar; likewise strut and plank.
The ludic qualities of pun
and rhyme beguile and outflank
my workaday and dry-eyed nous,
re-render me a mountebank ...
All seas are wine-dark and each dawn
is rosy-fIngered (come what may
before my eyes – the shadow of
the midday sun ablates my bay).
Such self-possession and procurement!
The crispest edge can't help but fray.
Thus Mounte(B)ank's Peninsula:
my chiming, brutal, Attic sphere,
elaboration of an Ah
in deference to what's elsewhere
or in the past. Despite the fact
it's near, I needn't hold it dear.
Yet no Salamis, none of this
our cradle would've been upset
by pointed Achaemenid moxie.
So Upham-Cornwall: yet -and yet…
Things might have taken different turns
and I'd pay back another debt.
And I would see things differently
or different things. I dream of Crete
and live in flattened Canterbury.
As buildings flank the town's main street,
trimmed vegetation presses home.
Imagination tastes defeat.
Didactic laurels go to seed.
Whilst coastal shelves seem cut and dried,
archaic diction and possessive .
pronouns make for dissatisfied
bluestockings. Seeing it, I see
myself – it seems I am outside.
Attent electric fireflies defy
massed shades of darkness. Near
dry land, water plumbs lesser depths.
Eros -once more -is in the air.
A landscape with buildings holds pride
of place. And it shall be elsewhere.
Elytis felt that we're the ruins,
not what's extant. He felt it so,
he didn't think it. Making headway
falls short of Cretan shores. I know
as much: this harbour lends repose
for what will, surely, come and go.
‘The poet gazes out his window at Lyttelton harbour and wonders “what if…”’
An Old Man Dying
Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head,and honour the face of the old man –
- Leviticus 19:32
Thus literally self-effacing,
but not due to erasure –;
overcoming to be,
the infinitive’s pre-eminence.
There’s nothing behind his eyes…
The master thus eschewing vanity,
despite presumptuous L'Âge d'Or(the Netherlands
antithetical to baroque flash)
– NB re Saskia (?): Car le Maître (van Rijn) est allé puiser des pleurs au Styx –,
sincerity (monochromatic) ego’s balm,
concealing what dissatisfies;
verity revealed by pentimento,
the medium’s ‘self’ disclosure –;
x-rays portend ghosted presence
beneath its mannered surface,
deeper than fissures
upon his public face:
waar je hem ziet, ik ben er.
There is no mystery,
Time is immiscible
with flesh – there can be
bloed en olie, licht en schaduw.
Disparity makes for rabbinical rainbows –
yet, beneath the glowering Old Man, he is:
‘where you see him, I am there’.
A hitherto undiscovered painting by Rembrandt was found by experts to have been painted over an earlier aborted self-portrait. Internet search-engines make esoteria and obscurities easily traceable, so I’ll sit on my hands.
Funeral De Piotr Kropotkin
An old man caught in the lens
liminal, as ever, in Sweden’s nape –
beyond the threshold
through which he’ll pass
lie vast steppes of pain;
glows as iron to solder
and so it goes,
for thirteen hundred days
topples the Prince.
Black jacks flutter
and flag in the tundra,
or else work the land –;
winter’s weather aside,
life’s less carte blanche
than rouge et noir;
little leeway’s granted
to denizens of Moscow,
no matter their effort.
All the same, death is so passé.
Cut to eleven minutes of shaky footage
on the net (Filmación, 1921) –:
the requisite committee,
mourners in transit
up streets chilly superposed with snow,
Kropotkin’s cask upon its bier,
the prodigiously whiskered man himself,
his head resting – seemingly gently –
upon its silken pillow,
great numbers gathering en mass
outside in the cold,
Emma Goldman rapt in oratory.
So be it.
Life, too, is a cliché:
neither boon nor trump
its supposedly extenuating franchise
of birth, love and death
(again), its rote performances
of joy and grief. License
to spontaneity is withheld –
so whither freedom?
Freedom was last felt
in the far-flung wake
of Kropotkin’s death.
It’s Ancient History –so they wax,
but somehow salient,
and crucially so.
sanguinary edictsremain in force,
as they held sway
to the Kuril Islands.
What matters in the end
is that Kropotkin’s idea
of a single-party State
differed in scale
from the Politburo’s.
There is contemporary footage of Kropotkin’s funeral which can be found and watched online. I found it fascinating.
Lines Written after Watching the Skeptics' Documentary Sheen of Gold
La Grande Bellezza –
so forty-eight hours
proves long enough to wonder:
whither The Great Beauty?
I pine for it,
And I’m sure I’m not alone
in doing so.
An insect balanced on a leaf –
moments later, the praying mantis
Aren’t they such beautiful creatures?
…David danced before the Lord...
A doxology of sorts,
an avowal –
a deeper affirmation
than even the Proustian YEA.
…King David leaping and dancing before the Lord…
The wintered dénouement
of Agitator is, to be sure, marvellous.
…David danced before the Lord...
It’s Mammoth that really gets me.
It ain’t fair.
It ain’t right.
Yes, Yes, Yes to Love! (or is it life?
I can’t quite make it out) –
con amore e con fuoco.
La Grande Bellezza –
…David danced before the Lord
with all his might... King David leaping