C. K. Stead, The Yellow Buoy: Poems 2007 – 2012

Arc Publications, £9.99 paperback, 154 pp; £ 12.99 hardback 154 pp

I enjoyed this book immensely.

It’s the work of a highly cultured novelist, poet and literary critic, so not surprisingly there are many poems about writers or about places and people on the international literary circuit, as well as translations or adaptations of pieces by Catullus, Montale and Jaccottet. At the same time, it’s immensely grounded.

A fundamental motive of Stead’s writing appears in the title of “Stay Alert”. In this, the poet’s companion is startled by an unexpected intensity of blue striking her peripheral vision, asks what it is, then laughs, realising it’s just the sky seen through leaves after rain. Stead remarks, “There it goes, / the poetic moment / so easily missed, / so quickly lost.” Similarly, “Why Poetry?” suggests that the point of poetry is to express, see, feel and become different beauties, powers, and lives outside yourself, those of a cat, a heron, Hamlet, or fish in a stream seen long ago. This is writing that makes you more alive to the world, and one of the main ways it does so is through a brilliant use of imagist techniques to capture transient perceptions, whether by creating an impression of the moment in which something strikes the consciousness, or to evoke creatures in movement. There’s none of the dogmatic narrowness of classical Imagism though. Stead isn’t afraid to interweave description with comment, or even to use the pathetic fallacy. He does so in “When I Touched Your Wrist”, describing how a tender memory came back to him

as the solution to a puzzle
to one who has slept
or as the sun comes

to the sea at Zadar
taking it by surprise.

 Because his style is so bare and clear in other ways, the device comes across here as a freshly minted, living metaphor. He uses it to more complicated effect in this section of a witty and enchanting little poem about trying to pronounce the Italian words for pork and honey:

Maiale’, I say
and then ‘miele’,
speaking with care
while the sun writes on the sea
a script of its own devising
and among the rocks
the sea
makes light of it.

This tiny moment resonates with a sense of man’s cosmic insignificance, and at the same time sparkles with delight in the play of mind.  Linguistic transparency gives clarity and force to the punning of “makes light of it”, but the force is delicately applied, the resonances are subtle, and Stead leaves it open to us to read the poem as we will. I find humorous self-deprecation in the contrast between the tiny labour of the poet and the vast effortless spontaneity of nature, a hint of wryness at the sense that all our efforts will ultimately come to nothing, but above all a joy in the moment made radiant by the last line.

My settling on this poem is arbitrary in a sense. Many others would equally well have illustrated how Stead makes small occasions shimmer with wider suggestiveness.

Pieces about writers, including the long-dead Catullus and Wordsworth, are completely grounded in this immediate sense of what it is to be alive in the world. “Ischaemia”, which imagines Catullus as suffering from a form of dyslexia as a result of a constriction in blood supply to the brain, has him describing how he’s forced to relearn how to read the world spatially. He seems to share the aesthetic I tried to describe above, and the evidence of his success in seeing the world again is a stanza of razor-sharp animal descriptions. Even more impressive is “The Prelude”. It begins with Dorothy Wordsworth’s anguish at William’s marriage; it goes on to show William hearing “a force” rush by and being reminded by it of “what he felt so deeply / so long ago”; it describes his labour on The Prelude; it places “us” in the poet’s house and garden, looking at his things, thinking about him and Dorothy, and it ends

The sparrows don’t know
they’re living in
a poet’s garden,

that the flowers were planted
by the poet’s
unhappy sister,

that his life was the poem
and had to remain unfinished
until the last moment.


Language couldn’t be plainer, but the whole is enormously resonant. The rapid shifts of perspective set complicated feelings and wide ripples of suggestion in motion. Stead creates impressions of the poet and his sister with the sparest imaginable strokes, yet so vividly that Dorothy’s argument with herself seems to start into life in her own words in line 8 (not quoted). Both poet and sister are touched with humour, even satire. At the same time, Stead makes you feel there’s a kind of moral grandeur in the way they persisted in creating their different forms of beauty and left their differently enduring marks on earth. The whole poem is suffused with compassionate understanding, with a sense of the vanity and at the same time the immense worth of human endeavour, and it echoes with what Wordsworth himself called “the still, sad music of humanity”.

All this has got rather heavy. As you read them, the poems are lightness itself, and the ideas they set in motion move into the mind easily and spontaneously. I’d like to finish by saying that this is a very peopled volume. Stead isn’t a novelist for nothing. Major writers like Katherine Mansfield, Alan Curnow and Eugenio Montale come alive in its pages, but so do a crowd of little known or even anonymous characters, often in brief but memorable glimpses or in what they say. There’s a constant stream of wit, sometimes dry, even astringent, sometimes as buoyant and joyous as the rude pun on a “purple passage” in “End of Story”. Complementing the wit and leavened by it there’s a pervasive sense of time and mortality. Admittedly there are light-weight pieces, squibs that exhaust themselves in a single enjoyable flash, occasional poems that don’t move much beyond their occasions, but I wouldn’t wish them away either; they add to the sense of the poet’s constant engagement with life as it presents itself from day to day. Altogether, this is a book to read and reread for sheer entertainment blended with deep wisdom, humanity and poetic skill.



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