The business of poetry

23:59, Aug 28 2011
Ian Wedde stnd
Poet Laureate Ian Wedde.

At the beginning of August, Ian Wedde was named as New Zealand's new poet laureate. A few days later the United States named their new poet laureate, Philip Levine, and within 24 hours The New York Times reported that booksellers, both bricks-and- mortar and online varieties, had sold out of Levine's books.

While there's been no word about a rush on our laureate's poetry, Wedde did release a new novel, The Catastrophe, the day after the announcement.

I'm sure Wedde will do a fantastic job promoting poetry over the next two years, but I'd like to swiftly bring attention back to his verse, and one poem in particular.

CO Products Ltd, from the 2009 collection Good Business (Auckland University Press), is part of a longer sequence that Wedde has described as tracking "a random walk around some of the small businesses in my Wellington neighbourhood". CO Products Ltd describes, in unrhymed, unmetered couplets, the "wonky matai table" Wedde constructed with the aid of his father's sash clamps and oiled with "CO (est 1923) Linseed Rich Natural Wood Oil".

The poet also muses about the business that has "always been at 163 Adelaide Road / and it's inconceivable / that their excellent products could cease to exist".

I must have passed this building 300 times, often on foot, before I heard Wedde read this poem at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington last year.

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Since then, I have probably passed it another 300 times, but the silent street frontage has been transformed by the poem into something quite personal.

The true strength of CO Products is that it is also an elegy for Wedde's father:

"When I massage the table / with their superb linseed rich natural wood oil, / it's my father's aching limbs that I soothe, it's the / sweet smell of his ever optimistic workshop / that I inhale."

I have my own connection with the stoicism of small businesses and their operators. Growing up in Palmerston North, teachers would ask me at the start of a new school year if I was anything to do with the family behind Cliffs Specialised Automotive Services. I was.

The business had been established by my grandfather and his father, and in due course my uncle was welcomed into the fold.

To own an eponymous small business was to bestow a kind of celebrity on your clan. It didn't matter that my father chose a path outside the family business; Cliffs Specialised Automotive Services was a special part of who we were in Palmerston North, who we were as a family. And even now that Cliffs, like "the good business / that filled its 300ml bottles with inexhaustible fragrance", has been wound up, my grandfather has passed away and I no longer live in Palmy, I'm still drawn to the initiative and integrity these family enterprises represent.

The way their products and painted facades act as hyperlinks to other times and to memories of loved ones.

This is what I think about when I pass 163 Adelaide Rd, thanks to Wedde's poem. Thanks to poetry.

The Dominion Post