Afloat: C K Stead's The Yellow Buoy

21:19, Feb 14 2013

There was a beautiful poem by Maori poet Roma Potiki that once summed up my experience of summer completely.

It described the warmth of summer sun soaking into the speaker, radiating onto her sunbathing body from sand and star. In the poem, the speaker then leapt up, ran across the beach and plunged headfirst into the welcoming sea.

It's how I always like to swim as well. Growing up in temperate New Zealand, the sea becomes part of your life - it's a living, breathing organism with moods and feelings of its own.
There's no point approaching old friends shyly when you can just dive straight in.

Reading C.K. Stead's new collection The Yellow Buoy, I was reminded of this sentiment by Stead's poem Sonnet.

Today the water is so still, so clear,
looking down through the window of my mask
it seemed for a moment possible to fall
through fifteen, twenty feet of crystal nothing
in which the small fish, fork-tailed grey and black,
or silver with the faintest touch of blue,
hang like mobiles in a grandchild's bedroom.

Who would dream this ambient element
could ever be harmful to health -
that such a rock-garden of weightless comfort
and the fatal reassurance of shifty light
might clap a bag over your breathless soul?
Here even the valley of the shadow of death
has taken upon itself the mantle of beauty.

There's something so clean and clear about this poem, it's beautiful. A novelist, poet, critic, teacher and all-around writer, Stead has penned more than 40 books and is now 80 years old.
His practised fluency shows in the controlled nature of The Yellow Buoy's poems. Stead enjoys the odd meander off-topic, but even this is done very carefully - he does not waste words under any circumstances.

Much of  The Yellow Buoy is set in various parts of Europe, where Stead spends spends several months of each year. He describes countries like Italy, France, Croatia as well as Colombia and Venezuela, often returning to weave in references to Kiwi poets and New Zealand customs when the reader least expects it.

A recurring motif in the Kiwi poems is the fantail, or piwakawaka. In some Maori legends, the bird is a sign of impending death when it appears inside a house.
Stead mentions the famous Maori myth about how death goddess Hine-nui-te-po killed demigod Maui because the fantail couldn't stop laughing as he tried to climb inside her, describing the twittering bird as "script-writer also of dark memorials".
More prosaically, he also talks about how a fantail likes to hover around his compost bin, waiting for Stead to lift the lid so it can catch fruit flies.
In the poem Nine Ways of Looking at a Fantail, Stead has his ghostly fantail serve Katherine Mansfield and her long-time friend Ida Baker:

A visitor (Ida
would have said)
from the other

side, like the
butterfly that carried
Katy's secret

post-mortem codes
to the transcriber
of her letters.

A dedicated Mansfield scholar, Stead has written one novel, Mansfield, on her life already, also compiling a collection of her letters and journal entries.

Katherine Mansfield - Cornwall, May 1916 is set in the twin stone cottages where Mansfield, English novelist D.H. Lawrence and their respective partners shared a rocky relationship. The poem describes the fondness between Lawrence and Mansfield despite their firey clashes:

She's seen him beat his wife
he's watched her
emasculate her husband.
Between them there's no need
of lies or pretence.

The poem before it, Isola Bella, was written for the 2008 Katherine Mansfield Centenary Conference in London. In the poem, Stead rehearses what he would say to Mansfield if they met in Menton, near Provence - "Friend or foe?" she calls to him.

I can see why Mansfield would appeal to Stead. Both writers strongly identify with New Zealand but prefer to spend large chunks of their lives overseas, and both prize clarity and directness in their work over all else. The first collection of poems by Stead in five years, The Yellow Buoy is a cup of bright European sunshine.