No one could ever accuse Kevin Ireland of being responsible for the ‘acrid smell of burnt poetry’, in the immortal words of P.G. Wodehouse. Rather, Ireland’s poems are always done to a turn: knocked out just so in batches, like Anzac biscuits – tender, sweet, with a slightly nutty tang. Since 2001, Kevin Ireland has released a new collection every other year, and sometimes more frequently. Shape of the Heart is his thirteenth collection of the new millennium and contains 56 poems, most no more than a page in length. Ireland casts and recasts his lines until they take on a smooth inevitability, a rightness of sound and purpose. As he writes here in the poem ‘The dangers of sleep’, it…
Takes deep concentration
not to let words escape
while you fit them together
and you work on the shape.
His slim volumes, en masse, have been fairly consistent in their concerns. In the first poem in Shape of the Heart, ‘Tidying up last items’, he sets out what these concerns are: ‘stray thoughts, / obsessions and diversions / not to mention idle observations, / considerations, entertainments’. Amusedly finding ‘the news’ of his poems in daily routine, Ireland makes all of his poetry obliquely confessional, but his is breast-baring rather than chest-thumping autobiography: gentle, comic ruminations on the passing parade of human endeavour. And poems follow their own internal logic: ‘a connected confusion of glowing dreams / that can’t be traced through street directories.’ (‘Being Back in Balfour’).
The ‘shape of the heart’ in the title poem is the image which materialises on a hospital monitoring machine’s video screen during a medical check-up. This becomes, in the course of the poem and the book, a symbol of the organic cycles of life and death, where ripeness is all and the getting of wisdom entails a humble contentment, or wry gratitude at least, for one’s lot.
Ireland’s territory here is mostly that of the domestic and the droll, tinged with an element of the fantastic and the grotesque, in service of some deeper truth. He writes in the poem ‘Odd man out’: ‘I secretly extract true pleasure / from every swift absurdity.’ His easy-going, conversational style is deceptive as he extols indolence and drifting with the current, but also determines as a writer to make every day count. He practises the art of making something out of next to nothing with the expertise of the artisan, or perhaps with the insouciance of the dandy, the boulevardier. Navel-gazing, he makes his navel the centre of the universe and his very navel-fluff an object of interest, as in the poem ‘ An endmost blowout’: ‘ I was up to my bellybutton in remarks, utterances / phrases, terms and expressions’. This poem’s a figurative weaving of bellybutton-lint into a litany that goes on to signal a scrupulous attentiveness to unregarded trifles, the detritus of consciousness, whole etiquettes of communication.
And while it’s not quite a matter of opening another bottle of wine before launching on the writing of a new poem, certainly wine is praised as the nectar of the muse, and poetry itself positioned as a kind of table talk, best shared over an opened bottle of wine to better measure out the passage of time. When the days remaining are provisional and fair weather subject to sudden revision, the poet might as well set up as a kind of miracle worker, converting the tap water of everyday Kiwi discourse into a sparkling carafe of the convivial.
The final poem of the collection, ‘Two minutes to midnight’ finds him ‘raising a last glass’ to auld acquaintance, to longevity, and indeed, in a Wordsworthian sense, to earth’s diurnal course.
In cultural terms, Kevin Ireland belongs to the now semi-mythical generation of New Zealand writers born in the long aftermath of World War I, who felt themselves charged with a manifest destiny: to invent a local literature. The Dedication paragraph at the beginning of Shape of the Heart namechecks some of these purposeful fellow-travellers, including Maurice Gee, Vincent O’Sullivan and Karl Stead, and Ireland touches on this era a tad self-deprecatingly in the poem ‘The Literary Coast’, with its evocation of the coast of Bohemia and also of the ‘bohemians’ or outsiders who lived on and around Auckland’s North Shore in the 1950s, and their castaway lives.
This is a subject on which Ireland has written at length in his award-winning memoir Under the Bridge and Over the Moon (1998). As he tells us in that book, the author himself engaged in an act of self-invention as a writer by changing his surname from Jowsey to the pen name Ireland. There are two poems about members of the Jowsey family in Shape of the Heart, both slightly cryptic if you don’t know the background, and both add resonance to this collection’s title. Shape of the Heart, as it goes on, implies not just a simple reference to the way the poet’s heart on a monitor screen looks like like ‘a badly warped hot-water-bottle’, but also an acknowledgement of the heart as a site of emotional connection. In ‘Family types’, his commemorative poem for his younger brother, Ireland writes:
Childhood was an experience
to be endured then never talked about …
As the memoir revealed, both brothers were traumatised by their upbringing within what would now be called a dysfunctional working-class family, and yet those family dynamics were a commonplace of the Depression-era years and after in this country: the oppressive regimentation, the pompous hypocrisy, the moronic timorousness; the notion that Queen Victoria, and all she stood for, knew best, and that her colonial subjects, especially in far-flung New Zealand, had to learn their place.
Liberated by literature, burrowing into books, Kevin Ireland as an adolescent was engaged in a grim passive resistance against the collective conformism of what was supposedly an enlightened land of milk and honey. By the mid-1950s he had become a kind of outsider, a beatnik, one who hung out in coffee bars and went out on the tide of the six o’clock swill, when pubs shut and partygoers with their half-flagons fetched up at someone’s wooden bungalow to carry on drinking. Poets, of course, were not held in good odour. In Under the Bridge and Over the Moon, Ireland reports someone saying to him: ‘You’re a bloody poet aren’t you? That means you can always be relied on to act the maggot.’
It was to escape such naysaying that Ireland sailed for Britain and Europe in 1959. He remained away for 25 years, returning when David Lange was Prime Minister. Overseas travel — time spent in Communist Bulgaria — sharpened and refined his vision of what mattered, his subtle sense of the absurd. In the poem ‘A game of soldiers’, he telescopes a world view and makes an epiphany out of it. Watching a film in a London cinema, ‘… the projectionist must have got drunk … the reels were mixed. A gent in front / stood up, shook his fist at the screen / and bawled in fury: “Bugger this for a game of soldiers” … He’s frozen / in a moment of absurdity / but never sees the joke.’
Ireland has regularly returned to Britain. However, in the poem ‘At the museum with Fleur (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 6 April 2019)’, it’s not the exhausting traipsing round the museum’s galleries he ends up celebrating, but the quality of the food back in Auckland.
Ireland observes the increasing decrepitude of his own body with mixed feelings of dismay and amusement, and inevitably, stoic resignation, as exemplified by the poems ‘The one great attribute’ (‘Took a tumble in the streets the other day …’), and ‘Reports of my death’, and ‘A sonnet at 86’. What counts is good manners, good company, merry anecdotes. He is one who has heard the chimes at midnight, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and cannot repress a shudder and a start of surprise at what he has become. The self-mocking poem ‘The true facts of age’ finds him breathless, gulping pills and clutching a stair rail:
We wonder how we once had time to go to work.
It’s a frantic effort merely to exist …
He is ever a poet of pithy remarks and sharp observances. A shop window, an upstairs window in a house, an aircraft porthole, help frame and clarify matters of existence and transience, and one’s insignificance in the greater scheme of things. In a shop window:
A whole street is reflected
but you’ve vanished from sight.
Snapshots reveal us shadowy and insubstantial, while surveillance cameras catch us furtive and blurry. Truth for this poet is best found in unmediated contact. In ‘Expressions in translation’ he writes: ‘I have sometimes seen far more intention / in a silent glance than I have gathered / from most written phrases.’
Sifting the daily record, Ireland makes it the starting point for revelatory reverie, and sometimes even for genuine flights of fancy. In the poem ‘Flying to Wellington and back’: ‘… the wind … completely off its head … / the woman sitting next to me … / gripped her armrests / and at the moment of our utmost need / alone she strained and powered our plane / back into the sky above the storm.’
The capricious weather spirits are omnipresent deities in these poems, helping coax and cajole Ireland’s daily attempt at a poem into being, which then takes on a life of its own. Poems begin: ‘a greyish morning’, or ‘a hard morning’, or ‘ a grey old day’, or ‘A wasted day, almost’, and so on, in serial succession.
The weather, given to whimsical pranks, is anthropomorphic in mood, by turns lachrymose, benign, angry, bewildering, and powerful – like a parent figure. In the end, though, the poet’s North Shore habitat, subject to maritime calm, turns transcendent under the poet’s searching gaze, as he writes in the poem ‘Perfection’: ‘… staring / from an upstairs window and across / my neighbours’ roofs towards the sea’. For a moment, all is idyllic, gorgeous, a sort of all-New Zealand dessert, pavlova-like in its lyrical sweetness, laced with a certain tartness of observation, and then: ‘A storm rolled in … the house / went crazy. Drama everywhere …’ Thus, divine meteorological turbulence: weather fabular, as much as fabulous.