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The search of a lifetime

Collected Poems 1956 -2011 by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $44.99)
Reviewed by Bill Nelson

Bland Many a New Zealander will recognise Peter Bland as the outrageous conman in 1984 film Came a Hot Friday. It’s poetry not film, however, that’s been his lifelong companion. Beginning his craft over 50 years ago, Bland he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for services to literature in 2011. Now, at 308 pages, Collected Poems 1956–2011 gives a fascinating insight into the trajectory of Bland’s work through 13 published books and several continents.

As part of the ‘Wellington Group’ of poets in the early sixties that included Louis Johnston, Alastair Campbell and James K. Baxter, Bland helped shaped the style of a new New Zealand poetry that railed against the nationalist ideals of earlier poets. Later, work and family drew him back to the UK, his birthplace and the place he left for New Zealand at the tender age of 20, a few years after both his parents died. Reading this collection, it is obvious that this transience, personal loss and rebelliousness have shaped his life’s work.

The book’s sections take their titles from the dates Bland spent in both the UK and New Zealand, with the exception of one section titled ‘On the Move 1990-2004’. I was hoping to be led through the poems in a different way, especially as many could have been written in either place, but in the end I see why this choice was made. Reading it from beginning to end is like following a life-long search for something just out of reach, the other side of the fence. For Bland, it seems both New Zealand and the United Kingdom never lived up to his expectations.

As I progressed through decades, places, childhood epitaphs, wartime stories, poems of unease and displacement, all I wanted was for Bland to find what he was searching for and to experience a rapturous moment where everything becomes clear and he is at peace. For a while I thought this might never come, but then something traumatic happens in his life – and I won’t give it away as it’s like a novel’s turning point – but the resulting poems are the strongest of the collection, with a new rawness that is less cerebral and more daringly from the heart.

The poems throughout the collection are as varied as they are consistent, and there are delights ranging from surreal jaunts in dream landscapes to visually precise vignettes that bloom into spiritual significance. Begun in the exuberant, witty and colloquial stadium of post-war New Zealand, his writing has become masterfully deep and controlled. At 78, he is one to watch.