Wednesday, September 4, 2013

In praise of: Peter Bland

Peter Bland has appeared on the blog here before (and also here with added Joanna Lumley) as a contributor to Quote Unquote the magazine. He was an actor on stage (he was a founder of Downstage in Wellington), screen (best-known here for Came a Hot Friday) and television (he is probably still the best-known New Zealander in Spain thanks to a series of TV ads he made there). He was a major figure in New Zealand poetry in the 1950s and has never stopped writing the stuff or extending his range.   

After 2010’s collection Loss, 2011’s Coming Ashore and 2012’s hefty Collected Poems 1956-2011 comes 2013’s Breath Dances. What a slacker. He will be 80 next May so will possibly slow down a little – but I doubt it.

Breath Dances has the usual Steele Roberts elegance in typesetting, and a cover painting by his daughter Joanna Bland.  The poems delight in simple pleasures: smells (“pepper trees after the rain”), the feel of sun on bare skin, snails, ferns, flowers . . . For example:
And the sweet
Tidal tang
Of storm-crushed fennel.
Or this, the breeze that comes:
uncalled for in the dead of night
when the moon’s a skull
and stars arrive
to renew their lonely
vigilance of each other.
There are poems on childhood in England – “Growing Up with the Three Stooges” is a hoot on dawning adolescence. There are also the more complex pleasures of art (the lovely “Homage to Hopper”) and music, and always the awareness of mortality – the poet’s own, and by extension the reader’s. 

The voice is conversational, reflective, always conscious of ageing and loss but, to quote Leonard Cohen, cheerfulness keeps breaking in:
The day is starting to open up
Like an old walled city with
Its gates flung back. Trees
Gather a breeze. Those birds
Take off. Caravans of light
Arrive from the east, load
Up with shadows
And sway down the street.
The Book Council page on Peter is here (it’s out of date but serves as an introduction); his “screenography” is here with a good bio that is more about his acting than his writing; and last year the Listener’s Mark Broatch wrote this very good profile to mark the launch of the Collected Poems. In it Kevin Ireland observes:
“His poems are full of shape, shadow and viewpoint, both literally and metaphorically. When you read a Bland poem, you can’t help visualising it.”
Exactly. Peter is the same on the page as he is in person: good company, a warm voice offering humour, hard-won wisdom and good advice: 
Pay the bills
And keep an open mind.

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