The White Clock: Poems by Owen Marshall

(University of Otago Press, 2014)

Review by Mary Cresswell

There is a giant clock white against the rocks
above the town. A feature of this place, as
others might be known for golden beach, art
deco theatre, or sculpture no longer scorned.
… In summer the face shimmers like
the multi-limbed Leonardo man.
… Time writ this large
is discomforting.
‘The white clock’

The book begins with these words and has a cover that reproduces Grahame Sydney’s painting, ‘Ida Valley Moon’ – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cover and a poem that went so well together. There’s not much moon in the succeeding pages, but there is a lot of time writ large.

Many of the poems are autobiographical in form, tying off loose ends of memory – as though the poet were wandering through the house idly plunking away on an old guitar he just found in one of the closets. “So this is my life, here, now, with worn sneakers/ and a southerly over the hill. … A deal of it lies/ behind me; some of it – who knows.” (‘This is my life’) And in another poem, “This too will pass, the Persians/ said. Everything so fleeting that it dips/ and pales almost in the momentary flare/ of its creation.” (‘Freeze frame’)

Perhaps this is a main chord:
Rain clouds scudding over sombre bush
Anomaly glimpsed in a stranger’s face
The poignant return to the familiar place
Your eyebrow lifted, no need for speech.

The poems vary from free verse to lazy quatrains, almost ballads; some rhyme and some have interesting internal rhyme. They are comfortable and wise.

Marshall is clever at showing the instant that changes everything. Take this magpie:

Wool gathering in the park
then startled by whip crack
above and a strike on my cap.
On its second dive I see the
bold piebald slash…

One of the (rare) positives of age is the awareness of the critical instant, whether it comes from an existential banana peel that’s been waiting forever or from a hard-earned moment of truth. Marshall has an admirable way of presenting this awareness (often through images of birds). “An instant in full flight, then to strike and/ fall into nothingness. Not a bad way to go.” (‘Death of a finch’).

And at the end of the day we have the gentle, careless guitar again as
Al Fresco the poet sits thinking of
Bishop Berkeley, that’s if he was
ever really there.