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Stephen Oliver


Stephen Oliver (b. 1950) is a New Zealander poet and writer – he has also lived in Paris, Vienna, London, San Francisco, Greece, Israel, and Australia. After one year Magazine Journalism course at Wellington Polytechnic and studies at Radio NZ Broadcasting School, he worked as a radio journalist, production voice, and features writer. In 1972 Oliver made his debut as a poet with A Chance to Laugh. It was followed by Henwise (1975), & Interviews (1978), Autumn Songs (1978), and Letter To James K. Baxter (1980).

The poet and playwright James K. Baxter (1926-1972) was one of the central figures in New Zealand's literature after World War II. In Oliver's work the narrator realizes that he is married and has "given over the itch / For travel, for the foreign scenery." In a mist, thick as an hallucination, is a boat, river, crew, and dog. He sees Baxter, an old hippe and his Virgil, starting his last journey down the River Styx. "As distance diminishes Charon's boat / And the pilot light burns red on the mast, / And the bollard trails on the waters a rope... / Once, twice, the chant for somebody missed: / Heart-dead in Auckland: you answered."

Oliver's other books incluce Earthbound Mirrors (1984), Guardians, Not Angels (1993), Islands of Wilderness - A Romance (1996), Election Year Blues (1999), and Unmanned (1999). Night of Warehouses: Poems 1978-2000 (2001) was published by HeadworX. It is a selection of Stephen Oliver's work from a period of 20 years and covers five collections. Ballads, Satire & Salt - A Book of Diversions, illustrated by Matt Ottley, appeared in 2003. Either Side The Horizon (2005) showed that a poet can be at once committed to social and political subjects and true to the complexities of poetry.

Oliver's poetry chapbook, Deadly Pollen, was published by Word Riot Press in 2003. Its poems, with their references to myths, literature, and personal experiences, are united by a strong ecological theme. Oliver sees that there is not much hope for our civilization, a "caravan in search of a trade-route / via the village that never existed." CD / CD Rom of poetry set to music by Matt Ottley and titled King Hit, was released in November 2007. Harmonic, which contains over 75 poems, was published by Interactive Publications in 2008. Nicholas Reid wrote in his review in Antipodes, A North American Journal of Australian literature: "Stephen Oliver’s new book, Harmonic, is a tour de force, and I doubt that Australasian letters will see a more important volume of poems in this decade." Oliver's latest chapbook of poetry, titled Apocrypha, was published in 2010 by Cold Hub Press, based in Governor’s Bay, Lyttelton.

With his poem 'O Say Can You Hear?' Oliver participated at various "poets against the war" venues in the USA/UK in 2003. The poem has not lost its poignancy since its appearance. After 20 years in Australia, where Oliver lived mainly in Sydney and two years in Melbourne, he moved back to New Zealand in 2006, saying in one poem: "I left a country of sheep, and returned to a country of cattle. A number of his satirical essays have featured in Antipodes. Occasionally he has written columns for local papers. - For further information: Stephen Oliver


O Say Can You Hear?
The dripping Gorgon's head
over the sands of Iraq, spittle of snakes flame out
from a thousand gun barrels –
at last! the two worlds unite in the death struggle,
the two as one to make a third:
fantasy is reality is fantasy.
America has become its own horror cartoon,
each thought locked within its renegade cell,
Bugs Bunny holds forth in the senate on
the bankrupt dream-stocks buried at Fort Knox.
Donald Duck meantime jerks off in disgust
over the American flag – quacks
the country's been bushwacked,
'ain't worth a hill of beans'
in archaic colloquialisms of a nation near claim
jumping the Middle East.
The last capitalist gasp v the last medieval groan;
eventually, to make way for the eco-terrorists whose
motto: destroy what you cannot save: will sound
the retreat to a history vaporised – a memory erased.
So we come to inherit 'Our Common Loss'
The Space Shuttle Columbia makes
its long wave 'good-bye'
bright finger nails tearing at the sky (like)
'morning Lucifer, that star that beckons all
mankind to daily rounds'
scratching down God's blackboard
as seven souls fly away
toward the Pleiades.
So we make our omens to live and die by.
- Stephen Oliver, 2003

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