Old Man Range
A minimalist production: nothing but
curve, shadow and sky
interrupted by upstanding rock.
Good perhaps for a storm scene
or wilderness journeys: a line of settlers
backlit, against the horizon
and the usual soaring orchestra –
But so bad are the acoustics
a superannuated cocky might bad-mouth
whatever deities preside in this place
and nobody would take offence –
While the hawk
cutting curves of its own
wouldn’t care for that kind of rhetoric anyway.
Bill Sewell was born in Athens in 1951 and died in Wellington in January 2003. After spending his earlier life in England and various Mediterranean countries, he moved to New Zealand permanently in 1966.
He began writing poetry when he was 16 and, by the time he died, had published six poetry collections. ‘Old Man Range’ was first printed in Landfall 204. It is from Bill’s collection called Theatre Country, to be published by Pemmican Press in 2003.
Bill very often chose unlikely subjects for his poems, looking in particular to New Zealand history for inspiration. His first collection, Solo Flight (1982), includes a sequence on the eccentric early New Zealand aviation pioneer, Richard Pearse; while his fifth collection, Erebus. A Poem (1999), revolves around the crash of the Air New Zealand DC-10 in the Antarctic in 1979. The most recent collection, The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003), is a sequence centering on the 1951 Waterfront Lockout.
Bill said about his poetry:‘I aim to make my poems as accessible as possible, using a wide variety of forms, from ballad stanzas to haiku. While I am very conscious of the slipperiness and quirkiness of language, I work hard to achieve a precision of thought, emotion and image. Many of the poems are designed for public performance, though I hope that they will also reward solitary reading. I also like to think that they display a wry humour.’
Much of Bill’s later work was public poetry, often with a political bite, which laments the mistakes this country has made in the past and tries to draw out lessons for the present and future. However, it also has a personal dimension, recording his own anger, grief and uncertainty at events.
Bill features in several anthologies, including From the Mainland (1995) and Big Weather: Poems of Wellington (2000). In 2001, he published the successful anthology, Essential New Zealand Poems, on which he was working with Lauris Edmond at the time of her death, and which was shortlisted in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Bill edited and contributed to two non-fiction books, Under Review (with Lauris Edmond and Harry Ricketts; 1997), which is a selection of review essays from New Zealand Books, and Sons of the Fathers: New Zealand men write about their fathers (1997). He also wrote an as yet unpublished non-fiction book on the subject of boredom.
Bill was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago (1981, 1982) and President of the New Zealand Poetry Society (1991-93). He worked as a university lecturer, book editor and legal researcher, and a free-lance writer and editor. From 1998 to 2002 he was co-editor (with Harry Ricketts) of the review journal New Zealand Books.