Richard Reeve was born in 1976, and grew up in Dunedin. He has a PhD from the University of Otago centering on New Zealand poetry within the context of twentieth century European continental philosophy (Sein-Language: a Hermeneutic of New Zealand Poetic Reality). He has stated that: ‘For me, poetry, however violent, tender, austere or comic, crucially enunciates that whereby the world has been revealed as an issue to us: a secret which, almost by accident, found its way into the chatter of the tallest of the apes.” In his poetry, language is at full stretch, almost dislocated, as he struggles to make it match his vision of the Otago landscape — earth, sea, sky — and with this language he creates a kind of Otago Gothic: poems that rise up out of murk, dripping. He is the composer of a slithery, undulating verbal music that sounds out something like pipe organ tunes to hymn nature’s vast cathedral.
In The Life and the Dark, his second collection of poems, almost every poem contains quotable phrases to relish. The bush is “a puzzle of leaves, a shattering/ of insected twigs”; a fantail is “a white-winged epigraph to the rain.” His churning lines seek “the flesh of language”, “the actual of the word”, and offer intense saturation in language itself as a kind of philosophical quest. If sometimes the piling-on of words leads to an overload that buries meaning, this is really just a by-product of sheer exuberance. Follow him into his word labyrinth and he will lead you out the other side, into the “sour revelation of the wind”, or to where “we are not quite silence”, and “the vocal cord/ that ripples in speech (is) not more than its elements, brushed sand, root, bone/ stone.” In ‘Song’ he imagines the wind as ‘a low growl’, and there’s something of that same sense of the natural world giving forceful utterance in his own delivery.
At times Reeve guys his own high seriousness as swooning nature lover with a sardonic chuckle, focusing on the rancid pall surrounding a Fiordland outdoor dunny encountered during a tramping trip, or else apostrophising the stinking flesh of dead whales as emblematic of personal disillusionment, before returning buoyantly to the fevered romanticism that imagines the “lice, hitched to a feather, as swirling gulls weave...”.
His poetry, then, is imaginative, alchemical, magical — its fervour contained by the discipline of traditional scansion. Relishing sound qualities and propulsive rhythms — a teasing-out of the skitter and thump of the syllabic line, the variousness of verbal textures — he intones in a vatic mode with an oceanic, Joycean reach, seeking only to connect. He is master of a linguistic domain — a way of saying — that, with its interplay between philosophical concepts and specific landscape imagery, is distinctive in recent New Zealand poetry.
1998 MacMillan Brown Prize
2002/2003 Todd Foundation Writer's Bursary
2004 Listener's Book of the Year, The Life and the Dark