Bill Sewell: The Ballad of Fifty-One (2003)

Jack Ross, ed.: Spin 45 (March 2003)

Bill Sewell, The Ballad of Fifty-One. Wellington: HeadworX, 2003. 80pp. RRP $19.95. ISBN 0-473-09254-9.

Bill Sewell: The Ballad of Fifty-One (2003)

So long after the event
and you’re still picking at it,
the wound, as if exhuming it
would release enough pain
to arc back and alter the outcome. (“The Valley of Saying” [61])

It’s very characteristic of Bill Sewell’s last book that he asks himself, in situ, all the hard questions one’s been storing up while reading it. Why, indeed, revisit the 1951 Watersiders dispute (or “Waterfront Lockout,” as he refers to it throughout)? Perhaps because – like the ‘81 Springbok tour, to which he compares it – it’s still not a dead issue to those who lived through it:
These poems make no attempt to be even-handed. While they recognise that the wharfies were no angels, they place the blame for the crisis squarely where the bulk of it belongs: with the national government, the employers, and the economic forces they represented …

Bill Sewell is too young to have been there, as he tacitly admits in “Onehunga Wharf, 1971,” talking about his own experiences as a watersider, “twenty years on from the confrontation, / and as far away from the truth” [29]. His preface to the collection explains what he personally has to contribute:
Nor do the poems attempt to offer a historical account of the events, except in the most fragmentary form … They aim instead to provide context and commentary, and perhaps something of the emotions, the preoccupations, the flavour of the time. [7]

Yes, precisely. That is what he does, in period poems like “The Thin Englishman”: “nowadays, when we hear / talk of our unspoiled nature / we know very well what is meant” [18], “High Summer” [25], and “El Sid” [64]. There’s more to it than that, though – a kind of harsh, Brechtian, political gravity about poems like ‘A Sentence on the party” [41] and (especially) “The Uninvited Guest:” “Not waiting for grace / to be said, arms on the table, using / the fork as a shovel, reaching across / everybody else to help itself” [51].

Whether it’s a good idea to write agitprop books like this is one thing (Brecht would retort, “What else is there to write about?); the delight one feels in savouring the accomplishment of this collection is another story entirely.


Spin 45 (2003): 63.

[386 wds]

Spin 45 (2003)

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