Monday, March 10, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE MIGHTY TOTARA – The Life and Times of Norman Kirk” by David Grant (Random House, $NZ49:99)
As soon as I open a book about Norman Kirk, I remember how the man had a direct impact on me. In 1972, I was a 20-year-old university student. I had no desire to be swept into compulsory military service, but I was one of the unlucky ones who were caught by the ballot. I managed to get my military service deferred for one year, and hoped for the best. The Labour opposition said they were going to repeal the old Military Service Act of 1961 and abolish the ballot. I fervently hoped they would win the 1972 election – and they did. Norman Kirk kept his word and the act was repealed within his new government’s first parliamentary session. I never had to report for military service, and that is one reason I have always been grateful to Norman Kirk.
This is a very selfish reason, of course, so I had better expand on my feelings about Kirk. He still seems to me the last politician I could trust, and I became eligible to vote only in his time, which might indicate to you how difficult I’ve found it voting for anyone with a full heart in the last forty years. Kirk bumbled and made mistakes and, of course, died too young – less than two years into his premiership – with a lot left undone. But his combination of left-wing economic policies and conservative social policy is essentially where I myself still stand. Like him, I believe the common good should come before private profit. Like him, I believe in the sanctity of human life. Few politicians sign on for that combination nowadays.
I should add another personal point about “Big Norm”. He makes me feel nostalgic as hell, and it’s not just my amused memory of the BBC radio news speaking of the New Zealand frigate “O-TAY-go” entering the French exclusion zone near Mururoa. Norman Kirk won the 1972 election some months after my father died. My parents were proud “floating voters” which, in the New Zealand of the time, meant they sometimes voted National and sometimes voted Labour, depending on what they thought of the candidates. I knew, however, that they had soured on the National Party by the late 1960s and my father particularly disliked the rising star of that party, Robert Muldoon. Before he died, Dad said Muldoon would be “New Zealand’s worst prime minister”. A prescient person, my Dad. So there my widowed mother and I both are, in front of the television screen on election night 1972, watching the results come in and getting more and more excited as one seat after another falls to Labour. And well before poor old Jack Marshall concedes, and well before the telly pundits have told us what to think, my Mum turns to me and says “You know what this is, don’t you? It’s a landslide!” Prescient woman, my Mum. And we were both jubilant. Like so much of the country, we really believed that Labour electioneering slogan “Time for a Change!”.
And then, less than two years later, we’re crying because Norm is dead. Only one other politician’s death has made me cry in my whole life – US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. And you can forgive me my sentimentality about him, because I was only a teenager and didn’t know a heck of a lot when Bobby got gunned down.
Okay, enough of my maudlin (if truthful) ramblings.
I have before me this very fine and very readable and well-researched and accessible book by David Grant The Mighty Totara, and it’s a crime that I’ve talked so much about my own thoughts on Norm before getting on to this book, because The Mighty Totara deserves better than that.
David Grant is concerned, before anything else, with Kirk’s political career and his impact on New Zealand. With 442 pages of text (before bibliography, endnotes and index), The Mighty Totara takes us briskly through Kirk’s childhood and young manhood. Growing up in Christchurch in the tough years of the Depression with upright working class and Salvation Army parents. Getting a railway apprenticeship. A self-taught man and a voracious reader. Already by Page 36 he’s twenty years old and married to Ruth. He can be a stroppy young man as in the invigorating anecdote of his taking a rifle to kill the rats in the rented accommodation he and his young family had to live in (pp.39-40). By the age of 30 he is elected mayor of Kaiapoi – at that time being New Zealand’s youngest-ever mayor. He makes his first forays into national politics, entering parliament for Lyttelton in 1957. By the mid-1960s, with Labour in the long doldrums of opposition, Kirk successfully challenges the past-it Arnold Nordmeyer for the party leadership, and wins it, becoming, at 43, Labour’s youngest leader up to that time.
You will note that we are only about one sixth of the way through the book when it’s the early 1960s and Kirk is already an MP protesting French nuclear testing in the Pacific. And we are less than halfway through the book (p.190 to be precise) when Kirk wins the 1972 election. This means the 442 pages of text are overwhelmingly devoted to the last ten of Kirk’s 51 years of life – and especially to the less than two years (November 1972 to August 1974) that he was prime minister.
Given that politics and national impact are David Grant’s major interests, there is nothing wrong with this, but I am sorry that The Mighty Totara consequently gives us so little of Kirk’s family life once we’ve locked into his parliamentary career. His wife Ruth is mentioned occasionally as his sturdy supporter and helpmeet with their five children; but, bar the odd mention, she basically vanishes from the story. It therefore comes as something of a shock when, literally five pages from the end, Grant mentions Kirk’s “despair at the state of his difficult marriage with Ruth, who was often cantankerous”(p.439) and then launches into an account of this flawed marriage (pp.440-443). He also gamely gives an account of the unedifying career of Norm’s MP son John Kirk (pp.420-423), a part of the Kirk story that some admirers might have preferred him to gloss over.
One or two of Grant’s characterizations may surprise readers. Of the man who preceded Nordmeyer as Labour’s leader, Grant writes:
“[Walter] Nash was a ponderous authoritarian scared of change and, particularly in caucus, intolerant of MPs who did not agree with his views. He procrastinated over decisions, became bogged down in detail and often refused to consult or confide in colleagues.” (p.57)
Some of the things he tells us about Kirk are also surprising. I didn’t know that the man with such an anti-militarist foreign policy was also the man who liked rabbit hunting and pigeon shooting and collected pistols.
In political matters, however, you can’t fault Grant’s punctiliousness. He dots his “I”s and crosses his “T”s. In the chapter (Chapter 8) on Kirk’s putting together a new parliamentary team after the 1969 defeat, Grant lists every single party spokesman and his ranking, with appropriate comments on his performance.
Of course there were times when reading this book made me acutely aware of the time that has elapsed since the events it records. This is not quite a nostalgic aspect so much as a sense of “autres temps, autres moeurs”. To give one obvious example, Labour lost two elections when Kirk was party leader (1966 and 1969). As I read of the 1969 defeat (Chapter 7), I couldn’t help reflecting that no political party now would keep on a leader after two successive electoral defeats. But Grant himself later suggests that there was a wisp of the same mentality, in 1971, when Kirk
“…was unnecessarily anxious, walking with an unsteady gait to the caucus room. He was conscious that a party in opposition too long could change its leader to invigorate itself, and Kirk had led his party through two unsuccessful election campaigns…. Kirk need not have worried; he retained the leadership unanimously.” (p.162)
This book reminded me of forgotten controversies such as the fuss (Chapter 10) when the National government in effect sacked the editor of The Listener. I also thought how different things were when I was reminded (p.222) that in 1973, Mat Rata was the first Maori to be Minister of Maori Affairs.
It has to be said that this is dominantly a work of admiration. From the adulatory title onwards, Grant wants us to like Kirk, and he succeeds. There is a necessary sense of excitement over the 1972 election victory. The lead-up to that election was tense because the National government was at odds with the radical Auckland branch of the Seamen’s Union and therefore dusted off the usual propaganda line linking the Labour Party to wildcat strikes and union radicalism. But it didn’t wash because Kirk himself so clearly had little sympathy with the more radical unionists; and he and FOL boss Tom Skinner were able to appear as beacons of reasonableness. Besides, with the hesitant Jack Marshall having taken over from Holyoake as National prime minister, Kirk was able to dominate debate in the House. At the opening of the election campaign, Grant remarks:
“Kirk was in top form at this Palmerston North address, raising and lowering his voice at appropriate moments, mastering the pause, gesticulating at the right instant, and confidently exchanging jibes with youthful hecklers, some of whom were farmers’ sons attending Massey University, not part of Labour’s traditional catchment” (p.185)
So Grant writes about the man who repealed the Military Service Act of 1961, wanted an independent foreign policy for New Zealand, recognized China, established an embassy in Beijing and reopened the embassy in Moscow, set up the Literary Fund remunerating authors for their works held in libraries, and took real risks. Kirk (Chapter 14) called off the 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand, even though he knew it would cost Labour rural votes in the next election (and it did). As he had promised he would before the election, Kirk also sent a frigate (Chapter 15) into the French exclusion zone near the atmospheric nuclear tests at Mururoa.
Grant admires Kirk for all these things, but he makes it convincing in part because he steers smartly away from hagiography. Kirk’s negative side gets a fair mention and the portrait is a nuanced one. Kirk wouldn’t have got where he did without sometimes playing the political game, as when he sent birthday and wedding anniversary greetings to the wives of Labour MPs who could support his bid for the party leadership in the 1960s (p.80). There were times when he was not always gracious about Arnold Nordmeyer, the party leader he de-throned. (pp.87ff.). We are frequently told of his mistrust of “bloody intellectuals” and Labour people who did not have true working class credentials, and this affected some of his initial cabinet appointments once he was prime minister. It also affected his relationship with the Australian Labor leader Gough Whitlam whom Kirk judged guilty of “intellectualism”. We are told that, although he was opposed to New Zealand’s military engagement in Vietnam, Kirk “disingenuously” (p.158) failed to support mobilisation protests against the war, because he did not wish to alienate working class hawks. When Grant discusses a conference that was held to coordinate broadly left-wing opinion, ahead of the 1972 election, he speaks of “the less attractive side of his personality, a paranoia towards groups and individuals not inside the party machine whom he thought, wrongly, might have been damaging to Labour” and also uses the word “intolerance” (p.207).
This same term crops up a number of times. It is clear that in his very last months, Kirk lost the support of many in his caucus, and Grant says there was a “paranoiac” (p.384) incident when Kirk became involved in an unseemly squabble on talkback radio. He also speaks of Kirk’s “paranoia” (p.392) regarding Bill Rowling’s attempts to overhaul the economy; and Kirk’s “paranoia” (p.394) about being spied on.
It is possible, too, that Grant implies an element of hubris at the beginning of Kirk’s premiership. In 1972, the Labour party defeated the National Party by a landslide – the biggest since 1935 – gaining 56 seats to National’s 31. Buoyant at this result, Kirk declared brashly at his first cabinet meeting as prime minister that “We’re here to govern for 25 years!” (p.227). Grant uses this phrase as a chapter title, probably aware that readers will remember the outcome. Kirk himself was dead in less than two years and the 3rd Labour government lasted just one term.
If Grant tempers his admiration for Kirk with frank accounts of the man’s shortcomings, he is equally commendable is his even-handedness about Kirk’s parliamentary opponents. He admits that by the mid-1960s, National had a very effective parliamentary team and a buoyant economy, making it hard for Labour to dislodge them. Although he clearly has no liking for Robert Muldoon, he notes how the effective debating of Muldoon was one of the handicaps Labour suffered in the run-up to the 1969 election. He also notes generously that it was really Keith Holyoake (pp.294-295) who began New Zealand’s first effective official stance against nuclear weapons.
Grant can give many plausible reasons for the fact that the 3rd’ Labour government lasted only one term. The economy was collapsing under the impact of the oil shock and declining trade with Britain, as Britain entered the EEC. Inflation was running at 13% and there was a huge deficit (Chapter 16).
But there was also the physical failure of Norman Kirk himself.
Sounding throughout much of this book, like a solemn drumbeat, is the tale of Kirk’s declining health. Even in the chapter on the successful 1972 election campaign (Chapter 11), it is made clear that Kirk’s vigorous and successful performance placed a huge strain on his health. As prime minister, Kirk had a heart attack while visiting India. It was witnessed by his secretary Margaret Hayward, who was pledged to keep quiet about it (p.353). By late 1973, a new doctor declared that Kirk was diabetic and had to lose 6 stone if he was to live.
By then “even a modicum of physical activity was making Kirk breathe heavily and sweat profusely. By now he had a very clear view of his mortality. To close friends he was admitting that he ‘wouldn’t make old bones.’ ” (p.370). When he finally appeared at the Labour Party’s May 1974 conference, after a major operation “many gasped in shock at his gaunt, stooped appearance.” (p.376). He died of pulmonary embolism on 31 August 1974, aged only 51.
I might question a few of David Grant’s judgments. When he explains how Kirk was opposed to abortion, Grant feels bound to explain that Kirk was no misogynist or opponent of women’s rights, and how he set up a Committee on Women (pp.176-178). I naturally ask – how on earth does being opposed to abortion mean one is opposed to women’s rights?
It is not Grant’s fault that there is an ambiguity about who Kirk was. This is signalled in Grant’s preface, where he declares that Kirk “was New Zealand’s last working class prime minister…” (p.9) and notes of his premiership:
“Although he moved quickly to stamp a new direction on an expending party, he retained an inbuilt social conservatism that saw him react against the more radical and self-indulgent aspects of the counter-culture that began to swirl around him in the late 1960s and early 1970s; in particular he opposed moves to liberalise the laws prohibiting abortion and homosexuality.” (Preface p.8)
He returns to this later when he surveys the party that Kirk led:
“By now the Labour Party was an amalgam of New Zealanders of different ages, backgrounds, beliefs and levels of education, gathered together to try to find a common ground at a time when the country was on the cusp of huge social change: every week malcontents were marching on the streets protesting apartheid, the Vietnam War, abortion law reform, homosexual legality, and a raft of industrial issues, to name just some. This expansive movement was so much different to the Labour Party of 1962, which was mostly male, elderly and trade union conservative.” (p.181)
The use of the word “malcontents” is interesting here, but I get Grant’s drift. The old working class blokes’ party was really fading away, and Labour was early in the process of becoming the party of smarmy middle class smarties that it is now (very much like the one that faces it from the government benches). Kirk was as much a reminder of the old as a harbinger of the new. This expansive biography makes his role in history clear.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE THREE-CORNERED HAT, and other stories” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcon (El Sombrero des tres picos and the others first published in Spanish 1870s-1880s; many English translations; Michael Alpert’s Penguin Classics translation 1975)
There are some stories which are known principally as names, or because somebody has adapted them into another medium. I first heard of The Three-Cornered Hat (El Sombrero des tres picos) the same way most people do – because I had listened to, and greatly enjoyed, Manuel de Falla’s ballet suite inspired by the story. For a while, its lively music vied in popularity in my household with Milhaud’s even bouncier Le boeuf sur le toit. Finally, on a visit to a second-hand bookstore, I bought a battered copy of Michael Alpert’s Penguin Classics translation of the story itself, printed together with other stories by Pedro Antonio de Alarcon (1833-91).
Coming in at a mere 80 Penguin Classics pages, The Three-Cornered Hat (published in 1874 when the author was forty) is Alarcon’s expansion of a popular Andalusian folk tale, which was generally known as “The Corrigedor and the Miller’s Wife”.
In Andalusia, sometime before the Napoleonic Wars, the miller Lucas Fernandez, ugly but ingenious, lives with his beautiful, resourceful and virtuous wife Frasquita. The lustful Corrigedor (provincial governor) Don Eugenio wants to seduce Frasquita and gets his henchmen to lure Lucas away from the mill so that he can have his way. But, falling into the mill-race and getting a soaking, Don Eugenio has to recuperate by stripping off his clothes and lying in the miller’s bed.
Returning home, Lucas thinks the worst has happened, so he steals the Corrigedor’s clothes and sets off in his turn to get his revenge by sleeping with the Corrigedor’s wife Mercedes.
All turns out happily, however, for both women preserve their virtue and Mercedes and Frasquita expose the Corrigedor’s hypocrisy when he attempts to prosecute Lucas for impersonating him.
The action of the story, and the author’s style, add up to playful farce. It plays out as if on a popular stage, which may be one reason why many composers (as well as de Falla) have composed music for stage or ballet adaptations. Of course, in the person of the lustful and inept Corrigedor, the absolutist regime of the old Bourbons is ridiculed a little. But the satire is affectionate and in his brief epilogue, Alarcon says that when Napoleon invaded Spain, not too many years after the story is set, the Corrigedor, to his credit, died rather than collaborating.
Among other things, this alludes to the awkward fact that on the whole, the people of Spain rallied to the defence of their conservative regime, even if Napoleon’s armies were promising greater freedom and something nearer resembling democracy. (It’s the old truth that people always prefer their own government to one imposed from outside.)
In short, this cheerful and silly tale seems to be the sort of satire that a man in his forties would write when he has become reconciled to many of the conservative things which he attacked vigorously in his youth (as Alarcon did).
As I read The Three-Cornered Hat, I couldn’t help thinking of other works that adopt
Democracy was not exactly secure, and the monarchy is Spain still had great power, at the time Alarcon was writing. Even so, the fact that Alarcon was satirising the manners of “olden times” also put me in mind of Mark Twain writing about slavery and old Southern manners in Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson (look up comments on the latter via the index) long after the slavery and the old customs had gone with the wind.
Above all, though, The Three-Cornered Hat is a tale in which the common people (the miller and his wife) are more resourceful and ingenious than the aristocrat (the Corrigedor) – and the government official is ruled by his more intelligent wife. We are in the realm of Beaumarchais’ Figaro, Susanna and the Countess at odds with the Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
The view of the outmoded past is more gently amused than angry.
Captain Poison (El Capitan Veneno), the other substantial story in the Michael Alpert translation, weighs in at just over 60 pages and was first published in 1881. Though less well known, it is a more satisfying piece of fiction than The Three-Cornered Hat. I read it as a kind of cross between The Man Who Came to Dinner and the Beatrice and Benedick scenes of Much Ado About Nothing.
In the 1848 uprising in Madrid, a monarchist captain is wounded in the street-fighting with republicans. He is dragged to safety by a mother and daughter, who are impoverished aristocrats. He recuperates in their cramped city apartment. He is forty years old and nicknamed “Captain Poison” for his acerbic wit and quarrelsomeness. He is determined not to like his rescuers, especially the daughter who cares for him. But over the weeks, as they snap at each other (and she usually gets the better of him), he clearly falls in love with her. Oh Beatrice! Oh Benedick!
When the mother dies, he marries the daughter and – though he said he’d never have children – they raise a family.
In many respects, this is a more genuinely satirical story than The Three-Cornered Hat, because it is set in Alarcon’s own times. The mother in the story is the widow of a Carlist “general” from the Carlist Wars of the 1830s, and much of the story’s humour hinges on her pretensions to noble rank. She has been living by selling off family heirlooms while pretending to have great family wealth. She dies when her application to have her noble rank officially recognised is turned down. Snobbery really can kill. “Captain Poison” pays for her funeral, but attempts to disguise his own generosity from the daughter. While ridiculing snobbery, shabby gentility and rather pointless pretensions to rank, Alarcon is also dramatizing the truism that some of the most altruistic people in the world would prefer not to advertise their own goodness of heart. It is the exact opposite of the “Lady Bountiful” syndrome.
I should note that the Penguin Classics collection contains three other much shorter stories by Alarcon, more in the nature of anecdotes. In The Receipt Book, a peasant outwits a thief. In The Three-Key Cornet, a p.o.w. escapes death by learning to play music fast. In The Foreigner, a Spanish guerrilla murders a Polish prisoner who has been fighting for Napoleon. Fate later puts the guerrilla in the hands of the Poles.
They are brisk savage (or amusing) stories. A de Maupassant (or a Frank O’Connor) would not have been ashamed to write them. But it is The Three-Cornered Hat and Captain Poison that rightly dominate the volume.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PROBLEMS WITH HEROES
Recently, like so much of the world, I saw and admired the film Twelve Years a Slave. I like the director Steve McQueen’s cool directorial style, including the way he so frequently lets the camera linger – often in long shot – over a scene so that its implications are allowed to sink in. When the slave turns on one white tormentor, who rushes off to get back-up, the camera holds on the image of the slave standing there, breathing heavily, knowing that he is now in for even more physical pain. When the slave is betrayed by a man who said he could deliver a letter for him, to regain his freedom, the camera lingers long over the image of the letter being burnt to embers, giving us time to reflect that this is the death of a long-held hope.
So I could continue enumerating the film’s excellences.
But that’s not my purpose in this week’s comment.
Having seen the film I did what I always do, and rushed to read some commentary on it. Most critics were adulatory but, sure as rain, there were some dissenters. And the chief cause of dissent was the film’s historical perspective. Why, asked the naysayers, should this one man’s atypical experience be taken as representative of the institution of slavery in the United States? After all, Twelve Years a Slave is about an articulate, literate, violin-playing “freeman” who is kidnapped from a Northern state and sold into slavery in the South. Such a man can in no way “stand for” the great mass of slaves, who had no such backstory. He is an exceptional character. So, said the dissenters, far from being a “documentary” depiction of slavery, the film is an artificial construct. Even if based on an historical person (and his memoirs), and even if directed by a black director, its main character has been given many of the characteristics of white “civilization” and therefore he has been made easier for a predominantly white audience to identify with. And having pursued this line of argument, the negative commentaries were soon telling me that Twelve Years a Slave is really pandering to “white liberal guilt”.
This has not, of course, been the majority reaction to the film, and it isn’t my reaction.
But the whole line of argument reminds me of objections that were raised to an earlier Oscar high-flyer, Steven Spielberg’s film version of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List. How could Schindler’s experiences possibly represent the Holocaust, the argument went, when Schindler was busy saving people from death? The Holocaust was dominantly about people either participating in genocide or looking the other way and not doing anything about it. To make a hero of the exceptional and unusual Schindler was a way of serving the mass audience “Holocaust lite”, letting them identify with this one-of-a-kind person without confronting the moral vacuum in which the Holocaust happened. We could leave the theatre imagining that we too would have acted in such an exemplary fashion, without facing the awkward fact that millions of people just like us did no such thing.
All of which brings me to a much bigger question.
Aren’t heroes in fact ALWAYS exceptional and not representative of the norm? Isn’t that one of the conditions of being a hero? And yet, when we tell stories, isn’t it always necessary to create heroes (okay – “protagonists” if you want to go all precious on me) so that the reader, viewer or general audience can share the experiences of an individual and identify with that individual?
For the hard fact is that, although we can understand and even be moved by stories concerning a general population when they are told in documentary form, once we get to (fictionalised) story telling, we have to relate to individuals.
Let me give an example from yet another genocidal regime.
In the 1920s, experimental Soviet film-makers like Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Dovzhenko made films which, in a revolutionary spirit, eschewed having individual heroes and played with the concept of the “collective hero” – the mass of people behaving in a revolutionary way, as opposed to that bourgeois individualist idea of the solitary hero. So there were movies like Strike, October, Earth, and The General Line in which masses of people rushed about and achieved the great Soviet state. (I know that not all Soviet films of the time followed this pattern, but enough did for me to make my case).
There was just one tiny little snag, however.
Even if critics and film historians think these movies were great, the mass Soviet audience was either puzzled or bored by them. In fact (oh horror!) even in the silent 1920s period, they preferred watching Chaplin and Mary Pickford and other products of Hollywood to watching long shots of workers behaving en masse.
They wanted “story” films with individual characters whose lives they could share.
So when Gensec Stalin took over he (being a great vulgarian like Herr Hitler) decreed that “no-story” films could no longer be made. Back the revolutionary Soviet cinema went to producing films in which individual characters did individual heroic things on behalf of the great socialist leader (i.e. Stalin). Of course they were mainly propagandist drivel, but at least the mass audience could relate to the Great Citizen or the Man with the Revolver or the Baltic Deputy or the various films about Maxim that were made in the 1930s. The desire for individuals trumped the will to mass representation.
It is a natural hunger.
Given this, I will always be a little sceptical when the argument about a film’s or novel’s hero not being “representative” is raised. Of course no hero in a work of fiction (or fictionalised factual story like Twelve Years a Slave) is ever “representative”. They are always individuals. But without these individual characterisations, we would never be able to tell fictionalised versions of historical events at all.
A huge population is an abstraction. To affect us it has to be given a specific human face. This is true even of popular factual representations of great historical processes. We want to ask “Well tell me about one person who died in the Holocaust.”And the answer comes back…….
Monday, March 3, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“GATHERING EVIDENCE” by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press, $NZ28); “HORSE WITH HAT” by Marty Smith (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
A couple of months ago, when I was guest-editing the forthcoming issue of Poetry New Zealand, a poem crossed my desk which struck me as dazzling in its ingenuity, precision of statement and understanding of physics. I of course snapped it up and wrote a grateful letter of acceptance to the poet, of whom I had never heard before. The poem was called “Every Body Continues in a State of Rest”. The poet was Caoilinn Hughes. To my surprise, I find that this poem is one of the 40 that make up the expatriate young Irishwoman Hughes’s first collection Gathering Evidence. I don’t know whether to be miffed that the poem appears in the debut collection before the relevant issue of Poetry New Zealand itself appears, or to be delighted that a wider audience will get to see it.
It is a very good poem.
“Every Body Continues in a State of Rest” depicts the actions of a couple out on a cycling trip as they relate to the laws of physics and the facts of human fatigue. Hughes situates scientific laws in an everyday setting. This proves to be one of her preoccupations. The same technique recurs in another of the collection’s poems “Bruisewart”, where the patterns of DNA are perceived in a daisy chain.
An Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure once told me that “the subject of a poem is merely the place in which the poem happens”. I sort of understand this. Poems are not good or bad because of what they are “about”, but because of how they perceive things, how they use language, how they are structured and so on. Yet spite of all dispute, what a poet chooses to write about tells you much about the mood of a volume. Subject matter and style are intertwined.
Over a decade ago I recall my friend the late Bill Sewell raging that there were now too many poems that “weren’t about anything”, and swearing that he was determined to produce poems that were “about something”. (He went ahead and wrote his volume The Ballad of ‘51, which was very definitely “about” New Zealand labour politics.) He was reacting – as I do – against twee Writing School exercises which do not look beyond themselves.
Caoilinn Hughes I think also has a rage to “say something”, and as a debut volume, Gathering Evidence has inevitably poems about childhood, which in her case dovetail with a somewhat jaded view of Ireland. There are some poems observing bums and vagrants on the Irish scene. There is a poem (“Cynophobia”) about her childhood fear of dogs; a poem about spewing up on her first communion dress and not thinking much of religion anyway; and a really dispiriting final poem “Legacy” about the rural traces of Ireland’s violent history. More amusingly, and even more ironically, there is “Impressions of Ireland” in which Hughes speaks of New Zealanders who visit Ireland reverentially “to link themselves to a thrice-removed / history, as if their own shades of jade were not as profound”. The implication is that New Zealand visitors simply lack an appreciative eye for their own country. In this volume there are also two or three poems built on a backpacking trip in South America.
More than anything, however, Gathering Evidence is “about” science and “about” an attempt to weave meaning out of a purely materialist understanding of the cosmos. Quite appropriately, Robert Corish’s cover illustration shows a woman staring into a microscope as her head explodes into colourful thought.
From the very opening poem, “Avalanche”, there is the sense that imagination and feeling are trumped by the brute facts of physical reality for, as the mountain avalanche comes bounding down, “My cries could not contend with this parade / of physics”. Because of this perspective, Hughes’ view of science is not a simplistic wonderment. She is aware that scientific daring can be lethal. Her tough poem about Enrico Fermi and the building of the first nuclear chain reactor in Chicago (“King of the Castle”) addresses both the excitement of science (“American science must have seemed like alchemy”) and its hubris as Fermi and his cohorts act with indifference to radiation poisoning: “They had not considered cancer sullying their stomachs like slugs; lymphomas / suckling their spines, lymph nodes….” The poem about Marie Curie (“Rational Dress”) seems more celebratory, more of a protest against the refusal of Marie’s contemporaries to accept her genius because she was a woman – but even here this is counterpointed by references to the scientist’s self-poisoning by radiation. “The Moon Should Be Turned” addresses the matter of exploitation in medical scientific endeavour – the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were grown posthumously by cancer researchers. The two poems about the cosmologist Johannes Kepler (“God Always Geometrises” and “Harmony of the spheres”) are more straightforward in their admiration. But then there are “The Transit of Venus” and “Pacific Rim” in which science (in these cases 18th century Enlightenment science) is situated in its dodgy social context.
While I found Hughes’ approach bracing, I do have one small criticism of this volume. I could have done with a few explanatory notes. I appreciate that it is not good to weight poetry down with explanations, but I confess to not getting all the cultural referents. “On the Content of Brackets” and “Looting Roses” are clearly poems about old women, but appear to reflect situations that could have done with greater clarification. As for the title poem “Gathering Evidence”, it appears to be founded on a true anecdote from the early history of modern science – but I am barbarian enough to want to know which one.
Having said this, I still found the collection a lively, sharp and intelligent one – a “good read” if such phrases are permissible in the criticism of poetry. Late in the volume, Hughes essays a poem about poetry (“Is It a Kind of Bell Toll?”), which ends with the self-deprecating observation “The endeavour is mostly trivial. The sound is mostly din.”
This is definitely not an accurate observation on her own poems.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Marty Smith’s poetry collection Horse With Hat comes out of a sensibility quite different from Caoilinn Hughes’s. If Gathering Evidence is the work of an analytical ironist, Horse With Hat is the work of an instinctive memoirist.
I’ll begin with a comment on Horse With Hat as a physical object. It is a large-format book as collections of poetry go, and is illustrated with five two-page-spread collages assembled by Brendan O’Brien. They are surreal images, nearly all involving a horse, created in part by using images taken from an old Smith family Bible. This last detail points to another fact about Horse With Hat. Its contents derive largely from the circumstances of the family into which Marty Smith was born – especially the generations of her parents and grandparents, whose collective photo appears near the beginning, with relevant dates appended. They were a sheep-farming and horse-riding family, many of whose male members served in the Second World War.
In effect, most of the poems in this volume serve a personal mythology. Although the poet makes adult judgments and draws on events from her adult life and experience, the perspective most often is that of a child caught at the age when parents are still ten feet tall. It is the perspective expressed in an early poem “Dad’s horses” where “I am at their knees looking up / at the lode star of the stirrup / and my four-storey father.” Not that the child’s-eye view is always worshipful and credulous. Children, as well as observing sharply, can make quite acute and damning comments about their parents and elders. Marty’s Dad stands accused, in various poems, of wearing a hat all the time; and mocking other people’s driving; and repeating the same anecdotes; and controlling who uses the house telephone and when; and sometimes expressing angry opinions about those bloody bolshie unionists who ought to be locked up.
In other words, he was a farmer of his age and generation.
Then there was the odd situation where the poet’s father and her grandmother lived at different ends of the same farm and didn’t get on with each other. Elements of this repressed feud seep into the poems. Quite consciously, an emphasis on period details dominates a number of the poems – an acknowledgement that the mind-world depicted is now one that has passed away. “He went away with hair and came back bald” is a collage-like poem (Smith likes the paste-up form), which recreates the myths and half-truths of a relative who may or may not have served in the war. “Emphysema for Aunty Gwen” reminds us of a world in which smoking was taken for granted and enjoyed, even if the poem’s coda gives us a nasty reminder of the consequent health issues. There is also a poem about the arrival of television in the household – apparently at the same time as the first moon landings. The preoccupation with horses is the most consistent thread, ranging from the poem about a race-winner to the poem “Lot 165” which is told from the horse’s point of view and (dare I say it?) approaches the Black Beauty territory of sentimental anthropomorphism.
One again, as you can see, I have been chattering about what the poems are “about” without commenting on their quality, thus artificially divorcing style from substance.
Time to nail my colours to the mast.
While I found this an amiable volume, I was not particularly drawn to its style. A poem like “Because I am short-sighted the distance shimmers” takes the same collage form as the book’s illustrations, giving fragments of a child’s imagination to create a world-picture – everything from Baron Munchausen to the Bible to geological knowledge. “Radar” is a long poem composed of snatches from different conversations. “Ratbaggery” is an anthology of incidents in which people are inclined to lose their temper. The best I can say is that they did not appeal to me. With all of them I began to long for the rationality of an adult mind to shape this raw material and stop playing the naïve child.
The open form and collage can become a site for showing off and burbling on.
For this reason, I took most pleasure in the few more traditionally formed and well-wrought poems, such as “A mile here, a mile there”, whose form conveys the intended sense of serenity and calm; and “Agnus Dei”, the most perfectly crafted poem in the book – five 6-line stanzas with a regular rhythm, the elevated title ironically contrasting with an unglamorous aspect of being a child on a sheep farm. The opening line – “I carried the lamb in a sack on my horse” – ambling like the horse itself – is an invitation to the craft of poetry itself as well as being a calm prelude to more distressing matters.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“OSCAR’S BOOKS” by Thomas Wright (first published 2008)
As I’ve remarked once before on this blog, I am sometimes nonplussed as to why new biographical books are written about people who have already been the subject of a number of biographies. In most cases, “new” biographies of the same person, unless they turn up new, important and hitherto undiscovered material, are simply re-hashes of books that have already been published. Often, indeed, they are simplifications and rip-offs of earlier books. Sometimes all they have to offer that is new, is a little stray gossip that earlier biographies haven’t bothered with.
An example I’ve already given of this is the number of books that have been written about Oscar Wilde. I am not a Wilde fanatic but, as it happens, I have on my shelves six books about Wilde as well as the man’s own collected works. Two of the books are really memoirs rather than biographies – Anna de Bremont’s Oscar Wilde and His Mother (1914 – presenting Oscar’s Mum as a forbearing and saintly woman who had to put up with much); and Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde (1916 – in which the old pornographer presents himself as Oscar’s friend and as the only person who really understood Oscar). These two books are historical artefacts rather than real biographies. Then there’s Richard Ellmann’s voluminous Oscar Wilde (1987), which, for very good reason, is now regarded as the standard and most reliable biography and is certainly the first book about Wilde you should read. Next to it is Barbara Belford’s briefer Oscar Wilde – A Certain Genius (2000), which really approaches rip-off territory, as it says nothing that Ellmann hadn’t already said first, and better. Finally there is Neil McKenna’s long piece of gay advocacy The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003), which concentrates so exclusively on the man’s sex life and the Victorian homosexual underworld that it gets to be a bit of a bore.
By this stage, you will see that I think there is little room for a new book on Oscar Wilde. Wilde is one of those people (like Shakespeare, Dickens, Rimbaud and Franz Kafka) who have been done to death by biographers even if, in Shakespeare’s case, they have little primary material to go on.
Is it really possible for anyone to say anything about Wilde’s life that has not been said before?
Surprisingly, it is, and the proof is Thomas Wright’s delightful book Oscar’s Books, the sixth book about Oscar Wilde which I own. It earns its place on the shelf because it concentrates on one aspect of Wilde’s life that has not been examined in detail before.
In 1895, when he lost his libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury and was convicted for “gross indecency”, Oscar Wilde was faced with two heavy punishments. One was his prison sentence. The other was the loss of his beloved library of over 2000 volumes, which he had spent more that twenty years acquiring.
To cover legal expenses, the books had to be auctioned. As Wilde was being taken to prison, the auctioneers dumped the books on the pavement outside his London residence and sold the lot at knockdown prices to booksellers, scavengers, and sensation-seekers. The scattered library has never been reassembled.
As he reveals in his autobiographical notes, Thomas Wright is a youngish Wilde fanatic who is devoting his life to reconstructing everything Oscar Wilde would have read in his lifetime, everything he would have had on his shelves and everything that could in any way have influenced his writings.
Wright has understood that what a writer habitually reads will have at least as much influence on his work as what happens in the other departments of his life. This was particularly true of a dandyish jackdaw of a writer like Oscar Wilde. As Wright demonstrates amply, there are echoes of Wilde’s wide reading in all the plays, poems, stories and essays Wilde penned. In fact, there is occasionally shameless plagiarism. This gives special point to that famous and much-repeated anecdote about Wilde hearing somebody saying something witty and remarking to a friend “I wish I’d said that”.
“You will, Oscar, you will,” his friend at once quipped.
A dedicated Wilde-ophile such as Thomas Wright doesn’t dwell on the thefts, but he can’t avoid noting that much of Wilde’s work (especially the poetry) comes uncomfortably close to pastiche. Art imitating art. It’s hard to read his Newdigate Prize-winning poem Ravenna now with a straight face although, in fairness to Oscar, he did write some surprisingly gutsy sonnets.
Of course, there is a possible major objection to reconstructing a man’s library as Wright does, and then drawing conclusions from the books he gave shelf-space. How do we know how deeply Wilde read all the many books he owned? If you judged me by the books I give shelf-space, you would assume that I was a universal literary genius. But then the sad fact is, I have never read many of the books I own, and have only a passing acquaintance with others. This, I surmise, is true of most of the people I know who inhabit book-lined studies.
Wisely, Wright confines himself to those works which Wilde discussed with friends, referred to in his letters, or scored with his copious marginal comments. And in following this path, Wright strikes gold, showing how much Wilde’s fairy-tales grew out of the Celtic tradition his flamboyant and self-dramatizing mother (who signed herself “Speranza”) bequeathed to him; how much Wilde was influenced by the society novels of Disraeli and the social panoramas of Balzac; how much he pored over all homo-erotic aspects of the ancient Greek classics; and how much Dante meant to him once he was confined to a prison cell. The felon who penned De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol clearly shared enough of his mother’s temperament to see himself as going through his private Inferno.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Oscar’s Books – a feast of erudition and bibliophilic lore. But I would fault Wright on one thing. I think he underestimates the influence of Balzac’s brilliant fantasy tale The Wild Ass’s Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) on Wilde’s less resonant and more imitative The Picture of Dorian Gray. To refresh your memories, in The Wild Ass’s Skin (written about fifty years before Wilde’s novel), people who possess the magic skin fulfil their sensual and worldly desires, but as they do so the skin shrinks and their lives are shortened. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the beautiful young man remains beautiful while he leads a life of debauchery and sin, but the picture that has been painted of him becomes uglier and nastier until he keels over and dies and is revealed to be old, ugly and nasty. In both cases, a magic token takes the physical punishment that the sinner should take. [Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Bottle Imp is a more simplistic variation on this same plot.] Balzac’s novel has a broader social perspective than the Wilde story, which is confined to a somewhat precious social set.
However Wright does confirm that Wilde was Balzac’s number one nineteenth century English-speaking fan. It was Wilde who wrote:
“The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac…. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.”
Referring to the hero of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Wilde added somewhat preciously, “Who would care to go out to meet Tompkins, the friend of one’s boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempre?”
I find it charming that Wilde found he had so much in common with a rampant heterosexual and often hard-headed pragmatist like Balzac, but it does confirm me in my belief that there was also much of the Romantic to Balzac and he could always tell a good story.
For the record of allusion, by the way, when Wilde famously said that in meeting male prostitutes he was “feasting with panthers” he was in fact quoting from Balzac where Lucien de Rubempre speaks of visiting brothels as “feasting with lions and panthers”. And in a case of life imitating art, Oscar Wilde’s funeral mass was said at the church of St.Germain-des-Pres before he was buried in the Pere Lachaise. In Balzac’s Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes Lucien’s funeral is conducted from the same church and Lucien is buried in the same cemetery – so even after death Oscar Wilde was imitating one of Honore de Balzac’s fictions just as he had imitated The Wild Ass’s Skin.
Inevitably Thomas Wright’s highly original book can’t help recapitulating at least some of the details of Wilde’s biography that are well known from other sources. Once again, you get to notice what a fair and decent chap was the enlightened prison governor who looked after Wilde in jail. Once again, you get the chance to regret that Wilde had to fall in love with a devious and neurotic little snot like Lord Alfred Douglas.
But it’s the unfamiliar that counts here, and in Oscar’s Books, Thomas Wright has achieved the unlikely feat of saying something new about somebody who was in danger of being turned into a cliché.