Monday, September 24, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books 

“ELEMENTAL – Central Otago Poems” by Brian Turner (Godwit – Random House $NZ39:99)
“FROM MANOA TO A PONSONBY GARDEN’ by Albert Wendt (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)
“NOTES ON THE MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM” by Hugh Major (Papawai Press, $NZ 29:99)

            Two books of poetry and one book of philosophical reflection make up this week’s Something New.

            Not all of Brian Turner’s Elemental is new. Divided into four sections according to the elements – Earth, Fire, Water, Air – Elemental comprises about 100 poems which Turner has selected from his writings over the last forty years. All the poems concern Central Otago, the poet’s heartland. This handsome hardback book (complete with ribbon bookmark) presents the poems together with Gilbert van Reenen’s colour photographs of rivers, tussock, mountains, clouds, snow, sheep, hawks, huts, country cemeteries and those tawny, tawny Central Otago hills. In other words, all those things the poems describe – although not the human animal. Save for one distant shot of a man by a river, the only human being to appear in any of the photographs is the shot of Brian Turner himself that follows Turner’s Foreword. In effect, the photographs direct us to the idea that this is an uninhabited land.

            Is it wise to print descriptive poems alongside photographs like this? I’m not sure. In one sense, the photographs are so striking that they hog our attention and detract from the impact of the poems. Part of our imaginative work is done for us.

            But they are beautiful photographs.
            I drag myself away from them and read the text.

            Turner’s Foreword is an affirmation of his identification with the Otago country and an expression of conservationist concerns.

            His poems are Central Otago. There is concern for the land. The land is compared with pieces of classical music. Laconic farmers are unsure about this arty writing stuff, but respect a man who chops his own wood. Sometimes Turner is nostalgic for childhood in the same country that he now looks at with adult eyes. Signs of human habitation seem to signal the feebleness and superficiality of the human grasp on the land. At first I found myself comparing Turner’s poem Abandoned Homestead with James K.Baxter’s similarly-themed Otago poem The Fallen House. But whereas Baxter’s poem becomes a reflection on the implacability of Time, Turner’s is starker with its closing image of dusk and “the mountains turning black”.

            Turner is at his best with the direct, unadorned observation, and with the pithy aphorism, as in the four lines of his Deserts, For Instance, which go:

The loveliest places of all
are those that look as if
there’s nothing there
to those still learning to look.

            More awkward (or perhaps less well-digested) are the instances of overt philosophising, such as the closing lines of West Over the Maniototo. In poetry as in prose it is better to show than to tell (and it is better to tell than to preach). I do wonder, too, if the rhyming jingle Matakanui was written in a spirit of parody (of old newspaper verse?).

            I remind myself, however, that if there are some stumbles, there are plenty of soars.

            Take the gem What the Wind Knows :

I don’t know
  what the wind
knows of me

  but I would
love to know
  what the wind

   that I don’t

            Bravo to that.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            In many respects Albert Wendt’s From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden is very different from Brian Turner’s Elemental. This is not an anthology of forty years. work, but a new collection divided, logically enough, into two sections. The first, Manoa, is a loose gathering of poems dealing with Pacific and other locations. The second, A Ponsonby Garden, taking up about two thirds of the volume, is a sequence of 40 numbered poems tracing the seasons and changes and family life near and in a Ponsonby garden in Auckland.

            Yet Turner and Wendt have more in common than might at first appear. They are both, after all, intensely interested in the impact of place and landscape on the human psyche.

            The Manoa section opens with a reflection on a mountain in Hawaii, wondering about its “incendiary genealogy” and comparing it with other mountains in the Pacific (including Taranaki)  as they affect human beings. Wendt hits his stride in the poem Mauli, which in effect defines the life force as a series of tastes and sense impressions; and is a copious outpouring of memorable details – a great poem to rant out loud. Would it be pretentious to call this a distant descendant of Baudelaire’s Correspondances, with its system of correlating sense impressions with mental states? Wendt keeps it up with a poem on the scents and shape of a woman. The style is declarative, confessional and free-form, with lines spreading prolixly across the page.

            This can, however, clunk into the ethos of a loose blog. The poem With Hone in Las Vegas irritated me. It may end rather piously with a piece of Pasifika mysticism about the undervalued rights of Nevada’s tangata whenua. But until that point it is really a piece of rationalised tourism. (So what are Albert and Hone doing in Las Vegas in the first place if not to be wide-eyed tourists, for all the predictable criticisms of that eminently avoidable place?).

            I like the evocativeness of the first part of this volume – the sights, sounds and smells that Wendt gets us to suck up – but I miss the controlling form to go with the attitudinising.

            For this reason I found the second section A Ponsonby Garden agreeably astringent. Here Wendt has worked hard at form. The 40 numbered poems are really sonnet-approximates. At any rate, most of them have about 14 lines. This forces a certain focus and precision upon the statements they make as Wendt charts the seasons and changes in this one Auckland location, beginning with the “summer Sunday” that “moves in slow motion”.

            There are the hunts and attempted bird-killings of Manoa the pet cat. And watching football on TV. And jubilation at Obama’s election. And bodily pain, especially after an operation on the knee. And memories of Hawaii. And laments for people who have just died (Terry Sturm, Alistair Campbell etc.). And the horror of hearing about, and trying to memorialise properly, a lethal tsunami in the Pacific. And the wife’s getting a hip replacement. And awareness of ageing as young people begin solicitously to call you “dear”. And lots of joys and celebrations too, in cooking and meals and flowers and watching an adult son grow.

            These poems certainly have focus and are engaging. The weak side is that the poorer ones can simply become unpoetic observation or even journalism (the poem on death of Martyn Sanderson reads like a few sentences from a prose obit.).
            There is still real life here, however, and a vibrancy that is sometimes missing in Brian Turner’s sparse Otago landscapes.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            Hugh Major’s Notes on the Mysterium Tremendum is a book of philosophical and idealistic reflection, illustrated with the author’s own art works.

            It has a number of essential themes, one of the most important of which is expressed in the introduction:

            “Our knowledge of the world is far exceeded by our ignorance of it, and this is what creates the very human need to dream, wonder and speculate. The closer we look at ourselves and our interconnection with the natural world, the more amazement and joy can be extracted from it.” (Pg. 3)

            Hugh Major wants to encourage that sense of amazement and joy, but finds some obtuse enemies standing in his path. Not the least is the stubborn human ego, which separates itself from the totality of reality and hence reduces everything else to mere physical objects:

            “The ubiquitous mindset…. takes physical objects as the only permanent reality, nature as a stockpile of resources and other people as separate  entities further divided by nationality, culture and creed. The individual still reigns supreme and material acquisitions are still the gauge of value…” (Pg.12)

            The delusions of the ego are encouraged by those secular rationalists who refuse to see anything beyond the purely material and who do not admit that their rationality itself depends upon an act of faith:

            “Secular rationalists who proclaim that scientific method relies on facts and not faith need to consider that their theories are formulated with the faith and confidence that they will eventually be proved correct. The evidence may not be found in their lifetimes, and in the case of nuclear physics, may never be observable, so their belief is founded on faith rather than empirical proof.” (Pg.23)

            At one point, Major asks whether the world is an illusion (the completely solipsistic view) and suggests that if we had certainty about everything there would be no fruitful mystery. He posits two contrasting world views – the materialist view, which leads to a sense of disconnectedness from the universe; and the sense of oneness with something greater than oneself. Although Plato is not invoked often, the outlook is essentially Platonic, which is why I began this review by using the word “idealistic” in its strictly correct sense. What can be seen physically is not the totality of reality, but the particularity of an underlying structure.

            Major’s approach leads him to attack empirical “na├»ve reality”, to note that creative imagination is in fact part of the scientific enterprise, and to suggest that the observer is always an actor in what is observed. He notes the impact of quantum mechanics:

            “As science is a study focused on the observable world, a branch of that knowledge which challenges the role of the observer has been hard to incorporate, shifting the explanatory basis of science from empirical facts to consciousness. It has been hard to incorporate a theory that has turned common sense upside down, denying the existence of a physical world separate from our observation of it.” (Pg.55)

            If I were (rather unfairly) to attempt to put Hugh Major’s thoughts into a nutshell, they would run thus: We should be more aware that the ego is deceptive; that we are intrinsically part of something much greater than ourselves; that that something is both interconnected and infused with consciousness. In other words, we should be aware that that the universe has mind.

            Notes on the Mysterium Tremendum is not a book of random jottings, but has been carefully organized into sections reflecting different aspects of Major’s core ideas. These include sections on the intricacy of animals, on the power of words and of art and on the mystery of death.

            For all its organization, I found it easier to take in the individual observations rather than the connecting thesis, or to follow the way one thing leads the author to another. Consideration of the minute delicacy of organs in the human body leads him to reflect on bees and then on cats and then on our relationship with other animals, including the wonderful tale of Kalihari bushmen being able to live in “truce” with lions so that they did not encroach on each other’s hunting grounds as they seek the same prey.

            When he considers the great mystery of death, he recounts a near-death experience he had when he nearly drowned as a boy.

            Naturally, there are dangers in this sort of book – the possibility that it could descend into flakiness or New Age dottiness. Kind words for Gnostic conceptions (Pg.60) or for astrology (Pg.62) do worry me. But Major generally keeps an even keel in his investigations, and shows early on how fully aware he is that some of the vocabulary he uses can easily be perverted. He says in his introduction:

             “In an investigation of experience, it is unfortunate that adjectives such as authentic, organic and holistic have become vulnerable to over-use, as buzz-words relating to lifestyle and the new spirituality.” (Pg.2)

            It is a brave thing to set out a personal philosophy in this way but Major succeeds by both his clear verbal imagery and the illustrations that form part of his argument.

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