Monday, January 21, 2013

Something New

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

“COLLECTED POEMS 1956-2011” by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $NZ45)
“LANDFALL 224” edited by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ30)

Peter Bland was born in 1934, so he is now nearly eighty. Apart from his endeavours as a man of the theatre (one of the co-founders of Wellington’s Downstage) and an actor (indelibly fixed in my mind as the genial conman Wes Pennington in Ian Mune’s film version of Came a Hot Friday), Bland is also a prolific poet and has been part of New Zealand’s literary scene for over half a century.

When his poetry first began to be published in the 1950s, he added something unique. So clearly a Pom just off the boat, Bland reacted to New Zealand with the frank curiosity of an outsider. Wellington-based himself, he did not take sides in the sometime slanging between Auckland- and Wellington-based poets, because he clearly had friends at both ends of the Main Trunk Line. He was not part of New Zealand’s “nationalist” poetic assertion, which was orthodoxy in those days when Curnow’s anthology still functioned as the Bible. His tone was sometimes ironic and sometimes affectionate. He was as bemused and appalled by New Zealand as he was clearly in love with the place.

Belatedly Bland gets recognition as a sort of writer who is rarely celebrated in our lit crit, but who is a constant in our literary history – the liminal writer, with one foot in New Zealand and one foot Somewhere Else: in Bland’s case, in England. He migrated to New Zealand, returned to England some years later, came back to New Zealand, went back to England, and so forth, throughout the period he was writing poetry. He addresses the issue directly a number of times in these Collected Poems 1956-2011 (all page numbers given according to this collection). For example, in “The Refugee Habit” (Pg.127) he notes “When they ask me where/ I come from I’m usually struck dumb. It’s a / symptom of my condition, like the constant/ sound of the sea in my ageing inner ear.” In the sequence “Just Passing Through…” (Pg.141 - addressed to his late friend Louis Johnson), he asserts “Two countries / split me down the middle. One / where I ‘came from’, and this / where I first learned to live.”

Echoing this basic biographical fact, the Collected Poems are divided up into six sections viz New Zealand 1956-1967; England 1972-84; New Zealand 1984-90; On the Move 1990-2004; England 2004-2009; and New Zealand 2009-2011.

I am of two minds about this arrangement. With admirable clarity it traces Bland’s migrations and re-migrations and emphasises the fact that he is a poet with at least a dual perspective. But, in what will probably be the completest collection of Bland’s poetry we will get, I would have liked some indication of the original volumes in which the poems appeared, and their original publication dates. It is clear, for example, that some of the poems in each section were not written at the time designated by a given heading, but are after-reflections thereupon, presumably written years later. At least I take this to be the case with the poem “Wellington 1955” (Pg.44) which begins “Fucking – in print – hasn’t been invented” and which intimates a cultural earthquake following the 1950s. As a final whinge, I should also note that while these may well be “collected” poems they are not necessarily Bland’s “complete” poems. Sometimes there are parts of sequences introduced with the heading “From…”

            Having got all this off my chest, I can now think of nothing more imaginative to do than to take the book at its word and follow it through section by section, as I did in the three pleasant summer days when I enjoyed reading it all.

In the first section (New Zealand 1956-1967) the very opening poem “Wellington” is so unlike Jim Baxter’s youthful poem of the same title because Bland’s poem really says “I am an outsider”. It is a view of the capital as seen by someone newly arrived. This sets the tone for much that follows. As an Aucklander, I can’t help seeing that tone as what I would call the “domestic bohemian” of 1950s Wellington – young Bland is at once suburban (poems about home and marriage and children’s drawings) and kicking against the pricks with boozy poetic mates. In these early poems, there are moments when Bland seems to say (like the young John Osborne) “Damn you England!” For example in  “Remembering England” (pg.40) he says “I taste the damp recurring thought / of being bred to expect so little”. Did the young poet at this stage still see New Zealand as the land of promise? Often, there is the anthropomorphic impulse where things become persons or are sexualized. Pumpkins “hang/their boozy severed heads/like moons or breasts” (“Pumpkin Love” Pg.25). There is also a great mastery of form. I can see why “Death of a Dog” (Pg.30) has so often been anthologised (e.g. in Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry) It is the perfect balance of narrative and reflection as it conveys the finality of death in a child’s reaction.

Despite the title and dates of the second section (England 1972-84), we are not in Swinging London or its 1970s aftermath. The returned Englishman’s England is filled with dampness and deserted parks and tatty echoes of empire. In “Thames Talk” (Pg.76) “only the old in the park line up / their deckchairs with that gap in the clouds / where the sun disappeared last year - / (they hug libations of weak tea / and patiently wait for a mildewed band / to blow away this fog.)” The returned Englishman has also picked up some of the attitudes of an outsider to England. In “Paranoia in Piccadilly Circus” (pg. 69) “I’m lost. The escalators/ run on and on.” The sky does not have the clarity of a New Zealand sky. In “River Talk – Putney” (pp.70-71) the sun is “like an overworked chorus girl in scarlet tights”, a perfect image of the red ember that sets in a foggy or polluted London sky. Some high culture as found in art galleries and reactions to paintings, but Bland is a little sceptical and really prefers a cup of tea. In the art gallery sequence “Just Looking”, the section “Homage to Daumier” praises settled domesticity as “man’s quiet evolutionary peaks, / his absolute moments of earthly glory.” Above all, though, the return to England sets off memories of Bland’s own (apparently straightened) childhood and family circumstances in the age of post-war austerity where, according to “Boats” (Pg.82), there was  “always, / with grown-ups, that sense of panic, / of rationed pleasures, of a love held back.” It is not surprising that the last few poems in this section concern docks and ships and hooting fog-horns and seem to reflect a desire to scarper once more from English civility. Robinson Crusoe rounds it off.

When we come to the third section (New Zealand 1984-90) we meet a Bland who lives in Auckland, with poems referencing Ponsonby, Freeman’s Bay, St.Kevin’s Arcade, Albert Park etc.; and a poem about the Alhambra in Ponsonby (pg.145) which makes my heart leap, as I recall an incident there even more bizarre than the one in Bland’s poem. Here now is the voice of Bland growing ruefully older and distancing himself from from the earlier quasi-bohemian Wellington years. In the sequence “Just Passing Through…” he tells Louis Johnson that “These hills that lift our eyes to heaven / are the same as those that hemmed us in / back in prim Hutt Valley days / when ‘letting go’ was simply getting pissed.” (Pg.139). In an odd way, this is an adept image of the New Zealand intellectual condition, as well as an admission that the blokey boozy bohemia of old was no solution. In “Talking to the Moon” (pg.173, addressed to Kevin Ireland) he refers to “All that ‘50s crap / still hanging around like a bullying dad. Thank / God for kind housewives who took us in hand / and the mateship of a shared meat pie.” The “50s crap” could refer equally to the primness of the ‘50s and to the delusions of young writers at the time. The arteries are hardening. “Increasingly I’m talking to the dead”, says Bland (pg.187) in a memoriam poem for Louis Johnson. But there is a great imaginative leap in Bland’s work in these years – the full emergence of Mr Maui, a poetic persona he had toyed with in earlier work. Mr Maui is almost a New Zealand imaginative revenge on England. Maui fished up a land, but Maui has acquired the English “Mr.” and now comes back as the poet who has fished up a land in words to show the Poms. He is at once domesticated and atavistic, a tension implicit in much of Bland’s poetry but most fruitfully evident here. He is also Pom taming colonial Kiwis; and Kiwi piss-taking pompous Poms.

I have to admit that the fourth section (On the Move 1990-2004) did not engage me as fully as the others. Bland tours through Greece, Barcelona, Assisi, Nice, California and Arizona. In “The Somewhere Else Club” (pg.205) he formulates the rule that “Knowing one place well is not necessarily as interesting as knowing many places badly.” I grant the irony of this, and especially the ambiguity of the words “interesting” and “badly”, but I still think it is a little defensive. In these years of creation, I have the uneasy feeling that Bland is marking time and sending postcards rather than facing fruitfully his demons. There is, however, one real masterwork to end this section, “The Golden Parrots of Orange County” (Pg.233) again a disguised hymn to domestication.

I will deal briefly with the last two sections, some of whose poems I reviewed in the NZ Listener in September 2011, when I reviewed Bland’s volume Coming Ashore (you can find the review on the Listener website). The fifth section (England 2004-2009) again gives some memories of childhood; but here they are more of bucolic scenes, beaches, the countryside etc. and there are more intimations of mortality with age. Finally the sixth Section (New Zealand 2009-2011) is remarkable for a sequence of 23 poems [some very intimate] remembering Peter Bland’s wife Beryl (who died in 2009). I would say the 4th of them, “Pining for the Risen Flesh” is as good a religious poem as an agnostic could write. Like the Mr Maui poems, this elegiac sequence is among the best things that Bland has written.

Between 1956 and 2011, Bland has aged, matured and reinterpreted things. There are, however, consistencies in his work. Bland prefers the first-person voice, often confessional. Bland is modernist – not postmodernist – in his influences. Look at “Mr Maui Among the Post-Modernists” (Pg.195) and be told “go deconstruct yourselves, that’s fine: / beautiful evasions, language games, / a sense of occasion, all pass the time / though lacking a certain urgency. / At least I’m in your face, an old / Aunt Sally or ventriloquist’s doll / tied to a borrowed body, alive / to the voice that rattles in my head.” I am pleased that Bland is “in your face” and often heart on sleeve – there is a sense of a human being alive rather than calculating his way through word patterns.
These collected poems confirm for me why I like Bland as a poet. He’s reliable. But that word “reliable” unfortunately has negative connotations. It can suggest that somebody is dead from the neck up (or the waist down). Bland is neither of these things. He’s an observant, ironic, forgiving, modernist, with a wonderful surrealist streak that flows out in his poems about kids’ pictures or about what becomes of rich people living in high rises. And through so much of it there sounds that regretful tone for a childhood with narrow horizons.

One final word on the surrealist streak. Some of Bland’s poems are so surreal that they must be straight reportage. I refer especially to “The 1929 Essex Six” (pg.156) about a broken-down car which is fixed just long enough to go on one journey only before dying again. Check it out. It is one of Bland’s best.

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It is not my habit to review magazines or periodicals, but I have special reasons for bringing to your attention Landfall 224, edited by David Eggleton and subtitled “Home + Building”

            To begin with, this issue includes the Landfall Essay Competition winner “Reading a bad book is like getting food poisoning” by Elizabeth Smither. Smither does a smooth Polonius and by indirections finds directions out, for in the gentlest, most allusive and most diplomatic of language, her essay is basically pointing out how trash novels (in this case the “Mommy-porn” Fifty Shades of Grey) can be seductive, can have a vogue, can really get into people’s heads; and yet are in the end still ephemeral trash. Smither is not the person to be as ham-fistedly judgemental as I am being here, but this is nevertheless what her essay [from borrowed title on] is saying. She also laments the fact that such books, awarded big publishers’ advances, distort the publishing market and with-hold rewards from more modest, if more enduring, writers.

            As well as its mix of stories, poetry, essays and reviews, Landfall 224 has two sections of art reproduction. Anita Desoto’s canvases are indigenous surrealism; Darryn George is as much Mondrian as Maori motifs (in his essay on George, David Eggleton elaborates, calling George’s work a “conjunction of the iconography of traditional Maori art with the language of traditional Modernist abstract art.”). I am delighted to see Jacob Edmond contributing “The Eclipse of New Zealand Literature”, essentially an extract from his book A Common Strangeness [my review of which you can check out on the index at right].

Among the poetry represented, I have a slightly malicious reason for being pleased to see work by Alistair Paterson (“Transit of Venus”), Robert McLean (“Nostalgics pro Forma”), Maris O’Rourke, Tony Beyer and Peter Olds. Slightly malicious reason? Because none of these very good poets is represented in the Stafford/Williams Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature.

Finally a real treasure in Landfall 224. It includes the 20-part sequence of poems “Silvertip” by Courtney Sina Meredith, based in part on her Berlin experience. The young Auckland-born poet, of Samoan heritage, is a fresh new voice in New Zealand literature. She is the “featured poet” in Poetry New Zealand #46, which I have just finished guest-editing, and which will be available in a month or two.

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