Monday, December 8, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HEARTLAND” by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, $NZ27:99); “THE LIMITS” by Alice Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99 ); “BULLET HOLE RIDDLE” by Miriam Barr (Steele Roberts $NZ19:99); “HALCYON GHOSTS” by Sam Sampson (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)
Four recent volumes of poetry, two by established poets and two by poets who have just produced their first collections.
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Michele Leggott of the University of Auckland is a very-well established poet and was in 2013 the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. Her latest volume Heartland was a finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. I have only recently got around to reading it.
In her end-note, Leggott tells us: “A family is a series of intersecting arcs, some boat-shaped, others vaults or canopies, still others vapour trails behind a mountain or light refracted through water. None is enclosed, all are in motion, springing away from one another or folding themselves around some spectral inverse of the shape they make against sea or sky.” I take this to mean that Michele Leggott’s thematic agenda is to memorialise and mythologise her family and forebears. The “heartland” is the extended and ancestral family and all its inherited codes and legends.
Much imagery in the first section of this collection is drawn from childhood experiences and old photographs, but also from knowledge of the Hauraki Gulf and the islands in it. This much is clear, but lines (often with loose caesura) in loose unrhymed form often seem random and unfocused and the consciousness is one that drifts and wanders.
The poem “tiger moth” opens thus: “poetry is a crayfish or two / packed in wood shavings flying / home in a chillibox with my name on it / dear family it’s been a long time / let’s go hunting the past in order / to find the future you ask me / what poetry is and I tell you about / the whale and her calf tracking in the gulf / the coastguard has been alerted / because boaties might collide with them / the Rimutaka Hill Road is closed / …”[there follow various other events and observations] “… this is poetry you make it happen / wherever there are ears eyes / and mouths…”
If this is an answer to the question “What is poetry?” then I do not find it a satisfactory one, as it appears to say that poetry is simply random sensual experience (what one sees, smells, hears etc.). Isn’t this really the occasion for poetry rather than poetry itself?
The collection’s first section (called “a little ahead, my shadow”) ends with poem told by a female English ancestor. The second section (called “unwinding the bird”) begins with a poem set in Spirits Bay, gateway of the dead, where spirits jump off on their journey back to the ancestral homeland – so we have a bridge to New Zealand and later poems have visions of angels who have Victorian names and therefore might be the spirits of ancestors. There is a very personal poem about going for a walk with a dog-for-the-blind. The title poem “heartland” appears to be memories of childhood picnicking, and it is chiefly in childhood that ancestral and familial legends are absorbed.
Of course in this collection the Pakeha condition has to be considered – that is, the realization that we are separated by half a globe from ancestral experience, and that we are essentially living in somebody else’s legendary space. I find this most clearly addressed in two poems about the stars, which reference Lawrence Durrell and John Donne…. and David Eggleton. “Land sea and sky” is a clever poem about the upside-down-ness of constellations, especially the Pleiades. “The longest night” concerns Matariki.
The collection’s third section, called “many hands”, is divided into seven days. Apparently it celebrates a road trip in Australia and is a very good fragmented travelogue best relished for its specific images of place; but it also probes the hurtful decaying tooth of memory with its references to Charles Darwin and Henry Lawson. The fourth section “the mezzaluna rocking” comprises poems about ancestors and relatives often in the first person and again referencing Australian imagery. The tightest and (as I read it) the most carefully crafted section is the one called “Some Day” which brackets the experiences of a First World War New Zealand soldier in poems of home, going earth to earth.
To have imagery based on one’s personal memory and family lore is fine, but there are times when the specificity of this family’s references and memories exclude the reader. The specific does not become universal. Let me candidly say that, despite the poet’s endnote, and some of the stories of her forebears in New Zealand, I still did not understand what all the poems were pointing at and I am sure I still do not know. It may be the poet’s Heartland, but it does not always become the reader’s.
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Alice Miller’s debut volume The Limits is very different, being more personal, visceral and immediate. Poems are arranged in four sections titled “Skin”, “Steps”, “Earth” and “Body”, though for some reason the contents pages don’t display these sectional titles. These are poems that have the texture of dreams, or perhaps nightmares. They float in a world that us half mythic, half everyday, an always nowhere. I would use the term “surreal” except that that is now something of a cliché. What appear to be strong feelings are converted from the abstract to the concrete. To illustrate the technique, I quote in full the (double-spaced) poem “Air”:
You wake on the plane and mistakes ooze out of you
Mistakes ooze out of you like pus squeezed from skin
Look out the window and all’s yellow
Every minute’s infected
And it’s your last chance to choke the ocean
for the plane to crash like a dancer
for you to smell the earth
We live in a staggering time signature
What can I make of this? Yes, it signals the poet’s musical interests (“time signature”), which are referenced a number of times in this collection – later poems refer to Brahms and Clara Schumann. Yes, the “pus” is a simile for “mistakes”. (But what sort of mistakes? Mistakes about what?) The “yellow” is related to the colour of pus and maybe to sunset or sunrise or just sunshine over the sea as seen from a plane. But then maybe the plane is metaphorical too, in which case the poem is an attempt to concretize something abstract…. But what? You see, I find myself going around and around in circles with these poems, trapped on a verbal carousel, not knowing really what is being said. Perhaps this is about something so personal that it is incapable of being conveyed to a wider audience.
Again, quoting in full the poem “Recon”, I see the fantasy/mythic element dominating, but I’m not sure how literally I’m meant to take it. Here goes:
When we go to the field
to recover our weapons
all our axehandles
have grown back to trees
and although we are ready
to bury our dead,
there’s too much room in the ground
so, this is where we kneel again
O Muse, let us.
The final invocation to the Muse suggests that this has something to do with the process of creation (in poetry or music?). Gathering weapons from a field of battle, and axe handles which reconstitute themselves as trees, are things from fantasy or myth, therefore metaphorical surely. But metaphors of what? Kneeling on earth and burying the dead might be saying something about tradition as it relates to creation. Or am I meant to float with it and not interpret it?
Later poems reference St Sebastian, St George, Penelope weaving to ward off suitors and hoping Ulysses will return, and the wooden horse of Troy. In the poem concerning Troy, my heart leapt at the remarkable lines “But when they haul me out, we’ll all see / a girl pretending to be a goddess: / I cannot make an army. / I cannot change shape.” This appeared to be a call back to solid, concrete, quotidian reality, and a move away from psycho-mythologising. Yet, while never going for the external, concrete document, The Limits does also touch on communal mythologising, especially in the poem “Below the Senate” where Adam (the natural man, as I read it) and Caesar (public pomp and power and role-playing, as I read it) meet and struggle.
I am torn in my appreciation of this collection. Alice Miller does produce bracing and sometimes resonant images and phrases. I loved her mixed critique of literary responses to the world in the poem “Burn”, where she asserts: “When we put down / our books, spine-spread, we’re left / with our own life’s sentences / sweeping over our faces like waves / endlessly cresting / endlessly breaching…”. I enjoyed her escape from misty and Freud-haunted mythological forests, when she glances at an earthquake–damaged nuclear reactor in Japan. Reading these poems out loud, I found that some of them sing. But I was often stumped by their hermetic opacity. To what are they referring? What are they dissecting? Am I really the dumbest boy in the class not to get it?
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If I invoke the opaque in discussing Alice Miller’s debut volume, I must do it once again in dealing with Miriam Barr’s debut volume. The poems of Bullet Hole Riddle are mainly written in the first person and are intensely confessional – the great majority in the first section relate to the young woman’s sexual life, but the opacity is in trying to decode the nature of this life. To this reader at any rate, there seems to be something traumatic to which these poems are a long-term response. For example, the title poem “Bullet hole riddle” appears to equate a penis with a gun, orgasm with the firing of a bullet and the result as a wound in the gut. At the very least, this is a very unhappy and negative account of sexual experience for a young woman.
This is not the only note that Miriam Barr strikes, however. The collection is often more wistful than accusatory – love is thwarted or love escapes before it is recognised. A riff on Thumbelina (“Storytime with Hans Christian Andersen”) ends with the chant “We want love in our blood too” – a hope unfulfilled. The poem “The gist of it” suggests that love is really shared pain for “It’s tough out there / to keep the blood in our veins / we are wired to feel / each other’s pains / yet still we gather / form these groups / these functional little tribes / try to warm ourselves / to be warmed.” To the very last poem in the book (“Exchange”) there is wariness, for “Bartering our existence / we exchange small pieces of ourselves / until the lines blur. / We are not stand-alone objects / We are looking at ourselves / through each other’s eyes / Two people in the dark / showing each other where the edges are.”
There is, then, in Bullet Hole Riddle, a sense that love is both necessary and dangerous; fulfilling and wounding. We need to be part of the loving group, but we render ourselves vulnerable in loving at all. Given that these are the poems of a young woman growing in an assertive post-feminist generation, I was taken aback by how often the poems assume the passivity of a woman’s body in the act of love.
The most optimistic poem in the book, and one of the best, is “Love and gardening” which is a vision of love as shared activity in constructing a garden - but this poem is so idyllic in conception that it could be read as fantasy – and so the note of wistfulness comes in again.
I should note that there is a subsumed and muted strain of specifically Maori imagery in this collection. I should further note that I had the pleasure of attending the Auckland launch of this volume, and greatly enjoyed hearing both the poet and a fellow performance artist reading from the collection. Many of the poems appear to be specifically written for performance, one of them (“Somehow in Relation”) requiring the dual performance of two voices.
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And Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts. One tries to read poetry. One tries. One tries the poetry. One puts the poetry on trial. One knows one reads more poetry than most people read. One knows. One knows one is trying to read poetry without putting poetry on trial. But one puts poetry on trial try as one might. One does a trial reading of poetry. One wonders if one should try. Sometimes one does not want to try. One asks if one should be judged for trying. One tries without scoring. It’s a try. One takes a bunch of sticks. One breaks them. The breaks are random. The broken pieces are random. The lines of poetry are random and broken. Do they breathe? Do they speak? They are random. They are broken. One tries the breaks. The breaks are judged. The judgement is broken. The random is tried. One knows one reads more poetry than most people read. One knows why most people don’t read poetry. The broken lines are random sticks. The guests fly and the birds are skeins. Repeat twice. The poems are shaped. They are shaped after photos of birds in flight in skeins and broken lines. Later they are shaped after patterns of significance to the poet. To the poet’s mind they are shaped. They are Auckland poems. Oddly they are nostalgic poems. They are the broken bits of nostalgia, place and coherence. They are unplaced. They do not cohere. They are a pile of rubble and broken bits. They are the broken bits of Auckland and coherence. Sticks and skeins will break my mind but lines will never hurt me. Do they fly? The broken bits do not fly nor the falling feather from the photographed skein.
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 four or more years ago.
“THE LOST STRADIVARIUS” by J. Meade Falkner (first published 1895)
I know it will be a big surprise to you, but there have been times when I have come close to being a literary snob. When I was a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed Stevenson’s Treasure Island and later, as a parent, I had great fun reading it a number of times to various of my children and merrily overdoing the “Arr, Jim lad!” hamminess of Long John Silver. But had you asked me what was the best boys’ book of that period adventure sort, I might have said J.Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet. It is the stirring tale of a young lad’s initiation into smuggling on the Dorset coast and his years in slavery in the Netherlands, for much of the time mentored by an older man who plays father figure to him. I read Moonfleet to various of my children too.
Now the fact is, I do not really regard Moonfleet as being better than Treasure Island – they are both excellent adventure stories for boys with the right sort of temperament. It would have been sheer snobbery for me to say that it was better: the awareness that fewer people had read Moonfleet, and that therefore it seemed a more educated choice. It partly had to do with the connoisseur’s reputation which had been acquired by John Meade Falkner (1858-1932).
An Oxford graduate from an impoverished background, Falkner was by trade an industrialist. For much of his working life he chaired a major armaments company, which must have been very exhausting for such a retiring chap during the First World War. On the side, Falkner was an antiquarian, the author of county guidebooks, and a novelist, although he wrote only three novels. (There is the story that the manuscript of a fourth was lost on a railway journey and Falkner decided to write no more). Far and away the best-known, and the most-often reprinted, is Moonfleet (1898). The one that real Falkner aficionados go on about is his last, The Nebuly Coat (1903), which I admit I have never read. However it is with the first of Falkner’s three novels, The Lost Stradivarius (1895), that I choose to deal here, partly because it is so representative of its age
A ghost story, mainly told by the spinster Sophia Maltravers to her nephew Edward, The Lost Stradivarius concerns the haunting and subsequent death of Edward’s father John Maltravers.
An enthusiastic musician when he is a student in the 1840s at Magdalene College, Oxford, John Maltravers discovers in his college room a century-old manuscript of Italian music. But when he plays the galliard therein, he is certain that he hears a ghost enter the room. Later, in a long-sealed cupboard in the same room, he discovers a Stradivarius. It apparently belonged to the 18th century rake Adrian Temple, who was also a Magdalene man.
John Maltravers becomes obsessed with the violin, with the ghostly music he can play, and with the memory of Adrian Temple. Apparently it is because of this obsession that he marries Constance, a descendant of the Temple family, and has a son by her.
But almost from the completion of their honeymoon in Italy, he begins to degenerate.
He deserts his wife and lives in Italy and seems to be involved in some nameless debaucheries in the places where Adrian Temple once lived.
He dies gibbering after he is brought back to England.
Thus runs Sophie Maltravers’ narrative, which takes up most of the novel.
But the last twenty pages are narrated by a fellow student of John’s, William Gaskell, who reveals that John Maltravers discovered not only the Stradivarius in the cupboard, but also the intimate diaries of Adrian Temple. We are led to believe that these diaries seduced John into tremendous evils (apparently Adrian Temple was stabbed for seducing another man’s wife at an orgy). The ultimate evil was a necromantic spell that allowed him to see a vision of pure evil.
Adrian Temple also died gibbering.
I suppose in one sense ghost stories are like detective stories. The set-up is more intriguing than the pay-off. The best scenes in this late-Victorian effort are the early ones where the chair creaks as the music is being played and we are beguiled for a moment into thinking that the mood of the uncanny can be sustained. Nothing later in the novel recaptures this moment and its mood. Published three years before Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, this much lesser novel has at least one thing in common with James’ story. Most of it is told by a timid and proper spinster, so that her shudders and her evasions and her inability to call things as they are named can be more easily justified. When we switch to the very different narration of William Gaskell, we switch from somebody who believes in ghosts and the supernatural to somebody who is bluff, commonsensical and very moral.
There is also that thing about “nameless” evil and debauchery. Because the evil is not actually described, it becomes more monstrous. I can’t help wondering though if, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray (published four years earlier in 1891) the real question isn’t homosexuality. In The Lost Stradivarius, there are all those references to the Italian “paganism” that corrupts John Maltravers, and this is easily read as code for something else.
The Lost Stradivarius was first published in the year of Oscar Wilde’s arrest and trial. For the record, the website of the J. Meade Falkner Society informs me that Falkner married at 40 and had no children; that his marriage was a “passionless affair” and that he was a “natural celibate”. You can make of this what you will. It may simply mean that he wasn’t interested in sex.
What, then, do we have here? A not bad ghost story with a few genteel, and not too scandalous, “decadent” touches in tune with the 1890s. With the Stradivarius at its centre, it also has to opportunity to do a little aesthetic theorising on the relationship of music to beauty and morality, and to their opposites. A quick check of Wikipedia reminds me that it was the sort of subject (“evil invested in an object”) which just a few years later M.R.James would make the subject of his many short stories. The Lost Stradivarius is a short novel (little longer than a novella), but I am again left wondering, as I was in my piece on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea [look it up on the index at right] if the gothic and macabre doesn’t work better in short stories than in novels. Or even novella.
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.
TRUTH IS BEAUTY
In 1995, when I was still a film-reviewer, there was released an historical romance which met with a mixed critical reception and did only average business at the box office. The film was Michael Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy with the tall Irishman Liam Neeson playing the Highland hero and the American Jessica Lange playing his wife. Personally, I enjoyed the film – not only because of its authentically Scottish settings but also because, however unhistorical the specific details of its story, it did capture accurately the early 18th century class distinctions between grand aristocracy and absentee landlord and lesser laird and peasant. Even as it romanticised the sturdy peasant outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor, its view of a past age was a nuanced one. I strongly suspect that many of the snarky, negative reviews the film received (notably from the Guardian in England and from one – now deceased – radio reviewer in New Zealand) were because the film was un-PC enough to feature a campy villain, played by Tim Roth.
The film Rob Roy included a number of violent scenes, but there was one in particular that made audiences gasp. The corrupt and villainous factor has been sent by a great lord to capture Rob Roy and seize his goods. Finding Rob Roy absent from his humble home, the factor and his men seize Rob Roy’s wife, pin her down to a table and violently rape her from behind. Such a scene would never have been part of the kiddie-oriented versions of the story of Rob Roy that had appeared in previous decades (such as the sanitised Disney Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, starring Richard Todd, in 1953). It could be written off as a piece of sheer sensationalism, exploiting the freedom from most censorship that cinema now has.
And yet, when I compare this violent and upsetting scene with another account of the same event, it seems a model of honesty.
In 1817, Sir Walter Scott wrote his novel Rob Roy, only very loosely based on the historical character of that name and (as every study-guide will tell you) mainly set in England with its main (English) character reaching the Highlands and meeting Rob Roy only about halfway through. It is indeed one of Sir Walter’s more tedious productions, which is saying a lot given that Tedium was his middle name [look up my comments on The Bride of Lammermoor via the index at right]. It is indicative of its stodginess that this novel by Scotland’s best-known novelist, featuring one of Scotland’s best-known folk heroes, has never been the basis for any of the films or other dramatisations of the Rob Roy story.
Scott’s plot is purely fictitious, as are most of his characters. But in 1829, for a new edition of the novel, Scott added a long, rambling introduction explaining the historical circumstances of the real Rob Roy, as he understood them.
And it is here that we come to a less honest version of the violent scene in Michael Caton-Jones’ movie.
Scott is explaining how Rob Roy’s aristocratic creditors sent their men to recover goods and money from him. This is what he writes:
“It is said that the diligence of the law, as it is called in Scotland, which the English more bluntly call distress, was used in this case with uncommon severity, and that the legal satellites, not usually the gentlest persons in the world, had insulted MacGregor’s wife, in a manner which would have aroused a milder man than he to thoughts of unbounded vengeance. She was a woman of fierce and haughty temper, and is not unlikely to have disturbed the officers in the execution of their duty, and thus to have incurred ill treatment, though, for the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped that the story sometimes told is a popular exaggeration.”
Clearly, this euphemistic paragraph, which is as specific as Scott ever gets, is referring to the same incident that was dramatized in Caton-Jones’ film. But note how Scott gamely tries to pretend that something dreadful did not really happen. He is, after all, writing for a largely English readership, and is playing his usual games of prettifying events to suit their delicate sensibilities and turning the Scottish past into a romanticised diversion.
Let’s unpack this paragraph and see what lies under it.
Scott: “…the diligence of the law … was used in this case with uncommon severity…. the legal satellites, not usually the gentlest persons in the world.”
Translation: Hired thugs and repo men were sent to beat the crap out of Rob Roy and his family and take their worldly possessions.
Scott: They “insulted MacGregor’s wife, in a manner which would have aroused a milder man than he to thoughts of unbounded vengeance.”
Translation: “Insulted”? What, you mean they said “Poo” to her and other rude words? Obviously the “insult” was some form of sexual violation – probably rape.
Scott: “She was a woman of fierce and haughty temper, and is not unlikely to have disturbed the officers in the execution of their duty…”
Translation: She screamed bloody murder as the hired thugs tore her house apart, and probably threw in some choice cuss words too.
Scott: She “incurred ill treatment, though, for the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped that the story sometimes told is a popular exaggeration.”
Translation: Actually, I’m pretty sure she really was raped, as the common people said, but I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen because I don’t want to upset my readers and I can suggest to them that the story of rape was a peasant “exaggeration”. This will help my readers to feel culturally superior to those uncouth Highland peasants.
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I admit that the game I am playing here is a fairly easy one. It’s the simplest thing in the world to take a very old text, like Scott’s introduction to his novel, and put it into more vulgar, if honest, language. I am aware that polite, restrained and euphemistic language was the norm when Scott was writing. Even so, I feel mildly scandalised that Scott chooses to gloss over the event in this way. Usually I am on the side of those who say that films could do with more restraint in their depictions of violence. I’ve often enough written articles on the benefits of implying things rather than showing them in all their gory detail, and you can find me any day of the week discoursing on the greater subtlety of films in the days when director and producers had to suggest things and challenge the audience to join the dots.
But in this case, I’m on the side of blunt honesty.
When nasty things are wished away like this, a particular sort of ugliness is created – a complicity between author, reader and the evil that has been done. I take the second part of Keats’ proposition – “truth is beauty” – and say the honest depiction of rape as rape is, aesthetically, more beautiful than the euphemism, because it is true.
Monday, December 1, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEAR NEIL ROBERTS” by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “HOW TO BE DEAD IN A YEAR OF SNAKES” by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99); “DISCONTENT AND ITS CIVILIZATIONS” by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin $NZ37)
Pardon me, as somebody who prefers to give you full-length and detailed reviews, for this week gathering together three books of quite different types for briefer attention. Two of them are books of poetry. Coincidentally both have as their starting point a specific event in New Zealand history. The third is a collection of newspaper pieces.
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Airini Beautrais’ Dear Neil Roberts has as its starting point the death, in 1982, of the 22-year-old anarchist Neil Ian Roberts, who blew himself up at the Police Computer Centre in Wanganui, apparently in protest at the Big Brother aspect of the whole system. The poems are as much a diary or blog as they are an attempt to understand what this action was all about, or to relate it to New Zealand history. Beautrais was born in the same year that Roberts killed himself. She lives and works in Wanganui, so there is a personal element to her attempt to reconstruct both the mentality of the anarchist and his significance, if any, to New Zealand society at large.
Dear Neil Roberts is organised as a series of voices, presenting different views of the young man and his self-immolation, as well as presenting autobiographical moments from the poet’s own life. Some of it is bracingly ironic. The poem “Finding the Story”, for example, is about a friend who played with the fashion-statement radical-chic aspect of anarchism as in
“My friend made a flag
from a bin liner and some red fabric.
Went with a buddy through the streets,
got batoned, got in with the cool kids.”
The ‘first person’ of many poems is clearly not the poet’s own voice. The poem “Press” gives us what editorials of the day thought about Roberts. According to an author’s note at the end, “By way of explanation” is made up entirely of quotations from the detective who investigated Roberts’ death, and comes across largely as an attempt to rationalise Roberts’ motives out of existence:
“Why people turn to that I don’t know,
but from experience I know that young people
sometimes can’t keep pace with the changes in society
and become very vulnerable to persuasion.”
In quite a contrasting tone, the poem “Man” is a collage made up of quotations taken from newspapers at the time, describing Neil Roberts and regretting or lamenting his death rather than celebrating it as some sort of symbolic statement: “He was scared of growing old. / His philosophy was that growing old was pointless.”
Oddly enough, I found the most arresting poems to be “Finding the Dead” and “Time” about trying to do archival research on Roberts’ death in the local library, and finding that the old fads and advertisements in newspapers of the day revealed the gulf between now and then.
Dear Neil Roberts is a loose sequence, but it does have some controlling and repeated images, such as Wanganui’s war memorial and the celebration of ANZAC Day and fact that the poet is pregnant as she writes and is carrying a life within her.
I would LIKE Roberts’ death to have as much significance as the poet wishes it had, when she connects him to the great anarchist tradition in “A sad, flippant kind of nihilism” (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon etc.) or when she regrets that he’s been written out of the record in “History books”. But in the end I’m left with an image of a 22-year-old kid who blew himself up; and I’m thinking his mind was no more formed than a 22-year-old soldier dying in battle and probably dying as pointlessly. And I am thinking the “propaganda of the act” (an anarchist phrase Beautrais never uses) is as much a weapon of the Right as of the Left. Roberts’ self-immolation is the self-immolation of a suicide bomber.
Yet poems such as “Machine”, “Death of a beast” and “Monster relic” remind us that the Wanganui computer was primitive compared to today’s surveillance and storage of information:
“UNIVAC stored data on ceramic discs,
in units the size of washing machines,
each with a 700 megabyte capacity.
Less than a thumb drive today. You could flush
that information down the toilet, now, squash
it with a small hammer.”
And it was the prospect of today’s privacy-less electronic wasteland against which Roberts was protesting. Perhaps he had a point.
Airini Beautrais likes to write in carefully-organised three- or four-line stanzas. Her book, unlike much current poetry, has the advantage of being clear in its meaning and very accessible. I mean this as a compliment.
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Chris Tse’s How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes has quite a different starting point. Tse is New Zealand born-and-raised but of Chinese ancestry. As I remarked in Poetry New Zealand issue #43, when I had the pleasure of reviewing Tse’s poetic debut in AUP New Poets 4 (2011), Tse’s poems celebrate a Chinese contribution to an earlier New Zealand, but they also lament a separation from the ancestral culture. Thus in his poetry sequence How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, there is, for Chinese pioneers in coming to New Zealand, “a veil of regret” in greeting the new sun-flooded landscape, and “needy hands / scratch at sky for solace”. For, in an alien land, what seems familiar, and what can feed the illusion that one is still in familiar surroundings, if not the sky?
One historical point of departure for How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes is the sinking of the SS Ventnor in 1902 off the Hokianga coast. It was carrying the remains of 499 Chinese miners, being repatriated to China for burial. While most of the cargo of corpses sank to the bottom of the sea with the ship, some drifted ashore and were buried by local iwi: “The departed cargo / thought doomed / to forgetful waters / instead finds its way / to open shores / rescued by the people of the land.”
This historical event is, however, mere prologue, reminding us of Chinese funerary customs and of the way the dead are traditionally honoured and remembered.
The sequence of poems then focuses on the death of one Chinese man in New Zealand and how he is (or is not) remembered. This was the Cantonese miner Joe Kum Yung, murdered in the streets of Wellington in 1905 by Lionel Terry, a demented man obsessed with “the Yellow Peril” and believing that he was striking a blow for the white race. At least one purpose of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes is to give Joe Kum Yung an identity after decades in which most New Zealanders who have heard of the case (including this reviewer) think of him simply as “the old Chinese man” killed by the demented Lionel Terry. Because Joe Kum Yung’s murder took place in the Year of the Snake, Chris Tse takes some time in his imagery to reflect on snakes, note the cunning nature of the snake in Terry, and connecting the image to the slipperiness in the way we interpret history.
Of the way Joe Kum Yung has been turned into a “case”, with his identity taken from him, Chris Tse writes: “So there goes / a life story reduced / to one gunshot / and there goes madness / in the form of public service / and there wait / those graceless thieves / of light and sound / slipping to a snake’s crawl / to rewrite his truths.”
Having spent one section of his sequence discoursing on New Zealand’s restrictive anti-Chinese immigration laws in the early 20th century, Chris Tse says of the New Zealand-European community: “They claimed good will / and mutual understanding / but they only know to keep / their hands to themselves / such as they are entranced / by the man with the gun and his echoes.”
Of the way the murdered man has been subsumed into Lionel Terry’s act he writes: “Lionel’s legacy in the history books: / racist, murderer. / But where is Joe? / Ah - / he’s with Lionel.”
While all that I have reported here is indeed in How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, I would be misrepresenting this volume if I made it appear so straightforwardly polemical. Chris Tse’s technique is highly reflective, almost introverted, like a series of restrained soliloquies rather than strident public verse. His poetry appears in irregular and fragmented lines. Choruses speak of “we” when it is not always clear to whom “we” refers. What I am saying is that this volume requires much concentration of the reader and, despite the evident feelings of the poet, is both opaque and a demanding read.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I know that well-established novelists and poets frequently have published collections of their occasional writing, reviewing and the bits and pieces they have contributed to newspapers and magazines. Fair enough if you really are a well-established writer and have behind you a lifetime of such occasional scribbling from which to choose. But I’m not sure of the wisdom of younger writers, who have been at the game for only a few years, trying to pull the same stunt.
Mohsin Hamid is the youngish (43-years-old) Pakistan-born, American-educated, London-and-Lahore-resident novelist who has three novels behind him, all of which were bestsellers – Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. I was attracted to Discontent and its Civilizations by its rather smartarse title. (Yes. I know it’s a parody of Freud. No letters please.) This suggested something tart and witty. The book has, as Hamid’s introduction says, been “shaped” by the author from fifteen years worth of his “pieces” in the New York Times, the New Statesman, the Independent and elsewhere, and it bears the subtitle Dispatches from Lahore, New York, London.
So far, so good.
But when I start reading Hamid’s “pieces”, I find nearly all of them to be no more than averagely good op ed pieces of the sort that are churned out by hacks every day. I’m not saying that I disagree with Hamid’s views on many issues, most of which are quite sane. I’m just saying that there’s nothing here to suggest a writer of any more talent than the average column-filler – and certainly no pithy phrases or wit that extends beyond daily journalism. I ask snarkily if a publisher would have even considered this collection had the author not already been known for other stuff.
So in reading Discontent and its Civilizations, I found myself registering Hamid’s opinions on a number of issues and then noting simply whether I agreed or disagreed with him. My score-card goes thus:
Hamid: Three autobiographical pieces about losing the use of Urdu until he returned to Pakistan from the States, and discovering a counter-culture in Lahore and dancing.
Me: Interesting, but too brief to say much.
Hamid: Three more autobiographical pieces about the way airport passport control in the West look at him askew because he is dark-skinned and Muslim; about his parents’ fears as terror reaches Lahore; about how the English press is less self-censored than the American press.
Me: You have my sympathy.
Hamid: And three more autobiographical pieces about meeting a real Islamic nutter on the London underground. (Me: Ouch!). And becoming a father. (Me: Take it from a father… this is gooey cliché.). And deciding to move with wife and kid back to Pakistan. (Me: Okay).
Hamid: Three pieces about life in Pakistan now – a crowd watches the movie Avatar and relates it to American imperialism. Despite upheavals, parts of Pakistan are quiet and thriving. Despite threats to women and religious minorities, there is a growing cohort of open-minded and well-educated Pakistani university students.
Me: Thanks. This is encouraging journalism.
Hamid: Discusses his favourite novel, Antonio Tabucchi’s Sostiene Pereira.
Me: Fair enough.
Hamid: Discusses his own novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Me: Self-advertisement, mate.
Hamid: He likes using the second person in narrative; he likes reading Paris Review interviews; he wonders about e-books.
Me: Yawn! These pieces are too short to say much of interest.
Hamid: He wants us to believe TV mini-series are the equivalent of the great 19th century novels.
And so at last, now over halfway through the volume, we get to meatier pieces in the sections headed “Politics”. Longest piece in the book is the 22 pages of “Why Drones Don’t Help”. Second longest piece in the book is the 14 pages of “Why They Get Pakistan Wrong”. Both are withering critiques of US foreign policy as it relates to Pakistan, especially in the way US “aid” props up a military elite, indiscriminately lashes out at the general population and ignores the ethnic, religious and political diversity of the country. Wisest words in the book are the five pages of the concluding article “Islam is not a Monolith”, in which Hamid begs Westerners not to believe stereotypes about over one billion people.
Okay. As I said near the beginning of this notice, I do not disagree with WHAT Hamid is saying, which is sensible and occasionally informative stuff. I’m just saying that the brevity of most pieces makes them read as glib newspaper pieces and they do not make up a book of matured wisdom.