Monday, March 9, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“CHARLES BRASCH – SELECTED POEMS” Chosen by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “THE CONCH TRUMPET” by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $25)
It was not by design and it is not to make some satirical point that I consider side-by-side these two volumes of poetry, the first by the founder of, and longest-serving editor of, Landfall, and the second by the current editor of Landfall. It is simply that both volumes came my way at the same time, and I have been chewing them both over for the last few weeks. Of course comparisons are odious. Of course each poet writes in his own voice and neither volume has any intentional connection with the other. Of course the two poets belong to widely-separated generations, with different idioms and different preoccupations. But it is hard for me not to consider them in tandem, especially as each spends quite some time considering the New Zealand land and landscape. So for better or ill, here I am considering them together.
First, the material, bibliographic details of Exhibit A.
Charles Brasch – Selected Poems is a handsome hardback volume of 150 pages, complete with ribbon bookmark: the type of book production that tends to be deployed for poetry only when publishers are dealing with an established “name”, or somebody who might even be regarded as a classic.
And at once I have to admit the conditions in which I encounter the poetry of Charles Brasch (1909-1973). I confess that, before I read this volume, I knew his poetry only by the selections that appear in anthologies. I had never sat down and read him systematically as I had done at one time or another with other New Zealand poets of his generation (Mason, Bethell, Glover, Curnow, Fairburn, Baxter). Naturally I knew of his reputation and legend, because he figures in every history of NZ Lit yet written. He was the wealthy Dunedin chap, an heir to the Hallenstein’s fortune, who went through the appropriate patrician grooming (Waitaki Boys High School, Oxford), could live off “private means” and devoted his money to advancing New Zealand high culture, founding Landfall, helping establish the Burns Fellowship etc. But, as I had heard it reported at second hand, or read it in short anthologised selections, his poetry was rather too quiet, inward-looking and reflective to appeal to a wider audience the way some of his poetic contemporaries did.
That was my state of ignorance (or prejudice) as I opened this volume.
Brasch’s collected poems, I now learn, have long been in print. This selection was made by his literary executor Alan Roddick. He contributes a handy, but brief, introduction which - as it properly should - focuses solely on the man’s development as a poet, from Romantic-infused verse, much written in England, to slightly more colloquial poetry focused on New Zealand, and even hinting occasionally at sexual love (about which Alan Roddick’s introduction tiptoes tactfully).
As I read the five poems selected from Brasch’s first published volume The Land and the People (1939), I found a young man’s yearning, and his tendency to see landscape in terms of unfulfilled potential. The dominant imagery is of mountains waiting and looking, darkening islands, night rising over the sea, the heart released in darkness and something – something – waiting to be born. As to what, specifically and physically, that something is, it is harder to discern. Is this the mood evasive? Is this a hunger for love projected onto landscape and refashioned as a desire for high culture?
Only when I reached the selections from Brasch’s second volume Disputed Ground: Poems 1939-45 (1948) did I find an indisputably good poem, originally written as a sonnet, but then shorn of four lines by Brasch and now going by the name of Islands (2). The ten lines have been quoted so often, and phrases from them have been used as titles by other writers (“In These Islands”, “Distance Looks Our Way”), that it might be hard to discern the poem’s original merit from its surrounding cultural aureole, but it still says something significant about the restless condition of the displaced Pakeha:
“Always, in these islands, meeting and parting / Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air; / Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting, / Birds and fishes visit and disappear, / Remindingly beside the quays, the white / Ships lie smoking; and from their haunted bay / The godwits vanish towards another summer. / Everywhere in light and calm murmuring / Shadow of departure; distance looks our way / And none knows where he will lie down at night.”
By this stage, as I now read it, Brasch had moved into observing landscapes more objectively – or pictorially - and into a more direct engagement with the human condition, as in his poem remembering Robin Hyde. Yet he could still be maddeningly opaque, as in his sententious-sounding “Soldier in Reverie”. As late as the collection The Estate and Other Poems (1957) he was still producing images of the countryside or (more often) seashore images rather than urban images, and personifying furiously. The landscape becomes kin to, or substitute for, human fellowship, in a poem like “Blueskin Bay” which begins “Ngaio and broadleaf people the grassy coast / Of green hills bent to the water / that stirs, hardly stirs in the wide arms of the bay, / /Fingering the rocks lightly, for a season of calm / Laid asleep in its iron bed….” This is not too far removed from the adolescent longing for a “big friend” who is not human. By this stage, Brasch is writing more poems on real people (an elegy on his grandfather; a short poem to Ruth Dallas) and there is a strong element of irony and self-criticism in the poem dedicated to James Bertram, “To J.B. at Forty”: “To myself I seem more shadow than substance, one / Who slipped through life and found no living space / Except in his friends’ love and the momentary grace / of real identity they lent him who had none, / Perpetually dissolving into time and place, / A handful of verse uncertain in shape and style / The only evidence of his existence….”
He attempts to mythologise a clearly New Zealand landscape to tell a biblical story in “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (with perhaps a nod to Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts in its sense that supernumeraries are part of the dramatic story). The odd line flashes at you, such as the opening of the second part of “The Estate”: “Cool kingdom of wind and cloud / moored between tropic fire and polar dark”. But in this long poem cycle, the attempt to turn into mythology his friends, as if they are the harbinger of a greater and wiser New Zealand, seems overblown and falls flat.
When we come to the collection Ambulando (1964), the title poem frankly announces the pains of late middle age. Brasch experiments with different metres. The selections from the sequence “Ben Rudd” (essentially about a cranky and misanthropic old farmer) are at first almost Skeltonic with their quick and aphoristic presentation and frequent rhymes; but they become subtly elegiac as they once again circle back to the isolated position of the poet himself: “Few passed his door, / None crossed his mind. / At home to summer air / And railing wind / He lived out day and night / As though none but he / Trod earth’s deck, beset / by sea and sky.” The ‘song cycle’ “In your Presence” is as near as Brasch comes to a love song – but again, it is couched in generic terms.
I am surprised that Brasch published the collection Not Far Off (1969) when he was only 60. It is such a death-haunted collection. And at this point, try as I might, I can’t refrain from noting the worm in the bud. All these poems about landscape and longing. All these generic, non-specific references to love. And so, in Not Far Off, to “Man Missing”. I am fully aware (the peril once again of reading books about NZ Lit before reading some of the Lit itself) that “Man Missing” has been strip-mined for references to the poet’s homosexuality. This is the thing he is so evasive about, is it not? But I read “Man Missing” as a clever reflection on the mutability of personality and on how easily it can be distorted in any biography. I’ve broached the dread subject of psycho-biography (or psycho-criticism) here, things in which I prefer not to dabble. But I can’t refrain from noting further that also in Not Far Off, the poem “Open the Heart” ultimately appears to show a fear of intimacy with its desperate last line “To open the heart is to bleed to death surely”.
In the (posthumous) collection Home Ground (1974), Brasch for the first time (at least to judge by this selection) uses urban imagery, but as one detached from it and somewhat disapproving. Here we have an old New Zealand literary problem. How much, in distancing himself from the vulgar herd and its customs, in promoting higher culture and “sensitive” people such as himself, does the poet become a snob? One also notices in this sequence an intense self-consciousness about what people will think of him and how he might be judged. The Last Poems were written near Brasch’s death. They are pithier, sometimes almost gnomic, and more urgent than most that goes before them.
Thus the bare chronicle of my first systematic reading of [a selection of] the poetry of Charles Brasch. There are things to like here. There are things to quote. Yet my overall impression is of fumblings towards expression rather than of expression itself. So much hesitancy. So much opacity. So many false starts. “A handful of verse uncertain in shape and style.” Now who said that?
Very well, we sympathise from this distance with the man who had to hide much of what he was from public view. But we can’t help seeing that even by cultural markers already in place from the 1930s to the 1960s, Brasch’s view was a socially retrograde one. There are no Maori in his poems. The radio never chatters, the tram doesn’t whine, brass bands don’t play, rugby crowds don’t shout, there is no rude Kiwi demos to thrust its snout into the world of the wanderer and his reveries.
As politely as I can, I am saying that they are dated, many of them in a way that places them beyond revival.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
David Eggleton’s new collection The Conch Trumpet has nothing to do with Charles Brasch’s selected poems – except that I happen to have read them together.
I turned from Brasch to Eggleton with a feeling of relief. This is a totally unfair and irrational judgment. What it says is simply that in reading Eggleton I am reading somebody more of my own generation, who sees New Zealand more as I see it and know it than did a poet who died over forty years ago. But there is more to it than this. Eggleton accepts New Zealand even as he criticises it. He does not see it as some unformed potential waiting to be shaped by an elite of high art. He takes the piss. He is satirical, but he is also lyrical. He knows he is a New Zealander, not a colonial transplanted.
The Conch Trumpet is of generous length – 122 pages and in fact presenting more poems than the selection from Brasch’s life’s work does. It divides into five sections named “Shore”, “Inland”, "Waitaha”, “Erewhon Unearthed” and “Fire”. It took me some time to cotton on to the reasons for this arrangement, but it finally clicked. Eggleton is working from the primeval, the landscape at first untouched, though seen in terms of Maori mythology, then touched by the colonial experience, then developing some sort of Pakeha culture and finally in collision and collusion with the greater world of modern global politics and media. At least, as I read it, that is what the five parts mean, but this is a rough schema only.
To finally kick Charles Brasch out of this part of my review, I note that as soon as we read Part One we know we are in a most un-Brasch–ian world. Maori mythological references (of which Brasch knew nothing) abound. Eggleton’s is a landscape that can accept pop cultural imagery even at his most lyrical. In the early poem “Ode to the Beach-Wrecked Petrel” we see “a petrel, / getting the red carpet treatment / from fallen stamens / under twisting rata boughs.” Everyday pests are also here. “Trampers in Westland” opens with voracious sandflies. Eggleton can move from pure celebratory dithyramb (“Sunday’s Song”) to what could be read as the nightmarish vision of Maui’s fish as a giant man (“The Hook of Maui”). In Part Two there is roadkill, and the insects swarm again (“Minute Bodies Falling”). I smell the real, not idealised but still esteemed, worked at through accurate observation rather than cloudy generalities.
I pause and read and re-read the brilliant build-up metaphors in Eggleton’s “Hydrangeas”, one of this volume’s highlights. It is both accurate as a description of the flowers, and yet gently satirical, bringing out all the old-maidish associations that one attaches to hydrangeas. Or is this satirical at all? One of Eggleton’s strengths is that ambiguity which can look at something ironically and yet still see its real worth. “On Recrudescence of Waterfalls After All-Night Rain” sees waterfalls as a prelude to the spectacular special effects of movies, an image which yet does not diminish the waterfalls. “Aniwaniwa” and “Hokitika” yield images of landscapes affected by modernity, waste and exploitation – and yet still capable of being sung about.
It is when we come to Part Three, “Waitaha”, that the ironical tone begins to dominate. There is some pure celebration, but the note of mildly satirical historical commentary is present in a poem like “Wilderness”, which mocks 19th century Anglocentric attempts to remake the South Island in terms of English pastoral and received Romantic notions of the sublime. “Place and Mana” continues the attack with colonists’ fruitless attempts to rename local rivers and expunge their Maori names. Yet interestingly “The Granary”, about Pakeha settlement of Canterbury, is ambiguous in tone. It could be read as a parodic variant on heroic settler poems about pioneer fortitude and industry – or as a pastiche of such poems. But “The Burnt Text of Bank’s Peninsula” is more accusatory, more a lament for deforestation in the age of extractive economies when forests were burnt and milled. “Resurrection of the Waimakariri Floodplain” reaches almost a tone of exultation as the great river floods and modern settlements are abashed – a great river reasserting itself.
The imagery is always striking, well-conceived and apt: those “creeks like stewed tannins from tea urns” in “The Mystic Courses of Camper Vans”; or “James McKenzie, / who strolled, dead broke and crook to boot, only to fluke / a landscape he wrapped up tight and carried like a swag” in “Old Man Nor’wester”. In “The Motherlode”, one of the most ecologically-conscious poems, land becomes “alien, post-industrial, futuristic, damaged, starved, / over-abstracted, and with deliberation ruthlessly consumed” in the interests of dairying.
The “Erewhon Unearthed” section also goes for irony and ambiguity. The early poems in this section give images of the archaeological remains of Pakeha settlers, as if to say that they too have become part of the landscape and are indigenised. But then the thirty crafted lines of “Sound and Fury” are a vigorous slanging of pointless land-exploiting energy, faked culture, the superficiality of material assumption where “Bogans, cashed-up, await gentrification, / seeking a personal tutor in Enzed Lit. / Skim and Scam, borne by budget jet, / arrive from Greece to fleece supermarket flocks. / A crusader caped in Silver Fern flag / conjures Anzackery from an army surplus bag. / The gurgle of a pollie’s liquored voice signs / uncashable cheques in front of cameras / with the silver plume of a heron father.”
This poet is a craftsman, taking form seriously, but expanding it, testing it, sometimes working it back on itself. You can see this in the loose sonnets “Provincial Champions” (again, is it celebrating or mocking the rural footie-playing boys who “mustered bluster of a thousand clichés”?) and “Before Compulsory Drug Testing Begins” (concerning Victorians in New Zealand, melancholic and sonnet-writing as they take opium and laudanum).
By Part Five, “Fire”, the charivari bruit openly. After a few descriptions of being a literary tourist in the US of A, Eggleton comes out swinging with the self-excoriating, hipster, rap-ish (yet – God! – well-crafted) “Testament of Databody Dave”, the literate person’s upper cut and body blow to Facebook, Wikipedia, the cyber-space nowhere of buy, buy, buy and false community. And there are poems about the super-rich (“Superyacht”) and the chic anonymity bestowed by sunglasses in fashionable places (“Night Shades”) and the conformity of cyberspace and cyberspeak (“Your Call May Be Recorded”) and the fear in which we are now encouraged to walk (“The Age of terror”). As satire this is all sharp, fecund in appropriate images, engaged and present.
But can I say that sometimes – just sometimes - the satire becomes ranty and sloganistic? See what you think of this section of “The Death of Gaddafi”: “The neon tigers of the new democracy / splish-splash through blood money; / abetted by a smarmy army of media savants / in a sticky part of the globe leaking oil, / with all the moral cachet of a shampoo sachet… / …for democracy is the burn off of body fat, / democracy is a Coke robot on every street corner, / democracy is the look of the outlaw / on the face of the consumer, / and the sound of branded chains talking crappucino….”
The volume closes with “Where Gods Live”, which conducts us to “universal heat death”, the old astronomic concept now harnessed ironically to global warming.
Have I engaged you by my dull-witted summary? I think this is a great volume of poetry, the sort of strong satire which stings in the interests of preserving.