Monday, June 15, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SPORT 43” Edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young (VUP, $30); “SONG OF THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE” by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
We’ve heard much talk recently about the contraction of New Zealand’s book culture. There will be no book awards this year because nobody will sponsor them. There’s been the matter of whether Te Papa will or will not retain a publishing arm. A famous bookstore closes on Auckland’s Queen Street, leaving the central city with only the University Book Shop and one other far off the main drag. Some of Wellington’s second-hand bookstores go out of business.
All very perturbing, leading (at least among the literati) to apocalyptic images of a post-literate New Zealand, where highbrow literature in particular will be strangled or unable to find a publisher.
With these gloomy thoughts in mind, I decided to consider this week those publications that still carry the banners of poetry and essays as well as fiction. There’s been a certain contraction going on here, too. Dunedin’s Landfall, the most venerable New Zealand literary magazine, still manages to appear twice a year. Auckland’s Poetry New Zealand, however, has abandoned the smaller twice-yearly format and is now a substantial annual, reverting to being the Poetry Yearbook that it was originally, many decades ago. Wellington’s JAAM is also an annual. Sport, out of Victoria University Press, Wellington, spent the first fifteen years of its life coming out twice-yearly, but it has been an annual for the last twelve years.
When I receive a literary magazine through the post, I tend to turn it into a bedside book, picking at it over a number of weeks, a poem or a story at the time. When the most recent Sport came by way, however, I decided to read it from cover to cover, in large gulps, in the course of one week.
Sport 43 displays on its cover Antonio del Pollaiolo’s Renaissance painting of Daphne turning into a bay laurel, to escape the lustful Apollo. The legend is referenced on the first page of an essay by Damien Wilkins, which I assume accounts for the cover.
Sport 43 features the work of 32 poets, five writers of fiction and seven essayists.
I have to at once state something very embarrassing and prejudicial. I found it hard to engage with much of the poetry. The selection includes names who have established themselves in local reviews and anthologies, and have won praise with their own volumes (Nick Ascroft, Helen Heath, Anna Jackson, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton et al.). Maybe it is a generational thing. Most of the poets represented are considerably younger than me, and I find their mannerisms and style alienating. This is not a considered reaction to their poetry – more a subjective feeling, and therefore to be disregarded by you. But I still have to state it. Not all the poetry comes from a younger generation. There are three poems by Vincent O’Sullivan in which I at first thought he was having a go at Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore; but a second reading assured me that I had missed the irony the first time. I also admit to enjoying Rachel Bush’s Long and Short, with its deft slipping between past and present. But that is all I wish to say about the poetry.
With regard to the essays and the fiction, what interested me most was how porous the definition of these two genres now is. Some of the essays could just as validly be billed as fiction and vice versa.
The volume’s opening contribution, John Summers’ Real Life, which I read with great enjoyment, is presumably a slice of autobiography, about having an impossible flatmate in student days, in a mouldy flat in Christchurch. It is buoyed by its very specific physical detail but, at least as I understand the term, it is more narrative than essay. The same is really true of Kirsten McDougall’s What have I lost here? Again, it reads as narrative autobiography, being her wistful account of meeting and briefly knowing a young man in her student years, and then her realisation that her younger self is not her present self. To complicate matters, Ashleigh Young’s She cannot work is billed as fiction. It is an account of trying to work and being put off by having to share space with somebody else. Fiction? Possibly, though Ashleigh Young’s way with imagery makes it more like a prose poem.
It was only when I got to Damien Wilkins’ substantial (20-page) No hugging, some learning: writing and the personal that I felt I was meeting an essay as I understand that term, even though it bears the signs of having first been delivered as a lecture. Referencing at length Dennis McEldowney’s memoir The World Regained, Wilkins’ main point appears to be that that the notion of characters “changing” in fiction is an overrated concept; and that supposedly transformative tales really mask neat lessons where we are meant to “learn” from change. It is a very ingenious essay, also giving generous reference to Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March and concluding that narratives should change us, the readers, and not their fictitious characters.
The only other piece in the volume that is so like a traditional essay is Giovanni Tiso’s The story of S, or the problem of forgetting, which takes the case of Solomon Shereshevsky to argue that “forgetting” is essential to psychological growth, and that such forgetting is impeded by the perfect mechanical memory of the internet.
Anna Taylor’s long short story Still Here reads like a dialectic between the partners of an unhappy marriage. Sarah Jane Barnett’s Addis Ababa, billed as poetry, is a long mixed prose-and-poetry presentation of an Ethiopian refugee adjusting, or not adjusting, to Wellington. I am not sure what category Ingrid Horrocks’ A small town event occupies. It is a compound of literary critique and travel article. Possibly the most provocative piece in the volume is Maria McMillan’s It’s complicated, a reflection on how simple slogans (in this case “Her Body, Her Choice”) never cover the complexity of a woman’s condition, especially in an age where “choices” are coerced by pornography and pay-for sex.
I am tempted to say that the very best writing in this issue of Sport is the 22-page extract from David Coventry’s excellent debut novel The Invisible Mile, but as I’ve already had the pleasure of reviewing the whole novel in the Listener, I will refrain from further comment.
I hope my dull, mechanical listing of the contents of Sport 43 has persuaded you that it has much good reading.
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It is rare to find a volume of poetry that comes complete with fully nine pages of bibliography, but such is the case with Roger Horrocks’ Song of the Ghost in the Machine. This is very much a series of philosophical reflexions in poetic form. Each of its eleven sections is prefaced with a generous set of quotations from various illustrious and/or canonical writers, so the volume is also something of a commonplace book (whence the bibliography). The title derives from the famous jeer of the English materialist philosopher Gilbert Ryle, when he referred to Cartesian mind/body dualism as “the dogma of the ghost in the machine”. The phrase was also taken up as the title of one of Arthur Koestler’s books, which my generation read when we were students. Ryle’s philosophy was, and is, at best reductionist, but I have to remind myself that I am reviewing Horrocks’ poetry, not the philosophy that underlies part of it.
How does Song of the Ghost in the Machine read as poetry?
First let me state the obvious. Despite the very big issues with which it deals, there is nothing obscure about it. In stately and measured lines, Horrocks mulls over huge questions in accessible language. Often it is what was once called “the poetry of statement”. I found myself reminded irresistibly of such 18th century efforts as the prose perambulations of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Les Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire, where walking was the lubrication of reflexion. Or for that matter William Cowper’s Winter Walk at Noon, especially when the last section of Horrocks’ book includes the lines “The season is winter, the sky an unpredictable mix / Of light and dark with clouds tussling for dominance. / Bare tree branches tremble in the wind.”
There may be a reason for this echo of the Age of Enlightenment.
In his Author’s Note, Horrocks makes a bid for the type of High Seriousness that was once expected of poetry, but is now cast aside. “Contemporary writers and artists have tended to avoid getting ‘too serious’ since the postmodern mood of irony descended over the arts”, he asserts, noting “Cynicism is a totally understandable response to today’s social world, but in terms of tone this has created too large a no-go area.” Personally, I have sat through one-too-many poetry fest at which some jaded academic, making a bid for popularity, has urged that poetry should always be “fun”. I therefore can only endorse and applaud Horrocks’ words. Horrocks also encourages “form”, saying “I am tired of the loose free verse found in so much contemporary poetry, semi-colloquial speech that reverts to iambic when it wants to pump up the lyricism. Instead I have used two main rules: using a line with five main stresses, and keeping the rhythm changing in order to avoid the cliché of iambic or any other smooth metrical pattern.”
So he’s on the side of seriousness and of form in poetry, which prejudices me in his favour at once.
The eleven sections of Song of the Ghost in the Machine run thus:
“Walking” confronts the sense of ageing as the poet’s body begins to strain at his everyday stroll. (“My body is dated equipment / and I ride it as though I’ve borrowed it.”) With ageing, the earth tends to become less, rather than more, familiar (“There are times when I feel I’m exploring an unfamiliar / planet, treading gingerly, sniffing the atmosphere, / unable to name the flora or construe the signs, / nerves and senses on edge”)
“Consciousness” proclaims the volume’s essential theme, in a loose series of definitions of what consciousness is. In “Body”, the most Gilbert Ryle-ish section, the apparent dualism of mind/body tends to the conclusion that mind and body suffer or exult together and are therefore a unity. Monism is embraced. Yet this damned body does think, and often thinks in words, so “Language” probes the ambivalence of language, its imprecision, its inability to connect exactly with the thing spoken of. (“All thinking is wishful, all questions are rhetorical / with implied quote marks. There’s no escape / from double talk. But talk is cheap and so we try / again, wired with the need to name, to relate / our lives….”) But there is danger in this view of language, and Horrocks takes the occasion to slap, as he does in his Author’s Note, the postmodern tendency to turn language into a game and banish attempts at seriousness or sincerity. He says that “connoisseurs of cool irony, the artists of our sceptical / age distance themselves from beauty and directness.”
“Melancholia” is cast as a third-person narrative (possibly autobiographical) of the growth of a young boy’s mind. It touches on the concepts that to be reflective is to be sad, and that consciousness may be a burden. Following this, and at the other end of human life, “Self” is possibly the most depressing section, canvassing (via images of an old man in a nursing home) the idea of the fragility of the self and its disintegration as dementia takes hold.
Stepping into more speculative territory, “Micro/Macro” is about adjusting to the fact of an unstable, transient universe made of endless molecular change, and confounding our “common sense” notions of solidity and certainty. In other words, it is more on the rationalist than the empiricist end of the epistemological spectrum. “Sleeping and Waking” concerns the slippery nature of differences between these two states of consciousness.
And so to the Ultimate Truth, or Last Things if you prefer.
“Death” offers a full acceptance of our mortality with no suggestion of anything after, except for the ironical invocation of a well-lit tomb crammed with books where literati may think forever. This is an oddly jocular section, with its Mexican Day-of-the-Dead references. “Evolution” shows a wistful desire for the idea of purpose in evolution (Horrocks suggests such a desire is a “ghost in the machine”). To scientists, evolution is now seen largely as a random and purposeless process, rather than a matter of purposeful progression. In this section, Horrocks’ lines on his relationship with his pet cat are among the most attractive in the poem – a bonding of mammals separated by only about 60 million years of evolution; but his conclusion is that human beings may be a dead end before the age of AI overwhelms us. Finally “Gods”, with much confessional autobiography, rejects the idea of God, but hints at an ache for some such “solution” to the nature of our being. Indeed it is a good example (not that Horrocks ever says this) of “the God-sized hole” in human consciousness. I salute the bravery of Horrocks’ final assertion of selfhood (basically, to have lived and been here is to have experienced and known), though maybe the final “Kilroy was Here” image is a little bathetic.
That, crudely and in a reductionist mode every bit as reprehensible as Gilbert Ryle’s, is my summary of what Song of the Ghost in the Machine says. I’m bemused to find nowhere here the terms Free Will or Determinism, but then maybe the philosophical conversation has moved on since I last gave these things serious thought. Besides, as Horrocks correctly says, this is a poem and not a textbook of philosophy.
But having summarised, I haven’t conveyed to you what the experience of reading this book-poem is like.
Horrocks has the courage, in broaching these big questions, to risk sounding “earnest and adolescent” as he fears he might in his Author’s Note. Sometimes he does indeed fall into this trap – the takes on philosophical questions can be obvious and predictable ones, even if proposed as idiosyncratic solutions. The real skill is in the way the poet’s own personality, tastes and preferences manage to hold it all together. To put it another way, Song of the Ghost in the Machine is best when Horrocks is being himself, being confessional, daring to be child, adolescent, adult, old man as he is in different sections of this book. As in those “philosophical” Enlightenment poems, it is the imagery and personality that stay longest in the mind (or body. if dualism is not true).
I really enjoyed reading this poem, as much for the way it tilts at current poetic fashion as for the personality revealed.