Monday, March 7, 2016

Something New

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

“FITS AND STARTS” by Andrew Johnston (Victoria University Press, $25); “TRANSIT OF VENUS / VENUSTRANSIT” by Hinemoana Baker, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Glenn Colquhoun, Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschinski, Chris Price (Victoria University Press, $30)

The blurb on the back cover of Andrew Johnston’s latest (sixth) collection of poems Fits and Starts reminds us that a “fit” once meant a section of a poem or song, and a “start” once meant a sudden broken utterance of sound. So Fits and Starts could be said to consist of fragments of poetry and broken utterances. But then, in the more colloquial sense, “fits and starts” means intermittent (and somewhat unreliable) activity. Does this mean that Andrew Johnston has been writing only in fits and starts since his last volume, which was published nine years ago?
I do not know. But I do know that from first page to last, Johnston prefers to express himself in brief and pithy poems, most often no more than ten lines long (arranged into visual couplets) making somewhat gnomic statements. True, in the first of the collection’s three sections, “Half-Life”, he does let himself go into longer statements in three poems. But this man is as staccato player, not a rhapsodist.
So of what does his world consist? A sort of imposed order. The volume’s second section, “Echo in Limbo”, consists of twenty-six poems taking their titles from books of the Old Testament and in many cases making sardonic comment thereupon. The last section, “Do You Read Me?”, is a series of 26 short poems each named after the radio alphabet as used by flyers – from “Alpha” and “Bravo” to “Yankee” and “Zulu”.
Very well. Enough of the bibliographic outline. What are the poems about? What is their mood? What is their style?
As best I can decode them, the poems of the first section set up a mood of elegy and loss. The impossibly named “The Otorhinolaryngologist” is a statement about the disillusion of the quotidian after a moment of heightened perception leaving one “hankering, perplexed, / abandoned again / to hunting for something / in the hollow spaces”. “To Dad” is a death song (elegy if you prefer) while the longer “Afghanistan” is a lament for the continuing destruction of a people over the centuries. The persistently elegiac tone works its way into even the poem “Woodwind” where an orchestral instrument becomes “oil and reeds / smoke / Babylon in dust / but no running water / and the living, silent”. In “Half-Life” we have the decay of evolution, where “Molecules break down for you, reliably unstable. / Breakfast is served at the periodic table.”
We appear to have entered a mindworld, then, where things are ageing, slowing down, decaying – but usually after some bright and creative flash of initiation. So we enter the 26 Biblically-titled poems called “Echo in Limbo” which somehow address (or reject, or query) God-made creation. After all the intimations of mortality in the first section, there is only an echo of spirit and power in the second section. Andrew Johnston introduces the character of Echo, who sounds through the rest of the volume. What is she? (For Echo is very definitely characterised as “she”.) She could be the dying gravitational shudder left by the Big Bang. She could be the organising principle of the universe, God or no God, like the (female) personified figure of Wisdom (Sophia) in the Wisdom books of the Bible. “Out of chaos / the chorus calls / for a story” it says in the poem “Genesis”, implying an organising principle. Echo could equally be the decay of truth into mythology, as in the poem “Exodus” where “The myth is what matters / its history: how loss takes flight / without a plan, hunts / for a place to land.” Or Echo could be like the Deist view of God as a distant starting point, which only occasionally reverberates. Or she could even be a nostalgia for pre-monotheistic paganism. In the poem “Ezra” occur the lines [of Echo]: “Forests couldn’t contain her rage / Echo chose a grove of oaks, / listened to their rustling, hoped the gods would tell her / what to do with her anger”. Or, perhaps most persuasively, she could be a whisper of belief that is now dead, for, it says in the poem “Proverbs”, “Echo’s story exploded the moment / the X-ray revealed her missing soul”. Echo, then, is merely a fading memory of dying beliefs as materialistic science takes centre-stage. The final poem of the sequence, “Ezekiel”, lets disbelief have the last word:

Echo stepped
and stepped away from fate.

The wind whistles and won’t listen.
She wants to flesh out this frame,

to test the myth for mystery.
If you can live with missingness

it X-rays the days,
it cuts away.

These bones shall live.
They shine with disbelief.”

            Not that this solves the problem of God or no God; creation or spontaneous organisation of chaos and matter; and like weighty matters.
I have imposed, in my summary here, a tighter unity of ideas upon these poems than they actually possess. Their reflexions upon Biblical themes are more various than this, and not always considering Echo’s passage through them.
I admit that I cannot find a unity of ideas in the volume's “Do You Read Me?” section. Their themes are as various as could be suggested by the radio alphabet that inspired them. Echo returns in a number of the poems (“Hotel” “India” “Victor” “Zulu”), again suggesting something left over from a better world or from a moment of creation. Many of the poems have that Cartesian rationalist sense of being locked inside one’s head (see “Oscar”, which begins ominously “Why is it dark inside the brain. / Why are there things I can’t explain.”) Maybe Andrew Johnston’s essential view is that the universe is winding down to some sort of heat death. But (yada yada yada), what is gnomic is often opaque.
I wonder if I would have responded more to “Do You Read Me?” had the sequence been presented in its original form – as part of a mixed presentation involving photographs and illustrations. The bare text alone leaves the impression that we are being locked out of something.

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

Which conveniently brings me to the lively mixed-media presentation that is Transit of Venus or, if you prefer German, Venustransit. Nearly 250 years ago (in 1769) Captain Cook came to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus, then continued to New Zealand and made contact with Maori at Tolaga Bay. Two hundred and forty-three years later (in 2012), three German poets (Ulrike Almut Sandig, Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschinski) came to New Zealand and joined three New Zealand poets (Hinemoana Baker, Glenn Colquhoun, Chris Price) to observe another transit of Venus and then have a pow-wow at Tologa Bay about science and New Zealand.
This collection is their joint work – poetry in English and German; prose in English and German; and photographs and other illustrations. A subtitle calls the volume a Poetry Exchange (Lyrik-Austasch). Most (but not all) of the German poems are translated into English, and vice versa, with parallel texts on facing pages. The translations of the German poems and prose are attributed to the New Zealanders, and voice versa. This suggests the three New Zealand poets can read and speak German, which surprises me. (In the final colloquy, however, a comment by one of the German poets suggests other translators were involved.)
Hinemoana Baker’s poems begin the volume fittingly – they are the most lyrical, the broadest of vision and the most expansive, taking us from restaurant meals and the shaky wharf at Tologa Bay to three songs addressed to Venus – one about the famous UFO chase involving the “Kaikoura lights” – reminding us that science often gets confused with pseudo-science. (I do not know if this was Hinemoana Baker’s intention, but it certainly is the effect.)
Ulrike Almut Sandig seems to take a harder and more rationalist view of the gathering – considering the makeshift eye-pieces through which participants viewed the transit – but then she veers off into science fiction with a poetic prediction of rising sea levels creating many more islands out of New Zealand and the end of the “US-American Empire” and other cheerfully disastrous scenarios that might appeal to a German writer.
Sanity (and readability, and directness of expression) return when Glenn Colquhoun decides to write six poems celebrating the German naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach. His poems read mainly as chants of celebration, sometimes with the rhythm of the haka and sometimes with a strong element of lively piss-take (as in his first contribution, where a crew of rough sailors sing about Dieffenbach). We are reminded that Colquhoun is a doctor of medicine as well as a poet when his last contribution celebrates medical practice in Dieffenbach’s time.
Of the eight poems by Uwe Kolbe, only three are translated into English. Given that my German is extremely limited, I have no way of judging these poems. Of the three that are translated, and especially of “Kafka in Auckland”, I get the strong sense of somebody who wishes he were back home in Europe. As for Brigitte Oleschinski, her contributions are in the form of prose diary-notes, the longest of which is not translated. Again, her chiefest theme is her alienness from this strange southern country New Zealand.
There follows a skittish poetic exchange (apparently originating as postcards) between Brigitte Oleschinski and Chris Price and then – miraculo!  - Chris Price concludes the volume with the poems that I found the most accessible and clearest of vision. Chris Price is the first to really deify the planet Venus as the goddess Venus (Gottin in Himmel!), drawing sour connectives of love and love gone wrong (as any schoolboy can tell you, the good ship Venus is always linked to penis). According to Price, European sailors in the Pacific once did “plant gunpowder, children and V.D.” – and yes, Venereal Disease came from Venus. Price also draws the sharpest contrasts between Maori and Pakeha ways of seeing things.
That is the end of the poetry part of the volume, but there follows a colloquy wherein the German participants give their views on the whole experience of coming to New Zealand and seeing the transit, and then there are multiple bilingual notes on the poets and author info.
Dear reader, I have written a cowardly review of this tome as I have merely related to you the facts in the case, telling you what the book contains. The reality is that, like all anthologies and compilations, the effect of Transit of Venus / Venustransit is lumpy and uneven. I am sure that this sort of gathering of poets at an event is really stimulating for them, but somehow resultant volumes inevitably appear to be something of a writing school exercise (“Okay poets – see what you can write about the transit of Venus and New Zealand….”). I really enjoyed parts of it.

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