Monday, September 12, 2016
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.
PERVASIVE SENSE OF PLACE
Recently I reviewed on this blog Extraordinary Anywhere, a collection of essays about the sense of specific place in New Zealand. In one way or another, all the contributors were saying that where we are born and grow up exerts a powerful influence upon who we are.
I confirm this in a very personal way.
As I’ve noted before on this blog [see the post Babblingof Green Fields], I spent the first 22 years of my life in the east Auckland suburb of Panmure, right next to the Tamaki Estuary. Over forty years ago, I married and moved to the other side of the city – in fact, to the North Shore, where (apart from some trips and sojourns elsewhere) I have lived ever since. I feel no particular nostalgia for where I grew up, and I do not feel a desire to visit there any more than the calls of friendship require.
But I find this curious phenomenon. On those occasions when I remember my night-time dreams, I find that they take place in the house and neighbourhood where I grew up. Even if I can decode my dreams as referring to events going on in my life now, the imagery is the imagery of my childhood and teenage years. I am no psychologist, but I always interpret this to mean that what is imprinted on our brains in childhood is what stays most powerfully with us and is most often resorted to by the unconscious. It is in childhood that we acquire the symbols of our personal emotional codes – a particular dark night in childhood will always recur as a symbol of fear; the strange sound of trains shunting on the other side of the Panmure Basin will always stand for faraway places or perhaps loneliness; the sound of a neighbouring printing press at work means comfort and security; a ceiling that began to leak in the rain means uncertainty and insecurity; and so on.
Writing poetry in particular, I find childhood still exerts a powerful pull. In my first collection The Little Enemy (2011), I included the following poem in honour of early teenage explorations of the nearby estuary’s attractive mud. I was flattered when a year later the craft-artist Ingrid Anderson chose to turn my images into two matching screen prints, incorporating a plan of the estuary with a crab motif.
The poem goes as follows:
Walking bare-footed on the estuary
to a sour green river
over mud, sucking heels and toes,
in fear of lost fish-hooks;
crunching fallen insect exo-skeletons
and dead crustacean shells
where live crabs have crawled and blundered, just like me,
sideways and tentative,
under the bare foot’s ball.
Mud. Porous mud. Mud unstable and coaxing.
Mud maternal. Mudbank
mud in slippery life. Mud as dangerous
and giving as the womb.
My soft two-legged track will fill with water,
spread and blur, each large print
the spore of an amphibious yeti.
The soaked land stinks,
the river is a plain,
soup-green, puke-green, snot-green.
I’m upright on an unstable element
heading for water, life,
the relatively clean,
over mud. Squelching mud. Mud under-esteemed.
Mud malleable. Mud
digested in the river’s throat and cast up.
Mud fertile vomit
of the two-way tide.
The Tamaki Estuary was a couple of hundred yards east of my childhood home. If you looked due west from our front window, you were looking across the Panmure Basin at a very distant view of One Tree Hill. The most spectacular time to look in that direction was sunset (or just after). I am certain that many more large flocks of birds flew over metropolitan Auckland when I was a child than is the case now. City spread means that nesting grounds are further and further from the central city and its suburbs than they were fifty years ago. I have a distinct memory from childhood of large flocks of birds flying towards the setting sun. I hope this is not a trick of memory. Anyway, this fed into the following poem, which I decided not to include in either of my two published collections so far. Maybe it’s too raw a piece of protest. I know that an indigenous tree has now been planted on One Tree Hill and this is taken to be culturally acceptable and we are increasingly encouraged to speak of the hill as Maungakiekie. But I still see the deliberate destruction of the exotic tree that was there as a piece of vandalism. To me, the piece of vandalism says that my associations, as a Pakeha, with this landscape mean nothing.
Here’s the hitherto unpublished poem:
ONE TREE HILL
All childhood, seen through a picture window,
beyond the Panmure Basin and railway,
beyond suburbs, she was an umbrella
to a spike, arm to an upright, shelterer
of birds too distant to see, disruptor
of neat verticals, a swaying wind trap.
For us, sunset was her special time, when
she melted into the unviewable,
a twig in the blinding gold, or was crowned
by rays from heaven through dramatic clouds.
That was when the birds flew past us to her,
the named One Tree, their day’s end destination.
She grew from the hill and was shaped by wind,
graceful beside the stark stone phallus, part
of the scene like clouds, sheep, birds or sunset,
permanent as God. And now she’s gone, cut
for show, executed as an alien,
the hill reshaped to baldness and a pencil.
This is not your country, says the chainsaw.
You have no right to see, think, dream, be here.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It is always encouraging to be noticed. This was Siobhan Harvey’s response to my second collection of poems, in the Herald “Weekender” magazine on Saturday 27 August: