Monday, May 22, 2017

Something New

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“LANDFALL #233 – 70th Anniversary Issue” edited by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ 30); “FULLY CLOTHED AND SO FORGETFUL” by Hannah Mettner (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25)


What surprises me about the 70th anniversary issue of Landfall is how modest it is. A literary periodical which has managed to survive (sometimes just barely) since 1947 might be expected to blow its trumpet a bit. But then Landfall did quite a bit of trumpet-blowing on its 50th anniversary. This time editor David Eggleton appears to have opted to keep it low-key. The special anniversary feature of this issue consists of four short essays giving a retrospective. They occupy just the first 14 pages of text. They are interesting for their contrasting viewpoints.

Peter Simpson (as he proved in his BloomsburySouth) is the cultural historian, providing a brief but handy view of how Charles Brasch came to set up the magazine in the 1940s, but how the unreliability (and failure to keep deadlines) of printer and poet Denis Glover almost managed to scupper it before it at last achieved  a respectable readership.

Philip Temple, whose involvement with Landfall was in the 1970s, gives a dry, but rather angry, account of the firing of Robin Dudding as editor. Temple assisted the new editor who took over – and he comes very close to saying that Dudding fully deserved to be fired. He notes how Dudding absconded with submissions (intended for Landfall) to use in the new magazine, Islands, which he set about editiing. Temple is still annoyed by the “odious literary politics” surrounding the state’s funding of the two publications and the formation of literary cliques supporting one publication or the other. (Founding editor Brasch saw things Dudding’s way.) It is interesting to read Temple’s contribution in conjunction with Chris Else’s review, in this issue’s review section, of My Father’s Island, the memoir written by Robin Dudding’s son Adam Dudding. Else (like Adam Dudding) naturally sees Robin Dudding as the innocent party in the break-up.

The third retrospective essayist is my old mate Iain Sharp, who was involved in Landfall in the late 1980s and early 1990s as fiction editor. Sharpo decides to be a bit iconoclastic and laddish as he recounts his days as a pub poet, with raucous peers who saw Landfall as too earnest and stuffy and prone to “laughless pomposity.” In other words, Landfall was the conservative enemy to young men who saw themselves as the radical future – or at any rate who saw poetry and getting pissed as one and the same thing. And then he became part of Landfall for some years and found his viewpoint changed somewhat – though he still gets some further digs into his account.

Finally there is Chris Price, who gives a busy, straightforward version of her part in producing Landfall’s 50th anniversary issue in 1997.

This isn’t quite the end of this issue’s anniversary celebration. There is also the report, by David Eggleton, on the Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Competition – and the publication of the winner, Andy Xie’s essay “The Great New Zealand Myth”, which uses mythology to reflect on the condition of being an immigrant in New Zealand.

So much for the celebration of an anniversary.

This issue of Landfall gives, as always, generous space to creative prose and poetry.

In the review section, I enjoyed Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s nuanced critique of The Collected Poems of Alistair Te ArikiCampbell, but I am surprised that, apart from referring to this edition as  “Campbell’s chosen legacy”, Holman does not consider which of Campbell’s published works are not in this edition.

Considering how blurred the margin between poetry and prose can become, I began reading Michele Leggott’s “New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms” as if it were a prose story, but soon realised that its six vignettes are really prose poems and variations on a theme.

Stephen Higginson’s story  “Chinaman Flats Road” is a sustained, and very descriptive narrative where, eventually, the horrific intrudes upon what at first seemed idyllic. Its pictorial markers of the bush, the ruined church and a gin-trap give it an oddly retrospective tone – the ruin of a country that once was. Claire Baylis’s story “The Boy Next Door” is on one level every young parent’s nightmare – involving a toddler being taken and possibly abused – but it passes subtly into the realm of social critique related to social class. Tracey Slaughter’s story “Ladybirds” implies, as much of her work does, something extreme and unsettling in domestic situations.

In the area of poetry, I found myself enjoying the forthright polemic of Stephanie Christie’s “Poverty Mentality”; Bob Orr’s aestheticisation of the chipping of weeds; Victoria Broome’s lovely poem “The Vogue Theatre” about  a child’s first encounter with cinema; Robert McLean’s “Lines on Tarkovsky”, showing McLean’s continuing absorption in high culture and his mastery of verse form; and especially Emma Neale’s “Morning Song”, tackling a familiar theme – an adult child coming to realise the worth of an elder (in this case a grandfather) only when the child has acquired an adult perspective herself.

But you understand what I am doing in singling out these pieces for comment, don’t you? I am shamelessly cherry-picking from all that is available in Landfall #233. This is the hell of reviewing anthologies and literary periodicals. There is simply no possibility of giving attention to everything that is worthy of comment.

The portfolio of photos by Chris Corson-Scott is impressive – the images are mainly of the decay of human constructions in rural setings – but whether or not the (accidental?) cross on the cover of this issue has any particular significance, I do not know.

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Some time back, I had the great pleasure of reviewing Sue Wootton’s The Yield on this blog, and called it one of the most satisfying New Zealand poetry collections I had encountered in a decade. It was not only the intelligence and perception of the poet that impressed me, but her ability to deal with form – knowing how to shape a poem, how to use appropriately assonance and stretched rhythm.

I am now considering a very different collection, the debut volume of Hannah Mettner Fully Clothed and So Forgetful. These too are poem that are intelligent and perceptive. They are written by somebody who is as happy in prose poems as in verse forms, and who can draw on a range of cultural references. And yet, after spending a couple of days wrestling with them, they are poems that I found very difficult to engage with. I’m now stuck with the problem of trying to explain why this should be so.

Much of the tone of this collection is established in the opening poem, “Higher Ground”, which also gives the volume its title. In a conceit, life is seen as climbing a ladder, painfully, with broken relationships on the way (“you never meet anyone on the way up”), and with us being drawn upwards only by an illusion (“We tell / our children and then our / grandchildren about the cool / pond at the top…”) until we arrive at the top “fully clothed and so forgetful”. I read this as a statement about life being arduous, a struggle and yet one to which there is little ultimate point, especially as we forget most of which we could have learned on the way up.

Much of this collection is written in the (singular or plural) first person or the implicit first person. It therefore hands us all the dificulties of decoding what are clearly personal and autobiographical details. Much concerns family relationships. The poems “Father in the garden” and “A history” present detailed imagery of mother and father, but become metaphorical as they point to something else. “Sisters” is really about the experience of daughterhood. “Every day is a fright” recalls experiences of school. “First and last” concerns memories of teenagerhood, experimenting with (but mainly talking about) sex. “Clifford Street” is a memory of “the ghost in my grandmother’s house” – in other words, a reconstruction of childhood impressions.

So far, so universal.

But the personal intimacy of some of these poems is such that I often feel I am prying into somebody else’s very private life by reading them.

 “Baking a maybe” is very much in the confessional mode, and is a rejection of facile sympathy after (apparently) a miscarriage or other gyneacological problem. The poem “Motuoroi Island, Anaura Bay” is childhood memory connected with adult experience. It reminded me at once of the conjunction and contrast of innocence and experience that were William Blake’s specialty. Whereupon I discover that the very next poem in the collection has the Blakean title “In the forest of the night” and deals in part with a child’s reaction to being fatherless “ever since I left your father”. The poems “Girl talk” and “Having a smoke with my uncles”, and the prose poem “All tall women”, all imply strongly the experience of coming out as lesbian.

Am I being churlish in finding it hard to relate to these poems? Will I be accused by at least one poetry publicist of gross male insensitivity?  All I am saying is that I can see the skill with which Hannah Mettner is writing, but I am not drawn into her mindscape.

Some poems are built on a very interesting idea, but perhaps are not fully worked through as poems. In “The invisible mother”, Hannah Mettner works with the image of a Victorian photographic convention, whereby photographs of infants would be taken, with the mothers who were holding them made invisible by hiding behind blankets. From this image, Mettner works through the idea of the work of a mother itself as being invisible or unseen.

There are prose poems that are witty, such as “An argument for reincarnation illustrated by cars”, or the catalogue that is “Cult”, which is followed by a cod questionnaire, poking fun at people like me who get too academic and analytical about poems. “Alone in the woods” seems to be a hip prose variant on Robert Frost’s two roads poem.

Having given too much faint praise in this brief notice, I should end by mentioning the two poems in Fully Clothed and So Forgetful with which I connected most fully.

There is an interesting ambiguity about the poem “On not seeing ghosts”. On one level it is a straightforward disavowal of any belief in an afterlife or in the supernatural, including ghosts. But on the other hand it has an unsettling spooikiness to it.

Then there is “Another failed sea battle”, in which Hannah Mettner boldly takes on the theme of the untameability of the sea, and our foolish human habit of imagining that our ships have somehow “conquered” it.

Is it just the male in me that responds to the thematic coherence of these poems? I hope not. I think their themes are open to all. But for this reader, many of this collection's other referents were not.

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