Monday, May 28, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DICTATORLAND – The Men Who Stole Africa” by Paul Kenyon (Harper-Collins, $NZ37:99)
Sometime ago I took the opportunity to review, in the “Something Old” section of this blog, Chinua Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart. I remarked then that nearly all the books I’d ever read about Africa were not written by Africans. That included Martin Meredith’s very depressing The State of Africa [also reviewed on this blog], published in 2005. Meredith chroncled in awful detail the dictatorial regimes that have dominated and oppressed most Africans in the last fifty years. So appalling was much of the detail that, I said, I ended Meredith’s book being grateful that I lived in a country where at least the rubbish is collected.
Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland covers similar territory, but it is not as inclusive as Meredith’s history. A British journalist, Kenyon joins general history with anecdotes based on his own travels in Africa. Dictatorland therefore veers in style from pages based on earnest historical research to more chatty and personal observations, sometimes with slightly jarring results. Kenyon has also decided to organise his text thematically, rather than giving a general survey of the state of the whole continent. His theme is the resources of Africa, and how they have been exploited (or squandered). In his introduction, he considers what he regards as the most significant natural resources of Africa. So he divides his text accordingly into three parts: (1.) Gold and Diamonds; (2) Oil; (3) Chocolate…. with an uneasily added fourth part about the slave trade. This means that he deals only with those dictators who have been related to these commodities, so readers should not be surprised that some of Africa’s most notorious tyrants figure only in footnotes or not at all.
There is a major problem when a European broaches the topic of indigenous African tyranny. It can easily encourage the racist view that Africans are not capable of ruling themselves. Although he is dealing with grotesque misrule by Africans, Kenyon nowhere encourages such an idea. He prefaces each chapter with a backstory showing how African resources and African peoples were exploited by the old European colonial powers (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal et al.). Those powers left a legacy of unstable states which often yoked together incompatible tribes, and therefore set the conditions for strife and power struggles once independence came half a century ago. Kenyon also shows how international corporations have been happy to make profitable deals with Africa’s own tyrants.
Even so, the focus is on African despots.
We begin with Joseph-Desire Mobutu (or “Mobutu Sese Seko”, as he later rebranded himself). For thirty years he controlled what has now reverted to being the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but which Mobutu insisted on giving the artificial name “Zaire” (a name not accepted by the mass of Congolese any more than the junta-imposed name “Myanmar” is now accepted by the mass of Burmese). Having, with CIA and Belgian support, overthrown Patrice Lumumba, who was clearly the more popular figure at the time of independence, Mobutu set about ruling a state based entirely on cronyism and self-enrichment. International corporations paid Mobutu fabulous sums to get the rights to the country’s mines, but none of the proceeds trickled down to the population. Instead Mobutu’s Swiss bank accounts became incredibly fat. Mobutu’s much-touted “authenticity” (supposedly emphasising Africanness as opposed to Europeanness) was always a fraud, and his attempts to articulate a coherent ideology came to nothing. As Kenyon remarks:
“He demanded complete obedience to the official ideology of his newly created party…. But what was his political philosophy? It was difficult to pin down: generally liberal in economic matters but almost Maoist in his social control. Anti-communist, but at the same time anti-capitalist. There were bits and pieces of everything in there, a political stew into which Mobutu tossed whatever ingredient he chose. He welcomed the continued support of the US, while at the same time travelling to Beijing for inspiration. Why not call it Mobutism and be done with it? And so it was, and just like other personality cults, he needed to strip the country of all that went before in order to start rebuilding it in his own image…” (p.35)
This entailed bankrolling such prestige projects as his own version of the palace of Versailles, while the country’s infrastructure degenerated to a level worse than it had been under Belgian colonial rule. And, of course, thousands of political enemies, or perceived political enemies, were imprisoned, tortured and killed. When the economy of the Congo eventually hit rock bottom, Mobutu attempted to bolster his international profile by intervening in the war that was then going on in Angola.
I couldn’t help feeling a huge wave of Schadenfreude when I at last reached the page where Mobutu, sitting in front of his TV screen, watched footage of the Rumanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu being overthrown and shot by his own people; and Mobutu at last realised he could face the same fate. His subsequent attempts at a charm offensive, to win over his own people, were a miserable failure. To everybody’s relief, he was overthrown and died in 1997.
Mining wealth also comes into the next chapter with its story of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and his systematic destruction of that country’s economy – not to mention his strong-arm tactics to suppress or intimidate any legitimate political opposition. Comparing the post-independence histories of the Congo and Zimbabwe, I am very struck by the fact that both despots began as close friends and comrades of people whom they later spurned or destroyed – Patrice Lumumba in Mobutu’s case and Joshua Nkomo in Mugabe’s case. Both also continued, during their respective tyrannies, to live off the myth that they were genuine freedom fighters, thwarted only by capitalist imperialism.
When Paul Kenyon turns to the matter of oil, he first devotes a chapter to the shabby deals that British, Dutch and American companies (BP, Shell, Esso, Caltex) made in the 1950s with Libya’s King Idris, to get as much oil as possible at the minimum cost. Naturally Idris and his ministers were all hopelessly corrupt. When finally, in the 1960s, Idris was overthrown by the handsome young army officer Muammar Gaddafi, there was real hope (as there had been when Nassar unseated King Farouk in Egypt) that his regime would be a humane and reformist one. Kenyon notes an iconic photo that was taken of Gaddafi, just after he had taken over, standing with Nasser in the back of a Land Rover. He remarks:
“And if the clocks had stopped there, in the winter of 1969, that image might have adorned a generation of students’ walls. There could have been silk-screen prints by Andy Warhol, Gaddafi ballads from Joan Baez, revolutionary anthems from John Lennon. He had driven out the imperialists and begun redistributing the country’s oil money. There were promises of modern hospitals and schools for all. But, for those who watched events more closely, there were already clues as to where all this was heading.” (p.167)
Where it headed was, of course, to another closed dictatorship, which in this case took to sponsoring terrorist movements abroad. The sordid details of Gaddafi’s regime are notorious enough (mass imprisonment, torture, public executions etc.). So is evidence of his psychological instability – witnessed in the corps (or harem?) of young women whom he kept as his personal bodyguard. But once again some details are so grotesque that they can be greeted only as sick humour. Take the story of his sons. One paid for a degree at the London School of Economics, which gave him a doctorate on the strength of a thesis that somebody else wrote for him. Another fancied himself as a football star. His father therefore made him captain of the national team. When he performed dismally, the crowd booed him. So he had the national football stadium bulldozed to the ground. You can do that if your father has unlimited power.
The other oil-rich countries with whose dictators Kenyon deals are Nigeria and tiny Equatorial Guinea.
It is quite clear that Francisco Macias Nguema, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, was literally and clinically insane. He suffered from drug-induced hallucinations and real paranoia. He was the man who organised a synchronised execution, in the national stadium, of 150 of his perceived enemies. They were hanged as the pop song “Those Were the Days” was piped through the loudspeaker system. During his reign, nearly half Equatorial Guinea’s population fled in terror to safer countries. Macias was overthrown and succeeded by his nephew, the equally corrupt Obianga, who is still in power. Kenyon notes that both West (America, Europe) and East (China) court him for access to his oil.
Nigeria is a far larger and more complex country. Like Zimbabwe (back when it was “Rhodesia”), Nigeria was an artificial creation of the British Empire. In Zimbabwe, the Shona and Ndebele peoples were pushed into one state by the imperial power. In Nigeria the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo people were forced together. Independence led to civil wars and a revolving door of coups and dictators through twenty years. Every dictator looted the oil revenue which mainly came from the Igbo region (which had vainly sought to win independence as “Biafra”). The longest lasting dictator was Sani Abacha who (cue for sick laugh, please) died of a heart attack after taking three Viagra pills when trying to service three prostitutes.
As always, Kenyon draws no racist conclusions from this mess, noting how much Abacha throve on deals with international corporations who were not in the least worried by violations of human rights – so long as they could extract the precious black stuff. Nigeria’s most outspoken advocate for human rights was an internationally-respected intellectual, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was eventually hanged by Abacha’s goons. Kenyon quotes Saro-Wiwa’s caustic comment on foreign investors:
“We are face to face with a modern slave trade similar to the Atlantic slave trade in which European merchants armed African middlemen to decimate their people and destroy their societies… As in the Atlantic slave trade, the multinational companies reap huge profits.” (quoted p. 249)
Compared with mineral wealth – gold, diamonds and oil – cocoa may seem a small element in this saga. Perhaps it is. I can’t help feeling that Kenyon included his “Chocolate” section so that he could tell, in a chapter of its own, the woeful tale of a scandal back in the old imperialist days. In the very early 20th century, the colonial power Portugal harvested the cocoa crop in its equatorial possession by what amounted to slave labour. Chief beneficiaries of this were the British companies Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s and Fry’s, all of which were run by morally-righteous Quakers who were loudly opposed to the slave trade and noted for their humanitarian enterprises. But when investigating reporters (one of whom was hired by the chocolate companies themselves) exposed the conditions of slavery under which the cocoa harvesters laboured, the British companies were very reluctant to admit the fact, fearing a boycott of their products. They successfully sued a newspaper which reported the facts.
Having got this tale out of the way, Kenyon moves on to consider the dictator of cocoa-rich Cote d’Ivoire, the Francophone and basically Francophile Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Compared to other dictators, Houphouet-Boigny (who died in 1992) was relatively benign – at least his form of oppression didn’t amount to full-scale genocide. He is most notorious for spending billions on having built a basilica near his home village, vaguely modelled on St Peter’s in Rome, but far larger. This sort of pointless conspicuous consumption is a feature of most of the dictators covered here.
The final chapter of Dictatorland is poorly integrated into the book. Kenyon switches to Eritrea, to tell the story of Isias Afwerki, who is still regarded as a nationalist hero by some, because he fought (successfully) to extract his country fron Ethiopia. But in doing so, Afwerki militarised his small state to the point where there is universal conscription and a massive slave trade as young men are, in effect, kidnapped for sale to the armed forces.
While this book is filled with enlightening information, I closed it with the sense that Kenyon has foxed himself in the framework he has chosen. By dealing, in all but the last chapter, only with those African dictators whose power rests on marketable natural resources, Kenyon misses out other equally notorious dictators and self-appointed strongmen (Idi Amin, “Emperor” Bokassa etc.). The picture is a skewed and partial one. Even so, Kenyon does prove how irrelevant declared ideologies are to the history of oppression. Outside the megalomaniac designs of the dictators themselves, the finger can very easily be pointed at international capitalism, for bankrolling dictators in the interests of controlling resources. But recently the rival ideology of Marxism has been just as destructive in Africa, witnessed in the ultra-Marxist slogans both Afwerki and his Ethiopian enemy Mengistu adopted. The old Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation and China have been just as eager to get a share of the African loot as any corporation plutocrat, and have sponsored regimes as brutal as those bonded to neocolonialism.
As for the high-sounding ideological manifestos which so many dictators produced upon taking over their unhappy countries, they proved to be little more than smoke to cover the ancient vices of greed and a lust for power.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN” by Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoires d’Hadrien first published in French in 1951; English translation, by Grace Frick in collaboration with Marguerite Yourcenar, first published 1955)
The matter of first-person narrative voice in fiction is always a problem. When we are children, we read adventure stories told by their main characters and simply assume that we are meant to take the narrator’s word as the truth. But as adults, we are quickly made aware of the “unreliable narrator”. There is a distinction between author and narrator, and there is therefore always the possiblity that the author does not want us to take the truthfulness of the narrator for granted. So we enter the realm of irony; we understand that events and their interpretation in the novel are subject to the narrator’s perspective, which could be skewed and untruthful in various ways. We learn to distrust the narrator.
I am pondering this problem because only recently did I get around to reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which had hitherto sat unread on my shelves for many years. It is a first-person memoir as told by the second century Roman emperor Hadrian. After one reading, I think the author intends us to see Hadrian as a wise, insightful man of a philosophic cast of mind; non-belligerent, moderate and balanced in his moods; a promoter of civilisation and an excellent administrator. In other words, somebody to be admired. And yet frequently I found myself judging (Yourcenar’s version of) Hadrian as self-deluded, self-regarding and pompous – and hence less likely to be totally reliable in what he says. Is this simply my interpretation of a character whom the author sees as a paragon? Or has she intentionally created an “unreliable narrator”? This matter of voice bothered me throughout my reading of Memoirs of Hadrian.
As usual, let me first say something about the author. Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) was a formidable intellectual. Of minor-aristocratic French-Belgian parentage, her family name was de Crayencour which she and her father re-jumbled into “Yourcenar” when, in her teens, she took to writing and her father financed the publication of her first books. She was (in old age – when she was 77) the first woman appointed to the Academie Francaise in its 346 years of existence up to that time. Though she always wrote in French, she was fluent in English. Among other things, she translated some of Virginia Woolf’s novels into French. She spent years as an academic in the United States, to which she had moved at the beginning of the Second World War, and she lectured in comparative literature. She wrote many novels and essays, but Memoirs of Hadrian, upon which she had worked on and off for over two decades, was a bestseller when first published and is still the novel for which she is best known. I make it a rule to judge the book and not the person of the author, but I think it is very relevant to Memoirs of Hadrian to note that Marguerite Yourcenar was a lesbian who lived with her American partner Grace Frick for nearly forty years. She collaborated with Frick in producing the English translation of this novel.
Memoirs of Hadrian takes the form of a long letter written by the emperor Hadrian to the young Marcus Aurelius, the adoptive son of Antoninus Pius whom Hadrian had chosen as his successor. In creating this fictitious, confessional letter, Yourcenar is banking on our knowledge that, after Antoninus Pius’s 23-year-reign as emperor, Marcus Aurelius himself was to reign for nineteen years and is generally (if not entirely rightly) regarded as a moderate and philosophic man. Both Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius are among the emperors given a tick of approval by Gibbon. There is a problem with having Hadrian addressing young “Mark” however – usually the novelist simply ignores that this is supposed to be a letter to Marcus Aurelius. After many pages with no specific address to young “Mark”, it is quite a shock when late in novel (Part 5, p.181 – all page numbers in this notice are according to my old Penguin paperback of the novel) the narrator mentions “your father Antoninus”. There is also the problem that Yourcenar’s Hadrian often tells the supposed recipient of his letter many things that the younger man would already have known anyway.
If you read this novel to find out the external facts of Hadrian’s active and public life, you will find them. Hadrian is a Spaniard from a family that had been settled in Spain for over four generations. His grandfather (according to Yourcenar) had many peasant virtues, and his father was an imperial administrator and bureaucrat. Young Hadrian gets training in soldiery as an officer in legions commanded by Trajan. He earns merit as a soldier and is given command of the First Legion Minerva. A clever chap, he ghost-writes speeches for Trajan once Trajan is emperor and he is unofficially named Trajan’s successor. At the age of 28, he enters into an arranged marriage with Sabina, a marriage that has been arranged by Trajan’s wife Plotina. Hadrian admires Trajan’s skills as a military leader, but he thinks some of Trajan’s triumphs are hollow such as his triumph over the Dacians (from what is now Romania) which is no triumph at all. Hadrian regards Trajan’s proficiency in war as something that ultimately makes the empire more vulnerable by over-extending its borders and creating unnecessary enemies. Nevertheless, he keeps his opinions to himself and Trajan makes him a consul.
After Trajan’s death, and after some court intrigue, Hadrian at last becomes emperor. He stops the empire’s war in Mesopotamia. He does not wish to be seen as a tyrant, so he acts leniently when his deputy in Rome kills senators for corruption. Because he himself makes Rome’s bureaucracy so efficient, he is able to be absent from Rome frequently and spends much of his life travelling his empire. “In my twenty years of rule, I have passed twelve without fixed abode” he says at one stage. After the massacre of the 9th Legion by Caledonians, he goes to Britain (being the first reigning emperor to do so since Claudius nearly a century before), organises native auxiliaries as reinforcements and supervises the building of the protective wall that now bears his name. As often as possible he avoids wasteful wars and makes treaties with vassal states, but he does prosecute a ferocious war against the Jews in the land he officially calls Palestine. In Rome itself, he has the Coliseum rebuilt and all signs of the decadent emperor Nero removed from it. He has Trajan’s column raised to glorify the conquests of his predecessor and he also has the Pantheon built, displaying his view that all gods should be worshipped together and that essentially all gods may be merged into one.
Marguerite Yourcenar was not the only novelist to produce a fictitious first-person “confession” by a Roman emperor. Probably the best-known examples of this curious sub-genre of historical fiction are Robert Graves’ racy, gossipy first-person Claudius novels I, Claudius (first published 1934) and Claudius the God (1935). Some years back I also recall reading and enjoying Gore Vidal’s first-person Julian (1964), concerning the apostate emperor who turned against the Christianisation of the Roman empire. Vidal basically used his novel as a vehicle for his anti-Christian views, but it is sharp and witty and was produced before Vidal descended into the inane bitcheries of his later writing career.
Even more that Graves or Vidal, however, Yourcenar is determined to emphasise the intellectual side of her protagonist. For while the public events and achievements of Hadrian’s life are there, Hadrian’s “confession” is mainly an exposition of the emperor’s philosophical ideas, so that the public events become background music. The letter to Marcus Aurelius is being written in the shadow of death. It is a kind of confessional last will and testament, or the “written meditations of a sick man who holds audience with his memories” (Part 1, p.23) as Hadrian says. Each of the novel’s six sections is named after an abstract or philosophical concept related to Hadrian. Inevitably, then, the first section is named after the three most famous words from a poem Hadrian is purported to have written - “Animula Vagula Blandula” (“little wandering soul”). This is also the novel’s epigraph and the closing words of the novel are the whole poem in translation.
At once warning us what sort of novel this will be, the whole first part resolves itself into a series of philosophical essays, in which Hadrian discourses on the limits of sensual pleasure, the nature of love, the reality of death and the passage of time, the benefits of sleep, and how one writes autobiography. As the novel progresses he says much about the nature of the self and of the soul (that “animula”), and the slim possibility of immortality after death or of the transmigration of the soul (i.e. reincarnation). Ultimately he comes to no definitive answer on these matters, although it is clear that an anxious questioning of the possibility of immortality and his later contemplation of suicide are consistent with a man who knows that his time is nearly up. Some have interpreted the passage and effect of time as the main theme of this novel.
While Yourcenar’s Hadrian sometimes inclines to mysticism and joins at least one mystery cult (Mithraism), he has a pragamatic attitude towards public religion. Like other Roman emperors, he believes conquered peoples can keep their local gods, which can be absorbed into the cults of traditional Roman gods – and by such benign means, subject peoples can thus be gradually Romanised. Personally he sees all gods (Roman or otherwise) as equals, a merging of the gods that is put into concrete form by his building of the Pantheon in Rome.
As befits an emperor, governance, or the proper way to rule, is also a major part of his philosophical reflexions. Hadrian credits himself with inventing Imperial Discipline – that is, a standardised code of military conduct something like the British “King’s Regulations”. He also credits himself with reorganizing and making more efficient the bureaucracy of Rome and setting up the Perpetual Edict on how Italy itself (as distinct from the rest of the empire) is to be governed. In the last pages, as death nears, he has thoughts on the future of Rome and how long his reforms will endure. Naturally Hadrian sees himself as a spreader of civilisation and culture, noting: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.” (Part 3, p.106) This civilisation can endure only if there is peace, order and uniformity in the empire. For this reason, Hadrian hates Jews. He claims “During the Jewish War the rabbi Joshua translated literally for me some texts from Hebrew, that language of sectarians so obsessed by their god that they have neglected the human.” (Part 2, p.34). Jews, with their strict and transcendent monotheism, are set in opposition to the Hellenistic religion which Hadrian cultivates – a religion with many gods and much room for sensuality. In the novel’s account of the prolonged and brutal war against Simon Bar-Kochba (in Part 5), Hadrian’s contempt for Jews is even more firmly expressed. They are fanatics who will not let their god join the pantheon of the empire’s many gods. Their strict monotheism threatens the whole foundation of the empire. There are only very rare references to Christians, those offshoots of Judaism. With patrician disdain, Yourcenar’s Hadrian sees Christians as preaching something that is philosophically incoherent, but harmless for uneducated peasants and other people of the lower classes.
Marguerite Youncenar once described most historical novels, accurately, as “fancy dress balls” – modern writers pretending, with all their modern values, to express the thoughts and vision of people from past ages. Clearly she saw herself as not falling into that category of writer. Even so, for all her scupulous historical research, there are moments in Memoirs of Hadrian where the narrator shows a remarkable prescience. In the novel’s third part (“Tellus Tabilita” = the genius of the pacified earth), much of what Hadrian says about the art of ruling sounds like a post-Enlightenment agenda. He discourses on wars (there should be fewer); women (they shouldn’t be forced into marriage); slaves (they should be treated humanely and their families should be recognised) and bureaucracy (the importance of choosing the right people). He also just happens to side with those few “daring philosophers” who believe that the Earth itself might move and not be the fixed centre of everything. In the closing pages of the novel, he says the empire will have its ups and downs and may finally fall , but he still holds out for “humanity, liberty and justice”. All historical novels, even the best, end up betraying the age in which they were written – and in these moments of unlikely prescience, I can’t help hearing the voice of someone who was finishing her novel just after the Second World War and placing much hope in sane internationalism guided by the new United Nations.
I might temper this criticism, however, by noting that, having recently read Robin Campbell’s translation of a selection of the letters of Seneca (who flourished some time before Hadrian), I am aware that some Roman intellectuals really did express the “advanced” ideas that Yourcenar attributes to Hadrian. So perhaps her attribution might be historically accurate after all.
So far, I have said nothing about what may be the chief emotional matter of what is generally a dry and cerebrotonic piece of writing – I mean the emotional matter that may have made the historical figure of Hadrian attractive to Marguerite Yourcenar. This is of course the theme of homosexuality. Hadrian has a wife, but has no children with her. She is a mere background figure, rarely mentioned in the novel. Hadrian admits that he had casual mistresses in younger years, but none is important enough to be even named. The only woman he appears genuinely to like is Plotina, Trajan’s widow, who arranged his marriage and has a sharp analytical mind like his own.
As Yourcenar’s Hadrian presents himself, he is in search of an ideal of beauty, not a brief erotic thrill. He wants a love that lasts. Early on, he says: “The technique of the great seducer requires a facility and an indifference in passing from one object of affection to another which I could never have; however that may be, my loves have left me more often than I have left them, for I have never been able to understand how one could have enough of any beloved.” (Part 1, p.19)
Hadrian’s ideal of beauty means attractive young men. In his twenties, he almost loses Trajan’s favour when they both fall for the same boy. He much admires the culture of Greece and its homoerotic mythology with the story of Achilles and Patroclus and “the heroic friendships of the Sacred Battalion” (Part 2, p.64). Late in his life he is attracted to his young male assistant Celer and the beautiful Greek slaveboy Gadara, although he does not have any sexual play with them.
But most important, and the centrepiece of the novel, is his love for the Greek youth Antinous, which is recounted in the fourth part of the novel, appropriately called “Saeculum Aureum” - the age of gold. The title refers to Hadrian’s love of Greece in general but also to the chief satisfaction of his emotional life. Antinous is 13 or 14 when Hadrian, a grown man, first encounters him. Hadrian sees Antinous as the embodiment of godlike beauty, a gift from the gods, an ideal. But Antinous commits suicide at the age of 20 or thereabouts. Hadrian’s grief is overwhelming. He has a temple built in honour of Antinous. He attempts to start a religious cult centring on the young man and his beauty.
I make it clear that MargueriteYourcenar has made none of this up. Hadrian’s obsession with Antinous is a matter of historical record, inasmuch as we have historical records of it. Appended to the novel is a closely-printed 13-page essay in which author carefully enumerates her sources, which are many. For later reprintings of the novel she added an essay on how she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian. But, to recur to what I said about the author near the beginning of this notice, it is hard to see her choice to write about this particular emperor as anything other than a reflection of her own sexual impulses.
So at last to the matter with which I began this notice. How much is Hadrian intended by Yourcenar to be a paragon, held up for our admiration? Or how much is there a screen of irony through which we recognise an unreliable narrator?
I often feel the icy hand of Hadrian’s pomposity and self-regard when, early in the novel, he tells us how clever he is in wooing only women who will not cause scandal, and how tactful he is in order to gain favour and power. In these moments he is, to me, like that “cold fish” Prince Hal, early in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, who thinks (i.e. soliloquises) that he will cast off his tavern mates as soon as he has power.
I perceive in Hadrian an Olympian view of things when he becomes emperor, as if he is a god looking down on ants. Possibly this was the way many Roman emperors – masters of the world as they knew it – felt about their role, but it is still something to make us wary of his views, as in: “I was thankful to the gods, for they had allowed me to live in a period when my allotted task consisted of prudent reorganization of a world, and not of extracting matter, still unformed, from chaos, or of lying upon a corpse in the effort to revive it.” (Part 3, p.94)
When he assesses his relationship with both his wife and with Antinous, he couches it in Olympian mythology, the better to magnify himself and make his love affair seem something grand and noble: “For a long time, already, I had been more inclined towards the fable of love and quarrels of the gods than to the clumsy commentaries of philosophers upon the nature of divinity; I was willing to be the terrestial image of Jupiter, who is the more god in that he is also man, who supports the world, incarnating justice and giving order to the universe, but who is at the same time the lover of Ganymedes and Europas, the negligent husband of a bitter Juno.” (Part 4, pp.139-140)
Indeed, reading Hadrian as an unreliable narrator, I see much delusion in his declared love for Antinous. Note that he has proclaimed his quest for a fixed, committed, unchanging and pure love. But, by his own account, he tries to introduce Antinous to new sexual pleasures in brothels and the like, as if he is in search of quick erotic thrills after all. This all calls into question his initial high-sounding rhetoric about the perfect object of his love. On the one hand, he philosophises about the soul and the body; on the other he finds pretexts to wallow in the sensual cultures of Greece and Rome.
Even more tellingly, despite his infatuation with the boy and young man, Hadrian never really seems to understand Antinous or connect with who he is. He is aware that Antinous is afraid of ageing and losing his beauty. Perhaps the word “narcissist” would be appropriate here, although it is never used in novel. It is apparently this fear of age that causes Antinous to commit suicide. But there is another possibility that to me seems equally plausible. Did Hadrian not notice what a huge psychological burden it would be for a boy to be the centre of a powerful ruler’s attention? After all, there is nothing here to suggest that the boy is anything other than a handsome, immature young guy with an average brain and very little resilience.
Quite apart from the matter of Antinous, there are other matters in which I detect Hadrian’s lack of self-awareness. Does he not notice his personal malice in banishing from Rome the poet Juvenal for satirising a male actor whom Hadrian fancies? And in the same pages he looks with equanimity upon a show of 300 criminals being pulled apart by wild beasts (Part 5, pp.187-88). When he adopts young Lucius as one of his heirs, is he not aware of how ridiculous he sounds? He says : “I had the impudence to mention that this fair-haired prince would be admirably handsome clad in the purple; the ill-willed hastened to assert that I was giving an empire in return for a voluptuous intimacy of earlier days.” (Part 5, p.210)
At this point, you are free to suggest that I am simply giving negative constructions to things said by a character whom the author wants us, on the whole, to admire. I concede that, by being as true to the historical record as a novelist can be, Marguerite Yourcenar could have included some of Hadrian’s foibles without intending us to see him as generally untruthful. But for the sake of her own integrity, I hope she really meant Hadrian to be an unreliable narrator. Of course an emperor would have a god-like view of his lowly subjects, but Hadrian’s self-regard, self-praise and lordly manner come close to delusion. And so does his interpretation of his relationship with Antinous. I am aware that Greeks and Romans had different sexual mores from our’s, but frankly this relationship would now be called paedophilia, with all the pejorative connotations that word now has.
Cheeky and presumptuous footnote: Twice Marguerite Yourcenar makes the mistake of assuming that the Mithraic cult required initiation by immersion in bull’s blood (Part 2, p.48, when young Hadrian himself is initiated into the cult in Germany; Part 4, pp.147-8 when Antinous is inducted). More recent research and archaeology suggest that this was never the case, although the cult’s hero Mithras was said to have bathed in bull’s blood. We can’t blame Yourcenar for accepting what was, seventy years ago, the common belief of historians; but this is one matter in which time has caught up with the novel.
Disrespectful footnote: As is my wont after reading and writing my own reflections on older books, I went on line and looked up what various other people had had to say about Memoirs of Hadrian. Most gave it a huge thumbs up as a modern classic, took it for granted that it had really got into the late classical mind, and accepted unconditionally the wisdom of Hadrian’s sayings, as conveyed (or invented) by Marguerite Yourcenar. However, I was surprised – and in a way felt vindicated – to find one genuine review on a site called unappetisingly “Bookslut” wherein the reviewer criticised the novel for having no real drama – there is no true interaction between characters, simply Hadrian’s reflections thereupon. Worse, said this reviewer, while Yourcenar tells us what (she purports) Hadrian would have had to say about the soul, beauty, immortality etc., she hardly ever gives his detailed reflections on what would have been the workaday concerns of an emperor – how taxes could be raised, how inefficient bureaucrats could be got rid of etc. These things are dealt with in one-line statements along the lines of “I got rid of inefficient bureaucrats”, without going into detail. This bias very much skews the author’s view of the historical figure and limits its plausibility as history. The reviewer concluded that Yourcenar was more an essayist than a true novelist – more the heir of Montaigne than of Flaubert. Fair enough.
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.
MAYBE CLIPS ARE BETTER
As I’ve probably said some other time on this blog, I was for thirty years a film-reviewer, a trade which I relinquished 14 years ago. I had long stints first in a newspaper, then on Radio New Zealand, then in a couple of glossy magazines, all the while [the whole 30 years] also writing under a pseudonym in a church weekly. There was also a weird six months, way back in 1990, when I co-hosted a Saturday night film-review show on Television New Zealand.
Every so often, somebody would ask me “What are your favourite films of all time?” or would ask me to compile an all-time Ten Best list. I could usually, with a lot of effort, crank out such a list, but only grudgingly. There are many films which I admire and enjoy, but it is very hard to say which I would choose as the absolute best.
Some time ago, though, I realised that it was easier for me to identify brilliant sequences from films rather than brilliant complete films. I could, at this point, list all the musical numbers I’ve thought the greatest (from Fred and Ginger to the present), or all the sight gags in visual comedy (from Buster Keaton to the present) or all the banter in verbal comedy (from the Marx Brothers to the Present). But let’s stick to what could loosely be called “serious” – albeit genre – films, just to get a flavour of the type of thing I mean. I list them here in chronological order only.
The opening sequence of the 1942 thriller This Gun for Hire, directed by old Hollywood hand Frank Tuttle and loosely adapted from a Graham Greene “entertainment”. We are introduced to a hitman – a guy who murders for money – called Raven and played by the young Alan Ladd. With no dialogue, the opening minutes show this wretched man waking up in a shoddy boarding house, reading a note telling him what his next assignment is, readying his firearm, slapping about a woman who comes in to do the cleaning, and then feeding a stray puss-cat. We’ve already got the mixture of viciousness and softness that is the key to his character. It is perfect exposition – and the second sequence of this film shows him committing his assigned murder coldly and efficiently. The film is not all of a piece, but this is one of the best openings on film.
The main murder sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Robert Walker, playing one of the most engaging homicial psychopaths ever put on screen, stalks “Miriam”, the young woman he means to kill as part of his insane plan to “switch murders” with a man he met by chance on a train. The scene is a funfair at night. The camera follows Walker as he stalks his prey through the noisy funfair, then follows her out to a small island where lovers meet to smooch. She gets separated from the young men she was with and, in the dark, rushes into Walker’s arms. “Are you Miriam?” he asks. “Why yes,” she says, with a come-on smile, thinking he’s interested in her for the same reason as the boys who were courting her. At which point he strangles her. Often critics have commented on a visual trick Hitchcock pulls here, where Miriam’s glasses fall to the ground as she is being strangled and then we get an extreme close-up of the murder taking place in a disorted image reflected in one of the glasses’ lenses. [It is often explained that Hitchcock had built for him a huge pair of glasses to make this shot possible]. But it isn’t the visual effect that fascinates me about this sequence. It is the way that, by having the scene played in deep shadows while all the time we can see and hear the bright funfair across the water, Hitchcock shows us how much this twisted man is separated from his fellow human beings and their joys. Image here is the exposition of a whole psychological disposition.
Sorry, but we’re still in the realm of noir-ish thriller when I come to my third memorable sequence. This is the opening of Sam Fuller’s down-and-dirty movie Pick-Up on South Street, made in 1953. This is certainly a film that goes downhill after its great start, but the start is still arresting. An establishing shot of a subway train rushing past. Then we’re in the crowded subway car where commuters are jammed together. Richard Widmark slithers up the carriage to where Jean Peters is hanging on a strap. They face each other so closely that you’d call it intimate. He takes out a newspaper and pretends to read it, but his hands are fishing in her open carry-bag, eventually extracting her purse as her eyes are distracted elsewhere. So we know he’s a pickpocket. While their eyes lock, he folds her purse in his newspaper. A few close-ups have told us that this has all been observed by two other men in the carriage. Widmark exits the train and runs. One of the men tries to follow him, but the doors close in his face. “What happened?” says one man to the other. “I don’t know”, says the second man. Neither do we. It is quite some film-time before we learn that this all has to do with some vital information the woman had in her purse – but our curiosity has been piqued more expertly by this opening than by any other I can think of.
And so, after three sequences in expressive black-and-white, to two films in colour. I think The Searchers (1956) is John Ford’s masterpiece, and by most rational measures the best Western ever made. There are many sequences where Ford shows how much he could say laconically. The sequence where Ethan (John Wayne) returns to his friends’ wilderness home for the first time in years, and just by tossing a medal from his bag tells us what sort of life he has led as a mercenary. The sequence where the boy (Jeffrey Hunter) stands in front of the girl (Natalie Wood) to prevent Ethan from killing her in the belief that she has been “tainted” by having grown up with Indians. We have been accepting Ethan as a determined tracker and a sort of hero for most of the film, but by now we fully understand that there is a strain of paranoia about race in him. But the sequence that really gets me is one single shot – in fact the last shot in the film. Ethan has returned the kidnapped girl to her family. Order has been restored and the family reunited. But Ethan does not come into the home. He stands framed in the doorway, and takes up a pose of defeat, one hand clutching the elbow of the opposite arm. Then he turns away and the door closes on him. Perfect. In one shot, we know this man is irredeemable – he will never be part of civilisation.
I could give many more examples of great sequences, but here is the last for now. Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), set in 16th century Japan, is about a complex set of clan wars. At one point, a warlord is informed that one of his key enemies has been killed by a shot made, with a primitive firearm, by a sharpshooter stationed on his castle walls. Distrustful of the accuracy of these new-fangled firearms, the warlord insists that the sharpshooter replicate his feat by shooting off the top of a bush, at the same distance from the castle wall as the object of his reputed fatal shot. And here comes the brilliant self-contained sequence. The sharpshooter loads the primitive firearm. The sharpshooter balances it in his hands, then hangs a weight from it, with some fibre, to ensure it remains steady when he takes his shot. The sharpshooter lines up his shot. The sharpshooter fires. The top of the bush is sliced off. The joy of this is simply the way Kurosawa shows a whole process, and illuminates a whole period in the history of early modern technology, in just three or four shots.
In looking at these five chosen sequences, I am, of course, thoroughly embarrassed that they all come from films with some degree of violence in them, with noir thrillers dominating. I am also embarrassed that they all come from quite some years ago – indeed only the last one was first released when I was already a film-reviewer. This probably shows that I am descending into old fart-dom.
Even so, I hope I’ve illustrated that sometimes sequences can be more memorable than whole films.
Monday, May 14, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“A FIELD OFFICER’S NOTEBOOK – Selected Poems” by Dan Davin, edited with an introduction by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ29:95); “THE QUEST” by Yannis Kyrlis (English language translation by Maria Georgala) (Austen Macauley Publishers, no price given); “WALKING TO JUTLAND STREET” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ 27:50); “THE FACTS” by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC?” by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “WINTER EYES” by Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); "WHISPER OF A CROW'S WING" by Majella Cullinane (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50)
Dan Davin (1913-1990) was best known as a novelist, short-story writer and academic publisher. He had only a few poems published in his lifetime and was not primarily known as a poet. Nevertheless, he did fill notebooks with poems and ideas for poems, none of which have hitherto been made public. Robert McLean has selected, edited and written a very informative introduction to A Field Officer’s Notebook, presenting what he sees as the best of Davin’s published and unpublished poems. The title was one which Davin himself considered for such a collection.
As McLean’s introduction explains, Davin wrote poetry in three periods of his life only, marked in this collection by the headings “Before”, “During” and “After”. The “Before” was in the late 1930s, when Davin was a young man in England, remembering New Zealand and considering a career. The “During” was the Second World War, probably the pivotal period of Davin’s life, when he served with the New Zealand Division in Crete, North Africa and Italy. The “After” was years later, in old age in the 1980s and in retirement from the world of publishing.
McLean speaks of Davin’s “inescapable minor key” in that so many of these poems are wistful, lamenting, accepting of death without eternal rewards and only occasionally finding pleasure in nostalgic, fragmented memories of childhood. In McLean’s view the poems written during the war are Davin’s best. McLean characterises the poets of the First World War as moving from “idealism to cynicism”, whereas the poets of the Second World War moved from “cynicism to nihilism”. This, he says, was Davin’s course. Though inflected with classical allusions, the poems Davin wrote in North Africa are ironic and raw. They are, says McLean “insistently negative”. He contrasts Davin’s war poems with those of New Zealand’s two best-known servicemen poets of the Second World War, M.K. Joseph and Denis Glover. Davin, he notes, wrote his best wartime poems while the conflict was still in progress. The other two poets wrote in postwar recollection.
This is all the framework of A Field Officer’s Notebook, but what of the poems themselves? We cannot escape the fact that they are poems of their time. Many of the later poems are free-form – perhaps in an “unfinished” state – while the earlier ones tend to be in stricter traditional metres. It is impossible to ignore the dated diction that the younger man often favours (“ponder” “chide” etc.)
The poems of the “Before” section present a young man’s anxieties, not just in having left comfortable childhood behind, but in the sense of having so far achieved nothing in his life (see especially the poem “In what diversity of sterile tasks”). Perhaps there is a touch of envy at those who got ahead of him academically, as in “Had I constrained my spirit then”, written in 1937, where Davin claims to spurn Academe in favour of Bohemia. In its entirety, it goes thus:
Had I constrained my spirit then
To put on learning’s gown
I might have scorned the life of men
And walked with the scholar’s frown.
Well-informed I should have strode
Lettered and erudite
Subscribing to a college code
And mouthing maxims trite.
I might have lost humanity
And withered to a don
But I preferred profanity
Love and demijohn.
Well, perhaps Davin preferred cussing, shagging and drinking to scholarship, but the preference clearly wasn’t unmixed.
The general tone of the “During” section is less defensive. When Davin writes of the dead under snow, he sees no consolation. His poem “Haunted by mysteries, life, time, and death” does not accept the concept (so much a focus for Wallace Stevens) that living joys and sensuality are made more precious and wonderful by the prospect of annihilation in death. Davin won’t accept even that apologia for death, because death haunts and pollutes the joys of life, as in the lines “Wolves exiled from the light / Their jealousies prowl still / About the brief campfires of our love, / Living a ghoulish life / within the echoes of our laughter”. Davin cannot write a poem about soldiers enjoying an evening boozing and having a knees-up. Instead his poem “Morning Fatigue in the Canteen” depicts the morning-after clean up of cigarette butts and slops.
The most finished poems of Davin’s wartime experience are, it seems to me, three of the most confronting. “Egyptian Madonna” is a poem of disgust as the poet describes in horrible detail the sight of an undernourished child being suckled by an impoverished mother. “Cairo Cleopatra” is just as explicit in its view of a prostitute – or at least of a prostitute’s body being used by many soldiers. As for “Grave near Sirte”, the harshest poem in the book, it concerns the complete anonymity of death and the way we inevitably forget the dead, regardless of what the monuments say.
The imagery of some of the poems in the “After” section clearly sets them in the London of the 1980s. Some, dare I say it, are trite aphorisms. There are memories of Davin’s Irish-New Zealand childhood, and he babbles of the green fields, perhaps covered in gorse, of Gore and Invercargill. Yet he is still frequently referencing and re-imagining the war, with fragments of a poem about El Alamein, and quoted snatches of an ironic song about Ravenstein (the German general who was captured in North Africa by a detachment of New Zealanders). His envoi to the war is “Why not be dead?” which goes thus: “Why not be dead? / The old dead soldier said. / It’s really far less trouble / And there are no orders, no jankers, here, / To be carried out at the double.”
This is the best epitaph the unhappy ex-soldier poet could write for himself.
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It is flattering when a man on the other side of the world writes and asks me if I could review on my blog his collection of short stories. When the Greek writer Yannis Kyrlis wrote from Athens to ask if I would review The Quest, I readily said I would. This slim volume (138 pages) consists of twelve short stories, many of them very brief. The longest is the title-story “The Quest” at 32 pages, followed by “Just Don’t Forget the Way” at 30 pages.
Most [but not all] of the collection’s shorter stories are written in the detached third-person voice and most take the form of fables, parables or visions – more extended image than sequential narrative. The settings are often unreal – I hesistate to say surreal – being both everywhere and nowhere. In “The Threat” a man defends his house from men who want to destroy it – or do they? “The Sceptre” has lovers quarrelling near a rubbish dump, where a walking cane becomes a symbol for antiquated patriarchal authority. “Some Black Birds” is a simple shocker while “Confessions in a Café” presents a rather convoluted discussion in a café between older and younger people of artistic pretensions, ending with a reconciliation between the generations. Symbolism – or extended metaphor – hangs heavily over some stories. “The Stranger” presents a literal foot race as the epitome of the urban rat race. “The Painter of St George” shows a painter’s confidence ruined by a hostile review. “Before the Dawn” is a soul journey story set among street people. “The Little Girl with Cloth Legs” plays with very heavy symbolism indeed as an alluring childhood memory is exorcised by a Witch (or is that Fate?). “The Course of a Crisis” is most definitely a parable, about our need for enemies in order to sharpen our thoughts.
Thus I have name-checked my way through nearly all of this volume’s shorter offerings. They sound at least a little like the shorter pieces of Kafka in their arbitrary conclusions and not-quite-diagnosed sense of menace. I would advise that they be read carefully, one at a time, or their simlarity of style could become oppressive.
Far more interesting, I think, are the two longer pieces, both written in the first person and therefore perhaps signalling a greater engagement on the author’s part. Oddly, one is a dreamlike, almost surreal piece, while the other is strictly realistic.
“The Quest” is the surreal one, of the Alice-in-Wonderland variety with its abrupt transitions. The narrator has literally lost his heart and is fishing for it in murky water. People incite him to suicide. He is set before a sort of tribunal, convened in a tavern, which accuses him of wilfully losing his heart. His friend and protector is called “the Illustrator”. At one point his heart is a leaf hanging on a tree. At another he is confronted by a powerful female figure who accuses him of throwing his heart away on her. It is hard to read “The Quest” without plucking out symbols – the dead tree, the tower, and perhaps “the Illustrator”, symbolising conscience or art – something that can put the narrator’s experiences into words and can rationalise them. But as to what it means…. like most surrealism, it simply is not reducable to a formula. Kafka’s K. really would be at home in its atmosphere of meaningless menace – a nightmare in images.
Personal taste leads me to relate much more favourably to “Just Don’t Forget the Way”, a realistic presentation of the childhood memories of a man who lived in an impoverished village – not that the poverty is played up by the narrator, who would have been too young to diagnose such things. Poverty is implied by the fact that the narrator’s father has had to leave for Germany to find work and it is implied by the bitter quarrels housewives have over nothing – that nothing being the meagre rations they have to feed their families. At one point, the narrator’s gang of kids find the corpse of a man who has committed suicide, presumably from despair. This is a robust and straightforward child’s narrative, and it gives a kid’s eye-view of (Greek) political events that the kid does not understand. Only towards the end do we realise that it is set just after the Colonels have staged their coup.
But there is one snag in this story. It has to do with the uncertain nature of the translation from Greek into English. The matter is not as evident in the volume’s more surreal stories, where unrealistic flourishes of language are part of the territory. But in a realistic story like “Just Don’t Forget the Way”, it is jarring to find a kid saying “he will bestow me his bicycle” or “a new kid who came lately to our neighbourhood”, or for one quarrelling woman to use the word “foolish” as a form of address, as in “What can you tell me, foolish?” rather than something like “you fool”. To me, this unidiomatic English suggests that English is not the translator’s first language.
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I have to provide a collective apology to the five poets whose work I cover very briefly in what follows. On this blog, I try to consider collections of poetry in detail, but given that I am now posting only fortnightly, this is becoming harder to do, so – not for the first time – I am here providing “notices” rather full-length critiques. I hope this is satisfactory.
This may be a brash thing to say, but Michael Steven’s debut volume Walking to Jutland Street fills me with an odd sort of nostalgia. It situations itself in a well-established New Zealand tradition – as the blurb says, it’s partly under the influence of New Zealand poets Olds, Orr, Johnson and (maybe) Baxter. This is the realist poetry of blokes in hard circumstances, in the workshop or in the grotty Dunedin student flat, sometimes among bums, beats, hopheads [cor! listen to my dated slang!] – in a word Bohemians, trying to find some sort of karmic truth. I like the plain statement of all this and I note there’s another layer of nostagia here in that Steven himself is clearly looking back on his life as it was and not as it is. The excellent descriptive title poem “Walking Jutland Street” says as much, especially in its closing line “I am writing these lines from another life.” In saying it’s realist, I’m not dismissing this very arresting collection as a series of literalist snapshots. Steven peppers his verse with unexpected jabs of telling imagery, and he has a wicked ironic wit. Check out one of his best, “Educating SR-3781”, which uses a funny-sad story to point up the difference between machine and human being. In an odd sort of way, Steven moralises, too. The opening poem might be a wild childhood cavort with an excited tone of whoop-de-do, and later ones have rich descriptions of travel in Asia – but as for the Bohemian ones, Steven often admits that there was a destructive side to the Bohemian life.
Therese Lloyd’s The Facts is a book of withdrawal, of unhappiness, of a desperate attempt to find something positive in life. A number of her poems are [to use a word she herself uses in her notes] ekphrastic – that is, they are comments on existing works of art or images, and there is a section which plays variations on the poetry of Mallarme. I think I am justified in saying that some of them are fairly opaque. Central to the collection, however, is the sense of aging and, apparently, an account of a marriage that didn’t work. So the tone is often very confessional. I found myself most absorbed in two poems. The first is the prose poem “On Looking at Photographs in High School Yearbooks”, which negotiates cleverly the task of being at once dismissive of, and nostalgic for, what is now dead and gone. The second is the eponymous nine-page poem “The Facts”, a consciously candid view of a failing marriage written more in lucid dissection than in anger. Its imagery is both complex and engaging, but also often bleak. I have to agree with Hera Lindsay Bird’s comment (quoted in the blurb) that this book “won’t make you feel better”.
I am going to begin by admitting a prejudice. I am prejudiced in favour of the poetry of Helen Heath. When I reviewed her first collection Graft on this blog in 2012, I praised her for her humane clear-headedness and her engagement with science. I find these same qualities in her new collection Are Friends Electric?, although this is a volume that heads in some new directions. The first section (also called “Are Friends Electric?”) is heavily footnoted as it contains many “found poems” and many allusions to, or quotations from, other people’s texts. Often I find the concept of “found poems” offputting. Too often they become exercises in isolating, and implicitly being ironical or mocking about, what somebody else has written. But this is not Helen Heath’s style. What she finds she transforms. The sequence about “Strandbeests” really does become an engrossing reflection on human-made concepts and imagined evolutionary processes. Even more arresting, the prose poem “The Anthropocene” connects us human beings with bird-calls in a most unexpected and refreshing way. If I do not connect as whole-heartedly with the poems, in this first section, on love and relationships, it may simply be that they reflect the mores of a generation different from my own. The second long section, called “Reprogramming the Heart” is more confessional. Most of its poems are in the first person, dealing with pregnancy, birth, motherhood and (apparently) widowhood among other things. The matter of technology and science is not forgotten, however, for Heath has a consistent train of images linking us [human beings] to the cyber world and to artificial intelligence. Once again, her style is polished and her expression is clear.
I can take Winter Eyes only to mean the eyes of somebody who is heading into winter – that is, getting nearer to old age. In Harry Ricketts’ latest collection, the words come from the last line of the poem “Sansibar oder der letzte Grund”, which asserts “Things look different through winter eyes”. These poems are indeed elegaic and backward looking in the main. Many appear to reach back to mildly-raffish student years (listening to rock music and taking hols on the Continent) and the years of being an aspiring academic. There are a number of anecdotes concerning well-known literary identities either met or talked about, and of course there are references to canonical literature. Some poems seem to allude to a youthful love (or do they?) and some are certainly about a lost relationship with a stepson. Not that this is maudlin. The tone is more often jocular , knowing and perhaps resigned. I am not sure that Harry Ricketts would necessarily appreciate the comparison, but I read this collection with the same sort of pleasure I get from reading the chattier, more relaxed poems of W.H.Auden’s mellow years. They are urbane and often witty.
Majella Cullinane’s Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is an extraordinary book and unexpected in the sense that it is a type of poetry rarely published in New Zealand now. Suggesting a strong awareness of earlier forms, the collection’s epigraph is, fittingly, a quotation from Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”. An Irish expatriate now resident in New Zealand, Majella Cullinane combines a romantic sensibility with a modernist sharpness. Her poetry has much very Irish (Catholic) imagery together with specifically New Zealand imagery. (The blurb tells me it is being published simultaneously in New Zealand and Ireland). There is much reference to a deep past. The whole section “The Hours” links the traditional monastic canonical hours with present day urban life. Much of the final section “Cut Away the Masts” (including the surging and terrifying poem “A Woman Was Seen”) is based on materials drawn from letters written in the nineteenth century. In the poem “Displaced”, it is as if Cullinane has inserted herself into the spirit of an immigrant from earlier centuries. Nature is numinous in the world depicted here. And it is easily anthropomorphised. There is “a gust throwing the eucalyptus on the hill into a quandary” in the poem “First Light”. Crows are portents of death in the collection’s title poem; or they are linked to the human skill of literacy, as in “the black letters on this page / as they move across the white space, which remind me / of crows stalking frozen trees” (in “Finale to the Season”). I do not wish to be reductive, but the general tone of this collection is a sense of longing. Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is fey in the original and non-pejorative sense of the word – it senses the presence of things not quite seen (see the poem“Seeing Things”). There is much mist, much fog, much sea-coast. Am I resorting to racial stereotypes if I say it is very Celtic? Yet it is also confessional. The whole section “As Good As” appears to refer to a miscarriage in mythological terms and includes the wrenching line “I would fashion the smallest gap you could sneak through” . I’m impressed.