Monday, November 12, 2018

Something New


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

“NOWHERE NEARER” by Alice Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99) ; “THE FAREWELL TOURIST” by Alison Glenny (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “VIEW FROM THE SOUTH” by Owen Marshall -  photographs by Grahame Sydney (Vintage, $40)

            Nowhere Nearer is the second collection by Alice Miller, a New Zealand poet now living in Berlin. Four years ago on this blog I reviewed her debut volume The Limits, and admitted my bafflement with much of her meaning, finding it sometimes almost wilfully opaque. But I did grasp that much of it implied angst over 20th century catastrophes.

I would not describe Nowhere Nearer as obscure in its meaning. True, one or two poems do seem to hint, somewhat vaguely, at emotional matters in the poet’s private life. But in the main, Miller’s ideas and references are crystal clear. Nowhere Nearer is dominated by a sense of the ineluctability of time and death; and our inability to escape from the past and the cultures that have shaped us. If I were to choose lines that sum up the volume’s mood, they would be from the poem “How to Forget”, which references Freud  and declares “of all the crowds to listen to / it’s the dead who know most” and later remarks “It is astonishing to be / alive, we say, which means / it is astonishing to be here / among these future dead.

This collection leans heavily on European High Culture and ancient European mythology. Consider the imagery you find here – many poems are haunted by old Vienna or by palatial ruins, be they Christian or pagan (see the poem “Palace”). Dante enters Hell in one poem, as does Orpheus in another. Yet another (“Boy”) is like a grim retelling of the story of Icarus. The river Lethe and James Joyce’s Buck Mulligan make an appearance and the poem “The Fall” crams in Chekhov’s three sisters longing for Moscow and Flaubert and Tolstoy and others.

For all this cultural richness, though, the tone is generally bleak and grim. The opening poem “Saving” tells us “some of the moments we cling to most / are the futures we never let happen.” This is a formula for life-long regret. The second poem “Out of this World” (whence comes the volume’s title) tells us that beginnings are never endings and we never reach our destinations. “Observatory” suggests time is eternal repetition – the eternel retour in which there is no progress. “How to Remember”, with an odd form of extreme Cartesian rationalism, sees Vienna as an unreal city created by the mind: “We borrowed stage sets we can shift, paint, switch, / but now we will never see the main event. / What we really see will always disappoint us. / Reality does what it likes”. As for the poem “Europe”, it suggests the whole weight of history crushes us even as we are trying to live the moment. “As the Crow Flies the Sun Rips Day Open” tells us “We’ve bought a history we do not want / and we must watch it every day / until the minutes crack.” In “The Hold I Have” death is a certainty. In “Epilogue” love is an illusion

In pointing out the collection’s dark and unrelenting vision, am I being negative about it? Certainly not. I think Alice Miller is doing the bracing work of a latter-day Schopenhauer, telling us that life, as we subjectively experience it, is so grim that we simply have to develop the intellectual resilience to deal with it.

I am wondering to what extent Miller, giving a broad panoramic view of history and concentrating on Europe, has been influenced by the example of Auden?

“Eva Braun in Linz” quotes specifically from Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. It is a hauntingly horrible poem, not just about Hitler’s girlfriend [and, at the last moment, wife], but also about the persistence of sinister memories concerning things that would otherwise be seen as harmless. I believe Auden’s world view invades other poems. In  “St Peter”, Miller suggests resignation before the facts of history and our helplessness to do anything about them. This line of thought puts me in mind of the lines that end Auden’s “Spain, 1937” : “History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help or pardon.” Even the poem referencing Icarus could take something from Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts.

There are some puzzles for me in Nowhere Nearer. “Fourteen Mistakes” is partly straightforward mentions of things that highlight the strangeness of attempting to attune to other places; but also partly impenetrable surreal images. It baffles me. “My Girl in California”, however, shows great craftsmanship in its insistent staccato rhythms and its tight focus.

Allow me to finish with a paradox. The poem “The Roof” appears to diagnose the malaise of the modern world as rootlessness; as the lack of a secure sense of home. Yet for me Miller’s most accessible and most accomplished poem in this collection is “The Sound”, in which she fuses together, in description of a real New Zealand place, both Polynesian and European mythology. Despite the volume’s intimations of stasis and ineluctability, this does actually suggest a way ahead in the melding of things that seemed immutable. This is a bit more positive than Schopenhauer ever was.

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“There comes Poe with his raven like Barnaby Rudge, / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge wrote James Russell Lowell in 1848. It was the perfect response to Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who could hit the poetic and narrative heights but who, regrettably, was also prone to overstatement, bathos and crude melodrama. A real mixture of genius and fudge.

I have never before felt so inclined to invoke Lowell’s jingle as I do after reading Alison Glenny’s debut collection The Farewell Tourist. The best of it is brilliant – evocative of time and place, startling in its imagery, and as very chilly as the poet intends it to be. But the worst of it? Oh dear… let me leave that for later in this notice, so that I can first tell you how accomplished a writer Glenny is capable of being.

Glenny has visited the Antarctic and done postgratuate Antarctic Studies, and from this develop her major themes and trains of imagery. The wonderful first section of this collection is called “The Magnetic Process”. Its nineteen pages consist of nineteen paragraphs (or prose poems if you prefer) which are like a series of surrealist paintings – Magritte or some such.  A man and a woman are connected with images drawn from the “heroic age” of polar exploration (Amundsen and Scott are referenced in the notes at the back). She appears to be at home, imagining the freezing polar wastes. He appears to be on the ice itself, although their specific locations are sometimes ambiguous. Details can be almost photographic realism – but then surrealism depends on the exact and realistic depiction of impossible things. She loses a notebook he gave her. As a child he played with a telescope.  He loads material for exploration. Explorers eat the emergency stew called hoosh. Fragile photographic plates are smashed accidentally. Yet we also have her dreams and his dreams blurring the edges of reality.  In the first section of this sequence, their fingers touch and produce sparks. He whips up a magnetic storm around her. The music of a piano merges with geology.  She takes a fossilised glossopteris to the doctor’s. She is at home imagining the ice shelves. His sense of perception gets disoriented.

To get the flavour of this, I quote in full the two sections of “The Magnetic Process” to which I kept coming back.

First, Section VII:  “He called it the little observatory. The instrument, he explained, was for measuring the electrical state of the atmosphere. The wooden box, with the latch that was too small to be opened by a mittened hand. Later, the photographer disappeared into a bag with only his arms showing. Darkness was necessary, he explained, if you wanted to capture light.” It is a literal narrative, not a dream, but note how it captures reality from an odd angle. It is not only the paradox in the concluding sentence that does this, but also the phrase about the photographer disappearing into a bag. Of course, with the cumbersome photographic equipment of the early 20th century, photographers literally went under a hood when they took their pictures. But “disappearing into a bag” slyly suggests the distance between objective detail and its photographic depiction. The photographer disappears into his own representation.

Second, Section XII: “Some afternoons a fog rolled down the hallway. On others, the staircase groaned with moisture. A finger laid carelessly on a bannister dislodged a ledge of rime. She lifted the hem of her dress to avoid the damp in the passageway, wore knitted gloves in the kitchen. She was lying in the bath when the glacier pushed through the wall. She sank deeper into the water to escape the chill that settled on her shoulders Trying to ignore the white haze, to lose herself between the pages of her book.” This is an episode of finely-crafted imagination. In reading it, we at first say that the chilly house triggers in the woman’s mind images of the frozen south. But once the glacier pushes through the wall, our attention turns to the fragility of human habitations themselves. This really is surrealism, like Magritte’s painting “Time Transfixed” (an image of a steam train emerging from a fireplace).

I hope I’ve said enough to show what is really admirable in this collection.

But what about the “two-fifths sheer fudge”? Well, it comes after “The Magnetic Process” is over. The rest of the volume comprises a couple of pages giving modified dictionary definitions of the words “Drift” and “Erasure”, there are “erasure” statements of a gnomic quality, and a long section (fully 21 pages) of “footnotes” to non-existent texts i.e. two thirds of  each page is blank, with only the footnotes on display. Yes, I get the drift of them (Yup! I can make bad puns too), especially as they connect with the line I’ve quoted above about a woman trying to “lose herself between the pages of her book.” Yes, I can see that if you read the “footnotes” in sequence, they do imply a sort of narrative dependent on the grand lacuna that sits above them on the page. Yes, I can see that the almost-blank white pages inevitably resemble snow covered wastes, if you’re cued to see them that way. Yes, I understand Bill Manhire’s comment quoted on the back cover, when he awarded this book the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award – “the text is not written primarily for the ear… [it] takes full advantage of the white pages on which the words appear.” So it’s an objet d’art as much as a verbal text. But even when I have taken all this on board, the final 46 pages of this production still has the effect of Writing School game-playing. In the short run, footnotes-without-text is an amusing concept. In the long run, it is tiresome preciosity.

Pushing against the boundaries of what poetry might be” is how the opening words of the blurb describe this book. I would say that after the first twenty pages, it ceases to be poetry at all.

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From the much-honoured novelist, short-story writer and poet Owen Marshall comes not a collected poems but a selected poems. In this respect View From the South is kin to Cilla McQueen’s Poeta and Vincent O’Sullivan’s Being Here (both reviewed on this blog). These are poems which the poet himself has selected as being the best from his three collections so far, but with some previously unpublished poems added. As his introductory note makes clear, the accompanying photographs by his friend the painter Grahame Sydney are an essential part of the collection’s effect. Indeed, were I in the business of art criticism, I would comment as much upon the photographs as upon the poems – all those images of lonely South Island roads and hills and snow on trees and an abandoned car and a pier battered by the sea and corrugated iron. They really do complement the poems and I spent much time gazing at them whenever I paused in reading the text.

But the text is the thing, and straightforward in its declarations it can be. As an Aucklander I have to forgive Marshall for his opening “South Island Prayer” where he says he does not want to die “rotting in the heat” of Auckland but wants to die “with the old Southerly Buster” on the larger, less-populated island which he has long regarded as his home (Marshall was born in Te Kuiti). Marshall may not have planned it this way, but he is part of a tradition of South Island poets who rhapsodise over the southern landscape – Mary Ursula Bethell, young Curnow, young Baxter, and (more satirically and critically) David Eggleton and Richard Reeve.

In the opening section (“Nature and Place”) of the four sections into which Marshall divides his selection, the images are South Island ones of wind and clouds at dusk and mallards and paradise ducks and stone walls and above all vast uninhabited space. There are brief references to overseas excursions and to the poet’s Welsh forebears, but the big island is his heartland. Quite a bit of admiration and nostalgia for (Pakeha) pioneers is packed into this. Consider the last lines of the poem “Clyde”, where “For me the pleasure is to find / an old schist wall behind the shops, rusty / iron links to which the horses were / tethered a hundred years before. I see / them standing patiently behind stone / buildings while their owners show gold / at the bank, then settle at the boozer / with greater satisfaction than any of us / gathered in the chill of this modern day.”

On the whole, Marshall is comfortable in his chosen island environment. He is at home. As far as I can see there is little – if any - anxiety about colonialism or postcolonialism in Marshall’s world and I think I am right in saying that there is no reference whatsoever to Maori culture. “Storm Over Mount Peel” may take place in South Canterbury, but its images are of raiding Vikings and Valkyrie riding the wind. Perhaps this is a South Island thing – again speaking as an Aucklander, I am aware of how less Maori presence there is in the South Island than in the North, and how easier it is for Pakeha of Canterbury or Otago to ignore such of it as there is. In surveying “History and Arts” (third section), Marshall deals with Norsemen, Greeks, Romans, the dogs sensibly eaten by Roald Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition and the original elephant known as Jumbo. New Zealand itself is not a place to reflect on historical tragedy.

When Marshall moves into his second section (“Family and Friends”) he reflects on old loves from adolescence and regrets from that time of life (later in the collection there’s a poem about listening nostalgically to Roy Orbison) ; taking a daily walk; attending funerals; being a grandfather; observing a grandchild’s first artless reactions to a movie and other things that suggest a mature, well-balanced mind enjoying the simple things in life. The words “subvert” and “subversive” are used far too often and too easily in current criticism, but I happily declare that Marshall’s “In Praise of Oddity” is a genuinely subversive poem, celebrating the eccentricity and non-conformity of ordinary people. One of the highlights of this collection.

So to the last section, “Heart and Mind”, where the poems are largely metaphysical. Marshall clearly has some nostalgia for the certainties and simplicity of his childhood Christianity (see the poem “Eary Christianity”), but he is unsure about God, dethroning him in one poem for the concept of Time itself. He aches a little for something definitive, feeling “The scratching behind an opaque, sightless / sky, like a dog left desolate” (opening lines of “Something More”). Seeing man as the centre of things is no substitute for the dethroned God: “Dismiss the arrogant assumption that everything / is fashioned for our benefit and understanding. / The incongruities, random beauty and horror / of existence have purposes beyond ourselves” (opening lines of “The World is not Made for Us”). So the vague ache is still there, partly compensated for by absorption in nature itself. But only partly compensated.

Marshall’s diction is sometimes mildly forced and slightly old-fashioned, as if from mid-20th century poetry. He likes (good for him!) to write in neat verse paragraphs. When he chooses to be, he is adept at rhyming couplets (in poems like “Paddock Nights” and “Simple Rhyme Chimes”) and he does an extensive Haiku sequence. He is most gifted, however, in the simple, straightforward literal statement which proves to have great resonance beyond itself. It is refreshing to read poetry that does not read like a test in acrostics, and I enjoyed greatly reading my way through this collection.

I’ll conclude by noting some personal favourites.

A moment in the book that makes me say “Snap!” is when Marshall’s observation of aggressive and pesky birds matches my own. This is from the poem “Birdstrike”: “Civic entitlement / is mine, but magpies enforce / archaic rules of trespass and I / don’t linger to debate with such / steely black-and-white resolve.”

“Book Launch” is a poem that will chill the heart of anyone who has had a book launched, because of the dead cold accuracy of its observations.

And finally, bravo for “The Slam-Dunk Poet” which, from a sensibly conservative perspective, takes down that awful competitiveness that plagues younger practitioners of verse.

Irrelevant and silly footnote: I know it’s aesthetically interesting, but I’m not sure why the dust jacket of View from the South covers only two-thirds of the hard cover beneath it.

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