Monday, October 26, 2015

Something New

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

“STANDING MY GROUND – A voice for nature conservation” by Alan F. Mark (Otago University Press, $NZ45); “STEWART ISLAND – RAKIURA NATIONAL PARK” by Neville Peat (Otago University Press, $NZ29:95)

Sometimes Introductions contributed to books by Eminent People read as little more than polite and formal praise for the author. But the introduction Sir Geoffrey Palmer provides for the autobiography of Professor Emeritus (of Botany) Sir Alan F. Mark does at once set out clearly the man we are dealing with. Alan F Mark, says Palmer, “has often been attacked by those who favour economic gain above all things” (p.9) and has devoted his adult life to the cause of ecology in his struggle to wed economic development with real sustainability. And this is what the book is all about.
Autobiographies come in many varieties. There’s the boastful type about all the prominent people the author has met; the psychological type, where the author delves into childhood and upbringing to explain how he / she has become the person he / she is; and then there is the type Professor Mark has written – an orderly account of his working life, with very little detail on his private life and feelings. For Mark, the autobiography is part of a long campaign, publicising necessary good fights for a healthier environment and the preservation of New Zealand wilderness.
Save for a brief two-page catch-up at the end, all the personal and family stuff is in the first chapter. Born in 1932, the son of a Dunedin electrician sometimes in straitened circumstances, young Alan Mark excelled in the sciences at school, majored in botany and zoology at the University of Otago, won a Fulbright Scholarship which took him to Duke University in the USA, and rejoiced in the American system, which began with two years of orderly coursework before he proceeded to fieldwork towards his Ph.D on “grass balds” in the Appalachians. It was in America that he married his New Zealand wife Patricia, who has often been his comrade and supporter in various ecological campaigns. They were to have four children.
And that’s it for the private man as we proceed to the career.
We soon learn what Mark was often up against. As he pursued his academic duties in the University of Otago’s Department of Botany, he worked for a High Country Research Team doing “long-term fundamental research into the tussock grasslands of the Otago high country.” (p.33) Later he worked for the Hellaby Trust in “applied ecological research into New Zealand’s native grasslands, as the basis for their sustainable management.” (p.39) This involved a careful survey of snow-tussock, in which the young academic proved that snow-tussock, by trapping water droplets from fog, was essential to a healthy run-off of water from the high country. This was news that graziers and run-holders didn’t want to hear. They wanted to be able to burn off snow-tussock as if it were a noxious weed. Using the ambiguity of another scientist’s report for the DSIR, some run-holders proceeded to attack the credibility of Mark’s work and tried to discredit him with academic superiors.
Later there were to be clashes with Federated Farmers, and sometimes with the Department of Lands and Survey (which Mark believed to be too often favouring farming interests) about how much land should be set aside for the conservation of red [copper] tussock. Though they managed to get an area set aside for the protection of takahe, Mark and others failed to get a large Conservation Park established in Central Otago. But he was gratified that at least some farmers supported his drive for scientific reserves in the high country, especially as:
“… the lack of any tussock grassland reserves in the entire South Island high country meant a serious absence of any baseline reference areas. Because all of the high country had been allocated for pastoral farming, it was impossible without any representative, non-farmed areas to assess objectively the impacts of the various aspects of pastoral farming, particularly stock grazing at different intensities and/or seasons, combined with burning at different intensities, frequencies and times, and particularly the post-burn management.” (Chapter 3, p.63)
There was a debate over establishing a conservation park in Nardoo Tussock Grassland. 40% of the area, which Mark and others wanted set aside, was in dispute. The conservationists took their case to the Ombudsman, but even before he had made his ruling (which did not support their case), the disputed land was ploughed up and converted to agricultural use. In this, Mark again criticises the role of the Department of Lands and Survey, noting:
The outcome of the Nardoo issue had major implications for the department’s image, particularly its handling of the dual responsibilities for land development and nature conservation. When difficult and contentious decisions had to be made between development and conservation, they almost invariably favoured development. This was also the public image the Forest Service had increasingly developed in relation to submissions on publicly notified forest-management plans, something the Land Settlement Board had managed to avoid. The concerned public eventually had their day soon after the Labour government was elected in 1984. Following an ‘Environmental Summit’ at parliament, the new government announced that the two departments were to be disestablished and replaced by two SOEs, Forestcorp and Landcorp, with the ‘green dots’ collectively to form a new Department of Conservation.” (Chapter 4, p.93)
So far, the non-specialist reader may be a little lost in Mark’s specialist preoccupations, apart from having the general sense that high country grasslands are essential to a healthy ecological cycle. But Chapter 5 will probably resonate much more with non-specialist readers. Here Mark gives a detailed account of the 13-year campaign (1959-72) to save Lake Manapouri from being raised for hydro-electrical use in accordance with the government’s contract with Comalco. It is alarming to be reminded that the original plan had been to flood both Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau to turn them into one huge lake – but this scheme proved impracticable even before the protests began. Professor Mark makes it clear that the campaign against raising the lake was won only when an incoming Labour government agreed to a policy of having “guardians” of the lakes, to monitor water levels, report on the damage done to inundated shorelines etc. Mark notes that since the campaign of protest was won, he and others have had generally friendly dealings with NZEC, the agency concerned with generating electricity; and all political parties have reached a consensus on how the lakes should be managed. Yet he does say:
On reflection, there were times during the Save Manapouri Campaign when I wondered whether my career as a scientist would be wrecked by political ill-will or the manipulation of officialdom. In his history of the campaign, Manapouri Saved, Neville Peat quotes me as saying, ‘as a young scientist I felt vulnerable – at times out on a limb on an issue that was highly political. Many government scientists, unable or unwilling in terms of job security to speak out themselves, urged me to take a stand’ ”. (Chapter 5, p.131)
In a chapter called “Quangos I Have Known”, Mark lauds the fact that Quangos [Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations] allowed specialist input into government planning, especially in an era when the Official Secrets Act was re-framed to allow some access to documents concerning such planning. As a member of the National Parks and Reserves Authority for nine years, Mark saw the value of such input, although there was always the possibility that recommendations could be over-ridden. When one national park was agreed upon:
            “Although the entire area was eventually declared a national park, Westland commissioner Julian Rodda undermined it by allowing a grazing concession in the flooded area soon afterwards. Unsurprisingly, later ecological surveys revealed serious weed invasion and degradation associated with the grazing, a problem that probably continues to this day. You win some, you lose some, despite best efforts.” (Chapter 6, p.139)
There could also be personal slanging against the conservationist causes Mark espoused. When discussing the Otago Conservation Board’s initiatives to set up a Little Valley tussock conservation scheme, he reports:
Among the wide range of submissions received on the issue, Lincoln University agricultural economist Alastair McArthur’s was particularly provocative. Referring to tussock grassland research generally, he claimed that most scientists associated with it were so ‘green’ as to be incapable of making judgments without bias. They were therefore open to suspicion some scientists could ‘fudge’ data and make ‘extravagant claims’. Descending to this level of criticism was galling. It reflected defensive reactions to the ecosystem degradation that had become clearly apparent to many scientists over the relatively short period of their working lives.” (Chapter 6, p.157)
From the tone of this review so far, you will note that I am doing little more than recording instances of Mark’s work and some of his opinions upon it.
There is a reason for this.
While one admires Mark for what he has attempted and achieved in the area of conservation, one also has to admit that his writing style is almost in the nature of a report, being largely a matter of listing and ticking off various enterprises in which he has been involved. This is especially true in the last three chapters, where we hear of many battles fought in Forest and Bird, and the struggle when Timberlands sought to log indigenous trees on the West Coast (as Nicky Hager’s Secrets and Lies reports, Mark had the honour of being called a “smart bastard” by a publicist for Timberlands.) There has been the campaign to prevent the Denniston Plateau being mined; the campaign to eradicate wilding trees; takahe management in the Fiordland mountains; the preservation of patterned wetlands and alpine vegetation; and an expedition to check the effects of deer browsing.
There has been Mark’s participation in ENGOs, of which he remarks:
At their best, ENGOs [Environmental Non-Government Organisations] are the foot soldiers of environmentalism, and my experiences with them have been variously rewarding and frustrating on both human and conservation fronts. Typically, every active member has his or her private environmental agenda so that group tensions can arise….. I have learnt valuable, if at times difficult, lessons about the nature and accessibility – or inaccessibility – of power, but have always dealt with principles, not personalities.”   (Chapter 9, p.226)
And [unsuccessful] opposition to the construction of the (leaking) Clyde Dam. And [successful] opposition to Meridian Energy’s plan to build a huge wind-farm across Central Otago’s Lammermoor Range. And the coordination of the “Wise Response” campaign to make the government endorse a systematic review of all aspects of bio-management and ecology with a view to sustainability. (The whole Wise Response submission to parliament is printed as an appendix).
One unifying theme is all this is Mark’s perception of the connectedness of his various causes – all are contributing to the one goal of a well-managed environment. There is little rancour expressed against farmers who did not always see eye-to-eye with conservationists, but there is a strong sense of how “development” can often lead to little more than a degraded environment.
Intriguing footnote: There is more than one way to write about the urgent need to protect the natural environment. It can be written about in the scientific, matter-of-fact and somewhat dry style of Professor Mark. Or it can be written about in poetry. It strikes me that many of Mark’s concerns are shared by the Dunedin poet Richard Reeve, whom Professor Mark once references in Standing My Ground. You will see evidence of this in the review of Reeve’s Generation Kitchen.
Silly and impertinent footnote. Standing My Ground is illustrated with many photographs. On Page 138 there is a photograph of various worthies, in 1985, pacing out the mountain route that would become the Kepler Track. The track, between Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, is indeed a great walk. I walked it in 1994. What irritated me, however, was the helipad at the top of the track, allowing lazy trampers to be flown up, so that they could claim to have walked the track by merely walking downhill from the top. The noise of helicopters buzzing up and down quite destroyed the ambience of the place, as well has making is harder to doze off in the nearby hut. I haven’t been on the track for over 20 years, but if this arrangement is still in place, I would like Professor Mark to start a campaign to have the helicopters banned.

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Just a brief note on Neville Peat’s Stewart Island – Rakiora National Park. Peat is a conservationist who is cited a couple of times by Alan Mark. He is also a skilful writer. I enjoyed his Shackleton’s Whisky when I reviewed it for the Listener some years back, but I have yet to catch up with his book on the Tasman Sea, for which he won a major book award. This 72-page guide to Stewart Island is the revision and update of a guide Peat wrote in 2000. Lavishly illustrated (‘scuse the reviewer-speak), looking at the geological, botanical and historical features, it will obviously be of most use to holiday-makers and hikers visiting New Zealand’s third island.

Something Old

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. 

“THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS” by Gertrude Stein (first published 1933)

            There’s a very lowbrow limerick I remember from student days:
            “There once was a family called Stein
            There was Gert, there was Ep, there was Ein
            Gert’s writing was bunk
            Ep’s sculpture was junk
            And no-one could understand Ein.”
            Albert Einstein has been canonised as the Great Brain of the 20th century, even if most of us can understand him only in popularised form. Jacob Epstein’s sculpture still looks pretty good to me (especially Saint Michael triumphing over the Devil on the side of Coventry Cathedral). But there is indeed a very, very big problem with Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).
Of course every literate person has heard of her. We all remember her “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. She’s one of the canonical Modernists along with Eliot, Joyce, Pound and the gang, and she’s mentioned in every literary history and memoir of the period. But does anybody much (apart from doctoral students and Eng Lit careerists) actually read what she wrote, even to the extent that we read other Modernists? Probably not. I make the confession that, apart from the book under review this week, all I have read of Gertrude Stein is her long short-story Mildred’s Thoughts (because I happen to own a 1928 copy of the anthology The American Caravan) and her faux naïf kiddie book The World is Round. I also once listened respectfully to a radio broadcast of her High Camp Four Saints in Three Acts with music by Virgil Thomson. But that’s it for Gertie Stein as far as my reading and listening goes – and I suspect that’s as well as you know her works too, dear reader.
There is another way she is now known. On Gay and Lesbian websites she is celebrated as a Lesbian Icon because of her forty-year partnership with her lover Alice B. Toklas. So, goes the legend, she was “out and proud” long before it was easy to be so. Such websites (and I have accessed a number of them) know something about the relationship, but don’t have much to say about the writing. And, while Gertrude Stein and Alice B. [Babette] Toklas were indeed a Famous Lesbian Couple, I think some of those websites actually misconstrue the nature of the relationship. Of which more later. (As a piece of impertinent irrelevance, I should also add that Alice B. Toklas was a name bandied about by the hippie generation in the 1960s because, when she was old and needed the money in the 1950s, Toklas compiled a cook book that included a recipe for cannabis cookies.)
So at last to this book – probably the one piece of writing by Gertrude Stein that became a hit with a large readership. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is not a short book. It runs to about 330 pages in the 1930s Bodley Head edition I have in front of me. It was written hastily and quite frankly to make money and gain a popular readership. On the last page “Alice” tells us that, after having been nagged by Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein to write her memoirs, she decided she was no author and:
About six weeks ago, Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she did and this is it.”
The “autobiography” is in the sub-genre of “literary-memoir-set-in-Paris”, which you have encountered before on this blog. I have dealt with George Moore’s Hail and Farewell trilogy, which deals mainly with Ireland, but does have some literary memories of Paris in the early 1900s. Then there’s Wyndham Lewis’s Blastingand Bombardiering, which divides itself between his service at the front in the First World War and literary Paris and London in the early 1920s. And there’s Ernest Hemingway’s frequently vindictive A Moveable Feast, written over thirty years after the event but dealing with the Paris of the mid-1920s. One very noticeable thing about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written when Stein was almost sixty, is that it has a larger time frame than the other memoirs. Stein arrived in Paris in 1903 and Toklas joined her there in 1907. In effect, she was established there, in her Rue de Fleurus apartment, well before the First World War and for the best part of two decades before the “lost generation” crowd turned up in the 1920s. The book covers at least thirty years of her Paris residence. (Indeed Stein stayed in France until her death in 1946, longer than any other expatriate Anglophone writer.)
It must be said at once that there is something very arch about a book in which the author writes about herself in the third person. (For a more recent and very bad example of this, see Salman Rushdie’s overlong third-person memoir Joseph Anton.) Gertrude Stein has worked at making “Alice’s” narration sound like the voice of a straightforward and uncomplicated non-literary person. This artful artlessness includes the habit of, French-style, not capitalising adjectives referring to nationalities (“french”, “english”, “polish” etc.) and making minimal use of commas, so that sentences are either staccato-brief or dash on madly without punctuation, like a gossipy chatterbox. But it never gets so incomprehensible as to deter the desired mass readership.
Nevertheless, much of it does have the effect of the author using the voice of “Alice” to praise herself out of the mouth of another, with “Alice” so often recounting who came to pay respectful court to this American sage in her Paris apartment or what wonderful things Gertrude said. Gertrude is very proud that, through the Sitwells, she gets to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge to enthusiastic young students. We are told how wittily she handled hecklers. We are also told that “she always contends no artist needs criticism, he only needs appreciation. If he needs criticism he is not an artist.” (Chapter 7). Obviously Gertrude Stein is one of the artists who do not need criticism. Later, Bernard Fay, Gertrude Stein’s (extremely right-wing) French admirer and translator (he translated The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas into French) told Gertrude that she, Picasso and Andre Gide were the only people “of first rate importance” he had met in his life. Gertrude replied “Why include Gide?” You can get away with this sort of self-promotion if you are pretending somebody else is writing it.
I am bound to report that some contemporary reviewers said that Gertrude Stein was faithfully recording Alice B. Toklas’s opinions and way of speaking, but I have my doubts and still find it arch.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas begins with “Alice” giving a brief account of herself living in San Francisco before coming to Paris. Chapter Two is another short chapter about her first meeting with Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1907, and ends with the statement “And now I will tell you how two americans happened to be in the heart of the art movement of which the outside world at that time knew nothing.” Chapter Three doubles back to give an account of Gertrude Stein in Paris in the four years before she met Alice (1903-1907). It has Stein and her brother Leo (obviously with a big family chequebook to help them – money is one unmentioned hero of the book) coming to Paris and “discovering” the young and unknown Pablo Picasso and “making” the American reputation of Matisse and beginning the large collection that was to hang on Gertrude’s apartment walls. Gertrude spends a long time posing for Picasso’s famous portrait of her. Chapter Four doubles further back to Stein’s life before she came to Paris. Born in Pennsylvania. Moving to California in childhood. Reading voraciously, having read all of Shakespeare by the time she was ten, and reading Richardson’s Clarissa when she was fifteen. Having terrible handwriting. Going to Radcliffe. Idolising her lecturer William James. Scraping her way into Johns Hopkins Medical School and then flunking out from medicine because she was “bored”. (And if, after reading Chapters 3 and 4 you still think this is the voice of Alice B. Toklas – who would not have seen anything these two chapters relate – then all I can say is, bless you.) And so to three long chapters Chapter Five – their life together from 1907 to 1914; Chapter 6 – their war service as auxiliary ambulance drivers; and Chapter 7  - everything from 1919 to 1932,when the book was written.
As Gertrude Stein in her Parisian reign met many people, many, many names are dropped. To give a brief compendium, before 1907 it’s Picasso and Braque and Matisse. Some of the Bloomsberries flutter in before 1914. Roger Fry, little Nancy Cunard and her mum, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Wyndham Lewis (who would not have considered himself a Bloomsberry). Just before the war Guillaume Apollonaire, Juan Gris, Andre Gide, Siegfried Sassoon, Mabel Dodge, Marcel Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, John Reed. During the war (with a visit to England) Lytton Strachey, George Moore, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Ford Madox Ford. After the war Tristan Tzara, Edith Sitwell (who was “beautiful with the most distinguished nose I have ever seen on any human being”, Chapter 7) and Erik Satie, but also the deluge of Americans – Man Ray, Sylvia Beach (whose name “Alice” consistently spells “Beech”), Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, e.e.cummings, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, Aaron Copeland, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald (who is mentioned favourably, but only in passing) and lesser lights. Clearly Gertrude Stein was part of the itinerary for any arty American, at least after the Great War. But it is noticeable how different the cast of characters is after the war, although the ongoing rivalry of Picasso and Matisse is a recurring theme, as is Gertrude Stein’s repeated break-ups and reconciliations with each artist and as is the chronicle of Picasso’s changing wives and mistresses. It’s fair to note that not all names cited are accompanied by memorable anecdotes. We know we are in for having a lot of names dropped as soon as “Alice” first encounters Gertrude’s art collection and remarks:
At that time there was a great deal of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, but there were also a great many other things There were two Gaugins, there were Manguins, there was a big nude by Valloton that felt like it only it was not like the Odalisque of Manet, there was a Toulouse Lautrec.” (Chapter 2)
For all the names dropped, one frequently has the impression that this whole narrative takes place in an hermetically-sealed milieu of leisured people, and often people of considerable means. It is no secret that the artistic and literary avant-garde of the era had to rely on rich patrons to bankroll the “little magazines” in which they could be published (“The Criterion”, “The Dial”, “transition” etc.); added to this, Gertrude Stein, coming from a wealthy background, had a strong sense of entitlement and lived most of her forty years in Paris on inherited funds. Gertrude and Alice often float over events that the general population around them had to just endure. In the First World War, they visit a journalist friend, Mildred Aldrich, who has a house near the Marne in the military zone. But then, when the war gets a little too scary (there are Zeppelin raids on Paris), they bully their way into getting passports issued and “We decided we would go to Palma… and forget the war a little.” (Chapter 6) So they proceed to have a very pleasant extended holiday in neutral Spain. They had the money to afford to do this. Only when they read in Spanish newspapers of the long, bloody Battle of Verdun do they return to France and offer their services to the American Fund for French Wounded – meaning that they set about being a taxi service for French (and later American) soldiers.
To that extent, they did become engaged in the world’s upheavals.
But reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, you would hardly know that the Depression was on when the book was being written or that there was great political violence in Europe. There is only one very oblique reference to the Russian Revolution, in an anecdote about an American journalist who had been involved in famine relief in Russia, and who was worried that his car was being followed, as he had had experience of Russia’s secret police. (Chapter 7) There is also one poignantly prophetic comment made by a French soldier at the Armistice in 1918: “The french soldiers in the hospitals were relieved rather than glad. They seemed not to feel that it was going to be such a lasting peace. I remember one of them saying to Gertrude Stein, well here is peace, at least for twenty years, he said.” (Chapter 6) But that’s it for Alice’s and Gertrude’s reactions to poverty, unemployment, political extremism, Communism, Fascism etc. Those things simply do not exist.
Coupled with this, and perhaps surprising to people who assume that a cultural avant-garde must be socially “progressive”, both “Alice” and Gertrude often express what would now be thought very old-fashioned values. (Is it significant that “Alice” tells us that Gertrude’s favourite phonograph record was the sentimental commercial hillbilly ballad “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”?) We have to remember that their generation of artists were as swept up in the war as any other part of the population. (Current mythology assumes the artistic community will always be somehow “anti-war”.) Gertrude and Alice wept with joy when the French army, at the Battle of the Marne, turned back the German armies threatening Paris; and they were enthused when a Parisian taxi-driver told how taxicabs had been requisitioned to transport troops to the front. (Chapter 6) They took seriously the orders and decorations the French government gave for war work, they were both decorated for their volunteer activities, and they campaigned (successfully) to get the Legion of Honour awarded to Mildred Aldrich after the war. It will also seem quaint that, though none of them were churchgoers, they took it for granted that they had to find an Episcopalian church to have Ernest Hemingway’s baby son baptised in. (Chapter 7)
All of this can be put down to the manners of the age – autres temps, autres moeurs – but we do cringe a little when Gertrude Stein presumes to lecture Paul Robeson:
Gertrude Stein did not like him singing spirituals. They do not belong to you any more than anything else, so why claim them, she said. He did not answer…. Gertrude Stein concluded that negroes were not suffering from persecution, they were suffering from nothingness. She always contends that the African is not primitive, he has a very ancient but very narrow culture and there it remains. Consequently nothing does or can happen.” (Chapter 7)
It is in this context of solidly old-fashioned values of her own time that I consider the nature of her relationship with Alice B. Toklas. Regarding lesbianism, one does sometimes wonder about the nature of her relationship with women friends who come into the memoir (Kate Buss, Djuna Barnes and others now identified as lesbians), but there is certainly no polemicizing for homosexual relationships in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. There is definitely no explicit sex or even sexual allusions (they would have been censorable in 1933 anyway) and there is nothing to make the Common Reader of 1933 see anything other than a couple of eccentric women swanning around Paris and environs. “Old maids”, some readers would doubtless have called them, even if the literati knew otherwise.
Gertrude Stein clearly saw herself as the “husband” in her ménage, with Alice as the housekeeping “wife”. Gertrude rejoiced in her own mannishness and saw “masculinity” as the key to creativity – a view which later feminists would probably denounce as some form of essentialism. “Alice” notes that when literary luminaries visited  “The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me.” (Chapter 5) Clearly Gertrude Stein very much enjoyed male company in the sense of identifying with males. This is especially clear in Chapter 6 where she gets on very well with soldiers (French and American – I do not think one single British soldier comes into the book). When asked to nominate her favourite American hero, she named the bluff, hard-drinking soldier-president Ulysses S. Grant.
Of course in her “mannishness” and in her delight in the company of soldiers, Stein could also make imperious and patronising remarks, as in the following awkward example:
The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution. Indeed Gertrude Stein once said impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seems to me foolish always thinking of repeating yourselves. They looked vey sheepish and said bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure, you’re right.” (Chapter 6)
For those eagerly seeking such information, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, does say some things about Gertrude Stein’s aesthetic ambitions and writing techniques. We are told how she often pulled all-nighters, writing frantically until dawn after guests had gone.  (Chapter 3)
“Alice” says:
She is passionately addicted to what the french call metier and she contends that one can have one metier as well as one can only have one language. Her metier is writing and her language is english. Observation and construction make imagination, that is granting the possession of imagination, is what she has taught many young writers.” (Chapter 4)
We get closest to a minimalist creed – a more highbrow version of the stuff Hemingway attempted – when we are told:
 “Gertrude Stein, in her work, has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of inner and outer reality. She has produced a simplification by this concentration, and as a result the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose. She knows that beauty, music, decoration, the result of emotion should never be the cause, even events should not be the cause of emotion nor should they be the material of poetry and prose. Nor should emotion itself be the cause of poetry or prose. They should consist of an exact reproduction of either an outer or inner reality.” (Chapter 7)
(To me this seems an over-elaborated way of saying “Show, don’t tell”).
However, the book says much more about her frustrated dealings with publishers and her clear desire to have more of her works published. This involves trying to arouse John Lane’s interest in London and getting Carl Van Vechten to negotiate with Knopf in New York, usually without success. Gertrude Stein uses the cover of “Alice’s” narration, in Chapter 7, to vent her annoyance that the Atlantic Monthly will not print her work.
Well now, after the name-dropping, the implicit money and privilege, the quietism about public affairs, the conventional values in many areas, the unstated lesbianism and the minimal comment on Gertrude Stein’s writing itself, what in the end does The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas offer to us?
Mainly the pleasure of gossip.
Some of the gossip is waspish and malicious as when we are told of one Andrew Green He went away before I came to Paris and he came back eighteen years later and he was very dull”. (Chapter 3) Or that “everybody found the futurists very dull” (Chapter 5)
Some of it is a little back-handed but generally approving. Thus:
Guillaume [Apollonaire] was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly.” (Chapter 3)
Of the painter Robert Delaunay, we are told of his one big success and then:
After that his pictures lost all quality, they grew big and empty or small and empty. I remember his bringing one of these small ones to the house saying, look, I am bringing you a small picture, a jewel. It is small, said Gertrude Stein, but is it a jewel.” (Chapter 5)
Some of the gossip is simply funny. When some enthusiast gave the impoverished Matisse a triumphant laurel wreath, Matisse’s practical wife took it to make a soup (Chapter 5). A raucous party was held for the modest and timid Douanier Rousseau, with young Apollonaire the life of the party, rushing around to concoct a meal after one was ordered but not delivered. (Chapter 5) As part of the pre-war avant-garde, Alice and Gertrude heard of the effect of the Armory Show in New York in 1913, and they were present at an early performance of The Rite of Spring where “we could hear nothing” because of the hisses and applause of rival claques. (Chapter 5)
“Alice” remarks of Ezra Pound: “Gertrude Stein liked him but did not find him amusing. She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” (Chapter 7) Of T.S.Eliot’s visit, she observes: “Eliot and Gertrude had a solemn conversation, mostly about split infinitives and other grammatical solecisms and why Gertrude Stein used them.” (Chapter 7)
There is a very ambiguous attitude towards Hemingway. Gertrude Stein first meets him when he is a handsome 23-year-old and admires his brashness. “Alice” claims that Stein was the first person to interest Hemingway in bullfighting. But there is a falling out, and a long discussion in which Stein and Sherwood Anderson (Hemingway’s first real literary mentor) rip Hemingway’s reputation to shreds. Stein tells Hemingway that “remarks are not literature”, and opines of his work “he looks like a modern but smells of the museum”. (Chapter 7) This makes it more understandable that Hemingway much later got his revenge by producing a dismissive portrait of Gertrude Stein in A Moveable Feast.
            And then, from her earliest days in Paris to the time the book was written, there is all the goss. about Picasso. Picasso liked American funny papers and was particularly impressed with the Katzenjammer Kids (Chapter 2). When Picasso first saw a field-gun painted for camouflage, he said, with reference to Cubism, “c’est nous qui avons fait cela” [“We made that.”] (Chapter 5) There’s a funny story about Picasso going to Spain and giving an interview in Catalan to a Barcelona paper. He thought the interview would not be translated into French, so he said rude things about Jean Cocteau and his work. Later, to his mortification, the interview was translated into French and appeared in a Paris newspaper. Picasso had to apologise abjectly to Cocteau’s mum when he met her in a theatre. (Chapter 7)
And so, chitter-chatteringly, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas moves on. The gossip is what really makes it attractive, and makes it a source-book for literary historians and biographers, as all such memoirs are. The gossip also makes it easy and attractive reading for the mass audience for whom it was written. Here’s the irony that the experimental, avant-garde Modernist writer found a big audience at last by giving the hoi-polloi what it wanted. An easy entrée into the alien and exotic world of Modernism without having to wade through much overtly Modernist prose.
On the other hand, could you or I write such a long and readable memoir in a mere six weeks?
I doubt it.

Something Thoughtful

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.


I have just been considering Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and there was one element of the popular reaction to it that made me think of a particularly delusional way of looking at the past.
I mean the way many people are inclined the remake the past in the image of the present, assuming that all people with admirable or sympathetic qualities in the past must have shared all the values that are now generally applauded. I have touched on this phenomenon before (see the post LikeUnto DNA for Dinosaurs) in the context of historical novels, but Stein’s book brings up another aspect of the delusion.
Gertrude Stein was a lesbian, and is applauded as such on many Gay and Lesbian websites. She is seen as a pioneer of gay liberation who would therefore presumably have approved of gay marriage etc.etc. Gay-and-Lesbian readers are left to assume, from such websites, that she would have seen the world as homosexuals in the early 21st Century do. Open, inclusive, rainbow LGBTQ coalition and so forth.
But there is a big problem with this. If one reads The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, one soon discovers that Stein was in many respects a conservative, indeed reactionary, person. She may well have been an avant garde writer of her time in terms of style, but she was more on the Right than on the Left of the political spectrum.
It’s no secret that this was true of many of the Modernists, from T.S.Eliot (“Anglican, royalist, classicist”) to W.B.Yeats (aristocratic elitism and a taste for Fascism) to D.H.Lawrence (basically Blut-und-Boden-mit-Sex) to Ezra Pound (broadcasts from Fascist Rome etc.). In fact, this sort of conjunction was more-or-less inevitable when the Modernists were reacting against mass-produced and mass-appeal literature and consciously creating something for the educated few. Assumptions of an elite and exclusivist sort were behind much of their thought.
I say none of this to belittle what they wrote. All the names I’ve mentioned here (except possibly the tiresome, phallus-obsessed Lawrence) were important figures in literature. All of them wrote significant and important things. And a part of me thinks that the social and political opinions they expressed were no more off-the-mark than those of writers on the Left at the time, who wobbled foolishly into the orbit of Stalin.
Nevertheless, it remains true that Gertrude Stein was no advocate of gay liberation and indeed sometimes spoke scornfully even of the women of “first-wave” feminism who had struggled for the vote. She thought of herself as “masculine” (her term), admired soldiers, and thought of Alice B. Toklas as her “wife”. Heterosexual women – especially married ones – she regarded as less than herself, and tended to dismiss or patronise when they came visiting with their husbands. Not much sisterly solidarity there. And on the political front, she greatly admired the soldier General Franco, whose side she supported (with words) when the Spanish Civil War was in progress. Ironical when you consider that she was an on-again, off-again friend of Picasso, whom she claimed to have “discovered”, but there you are.
And then we come to the very messy part of the story. Though they were both ethnically Jewish (though non-religious), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas stayed in France throughout the Nazi occupation, 1940-44. They did have to leave Paris and move to a remote country area, but they were not molested and the art collection they had amassed in Paris was never plundered or destroyed, as other collections of “decadent” art were in Nazi-occupied countries.
Why was this?
Partly because, though they were known to be Jewish, the couple were protected by a high Vichy official, Professor Bernard Fay, who had been – and remained – one of Stein’s closest friends since the late 1920s. Fay was an early acolyte proclaiming Stein’s genius. Fay translated some of her works into French. Fay was also an extreme right-winger, on the fringe of Catholicism and having an obsession with Freemasons. During the Second World War, Fay helped compile lists of known Freemasons to help Petain’s government round them up for imprisonment or worse. (Additional note – Fay managed to survive the war and by the 1960s was denouncing the post-Vatican II Catholic Church for being too liberal. He wrote a book entitled L’Eglise Judas [The Judas Church] and was one of those who helped Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve set up his breakaway “traditionalist” church.]
Now one obviously sympathises with Stein and Toklas in this situation. As they were Jews in Nazi-occupied territory, we would have to be tone-deaf not to agree that they had a right to preserve their lives by any means at hand. But I note that Bernard Fay was no mere convenience for Stein. He had been her close friend for well over a decade before the war and she shared many of his views. Early in the war, Stein agreed to translate and produce an English-language version of the speeches of Petain. She proceeded to do so, though she did not find a publisher in the Anglophone world. Some have argued that she agreed to do this simply as an act of self-preservation; but this is not the case. Even after the Liberation of France (in 1944) when the Nazis were gone, and in the last two years of her life (she died in 1946), Stein continued to profess her admiration for Petain’s paternalist and nationalist ideas and was still trying to find an English-language publisher for her translations, which were accompanied by her admiring introduction.
I am aware that this case has been argued back and forth by admirers and detractors of Stein, and you will note that I have not mentioned the silly idea (which turns out to be based on an ironical wisecrack Stein once made) that Stein once lobbied for Hitler to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. You can easily read about the case in many on-line articles. But I am still making it clear that the avant garde, lesbian writer was no liberal in her ideas, and would most likely have rejected much that is held dear by those who produce admiring portraits of her on Gay and Lesbian websites. (And for the record, would I disillusion you too much to point out that, in the 1920s and 1930s, left-wing writers were more likely than right-wing ones to denounce homosexuality as a sign of bourgeois decadence?)
  What conclusion do I draw from all this?
The conclusion that it is all too easy to misconstrue real history as consisting of “teams” – the goodies with whom we agree and the baddies who represent everything we detest. But real history isn’t like that. People in the past have mixed ideals and mixed ideologies (just like you and me). The same person can espouse ideas that we now embrace and ideas that we now emphatically reject. The “teams” mentality is for those who do not know what history really is.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“TENDER MACHINES” by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “OCEAN AND STONE” by Dinah Hawken (Victoria University Press, $NZ35); “CARDS ON THE TABLE” by Jeremy Roberts (Interactive Press, $NZ25); “TAKING MY MOTHER TO THE OPERA” by Diane Brown (Otago University Press, $NZ29:95).

This week, I am looking at four completely different volumes of poetry.
They were written by four completely different poets with completely different preoccupations and styles.
Therefore, I am pledged not to make strained comparisons between them. All they have in common is that they write poetry.

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Emma Neale’s Tender Machines takes its title from its two epigraphs – William Carlos Williams’ statement that a poem is “a machine made of words”, and Don Paterson’s definition of a poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”.
The ironically-titled first section, “Bad Housekeeping”, presents a wonderful paradox. There is the clear context of a loving domestic situation – the poet as mother to a young son – and there is the ferocity of the imagery. That poems deal with a domestic scene can often arouse the suspicion that they will be gentle to the point of mental softness. Such is not the case here. Emma Neale begins courageously with a poem (“Origins”) speculating on her own procreation, and on the chaotic way life begins where the human heart could be like “spit rubbed in mud” and the mind “a junk room / of broom handles and wheel-less prams, / must-stink chair nobody will sit in, / little black fly heads / sprinkled in a corner web / ear bones of vanished mice, / single bits of faded jigsaws, / carpet littered with broken envelopes / addressees illegible…
            One strand of imagery introduced in this poem points to the fragility of life itself. The “ear bones of vanished mice” lead to other poems about these small and vulnerable animals. In the later poem “PokPo”, Neale replays a childhood sense of guilt at almost killing a pet mouse when she played with it too roughly. In the poem “Bad Housekeeping”, she rescues a hunted mouse from the attentions of a cat, overcome with a sense of fellow-feeling when “the glittering of her minikin eyes / says terror plunges through her / in two black pins / and tells me, mute but clear, / that once upon seventy-five million years ago / we sprang (crept and hid) from one lost, common ancestor…”
            Much more than mice, however, it is the child who preoccupies the poet-mother. The first section of Tender Machines dwells most on that tension between strong love and frustration, when the young child also throws tantrums, is too demanding, has an active imagination that won’t be reasoned with – in other words, is an ordinary young child.
The child’s imagination dominates the prose poem “Hunter” (are those waves the growl of a bear coming to get me?) and “Zac and the Beanstalk” (child’s play with implicit magic). The child’s inquisitiveness fills the poem “The Piano’s Appointment”, where the examination of an old piano turns into the child’s questions on how life was in his forbears’ times. The mother is aware that she is bringing up a young male (“Man Up”). But, most poignantly, there is that clash between the mother’s love and the child’s aggression. “Towards a Theory of Aggression in Early Childhood Development” suggests that “Perhaps for the toddler / other people don’t quite exist yet” and asks “This hurled block, this swift kick, this fist swipe, / do they colour us, too, hot and red and beaded with water, / is love the tough, tensile wire desire insists / along all the blood’s jumbled frequencies?” The poem “The Lost Letters” is one that could lead readers to either laughter or tears (like a child’s paddies), with Neale imagining what mothers really want to write to tantrum-throwing children, because “Even love wears thin”. The section ends with the title poem “Tender Machines” where the child himself become as machine as he undergoes and operation and sinks into unconsciousness under an anaesthetist’s needle.
When we awake in the volume’s second section, “Auto Correct” we are in different poetic territory. “Auto Correct” – the punning title suggests the poet is following a course of self-correction, which gradually becomes reason tempering passion. If the poems of the first section deal most with presence – the presence of the child or of the life that is being nurtured – the poems at the beginning of the second section cluster around absence. The poet alone. The poet reflecting on self and on love that has gone, usually in sylvan or “natural” settings. In this, the sense of loss has to be set against responsibility, one’s dignity and the realization that what is lost is usually irrecoverable. A later poem,  “Over” dives into seeing a lost love, and sexual experience, from a male’s point of view.
But this mood is not where the volume’s second section ends. A clutch of poems look (lightly, ironically, playfully, affectionately, with fellow feeling) at the life in the streets – the life beyond the closed self. Thus “Slice of Life”. Thus Queen’s Drive, Town Belt”. Thus the oddly blokey “John Smith, Brother of Tim”. In “Suburban Story”, there is a deeply ironical account of a misunderstanding over what a woman was saying, leading to a consideration of the whole phenomenon of loss, including losing a sense of purpose. But within this is the phrase  sense of purpose / carries something of the feeling of being part / of the great ongoing human symphony”. And this really defines when this collection of poems is going. Out of the confined self and into wider human interaction. Regrettably, in the age in which we live, some of that interaction is via intrusive technology. So to a clutch of poems about life on-line – “Feeling Only Sort of Sorry for the Robots”, “Cyber Bullying”, “The New Narcissicism” and naturally “Auto Correct” itself.
The self and the community interact. The mother raising the child is part of the community. Her concerns are part of the concerns of the community. Which is where “the personal is political”, and that is the main theme of the final section, “These Poems Want”. The poet has much to say about ecology. The poet has something to say about sexism. The poet has things to say about poetry, too. Putting it this ham-fisted way, I make it sound as if Emma Neale succumbs to sloganeering. Not at all. As in the rest of this collection, the poems of the third section are filled with acute observation, sharp and memorable imagery and various levels of irony. The poem “How to Install a Glass Ceiling” is a whiplash against type of assumptions made about “domestic” poetry to which I referred early in this notice. And the final poem,
“Polemic”, lifts up its hands to everything a poem should, could, hopes to and never will be. The title tells you that some irony lurks here, too.
            You will note that I have said virtually nothing about Emma Neale’s skill with technique, virtuosity in style, creation of prose poems and other matters upon which I should have commented. That’s because I was too busy enjoying the poems, nodding along at what they were saying, occasionally (but only occasionally) feeling rebuked as a male, and being gob-smacked by their imagery.
A very, very powerful collection.

Silly footnote: The poem I felt most keenly was one I couldn’t fit into the “pattern” of this collection – the poem about sleep-deprivation, “Sleep-Talking”. As a chronic and unwilling insomniac, I moaned in recognition at the line “hell, can’t you leave it alone, switch off this inner racket? If only you could bloody sleep.”
            You can say that again.

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If Emma Neale thrives on generous ferocity and close observation, Dinah Hawken is more the calm, rationalist philosopher. In Ocean and Stone her poems are cool, lean, pared-back, sometimes almost gnomic.
The volume’s epigraph reads “We have to live within / our limits: the knowledge / of limits and how to live within them is / the most graceful and comely knowledge / that we have.”
The very first poem sets the mood for much that follows. “The lake, the bloke and the bike” is a first-person confessional in which a woman attempts to reflect on the big things in life – including permanence and impermanence – as she gazes at Lake Rotoiti from the shore. This might sound a peculiarly Wordsworthian set-up…. except that the lake is racked with the sound of a bloke on his noisy hydroplane. Natural perfection is transient. The world changes. Technology intrudes. Reflection has to end up engaging with a flawed world.
And thus it is in many of Dinah Hawken’s poems.
An affectionate cycle of poems about a young grandchild moves into a couple of poems about young people on the cusp of adulthood. The poem “Another, older boy called Jackhas a young man leaving a farm and “the head of the boy is down / in its workings. He has heard no birds. / He has seen no trees. All he hears / is unsteady talk, bleak bravado.” The transition into adulthood is neither smooth nor necessarily a maturing process. Following this, the poet slips into Sumerian mythology with a pair of poems presenting, in magical form, the power that is given to young women as they enter into life, and how it is challenged. Late in the volume, there are poems of old age and glimpses of a hospital for the elderly, in the poem “If you want me I’ll be down below”, the recognition that “I am at the mercy of salt, drought, / snails, leaf-curl and wind. I am at the mercy / of ignorance, sloth, limited years, / an aging body and hope beyond belief.
From babyhood to boy- and girl-hood to adolescence to old age, the poems so far point in the direction of a linear sense of life and time.
Counterpointing this, however, is the mythic sense of an “eternal return”, of time as circular and endlessly repeating the same pattern. And this was, after all, how time was understood in much of the ancient world (including the Sumerian bit of it), where the gods played endlessly the same games.
Hawken’s cycle of poems “The Uprising” deals with the vast ocean that surrounds New Zealand, rising menacingly. Beginning lyrically, the poems in this cycle then hit readers with a daunting contrast. First “With no motive and no name, the whole / indivisible ocean fits over the earth like a blessing: / it slips around, between and over / the territories we have made….” But then “It’s hard to have a mind for its envelopment / and treachery. Its weight, sheen, depth. / And its frank, cold-blooded flow.” The sea is becoming a menace – and it is hard not to think that Dinah Hawken is referencing one of the threats posed by global warming. Later in the volume, the concept of a global inundation is echoed in a poetic version of the Sumerian legend of the universal flood (the non-Jewish precursor to the story of Noah’s flood). The sense of “eternal return” appears.
The sequence “page.stone.leaf” is often minimalist in style (complementing the drawings by John Edgar that go with it), spare and unadorned by adjectives, some poems being presented as lists. They put together brief observations on stones and leaves as items connecting us with nature but used by us in papermaking over the centuries – a repeated, cyclical process.
And finally, rounding off this theme, there is the long poem “Tidal” (originally written as a response to artworks by Colin McCahon), where all the songs sung by the sea turn out to be one breathing since the world began.
Where do we end in the tension of linear and cyclical views of time? Knowing, I suppose, that while the individual life moves on, it is within the context of the greater pattern. (And why, in my head, do I hear an echo of Longfellow’s “the tide rises; the tide falls”?)
I have dealt with this volume in terms of cold rationality. That was how I read it. For all the warmth of the grandmotherly poems, that was the way I was invited to read it.

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I cannot pretend to be coldly intellectual about Jeremy Roberts’ collection Cards on the Table, because I have to make a confession – some years younger than me, Roberts is a personal friend. I’ve long admired the way he organises pub poetry readings in Auckland’s Ponsonby, and helps to promote even poets who do not see things the way he does.
Roberts is an adept performance poet. He is happiest with poems that can be declaimed publicly. After reading this collection in page-proof, the poet Siobhan Harvey and I each (separately) agreed to contribute blurbs to appear on the back cover of this ample (145-page) collection.
Below is what I had to say:
Jeremy Roberts is a performance poet, a quick-change artist with words, a confessionalist not afraid to let it be personal, a guy who grabs the present moment and makes it sing. In the words of one of his best, he’s ‘permanently temporary’. He knows ‘the Zen of the immediate moment’. Are you tempted to think he’s just a freak and a letter-day Beat? Wrong! The surface is the surface, cosmopolitan, infused with Asian experience and Rimbaud and American pop culture and echoes of mean urban streets. But scratch into these free-form effusions and you find and strong and fine outrage, a protest against a world in which ‘the celebration of the buck is alive everywhere’. Roberts is accessible. He’s a rebuke to academic poetry which turns in on itself and never looks outside its window. He’s fun and he’s a damned good read.”

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Diane Brown’s Taking My Mother to the Opera is autobiography conceived as poetry.
Across 110 pages of blank verse, organised throughout in three-line stanzas, Diane Brown tells the story of her relationship with her parents. This narrative is divided into 18 sections, which I find it hard not to call chapters.  The first six chapters deal with the poet’s childhood, early upbringing and adolescence, up to the point where she first married, young and apparently against her parents’ wishes. The last twelve chapters leap a number of decades (one section is headed “Leaping into the Twenty-First Century”) and tell of her relationship with her parents when they are old and infirm and succumbing to dementia or debilitating physical ailments. Both parents lived into their 90s. The collection ends with memorial rites. By design, then, this is very selective autobiography, deleting material about the poet’s own adult life and relationships so that she can concentrate on her chosen theme of how her parents shaped her and how, bit by bit, she came to judge them differently and even, perhaps, to forgive them.
Recently I had the great pleasure of reading Martin Edmond’s (prose) autobiography of his youth The Dreaming Land, and one of the things I found most attractive about it was the way Edmond’s sharp eye for specific detail conjured up the New Zealand that I remembered from being a small child in the 1950s and an adolescent in the 1960s. There are passages of Diane Brown’s Taking My Mother to the Opera that offer me the same pleasure, especially as Brown’s childhood was spent, as mine was, in Auckland.
Some of the childhood experiences she reconstructs are universal ones, like the time when she was a little girl and her mother failed to keep a rendezvous, sending her into a panic of thinking “Maybe I dreamed her up, / will have to live alone now / in the darkening woods  / like all bad children” (from the section “Then We Came Along”). What small child doesn’t experience this sort of separation anxiety at some time? There is also life in state-house suburbia out in the West of Auckland and a memory of being allowed to walk across the Auckland Harbour Bridge on the day it opened and such iconic (and period) versions of a father’s indulgence as the following: “He takes Clive and me up the road / for the 8 O’Clock paper and our Saturday / treat, a box of Black Knight liquorice” (from the section “Big Talk”).
Every child has a memory of weird or horrific things intruding, even into the safest and most orderly lives. In Brown’s case, there was the woman’s body found in a nearby creek, and a near-brush with a teacher who may have been a paedophile. There are also adult reflections on what the domestic norm of the country must have been in the 1950s. Brown thinks of her ex-serviceman father and her mother, and she thinks of all the wives who must have had to show considerable forbearance with husbands who had somehow been marked by the war: “All around the country, wives holding / their tongues, soft hands and voices / maintaining a fragile layer of peace.” (from the section “You Can’t Eat Poems”)
What the whole collection suggests is that the poet felt closer to her father than to her mother – he being more flamboyant and perhaps more permissive and something of a frustrated poet in his own right. Her mother comes across as too possessive; a bit puritanical; disliking and refusing to read the type of things the poet writes and gets published; and (in old age) resentful of change and modern cookery. Yet there is the gradual discovery that the mother was shaped by her own very hard childhood. The clearest shock of forgiveness happens when the poet visits her ailing mother in hospital and at first walks right past her, not recognising “an old woman, / her head pressed into the pillow, / silvery-grey curls grown limp.”(from the section “On the Lookout”). There will always come a time when adult children realise how fragile and small their parents have become. If there is a particularly vivid image in this collection, it’s the one Brown deploys to convey her sense of shock and sadness when he father lost the ability to speak clearly. He babbled incoherently, with only one or two recognisable words  like coming across / New Zealand mentioned in a foreign / newspaper when you’re homesick.” (from the section “Dad’s New Home”)
I hope I’ve made it clear that I enjoyed much of Taking My Mother to the Opera as recall to a past age, reconstruction of a domestic situation and personal confession. There is an aspect that sometimes niggled with me, however. Sometimes the blank verse gets all too blank. For example, in the following two extracts (out of many I could quote) I have removed the dividers that would tell you where the lines begin and end. We are clearly left with prose.
Thus: “Back home, as a family man, he struggled to be easy with workmates who wanted to talk rugby and racing over smoko, not art or poetry or anything that might unleash the demons he carried.” (from the section “Leaping into the Twenty-First Century”)
And thus: “We are all in the room with Dad as the doctor shows us two large white spots on the scan: bleeding on opposite sides of his brain.” (from the section “Listening to My Father Read”)
What I am saying is that, expansive though it is, and much as it often hits apt imagery, much of this volume is very prose-y. Or Prosaic. It tells us things as straightforwardly, sans imagery or distinctive rhythm, as a prose confession would.
Otago University Press have awarded Taking My Mother to the Opera a very handsome piece of book production. It is a generous and study hardback with an inbuilt ribbon bookmark. Feels classy.