Monday, November 28, 2016

Something New

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

“THE WISH CHILD” by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, $45)

A couple of years back I watched on Youtube Claude Chabrol’s 1993 documentary film L’Oeil de Vichy (The Eye of Vichy).  With minimal explanatory commentary, it consists (almost) entirely of selections from newsreels and propaganda films made by France’s collaborationist Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944. If one were to believe this footage, one would believe that France was prospering under Marshal Petain, that there was no unemployment, that Nazi Germany was a benign ally, that the Allied cause was defeated and that resistance to the Vichy regime consisted only of a handful of criminals in foreign pay.

Chabrol was criticised severely in some quarters for not constantly showing and telling viewers that this was all propagandist fantasy, having no credible connection with what was really happening in France in those years. But Chabrol was a more cunning film-maker than his critics realised. What he was doing was showing the mentality of those who ran the collaborationist regime, and the influence they had. And he was banking on the sophistication of his viewers to realise that these old actuality films were untruthful. In the last ten minutes of his film he lifted the veil which the ancient propaganda had woven, and showed raw and undoctored footage of the retribution that came in 1944 as armed partisans turned on those who had collaborated, and the Vichy regime crumbled in shame and recrimination.

It took just those last minutes to expose how mendacious was everything that had gone before – but in the preceding hour-and-a-half, we had been able to share the delusions of an authoritarian regime.

This is a lengthy but, I hope, not irrelevant introduction to what I think Catherine Chidgey is doing in her novel The Wish Child. I will reverse my usual procedure and cut to a verdict at once. This is an extraordinary novel, written not only with a real and close understanding of the history which it fictionalises, but written in a way that enables us to get under the skin of people who thought and felt very differently from the way we think or feel. Like the very best of recent New Zealand historical novels (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Paula Morris’s Rangatira, Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town and The Bright Side of My Condition and a few others), Catherine Chidgey avoids stereotypes. How did young Germans under the Nazi regime think? What did they dream of? What did they hope for or fear? Because dreams and fears come into it, there are moments of what amounts to surrealism and (as the author explains in her end-note) there are deliberate departures from the literal historical record. This novel is not a chronicle. As in Chabrol’s film, there is no overt preaching. Like Chabrol, Chidgey banks on her audience being informed enough to realise that how her main characters see the world often bears little resemblance to any objective historical reality.

With bookends of later history, the main narrative runs from 1939 to 1945. A young girl, Sieglinde Heilmann, lives with her middle-class family in Berlin, where her father is a respectable functionary. A young boy, Erich Kroning, lives with his farming family somewhere near Leipzig, part of the peasant class that Hitler’s Blut und Boden ideology so favoured. It is the experience of these two children that the novel follows, through chapters often titled with Nazi slogans or phrases  - “Strength Through Joy”, “Fuhrer Weather”, “You Too Belong to the Fuhrer” (the last being the slogan on a propaganda poster encouraging parents to enrol very young children in Nazi organisations). Inevitably, the main story runs from the first dizzy year of German victory, when Hitler was still extremely popular, to the final catastrophic disillusion as the Red Army pours through the bombed-out rubble of Berlin.

It is important that Sieglinde and Erich are children – vulnerable and “innocent” and therefore, more than their elders are, blank slates upon which regime propaganda may be written. Sieglinde is often puzzled or confused about what is happening around her. Erich is the innocent true believer in the Fuhrer. But there is a controlling irony to this novel in the disjunction between the perception of these children and what we (should) know. We (should) know that a monstrous regime is being depicted, but for the novel’s German middle-class and farming families, it is everyday normality. And for the children who are the novel’s most consistent witnesses to events, there are gaps which we, as readers, have to fill.

What is not known by the novel’s characters cannot intrude upon their thoughts. In one of the novel’s more Kafkaesque touches Sieglinde’s father Gottlieb Heilmann is employed excising inconvenient words from printed texts – words like “love”, “mercy”, “defeat”, “sorrow”, “promise” or “surrender”. He is the bureaucrat in a totalitarian regime whose function is to wash away possible subversive modes of thought. He is like the purveyors of “Newspeak” in 1984. Each chapter in The Wish Child is preceded with a text out of which key words have been chopped, rendering the texts either nonsensical or highly cryptic.

Chidgey represents common, uninformed (and rumour-filled) opinion with recurring dialogues between a Frau Miller and a Frau Muller, a perverse Greek Chorus of gossip.  They talk about Hitler’s speeches or working in a factory where busts of Hitler are made or children denouncing their parents or how hard it is to have rationed soap, always expressing both self-interest and the common prejudices of their time and place. They are the social milieu in which young Sieglinde lives. The propaganda that bears upon her directly is heard in another recurring device – the commentary of a schoolteacher who gives a Nazi spin to the guided tours of young schoolchildren through factories processing food, making radios or making toys.

Chidgey, well-versed in German literature and history, trusts her readers to pick up allusions which are not explained. Take the following example. Young Sieglinde is reflecting on a poem she has learnt at school:

At night her mask waits at the foot of her bed, and she listens to the siren and thinks of a golden comb slipping through lengths of golden hair. The poem comes to her as she lies listening – but it is not a poem, Fraulein Althaus has told them, it is a folk song, a traditional old German song written by nobody. Still, the children do not sing it, this old siren song, but recite the lines in unison, and at night they come to Sieglinde as she waits for the bombs to flash above her, jewels glimpsed from a little boat at the river’s deadly bend. O dark water.” (p.46)

If you are in the know, you will understand that the poem Sieglinde is thinking about is Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. It was possibly the best-known poem in the German language and certainly the one that German schoolchildren learnt the way English schoolchildren learnt Wordworth’s Daffodils or French schoolchildren learnt Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne. For the Nazis, the embarrassment was that Heinrich Heine, the great German lyric poet of the nineteenth century, was Jewish. Therefore in the Nazi years, this unignorable poem was palmed off as a “traditional” folk poem. (For a comment on what happened to Heine’s statue in Hamburg, see my post Unlaid Ghosts from July 2014).

Another allusion is the very title of the novel. The Wish Child was the title of a novel by Ina Seidel, very popular in Germany in 1930s, set in the Napoleonic wars and embracing a very Blut und Boden outlook. Catherine Chidgey turns this outlook upside down.

There are much more sinister unexplained allusions than this. In one sequence, the woman guiding children through a factory (pp. 140-141) warns them of the danger of poisonous mushrooms. This takes point if you already know that a widely-distributed Nazi book for children compared Jews to poison mushrooms. It is never explained (and never enquired into by adult characters) why there should be, in Berlin, so many auctions of household effects in houses of people who have been moved out. (“Which people?” we should ask alertly.) Whose clothes are being unpicked to find jewels sown in them? (p.148) From whom did the hair come which is being stuffed into mattresses and providing hair for toy dolls? (p.159) If, by this stage, you cannot hear echoes of cattle-trucks carting people off to death camps, then you have not got the measure of this book. Be it noted that Jews are scarcely mentioned, although in one nightmare image a Berliner Jewish couple complain that their apartment is getting smaller and smaller while their German neighbours’ apartment is getting larger.

I have said that Catherine Chidgey’s style is sometimes surreal. But paradoxically, some of the most surreal material is straight reportage. Think, for example, of a scene where a Nazi “wedding” is performed for a young woman whose betrothed is already dead. But then he died a German hero on the field of battle and she is of the right Aryan blood and so she has the right to a “wedding”. What could be more surreal than people getting used to the bodies being piled up in the streets after air-raids? Added to the foreboding in the later passages are rumours (half-understood by the children) of a “shadow man” and revived nightmares of a Nachzehrer (vampire from dark German folktales). In the following passage, Chidgey is describing quite literally the making of cast heads of Hitler, that members of the Volk were encouraged to display in their homes. But the literal description has a clearly symbolic undertone:

The heads are lighter than they appear, cast in base metal and finished to look like solid bronze. They warm beneath the women’s hands, coming to life, but if you turn them upside down you will find they are hollow; you will see the backwards mouth, the backwards eyes, the dark dome of the skull. The women touch the flow lines and the voids, the linden-leaf blemishes, deciding what they can correct with their brushes and cloths and what cannot be fixed. There might be a hole in the temple, the suggestion of a wound, a congenital fault: such examples are returned to the furnace and melted back down. I have witnessed this process, the malformed faces distending and collapsing, unmaking themselves.” (p.86)

Much of The Wish Child consists of interior monologue of the city girl Sieglinde or of the farm-boy Erich (who is puzzled by unanswered questions about his background.) But I have not mentioned something that gives this novel its particular flavour. On the opening page we are introduced to a disembodied and unidentified narrator, who speaks thus:

Let me say that I was not in the world long enough to understand it well, so can give you only impressions, like the shapes left in rock by long-decayed leaves, or the pencil rubbings of doves and skulls that are but flimsy memories of stone. Just these little smudges, these traces of light and shadow, these breaths in and out. They feel like mine” (p.13)

Who or what is this narrator, who looks on events and comments on characters in a curiously detached way? As always, it is not my purpose to spike the surprises of a newly published novel. But I can say that this voice is connected to the Nazi embrace of eugenics in a way that makes the “wish” of the novel’s title profoundly disturbing. In a scene set in a medal factory, the schoolchildren’s guide expresses propaganda for motherhood, but in a way that is eugenicist and racially-based. She tells the children: “It’s not sufficient, though, simply to produce these children – anyone can do that; look at the gypsies. No, girls, you must be judged worthy of the [motherhood] medal – your conduct as well as your blood – and not only the number but also the quality of the children is considered….” (p.132)

This sort of biological racism comes to dominate the novel’s nightmare and is the novel’s key indictment of the regime. It is underscored when the image of the fossilised Kayhausen Boy is used to teach a eugenics lesson about how the weak do not deserve to survive; or another in which Erich is measured with callipers to show he is a true Aryan. The front-flap blurb of The Wish Child describes the novel as “a profound meditation on the wreckage caused by a corrupt ideology, on the resilience of the human spirit, and on crimes that cannot be undone”. Well, maybe, though this formula makes it sound a little more pat than it really is. I see its relevance to our own age as much in its exposure of a eugenics mentality, which judges people in purely materialistic terms of their utility – meaning that the chronically sick, the deformed or the mentally ill are not wanted, and should be eliminated. Though the term eugenics has long since been abandoned, this mentality is still very much with us.

I am resistant to those who judge the value of literature by how much it emotionally moved them (“Oh it was so MOVING!” somebody may witter of a sentimental film). But I do have to record my reaction to the final meeting of Sieglinde and Erich in shattered Berlin and the way their story works out. It is wrenching, shattering, indeed one of the few times that reading a novel has almost driven me to tears.

Was it an artistic mistake of the author not to end the story in the rubble of Berlin, 1945? I’ll let others judge that one. But by carrying it on to East and West Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s, and the way the Communist Stasi spied and censored the way the Gestapo had, Chidgey does make a major point about the durability of humanity’s dark side.

This is a brilliant novel, with a cohesive and persuasive vision of human beings under stress, a subtle prose-style and a major grasp of things that really matter.

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 MARBLE FAUN” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published in 1860)

The mid-19th century New England author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) wrote in quick succession two novels that have continued to attract a large readership, are often made set texts in high schools and universities, and have often been dramatized or filmed, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). He smartly followed them with a novel, based on personal experience, about a failed experiment in communal living, The Blithedale Romance (1852), which has never been a popular favourite, but which is treasured by academics and cultural historians interested in trends in American civilisation.
I have dealt with each on these in earlier blog postings, but I have held back from commenting on Hawthorne’s fourth, and last, novel The Marble Faun, which was written seven years after the creative three-year burst that produced his better-known works. There is a reason for this. In my view at least, The Marble Faun is the feeblest of Hawthorne’s productions, though Hawthorne himself thought it his best work, it sold well on its first publication (partly because the author’s reputation was then so high) and it has continued to be appreciated by a handful of connoisseurs. A quick check of Wikipedia shows me that it has yielded a huge harvest of theses and articles in academic journals – but then that is to be expected even of minor works by a major writer.
Briefly, The Marble Faun, subtitled The Romance of Monte Beni, and for some reason first published in England under the title Transformation, was the result of Hawthorne’s first real contact with Europe. After producing his better-known novels, he spent four years as an American consul in England, and then spent 18 months as a tourist with his family in Italy. For the first time he was directly exposed to the art of both the Italian Renaissance and classical antiquity, and it was from this that the novel grew.
In his preface to the novel, Hawthorne famously declares:
No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land. It will be a very long time, I trust, before romance-writers may find congenial and easily handled themes, either in the annals of our stalwart republic, or in any characteristic and probable event of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wall-flowers need ruins to make them grow.”
Many would now contest his view that America did not already have a history out of which “romances” (Hawthorne’s preferred term for novels) could be woven. Nevertheless his drift here is clear. In his view he, as an American, has to turn to Europe to get a sense of the deep past and its art, and to find the materials for a romantic and mysterious tale.
The plot of The Marble Faun, inasmuch as I can make something coherent out of such a fragile and notional thing, goes like this:
            Three American artists are sojourning in Rome, the sculptor Kenyon and two students of painting, Hilda and Miriam. They come to know Donatello, the young Count of Monte Beni. At first their companionship is idyllic and carefree, but then a crime is committed. Miriam is being stalked and annoyed by a mysterious stranger (a Capuchin monk). She appeals to Donatello to help her get rid of this intrusive pest. Donatello obliges and, on an evocatively moonlit night, he kills the stranger by throwing him over a cliff – the Tarpeian Rock on the Capitoline Hill, no less. Hilda witnesses this event, so three of the major characters are either implicated in, or have witnessed, a crime. This changes their dispositions and the colour of their experience as carefree days depart and guilt now hangs over them. Donatello retires to his country villa in a melancholy fit. For a while, Hilda mysteriously disappears. This is all much to the distress of the puritan New England sculptor Kenyon, who is in love with Hilda (and who also seems to be very much the author’s alter ego and mouthpiece). 
Because it is laid on with a trowel, one notices at once the heavy symbolism associated with each character. The American characters often compare Donatello with Praxiteles’ marble statue of a faun (or resting satyr), which is encountered and described early in the novel – hence the novel’s title. Indeed, they seem to half believe that the young Italian count is a descendant of Praxiteles’ model. So Donatello represents the amorality of pagan antiquity. But having the same name as a famous Renaissance sculptor, he also represents Italian art in general, so far removed from modern American sensibilities. Fair-headed Hilda is virginal and pure. She is frequently (and cloyingly) associated with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary or with a Vestal Virgin. She is a copyist, specialising in imitating scrupulously other people’s work rather than generating original art of her own. Mysterious, dark-haired Miriam Schaefer specialises in passionate paintings of violence. Imagery compares her with sinful or homicidal women such as Eve, Judith, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Beatrice Cenci (look up my review of ATale for Midnight to find out more about the last named).
So there is Hawthorne doing what he did in The Blithedale Romance – creating polarities of the pure and desirable non-intellectual woman, and the passionate and possibly destructive intellectual woman. The implications of this might rest uneasily with us now. Good and desirable women reproduce (i.e. have children). Passionate intellectual women produce disturbing art – and encourage murder.
Of course this is a gross simplification of what Hawthorne is up to in this novel. Indeed, in making my brief synopsis I have forced the issue by stating as plot-points things that are left very vague and cloudy in the novel itself. This tale ends both happily and extremely vaguely, with Hawthorne cheerfully telling us he can’t be bothered filling in the details of how his plot concludes. As he puts it (at the beginning of the last chapter, Chapter 50):
            The gentle reader, we trust, would not thank us for one of those minute elucidations which are so tedious and, after all, so unsatisfactory in clearing up the romantic mysteries of a story. He is too wise to insist upon looking closely at the wrong side of the tapestry, after the right one has been sufficiently displayed to him, woven with the best of the artist’s skill, and cunningly arranged with a vie to the harmonious exhibition of the colours.”
[Translation: I’m not going to bother sorting the story out or revealing to you how I’ve been manipulating you through this allusive narrative.]
Hawthorne’s first readers weren’t happy with this, and wrote to him insisting that he explain some of the tale’s mysteries and its apparently supernatural elements. In reply, Hawthorne added a four-page “Conclusion” which has been printed as part of the novel ever since. In it, he basically argues that this is a symbolic and magical tale, and as such, its loose ends cannot be tied up without breaking the spell and subjecting it to rational analysis.
So, after all this mystification, what is The Marble Faun all about? Decoding the novel’s symbolism, the best I can suggest is that it has something to do with the morality of art. Art as simple aesthetic experience and the appreciation of beauty (the “pagan” motifs associated with the Italian count early in the novel) cannot truthfully reflect a world in which there are moral dilemmas (the murder) and our moral natures are aroused. Real art should have some degree of moral gravitas.
            But in reading the novel one finds that this simple scheme is often a mere thread for ideas and incidents – a pretext for a series of descriptions of Rome, of works of art, of a country villa, of a carnival etc. At their best these, descriptions and self-contained essays have a strong pictorial sense. At their worst they are like an American tourist’s guidebook. Quite correctly, some early reviewers saw Hawthorne as having padded out a simple tale with descriptive local colour, and it seems that in the late 19th century, it was indeed the vogue among American tourists to use The Marble Faun as a guidebook when they were in Rome. (As, over a century later, some less-informed Americans began to use Hemingway’s spiteful A MoveableFeast as a guide to Paris.)
In one respect the novel succeeds. The plot is so sketchy and the descriptions are so dominant that it takes on a vague, dreamlike quality, perhaps appropriate for a work, which strives to impress us with the faun-like nature of Donatello and the vestal virgin purity of Hilda, garnished with numerous self-conscious classical allusions. And of course there is the Puritan New Englander’s love-hate relationship with Catholicism and Catholic art. Kenyon (i.e. Hawthorne) frankly enjoys and revels in the art he sees in Roman churches, but then often he has to “correct himself” by adding some qualifying phrase. It is not unexpected that Hawthorne should depict terror as a stalking Capuchin monk. And naturally Hawthorne’s/Kenyon’s attitude is one of shock and horror when Hilda chooses to go to confession in St Peter’s and almost converts to Catholicism. Perhaps it was this that set the Puritan off thinking about the dark side of great art – the fact that so much of it was associated with and commissioned by the Catholic Church.
            All manner of rude thoughts arose in my mind after I first read this book – that it is the literary equivalent of the music of Respighi, The Pines of Rome or some such - skilful, pretty and intellectually respectable, but having no real force or genius behind it and little real connection with life. But the crude fact is that I enjoy listening to the music of Respighi, and I would be very ungrateful if I did not admit to enjoying reading this flawed, padded and sometimes outrageously silly novel. Freed from the burden of plot, I wallowed in Hawthorne’s set pieces, no matter how clumsily they were introduced, without having to worry about where the plot was going. It was very much like enjoying those free-standing moments of reflection, like essays, which I enjoy in the novels of George Eliot, but which drive some readers to despair.
One interesting coda – apparently The Marble Faun was the first American novel to contrast innocent, idealistic Americans with the sophisticated and possibly corrupt Europeans whom they encounter in Europe. Henry James was later to make this one of his major themes in novel after novel. (See posts on Roderick Hudson and The Portrait of a Lady.) I don’t think the perceived polarity of American innocence and European moral corruption would now stand much objective scrutiny. But then it probably never did.

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.  


Because I never present you with things I whip up off the top of my head, I write this blog and schedule postings a number of weeks before you get to read them. This gives me time to edit and review what I have written, unlike knee-jerk, here-are-pretty-pictures-of-my-pussy-cat daily confessional blogs.
I am writing these words on Saturday 12 November, three days (New Zealand time) after Donald Trump has become president-elect of the United States of America. Facebook and other social media are awash with comment on this situation, much of it strident and nearly all of it self-righteous. On social media I have expressed my own view that Trump will be either (a.) a dreadful and erratic president; or (b.) will quickly morph into a standard Republican president, with the help of the solidly Republican congress he has to work with. In my posting America’sHindenburg-Hitler Election back in July, I expressed the view that Hillary Clinton was a dreadful candidate, and that the only merit she had was not being Donald Trump. My advice to the American electorate was to “hold your nose, try not to vomit” and vote for Clinton, she being the preferable option in a very bad choice.
And that is almost as much as I wish to say about the outcome of the American election, of which I am sure you are now heartily sick. To those who complain that Hillary actually won the popular vote, I say that that is simply the way of American elections with their Electoral College. You wouldn’t be complaining if Hillary had lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College.
But I am going to address a matter of some relevance to this situation.
Much of Clinton’s failed campaign was built around the “breaking the glass ceiling” myth – the idea that electing a woman president would be a great thing for women everywhere. Now I am sure that in a symbolic sense only, the election of a woman president would encourage many women, just as the election of an African-American president had symbolic value for African-Americans.
But in a material sense, what difference would it make?
I have annoyed some people by asking what great things have been done in the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Most get a little defensive and flustered, tell me what a nice and forbearing man Obama is (which seems to be the case) and what a gracious wife he has (ditto). In other words, they tell me that he plays well on television.
But apart from this comforting symbolism, what has his presidency achieved? I ask.
American foreign policy (much of it influenced by Madam Secretary Clinton) has continued to be both aggressive and short-sighted. A neo-liberal economic course has continued to be pursued. At this point, my interlocutors will tell me that President Obama cannot act because there is a Republican-controlled congress. But, say I, that again is part of the deal, given the nature of American elections where voting for a president is separate from voting for congress.
I cannot think of any Obama-sponsored or -endorsed legislation that will be remembered like Roosevelt’s social welfare New Deal legislation or Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces or Johnson’s Civil Rights laws.
It may well be that the beginning and end of his achievement was to be the first African-American president and to have an attractive demeanour.
And thus, plonking her in the context of the American constitution and the American political system, I say the same thing about Hillary Clinton. So what if she’s a woman? As a neo-liberal sponsoring an aggressive foreign policy and with strong Wall Street links, she would in most things have been more of the same. Glass ceilings be damned. Having a woman as president would have symbolic value only.
Of course there is one issue that was underplayed by the Clinton team during the election. Every so often, one of her team would say that Donald Trump would be bad for “women’s reproductive rights”, which is transparent code for abortion. Pro-abortionists (or “pro-choice”, to use their propaganda term) have the habit of talking this way. A president has much say in who is selected for the Supreme Court. Supreme Court judges are the ultimate arbiters of whether a law is valid or constitutional, and President Clinton would have looked to fill a Supreme Court vacancy with somebody who, like her, endorses late-term abortion – that is, the “right” to kill a fully-formed human being, just before birth.
I’m guessing that this issue had a greater influence on the election’s outcome than is being acknowledged. If Trump stuffs up bigtime, as he may well do, he can be voted out in four years time. But Supreme Court judges have life tenure.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NIGHT FISHING” by Brian Turner (Victoria University Press, $25); “GETTING IT RIGHT – Poems 1968-2015” by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, $25)

When I was less experienced at reviewing volumes of poetry than I am now, I often tried to detect changes of theme or tone between the different sections into which a poet had chosen to divide a collection. I was swiftly advised, by a Senior Poet, that this was pointless. The Senior Poet told me that when a collection of poetry is divided into sections, it usually means that the poet is simply giving the reader a break, and suggesting the reader pause before reading on.

I am reviewing two new volumes of poetry this week, both written by men of advanced years. Brian Turner (born 1944) is in his early 70s. Alan Roddick (born 1937) is nearly 80. I can see some similarities in the preoccupations of these two very different men. Of course both ruminate on the past a bit. Both appear to be agnostics, or at least not to have any particular religious sense, so both find consolations in the lyrical delight that nature gives them. Both have their moments of satire.

But in the matter of how each volume is divided up, Brian Turner’s Night Fishing is very different from Alan Roddick’s Getting It Right.

To begin with Brian Turner’s Night Fishing. On the whole, I believe Turner divides his text into three parts simply to give the reader a break. Even if there is a gathering of protest poems about the environment in one section, and some political satire in another, Turner’s preoccupations are consistent throughout.

There is a gnomic verse on both the cover and the opening page:

            “Let us live long enough to say

we have seen eternity

through the window of our time,

and that we believe it will stick.”

This is essentially an anti-metaphysical poem, saying that “eternity” is this-worldly and to be appreciated in terms of the physical universe. Fittingly, the title poem of the volume “Night Fishing” (p.43) is a simple lyric of things seen in darkness, its entirety going thus:

Just on dark

and for hours after

the trout rose

to the fluorescence

of the moon

and the shimmering

luminosity of the stars

In the non-ideal world, then, nature can be beautiful. But perhaps the non-ideal world can also be a disappointment. In the loose sequence “Poetry and Poets”, Brian Turner seems to express his poetic credo:

A poem is one way

of trying to make sense

when inconsolable,

of emerging

from the underworld

unmarked by

self-pity’s eczema

and envy’s ulcers.”(p.55)

The “underworld”, I take it, is a sort of idealisation or reverie into which one falls, where the hard parts of the real world can be forgotten. So there is this interesting tension in Turner’s work – a desire to celebrate the physical, concrete, non-metaphysical world, but an acute sense of its imperfections, one of the greatest of which is the fact of death. Within the first pages, there is frequently a twilit melancholy tone where poems tell us that snow melts, that painful surgery can be performed when death is near, that birds (pheasants) have to be protected from death by predators, that birdsong evokes thoughts of people who are sad, and that it is a burden to receive kindness from other people (“Do Unto Others”, p.22). There is the deadness of “Seminar” (p.33) which seems to be about “how to slander people nicely” and the first section ends with “The End of the World’ (p.34), about being at the very mouth of death. Later comes “Second Thoughts” (p.40), on the inexplicability of suicide.

Brian Turner often favours the brief, the pithy, the epigrammatic and the aphoristic – short verses, in short. “So There” (pp.24-25) is a collection of epigrams. Later there is the series called “Inside Out” (pp.46-51), though its parts are more like Auden’s “shorts” than any wit La Rochefoucault might have penned. One part made me wonder if Turner wasn’t aspiring to write a pop song. It reads thus:

In dreams I walk with you

by streams that talk of you.

Wherever and whenever

whenever and wherever

in ways that ring true

I still remember you.”

To which I am inclined to say “sha-na-na-na-na-na-do-wop-do-wop” and wonder when the dreamy string section is going to kick in. There are looser, dream-like shorts in “In Flight to San Francisco” (pp.79-81)

            In many of Turner’s poems, the thought is not particularly profound, but there is a compensating exuberance in the way the details are presented. The poem “All You Know” (p.21) is basically an acknowledgement of the limitations of human knowledge, and therefore a desire to enjoy smaller things – but the enjoyment of those small things is palpable:

            “…right now a noisy wind’s

harassing the poplars,

ruffling my cat’s long fluffy

ginger and white fur

and sunshine’s piquancy’s

alighted on every flower,

every leaf, every stone,

every thing known to….”

            Something similar happens in “Truths” (p.38), where Turner’s consolation for a godless universe is simply to look at things as they are (which begs a lot of philosophical questions, but works well enough in the poem). And the volume’s sign-off poem “Just Possibly” (p.94) again suggests that in an uncertain universe, home comforts might just suffice. Joy is very circumscribed and qualified. The one poem of unqualified joy in the collection’s first section is “Blackbird” (p.29) where the poet is assumed into the bird’s song (“part / longing, part fulfilment, near / unadulterated joy”). And the most unbuttoned effusion in the last section is “Late Spring, Ida Valley” (p.89), where the blooming of flowers outdoes the pomp of cities (with a final phrase suggesting “Solomon in all his glory…”).

Yes, older men think of death, not only because it is approaching but because by old age, it has already carried away valued friends and relations. Turner gives us a number of valedictory poems like “Mountains We Climb” (p.44), where death approaches a climber; and three or four poems related to the death of his father: “Remembering Alf” (p.55), “Too Late” (p.59) and “In London Again” (p.75)

As an environmental activist, Turner’s crusading side is indicated in this volume’s Dedication “To my invaluable friends and environmental groups everywhere”. Translated into poetry, however, Turner’s environmental concerns can become soap-box rhetoric, as in “Dry River” (p.60) with its lines “When I see a dry riverbed / where clean, clear water used to be / bare stone is testimony / to turpitude, abuse, and chronic / intergenerational theft.” (p.60). “Bees” (p.61), about the worldwide threat to honey bees, is a much stronger poem for not indulging in such rhetoric. Overt political satire is presented in the sardonic “Candidate” (p.68) and “Minister of the Crown” (p.69) and politics is mocked in comparison with nature’s eternities in “Beyond Dead Horse Pinch and Red Cutting” (pp.73-74) and “Singapore 9 August 2013” (pp.84-85).

I closed Night Fishing with the sense that I had been listening to a man who wants to celebrate the world, but is feeling rather burdened as the chimes at midnight sound.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

How Alan Roddick’s Getting It Right, Poems 1968-2015 is divided up is quite a different story.

Roddick is an odd figure in New Zealand’s small literary community. A dentist by profession, he is a well-known name in academic literary circles (there is a long endorsement of him by C.K.Stead, printed on the back cover of Getting It Right). Roddick may be best known for his editorship and curatorship of Charles Brasch’s work [see this blog’s review of Charles Brasch –Selected Poems, which Roddick edited]. He himself has published little. Getting It Right is only Roddick’s second collection of poems, the first, The Eye Corrects, having been published nearly 50 years ago.

The three parts of Getting It Right therefore divide things up chronologically.

Knowing that The Eye Corrects (1967) is now out of print, Roddick opens this collection with six poems from the earlier volume. In terms of imagery, they are poems of their age, dealing with situations that were then popular in verse. “Naming a Child” has the approaching birth of a child related to rainfall (fecundity, the renewal of the earth etc.). “Festival Race Day” unfolds in that most suburban of activities – mowing a lawn – and reads cosmic disaster in the accidental death of a nestling. “A Patient” is the best and most finely-crafted of Roddick’s earlier poems re-presented here. Set in the poet’s professional milieu, it presents a crisis of non-faith in a dental surgery.

The second part of Getting It Right consists of 14 poems written between 1968 and 1980. Some of them are whimsies (“Notes on Balloon Trees”, “Yes – But”) often being adult observations of children’s perceptions and activities. Some are bucolic (“First Frost”, “Winter Pruning”). While taking a philosophical turn, others of Roddick’s poems from this era have the “quiet, sharp wit” for which C.K.Stead praised him. “And the Swan?” takes the story of Leda and the Swan (the one Willie Yeats wrote about) and makes it in effect a colloquy of body and soul, or a discussion of how much the body actually is the soul. “Tidying My Garage in Hutt IVA” might not have the most original of concept – it simply reflects that one day our suburban clutter and junk will be middens and detritus for archaeologists to sift. But it is carried off with great style.

And finally we come to the third section, comprising over half the volume - the poems from 2007 to 2015. Roddick does tell us in his preface that his muse deserted him for quite a few years, so there are no poems between 1980 and 2007.

In his older age, Alan Roddick is concerned with two things – reconstructing the historical past and reconstructing his own past, but often in the context of confronting the more daunting aspects of nature.

Much of the very accessible sequence “Six Fiordland Poems’ is concerned with a mildly ironical look at Captain Cook’s Resolution voyage as it encountered New Zealand. But before the irony kicks in, there is the opening poem of the sequence, “Seeing Things”, giving the mad rush of the sea as it batters the South Island’s west coast:

Reared on the south-west fetch

three-metre swells come on

  at a rising run

to lift us weightlessly.

I watch their muscular

shoulders hunker down

 to surge away

landwards one last sea-mile…

The next wave hides Tasman’s

land uplifted high: the mist

  parts – and at once

I see what I’m looking at:

rock soaring from breakers

to cloud, and the clambering

  surf in pursuit now


The eight-part sequence “Farthest South with Dr Sparrman” celebrates the Swedish naturalist who sailed with Cook, but here there is irony of a different order. It is the irony of a foreigner observing the English crew as an outsider, nowhere more quizzically that when observing the savage British sailors boxing in “Christmas Day 1772” (pp.52-53).

Some of Roddick’s later poems are jeux d’esprit, like “A Musical Incident” (pp.59-60) which recreates the idle chatter going on inside a cultured mind as an orchestra plays.

Then the real theme of Roddick’s old age begins to be felt - early family memories, such as “A Friendly at the Beach” (p.62) about a family game of footie.

There is a whole clutch of poems in which Roddick relives his Northern Irish (Scots-Irish Protestant) childhood.  “Paying My Debts” (pp.64-65) concerns childhood memories of his parents’ religious beliefs. “Teachers” (p.66) mimics the things said in a 1940s Belfast classroom. “The Slieve Donard Expedition” (p.68) relives an earnest ramble in the Ulster hills. “The LDV Belt” (p.78) recalls that his father had the habit of chastising him with his Local Defence Volunteers belt. And there is a sequence on a childhood holiday in Scotland. These poems are vivid, wry, funny, revealing, and of course “babbling of green fields” as old men’s poems do.

But Roddick has the perspective (and inbuilt irony) to see that there is more to this than nostalgia. The volume’s title poem “Getting It Right” (p.72) is dedicated “in gratitude to Seamus Heaney”, a poet who came from the opposing (Irish Catholic) tribe in Northern Ireland. In it, Roddick admits that there was a quite different perspective on the world in which he spent his childhood, and that accepted things could be looked at very differently. This perspective prevents Roddick from being sentimental about his past, and shows that the perspective of age can bring wisdom.