Monday, June 26, 2017

Something New

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

“STAR SAILORS” by James McNaughton  (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)

            About two-and-a-half years ago (14 February 2015, to be precise) I wrote for the New Zealand Listener a review of James McNaughton’s first novel New Hokkaido, which was a kind of tongue-in-cheek romp about what New Zealand would be like if it had been taken over by the Japanese in the Second World War. I judged it an enjoyable enough piece of fluff, marred by its uncertain tone (now farcical, now serious) and its many improbabilities, even as “counter-factual” fiction goes.

Imagine my mortification four months later when I found in New Zealand Books (June 2015) a review of New Hokkaido by a censorious academic who said that it was a piece of rampant racism and Yellow Peril hysteria. Oh the shame! In my ignorance and imperception I, clearly not as sophisticated or finely tuned to subtle undertones as the academic, had almost praised a book that should have been ritually burned for its lack of PC….

It’s so damned easy to take too seriously what shouldn’t be taken seriously in the first place, isn’t it? (Especially if you lack a sense of humour.)

So now I am reviewing James McNaughton’s second novel Star Sailors and I am treading very carefully. I do not take it too seriously. I know that, as in his first novel, much is sheer piss-take. There is not much that is offensive in the “message” of Star Sailors. A dystopian fantasia set in New Zealand about thirty years hence (the 2040s), it hits many buttons that will set purring ecologists and people concerned with social justice and those who like their satire broad. But (alas, alas, alas), at nearly 500 pages (487 to be precise) it is simply too damned long, too unfocussed, too digressive, has too many side issues and sets too many hares running. At some point a rigorous and judicious editor should have gone slash, slash, slash and made it the trim and engaging thing it could have been.

On top of which, the sheer bulk of Star Sailors almost forces us to take it more seriously than it merits.

In the preceding two paragraphs you have in effect read my review of Star Sailors, and if it is only a verdict you are seeking, then you need not read on. But I prefer to prove what I have asserted, so what follows is documentation.

In the 2040s of Star Sailors, the Earth has suffered near complete ecological collapse. Gobal warming has triggered rising seas, floods, permanently inundated coastlines and shrinking arable land at a time of rising population. All this is expressed most fully by Bill, a former journalist in his 80s, as he watches the new-style de-brained television news:

‘The golden age of news’, as it’s privately called by reporters, depresses Bill, yet he occasionally finds himself watching. The days when he felt a sense of relief at being in New Zealand, spared from the rest of the world’s numerous natural disasters, resource wars, civil unrest, and general social and economic disarray, are long gone. Now the scarcely believable images wash over him, leaving him tired and dazed. He succumbs to them. Fires burn night and day in forests and cities; climate refugees battle fences, surround watertankers, overturn emergency food trucks. Deep cracks open in parched land, lakes empty, sinkholes appear by the dozen, trees and animals die, thousands of dead fish wash ashore and rot in the sun, sea walls break, super-hurricanes drown thousands, tent cities spring up, explosions, acres of flyblown bodies, public executions of looters by officers in the uniforms of various failing states, wide-eyed orphans, hospital tents littered with the languid dying, beatings, rapes, machine-gun fire and shelling. All kinds of horrors….” (p.297)

Once upon a time, it was thought that New Zealand was immune to this sort of thing. As an Aussie chef says insouciantly, relatively early in the piece,  “There’s a lot to be said for splendid isolation in the South Paciic, a relatively small population, plenty of precipitation and a government striving to remain transparent and democratic.” (p.109) New Zealand as refuge from global catastrophe is an idea at least as old as Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (written in the 1940s), and it is a fantasy that some still cling to in our own times.

But in Star Sailors, the fantasy has proven not be be true. In the NZ of 2045, wealthy Americans and others make (relatively) safe NZ a bolthole, bringing their values with them, corporations still rule with their evil neo-liberalism, wealth is not shared equitably, and the global ecological disaster is nibbling at the collapsing coastline. In Wellington, where most of the earlier sections of the novel take place, the poorer “Outers” cower behind unstable seawalls near sea-level, where crime is rife; the populace can afford to eat only cheap junk food and therefore obesity is also rife; and there is seething discontent which could coalesce into rebellion or revolution.

Meanwhile the wealthy or “Inners” live in a gated and guarded community The Mount (which seems to be ranged around Mount Victoria) or they disport theselves at The Beach (a domed luxury resort for rich people only) and live largely hedonistic and exploitative lives.

Obviously, this extreme dichotomy of society has its antecedents in much dystopian fiction. I immediately think of H. G. Wells’ Elois and Morlocks in The Time Machine (tho’ McNaughton isn’t as biologically extreme in his dichotomy as Wells was). Or, more relevantly, the hedonistic idlers living in their Paradise and the oppressed workers in the Depths in Fritz Lang’s 1920s film Metropolis. Or even the starving masses not let into the unbreakable dome of the Immortals in John Boorman’s flawed but interesting 1974 film Zardoz.

Sump’n’s gotta give in the socially divided world McNaughton depicts and it seems to be coming when, in the first section of the novel, a terrorist bomb goes off in the wealthy hedonists’ domed Beach. Immediately the “Inners” respond by beefing up their security and there is a sequence set at a gun show.

It is in the world of the Inners that Jeremiah and Karen Broderick, the presumptive protagonists, live. Both originally came from deprived part of society, but managed to claw their way into wealth, he as a lawyer, she as a model – so there is at least some modicum of social mobility and the state still has some of the trappings of democracy. One strand of plot has Karen and Jeremiah (who have a young son modishly called Mandela) testing the strength of their apparently fragile marriage and testing their own moral integrity. Will they or won’t they see the corruption of their privileged lives? Will they see through the neo-liberal mantras that money is the bottom line and the welfare of the whole population is of secondary importance?

Reader, I will not test your patience with more “plot summary” on this matter, save to say that “selling out” on one’s integrity is part of it, as well as a long party scene among the exploitative rich, which is half orgy and half the Masque of the Red Death. Oh how disgusting are the filthy rich! (And oh how that author conveniently has to show their disgusting-ness in explicit sexual detail to make his point!) And come to think of it, a long party revealing the moral rot and vacuity of the upper classes is a very well-established trope in social satire (reference Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God; Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu; Jean Gremillon’s Lumiere d’Ete etc. etc.)

Often, while ploughing through the Karen and Jeremiah sections (yes, I do recognise the irony of naming a protagonist after a prophet of doom), I thought that James McNaughton might have done better to address his satire directly to the age in which we are living, rather than deferring it to some future dystopia. Surely the widening social gap between rich and poor, the phenomena of gated communities and deprived suburbs, and the effects of neo-liberalism are all things that already exist in New Zealand. McNaughton has simply extrapolated from current trends. They might have been attacked more pungently if the attack had been head-on, unvarnished with fantasy, and realistic.

Ah yes, but as well as the social satire there’s the global ecological mess, which is most fully attached to the second line of narrative. Married to a fashionista called Trix is the erstwhile journalist Bill. Long, long ago, in the 1980s, when he was a young reporter in Hokitika on the West Coast, Bill encountered Sam Starsailor, whom he understood to be an extraterrestrial who had apparently come to Earth to deliver some momentously important ecological message to the human race.

Of course in this far past year, Bill was ridiculed for his belief. But now, in the 2040s, Sam Starsailor (or an extraterrestrial very like him) has turned up in New Hokitika. You see, the old coastal town sank beneath the rising sea, so New Hokitika has been built on higher ground. The action switches to New Hokitika. (Thinks – with this name was James McNaughton making covert reference to hs first novel New Hokkaido? Dunno.) The new, and apparently comatose, Starsailor is a sensation with the media and old Bill becomes the ET’s official companion in front of the cameras.

So what will the alien’s great message to the world be? And will the neo-liberal-corporation-controlled media allow the message to get through? And will there be a revolution?

A clear narrative line leading to answers should have been the trajectory of Star Sailors. Regrettably, it isn’t, and this is my major beef with the novel. The side-issues, the digressions, just pile on and on, spinning the narrative beyond the point where whatever it has to say is clear.

To satirise corporatised news – the decline of real journalism and control of media by corporations – is one thing. But to do it at length in a novel that is already top-heavy with social and ecological issues is quite another. When they are one-liners, there is no problem with the intrusion of robot servants, “robotistas” (robotic baristas) and robot cars. But it is hard to see how a long passage on finding a parking space adds much to the tale. The emphasis on old, rich, sexually-jaded men fuelled by rejuvenation tachniques (and some sugical equivalent of Viagra) may be a fair extrapolation of old, rich baby-boomers – but this detail leads us into stuff about sex holograms and the use of stolen personalties for porn. Surely the decadence of the rich didn’t need to be spelled out at such length? The details about fashion and fashionistas were worthy of a few brisk quips at most.

Most intrusive of all is the subplot about Bill’s obese son Simon and his wife Cheryl’s promiscuity and disputed son. Again, it could have been disposed of more concisely without harm to the novel.

I suppose it would be redundant to note that the novel’s topicality makes at least some of its satire very perishable. On p. 91, Bill considers unswimmable rivers and notes : “…the statistic about faecal bacteria isn’t even news, and hasn’t been since the dairy industry went bottom up in the early 2020s with the introduction of synthetic milk. White and mainly water, yet no one saw it coming.” But I guess this sort of thing is inevitable when you set your satire in the future.

I have the distinct impression that, with a good central idea as his first inspiration, James McNaughton then let his mind run too free over a whole raft of things that either amused or dismayed him. There is no real sense of purposeful structure, but more an amble. When it comes, the denouement with the ET is a sad fizzler. And after the bloated novel passes this point, there is a hasty 16-page coda explaining the aftermath of a revolution but sounding like a doctrine of withdrawal. Solve the world’s problems by silence, exile and cunning, I guess, but it seems more like the convenient quietism of the well-to-do.

There are amusements along the way, but I regret the focused thing this dawdle could have been.

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 PERSIANS” by Aeschylus (first performed in 472 BC; read by this reviewer in the 19th century English translation of Lewis Campbell; and the 1961 English translation of Philip Vellacott)

Ben Jonson said William Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek”. I can go Bill Shakespeare one better. I have a smattering of Latin and no Greek whatsoever. The Latin comes from school, and I can still struggle painfully and slowly through a Latin text if there’s a lexicon handy. The lack of Greek comes from pure ignorance, though I did pick up a very few Greek words (in Anglicised spelling) when I was studying theology (“Parousia” etc.). Yet I know that great works of ancient literature lurk in this language I cannot understand, so I have had to read them in English translations.
Some years back, this led to an interesting adventure in reading. At the time, I was working my way methodically through the poetry of Louis MacNeice, when I came across a Faber reprint of MacNeice’s translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon – a translation MacNeice made as a young man in 1936. I read it with great pleasure. This in turn led me to find in a second-hand bookshop a trim little hardback in the Oxford World Classics series of Lewis Campbell’s (late nineteenth century) translations of all seven surviving plays by Aeschylus (born c.525 BC – died c.455 BC). As with the works of the other canonical ancient Greek dramatists (Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes etc.), only a fraction of Aeschylus’s oeuvre has survived. He is believed to have written over seventy plays.
I read my way through all seven surviving plays by Aeschylus, taking notes as I went. I was, however, aware that there was something stilted in the translations, which perhaps (remember, I don’t know the original Greek texts) had something to do with Lewis Campbell’s Victorian locutions and the influence of English Romantic poetry on his vocabulary choices and versification. So I went off and found the two Penguin Classics paperbacks of Philip Vellacott’s translations (done in the 1950s and 1960s) of all Aeschylus’s plays. Far more accessible than the Lewis Campbell translations they were, too. Later still, I acquired the American Robert Fagles’ 1970s translations of the three Orestes plays, so now I have had the pleasure of reading the Agamemnon in four different translations.
The Agamemnon is still my favourite play by Aeschylus, and apparently the dramatist’s most esteemed play. I might one day deal with it on this blog.
But for purely devious reasons, which will become evident only later in this notice, I am dealing here with Aeschylus’s The Persians, which I know in the Campbell and Vellacott translations.
According to the apparatus criticus of the translations, The Persians was first performed in 472 BC and is the only surviving part of what was originally a trilogy, each part of which might have told a story of presumptuous and hubristic human behaviour being punished by the gods. (Naturally there has to be much speculation here, as the other two parts of the trilogy no longer exist.) It is unique among surviving ancient Greek plays in that it deals with contemporary events rather than with tales from legend and mythology. The Persians concerns the attempt of Xerxes’ Persian Empire to crush the Greeks in 480 BC. Specifically, it refers to the Persian defeat by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis – which had happened a mere eight years before Aeschylus wrote his play. As a patriotic Athenian who bore arms, Aeschylus himself is known to have fought against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon ten years before the Battle of Salamis, and he may indeed have fought at Salamis as well.

So here we have a play about Persians, written by a patriotic Athenian who had fought them.
Summarising what happens in the play, I now quote from the notes in my reading diary:
Atossa, the widow of Darius, emperor of the Persians, expresses to the Persian elders (her late husband’s contemporaries) her fearful dreams. The Chorus have been expressing their apprehension at the fate of the huge army that Atossa’s son, the emperor Xerxes, has sent to fight the Athenians. A Messenger enters, and in great detail he recounts the Persian defeat at Salamis – first listing all the famous Persian nobles and generals and allies who have been killed, then giving an account of the strategy which enabled the outnumbered Athenians to trick the huge Persian fleet into fighting in narrow straits. Xerxes and his allies are said to be retreating in disarray. Atossa asks the Chorus woefully if they can raise the ghost of Darius. They do so. The ghost of Darius reproves his son Xerxes for foolishly fighting the Athenians and for listening to flattering councillors who urged him to seek glory in war. He also predicts that the Persians will be defeated again (referring to another Greek victory which happened after Salamis but before Aeschylus wrote his play). When the ghost of Darius departs, Atossa asks the Chorus to care for the defeated Xerxes. She leaves to find seemly clothes for her son, as she has heard he is tattered and torn. After she leaves the stage, Xerxes enters in rags and with an empty quiver. He and the Chorus lament the desolation of defeat as the play ends.
As I read it, the clearest expression of the theme of gods working against Persian over-confidence and general hubris is given by the ghost of Darius when he says (in Philip Vellacott’s translation):
How swiftly came fulfilment of old prophecies!
Zeus struck within one generation: on my son
Has fallen the issue of those oracles which I
Trusted the gods would defer for many years.
But heaven takes part, for good or ill, with man’s own zeal.
So now for my whole house a staunchless spring of griefs
Is opened; and my son, in youthful recklessness,
Not knowing the gods’ ways, has been the cause of all.”
Part of Xerxes’ hubris was his foolish attempt to work against nature by making a bridge of ships across the Hellespont – but even this strategy did not save him from defeat.
Of course my bare reading-diary summary here does not account for the poetic nature of the play, the choruses and the ritualistic way in which classic Greek plays were structured. I am not qualified to comment on these things. I am responding to English-language texts.
As soon as I read The Persians, I could see that a large part of its purpose was triumphant Athenian propaganda. The Greek fleet of 300 ships has faced down and destroyed the Persian fleet of 1000 ships. This fact is being celebrated. Further, the Greeks are an alliance of different states. They do not have one unquestioned leader who claims divine status, as the Persians do; and the Persians have been destroyed by the rashness of their one “divine” monarch. Could this be a celebration of Athenian “democracy” (i.e. the rule of a very select group of freemen) in opposition to Persian autocracy? Again, I do not know enough to make a call on this.
But one thing I found very interesting. Aeschylus does not present the Persians as monsters or fools. There is something pitiable in the way the burden of the play is carried by an old woman (Atossa), a chorus probably made up of old men (Darius’s contemporaries), and a ghost – before the pathetic figure of a ragged, defeated king appears. We feel sorry for these people – sorry in part because they have been betrayed by the foolishness of a man who arrives very late on stage. Much of the pity of war is conveyed even if, through the mouth of the Messenger, we hear much of the military prowess of the Greeks. To this extent, at any rate, the play has for me some of the feeling of Euripides’ The Trojan Women – it is in part a lament for the destructiveness of war.
Yet, withal, it is mainly an Athenian yelp of triumph.
Now why, gentle reader, have I discoursed this week on Aeschylus’s The Persians?

Not so long ago, my wife and I went with our eldest daughter and our 8-year-old grandson to the Pop-Up Globe in Auckland to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It was our grandson’s first Shakespeare and we were delighted that he stood with rapt attention (we were groundlings) for the full length of the play. He was enthused by the vigorous action and delighted when Henry V stepped among the audience and directly addressed him as if he were one of his soldiers. (I, on the other hand, got splattered with fake blood – we were standing right next to the stage – in one scene where a French nobleman had his throat slashed.) It was an excellent production in every respect, observing the Elizabethan and Jacobean convention of being played by a male-only cast. Mistress Quickly and her whores, and the French Princess Katharine, were played by men in drag.
But it is not my purpose here to be a drama critic.
What interested me was the persistence of propaganda.
Like The Persians, Henry V is the story of a small plucky force defeating a larger and over-confident force. As history, Shakespeare’s play is very dodgy. No real historian would accept the play’s absurd claim that at the Battle of Agincourt only 29 English soldiers died for the loss of 10,000 French. The play is filled with jingoistic, rousing speeches (“Once more unto the breach dear friends…”; “God for Harry, England and St George” etc.), some of which were recycled by Winston Churchill in the Second World War. And, of course (unlike The Persians), it celebrates a victory, which was at best temporary. A little more than a decade after Agincourt, the French re-grouped (Joan of Arc etc.) and proceeded to defeat the English in a series of battles. The English might have won some of the battles (the Black Prince at Crecy; Henry V at Agincourt) but in the end it was the French who won the Hundred Years War. So here is a play celebrating as a definitive triumph an atypical part of a longer conflict. Shakespeare himself was aware of this – he had already written (or patched up from other people’s writing) his three Henry VI plays, which cover England’s later losses to the French. This is even mentioned in the Chorus’s last speech in Henry V. 
Even so, Henry V is essentially patriotic propaganda.
But, like Aeschylus, Shakespeare was in this play a propagandist of genius.
Note how, as in The Persians, much praise for the valour of “our” side comes from the mouth of our enemies – the French Herald Mountjoy (who is presented sympathetically) and others. Thus (as when we hear the Persian Messenger describe the Battle of Salamis) we are reassured that this heroic depiction of our lads in battle is an objective fact.
Note how, as in The Persians, the playwright presumes to know what was being said in the enemy court. Just as the shade of Darius laments the rashness of his son Xerxes, so does the (feeble and mentally-unstable) French King Charles VI lament the rashness of his son the Dauphin. There was, of course, no way that either dramatist could possibly know what the enemy was really saying (come to think of it, Shakespeare had no way of knowing what was said in an English royal court either). But again, the effect is to create an illusion of authenticity. Even the enemy judges their commanders negatively!
I would also add that in both plays, the playwright gives some sympathy to the enemies and their losses, and sometimes strikes a note of sorrow at the fact of war. After all, Shakespeare’s play goes on to have the victorious English king marrying into French royalty, so he cannot depict the French as complete inferiors. Shakespeare does, however, have to strive much harder than Aeschylus does to justify his country going to war in the first place. The Athenians were responding to Persian aggression. Henry V is the aggressor who wages war on very feeble premises – hence the long opening scene of Henry V with its discussion of Salic law and the later scene in which Henry, in disguise, justifies to his soldiers a king leading his men into probable death. Is there the whisper of a bad conscience here?
In one particular Shakespeare is a better propagandist than Aeschylus. Unlike Aeschylus, he makes some concessions by admitting evils done by his own countrymen. Thus there is Henry V’s execution of three noble English traitors, and later the hanging of Bardolph for looting a French church. (Shakespeare might have been freer to make this sort of concession as he was writing nearly 200 years after the historical events on which Henry V was based. Aeschylus was writing only eight years after the events on which The Persians was based.) Again, however, this apparent impartiality ends by stressing the justice of Henry V and therefore solidifying the image of a righteous warrior king.

(As an aside, the traitors and the hanging of Bardolph did not figure in Laurence Olivier’s morale-boosting film of Henry V, made in 1944 in the later stages of the Second World War; but they did feature in Kenneth Branagh’s grittier film version, made in 1989 and far less starry-eyed about patriotism.)

In comparing Henry V with The Persians, then, I am simply confirming that the arsenal of the propagandist is a very ancient one. A play 2,500 years old and a play 400 years old have much in common in the ways they incite their audiences to see “our” victories as glorious and heroic, to see “our” enemies as poorly-led, hubristic and deeply flawed in their strategies; and yet to concede much of the pity of war.
Many of the stratagems of Aeschylus and Shakespeare are the stratagems of the scriptwriters of wartime propaganda films (the enemy who says about us the things we want him to say, etc.). The difference is that, in these particular plays, the propaganda of Aeschylus and Shakespeare is such brilliant propaganda.

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.


Seriously now, I’ve had enough.
The election in the Kingdom of Affenschwanz has happened and it has been dissected. There was the hubris of the Kanzlerin in calling the election in the first place. She was so confident she would receive a cheery call from the Konigin to form a government and now she’s had her majority slashed and there will probably be a hung Bundestag. The Reaktion Party is upset for losing its majority and so is the Lumpen Party for not getting into power.  The Fringe-Nations parties have no more traction than they had before (even less in one case) and the little Bits-and-Pieces parties are still little.
So I hear it all being dissected. In terms of the polls and how wrong they could be. In terms of the defects of the party leaders. In terms of the ages and ethnicities and regions of the voters for this and that. In terms of The Market and the economic consequences. In terms of the reaction of Brussels and the EU. In terms of when the next leadership challenge to the Kanzlerin will be.
Oh stop it. Stop it. Please stop it. I have heard enough. Too much information. Too much. Too much opining by anyone who can front up to a mike and/or camera and pour forth his or her five New Ps’ worth. Too much speculation from people who know no more about it than you or I, or who claim special insights based on nothing more than the raw election data we have already seen for ourselves.
I am attracted to quietism, I say.
I will tune out from this hideous noise.
I will retire from this deluge of pseudo-information.
It is quietism for me. Let the world rot itself for a while while I let it all roll on and I sleep and enjoy music and wine and a good book that has nothing to do with politics and not even much to do with the present.
My mind and ears have been assailed by hideous ethical debate. Should we continue killing children before birth? Should we extend the killing to the old and sick – after they have given their consent, of course? I mean, grannie, you are tired of life, aren’t you? And you’re just taking up a hospital bed that could be occupied by somebody with her life before her, aren’t you? And you’re not enjoying your life much anyway, are you? Come now grannie. I know you want to sign this form, and it will be easy for us to find two certifying doctors who think it’s right and just for you to die and are witnesses that you signed this voluntarily. Now don’t be selfish, grannie. You’ve had your life. And think of the greater good. I mean you can’t really expect younger people to pay taxes to support a growing population of older people, can you? Go on, sign. Sign.
Oh stop it. Stop it. Please stop it. I have heard enough. I have heard the smooth propagandist for killing grannie being given a privilieged place on the Saturday morning radio talkshow. I have seen the smug proponents of killing grannie on television, claiming to represent growing world opinion, the wave of the future, let’s say the New Order, confidently jabbering about how compassionate and merciful they are.
I am attracted to quietism, I say.
I will tune out from this hideous noise.
I will retire from this deluge of pseudo-information.
It is quietism for me. Let the world rot itself for a while while I let it all roll on and I sleep and enjoy music and wine and a good book that has nothing to do with killing grannie and not even much to do with the present.
If it bleeds it leads, and on my news feed there are all these corpses mutilated by bombs and gas and drones over Afghanistan and Syria and on European bridges and there is all the rhetoric that follows the bloodshed. We stay strong. We will not be cowed. Not all Muslims are… We will not let them win. It was necessary. Supporters of terrorism.
I am attracted to quietism, I say.
I will tune out from this hideous noise.
I will retire from this deluge of pseudo-information.
It is quietism for me. Let the world rot itself for a while while I let it all roll on and I sleep and enjoy music and wine and a good book that has nothing to do with mass murder and not even much to do with the present.
And thus for the homeless. And thus for the poor in poorly-insulated houses. And thus for virtue-signalling. And thus for the contested future of poetry. And thus for jabber claiming to be sophisticated and topical discourse. And thus for the glib analyses to which my attention is directed on Facebook.
It is withdrawal and quietism for me. It is the comforting snooze of disengagement. It is the privilege of not hearing predictable opinions posing a Holy Writ, and the confident certainty of the half-informed. Away with it. Away I say.
Quietism. Let it happen. Let it flow. It will all work itself out in the end. Why does it need me? Why should I take any sort of responsibility for it? I will lie like a cat in the sun, basking passively in the radiance of goodness.
Until I wake, and find I am human and I am part of this and I have to know what is going on in the world. And even if the conduits of (too much) information are imperfect, at least I can have solidarity with my fellow human-beings by knowing that they are as imperfect and contradictory as I am.
Quietism. It can be only a momentary shelter in the storm, refreshing while it lasts.
But it is no answer.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Something New

NOTICE TO READERS: For six 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 HORSE” by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)

            I almost breathe a sigh of relief as I pick up, and at first flick idly through, Elizabeth Smither’s latest (eighteenth) collection of poetry Night Horse, before I get down to the serious business of reading my way through it. Across 70 pages, here are 60 individual poems, most occupying a single page only. Individual poems – not cycles of poems and not poems organised around some stated theme. Such “thematic” collections (“concept albums” I often call them) seem to be the only arrangement that many publishers of poetry now expect. But here we have the naked, raw individual poem to encounter, and that is the way I like it. In fact, that was the way I liked it when I reviewed Smither’s last collection The Blue Coat.

Of course I’ve been to Smither Country before. I know that she likes the moment of epiphany: the encounter, often with small and everyday things, in which a larger mindscape can be found – that element of transformation where the familiar becomes unfamiliar. Of course I know that in this volume you can you read the poet’s preoccupations and indeed you will encounter strings of poems on approximately the same theme. But they are not cycles. They are not intended to be read as a sequence. And the poet’s dry, ironical wit would undercut the implied solemnity of a poetic sequence anyway.

When I have in front of me a collection such as this, I always query why a particular poem has been chosen to give the collection its title. So to the poem “Night Horse” (p.20), which I here quote in full:

In the field by the driveway

as I turn the car a horse

is stepping in the moonlight.

Its canvas coat shines, incandescent.

Around its eyes a mask

a Sienese horse might wear.

No banners stir the air, but mystery

in the way it is stepping

as if no human should see

the night horse going about its business.

The soft grass bowing to the silent hooves

the head alert, tending where

the moonlight glows and communes

in descending swoops that fall

through the air like ribbons

as the horse moves in a trance

so compelling, so other-worldly

it doesn’t see the car lights.

In its six stanzas, note first the simplicity and directness of the language, and how it begins as a documentary depiction of a real thing in a real world. This is a night horse, not a nightmare – something seen in the physical world, a horse caught in a car’s headlights, wearing its canvas covering. The poet can see something heraldic about it – like one of those horses that run the medieval palio in Siena. There is something magical about it. The grass “bows” to it as if it were mejestic; the moonlight “communes” with the horse and falls “like ribbons”, and the horse is “other-worldly” and in a “trance”. When we go “incandescent”, we are on the edge of the transcendent. AND YET at the heart of the poem there is the unmagical and commonsensical line “the horse goes about its business” and at the end “it doesn’t see the car lights”. The point is this – the magic is in the beholder’s eyes, not in the physical scene. The horse is not relating to the human being. The horse is acting in a way that is specifically its own and unconcerned about human perceptions. It is an everyday (everynight?) creature transformed into something else by the poet. In a way, this is a poem about otherness. The horse is magical only because its world, its mindset, is really unknowable to us.

It is foolish to extrapolate from this one poem a prolific poet’s whole technique, but I can say that this controlled piece of observation does indicate much that is in this collection. There are other poems here that present an imaginative idea very similar to “Night Horse”, such as “Morning blackbird on the lawn” (p.25) where a [detached-from-us] bird is “levering up a worm, is concentrating / as if there’s something deeper even than music / deeper even than the beauty that covers everything”. Or like “The mountain” (p.45) where a snow-capped mountain seen at night is “solid” but transformed to the status of a ghost by the viewer’s mind

Smither often observes small and momentary things that are worked upon by the imagination. Take the opening poem “My mother’s house”(p.1) where a whole life is read in a woman’s domestic routine in one night; and note some persistence of night imagery in “Cat night” (p.18) where the ever-mysterious feline world awakes.

There is the domestic and family scene, as there usually is in Smither’s work, and there is much imagery in these poems of shoes, of dressing gowns, of ironed shirts – often seen without people in them, and therefore more urgent as mementoes of people. Stroking and playing with hair plays its part. Family means memory – of childhood in “Swimming with our fathers” (p.3) ; of parents in “Daybreak in dressing gowns” conundrum; and of somebody now lost in the elegaic “Eyebrows, toenails”.

I have said that there are “strings”of poems in this collection rather than sequences. There is, for example, a string of poems about animals: “Cat night (p.18); “The wedding party of animals “ (p.19); “Night horse’ (p.20) and “Blaming the horse” (p.21). There is a string of poems about the unselfconsciousness of a very young child [and her eating habits]  “An apple tree for Ruby”, “Ruby and fruit”, “The body of a little girl” –and later “Ruby and the Labradors” (p.24), one of Smither’s most exquisite inventions, where two dogs “taller than her chaff-blonde hair” (p.24) most intrigue the little girl, dwarf her, and yet become a sign of her protection. The poems “Consolation”, “Putting a line through addresses” and “Tonia’s cemetery” (pp.36-39) are all somehow entangled in death and finality. Later there are poems about a dying girl and about an open casket And come to think of it, even a longish whimsical poem like “Oysters” (pp.56-57) is about finality – or at least the disappointment that can come after a build-up and much anticipation.

As for the sophisticated, worldly side of life, there are poems about driving, overseas travel (Canberra, Spain) and dining and clothes. Unsurprisingly, high culture is here with references in poems to Mozart, Picasso, a Winged Victory in the Louvre, ballet and Jane Austen.

It is the poet’s good humour and wit, however, that prevents any of this volume from from becoming solemn or self-laudatory. The world is full of familiar things, but they can be made wonderful by a good poet.