Monday, February 19, 2018

Something New

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

“PASSANT – A Journey to Elsewhere” by Alistair Paterson (Austin Macauley Publishers $NZ40)

I have this firm belief that reviewers should always declare an interest when they set out to review a book. Otherwise we end up with the risible situation (frequent enough in some New Zealand periodicals) of academics reviewing works by academic colleagues and friends, but without declaring their interest and relationship. So let me say up front that I regard Alistair Paterson as a friend – not a close one, but a friend nevertheless. Though he is some decades older than me, he has occasionally mentored me in the writing of poetry, and I four times acted as guest editor on Poetry New Zealand during the very long period when he was editor-in-chief.

So now you know that Alistair Paterson, prolific poet, short-story-writer and anthologist, and holder of the OBE for his services to literature, is somebody whom I know and like. And that is all that need be said on the matter.

If you are the sort of person who craves short and pithy judgments, I will add that I very much enjoyed reading Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere, Paterson’s memoir of his childhood and adolescence. I might have some misgivings about the way it concludes, and I do admit that it sometimes repeats points it has already made, but in its expansiveness (it runs to 300 substantial pages) it is lively, engaging and enlightening about the way things were in New Zealand eighty-odd years ago.

If you read it very, very selectively, you could see it as an idyll of a past New Zealand and lament for the loss of its simplicities and certainties. Alistair Paterson was born in 1929 in Nelson, together with his (fraternal, not identical) twin brother Charlie. At no point does Paterson suggest that the Nelson of his youth was a perfect society. He notes the snobbery and pretensions of the small city’s wealthier citizens and their tendency towards a peculiar sort of South British jingoism, epitomised in Empire Day. He notes how grown-ups sometimes clung possessively to local heroes, as when he heard them talking about an illustrious person they called “Ernie” (Ernest Rutherford). He is certainly not complimentary about his secondary schooling. Even so, many of the things he did as a child and young teenager suggest the carefree possibilities of an earlier era. Going to the movies. Enjoying Guy Fawkes night. Swimming or sailing in the Maitai River. Listening to early radio in an age when a mass audience enjoyed (of all things) wrestling commentaries involving Lofty Blomfield. The boy is only ten when the Second World War begins, and he tries (in an apolitical way) to understand what it’s all about.

From the adolescent years there are some good self-contained anecdotes, such as the twin brothers labouring to build what turned out to be a useless canoe. Or participating in yacht races. Or young Alistair, with a damaged wrist, painfully rowing two visiting GIs to the local wharf. Or how he and a schoolmate accidentally started a scrub-fire (easily put out by the fire-brigade, thankfully) when they were told to burn off some gorse. There are also some retrospective ironies. Given that the adult Alistair Paterson was for twenty years a naval officer, it is ironical that he got seasick the first time he went on a deep-sea vessel (crossing Cook Strait to Wellington to attend the 1940 centenniel exhibition).

Paterson early strikes a note of loss when he remarks: “On occasional visits to Nelson I’ve driven past what’s left of the flats I knew so well and looked out towards the sea and the boulder bank, hoping to see children playing there. Their absence means that children have lost something of that earlier intimacy with the natural world which my brother and I experienced – and which the wider community might have lost as well.” (p.25)

Another very selective reading could see Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere as chronicling the genesis of the author as creative writer, with its remarks on the boy’s reading habits and first efforts at writing. The books he read as a child suggest robust tastes. He notes how much, as a youngster, he enjoyed Richmal Crompton’s anarchistic, anti-authority schoolboy “William” books; and how he was intrigued by the ingenuity of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. In retrospect, he appreciates the value of reciting poetry in his primary school class, under the instruction of an elocution-trained teacher. At the time, however, his first real introduction to poetry gave him false expectations about how poetry is written: “I found myself trying to compose verses line by line in my head, and, failing miserably, came to believe poetry was written by people of special ability and great genius in far countries.” (p.189)

He is less complimentary about his adolescent years at Nelson College, seeing the teachers as being concerned more with the college’s prestige than with sympathetic teaching. The cane was applied often and there was a dismissive attitude towards pupils (like Paterson) who were not leading athletes or sportsmen. One English teacher told him to give up writing poetry because it was “unhealthy”. Nevertheless, Nelson College did give him the opportunity to be a violinist in the school orchestra; and it did give him the company of other students who were interested in modern poetry, like the one who introduced him to the work of T.S.Eliot.

But attempts to see this memoir as either nostalgic idyll or Kunstlerroman are thwarted by two things, which take up a great part of Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere. First, there is the matter of young Alistair Paterson’s long illness and hospitalisation; then there is the matter of what would now be called the dysfunctional family to which he belonged. To be clear, neither young Alistair nor his brothers were in any way physically mistreated. Their parents were on the whole very considerate people. But the circumstances of the family created severe stresses for the growing boys. At first, Paterson suggests some reluctance to narrate these things. Having noted how a journalist once scorned another person’s childhood memoirs as self-indulgence, Paterson says: “As a result, I wonder why I’m writing about my childhood and whether an account of a dysfunctional family in one’s early years is of any value or worth the trouble.” (p.65)

Briefly put, Paterson’s parents separated in unusual circumstances. After they were first married, they lived with Alistair’s paternal grandparents, the Patersons. But shortly after Alistair and Charlie were born, the older Patersons proved so over-controlling and unsympathetic to the twins’ mother that she moved back to live with her own parents, the Whites. Alistair and Charlie were thus brought up by their mother in their maternal grandparents’ house on Weka Street. But they made weekly visits to their father at his parents’ house on Nile Street East. And, despite their parents’ separation, their father made regular visits to their mother so that, to their surprise, young Alistair and Charlie were  presented with a new baby brother some years after their parents had ceased to live under the same roof. This unusual arrangement built up in young Alistair a sense of shame that his family was not “normal”, like the two-parent families of other boys he knew.  He got on well with his placid, pipe-smoking maternal grandfather, who sometimes did eccentric things, like stealing a neighbour’s dinghy and taking young Alistair for a row on the twilit estuary. But this did not offset the stress of the family situation, exacerbated by overhearing, and not understanding, angry adult conversations about somebody called Betty Sharp, or being aware of the way older generations of the Paterson family spun endless rumours about the financial dealings of a great-grandfather and who might possibly owe great wealth to whom.

One of Alistair’s Paterson aunts, Aunt Elspeth, was anxious about any member of the family marrying and having children. She closely interrogated young Alistair when he started getting serious about girls. The awful truth that Alistair Paterson only understood as an adult was that his great-grandfather Paterson had gone insane with “paralysis of the brain” and was for much of his life locked up in what was then forthrightly called a madhouse. Many of the stresses, tensions and anxieties which older generations passed on to Alistair and his brothers sprang from this fact. (By the way, in this particular matter I am revealing nothing that the back-cover blurb of the book does not reveal.)

All this was one cause of the boy’s chronic unhappiness. But perhaps worse was the matter of his long periods of illness, beginning when he was about eight. At first he suffered from abdominal pains and severe fatigue and underwent an operation on his kidneys. He was diagnosed as having an abcess on his kidneys and possible septicaemia (“blood poisoning”). Then came the complication of osteomyelitis. In all, Alistair underwent four operations and was kept in the children’s ward for nearly two years (22 months). In this long incarceration, the boy longed to be outdoors again, and was briefly driven to small acts of rebellion from the hospital’s severe regime, such as refusing to eat the sago pudding that he was regularly offered. After eventually leaving hospital, there were the difficulties of having to get used to walking again, reconnecting with school again, having a broken wrist and having to learn to write again.

The account of his time as a patient overlaps with with memories of his reading habits. Physical trauma meant he temporarily lost the ability to read and had to re-train himself in the deciphering of words. As all bright children do, he compared the books he liked to the conditions of his own life. Of the influence of The Count of Monte Cristo, he says: “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I probably found this part of the book [where the hero at last uncovers fabulous wealth] exciting and wonderful because it was the climax of Edmond Dantes’ successful escape from imprisonment and the beginning of his reinstatement as a person able to live life on his own terms. It was a metaphor, a fictitious representation of treasure and escape parallelling what children in hospital wish for and can do little to achieve.” (pp.118-119) And of The Three Musketeers he says: “It wasn’t the flamboyance and the devil-may-care attitude of the characters, but at a deeper and subconscious level, the contrast between their freedom of action and my immobility that appealed.” (p.125)

Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere is an affectionate account of a past time, a book on the author’s youthful literary consciousness, and a memoir of a broken family and long illness. Irrational as it may seem, one dominant note is the sense of guilt the boy came to feel. As children so often do, he took upon himself the burden of responsibility for things over which he had no control. In reading this book, I find such words as “shame” and “embarrassment” recurring frequently. To give a few examples -

When, as infants, Alistair’s twin brother walks before he can, and gets applause for it, Alistair is left “sitting on the hall floor lost and alone with feelings of shame and failure and a sudden awareness that success brought rewards” (p.9)

Of the psychological burden of the dysfunctional family we are told: “I knew my brother Charlie and I were responsible for the seemingly unbridgeable schism between the two families we belonged to, that somehow our being born had disrupted their lives and caused irremediable damage.” (p.135)

When the boy is in the hospital after two operations, the adult memoirist remarks “… each of us felt an element of shame at being in the hospital and ‘being a nuisance’, ‘making things difficult’ for the people who looked after us and parents who had to leave whatever it was they might have been doing in order to come and visit us. Somehow it was our fault that we were there and in my case particularly so on account of all the shame Charlie and I had brought to the two branches of the family.” (pp.84-85)

When he returns to school after long hospitalisation, he notes: “embarrassment at not being part of a real family was always present as was the fear that some of the children we went to school with or who lived near Weka Street and knew about us would notice we were there and talk about us.” (p.168)

He learns to play the violin and for once his stern teacher compliments him on his playing. But instead of feeling pleased, the boy feels he has violated the code of “fitting in”: “I felt embarrassed. The sound I’d produced was what I thought of as a kind of pretentiousness and exhibitionism that could be put down to saying, ‘Look at me, listen to me, listen to what I’m doing’. Charlie would have seen it that way and said something about it if he’d heard what I was doing which fortunately he didn’t…. Keeping quiet and avoiding being noticed was our usual way of behaving…” (p.178)

Trying to fit once more into school, he notes: “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to use my damaged arm to write with and was forced to do what I could with my left. The result was an untidy scrawl that elicited sneers and derision from some of the boys who saw what a mess I was making of it. I felt ashamed and embarrassed in the same way I did at people who knew I’d been ill and hadn’t yet fully recovered, and I was doubly ashamed and embarrassed because even when I got back to using my right arm, my handwriting was still clumsy and awkward and has remained that way ever since.” (p.206)

I understand that this book’s subtitle, “A Journey to Elsewhere”, has a double meaning. Simply by growing up, the boy and adolescent is journeying to adulthood. But equally, we as readers are journeying to the other country that was a past New Zealand. In those terms, this memoir works very well and has the ring of authenticity.

Footnote: As for my misgivings about how it concludes – which I mentioned at the head of this review – I am referring to the way Alistair Paterson ends with much documentation, in the form of letters, of his great-grandfather’s mental condition. While this is in some ways the “key” to the anxieties that ran through his family, it still seems a clumsy way to close what is otherwise an engaging and sincere book.

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 RELIC” by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (“A RELIQUIA” published 1887; first English language translation by Aubrey F.G.Bell, published in 1925 – reprinted 1954; second English language translation by Margaret Jull Costa 1994)

Of the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900) I have written before on this blog (see the posting on his domestic comedy Cousin Bazilio). The best-known Portuguese novelist of the nineteenth century, and possibly of all time, he is often compared with French nineteenth century realists and satirists such as Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. His social and political views are fairly clear. He was a “Liberal” in the nineteenth century sense of the word which, in Portugal, meant being anti-clerical and in favour of a republic. (The Portuguese monarchy was overthrown in 1910, ten years after Eca de Queiroz’s death, but the republic that replaced it was so chaotic that dictatorship followed.) And yet Eca de Queiroz was too shrewd an observer of life to be a utopian, knowing full-well that secularist views of the world could be corrupted as easily as religious ones.

Eca de Queiroz’s two most overtly anti-clerical novels were written in the earlier part of his career, The Sin of Father Amaro and The Relic. Indeed The Relic was probably written in the early 1870s, when Eca de Queiroz was in his late 20s, but after many revisions by the author, it was not published until 1887. This is a witty, urbane and deeply cynical tale, which attacks fanatical religious belief, the worldly power of the church and false religiosity. And yet, read carefully, it has a curious subtext which acts as a sort of warning to secularists, who might be a little too smug and complacent about their own motives.

The novel’s first-person narrator, Theodorico Raposo, is a sceptic and a rake who pretends to be pious because his one wealthy relative, his aunt Dona Patrocinio das Reves, is passionately religious. He hopes to inherit her wealth when she dies. Theodorico has always found his aunt’s house repellent. In childhood “that great house threw a gloom over me with its red damask and its innumerable saints and its smell of chapel.” [Chapter 1] But he goes through the charade of attending mass daily, speaking of the inspiration that stories of saints give him, repeating phrases he claims to have heard in sermons, venerating the statues of saints in his aunt’s private chapel and generally faking intense religious belief. Thus he hopes to become the sole beneficiary of his childless aunt’s will. Secretly, of course, he carouses, drinks, seduces women when they are available and keeps a mistress, Adelia, whom he discovers to be cheating on him.

One day a priest warns him that he has a rival for his aunt’s inheritance. It is the church itself, to which she is likely to give everything if he cannot show irrefutably how pious he is. To his aunt (thinking of the sexual fun he could have far from Lisbon) Theodorico suggests that he wants to go to Paris to visit the great churches there. Aunt Patrocinio, however, suggests something more challenging to him. He is to make a pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” (Palestine – still part of the Turkish Empire when this novel was written) and bring back for her the holiest and most powerful relics of Christ that he can find.

So the novel sets itself up as a comedy in which the rascally libertine writes pietistic letters to his aunt and seeks out suitable relics; but all the while chasing women in exotic places, making sardonic comments about the church, ridiculing Bible stories and generally being a studied hypocrite who hopes his enacted hypocrisy will bring him wealth.

Even before he sets off on his pilgrimage, he dreams of being sent “well supplied with gold, to those Mussulman lands where every step brings one to a harem, silent and smelling of roses amid the sycamores.” [Chapter 1] Let us say this is an Orientalist view of the Near East.

In Alexandria he has an affair with an Englishwoman whose undergarments he keeps as his own “relic” of sensual pleasure. In Jerusalem he falls in love with another Englishwoman, and in one episode gets punched out for acting the voyeur through her keyhole as she is bathing.  Jerusalem he finds to be a place of squalor rather than inspiration, with squabbles between rival Christian sects around the Church of the Sepulchre. As he says in the novel’s Prologue:  “From the fig-trees of Bethany to the sleeping waters of Galilee I am well acquainted with the places where dwelt [a] divine Mediator, full of tenderness and dreams, whom we call Our Lord Jesus; and I found in them nothing but ugliness, drought, dirt, desolation and rubbish.”

Early in his journey, Theodorico acquires a pedantic travelling companion, Dr Topsius from the University of Bonn in Germany. Through this character, Eca de Queiroz appears to be half-satirising, and half-approving of, the new, often sceptical German Biblical scholarship that was developing in the nineteenth century, whereby the “Q” hypothesis of the relationship of the Gospels was devised, and de-mythologised books such as David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu were written. While all this might be congenial to an anti-clerical like the narrator (and the author), Topsius’s flaw is his national chauvinism. Says Theodorico: “His pride in his native land was… intolerable. Without ceasing he would lift up his voice to praise Germany, the spiritual mother of all peoples, or threaten me with his irresistible force of the German armies. The omniscience of Germany! The omnipotence of Germany! She reigned in a vast camp entrenched by folios in which Metaphysics paraded armed and issued the commands.” [Chapter 2]

To the alert reader, this is a warning that even if Christianity in its Catholic form can be ridiculed cheerfully, an available alternative view of Christianity is not necessarily an improvement.

The story trundles on with the cynic and the pedant viewing, with jaundiced eyes, places revered by pilgrims. True to the aesthetic paganism that was such a big thing in Eca de Queiroz’s time, Theodorico has a dream in which the Devil introduces him to the general history of religions, and notes how joyful people were under the pagan gods of Greece. Of Jesus, Theodorico therefore remarks: “This carpenter of Galilee had appeared, and all was over. Men’s faces had become perpetually  pale and mortified; a dark cross, crushing the earth, withered the splendour of the roses and robbed kisses of their sweetness ; and the new god delighted in ugliness.” [Chapter 2] It’s the same sentiment that can be found in the poetry of Eca de Queiroz’s contemporary Algernon Swinburne. Christianity is the enemy of liberating sensuality.

With much farce intervening, and much satire on the manufacture of relics, Theodorico finds the one true Crown of Thorns that Jesus wore in his Passion, and is certain that by delivering it to his aunt he will earn her whole inheritance. How his hopes are dashed I will not relate here, knowing how irritating “spoilers” can be. I will say that the farcical circumstance that is Theodorico’s nemesis is a fairly obvious one (I had a fair idea of what was going to happen when the novel was only half done). I will also note that, as in Cousin Bazilio, Eca de Queiroz does not end his narrative where we expect him to. It plays to the irony of disappointed hopes and unexpected outcomes.

More crucial to the novel’s overall effect, however, is the novel’s third chapter which some have interpreted as an annoying interruption to an onward-moving narrative. For myself, I see it as the heart of the novel’s ideas. Taking up one third the length of the novel, Chapter 3 consists of a long vision (or dream?) in which Theodorico, accompanied by Dr Topsius, is whisked back to Jerusalem in the last days of “Rabbi Jeschoua” (i.e. Jesus) and beholds his condemnation, passion, and death. The tone here is very like Anatole France’s famous sceptical story The Procurator of Judea or for that matter George Moore’s sceptical Jesus novel The Brook Kerith. (Sceptical fictions based on scripture were fairly common in the late nineteenth century – see on this blog the posting Biblical andSceptical-Biblical Novels).

As in much pseudo-Biblical fiction, there are in the “vision” many descriptions of marketplaces thronging with ployglot crowds, the splendour of Roman palaces etc. But the focus is on Jesus, who is presented as the reformer of a corrupt religious establishment. Sometimes he is naïve – in cleansing the temple of its money-lenders, he renders destititue many poor people whose only livelihood is selling trinkets. (This depiction of a Christ-figure who is not worldly-wise enough to foresee the consequences of his actions reminded me very much of Luis Bunuel’s film Nazarin.) The message Jesus preaches is one of universal brotherhood and social equality. He is pitted against the malign authoritarian power of Jehovah as preached by the Pharisees. Of course there is no Resurrection – Jesus is drugged by friends when he is on the cross (the sponge with the vinegar…) so that he can be deposited in the tomb in a comatose state and then be revived by natural means. However, after this, he dies of his wounds… but the sentimental Mary Magdalene insists that he is still living among them. If you know your  anti-clerical nineteenth century narratives of Jesus, you will recognise this as a crib from Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jesus, which (doubtless to the ire of many feminist nuns I have known) emphasised that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the Resurrection because only a woman would be emotional and sentimental enough to believe such a tale.

In the novel’s pay-off, after Theodorico’s hopes for an inheritance have been dashed, he is able to interpret Christians such as his aunt as the ultimate betrayers of Jesus’ simple messsage. They are, in effect, the new Pharisees. Addressing Christ, Theodorico considers the crucifixion and says “on that day… Auntie and all those who now prostrate themselves at your feet would have hooted at you as did the sellers of the Temple, the Pharisees and the rabble of Acra…. The proprietors who now lavish on you gold and feasts of the church, would have joined forces, with their arms and codes and purses, to put you to death as a revolutionary, an enemy of order, a danger to property…” [Chapter 5]

So this is a simple anti-clerical fiction delivered as farce…. Except that it isn’t. After all, we know that the man narrating the story is a scoundrel, liar and hypocrite, and after his hopes have been dashed, after he has hurled his anathemas against his aunt and the church, he proceeds to make his way in the world by the very means that he has condemned. Yes, he resolves to speak more forthrightly – but like other men of his class and time, he plays the game of public piety and private libertinism to get ahead in the world.  Eca de Queiroz has the wit to see that Theodorico’s achieved wisdom does not make him morally a better man – only a more cunning one.

The satire of this novel is two-edged.

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.


In the Sunday Star-Times of 31 December 2017, in one of its end-of-year round-ups, the New Zealand novelist Carl Shuker was quoted as saying: “Vicious lifelong hatreds, fallings out and more minor despisings are seething all the time in New Zealand lit[erature]. They’re very real and quite hidden from the general public. And they last years. The smaller the turf the more vicious the war.

I am not as fully immersed in New Zealand’s literary world as Carl Shuker is, but with the deepest of regret I have to endorse his views. In fact the NZ Lit. scene often makes me think of that line from Macbeth:  “the nearer in blood, the nearer bloody.” The smaller the fish-tank, the more the little fish fight, and New Zealand’s literary scene is a very small fish-tank with a lot of little fish.

Everybody knows Eminent Literary Figure XYZ can’t stand Eminent Literary Figure ABC, and the feeling is mutual, with the two of them every so often taking sly pokes at each other in print. The executors of the estate of Deceased Eminent Literary Figure @&%$ are notoriously possessive and can’t stand the least word being said about their deceased asset without their approval. Pointed lawyers’ letters fly. Too often in NZ, literary feuds are connected with Academe. Why Writer A loathes Writer B is often related to which of them has gained more or less esteem from academic colleagues. Then there is the matter of poets constantly feeling snubbed by editors if they have not been represented in anthologies or have been under-represented. And poets being sniffed at because their work is published by independent presses rather than university ones. And there is the matter of novelists including caricatures of real people in their novels, and then affecting to be surprised when the original of the caricature points it out and complains. For aught I know, there will also be writers hating other writers because he/she shagged or stole his/her girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/spouse. And there are quarrels over why ABC got a literary grant rather than XYZ. And whether a friend of the author was on the jury when an undeserving writer won a literary award. And of course there is the generational matter – younger writers complaining that older writers just don’t “get” their work and hating them for it, and vice versa. Oh Lord! The wailing of Generation X or Y or Inane or whatever it is now calling itself at Baby Boomers who obtusely refuse to recognise their genius!!!

Absolutely none of this is new in New Zealand. Back in the 1930s and 1940s there was the notorious stand-off between the “Bookmen” (Marris, A.Mulgan, Lawlor etc) and the “Nationalist” Modernists (Fairburn, Curnow, Glover, Sargeson etc.), not to mention the sneers of the boys (again Fairburn, Glover, Sargeson) at the work of the girls (Hyde, E. Duggan, etc.). Then in the 1950s there was that parochial nonsense with the Wellingtonians (Campbell, Baxter, Johnson) bitching at the Aucklanders (Curnow, Smithyman etc.).

God, how much energy and intellectual sweat were wasted on things that didn’t matter much in the first place!

But, as one Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure advised me, nothing is sure to start a literary feud faster than a bad review. Indeed, this Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure said he-or-she once reviewed a New Zealand book and it caused such a ruckus that he-or-she vowed never to review a New Zealand book ever again. Also, the matter of the small pool of talent is a factor here. In our (few) highbrow literary journals – and even in the more presentable mass-media outlets – there is only a limited number of people qualified to, or capable of, writing detailed reviews of “literary” productions. Writers reviewing other writers (and perhaps setting off literary feuds) is something that happens in all parts of the world where books are produced. But the pool of qualified reviewers in New Zealand is small to the point where somebody in one university department will end up reviewing the work of a colleague from the same department. As far as I can see, the further result of this is that most highbrow reviewing in NZ is painfully polite and tactful (read “not particularly honest”).

How do I come into all this? I am, after all, only a louse in the locks of NZ Lit. But I do know that by attempting to review books honestly and fairly, I must perforce sometimes say that said books are not the masterpieces their authors think they are. Result? Over the years I have received a few bileful letters from authors, a rather hysterical blog-posting by a literary publicist calling me “ultra-toxic”, a string of earnest e-mails from an author trying to persuade me that his-or-her novel really was brilliant after all, and one anonymous letter (I think by an aggrieved poet) calling me a “wannabe” and telling me to “pull my head in”. I emphasize that in quite a few years of book-reviewing, this has happened only very occasionally – I do not delude myself that I am that important as an opinion-maker or worthy of most writers’ notice. Besides, every time I have written a less-than-flattering review, I have received messages from other writers cheerfully endorsing the judgment I expressed. The problem here, though, is that such endorsements usually come from writers who already dislike the writer I have just honestly reviewed.

Oh dear!

Carl Shuker is quite right when he says New Zealand’s literary bitchings are [generally] “quite hidden from the general public.

Would that they stayed that way.

I take as a central tenet in reviewing that it is the book which is being reviewed, not the person who wrote it; and therefore that who is allied to whom, or who is antagonistic towards whom, should be ignored by reviewers as they make their calls. But with the proliferation of writing schools, and creative writing-courses at tertiary level, we now have more than ever the formation of literary cliques – writers who feel that they must at all costs be loyal to other writers, because they went through the same writing classes together. Besides, friends made in writing class might be useful in boosting their own works once they get published. Woe betide any outsider who offers even the most rational critique of the work of a member of the group. It is, of course, taboo to be less than enthusiastic about the work of an admired teacher of such courses, regardless of their mediocre quality. For enlightenment, make your way sometime through the wasteland of websites now in place to “discuss” (i.e. puff) the work of a particular author, or listen to podcasts ditto. Clique go the shears, boys, clique, clique, clique.

Yes, the average honest reader knows nothing of all this, and is surprised when details of literary back-biting and wrangling come to the surface. And on the whole, I think writers set aside thoughts of such things when they grit their teeth and get on with producing their serious work. Otherwise New Zealand poetry and prose would be reduced to little more than gossipy journalism.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Something New


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

“WHAT IS LEFT BEHIND” by Tom Weston (Steele Roberts $NZ24:99); “WHAT KNOW YOU, STARS?” by Ian Rockel ( Steele Roberts, $NZ19:99); “THREADING BETWEEN” by Dorothy Howie (Steele Roberts, $NZ19:99); “WAYFINDER” by Jan Fitzgerald (Steele Roberts, $NZ24:99); “SUMMER GRASS” by Ginny Sullivan (Steele Roberts, $NZ19:99)

            Over the long summer break, I read my leisurely way through five new collections of poetry by New Zealanders, all coming from the publisher Steele Roberts. Apart from coming from the same publishers in the same year, they are individual works by individual writers and therefore I try not to draw too many comparisons between them.

            Here are my comments.

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

Language is uncertain, human life passes, time is an unstable state and, not knowing the future, we cling to fallible memories for reassurance. This melancholy reflectiveness is the main thing I take from What is Left Behind. It is foolish to go reductionist like this on a volume of well-crafted modernist poetry, reasoned and thoughtful. Besides, the book itself yields one satiric poem, “An art historian explains how time began” which demolishes the idea that any explanation of art is more important than the art itself. But I do not explain. I simply suggest the volume’s mood – melancholy reflectiveness.

What is Left Behind is Tom Weston’s  fifth collection of poetry and maintains his reputation as a poet who philosophises in extended metaphor. A critic quoted in the blurb pairs him with David Howard. Fair enough, but Howard’s canvas is larger. Weston goes for pared-back and discrete images, even when he is being discursive. The five sections of What is Left Behind do mark thematic shifts.

The first section, “The Thief of Everything”, comprises three poems drawing on Pacific imagery of Rarotonga and the Cooks. The title poem has overtones of the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven in order to create. Are, then, creative human beings the thief of everything? Or is time itself the thief? But, asserts the poem, in another sense “I am / the essential flame / the thief of / everything, / the architect and the jailed man, the carbon / consumed by fire.” Human being as conscious actor dissolves into a universal unity. This theme recurs in the following poem “Frigate bird and the vortex”, where the frightening spectacle of a waterspout, joining sea and sky, is appeased by the sight of the venturesome bird that negotiates it – the frigate bird, taming nature by submitting to it. (Unconnected thematically, the third poem in this section, “Nine times forbidden”, is a satirical poke at the morality laws once imposed on Pacific people by missionaries.)

There is a pun in the title of the second section, “Aftershock”, for the aftershock of an earthquake-stricken city (Christchurch?) is not the tectonic shudder itself but the shock to the psyche of the human survivors, the huge chasm between the Before and the After and the impossibility of bridging it. (“I was one of the broken city. / I was in the Afterwards”). It is followed by the volume’s title poem “What is Left Behind”, which is again the aftermath of some vaguely-delineated catastrophe, again mournfully asking -  do memories and photographs really leave us with a delusional chimera?

A glimmer of hope is given in the third section “Crossing Over”, a poem about grief in 27 stanzas. Grief is anthropomorphised. Grief is turned into metaphor (and simile) after metaphor (and simile). Grief persists in many guises. Grief is tenacious. Grief has the power to kill. Indeed grief retires only when it is worn out – offering the faint hope of healing by time.

I am interested that while the first section draws on Pasifika imagery, the fourth section, “The Ancient City”, most definitely situates itself in Europe – mainly Italy and Paris, it would appear. Is this the place where our inherited cultural junk lies, as opposed to the primal nature seen in the opening Pacific-set poems? “History in the boiling air, the streets full / of ghosts” as it says in the poem “The Ancient City” itself. The ruins of Europe offer the opening for eight poems on time and mutability, to which is added (in the poem “Call and Reply”) the uncertainty and slipperiness of language itself.

Finally the fifth section, “Landscape Without Boat”, is like a rejection of the idea that there is a sequence in events that can be rationalised – or categorised – especially in the poem “The Enlightenment Room”. By crafting his poems so carefully, Weston avoids the incoherence that is so often associated with the Absurd in popular versions of existentialism. Even so, it is no accident that this volume ends with its final metaphor for life “The Transit Lounge”, whence we fly “into the night / in the space of one night, / east a collection of darkness where we travel blind / through this world’s / bubble without rights of state.” Life, as this poet sees it, is very like the Absurd, and only a laborious struggle of the imagination can make some sense of it.

As I said in my opening, the dominant mood is melancholy refectiveness. But there is nothing melancholy in finding a poet who can put forward his world view with such resolve and clarity.

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

Ian Rockel’s approach is so different from Tom Weston’s that I will make no impudent comparisons, even if Rockel has some of the same philosophical preoccupations as Weston and includes one section with the Beckett-ian Absurdist title “Endgame”.

Given a generous introduction by his friend (and brother-in-law) the distinguished actor and director Ian Mune, Ian Rockel (born 1939) has apparently pondered this volume for many years. What Know You, Stars? is subtitled “50 Poems for 50 Years”. And that is exactly what it delivers to us – fifty pithy poems (only three longer than a single page) built on experience over five decades. Pithiness means brevity plus meaning. That these poems are short does not mean that they are superficial.

In making his brief reflections, Rockel’s organization is very orderly. First a section of nine poems about births and deaths – memories of wartime childhood in the 1940s counterpointed with elegies for the elderly who have died more recently. Then 22 poems of what can only be called a miscellany of experience (and reading) between early childhood and old age – indeed old age and physical loss come to dominate this section. Finally, 19 poems (that “Endgame” section) that attempt to summarise the experience of life – the human being pitted against the universe, time and inevitable dissolution in death. The title and the cover image of the Milky Way are appropriate as there is much imagery of stars (always ineffable), and sunrises or sunsets (always suggesting time and particularly death).

At his worst, Ian Rockel can slide towards platitude, in lines such as: “Strange world, / we that come with a dream / and go without any” (from the poem “A straightfoward glance at the parcel of time”). But this is offset by robust domestic observation, as in these lines about old people going to bed: “The customary cup collection / is taken into tiny kitchens, / and old bones crawl into chilled nightgowns” (from the poem “Counterpane time”). Rockel expects his readers to be literate and provides no notes on the many literary and cultural references he makes. Of course you will understand what play is being alluded to when you meet a poem called “Lear”; and you will certainly understand that the poem “Fixing the books and marble” is slapping at Ezra Pound and his end-of-civilisation views; and that “Shipboard” reflects on the suicide of Hart Crane. But will you easily see that the Jack the Ripper poem “Whitechapel” lunges at Patricia Cornwell’s ridiculous theories about Walter Sickert?

As the theme of old age grows more prominent, even a poem on love-making (“Birds that do not answer in the dark”) becomes an exercise in existential angst. “The sun will separate them” chronicles the desperate erotic dreams of an old man, while “Griefsound” appears to be the sorrow of a widower. The best poem in this vein is “Stalks” with its stark opening lines “We have grown so old / our bodies rustle against each other, / like dried stalks: / our heads rattle / as blown seed boxes.” Ghosts are referenced in many of these poems of old age – more often signalling delusion than memory.

The last section raises images of stars, the sun and gas – to which, as the final poem in the book suggests everything is ultimately reduced. “I am a fly, a shadow on the wall, / I am not anything at all,” says the poem “Ages of sunless space”. As for the poems “Harvest time” and “Cropland”, they are a sort of anti-pastoralism and share images of human beings being knocked down like crops. (Perhaps a conscious or unconscious echo of Auden’s “The crowds upon the pavement were fields of harvest wheat.”)

I did not say that Rockel’s poems are cheerful things to be consumed with a convivial cuppa. But they are thoughtful and they do have a consistent view of life.

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

One thing that makes Dorothy Howie’s collection different from Ian Rockel’s is that she provides many explanatory notes for the cultural allusions her poems make. Six pages of notes, to be precise. Apart from this observation, I now activate my “comparisons-are-odious” rule and deal with her on her own terms. Threading Between is the second collection by Dr Howie, researcher in the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, and it comes with great endorsements. It is dedicated to the writers Riemke Ensing and Renee and its blurb includes complimentary words by the poet Alistair Paterson.

Section One, “In the Between” is like a manifesto. The opening poem hails Martin Buber, Toni Fomison and Seamus Heaney as people who open up the psyche to love and an appreciation of “the other”.  But there is philosophical ambiguity in a poem such as “In the gaps”. Is it celebrating solipsism or is it slyly implying that obsession with oneself is limiting? While Howie, as a student of psychology, is deeply concerned with human relationships, there is throughout this collection a sense of human beings as disparate and disconnected cells of life.

Section Two, “Birds in Between”, uses repeated imagery of birds (peregrine, frigate bird, gull, heron, black swan) to suggest the transitory nature of human beings, their urge to wander and their consequent unsatisfied nostalgia for the place whence they began their journey. Seeing frigate birds on Nauru (poem “Frigate birds”) the poet is reminded that she herself is in transit to somewhere else. Inevitably the poem “Migratory birds”, with its reference to godwits, puts her in mind of Janet Frame and (especially) Robin Hyde, both of whom are “Always to feel the stranger / flying close to the wind / little hope of protection / flutterings within / suffering aeons of silence / before landing on fertile ground.” The poem “Aviators” may celebrate the pioneer women who flew, Jean Batten and Amy Johnson, but questions whether they learnt “ambition’s price”. Most other poems in this section suggest birds as emblems of solitariness, apart from those (in the poem “Secure”) “native birds [who] / know their place, / rear their young. / Tui, kereru, piwaiwaka, / yellow-eyed penguin, / shag and albatross, / sharing Otago Harbour, / our lovely lonely nest.” One cannot reduce this to a cliché such as “there’s no place like home”, but Howie is always on the verge of saying that we are never so integrated as human beings as we were in the place where our lives began.

Having in the first two sections set up a framework for her worldview, in the third section “Being Between”, Dorothy Howie gives a more confessional style, drawing on her extensive travel and in some cases (as in the poems “Blackberrying in high places”, “The moment” and “Walking sticks”) pondering on an Irish ancestry. Howie draws out of views of Rangitoto and Arrowtown a specific isolate sadness. These inanimate things still speak, but only in their own language.

I do feel a little crushed by all the references to literary culture – poems which allude to the Brontes and Sylvia Plath and Joseph Brodsky and the Venerable Bede and Henry James. At times, in reading this collection, I wondered how much such allusions overwhelmed the poet’s own vision. To the very the end, this collection expresses the sense of an isolated and unsocialised soul, as in the volume’s final poem “An epiphany”, where “Exile is an unending song of silence…/ …It is a separateness which / sounds a note of the outsider, / a place apart.”

Dorothy Howie’s Threading Between tells me of a delicate sensibility, not as yet able to use some sort of faith to bridge the gap which separates it from other human beings.

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

Jan Fitzgerald’s Wayfarer is subtitled “New and Selected Poems”. I was not hitherto acquainted with this poet’s work, but I assume this means that some of the poems presented here appeared in Fitzgerald’s two earlier collections. Fitzgerald, according to the blurb, has been writing poetry for the last five decades. She has also trained as an artist, so this collection’s 18 illustrations – beautiful black-and-white images and decorations of the things of nature – are also her work.

Fitzgerald’s prime interest is in animals and in nature. But her approach is a very interesting one. She admires the otherness of animals, but she also sees them interacting with human beings. Her poems are far from preachy – they are mainly sheer lyricism – but in this approach there is an implicit ecological theme. We share this planet with other, very different, creatures and should respect them. There is also a violent side to this. We human beings are part of nature “red in tooth and claw” and some of these poems refer to human conflct.

Thus there are poems about kamikaze pilots, about pigeons carrying front-line messages in wartime, about wildebeest crossing a crocodile-infested river and cows crossing in front of traffic and wondering about motorists, those odd creatures passing in their glass boxes. The interaction of beast and humanity comes also in a poem about the retired captain of a fishing trawler, a poem of a girl (possibly African) who collects and cages crickets for their song, a poem about the band leader on the “Titanic” as it was sinking and a rather daunting poem about the strangeness of hordes of crabs mating at night on the shore. In all of these there is the underlying concept of conflict between species.

Away from this implicit conflict and violence are those poems that simply joy in the otherness of beasts, such as a poem about gannets in the perfection of their fish-hunting dive or “Highland cattle-beast” or “Holding a tuatara”. For precision of observation, consider Fitzgerald’s depiction of a “Seahorse” which passes by “with the uprightness of a charm school.” One of her best poems, “Chrysalis”, is about the incredible sequence whereby the chrysalis enfolds the caterpillar that will become a butterfly. Again there is precision of observation when the chrysalis is “like a tiny jade house / with spots of gold for adornment / roof trussed with shining thread.”

The chrysalis poem points to another tendency in Fitzgerald’s poetry. She is interested in movement (the poem “Cycling”) and in the processes of transformation by which one thing turns to another. “The cormorants” presents us with birds which  transform from “judges in black gowns” to “serpents with feathers” when they leap off rocks and dive into the sea to catch fish. Transformation of another sort appears in the vivid childhood memory of a kitchen mishap in “A mother’s magic”, although in this case the transformation is the magic the child sees in the way her mother can transform separate ingredients into a meal.

Jan Fitzgerald holds off as much as she can from anthropomorphising other beasts, but when she does anthropomorphise she does it well, as in “Cricket riff”, where a cricket is “jamming on - / his two sleek batons / conducting an orchestra of one.” ( Another poem, “In praise of bees”, also sees small creatures as a performing orchestra).

The poet does write about things other than creatures and their interaction with human beings – there is a love poem dedicated to her husband, a few poems about ancestors and the title poem “Wayfarer”, which lauds thefortitude of an early Polynesian navigator crossing unknown seas.

It is the poems about nature, with their strong sense of engagement with the world, that most hold the stage, however.

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

Dedicated to the woman she loves, Summer Grass is Ginny Sullivan’s first collection of poems. Her acknowledgements make it clear that she was first schooled in poetry by attraction to the great Romantics. From the volume’s very first poem “Harvest”, with its Keatsian line “I feel like Ruth in the alien corn”, we know that Romanticism is still her heartland, even if her style is modernist. This impression is reinforced by a later line in the same poem where Sullivan speaks of people “whose absence shreds my heartstrings”. Sullivan’s approach will be emotional, lyrical, sometimes rhapsodic and certainly – very certainly – confessional. The great majority of poems in Summer Grass are written in the first person (“I”) and most are addressed to somebody in the second person (“you”). Occasionally “we” substitutes for “I”. So these are poems of personal emotional experience and intense – but sometimes wistful – relationships.

Sometimes Sullivan’s “I” is not I, as in “Ship burial”, one of the most Romantic poems in the book, where she presents in the first-person the experience of a woman being cast into sea from what appears to be a medieval ship. (In my mind’s eye, as I read this poem, I see something like John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of “The Lady of Shalott”, a doom-laden atmosphere at once stern and Romantic.) A similar effect is created by the poem “Afterwards” where a woman’s dead body is “long and white like a tragic princess from the Middle Ages / turned to stone”. Then, with echoes of a later form of Romanticism, there is “Bean Teepee” with its overtones of Yeats’ lake isle of Innisfree and its nine bean-rows.

Many of Sullivan’s poems are of youthful travel and the coming and going of friends. Regrettably, they sometimes come close to diary-ism: a recording of data without greater resonance than the recording itself. But there is a clever turn of irony in some. Sullivan is bemused to find passengers on a plane transformed into pilgrims (“Singapore Airlines in June”). Observation of a dog and a bird make her consider what the quality of being alone is (“Seeing a dog and seeing a bird”). “Whalesong” in particular, about tourists out on a whale-watching expedition, rises above documentation with its neat ironic ending.

A religion of nature is suggested in poems such as “Haze across Judah” and “Cathedral of Trees” and a visit to Israel brings out a seraphic vision (“Angels in Jerusalem”). There is a primitive sort of pantheism in a poem like “Poems that creep out of the woods” where “you said my words / would come back to me / like squirrels, / my eyes would open again / like butterflies in the sun.

Perhaps the confessionalism gets a little heart-on-sleeve when a poem (“Reflection”) ends “I know you stand there / smiling, living, present, / my sustenance and joy.” Fortunately, Sullivan has the skill to de-elevate such romantic vocabulary in an honest poem (one of the best in the book) “The Last Resort”. This is a genuine poem of love and longing, but rendered in terms of clear material observation. It begins “When I’m in Auckland I am drawn / to the café where we’ll meet. / While I wait I’ll drink black coffee / that is rounded and warm.” Not an abstract noun in sight and yet more feeling than some poems which beg you to see how feeling they are.