Monday, August 20, 2018

Something New


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

“PATHWAY OF THE BIRDS” by Andrew Crowe  (Bateman publishers, $NZ49:99 – simultaneously published by University of Hawai’i Press); “TO THE MOUNTAINS” selected by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey (Otago University Press, $NZ45)


            Andrew Crowe’s Pathway of the Birds is subtitled “The voyaging achievements of Maori and their Polynesian ancestors”. It deals with the first exploration and colonisation of East Polynesia in the relatively brief period – only two or three hundred years - after c.1000AD. As the blurb says, this means the exploration of approximately 28 million square miles of ocean. In a large-page and glossy format, the book includes many maps, diagrams and information “break-ins”; and it boasts over 350 photographs. The appeal is as much visual as literary.

Although it has been jointly published with the University of Hawai’i Press, much of its material is aimed at New Zealanders. This is not only because New Zealand was, in effect, the terminal point in the great age of Polynesian discovery. It is also because Andrew Crowe frequently uses New Zealand as a point of reference when explaining phenomena elsewhere in the Pacific. For example, to give us a sense of scale, he will often compare the size of a remote Pacific island with an island off the New Zealand coast (“a little bigger than Great Barrier Island” – that sort of thing). He is also at pains to show how often place names used by New Zealand Maori also appear as place names in islands thousands of miles away.

In his author’s note, Crowe advises us that  Pathway of the Birds is “not the work of an academic, but the sincere effort of a science writer to summarise in an accessible way what is currently known about this largely neglected epoch of world history.” He draws upon a formidable bibliography. When he proposes likely routes taken by Polynesian explorers, or the order in which they settled various islands, his evidence is based on archaeology, linguistics, botany, zoology, meteorology, DNA testing, carbon-dating and what can now be known of ancient navigational skills. Justifiably there is, towards the end of the book, a brief note refuting the various crank theories that have been proposed to deny Polynesians the credit for their feats of exploration.

The first thing he has to refute, however, is the once-respectable “drift theory” that was most plausibly proposed by Andrew Sharp in the 1960s. Crowe calls his introduction “Chance or Skill?” and makes it clear that  Pathway of the Birds will show that Polynesian deep-ocean voyages were both deliberate and planned. They were not the result of Polynesian vessels being blown to islands randomly by storms, or drifting randomly on currents. Indeed it is clear that voyages of discovery were deliberately undertaken against the prevailing trade winds, so that those winds would provide easier return passage to the voyage’s starting point. The book will therefore focus on all the evidence for two-way voyages of settlement and hence the ability of the first Polynesian discoverers of any island or archipelago to return to their island of origin, report their discovery and recruit other settlers.

Of course this is not a book about all the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific. Only in the very last chapter (Chapter 14) does Crowe consider the primal origins of all the Polynesian peoples (probably in South-East Asia) and the earlier Polynesian settlement of the West Pacific. He concentrates on the burst of discovery in the East Pacific, early in the 2nd millennium AD,  that took Polynesians as far north as Hawaii and as far south as New Zealand. As for the structure of most chapters in the book, Crowe explains: “As we come to each island we will investigate the origins of its ‘first peoples’, and why it is almost certain that explorers made a return journey to report back on the island before any preparations were made to settle it. In each case this is followed by an assessment of the capability and motives of the inhabitants to maintain interarchipelago contact – at least in the early years of settlement.” (p.15)

Interestingly, when Crowe refers to Polynesian explorers, he favours the term “wayfinders” over “navigators” as the latter term assumes use of modern navigational equipment.

Thus to the fourteen chapters that make up the bulk of Pathway of the Birds. We are taken through the South East Pacific (Easter Island, Pitcairn Island et al); the North Pacific (Hawaiian and Line Islands); the Central Pacific (Maquesas, Tuamotu Archipelago; Society Islands; Rarotonga and the Cooks); and the South Pacific (mainly New Zealand, but also the Kermadecs) – before those final musings on the origins of all Polynesians.

I have to admit that I lingered long over Chapter 1 on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), largely because of the pungent style in which Crowe refutes Thor Heyerdahl’s notion (which hasn’t been believed by any real ethnographers for many years) that Easter Island was originally inhabited by superior stone-carving Peruvians before barbarous Polynesians came along and destroyed them. More surprisingly, though, Crowe also refutes Jared Diamond’s more recent theory, in his bestselling book Collapse, that Polynesians wrecked the island ecologically by over-population and hence the destruction of all the island’s trees. Crowe offers far more plausible, and evidence-based, theories for the island’s depopulation, eventual isolation from the rest of Polynesia, and the reason Easter Islanders lost the skills of deep-water sailing. Also (pace Heyerdahl) Crowe has no doubt that the kumara was introduced to Pacific islands from South America, but not by South Americans. It was taken from South America by Polynesians, who subsequently took it across the Pacific.

So as not to give you an overlong plodding summary of each chapter, I will be briefer about what follows. Chapters 2, 3 and 4  speak of the dim possibility that Pitcairn, the Austral Islands and others could have been the fabled Maori “Hawaiki” – that is, the jumping-off point for the Polynesian exploration of the East Pacific. However, they are not likely contenders. Hawaii was probably settled from the Maquesas (those daunting volcanic summits with no lagoons) and the Society Islands between c.940 and c.1130 AD. It is unlikely that Hawaii was the Maori Hawaiki either, but there seem to have been strong Hawaiian cultural connections with New Zealand via the Society Islands.

In Chapters 5 and 6, using the tiny and scattered islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago as an example, Crowe explores in detail traditional Polynesian “wayfinding” –  the use of zenith stars to determine latitude; of horizon stars to steer by; of wind direction, the sea’s swell, the form and colour of clouds; and of landfinding birds. Very significant, though, was the ability to pinpoint the location of a tiny island by “expanding the target”. Wayfinders would make a mind-map of perils to avoid in aiming for a particular island, such as nearby reefs or submerged atolls, so that they were, in practice, steering for a wider reach of ocean that their (small) intended destination.

Chapter 7 refers to the Society Islands (including Tahiti) as  “One Hawaiki Among Many” – like most of the East Pacific, they were settled c.1000AD. But again there is the problem of why their inhabitants lost the art of deep-sea sailing after c.1450AD. Among many possible explanations are mega-tsunami, changed climate, prevailing winds and loss of resources. Chapters 8 and 9 bring us closer to New Zealand with detailed plotting of affinities in language and fauna between New Zealand and Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. As for the Kermadecs, his examination of these isalnds gives Crowe the occasion to rebuke some Europeans who conflate Polynesian voyages of discovery with later Polynesian voyages of exile, in which Polynesians were fleeing from tribal warfare and the like. This is also where Crowe notes the huge convergence of seabirds onto the Kermadecs, giving credence to Maori oral traditions of finding their way across the seas by following the paths of migrating birds.

And so to New Zealand in Chapters 10, 11 and 12 in which Crowe broaches the subject of planned Polynesian settlement of New Zealand and questions of how deep-sea Polynesian voyagers would preserve provisions and fresh water. One chapter he calls “Adapting to a Cool Land”, emphasising that New Zealand would have been the coldest place that Polynesians ever colonised. He considers how far south Maori could cultivate and also how feasible return voyages to point of origin from New Zealand would have been. Like many other Pacific peoples, New Zealand Maori had lost the art of long-distance ocean voyaging long before Europeans appeared on the scene.

I have treated this book as a catalogue and have thereby probably misrepresented it. I have to emphasise that in making his case, Crowe spends much time on flora and fauna and their dispersal as evidence for how Polynesian people migrated across the ocean. This means that many pages are concerned with the botanical details of trees, flowers, bushes and edible crops; and many are concerned with the zoological and ornithological details of birds and domesticated animals. What this meant was that I spent a number of hours wool-gathering as I looked at all the colourful illustrations of these things, not to mention all the dramatic shots of islands seen either at sea-level or from the air.

One warning. I think this book might best be read as a work of reference – an excellent place to settle disputes about early Pacific history, and to find out the particulars of any one island’s culture. Read straight through, as I read it, is to be overwhlemed by the information.

It is a great popularisation of the best and latest information on the subject nevertheless. Every library and school should have a copy.

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Laurence Fearnley’s and Paul Hersey’s anthology To the Mountains is subtitled “A collection of New Zealand alpine writing”. It is a very solid hardback of over 350 closely-printed pages, and it considerately contains a ribbon bookmark, inviting us to browse it. Verily, I believe this is the best way to enjoy it, as is the case with most anthologies.

Each of the two anthologists writes an introduction. The novelist Laurence Fearnley’s long-time interest in mountaineering is well known. She helped her mountaineering friend Lydia Bradey write her autobiography Going Up Is Easy, which is reviewed elsewhere on this blog (and also extracted in this anthology).

Fearnley’s introduction is called “A Writing Climber: An introduction to New Zealand alpine literature” and it declares “As a recreational activity, mountaineering exists on the continuum from alpine tramping through to advanced technical ice-climbing.” (p.9) Fearnley says that for the purposes of this book, mountaineering is defined broadly as an activity requiring the use of hands (including hands holding equipment). She makes it clear To the Mountains will consist of varied responses to mountains. It is definitely not a compendium of New Zealand’s most famous mountaineers or of this country’s most startling climbs. The aim to be representative of the whole activity of climbing. She notes how, in late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an emphasis on discovery and on the first ascents of peaks; and alpine writing was often overlaid with Romantic descriptive flourishes. Later a more laconic and technical style became the norm – but all the while, the great majority of those who recorded alpine exploits were middle class. Only later did more working-class climbers get to share their experiences publicly. At one point, Fearnley gives a handy compendium of the “types” who often emerge through written accounts of mountaineering in New Zealand: “the team-member, the laconic outsider, the masculine jack of all trades, the emancipated and empowered feminist, or the introspective ‘spiritual’ mountaineer” (p.14) She also explains that the selections made for To the Mountains are not all by mountaineers and she reflects on the way mountains can often turn climbers into writers and writers into climbers. As well as personal memories of events, selections will include poetry and works of fiction. Fearnley’s introduction is, in effect, a setting-out of the anthology’s contents and purpose.

A different approach is found in Paul Hersey’s introduction “Mountains with Words”. It is an existential and very personal approach. Hersey says “I have always been drawn to the aesthetics of high places and the potential of climbing routes upon them.” (p.19) He is concened with the personal experience – mentally preparing oneself for a climb, facing the reality of the death of others, and trying to recollect in words the experience once it is over.

So to the book’s contents. They are not arranged chronologically but thematically. 79 extracts are set out in into four parts, each of which is somewhat cryptically titled. I will not fall into the trap of attempting to name-check every selection, but will mention just some that I found interesting as I made my way through the book.

The first section is headed “Approach” and consists mainly of general reminiscences of the experience of climbing in New Zealand; or memories of childhood perceptions of climbing or being an apprentice climber ; and historical accounts of climbing. This includes the Rev. Richard Taylor doing 19th century bushwhacking; W.Scott Gilkinson on the toil and techniques of “swagging” or carrying a pack; Forrestina Ross on provisioning a hike up a glacier; Sara Knox’s rather wistful poem about being a little girl and not joining the boys climbing; Steve Hart reflecting that freedom is the chief value of climbing – and much else.

The section called “Climb” is mainly tales of specific climbs or specific peaks conquered, often taking the climbers well outside New Zealand. Thus James Cowan’s tale (couched very much in the language of his own day) of pre-Pakeha Maori climbers in the Alps; for an historian, the fascination of Bill Whelen’s account of replicating [in 1988] the first-ever climb of a New Zealand peak by Europeans - namely the ascent of Mt Sparrman in Fiordland by some of Captain Cook’s crew; J.R.Dennistoun’s report on being the first to climb Mitre Peak in 1910; a long selection by Bob McKerrow on Maori mountaineers of South Westland; Freda du Faur having a freezing time traversing Mount Sefton in 1913; Edmund Hillary writing from Everest Base Camp; and Karen McNeill being part of the first party of women to climb a peak in Alaska.

As for “Epic”, it comprises those skin-of-your-teeth stories of perilous climbs, fatalities and near fatalies in the face of avalanche and mishap. Carol Diamond Christie and David Baguley caught out by Ruapehu when it exploded in 1995; Caoilinn Hughes’ prose poem about an avalanche;  J.Walton’s truly wrenching story of trying to move a dying man out from under a boulder, when a rock avalanche destroyed an alpine hut; Graeme Dingle’s long and detailed account of the effects of an avalanche; and an extract from Brian Wilkins’ Among Secret Beauties, which was reviewed on this blog four years ago.

Finally, in the  “Reflection” section, there are most often the afterthoughts, the general considerations of life after climbing or of the significance of climbing itself. I am loath to pick out favourites here – the tone of many is elegaic to the point of melancholy – but I will mention Jonathan Scott trying to make sense of his father Harry Scott’s death in a mountaineering accident.

I have, of course, named only a very small proportion of this volume’s contents. It is a good bedside book, a browser, and an excellent and very readable anthology.

I should add that To the Mountains concludes with a good section of mini-biographies of each writer who is represented.

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.

“BREAKWATER” by Kate Duignan (first published in 2001; republished as a “VUP Classic” by Victoria University Press in 2018; $NZ30)

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Kate Duignan’s newly-published and very accomplished novel The New Ships. While I had heard of the novelist, I had not up to that point read any of her work. Then, a few weeks ago, through the post there came an interesting collection of review copies from Victoria University Press. They were three books in the press’s new “VUP Classics” series – re-prints of work that has earlier appeared under the VUP imprint. I was sent new impressions of Bruce Mason’s famous dramatic monologue The End of the Golden Weather (first published 1962), of Bill Manhire’s poetry collection Lifted (first published 2005) and of Kate Duignan’s first novel Breakwater (first published 2001).
Having admired The New Ships, I at once pounced on Breakwater and read it. Kate Duignan is also known for her short-stories, but I was surprised to discover that Breakwater was her only novel before The New Ships. So there was a seventeen-year gap between them. Had Duignan’s central concerns changed between these two works? I think not, for in both she is essentially interested in matters of family relationships and parenthood, but the focus has shifted a little. Breakwater is set exclusively in New Zealand (mainly Wellington), whereas in The New Ships, Duignan is also interested in New Zealand’s connections with Europe.
But enough of these redundant comparisons. Considered in its own right, Breakwater is a very assured account of stresses placed on two women who have become single mothers.
Ella is a biology and zoology student, aged about 20, who gets pregnant, decides to keep the baby, but does not want to stay with the baby’s father, who is a decent and concerned enough bloke with whom she remains on reasonably good terms. So she’s into the life of a young, single mother trying to finish her degree and survive without a partner. If Duignan were a lesser writer, what follows for Ella could have become a tract on the travails of the single mother. We get a realistic account of the young woman’s morning sickness and cravings and realisation that she shouldn’t drink or smoke while pregnant. There’s the delicate matter of what she should say to her family, who live up near Gisborne. More important, there’s the problem of where she and the baby will be able to live and how she will afford child-care. And there is a very realistic scene of the pains of childbirth.
But this is no tract. Ella is a credible and contradictory character, wanting her independence but knowing she will have to rely on others. We are never incited to wag the finger at society for not addressing a “social problem”, as the people Ella encounters are, in the main, as helpful as circumstances allow.
This is where the other single mother comes in. Through Tessa, a fellow student, Ella is introduced into the home of Tessa’s middle-aged mother Louise, who is willing to let Ella and her baby board with her. Louise is single because her useless and abusive husband disappeared years previously. On her own she has raised her young-adult children, Tessa and Jacob, while running a restaurant. So there is a relationship and a contrast between two women of different ages. In Louise there is some wistful nostalgia for lost opportunites in her life (she sometimes tries to read canonical literature to “improve” herself). There is certainly a practical business sense and a desire to make her own way in the world. But there is also much instinctive maternal feeling.
I have made this seem much more patterned and formulaic than the novel is. Duignan’s chief achievement in Breakwater is her ability to set both Ella and Louise in a credible context – and that means creating interaction with many other believable characters.  Tessa’s brother Jacob is a general arts student, moody and apparently manic-depressive, who hangs out with a guy called Chris, a law student who has been favoured by Jacob’s mum because he has such nice manners. But both Jacob and Chris are filled out in detailed back-stories which give a very nuanced sense of how two young men can be close friends but also essentially so different in character. Louise’s brother Kevin seems a blokey bloke, a laconic professional fisherman without a family – yet in the event showing more empathy for others than we at first realise. Dare I say that this is a novel by a woman, and mainly about women, which does not make a case by denigrating males? Some males in Breakwater do reprehensible things, or at least things which have negative consequences for others – but they are seen to have their motives and a display degree of genuine remorse (NB genuine remorse - not the type of remorse that the convicted display in courtrooms).
I see Duignan’s narrative skill most in a birthday party scene, involving many characters – including a number of minor and peripheral one. The reader never gets lost in the cross-talk and hasty connections made in such a situation, because Duignan has taken the care to flesh out her characters and in the process make them easily identifiable.
At this point, however, I hit the brick wall that I often hit when reviewing new novels. When writing the “Something Old” sections of this blog, I am often happy to reveal all the developments of a plot on the understanding that the book in question is probably already well-known. In the case of Breakwater, however, even though it is a reprint, I am more inclined to treat it as I would a new novel. And I believe it is not reasonable to give away its major turning-point – although, regrettably, the blurb-writer for this new impression does just that.
Suffice it to say that almost exactly at mid-point, where Part One becomes Part Two, something traumatic happens in Louise’s family which places even more stress on her, her children and Ella. How all characters react to this brings their motives and concern for others under even closer scrutiny. The trauma is treated by Duignan as unsentimentally and realistically as everything that has gone before it, and we understand why two characters in particular have been developed in such detail earlier in the novel.
Breakwater is a well-written novel which I would criticise in one particular only. Towards the end, there appears to be some strain in tying it and all its characters together, so that both Louise and Ella reach a neat point of reconciliation with their lives – a symbolic closure. This seems a little pat, even if we have been shown how resilient both women are. Even so, this is an engaging and carefully crafted novel.

Frivolous footnote: I spent some time trying to figure out the full significance of the novel’s title, Breakwater. I understand there is a literal breakwater mentioned a number of times, and this is also the name of the restaurant where Louise works. Perhaps the roaring sea is relevant, and one of the “improving” books Louise tries is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  I thought maybe a breakwater represented a parting of ways in life – just as a breakwater divides the incoming waves. But then another thought occurred – is it also a reference to the breaking of waters before childbirth? I really do not know.

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.

Here I am again bothering away at the concept of truth in history. Particularly, I am concerned with the way popular discourse often asserts, without any verifiable evidence, that some things are historical facts. Often (but not always) there is a propagandistic purpose behind such assertions.

I give you three examples, working from the least to the most propagandistic.

Nowadays, if you go into many English pubs – and particularly pubs in tourist areas – you can order a “ploughman’s lunch”. The very word “ploughman” is ye olde, intended to conjure up an image of a pre-industrial world, and hence of a very old tradtion. But in 1983 there was a very good British film called The Ploughman’s Lunch, a political comment concerned, in part, with the way people can be fooled into thinking certain things are essential national values when they have, in reality, been newly coined.  The film’s title was a metaphor for this. At one point a character explains that the “traditional” ploughman’s lunch was in reality invented by an advertising agency in the 1950s, in a campaign backed by pubs and cheese manufacturers. Cheese had just come off the ration but – more urgently – as places where you could get a quick lunchtime snack, pubs were now deep in competition with new-fangled coffee bars and fast-food outlets. The marketing agency obliged by inventing the phrase “ploughman’s lunch” for the bread, cheese, pickles and beer you could get at a pub. Instant ye olde tradition. It has been objected that many pubs did serve bread, cheese pickles and beer as a snack long before the 1950s, but at no time were they ever called a “ploughman’s lunch”, nor was it ever claimed that they were an ancient tradition. And, of course, whatever they were eating  in country pubs in England before the 1950s had absolutely nothing to do with what is now served as a “Ploughman’s Lunch” [see picture below].

There is a funny coda to this, which often happens with made-up “traditions”. After all, the so-called “ploughman’s lunch” has been around for sixty-odd years now – two or three generations – so doubtless there are now people who have heard their parents and grandparents refer to the “ploughman’s lunch” as part of their youth. When that happens we refer to a phrase as traditional. But that is not how the phrase began and it is not all that ancient.

Now for my second example of made-up history. In the United States of America, and now, by American example, across much of the world, to raise one’s middle finger to somebody is to make an obscene gesture which means “f#$* you” or “up yours” or a number of other insulting things. Oddly enough, this “one finger salute” is genuinely very ancient. It is believed to be a symbolic phallus, its use as an insulting gesture has been recorded in ancient Mediterranean texts and it is now widely believed to have been brought to the USA by Italian immigrants a century ago.

However, in Britain and in other English-speaking countries (but not in the USA) there is an alternative obscene gesture, the “two-finger salute”, which similarly means “up yours” etc. This is known as “giving the fingers”, “the figs” or (apparently in Australia) “the fork”. It is given with the back of the hand facing its intended victim. As many Americans apparently do not understand, this is quite different from raising two  fingers with the palm of the hand facing an audience. To raise two fingers with the palm of the hand facing an audience is to make the “V for Victory” sign which was invented in the Second World War – and which is apparently used in the USA to signal peace.

There is a teeny bit of confusion about this, because naughty Winston Churchill knowingly made both gestures at various times – as if to say Victory to the Allies and “up yours” to the Axis, and knowing full well that hordes of English schoolboys would enjoy both gestures.

But where did this two-finger gesture come from? Long story short – NOBODY KNOWS. In the 1960s, a completely fictitious story was concocted, saying the gesture was of late medieval origin. According to this fiction, Britain’s bowmen were so successful at the Battle of Agincourt that the French king said any English soldier who was caught would have his forefinger and middle finger chopped off so that they could no longer draw back a bowstring. So the victorious English bowmen made their contemptuous two-finger salute to the French, to show that they were still whole and capable of shooting. There is no record of this story before it, an “urban legend”, was invented in the 1960s and there is certainly no reference in history books, ancient chronicles or anywhere else to a French threat to cut off bowmen’s fingers.

Yet, forsooth, I have more than once had people earbash me about the “real” origin of “the figs” before they launch into the bowmen story. This is getting close to propaganda – the English mythology which says they have always bested the French. It is one with the historical amnesia which leads the English to forget that, while they won some significant battles, it was the French who won the Hundred Years War.

And so to my third, and in some ways most contentious, example of an historical untruth used for propaganda purposes. I am aware that the insult term “faggot” – again thanks to American example – is a widespread way of demeaning homosexuals. (Older British insult words against homosexuals were “poof” or “queer” and possibly “fairy”, though “fairy” is a term that became more widespread in America). How did “faggot” come to be an insult word like this?

When I was a kid, I sometimes read the English comics Dandy (which was published from 1937 to 2012) and its stablemate Beano. In their cartoons, “faggot” was used as an insult word – but it was an insult word directed at silly or intrusive old women. It had nothing to do with homosexuals. And apparently this was how the word was used in demotic English slang – an insult word directed old women, as in “Get out of my way, you silly old faggot.” Literally, a faggot is a stick or a twig, something used for kindling fires and not worth very much. It has been surmised (but not proven) that the insult term was widely applied to old women because many were faggot-collectors; that is, very poor people who had no other livelihood than collecting windfall faggots from the woods and selling them as kindling. To call them “faggots” was the equivalent of saying “you low and worthless human being.” And this was the sense (much to the wry amusement of modern Americans) that there came to be “fags” in old English public schools. A “fag” was a younger or more junior boy who had to “fag” for older boys – fetch and carry and in effect be the older boy’s servant.  Easy to imagine older boys (boys’ schools in all ages being what they are) originally labelling them “fags” or “faggots” in the sense of worthless human beings. “Go and polish my shoes, you faggot!” – that sort of thing.

So far so good (or bad, if you prefer). So how did “faggot” come, in America, to be an insult word directed at homosexuals? The best anyone has ever been able to credibly surmise is that it was originally meant to mean low and worthless human being – the same way that the term was applied to poor old women. Perhaps it was even impying that homosexuals were like old women.

But now we again enter the world of fiction and mythology, like the fictitious explanation of Britain’s “two-finger salute”.  Within the last forty years, the fiction arose that homosexuals were called faggots because they were, in the Middle Ages, punished by being burnt (like literal faggots) at the stake. This chimed in very well with gay activist rhetoric about massive persecution against homosexuals in past ages. Let me pause here to note that I am fully aware of such persecution – a part of the authentic historical record. But being called “faggots” because they were being burnt at the stake is not history – it is a recently-concocted fiction.

I think this is a far more dangerous fiction than the other two that I have outlined here, because it is used by activists to denigrate other groups. I have heard, for example, students earnestly explaining that the word “faggot” tells us that “the Church” burnt thousands of homosexuals in the Middle Ages. (Funny, isn’t it, how many of these urban legends vaguely reference the Middle Ages?)  I have seen an editorial in an American newspaper warning people not to use “faggot” as an insult word because it refers to this (fictitious) holocaust. An American rap singer repented of his sin in once using the word, but now he has seen the light and knows the “true” story of  the word etc. etc.etc. Now I would advise people not to use “faggot” as an insult, because it is obviously demeaning. But it has absolutely nothing to do with being burnt at the stake. That is an urban legend advanced for propaganda purposes.

Again, however, we have the phenomenon of something being repeated so often that it becomes a tradition. People can already refer to (poorly-researched) books which give them the false etymology of “faggot” as an insult word. It is at this point that real historians have to put their foot down and note that there is absolutely no authentic record of “faggot” referring to victims of burning at the stake until the fiction was concocted in the late 20th century.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Something New


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

“EDGELAND and other poems” by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “POUKAHANGATUS” by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $NZ20)

As I noted when I reviewed his expansive TheConch Trumpet three-plus years ago (March 2015) David Eggleton can be very careful about the way he organises a poetry collection. The Conch Trumpet was organised as a sort of chronology of New Zealand’s physical and cultural evolution.

 Decorated with line drawings by James Robinson, Eggleton’s new collection Edgeland is also carefully organised. Its 61 poems are arranged in five section, the first three of which refer to geographical locations  - “Tamaki Makaurau” (Auckland); then Eggleton’s home base “Murihiku” (Otago); then “Spidermoon”, being mainly poems set in Australia. The fourth and fifth sections move somewhere else. Poems under the heading “Scale” are mainly jocular and satirical comments on literature and popular culture; while the final section “Legend”, still with a satirical touch, is sometimes more personal in mood and feeling – not quite confessional but heading in that direction. Eggleton works more often in public statement that in private revelation.

Taking a closer look, in the “Tamaki Makaurau” section, some poems are almost rhapsodic obsevations of nature and society as seen around the great city of Auckland – vignettes of views of the gulf, of the Asian and Polynesian culture of South Auckland, even perhaps a sense of wonder in the early fencibles [pensioned soldiers] as they arrived in the nineteenth century. “The Floral Clock” has a melancholy tone. But as he views Auckland, Eggleton often adopts a satirical or commentarian voice. The title poem “Edgeland” is essentially a swipe at Auckland’s perceived rapaciousness and materialsm (“land sharks”, “real estate agents” “shoebox storerooms of apartment blocks”).  The poem “Maunga” presents Auckland’s volcanoes as they once were; but its companion poem “The Sleepers” laments how many volcanic cones have been flattened or shifted as European settlement expanded (“Villages were brought closer to Queen Street, / and each other, by dynamited volcanic rubble / crushed from a base layer of basalt chips over / a sub-base of aggregate – all topped with tarseal.”).

In the “Tamaki Makaurau” section, Eggleton is very aware of Maori culture, Maori belief systems and names. Ironically, in the “Murihiku” (Otago) section, the Maori references almost disappear. As an Aucklander, I am reminded of that tired old joke that a Dunedinite once told me – that Dunedin’s Maori Hill is so called because once, a Maori was actually seen there. What is consistent, however, is Eggleton’s concern with landscape and especially with ecology (not as insistently as his fellow-South Island poet Richard Reeve, but insistently nevertheless). While “Tuhawaiki: The Caitlins” is almost sheer delight in the coast and its people, “Spinners” comments on the impact of wind turbines on Otago’s wilderness.

            As for the Australian-set section “Spidermoon”, the emphasis is on heat, heat, heat as it is so often experienced by New Zealanders who venture across the ditch.

The poems “New Year’s Day at Byron Bay”, “Moreton Bay” and “Spidermoon” are the harsh-sun-struck tourist’s view of Aussie beaches and their culture and sapping heat. “Melbournia”, a somewhat ironical view of the city, is again, the heat, the heat, the heat. There is a series of six loose sonnets in this section, which were apparently written as responses to specific art-works. Their meaning I find somewhat opaque – but that is often the case with things written about art which one has not seen or experienced.

In the section called “Scale”, Eggleton loosens up even more than he usually does and enjoys himself taking the piss. He plays literary games. From its very title, I realised that “Moa in the Matukituki Valley” was a cut-and-paste of poetic quotations from others – a cento – but I’m bemused that the end-note concerning this does not acknowledge all the many poets who are plundered. “The Smoking Typewriter” is an ironical reworking of William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” and celebrity chefs and some pop culture get a once-over in “Jamie Olver’s TV Dinner”. Yet “Obelisk” is a little more sombre - a poem of nature mutating while monuments moulder.

The title poem of the “Legend” section is, in effect, a “progress of poesy” piece. There are personal poems, but the first three are written in the third-person, perhaps to create a distancing effect. One of the collection’s best poems is “The Great Wave”, an image of Fiji which is a major part of Eggleton’s background. As for “Orbit of the Corpse Flower”, at first glance it is a loose fantasmagoria of Dunedin, certainly sensuous and vivid – but then we notice its discreet references to Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Marcel Proust et al. Even when he is being demotic, Eggleton shows he can mix it with High Culture.

Are you getting tired of this plodding review now? Yes, so am I. I have so far given you what I would call a bibliographer’s review – a mere cataloguing of what the collection contains. Time for a little thought and judgement.

First, David Eggleton is not only a prolific and fertile poet, but he is also a very inventive and ingenious one. While his voice is usually and very distinctively his own, he is capable of literary ventriloquism. One of the tenderest and most delicate poems in this collection is “Distant Ophir” written in the first-person, but, as I read it,  from its John Masefield title on, it is clearly a dramatic monologue rather than a confession. It is the wistful view of a Pakeha pioneer woman, whose hopes for New Zealand have been formed from a very English perspective and whose imagination has been shaped by English literature. This perspective is treated with sympathy, even if it is shown to be unsustainable.  In a totally different key, but just as unexpected, is “Escapologist” a sheer fun poem about Houdini exposing a fraudulent medium. I can imagine this holding a classroom of schoolkids rapt.

Second, part of Eggleton’s talent is his ability to fire out brilliant individual lines and images. I relish in the poem “King Tide, Northside” the image of pohutukawa that “cliff-hang like trapeze artists”. From the poem “Day Swimmers”, there is the sight, at once gorgeous and daunting, that “burgeoning meringues of cumulus will darken, / rococo cream puffs dunked in thunderheads”. Then there’s that vivid observation that  “Rusty prayer wheels of seagulls turn” from the poem “Southern Embroidery”. So I could witter on for a few more paragraphs with many other specimens, but that will do.

Third is a little more problematic. I read “The Wilder Years”, a general satire on – or possibly rant at – all of New Zealand’s tawdry self-esteem. I read “Methusalem”, a rhapsody in its panorama of one sort of Auckland experience. I read “Poem for Ben Brown”, essentially an ironical chant; likewise “The Age of the Anthrocene”. And in all cases I think these poems would work a lot better if we heard them from a living voice rather than reading them cold off the page. “Mission Creep”, with its quick and almost Skeltonic rhyming couplets, is closest of the bunch to the rhythms and structure of rap. Add to this the many poems in Edgeland that rely on repetition of either key words or grammatical structures. “Thirty Days of Night” is a “list” poem where the word “night” is repeated insistently to produce a series of vivid images. “This Gubberment, Bro, This Gubberment” aims for satire but hits it, after a list, only in the last line “The lunatics have taken over the asylum-seekers”. “The People-Smuggler’s Beard” and “Identity Parade” are also “list” poems, as are “Heat” and “Mullum Rain” both of which work in part by insistently repeating and redefining the key words “heat” and “rain”. In all these cases, I would have enjoyed them more had I heard the performance poet live.

Any hesitations over this collection? A small, philosophical one, and not related solely to David Eggleton. Some poems, such as “Two Takes on the Waitakere Ranges”, present and lament a presumed pristine nature that had been despoiled and shattered by material “progress”, the building of a city, the spread of suburbs etc. Fine. We all feel some sorrow for the loss of an imagined pristine…. But then we also enjoy the benefits of what has replaced it. I suppose what I’m saying is kin to my reservations about Thoreau. It is wonderful to lament what came before human habitation – especially human habitation en masse -  but some lamentations too easily become a contempt for our fellow human beings who live [just as we do] in suburbs and cities. That lovely old stone cottage stands where a might totara once stood. So did that pa.

Enough. Enough. Edgeland is a very fine collection.

Impertinent and totally egotistical footnote: In the poem “Maunga”, concerning Auckland’s volcanoes, David Eggleton makes a slightly dismissive reference to the pine that once stood on the summit of Maungakiekie, or One Tree Hill. We can have different perspectives on the same things. This poem is not a “reply” to “Maunga”, because I wrote it about seven years ago, but did not include it in either of my two collections so far. Here ‘tis:


All childhood, seen through a picture window,

beyond the Panmure Basin and railway,

beyond suburbs, she was an umbrella

to a spike, arm to an upright, shelterer

of birds too distant to see, disrupter

of neat verticals, a swaying wind trap.

To us, sunset was her special time, when

she melted into the unviewable,

a twig in the blinding gold,  or was crowned

by rays from heaven through dramatic clouds.

That was when the birds flew past us to her,

the named One Tree, their day’s end destination.

She grew from the hill and was shaped by wind,

graceful beside the stark stone phallus, part

of the scene like clouds, sheep, birds or sunset.

Permanent as God. And now she’s gone, cut

for show, executed as an alien,

the hill reshaped to baldness and a pencil.

This is not your country, says the chainsaw.

You have no right to see, think, dream, be here.

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

            Poukahangatus, the debut volume of 23-year-old poet Tayi Tibble.

I  think I get it as soon as I look at Xoe Hall’s colourful and loud cover. A Maori chick with really big eyes and really straight long hair and a cut-fringe, lying in a bath like a porn star, hiding her boobs but showing her thigh, with a bottle of vodka on one side and a porn magazine on the other and her hair ending in snakes like Medusa’s. And there’s the name Poukahangatus above her hear, spelled out in snakes and obviously a riff on Pocahontas.

So I get it, even before I read the title poem “Poukahangatus”, which has some of the imagery depicted on the cover. This is going to be a sassy collection about cultural appropriation and attempts of non-European women to conform to European ideas of good looks and hair straightening and the shoving aside of culture and in general the culturally-confusing mess it can be to be a young Maori woman in the city and in the country and partying and sometimes having to deal with elders, not to mention the hell of high-school.

And thus it is – at least in part.

Many of the pieces in Poukahangatus are prose poems and some are closer to rap, like “LBD”, which is nearest to the heart of the book’s meaning with its opening “there is a dark-skinned darkness in me / I wear it like a little black dress / Gucci / velvet-pressed….” Race and culture as fashion statement? There’s a slice of self-consciouness here, perhaps of trying too hard, as there is in the poem  “Identity Politics”. As for clubbing , there’s a serving of young hip cynicism, as when “I Wear Aviators to the Club” tells us “Every relationship leaves behind a sticky residue, hard to wash away without chemical help.” The poet talks tough (or maybe tougher than she is) in  “Red-Blooded Males” and “wtn boys”.

But here’s the problem. I am talking about a lifestyle and a perspective quite a few compass points away from my own, and therefore hard to relate to. For me, at any rate, the best poems were the understated ones. Oddly enough, they are the ones that seem to relate to childhood or schooldays. “Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside” is poignant because it deals with death in such a matter-of-fact way. Death is almost black farce in “Nobody in the Water”. Its obviously a city kid’s reaction to a country situation in “Tangi In the King Country”; and “Shame” conveys effectively moments of being intimidated or embarrassed before elders, tutors and teachers. “Vampires Versus Werewolves” boils down to the discovery that high school can be a sexual battleground. And “Scabbing”, in its rough way, is almost nostalgic for the way heart-throbs felt when you were still 12.

For the second time in this posting, I have to say that much of the contents of Poukahangatus might work better in live performance than on the page. All that rappy rhythm. All that prosey story-telling. All that bump and grind.