Monday, October 21, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ALWAYS SONG IN THE WATER” by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $NZ 45); “SINGING THE TRAIL” by John McCrystal (Allen and Unwin, $NZ59:99)
The subtitle of Gregory O’Brien’s diverse, informative and very engaging book Always Song in the Water is “An Oceanic Sketchbook”. This seems to me far too modest a description.
Always Song in the Water is a large, handsome book [over 250 pages] of art works and essays. The art works (drawings, sketches, paintings and photographs) are by a number of credited artists, including O’Brien himself, who is artist, essayist and curator as much as poet. The text is all by O’Brien. The topic is essentially New Zealand’s connection with, and isolation in, the Pacific Ocean, with many reflections upon this condition. But much of the text digs deeply into O’Brien’s background and influences as both artist and poet. So inevitably much of it is highly autobiographical. Explained very late in book, the title Always Song in the Water refers to the songs of our mammalian cousins, whales, which at some point become a measure of our identity with the ocean that enfolds us.
Because “sketchbook” implies something done on the run, faits divers rather than a structured whole, and Always Song in the Water does have a definite structure and backbone. The term “bricolage” – a single work of art made out of many and varied things - has sometimes been applied to O’Brien’s work, and it is certainly applicable here. Always Song in the Water runs through many anecdotes and many topics, but O’Brien is not bundling them together at random. They move in a certain direction and add up to a coherent whole. I’d propose substituting as subtitle “An Oceanic Bricolage”.
In his Introduction, O’Brien admits that he is not a great seaman, although clearly he has made a number of voyages. But his concept of New Zealand and its relationship with the ocean altered for him in his 2011 trip to the Kermadecs. O’Brien has responded to this trip before (see Beauties of the Octagonal Pool, his poetry collection reviewed on this blog in 2012). In 2011, he was one of nine visual artists who, together with the minister of conservation, conservation workers and one broadcaster, were passengers on HMNZS Otago in a sponsored trip to Raoul Island, one of the five Kermadec islands which used to be called Sunday Island. New Zealand territory, the Kermadecs are the uplifted parts of a submarine volcanic ridge stretching from New Zealand to Tonga. O’Brien was forcefully reminded that New Zealand ranges far beyond Cape Reinga – indeed, New Zealand’s territorial waters extend 200 nautical miles north of Raoul Island. This fired in O’Brien’s mind an expanded sense of the oceanic nature of New Zealand as a fluid, moving continent. In the early sections of Always Song in the Water, O’Brien uses the overgrown dinghy in his front yard as a symbol of New Zealand, movable but anchored in sea.
Always Song in the Water divides into two parts.
Part One is billed as “Coasting – a Northland Road Trip”. In 2014, O’Brien drove north from Auckland to Whangarei with his artist friend, the non-driving Noel McKenna, who remarked, correctly, that it’s better to be the passenger on such journeys as you have the leisure to look around rather than having your eyes fixed on the road. They meet an ex-Trappist friend of O’Brien’s and visit his meditation room. In Dargaville, O’Brien recalls that he began his career as a journalist on the town’s daily Northland Times, where he first took an interest in typefaces. He recalls his own youthful experiences of surfing and renders surfies as metaphors for poets. The rituals of drinking tea are discussed. There are encounters with abandoned cars and topiary work and all the unleashed dogs in Northland and the sighting an (imaginary?) wolf. Caravans as places of residence are discussed and there are a couple of bizarre tales, one about the nursing career of O’Brien’s mother and the other about riding pillion on a motorbike while gripping the oars of the dinghy.
All this might indeed sound like random observations until you see how the emphasis on literature and (more expansively) art builds up. O’Brien remarks: “Periodically, my family criticises me for my inabiity to drive anywhere in New Zealand without continually citing not only McCahon, but also Baxter and Frame.” (p.105) When he encounters a second-hand bookstall in the middle of nowhere, he is surprised to find among the dross some classy books (Coleridge, Heraclitus etc.). Dargaville, with its muddy river and second-hand shops, calls to mind Jane Mander and her piano on the riverbank, which in turn segues into the idea of New Zealand literature and art being adaptations of European norms, such as pianos. There is much reference to Clare Cavanagh’s concept of playing “Schubert on a barrel organ”, which seems a rather contorted way of referring to New Zealand writers and artists playing variations on European-sourced models.
Ultimately the visual artists get more space than the writers, though. We are told that Colin McCahon fled north to re-find himself and later he wept when he saw Ahipara. O’Brien discusses the influence of a Michael Smither sketch he was given by his parents; and Ralph Hotere’s collaboration with Bill Manhire in an art-and-text publication. The surreal films of Florian Habicht are referenced a number of times, because in O’Brien’s interpretation they give a psychic survey of what we are… and later Habicht is found to have been influenced by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, another denizen of Northland.
What Part One has revealed gradually then, is not reminiscence so much as, through writers and artists, the imaginative interpretation of Northland. And more important, this first half of the book is heading northwards like a long run up to the long-jump. The long-jump is Part Two where O’Brien launches into the sea itself. Running on Ninety Mile Beach leads him to say “the real northernmost tundra of Aotearoa New Zealand is the Pacific Ocean itself, at once inviting and inhospitable, bracing and mind-boggling.” (p.99)
So we are in the ocean in Part Two, billed as “We Went Ashore One Morning”. This begins with the 2011 voyage to Raoul Island “the remotest part of New Zealand, an active volcano located on an earthquake fault line, it has the air of an island that wants to be left alone.” (p.131) The shaky island has been rendered pest-free, so it teems with birds and indigenous wildlife, as well as flourishing foliage. O’Brien and his companions are there for 48 hours and it is endearing to learn that he reads the poetry of Edith Sitwell while on Raoul Island “because here nature itself seems eccentric, excessive and at times implausible”. (p.136) Here is the key to the whole book, when O’Brien says that after leaving the island its image stayed with him and it altered his sense of the shape of New Zealand: “A different profile of the nation came to assert itself – an archipelagic concept which has been, and continues to be, an invigorating and creatively sustaining proposition…” (p.140) It also heightened his awareness of New Zealand as “a gyrating, quivering nation-machine… a nation that is geologically and seismically in a state of ongoing upheaval and adjustment.” (p.142).
Once again, some sections of Part Two could seem random observations or simply interesting anecdotes, as when O’Brien decribes the traditional tying of ropes by the naval crew or traditional naval slang or the crew’s traditional over-the-side swim, in mid-ocean, when they cross the Tropic of Capricorn. But ultimately artistic interpretation is what dominates and the ocean is related to artistic endeavour. Off the Wellington coast, the ashes of the artist John Drawbridge are dispersed into the sea. The South Pacific, we are told, might better be called Oceania, in line with Pasifika writers such as Epeli Hau’ofa, who interpret the ocean as their whole world. Repeatedly O’Brien reflects on artists who have imagined submarine seascapes and there are reveries about the sinking of the SS Mikhail Lermontov in Marlborough Sounds in 1986.
Alongside this, there is inevitably a strong conservationist tone. In somewhat opaque prose, the section titled “The Questioning Sea” gives a mystic view of sea as nurturer. But fouling this are the huge numbers of containers now floating in the seas and the dangers they create, such as sinking ships or washing toxically ashore. Elsewhere O’Brien notes the great, slow migrations of crayfish across the seabed when careless human beings have over-harvested them in one area – and he also notes the anxiety with which surveys of whales are now conducted. Of the very many images reproduced in this book, one of the most arresting is O’Brien’s own rendering of a whale survey conducted at Raoul Island. Near book’s end, there is a plea for the revival of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill, which stalled after being introduced in 2016 and has yet to be written into law.
So, anecdotes and asides and light moments and all, this book creeps up on you, with copious images and with two long poems by O’Brien, “For Rebecca Priestley in Antarctica” and “Ode to the Kermadec Trench.” For all the pieces of which it is composed, it makes a strong central impression. Not bric-a-brac but excellent bricolage.
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Totally different in purpose and structure, there is another new publication that helps us see New Zealand in a new light. If Gregory O’Brien’s Always Song in the Water makes us consider New Zealand as an oceanic continent, John McCrystal’s carefully-researched Singing the Trail shows us how New Zealand came to be mapped in the first place, and how we gained what is now our indelible mental image of these islands. Subtitled “The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand”, Singing the Trail is a sturdy hardback of over 250 wide pages, showing us the most significant maps of New Zealand and of the Pacific since, a bit over 400 years ago, Europeans first began to guess what might be in this part of the ocean. There was so much pure guessing and speculation that “the first European maps of Aotearoa were works of science fiction” says McCrystal. (p.8)
McCrystal provides a very detailed introduction to each section of the book, as well as substantial notes on each of the many maps that are reproduced. Text talks to image.
In his general Introduction, McCrystal tells us that his own fascination with maps began with his “boatie” father, who knew how to read maritime charts and navigate by them, as well as recognising and steering by landmarks. McCrystal picked up the mapping bug. But he adds that some form of mapping is inherent in us, as it is in some other animals such as birds, bees and dogs. They have mental systems enabling them to remember routes, hence they can travel to desired destinations. As for earlier human beings in oral cultures, their first “maps” were spoken stories, designed to help voyagers remember what to look out for on a particular route. McCrystal explains that the first real, non-speculative maps of New Zealand made by Europeans were obviously confined to the coast and focused on finding safe harbours and anchorages. Then came maps pointing out places where exploitable resources could be found (seals, flax, timber). Then maps related to Pakeha settlements. Then military maps during wars between Maori and Pakeha (ordinance maps, military routes, plans of pas and redoubts); then the latest survey maps using technologies unknown to the earliest explorers. In his choice of maps to go along with his text, McCrystal admits that he has chosen ones that are “aesthetically pleasing”, as well as telling a story.
The text is divided into three long sections.
Part One, called “Coast”, is about first discoveries and the first mapping of the shape of New Zealand. This section deals in detail with Polynesian navigation and the use of ancestral stories of gods and perils as mnemonics guiding voyagers to landmarks in the vast ocean. The European system of drawing a chart, and the Polynesian system of memorising a route, met in the person of Tupaia. He was taken on board by James Cook, and questioned about islands in the Pacific. English cartographers made a drawing of what he explained. Fittingly, a rendering of Tupaia’s conception of the Pacific is the first map in the book. As McCrystal explains, there are fantastical theories that peoples before the Maori first “discovered” Aotearoa – or even that Europeans other than the Dutchman Abel Tasman were the first to see New Zealand. These theories (which usually imply racist ideologies) are easily disproven on archaeological grounds, and also by the nature of European maps before Tasman. The text moves on to European maps made after Tasman’s 1642 voyage, with much guesswork still on display; maps made after Cook’s voyages in the 1770s, and maps made by French explorers. Many an early map is an itinerarium (concerned with getting from A to B) rather than scientific cartography. This is particularly true of maps prepared by whalers and sealers in search of prey. The last map in this section was printed in 1858, by which stage the (coastal) shape of New Zealand was (almost) fully known.
Part Two, called “Inland”, deals with 19th century maps as Pakeha now began to explore the interior of the country and lay out areas for settlement. It is interesting to note that just before the Treaty of Waitangi, and just before mass Pakeha settlement began, Europeans were still ignorant of much that lay between the coasts. Wyld’s chart of 1839 gets the shape of New Zealand more or less right (with a few gross mistakes) but is entirely ignorant of the existence of Lake Taupo and has only the vaguest notion of where mountain ranges lie. After 1840, there are maps of localities prepared by missionary societies or by Wakefield’s New Zealand Company. There are neat grids of roads laid out for Wanganui, Wellington, Dunedin and other major settlements, including Felton Matthew’s conception of what Auckland should be, with its impossible concentric ring roads. Later, during the wars of the 1860s, there come the ordinance maps and military routes and – on an even more melancholy note – maps showing lands that had been confiscated from iwi by the New Zealand government after the wars were over.
Part Three, called “Changing Views”, contains maps from the late nineteenth century to the early 21st century. They are mainly specialised maps, made after accurate renderings of the shape and topographical features of New Zealand had been determined. Each is interested in some particular aspect of New Zealand. Thus, from the early twentieth century, there is a map showing New Zealand’s place in the British Empire, and there are maps showing places overseas where New Zealanders fought and died in the First World War (Gallipoli and the Dardanelles in 1915; Le Quesnoy in 1917; and grids of military cemeteries). Maps show New Zealand’s dependencies in the Pacific and in Antarctica, and New Zealand’s economic fishing zones. And so on to maps giving the locations of New Zealand’s lighthouses; maps indicating where most shipwrecks have occurred; guide maps of railway, steamer and coach routes; and promotional material aimed at tourists. These include a colourful rendition of the Raurimu Spiral prepared in 1929 for New Zealand Railways; and a “fun” map made in 1960 for New Zealand’s old domestic airline NAC, giving a cartoonish version of the country’s major tourist attractions. From Hochstetter in the nineteenth century to the satellite image of New Zealand that ends the book, one constant is the way techniques of topographical survey improved.
In my tiresome bibliographical way, I have told you accurately what this book contains. McCrystal’s text is accessible and very readable – my only reservation is that occasionally his style can get a little facetious, with strained puns. (Does a section on the mapping of New Zealand’s rich natural resources really have to be called “Scrutiny on the Bounty”?). What I have not made clear, however, is the sheer fascination of the maps themselves. After all the real and informative material this book delivers, and after all the explanations of individual maps, Singing the Trail is in the end a great site for wool-gathering. As we look at the earlier maps made by Europeans, we may at first smirk at how wrong they got things. But then we realise what an exacting – and often dangerous – thing it was to make a chart of a newly-discovered country, and we understand what an extraordinary thing it is that we have maps at all.
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.
“WISE BLOOD” by Flannery O’Connor (first published 1952); “THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY” by Flannery O’Connor (first published 1960)
Some weeks back on this blog, looking at Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, I referred briefly to other writers of the American South who, like McCarthy, have or had some sort of religious preoccupation. Chief among them was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), whose two novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away are drenched in the fervor and wildness of the South’s poor white Protestants (as are many of her short stories for which, among many readers, she is better-known) . Having made this mention, I spent some evenings re-reading O’Connor’s work and once again tasting that strange mixture of sordor and religious fervor.
Wise Blood, first published in 1952, is the better known of the two novels. In passing only, I note it was made into a very good film by John Huston in 1979, unusual among literary adaptations in that it stuck very closely to the original novel.
Wise Blood is essentially a very simple fable. A man spends his life trying to run away from something, but ends up embracing it. More specifically, a man who spends his life cursing and denying God is finally overwhelmed by God. This is a “hound of heaven” fable.
Having its genesis in a number of separate short-stories O’Connor had written, Wise Blood, though a very short work, is very episodic. Implicitly set just after the Second World War, the novel concerns Hazel Motes, a discharged and embittered serviceman. We are early made aware that, grandson of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he had a very hard childhood, frequently being chastised and beaten, constantly being told he should be grateful for being redeemed in the Blood of Jesus, and constantly resenting the fact. Finding his post-war home abandoned and his family gone, he heads for a (fictitous) Southern city on a personal mission of enlightenment. He aims to condemn religion as he knows it. But, being Bible-bred and in the South, the only religion he knows is That Old Time Religion. So it is as a “prophet” that he condemns Jesus, on street corners and usually mounted on the bonnet of the broken-down old car he has bought.
Hazel Motes is not an articulate or well-educated man. We piece together his anti-religious creed from statements scattered through the novel. When in the army, he was jeered by soldiers who told him he had no soul; and he “took a long time to believe them because he wanted to believe them. All he wanted was to believe them and get rid of it once and for all, and he saw the opportunity here to get rid of it without corruption, to be converted to nothing instead of to evil.” (Chapter 1) The burden of sin weighs so heavily on him that he wants to get rid of it and of any notion of the soul. He wants his world-view to be completely materialist. He believes the idea of sin simply corrupts people, and in one argument he declares “there’s no person a whoremonger who wasn’t something worse first. That’s not the sin, not blasphemy. The sin came before them.” (Chapter 4) In other words, he rejects the notions of Original Sin and of a primal flaw in human beings even while acknowledging them. Speaking of sin simply corrupts people. And if sin doesn’t exist, there’s no need for redemption. The notion of sin itself makes us feel dirty. “I AM clean. If Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean.” (Chapter 5) Also “Jesus is a trick on niggers” (Chapter 4), as religion is only for the gullible. So he tells the crowd on street corners “I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.” (Chapter 6)
Even to corral together these statements is to make this impulsive, bitter and very determined Hazel Motes sound more rational and articulate than he is. Remember, the Bible seems to be the only book he has ever read, and though he denies it, it is the “blood” (i.e. inspiration, impulse, fervor) that drives him. The novel has him developing not by reasoning with others, but in separate interactions with people. You can see how it began as separate short stories.
Hazel wants to violate the codes he was brought up in. He wants to sin as much as he can, and he begins by cohabiting with a prostitute (Mrs Leora Watts) and soaking himself in sex. But, implicitly, this is to accept the very category of sin that he denies. He wants to argue with a blind and disfigured preacher called Asa Hawks, who “blinded himself for Jesus”, but he finds himself more involved with the preacher’s daughter Sabbath Lily Hawks, a scrawny teenager who is hungry for sex and wants to seduce him – and if he is at all attracted to her it is only because he wants to violate her virginity, another blow against the notion of sinfulness. He is sometimes pursued and pestered by a naïve, randy18-year-old called Enoch Emery, who is desperate for friendship and easily latches on to Hazel’s notion of there being nothing but materiality. Indeed, Enoch tries to prove the point to Hazel by gifting him a shrunken human body he has stolen from a museum – a body without a soul. (Another point made in passing – though the novels are very different, Hazel’s connection with naïve 18-year-old Enoch is very like Suttree’s connection with naïve 18-year-old Gene Harrogate in Suttree, and I can’t help feeling that Cormac McCarthy must have read Wise Blood at some time.)
As I read Wise Blood, I often feel I am marching through a minefield of symbols. I could tabulate some of them facilely thus:
Hazel wears a black hat which makes people repeatedly assume that he is a conventional preacher. This points to the fact that he cannot run away from his connection with the religion he denies. Hazel puts a lot of faith in a broken-down, unreliable second-hand car he has bought, and at one stage says that a man with a good car doesn’t need redemption. This suggests a shallow faith in technology and “progress” and their insufficiency as a substitute for religious belief. The shrunken human body Enoch brings to Hazel (and a separate episode concerning a fake ape) suggest what a human being without a soul would look like – merely a material thing. There’s the possibility that Hazel Motes’ name has symbolic significance. He walks in a “haze” of doubt or despair; and he could be one who, as the New Testament says, sees the “mote” in somebody else’s eyes while missing the “beam” in his own. As for the bright white cloud that hangs over Hazel and Sabbath Lily Hawks when she strives to seduce him, and the “tiny point of light” into which Hazel is transformed in the very last sentence of the novel – they are so pregnant with meaning that you can give each a couple of dozen symbolic interpretations.
In the midst of all this, though, Hazel Motes is obsessed, but is also distinguished by his integrity. He is trying to spread the truth as he understands it. His articulated creed is a totally materialist and empirical view of life, a soulless life, but he is honest enough with himself to know that this means “nothing” – nihilism – and a life without meaning. He is not a saint. Indeed (I will not go into the plot details) he becomes a murderer. But he has integrity. He is genuinely outraged by those who pretend to be what they are not – in other words, those who violate the idea of truth. He himself wants something absolute, concrete and clearly-defined. He is disgusted that the blind preacher Asa Hawks refuses to debate with him. In fact he taunts Hawks by saying that if Hawks were a real preacher he would try to convert him. His contempt grows when he discovers Asa Hawks is a fake anyway. Perhaps worse, there is the huckster Onnie Jay Holy, who presumes to offer Hazel tips on how to draw the crowds and who advises “If you want to get anywhere in religion, you got to keep it sweet.” (Chapter 9) Onnie Jay Holy sets up his own fake mission on the streets, rejoicing in the amount of money he is able to make. This is the temptation of commercialised religion, forebear of televangelists and other such horrors. It disgusts Hazel even more than real religion does because it is so obviously hypocritical – things said by people who don’t really believe them.
Where does all this lead in the arc of the story? Through various disillusionments with his own rebellious creed, it leads Hazel back to the very things he set out to reject. Mortification of the flesh (in the most extreme ways); a quiet and contemplative life which absolutely rejects materialism; an awareness that his life is not his own and is guided by something much bigger than himself; and, of course, to inevitable death.
Have I destroyed this novel for you by so neatly slicing-and-dicing its main ideas? I hope not. It was only when I read the novel’s last chapter (about Hazel’s dealing with his last landlady Mrs Flood) that I saw all the strands of its story being pulled together and a clear pattern emerging. For after my philosophical and religious breakdown of it, its chief effect as you actually read it is of the oddness of it; the Southernness of it; the bizarre, eccentric strangeness of it. In that respect it is “Southern Gothic”.
But for those who don’t see its religious pattern, the story is merely about a psychopathic, self-destructive loner. Years back, coming out of a Film Festival screening of John Huston’s very good film of the novel, I heard one viewer’s intepretation of it as being “just about a psycho.” Yes, you could see it as that if you interpret Hazel Motes as a psychiatric “case”. But it would be to miss the whole point that Flannery O’Connor was making.
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In 1960, just a few years before her premature death from a congenital disease,
there appeared Flannery O’Connor’s second, and last, novel The Violent Bear It Away. The geographical setting and the theological issues are simlar to those of Wise Blood, but the focus is quite different. While Wise Blood concerns a man trying fruitlessly to run away from God, The Violent Bear It Away stages a clash between fanatical religion and insufficient secularism – a clash resolved only by the grace of God.
As an infant, Francis Marion Tarwater (known simply as Tarwater in most of the novel) has been kidnapped by his crazed and fanatical great-uncle Mason Tarwater, a preacher and “prophet” who has spent time in a psychiatric hospital. They live in an an isolated shack in the backblocks, where Mason keeps Tarwater from any formal schooling, trains him to be a “prophet”, and tells him that his mission is to baptise the mentally-retarded son of his cousin, the heathen (i.e. agnostic) schoolteacher Rayber. Like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, Tarwater comes to hate the religion in which he has been raised, and sees its promised rewards as a paltry thing:
“In the darkest, most private part of his soul, hanging upsidedown like a sleeping bat, was the certain undeniable knowledge that he was not hungry for the bread of life. Had the bush flamed for Moses, the sun stood still for Joshua, the lions turned aside before Daniel only to prophesy the bread of life? Jesus? He felt a terrible disappointment in that conclusion, a dread that it was true.” (Chapter 1)
And yet unschooled Tarwater is still saturated in that religion. Its hopes and fears are the only categories in which he can think, even as he rationally rejects them.
Tarwater is only fourteen years old when Mason dies. After disposing of his great-uncle’s corpse in a most un-Christian way, Tarwater heads out of the backblocks and into the city, looking to live with Rayber who is the only relative he knows. And here begins the novel’s battle of wills. Tarwater spits and blasphemes against the fundamentalist religion he has been taught, and Rayber clearly thinks he will be a good specimen for “conversion” to his own secular humanism. But Tarwater resists Rayber’s teachings as just another form of indoctrination which, the author implies, they really are. More bafflingly for Rayber, he himself sometimes feels the pull of religion – as in a scene where he finds himself at a pentecostal gathering, is rationally disgusted by the spectacle of a child having been trained to preach, and yet is drawn into what she preaches anyway.
Rayber’s assumption is that his calm reason will easily win over Tarwater, but Tarwater, 14-years-old, inarticulate and only semi-literate, intuits much that is wrong with Rayber’s views and is able to bat them away with uncouth but pithy arguments of his own.
The real catalyst in the novel is Rayber’s mentally-retarded son Bishop. To the utilitarian rationalist Rayber, Bishop serves no purpose. His logic says that the afflicted boy is just a thing, incapable of rational thought and therefore not really human. Indeed he is a disposable thing. Tarwater also resents Bishop because he has been given the “mission” of baptising him, which he refuses to do. Yet every time the adult Rayber and the adolescent Tarwater fiercely despise Bishop, they are thwarted by a totally irrational sense of responsbility and love. This violates Rayber’s anti-religious code of strict rationality: “If , without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him – powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise. It was completely irrational and abnormal.” (Chapter 4)
What Flannery O’Connor is dramatising is the irrational inbreaking of God’s grace. You are held in the hand of God whether you like it or not. The more you kick and protest, like an angry adolescent rebelling against a parent, the more firmly you are held. This has repercussions in what eventually happens with Tarwater’s “mission” to baptise the boy, and with Tarwater himself when his time with Rayber is over.
All brief synopses tidy up and simplify what a good novel is about. This is what I have done here. Once again, as with Wise Blood, this novel presents us with an impoverished and underdeveloped South, where the white characters routinely refer to blacks as “niggers” and where That Old Time Religion has a fearful hold. There are also moments of physical violence – old Mason Tarwater shoots at the welfare people who have come to get the boy he has kidnapped; there are two attempts in the novel to kill a child; and there is an (implied) rape.
Only one part of this novel originally appeared as a short story. Perhaps because of this genesis, The Violent Bear It Away seems to me a far more “finished” novel than Wise Blood. It certainly has a less episodic and more focused plot; one that winds back upon itself so that Flannery O’Connor can introduce anterior events credibly in characters’ thoughts. Like Wise Blood, it does expect readers to pick up its symbols, but there are not as many of them as there are in the earlier novel. In this case, we note that the rationalist Rayber wears a hearing aid, which he can turn off to total silence – which is what he does whenever the word of God challenges him (maybe an analogue for the “invincible ignorance” that Saint Paul mentioned). The voice that speaks in Tarwater’s mind could be the voice of secular rationalism – or of the Devil. Along with all the watery references to baptism, there is also a literal burning bush in the novel’s conclusion.
We have to wrestle with the novel’s title. Its epigraph is “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away.” This is a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 11:12) as rendered in the old Douay (Catholic) translation of the Bible. Among other things, this points to one very obvious fact which will probably already be known to most readers of this blog. Though writing about the Protestant fundamentalists who surrounded her, the Southerner Flannery O’Connor was, lifelong, a devout Catholic, and her tales take extreme forms of Protestant fundamentalism and interpret them in very Catholic ways, especially in the way grace is handled. As for the epigraph itself, it could be interpreted in many ways. Personally, I read it as saying that the “violent” are those who would wish to destroy the kingdom of God, and they are equally religious fanatics who distort the Christian message, and rational secularists who try to suppress the religious impulse even while feeling its reality.
As I said at the head of this review, Flannery O’Connor is better known by some readers for her short stories rather than for her two novels. They appear in two collections, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, which were posthumously gathered together as her Collected Stories, together with some stories she had discarded because she had already woven them into her novels. Now that I am renewing my acquaintance with her work, I may deal with her short stories in a later blog posting.
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.
SHOULD INFORMATION BE AVAILABLE TO ALL?
I recently watched on Netflix the very good American series Unbelievable, which was “inspired by true events” according to its publicity. That claim often disguises complete fictions, but in this case it appears to have been true. Though the names of characters were changed, the series seems to have followed real events quite closely. Briefly, a young woman claimed to have been raped, but as there was no physical evidence to corroborate her claim, the police who interrogated her, bullied her into signing a statement retracting her claim and saying she had made her story up. Understandably, the series focused on the young woman’s angst; but it also focused on two women detectives who recognised that the circumstances of the rape were very similar to other cases they had come across. A clever criminal had found ways of leaving no trace behind whenever he raped a woman.
How did he learn how to do this?
This is what made me write this posting’s think-piece.
Early in the series, a group of police complained about how hard it was to find clues at the scene of a crime in an age when everybody watches TV series such as CSI, and therefore everybody is informed about the way clumsy criminals can leave traces of their DNA. (As a side issue, I note that, as a lawyer once complained, there are now juries who ignore very good circumstantial evidence and assume that defendants can be convicted only if there’s DNA evidence – but that takes me a little off my theme.)
If such information is available to criminals, they can learn just what not to do, in order to escape detection. In the true story behind Unbelievable, the serial rapist had got hold of a police manual on how to examine rape scenes – so he knew what to avoid doing. He never forced an entry into the residences of his victims. He always wore a mask and gloves, so that his victims could not identify him. He always wore a condom as he committed rape and he always made his victims shower for twenty minutes before he left – so that he would leave not the least trace of his DNA on their bodies. Information had been put to an evil purpose.
Not too long ago, there was a great push to have all official information made public. Among those who didn’t consider the matter too closely, there was the idea that the secrets of governments were merely a way of controlling the population; that there could be no good reason to hide diplomatic cables from general view; and that the world would be a better place if all information – technical, forensic, military, diplomatic, economic – were made available to the general public.
This was the (brief) period in which the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden were being held up as heroes.
But only gradually did it dawn on the wiser ones that if all information were freely available, much of it could be used by people of ill intent.
Seven years ago on this blog, I reviewed Nick Cohen’s polemic You Can’t Read This Book. It was mainly a long argument against censorship. But when he came to the matter of government censorship, Cohen changed gears. Cannibalising my own review here, I noted that Cohen presented a “critique of the idealistic notion that the Internet can circumvent state censorship by making all information freely available. The reality is that supporters of dictatorship and repression can use the Internet as well as democrats. Did you really think that only nice liberals, who want to improve the world, can read the 20,000-plus stolen American State Department cables that Julian Assange and Wikileaks made public? Secret policemen read them too. Cohen argues that Assange’s chosen representative in Belarus was a supporter of that country’s dictatorship. He promptly alerted the secret police to all the names of Belarus dissidents who were referred to in the cables which Assange had forwarded him. Whereupon the secret police drew up death lists to deal with them. Thanks Wikileaks!”
This is really the rape case writ large - information used by people for immoral and inhumane purposes. There certainly is a case for freedom of information in democratic societies, but don’t imagine that it will always be used for the betterment of humanity.
Monday, October 7, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“LOST AND SOMEWHERE ELSE” by Jenny Bornholdt (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “DEADPAN” by James Norcliffe (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “MOTH HOUR” by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99)
I am going to approach Jenny Bornholdt’s latest collection of poems Lost and Somewhere Else as if I have never heard of this prolific and much-honoured poet. I will attempt the radical technique of reading the poems on the page themselves, and ignoring biographical details - save to note that (according to the acknowledgements) the poems were written when the poet and her husband were living for a year (2018) in an Ernst Plischke-designed house in Central Otago. This may have some bearing on the poems, which is the only reason I mention it, and it is specifically referenced in the poem “Crossing”.
This collection begins in a deceptively simple way. The opening poems concern standing in the sunlight at the back door and looking at clothes on the line; the sight of backyard birds and how the disposition of light recalls childhood; the lino in the kitchen and that part of the lawn that has been mown. But these are not simply descriptive pieces. Something is moving behind them, and that is an implied attitude to life itself. When we shift to the poem “Becoming Girl”, seemingly based on a childhood anecdote, we are wrestling with what the poet considers the process of becoming a woman, or at least the process of being seen as one. Later poems like “Geology” and “Blossom” use gardening imagery, but clearly situate it as a metaphor for life. The same is true of the poem “Flight”, only ostensibly about aircraft. There are many references to weather as we clearly move through “Winter” and “Wintersweet”, some elegaic poems towards the end of the volume and a touch of confessionalism in “Crossing” in which (possibly) the poet herself is the woman who “nearing sixty… loves her husband ferociously.” Every so often, Bornholdt gives herself to epigrams and haiku.
But all this is only to tell you in a po-faced way about the book’s contents, and not in any way to evaluate them.
I admit to finding some poems cryptic and hard to understand, as if I am not “in the know” about personal things that are alluded to. This is especially true of the poem “Finance”, which still baffles me after repeated readings. Is it possibly about growing older and separating the adult from the child? This could be suggested by the lines “Was this the end / of the world? Of Childhood? / This frozenness trapping us / in our adult selves.” Or is it about the constraints of finance, as the last lines imply? Perhaps it simply asks too much of the reader. Yet immediately following it, there are two perfectly clear vignettes in “Last Summer”, with its imagery of a beach, death, darkness and the daunting moon; and even clearer variations on the same theme in “Dark”.
Which poems in this collection really nourished me?
“Science” is one well worth reading closely. There is ambiguity in its title, for the Latin “scientia” is simply knowledge, and this poem considers the knowledge of the heart – how we read things and react to things. This is not the same as the common usage of “science” to mean the scientific method. Here an apple tree and a garden and a child’s essay are “science” inasmuch as the heart responds to them.
“Cellular”, another of this collection’s very best, is written in that very dangerous form – a “letter” to a friend. In this case Bornholdt is responding to the art-works of Liz Thomson. Hence, for the uninitiated reader, the references are a little opaque. Despite this, though, “Cellular” becomes a good meditation on the power of art even if (like me) you don’t know Thomson’s work. There is an image of the visceral appeal of art in the lines “A bee / landed on a held stem and its vibration / travelled through me like a current, / which is close to how I feel when I see / your work.” There is also an aesthetic close to Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” in the suggestion that one image or sensual stimulant can trigger another: “Remarkable… the way art works. Or poetry. / Like the way a stretch of sand can summon / a dress my mother wore on a date / with my father…”
Generally, I am not an admirer of “found” poems, but much to my surprise, I also found this book’s two “found” poems to be among the very best. The “found” poem “Hearken” is a reorganised set of statements from a 19th century New Zealand book of religious instruction. It becomes a forthright statement on endurance. Even better, “Cultural Studies” begins as instructions drawn from a children’s book of stickers, relating to historical costumes, but moves off on its own direction as the poet jumbles up quotations from the “found” text as wry and subversive comment. This is a very fruitful flight of fancy and Lost and Somewhere Else is a very fruitful collection. Jenny Bornholdt’s words are tender, observant, sympathetic and penetrating.
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Here is the first thing that attracts me to Deadpan, James Norcliffe’s 10th collection of poems – the photo of Buster Keaton on the cover. I love all three of the great clowns of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp; Harold Lloyd’s middle-class eager-beaver; and Buster Keaton’s adventurer in wild places. But of the three, Keaton is the greatest. In his silent movies, Chaplin plays too much on pathos (and in his talkies he goes all preachy). Lloyd sometimes forgets to be the genial optimist and becomes the nasty practical joker. But Keaton remains the clown staring blankly at the bewildering world and then ingeniously coping with it. Chaplin was pitted against society. Lloyd was pitted against other people’s expectations of him. But Keaton was pitted against life itself and the physical forces of nature. And he was the greatest tumbler of the lot.
James Norcliffe begins with a three-page preface in which he explains his own attitude to poetry. He says that as a youngster “I did not like shouty-poetry, poor-me poetry, poetry that told me stuff and did not want me to argue.” His poetry developed as something cooler and more ironical, which he now defines as “deadpan” – as expressionless as Buster Keaton’s face. (Keaton is referenced in the collection’s title poem.) This aesthetic means being witty, but being serious at the same time. Letting tragedies speak for themselves rather than being the occasion for emotional rant.
Norcliffe divides them into five sections and in this case (unlike many other collections of poetry I’ve read) the divisions actually mean something thematically.
Part One, “Poor Yorick” is a cycle of genuinely deadpan poems where the (deceased) clown from Hamlet tells us, in blank, ironical tones, how he sees the world, and life, and the inevitability of death. And, reversing Shakespeare’s gravedigger scene, Yorick gets to give us his thoughts on Hamlet’s skull. The whole conceit is at least a distant cousin to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where the supernumeraries get to redefine the grand tragedy. For Norcliffe’s Yorick, life is a long grind, not matter for eloquent soliloquies.
Part Two, “Scan” does take us in various directions. One poem, “The poets at Makara” is a very cheeky (and funny) piece which comes close to mocking the futility of poetry as a form of protest. More prevalent in this section, however, are poems about young human life. The first poem in this section presents a child in the womb; the next the anxiety of caring for the small child. “Naughty boys’ island” encodes a whole world of young boys’ wayward and destructive impulses. As for “Mycroft”, it presents the angst of a boy who does not have an older brother to guide him.
Part Three, “Trumpet Vine”, gathers poems which, in the dominant dry, ironical voice, suggest discomfort, fear or despair, including ageing as in the poem “There are times I feel like an egg” where “forced to walk that arthritic dog / I discover there are no shortcuts / through the suburbs of my malaise.” Here there is marital bickering (“Control tower”), the horrible jostle of humanity (“Madness of crowds”) and physical nausea about food and flies (“He had this thing”).
Part Four, “Telegraph Road” does not directly address the issue of ageing, but it is implicit in the emphasis on decay and loss. Referencing the Christchurch earthquake, nothing lasts (“Telegraph Road”). There is loss of identity (“Wallet”), decay of a building (“scrim”), absence of the familiar (“Site content”), an old couple no longer communicating (“She moved through the silence”), and fallen, decaying leaves (“leaves”). And when a plant is described (“Waiting for the mulberry”) it has the metaphor “dried berries, like old men / lost among the romantic fiction / have no idea / what’s going to hit them.” In the midst of this there is, however, the slightly more lyrical sequence “Geographies”, especially in its descriptive closing section.
And so to the closing section, Part Five “Four travellers in a small Ford”, gathering comments based on visits to Europe, some ironical, some tourist jottings – except for the deeply weird closing poem “Reforestation in the living room”.
As you can see, I have once again pulled my notorious bibliographical trick of listing and describing the contents of this book, without analysing in detail the poet’s techniques and ideas. But what do you expect in a notice of this length? At least it beats the airy, non-analytical generalities which pass for poetry criticism in some publications.
To sum up, I’d say that Norcliffe lives up to his promise to be dry, ironical and deadpan – and the impulse grows stronger as we near the dying of the light.
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I had a spasm of terror when I read Anne Kennedy’s Foreword to her latest collection Moth Hour. It tells us that in 1973, Kennedy’s brother Philip (then aged 22) accidentally fell to his death. Kennedy herself, the youngest in a family of seven siblings, was 14 at the time. She says the family had difficulty in finding an appropriate way to mourn. Apparently Philip was nicknamed “Moth”. Apparently, too, he left behind his library of favourite books, which Kennedy devoured. And he left behind a packet of unpublished poems. The first section of Moth Hour (making up most of this collection) is called “Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip”. It plays variations on one of Philip’s poems.
Anne Kennedy dedicates Moth Hour to her six siblings.
Now why should all this deal me a spasm of terror?
Because all this information suggested to me something specific to this family, intensely personal, tragic and very meaningful for the poet – which leaves the reviewer in the awkward position of responding to the event rather than to the poems themselves. What if the poems didn’t appeal to me or if I had reasonable cause to write negatively about them? What an insensitive person I would seem – somebody not being moved by a family tragedy of this sort. I would have to proceed with caution and diplomacy.
So I do.
Kennedy prefaces her variations by quoting her brother Philip’s poem in full. It concerns a moth placed in a jar; and in a Zen sort of way, it reflects on our human responses.
The “Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip”, being 33 separable poems, sometimes riff on a single word of the original poem, like “pen” or “paper” or “leaves” but especially “jar” which seems to image both confinement and orderliness.
Sometimes [as in poem 4.] there is direct reference to her brother’s death, when “The garden path / leads to the garden / all roads / to the brother’s death.” There are [as in poem 7.] evocations of her brother’s bohemian student ways: “At the top of Patanga Crescent the pared-down villa / trembles with young men thinking, / pens lost in the wide sleeves of their dead uncles. / They are ecstatic and do everything extravagantly / in the last light: read, drink, fuck.” There are also poems that seem to offer advice to the young man who died so long ago. If I had the space, I would quote in full one of the most cutting poems, poem 11., which plays variations on, and repeats, the line “You don’t need to be an alcoholic to be a poet.” There are much lighter moments – the jocular doggerel of poem 16., celebrating a bolshie letter her brother once wrote; and there is a very different, discursive tone to poem 19., a kind of free-form meditation on her brother. The dispirited and rather bitter poem about her brother’s funeral itself (poem 28.) perhaps suggests a sense of deflation.
Yet gradually this long set of variations turns into a critique of the youthful idealism and ideals of her brother’s generation, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Am I wrong to read poem 24. as a severe put-down of On the Road-type Beat dreams, where hooning around in cars was mistaken for some sort of meaningful rebellion?
Poem 30., the longest single poem in these variations, is a free-form rant at “the materialists without materials”, who seems to be generations younger than the poet’s, Generations X, Y, Z etc., who may be tolerant but who are lacking focus or opportunites and who are drugged by the media. “And the extremely sad and unfair thing / is that the taking away is being executed by the generation who invented the counterculture, the former swingers / who believed in community, authenticity and peace, who believed in youth culture for fuck’s sake, / but who came swinging back on a pendulum like a wrecking ball and knocked the next generation / out of the very arena where they perform their egregious and foul acts of capitalism.” In other words, hippiedom in the early 1970s led only to self-obsessed middle-aged materialists. The rant continues in the following poem, 31, where horrible capitalist exploiters shout “Hell, yes” to materialism and affluence, presumably reversing the old anti-Vietnam War chant “Hell no, we won’t go.”
Though the whole sequence ends with a personal affirmation, there is much ambiguity about the poet’s long-deceased brother and his youthful ideas and enthusiasms. Is she suggesting that he too would have become a complacent Baby Boomer? Or that he would have continued seeing the world the way he did, the best part of fifty years ago, at the time of his death? There may be other possibilities – that these last poems do not relate to her brother at all; or that the concept of “youth culture” itself is flawed, as youth do not stay young for long.
After these variations, there is a quite separate poem “The The” [the latter word has an acute accent – being the French for tea]. It reads at first as series of separate aphorisms – but some are connected to youthful rage: “The revolution is hatched at school”, “The young men are angry at darkness” etc. And some have biographical connections which are made clear only in the thirteen-page essay with which Anne Kennedy concludes this volume. The essay explains the influence of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations upon her when she was a teenager and how they became the ur-structure for her own variations on her brother’s poem. She also dissects the whole phenomenon of hippiedom turning into sheer materialism, and talks in detail (perhaps too much detail) about what influenced and ailed her brother. I will leave it to others to judge whether she does not over-explain what her poems here mean.
This collection was not what I feared it might be. It is not sentimental or morose, it is sometimes satirical and it certainly suggests a lot of anger.