Monday, August 31, 2020

Something New

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

“MARTI FRIEDLANDER: PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS” by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press,  $NZ75)

            There is something impertinent and presumptuous in using words to describe art works. In their various ways, art works speak for themselves, even if what they are saying will be interpreted differently by each viewer. This is such an obvious truism that I’m sure Leonard Bell won’t be offended if I say the photographs themselves are the chief attraction of Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists. But the texts that Bell provides are a great supplement to them. Leonard Bell has been an art historian at the University of Auckland for most of the last 50 years. He has published prolifically, including an earlier book about Marti Friedlander (1928-2016), and he is immersed deeply in the visual arts of New Zealand, including photography.

            Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists is a capacious hardback, 336 large pages long, which reproduces portrait photographs Friedlander took, mostly between the 1960s and 1980s, of New Zealand artists – painters, potters, sculptors, creative writers, film-makers and historians. 124 such creative people are listed in the publisher’s flyer. The images are reproduced with meticulous clarity; and on the page facing each image, Leonard Bell gives an account of who the artist was, whether she or he has continued to be well-known or has faded from the collective memory, and the circumstances in which Marti Friedlander took the photograph. Bell also notes that most of these photographs have never before been included in a book, although one or two of them were included in small publications.

Just as important, Bell, who selected the images, provides a long and detailed essay by way of introduction, which he calls “Contexts”. The main thrust of this essay is to tell us what sort of person Friedlander was, and what sort of arts scene existed in New Zealand at the time she was producing her portraits.

Friedlander [nee Gordon] was the daughter of a Russian-Jewish couple who abandoned her and her sister to an orphanage when they were very young. She was a native of London’s East End, and trained as a photographer in London in the 1940s, but remained an amateur, supporting herself with other jobs. She arrived in New Zealand with her husband in 1958. Only then did she begin to study as a portraitist, and in 1959 her first New Zealand portrait was publshed in Landfall. It was a cropped version of the portrait of the young (28-year-old) Maurice Gee, found in its uncropped form at p.69. It was only in 1963 that Friedlander turned professional.

Much of her time was spent on commissions for magazines and on theatre-publicity photographs. She never worked from a studio, photographed people in their own environments, and used “available” or “natural” light as opposed to the battery of lights found in most photographers’ studios. Objects and art-works seen in the homes of her subjects were one way in which she caught the subject’s character and interests. Once well-established, she often chose her own subjects. Leonard Bell compares her with dedicated photo-portraitists of the 19th century, such as the Parisian “Nadar” because, like “Nadar”, she recorded the most important artists of her adopted country. Also, in photographs over the years, she was able to give “visual biographies” of how people changed. (p.31) Bell says her approach was “relational”. She directed her subjects and, says Bell, in contrast to other peoples’ camera-facing studio portraits “Friedlander’s portraits… aim to picture their subjects’ ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” (p.54)

Bell also gives in his introduction an interpretation of New Zealand in the 1950s and early 1960s as a monocultural, philstine, artistic wasteland. The arts were looked on with suspicion. Hence he sees Friedlander as the chronicler of an artistic culture that was beginning to flourish with, as the years moved on, more involvement of women and more awareness of Maori culture.  He lists many artists who were just emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. If some of those Friedlander photographed are now forgotten, they were nevertheless part of the buzz and excitement of that time, and they earn their place in this portrait gallery. Yet, sadly and rather ironically, Bell’s much shorter “Epilogue” tells us that, in the age of neoliberalism, the arts are now once again being down-graded and both music and art departments in high schools and universities are being ruthlessly cut-back or de-funded. The wheel turns on.

Moving from the text to the reproduced photographs themselves, I have to be sparing as I cannot possibly comment on all the many images found here.

 One nods one’s head at some of the people we expect to find here – such as James K. Baxter, wearing an uncharacterisitically florid shirt, looking either angsty or simply wary (at p.87). There are three portraits of Friedlander’s sometime friend Karl Stead.; and fully seven pages of Ralph Hotere, who also features on the front cover. Also, Leonard Bell is happy to point out which of Friedlander’s subjects was or is a personal friend of his, such as the fellow-art critic and art historian Francis Pound, or the artist Gretchen Albrecht (who appears on the back cover). I have to note that Bell also has a penchant for quoting Baudelaire.

Among the forgotten artists displayed here are Keith Patterson, Phil Slight, Suzanne Goldberg, Ted Kindleysides and others, but then it is the portrait that matters. Besides which, the bearers of obcure reputation sometimes make the best photographs. Among the forgotten, one is almost inclined to add Rei Hamon, who was once a best-seller of books reproducing his work, but who is now very much out of favour. Look at the careful positioning of the little-known potter Mary Hardwick-Smith, neatly placed by Friedlander in her creative environment (p.91). Similarly, look at Jeff Macklin (p.103), who was an extremely handsome guy, but ephemeral to New Zealand art.

The overwhelming majority of photographs are, naturally, in black-and-white. The few colour photographs are almost startling when they appear. Note (pp.28-29) the bold contrasts in the black-and-white photograph of Doris Lusk and less sharp, but warmer, contrasts in the coloured photograph of Toss Woollaston on the facing page. In both cases the light comes from the left and the shadows are on the right, and both painters are in relaxed, non-dramatic poses, with the contrasts giving depth to the image. One of the most unadorned photographs in the book (at p.289) is Friedlander’s coloured portrait of fellow photographer Ans Westra, staring candidly at the lens with perhaps mild amusement. Interestingly, the other image which most suggests unselfconciousness and ease in front of a camera is the black-and-white shot of another image-maker, film director Gaylene Preston (p.295).

Friedlander’s situating artists against their work is amply on display. The portrait of Rita Angus (p.67), photographed in 1969, has her standing next to a self-portrait she had painted some years earlier – the photographed woman and the painted woman have the same pursed lips and budding cheeks, but the look in the photographed woman’s eyes is more amused and ironical than the wider-eyed look of the painted woman. (The other images of Rita Angus, at pp.163-165, verify her essential good humour.) It is interesting to compare the portraits of Rita Angus with those of another prominent artist Robin White, who appears both assertive and unassuming in her no-nonsense, folded-arms pose (p.132) and, like Rita Angus, is set against one of her own self-portraits, which was clearly influenced by Rita Angus’s clear-lined modernism. Potter and ceramicist Warren Tippett, at p.125, looks quizzically at his own creations, but with the camera stationed in such a position that his pots look larger than he does. Environment conquers artist. (Incidentally, the bearded Tippett projects a completely different persona in other photographs of him, at pp.126-127, where he is beardless.)

It is possible that some photo-portraits reveal more than the sitters might have expected. I can only look at the portrait of Pat and Gil Hanly (p.50) and think “They are husband and wife, but what a contrast between these people!” Pat looks a little quizzical but Gil has a real smile suggesting a degree of moderate scepticism about this whole business of being photographed. The same holds true in the images of the Hanlys presented at pp.149-151. At the same time, I love the way some sitters bite back at the camera. On p.75 there is a lovely, cocky shot of sculptor Antony Stones, in cardy and specs, looking unimpressed at the camera as he smokes a fag. The artist who is most relaxed, and hardly caring what the photographer records, is the old-school painter Bill Sutton (p.255) who, sitting comfortably, looks at the camera with mild amusement.

It is a perilous thing to assume that one photograph really can sum up a personality. Perhaps the most anxious face is that of sculptor Greer Twiss (p.153). But this image does nor summarise the man, as the following two pages show him with a completely different expression and apparently in a very different mood. The images of painter Michael Illingworth (pp.200-203) show how different the same person can appear in different settings and occasions, yet the downturned lips always suggest a certain melancholy.

And, of course, different eyes can interpret photographs in very different ways. I can only conjure up the word “wistful”  when I look at the portrait of the then-young historian Judith Binney, photographed in 1970 (p.167). Binney also looks very wary of the world… but of course I could be completely misinterpreting the image, and I certainly know that there is nothing wistful about the scholarly and severely-factual histories that Binney went on to write. Leonard Bell tells us that the image of Louise Henderson (p.172) projects “the sense of an intense, strong person”. Perhaps. But (knowing nothing about Louise Henderson’s life or personality), all I see in the photograph is a slightly grumpy person smoking a cigarette. The elderly historian and essayist Eric McCormick has his index finger to his lips (p.207). Does this mean that he is requesting silence, or that he is secretive and keeping a secret or that he is simply pensive? Who knows? And naturally there are some people whose faces defy interpretation. You have no chance of decoding the forceful face of Milan Mrkusich as seen at pp.272-273.

How much is movement a factor in making still photographs? There are photographs of potters, painters and writers in motion and not holding a pose – but sometimes it is uncertain whether the subject of the photograph is in motion or not. On p.253, is Shirley Gruar about to push herself up from an armchair? Or had the camera’s quick shutter frozen her in mid-movement?

There are times when I would challenge Bell’s view that Friedlander’s portraits “aim to picture their subjects’ ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” Or, at any rate, I would challenge the view that she always achieved this aim. The double page spread (pp.10-11) of Neil and Brian (“Tim”) Finn looking into the distance against a cloudly sky really shows the brothers quite self-consciously striking an “iconic” pose. At p.107, there is an excellent photograph, taken in 1967, of the historian and polemicist Dick Scott. He stares through his specs into the distance beyond the photographer, with notebook and pen in hand, in front of a house at Parihaka, all of which neatly establishes his status as journalist and his historical interests. But (judge for yourself) is the expression on his face mildly amused? This is a very self-consciously posed photograph. Friedlander’s photos (pp.214-219) of Tony Fomison (taken in 1978) seem not to have overcome her objection that he was simply playing the role of being an artist.

And, before I conclude, here is a miscellany of unrelated oddities. The now-forgotten minor playwright Alexander Guyan (p.14) ,photographed in 1965, could be a dead ringer for the young James K. Baxter, with his gauntness and his prominent ears The 36-year-old Michael Morrissey (as he was when photographed in 1978) looks very ill at ease, despite the relatively calm pose he has adopted. (p.209) Perhaps intended as a glamour shot for a magazine, the portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa (p.279), wrapped in a fur coat and standing on a beach, is incongruous in so many ways. The opera singer’s blank stare, aimed directly at the camera, seems to confirm Marti Friedlander’s comment that she was a “cold fish”. And dare I say in this context, that even allowing for Marti Friedlander’s undoubted artistry, there are a (very) few photographs that, at least to me, seem little more than jobbing snaps? I instance the image of poet Alan Brunton (p.282) waving his left hand while holding in his right hand the script from which he is apparently reading.

But that is as much carping as I can make.

Friedlander, when on form, was a great photo artist. For sheer artful composition, I will instance one portrait, which is also one of the quietest and least provocative in the gallery. This is (at p.182) the portrait of the artist Lois McIvor who is on the right-hand side of the frame, her head slightly lowered, her expression of quiet expectation, a cigarette in her hand at the bottom of the frame. But the left-hand side of the frame is one of her art works. The curved line of part of her painting is so situated that it appears to be springing from her head – like a thought. You might miss this image if you are hunting for better-known arts people, but it is one of the best in a great collection.

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

“CLOSING TIMES” by Dan Davin (published in 1975)

Call me a completist if you will, but sometimes, when I have read most of the works of a particular writer, I feel I have to finish the job and read the lot. On this blog I have dealt with all the short stories of the New Zealand expatriate Dan Davin (1913-1990) as presented in the scholarly edition of Janet Wilson under the titles The Gorse Blooms Pale –Dan Davin’s Southland Stories and The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories. And I have dealt with all of his novels under my confronting and arrogant, but nevertheless accurate, headings Everything You Need to KnowAbout the Novels of Dan Davin – Part One and  EverythingYou Need to Know About the Novels of Dan Davin – Part Two. Admittedly I have not read (and will probably never read) Dan Davin’s official war history of the Battle of Crete, but I thought I had covered nearly all of the man’s literary output. Which left only his book of reminiscences Closing Times.

So here I am noticing it.

When it was first published, Closing Times was well-accepted by critics, who perhaps enjoyed these essays as at least respectable literary pieces after Davin’s limp final novels Not Here, Not Now and Brides of PriceClosing Times consists of seven portraits of literary or cultural friends of Dan Davin. Most of these portraits had originally appeared as profiles in small magazines. The title immediately tells us that Davin knew some of the figures he profiled in the convivial context of the pub, though the title also suggests the chimes at midnight. There is a regrettably pompous and verbose eleven-page introduction which attempts to explain the nature of these profiles, how they are memoirs and not biographies and how the art of memoir is the art of selective anecdote… all of which is quite unnecessary as it is evident in what follows.

            Four of the seven profiles seem to me of less interest to the modern reader, even if one of them is about an important literary figure. Perhaps these were the four who did not engage Davin’s sympathies as highly as the other three did.

First  comes Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64), the dandyish behemian writer, social snob and boozer, who was always on the brink of writing something great but who never quite achieved it. Davin finally says that Maclaren-Ross was a “major talent of minor accomplishment”, which seems just. Maclaren-Ross’s life reminds Davin of Sam Johnson’s memoir of the lively, promising, but distinctly minor poet Richard Savage. Perhaps Maclaren-Ross simply lacked the talent to write the novel he was always promising to write. After some much-admired short stories and one admired novella in the 1940s, he gradually sank into formulaic junk. Yet of course Davin recalls him as a convivial bar-friend, conversationalist, wit… and sponger, relying always on other people’s charity.

Even more minor is W.R. Rodgers (1909-69), a former Prebyterian minister and Northen Irish poet, who was another good drinking pal, if more abstemious and less garrulous than most such. Though told with good humour, most of Davin’s account of him concerns Rodgers’ failure to deliver an article for a book on Ireland which Davin, as Oxford publisher, had commissioned. As a result the book was never published.

Surprisingly, Davin’s next profile is on a major literary figure but it is neither very enlightening nor very entertaining. Louis MacNeice (1907-63) was one quarter of the “MacSpauday” poets, and probably the most significant quarter of that group after Auden. Davin speaks at some length of MacNeice’s discursive cycle of poems Autumn Journal that interested him in the 1930s and of MacNeice’s Autumn Sequel written in the 1950s, which referenced people whom Davin knew. Davin presents MacNeice as a taciturn man who was stand-offish and had to be coaxed into friendship, but who  eventually became another good pub pal. There is much talk of MacNeice’s love-hate relationship with the (Northern) Ireland where he was born. Regrettably, much of this profile is taken up once again with the story of the never-published book on Ireland, to which MacNeice was to be a contributor – the tale that is already told in Davin’s profile of W.R.Rodgers. As a profile it is surprisingly dull.

Enid Starkie (1897-1970), the subject of Davin’s next profile, is a figure now largely
forgotten. She was a scholar of French literature who wrote works on Baudelaire, Flaubert and perhaps most famously Rimbaud. But now her works have been superseded, as, eventually, most works of literary history and criticism are (for dissension from her views on Rimbaud, see on this blog the posting about Charles Nicholl’s Rimbaud book SomebodyElse). In Davin’s telling, Enid Starkie was a punctilious and diligent worker who always honoured deadlines and who was, in a way, heroic in keeping working and planning new projects even when ill and near death. She was definitely not an habituee of pubs, living a seemly and scholarly life. But she was apparently domineering in conversations and, Davin implies, she always had to be humoured as her fragile ego meant she was easily offended. Like Davin she was a lapsed Catholic, but from upper-class Irish stock (“Castle Catholics”) quite unlike Davin’s working-class background. Davin sees her as the archetypal “spinster” who still had an Edwardian outlook on life.

Thus for the four less interesting profiles, even if one of them (on MacNeice) deals with a major literary figure.

The most interesting profiles, and the ones with which Davin seems to have been most engaged, are the remaining three. Two are on well-known figures and one on somebody who will be totally unknown to most readers.

Itzik Manger (1901-1969) had been well-known in his own world, but that world had vanished even before Davin wrote about him. Itzik Manger was an East-European Jew, who had been famous as a Yiddish-language playwright and poet. But most of his world (and his relatives) had been destroyed by the Holocaust, and the Yiddish language was increasingly seen as inferior to the Hebrew that was now the dominant language in Israel. Here, then, was a man of great literary skill, but with a diminished, and dying, audience. Davin met him by chance at a literary conference, and the two of them struck up a friendship when they both escaped from the tiresome introductory sessions that go with such conferences. They headed for a pub and whisky; and they remained good friends thereafter. Davin tells many anecdotes of Itzik Manger’s happy interaction with Davin’s family and his children. Manger’s stories were often fantastical fables, and it is clear that part of the bond between the two men came as Davin saw a resemblance between Yiddish fantastical fables and the Irish fantastical fables that were part of his own ancestry. Minor and unknown figure or not, the profile of Itzik Manger is one of the best in this book.

            The remaining two profiles are of writers who were very well-known in their lifetime, but only one of whom now seems much read.

This is of course Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). Most of what Davin says about Thomas reinforces what we already knew – Thomas worked hard at his poetry but earned little and was easily distracted by booze. Were the distractions and the pub convivialty substitutes for writing when Thomas’s inspiration ran out? Or were they necessary relief when he had been too absorbed in his muse? Of course Davin notes Thomas’s unreliablility, failure to meet apppointments or deadlines, and his constant sponging off others. Thomas would readily steal things from people who had given him a bed for the night, including Davin. Thomas would especially steal clothes when his own shabby, unwashed clothes were no longer wearable. Davin sees in Thomas a touch of the little boy who never grew up. He also records the deep resentment that Thomas’s wife Caitlin had at the sight of Dylan’s pub cronies (including Davin). These were people who had regular jobs and better incomes than the Thomases, as the Thomases lived hand-to-mouth. But at the same time Caitlin saw them as people who were distracting Dylan from his real work as an inspired bard. In spite of all the obstacles, Davin sees Dylan Thomas as a great poet, and often tries to reconstruct Thomas’s ability to light up and enliven any pub conversation once he had a mug in his hand. To me, this is in a way like saying “You had to be there” when you try to explain how funny or uplifting somebody was. It is interesting that, to express the essence of Dylan Thomas’s effect upon others, Davin quotes at length from sections of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Sequel that clearly reference Thomas without specifically naming him. (For other ideas on Thomas, see the posting Dylan Thomas A Tribute.)

            The other important figure is the novelist Joyce Cary (1888-1957). I cannot help feeling that this is the most admiring of all Davin’s pen portraits. The Ulsterman Cary had chosen England as his lifelong domicile and regarded himself as English. He was a prolific novelist but did not find fame until we has in his fifties, when he wrote the trilogy Herself Surprised, To Be a Pilgrim and (still his best-known novel) The Horse’s Mouth. Davin depicts him as methodical, carefully planning and editing everything he wrote; stoical in the face of adversity (the death of his wife ); convivial but not a gossip. In many respects he was a reserved, orderly man, honouring family traditions (one always went to the pantomime at Christmas) and – delightfully – never reading reviews of his own work and declaring that he never read new novels because he chose to read “only masterpieces”. He had a family of offspring who were all – as he was – well-trained in music; but he himself believed that all the other art forms (music, sculpture, painting, dance) were essentially sensuous and had no real moral content, whereas the novel was, and should be, essentially moral. This is how he conceived of his own novels. Cary was definitely not one of Davin’s pub mates. Davin knew him in the context of family gatherings and parties; and Cary was apparently adored by Davin’s three young daughters, to whom Cary told long tales. I add only that while Cary was seen as a major literary figure in his lifetime, he now appears to have faded out of the canon. I remember that The Horse’s Mouth was one of the set-texts for first-year undergraduates when I began studying Eng. Lit. at the University of Auckland in 1970. But I doubt that Joyce Cary would appear on many ‘varsity reading lists now.

            As it says goodbye and goodnight to so many people, Closing Times is a fitting end to Davin’s writing career. Davin writes epitaphs on old friendships. Parts of it do entertain, and it is now obviously one source books for various literary biographies.

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.


Recently I have been reading my way through the short stories and novels of Angus Wilson (1913-1991) and in due course on this blog I will bore you with my conclusions. In one of his short stories “Crazy Crowd”, from his very first book The Wrong Set, Wilson has a foolish and snobbish person say something that is the text for today’s sermon.
The character says: “Vulgarity is the most dreadful of the Deadly Sins”.
The phrase stuck in my mind because I’d recently had a difference of opinion with a woman who accused me of having vulgarity in the matter of human relationships”.  Apparently it was vulgar of me to condemn, or even to draw attention to, the wrongness of older people in a position of power or authority having affairs with people younger and more gullible than they. But I shouldn’t have said this. I was being “vulgar”.
What interested me here was the woman’s category mistake.
Let us consider vulgarity. Vulgarity is what is regarded as crude, impolite and unseemly in company; or as representing a lower form of taste. It is vulgar to pick your nose or sniff your armpit in public. It is vulgar to use too many four-letter words without cause. It is vulgar to fart loudly and noisesomely at the dinner table. It is vulgar to sing or recite bawdy songs, or to make blue jokes to the wrong sort of audience. It is also vulgar to read trashy novels, subscribe to sensationalist tabloids, be addicted to gossip columns and waste your time on the internet
In short, it is vulgar to do or say things that offend politeness or show poor taste.
Now I am all in favour of tact, consideration for others, avoidance of crude language where possible and all the other things that come into the category of politeness. But then, I wasn’t dealing with what is impolite or polite (vulgar or not-vulgar). I was dealing with the quite separate category of what is right or wrong. In other words, my condemnation of a certain behaviour was about morality, not about taste or superficial social shibboleths. Vulgarity had nothing to do with it.
Let it be made quite clear that one can be perfectly polite while also being immoral. And conversely, the absolutely vulgar slob, who breaks the rules of politeness, may well be a very moral person. I am not so naïve as to assume that this is always the case, but it is often so. And, of course, I am not going to delve into the meaning and sources of morality, which would require a treatise, save to note that morality is not the same as the law of the land. You can be a complete bastard to others while breaking no laws.
In and of itself, vulgarity is not a matter of morality and morality is not a matter of politeness. Indeed, I long ago devised the slogan that “Niceness is the enemy of morality” because niceness allows people to think that by acting in a seemly and socially acceptable way, they are being moral. When taste becomes a substitute for morality, as it often does among intellectuals, we end up with the Bloomsbury attitude that our uncouth social inferiors are somehow less moral that we are in our position of cultured refinement.
And to answer Angus Wilson’s foolish character, vulgarity is, of course, not the most dreadful of the deadly sins, for of itself vulgarity is not a sin at all.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Something New

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

“FAR-FLUNG” by Rhian Gallagher (Auckland University Press,  $NZ24:99); “HOW TO BE HAPPY THOUGH HUMAN – New and Selected Poems” by Kate Camp (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ30)

            When I had finished reading Rhian Gallagher’s poetry collection Far-Flung, I realised that I had in fact read two quite distinct books. Many collections of poetry are divided into sections with no clear rationale for the division apart from (as one eminent poet explained to me) providing a break for the reader. But the two parts that make up Far-Flung are quite distinct both stylistically and thematically – so I shall deal with them separately.

The 26 poems that make up the first part, “The Speed of God”, are diverse in content.

A hasty and superficial reader would see many of Gallagher’s poems as straightforward vignettes of nature and the country – the poems on the tiny titipounamu (rifleman) pecking its way up a tree; on moths, a salt marsh and a rivulet [which speaks for itself] inaugurating a river; the riddles about Kotukutuku and Kahu; the poem which aims a subtle protest at human violation of the Mackenzie Country. “Country Hall” recreates the buzz and excitement (and sordor and raw crudity) of the old-style country hall surrounded by darkness on a dance night; and there is a walk through “The Old Cemetery”. But only a superficial reading would take any of these as description alone or mere evocation of place. For always, even in Gallagher’s most descriptive poems, there is a balance between the physical scene and the psychological or spiritual impact it has upon the observer. There is always an awareness of, or a yearning for, something beyond the immediate scene. I am in danger of introducing a superseded vocabulary here, but in Gallagher’s poetry I sense a reaching for transcendence and an awareness that somehow nature is separate from the human mind. I keep thinking of Andrew Young’s famous conclusion to his poem “The Fear” that “even in my land of birth / I trespass on the earth”.

Take, for example, the very first poem in the book “Into the Blue Light”, which records a walk up a hill north of Dunedin. But the walk becomes an ascent beyond what is physically possible – a walk beyond nature and into the blue itself, its dualism reflected in the line “I’m high as a wing tip, where the ache meets the bliss”. Most literally, the ache can be read as the physical strain of climbing a hill and bliss as that sense of achievement on reaching the top and seeing the view. But something else is also implied - Joy in the bliss but still an ache for something more. Similarly, the poem “Home” seems at first to be a nostalgic childhood memory of living in a farm house in the country – but it slides into the territory of the child’s mind first intuiting the dichotomy between the comfortable familiarity of home and the wild world beyond, represented by the fields over the fence. There is a tension between what the child knows and what the child either fears or reaches for.

A duality is present even when Gallagher is being satirical. The title poem of the first section, “The Speed of God” announces itself as a witty feminist response to a patriarchal conception of God; but it manages to conclude with a statement on how the whole human race has degraded the Earth. It is only in part a poem about gender.

This duality – or perhaps ambiguity – is also seen in poems where Gallagher addresses directly the matter of being a poet or writer of any sort. The childhood memory “Learning to Read” introduces us to the theme of literacy, in an almost innocent way. But in “The Illuminated Page” there is the fearful discovery that, while writing and making words can be a joy, it can also be a curse by alienating us further from the physical world we inhabit. Consider the lines “ shapes became a sound I made / to suffer / the illumination / gain set on scales / with loss / the world forever after in translation”. In one sense, to become a writer is to be doomed not to experience the world, but to be always thinking about how one is going to articulate the world verbally. There are echoes of the same theme in the more narrative poem (basically about taking up residence in an isolated place for writing)  “Tears, Trees, Birds & Grass”. Here the poet mocks herself by saying repeatedly that she is only “pretending to be a writer” and the burden of writing is when she wonders “if a bird ever wakes up in the morning / sick with the business of singing”. Her heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains her sense at the thought that human beings have a burdensome consciousness, unlike singing birds.

All this, I hope, conveys to you the reality that Gallagher’s poems always have a depth to them rare in much poetry. I have neglected to add that they are also conceived and structured with great craft. Consider one of her best, “Laced in with the Wind”. Note how the unpredicability and arbitrary motion of the wind is expressed in lively alliteration and internal rhymes. A real poet is at work.

The first section of Far-Flung has only a few discreet references to Gallagher’s Irish background and forebears, but it ends with the Irish-themed “Short Takes on My Father” and “Descent”, leading into the second half of Far-Flung, the 22 poems that make up “Seacliff Epistles”. In “Seacliff Epistles” Irish identity is a major focus, as it was in Gallagher’s 2011 collection Shift (reviewed on this blog).

            “Seacliff Epistles” is a bricolage, based on documents, historical research and letters written by inmates (or prisoners if you prefer) of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum that once existed north of Dunedin. As Gallagher remarks in her end-notes, in the late 19th century a disproportionate number of Irish immigants were in Seacliff, many having suffered the long-term effects of famine and an intense sense of dislocation and cultural shock in being transported from their homeland. They were truly “far-flung”.

In the poem “The Asylum Keys”, Gallagher identifies herself as the modern visitor coming to the site of the long-demolished asylum and trying to relate to the dead. But “the hearts / I can’t hear in the wind / beating; the asylum / locking me out – a ghost / from the future / come to haunt the past.” She can, however, attempt to reconstruct the voices of the dead. “What You Know About Water”, for example, imagines an Irish peasant’s full familiarity with the water-logged nature of the fields he cultivates; but feeling real terror of water when he crosses the huge oceans between Ireland and New Zealand. Contrasting with this is an extract from an authentic letter “A Great Many Never Seen a Ship Before”, written by a non-Irish passenger and looking down on the uncouth, superstitious Papist Irish emigrants as they pray during a storm at sea.

The letters of two women (one an inmate) suggest the sheer misery of an abandoned, lone and unsupported arrival. And “The Workhouse Girls” mixes reconstruction and documentation to suggest the wildness and independence of Irish girls brought to Dunedin in 1874 from punitive workhouses in Britain; and the horror of settled (non-Irish) Dunedinites that such riff-raff should be released among them. The girls were described as “lazy, unemployed, deviant, drunken, parasitical, worthless”. In Gallagher’s telling, poor Irish immigrants and inmates of Seacliff were the dark shadow that haunted the more respectable citizenry of Dunedin.

“Seacliff Epistles” are indeed such a contrast with the first section of Far-Flung that they constitute a separate book. Gallagher’s versatility is much to be admired.

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How to be Happy Though Human is the “new and selected poems” of Kate Camp drawing on her six previous books of poetry, which were published between 1998 and 2017, and including 16 new poems. The title was originally the title of a self-help book, written by a psychologist in 1931, which promised to “touch helpfully on nearly every important problem in everyday life.” The Canadian Kevin Connolly provides an introduction telling us that Kate Camp (born 1972) was born in the age of the internet and so she has an all-embracing and non-compartmentalised view of things. Connolly also remarks that she can reasonably be compared with a number of eminent women poets writing in North America.

As Kate Camp is an established poet whose earlier work has often been noticed and reviewed, I will concentrate on the 16 previously unpublished poems which open this selection. Kate Camp may quote ironically an ancient book’s blurb, but in her new poems she does indeed touch on “everyday life”. All the new poems are written in first person (as, indeed, a large number of Camp’s poems always have been) and hence they have a sort of confessional style, although it is more the confession of small ironies than the expression of heartfelt emotion. Often the ironical statement is triggered by a small domestic event.

“Hallelujah” has her perceiving a miracle (the term is used ironically) in viewing something in the kitchen bin. In “Panic Button” she references a little button that she fingers when she is worried, and not the device used in emergencies that the poem’s title immediately suggests. “My Father’s Teeth” considers the irony of growing old in the form of decaying teeth. “Here’s the Thing” begins with hanging out the washing and “Organs of Sense and Voice” begins in the shower – perfectly harmless everyday things. For a non-Wellingtonian, “Walking Up the Zig Zag” is a perfect Wellington poem involving “mountains, going by the name of hills” and “ragged and fast-moving clouds”. For an outpouring of domestic detail, the very best of Camp’s new poems is “Baffin Island”, which has an oddly exuberant tone even when dealing with the discomforts and shortcomings of a house. And again it has a mildly ironical ending with an image of something far away and inaccessible, in contrast with the cluttered but livable house.

The tone of Camp’s poems is often playfulness, though it is purely a matter of taste how much soft irony the reader can take.

I will not expand on the generous selection that is given of Camp’s earlier six collections. Instead, I will play the dodgy game of acknowledging which poems I found most appealing as I re-read them, or what seem to have been her dominant preoccupations.

In Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars (published in 1998) Camp seems most interested in absences, a boyfriend and a love of books. In Realia (2001) a real or imagined spinal realignment is referenced a number of times. The poem “A Private Geography” holds up very well for its extended metaphor of love as a map. For this Aucklander, the most relatable poems in  Beauty Sleep (2005) are the uncomfortable (or at least disorienting) ones that record visits to Hamilton and Auckland; and in The Mirror of Simple Annhilated Souls (2010) I would rate “Deep Navigation” as Camp’s best work, with its conceit of (piano) music being akin to a sea voyage. From Snow White’s Coffin (2013) I’d have to mention two poems -  “There’s is no easy way” which I read as a bleak comment on death; and “Double Glazing”, which becomes a reflection on light itself. Finally, from The Internet of Things (2017 – reviewed on this blog) I insist, as I said three years ago, that I can still make little of the poem “Life on Mars” but I now see “Civil Twilight” as a melancholy gem.

I apologise for the fact that a swift round-up of the poet’s work is inevitably both brief and glib.

Footnote: Just one mildly annoying aspect of the production of How to be Happy Though Human: the page numbers given in the end-notes do not correspond to the relevant pages in the text.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE MIDDLE AGE OF MRS ELIOT” by Angus Wilson (first published in 1958)

A number of postings back, I produced a “Something Old” about Hemlock and After, the first and, some would argue, the best of the novels of Angus Wilson (1913-1991). I am confident in saying that, major literary figure though he seemed in the 1950s and earlier 1960s, he is somebody who is now rarely read. Yet for all its flaws, I found Hemlock and After to have an exemplary prose style, an acuteness of observation and the ability to make characters vivid by their surroundings and habits in an almost Dickensian way. So I decided to try Wilson again and sat down to read The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, Wilson’s third novel, published six years after Hemlock and After.
            I quickly found that the general arc of the story has much in common with the earlier novel. A main character goes through a traumatic event which causes him/her to reassess his/her life and priorities. Bernard Sands in Hemlock and After realised what a moral coward he was in a traumatic event, reconsidered who he was, settled up his affairs and found some sort of peace before he died. Meg Eliot in The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot suffers a bereavement and a major loss of status, has to change her life in a number of ways, and sets out on a new way of living. Being by Angus Wilson, both novels have homosexual characters and – regrettably, and deflating Wilson’s most acute style – both have overlong closing chapters which explain things in almost didactic ways by means of long conversations. Given that The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot is much longer than Hemlock and After, this makes for wearisome reading in the last section as the air goes slowly out of the cushion.
            To get down to specifics: Meg Eliot is aged 43, married to an older husband, 55-year-old Bill, who is very wealthy from his legal practice but who wastes much money in gambling. They have no children. Their affluence makes them, as upper-middle-class, better off than Meg Eliot’s faded aristocrat friend Lady Violet Pirie, who lives in humble London digs. Meg Eliot fills her time with charity work for the private society Aid to the Elderly. In the first 30 pages of the novel we follow her as she haughtily dominates a board meeting of the society; patronises a woman at a fashionable trading house; and talks down to an old school friend. She is rich, confident and comfortable in her well-furnished house in Westminster.
Then disaster strikes.
Less than a quarter of the way through the novel, Bill is killed as the two of them are travelling in Asia (he is apparently shot in error by an assassin who was aiming at a local political figure). Now widowed, Meg rapidly discovers that her husband was up to his neck in gambling debts and that the house she lives in is heavily mortgaged. So, most difficult of all, she has to find real paying work, for which she is not trained. The first long section of this novel is called “Humpty Dumpty” because, obviously, she has had a great fall. The second long section is called “Jobs for Job”. As she looks for work, she is like the Biblical Job, lamenting her loss and wondering why all this has happened to her.
This is essentially a character study of a woman trying to pick herself up and find a stable footing once again, so the minutiae of plot are not really what counts here. The general situations do, however.
Briefly put, Meg Eliot decides that the most desirable work would be secretarial, so she signs on with an agency that teaches shorthand and other secretarial skills. Meg receives much formal sympathy – acted out in her social class. As Wilson says: “Kind invitations came to her by every post. She dined in Belgravia and Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Kensington, Hampstead and even Highgate” (p.143 of my old Penguin paperback). Note “even Highgate” my dears, for it is clearly not as tone-y and exclusive as the other London areas mentioned. Meg at first rebuffs condolences from her three best friends Lady Viola Petrie, the hoydenish “bohemian” Poll, and her schooldays chum Jill; but she comes to understand that, for the time being at least, they are her main support in her distress. Losing her house, she even accepts for a while Viola Petrie’s offer to share her cramped flat. This puts her in touch with Viola’s layabout son Tom, who fancies himself to be a novelist but who never writes anything. Meg Eliot spends some time trying to “improve” the 24-year-old Tom, which leads her to accompany him in his social life – only to discover that she is too old for his beatnik set. Besides, when he makes a crude and rough pass at her, she more fully understands that she has been trying to control him as she controlled those people whom she patronised in her days of affluence. (She has already rejected what appears to be a lesbian pass from a Mrs Gorres, who runs an art dealership. Her status as a widow seems to make some people think she is now “available”.) Facing both her age, and how out of touch she is with younger people, Meg Eliot moves in with her old schoolmate Jill. But there are domestic tensions in this arrangement, and Meg proceeds to have a nervous breakdown.
There is a lifeline, however. As we have known since early in the novel, Meg has a homosexual brother David, who has rejected a life in academe and who works in a kind of cooperative as a nurseryman in rural Sussex. The novel’s third and final section is called, clumsily,  “Nursery Ins and Outs” and the whole nursery milieu appears to be intended as a major symbol in the novel, pointing to natural growth and healing. Of course, for those raised in the upper-middle-classes, like Meg and David, the word “nursery” has another meaning. The “nursery” was where upper-middle-class English children slept, were raised by a nurse or nanny and first educated. In reconnecting, brother and sister are returning to a sort of childhood and going through a new emotional education. David was in love with a man called Gordon Paget. Gordon has recently died, so both Meg and David are in the aftershock of bereavement. Gordon was a devout, church-going Christian. David, like Meg, is an agnostic and – as in the long conversations between Bernard Sands and his wife in the last section of Hemlock and After – they spend much time trying to define what exactly their “humanism” means. This involves much literary banter and quotation. Being upper-middle-class Meg, a collector of artworks in her more affluent days, reads high-brow fiction, as does her brother. So there are references throughout the novel to Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Marcel Proust, Henry James, L.P.Hartley, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa etc. (Mainly writers of homosexual tendencies, please note). Meg and David toy with the idea of writing a book about the sexual content of minor 18th century novels. In the midst of all this, their wits are sharpened by the fact that Gordon’s mother, Mrs Paget, a religious person, is no fool and points out the difficulty they have in explaining a “humanism” which has no firm and fixed values.
There are many difficulties with this last section of the novel. One is that Angus Wilson applies much “padding” to keep the narrative going. We have all the details of the politics of running a market garden where Meg does and does not connect with certain of the locals. But at least there is one character, the German woman Else, whose reproving practicality keeps Meg focused. Another problem is what I can only describe as the over-thinking and over-analysis of characters as Meg and David react to each other, diagnose each other, intellectualise, escape into literature, and generally reason towards Meg’s recovery, opening the way for her to reconnect with the wider world. There is some irony in that, as she does so, her brother’s withdrawal into country life comes to seem a form of self-indulgent quietism. Was this Angus Wilson’s intention? I don’t know.
Reader, I confess that I had to force myself to read the tedious last 50-or-so pages of this novel. It reminded me so much of the dreadful, over-thought passages in the later Henry James. An unholy bore.
Yet I am not fully applying the axe to this novel. Once again, at his best, Angus Wilson can present minor characters vividly, in an almost Dickensian way – such as the walrus-like old Donald Templeton, executor of Meg’s late husband’s will, who has to give Meg the bad news about her financial situation. Of course, when he isn’t over-analysing characters, Wilson’s prose is elegant and balanced. Yet there is something that does not gel in this novel. The cock-sure, patronising person that Meg is early in the novel is often repellent; and though we are meant to see her “healed” and returning to the world by novel’s end, we have little real sense that she will be anything other than the brisk, judgemental person she always was. Wilson has Meg declaring (on p.322 of my Penguin paperback) “Take my word for it. I’ve done such a lot of interfering for people’s good, and it’s been disastrous. I should be just the same now if it weren’t for David.” But this is a statement only – not convincing, dramatised proof that Meg has fundamentally changed. After reading this novel, I turned to a brief essay on Angus Wilson by one K.W.Gransden (a British Council pamphlet published in 1969, when Wilson was still active). Gransden points out that Wilson himself said he mainly identified with Meg in writing this novel, perhaps in part trying to exorcise his own hubris and tendency to look down on his intellectual inferiors, as he had done in the character of Bernard Sands in Hemlock and After. Grandsen also says that “Meg’s rehabilitation is depicted rather on the level of an article in a superior ‘woman’s page’: as a lesson in ‘pluck’, in ‘managing’ – the kind of attitude the earlier Wilson might have satirized.” This underestimates the novel’s subtleties, but there is an element of truth to it.
I can see why The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot was greatly applauded by British critics on its first appearance. It is intelligent and perceptive in much of its dense prose and through its fine-tuning of relationships in its observation of small things. But read over sixty years after its first publication, it now resembles an archaeological dig. It is the fine analysis of a world, a sort of society, that was always very small and that now no longer exists. Penurious fallen aristocrats (Viola Petrie); middle-class single ladies living in mews and heating their nights with gas fires (Jill); middle-class women pretending to be of aristocratic descent (Poll); earnest conversations about humanism and back-to-nature nurserymen; concerns about “Americanization, rock’n’roll, Teddy boys, angry young men, new towns, housing estates, television” (as listed on p.97 of my old Penguin copy). With all its acute class consciousness, it is sometimes like reading an old issue of the defunct Punch or Country Life.
Old novels expressing status anxiety and acute class-consciousness can transcend their era and continue to say things relevant to us. Think Jane Austen. Think George Eliot. Think Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert and even (God help us) the early- and middle-Henry James, before he became a chronic waffler. But The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot is not in this company. It is so deeply embedded in the anxieties of a small social group at a particular time that it is a period artefact.