Monday, September 14, 2020
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“IN THE TIME OF THE MANAROANS” by Miro Bilbrough (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ40) “YELLOW MOON – E Marama Rengarenga: Selected Poems” by Mary Maringikura Campbell (Headworx, $NZ25); “THE LIFERS” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ27.50)
Now in her fifties, Miro Bilbrough is, the blurb tells me, an expatriate Kiwi settled in Australia, where she is a respected film-maker and artist. But her adolescence in the 1970s was a New Zealand one. This memoir replays it vividly.
Her parents had split up. She had been farmed out to a grandmother who was of the extreme left but who was severely puritanical in her attitudes. Life with her in Wellington is told with ironic gusto, but as she reached adolescence, young Miro chose to shift in with her father and her little sister. They lived in a remote, low-tech shack of a house near the Wakamarina River in the north of the South Island. Father’s views were anti-materialist, and “alternative-lifestyle”, but not as alternative as the “Manaroans”. Bilbrough doesn’t like the word “hippy”. It seems to her a little demeaning and she struggles against it, but eventually she gives in as she can find no suitable synonym. So hippies the Manaroans were. They often dropped in on father and daughters to drink, philosophise, smoke pot and sleep. They lived at the end of a long, winding, unsealed road, at Manaroa near a remote bay in the Marlborough Sounds. Father joined their commune.
Miro spent some time boarding in Nelson and attending high-school, but when school was done with, she joined too. Living in a caravan which she painted herself, she became a Manaroan. It didn’t last too long. She eventually developed her artistic talents, did illustrations that were accepted by the government bulletin for schools, and shifted back to Wellington to study at a visual design school, having made it out of adolescence and into young adulthood.
As always, such a bland synopsis does not give you any of the flavour of this book. Told throughout in the present tense, it is not a linear narrative, but a set of moments in the author’s younger life. Bilbrough observes people, observes rituals and mores of “straight” (i.e. “square”) suburban schoolmates, rebellious and unsettled teenagers like herself, flatmates, fellow-students and, of course, the hippies. She is alert to nuances of schoolgirl and hippie-girl behaviour, rivalries, games of teenage one-up-manship and especially how clothes and words were always for display, always designed to make a statement of some sort.
Only a woman writer could or would be able to describe clothes and make-up as precisely as Bilbrough does, always using these descriptions to socially “place” people in terms of fashion. Take this example, typical of many, where she is describing a children’s illustrator “With a bouffant that adds quarter her diminutive height again, Cleopatra eyeliner, an amount of facial powder that quotes the Elizabethans, and a waist fiercely accented by belted full skirts and overhanging stalactites of lace, [she] is an illustration herself. That the bouffant appears slept in only adds value.” (pp.132-133)
Throughout, the most attractive feature of this memoir is Bilbrough’s use of language, her ability to sum up mood and the era in a phrase or a few sentences. I’ve encountered few expressions of formless teenage angst better than this : “Adolescence had hit my mood centres and transformed me into an unruly devastation of discontents pining for, I don’t know.” (p.22) After describing the hair of two young men, she relates it to youth fashions of the 1970s: “It is the early seventies; hair is unusually significant and, besides, both teenagers know that politics are performative. They delight in being routinely mistaken for girls by adoring old ladies and less adoringly, train conductors.” (p.36) She produces this killer sentence on the cluelessness of the commune when, on hearing of the death of somebody they knew, they don’t know how to respond: “In the absence of anything to be done, we don’t know how to do it.” (p.229) I won’t call her prose poetic, but she has a great way with phrasing. Here she is, as a young teenager, trying to ignore a type of cake-treat she doesn’t like on display in a shop window: “I never purchase one of these sugary installations, but I am aware of their presence, like a failure of desire.” (p.55)
Bilbrough does account fully for the hippy experience, with its occasional nudism, seasonal work to keep the commune going, bland vegetarian food, being stoned, eating (and getting sick on) cannabis cookies, and long periods of boredom. There were also times of rebelliously wishing for more of the mod cons and junk food available in town (see, for example, pp.153 ff.) .
More than anything, though, the young Miro yearns for a partner, which translates into early, fumbling adolescent sexual experience. After some pubescent wanking (her word), there are the under-age loss of virginity, brief sexual encounters, dating disasters in her high-school days and being groped in various ways in the commune. All of this sounds singularly joyless. At one stage she says she was diagnosed by a doctor as having “vaginismus”, a tension in the muscles around her vagina which did not allow for easy sexual intercourse. In fact, nothing in her sexual life sounds particularly happy, but only the unfulfilled desire of a young woman who is a little lost and doesn’t yet really know how to negotiate the world. Even when she makes it to Wellington and says she found her first true love, it ends in two pregnancies and two abortions.
There is also something particulaly repellent about sex in the hippy context. Of Sylvie, a more experienced woman in the scene, Bilbrough writes: “She has recognised that the sexual revolution and its hippy offshoot, the myth of free love without acknowledgement of emotional need and commitment, serves its male proponents first and foremost.” (p.72) This idea is enhanced later when she speaks of socialising “Manaroans” : “Amidst the swirl of the group, people hold themselves aloof, even when disappearing off together for the night. Dedicated to keeping the sexual possible alive, this cagey, obscurely low-commitment style of conducting affairs does not admit of emotional need.” (p.94) Related to this we later hear of “the relative absence of boys my own age with whom to negotiate sex in conditions of relative equality; the opportunism of older hippy men. I wouldn’t know how to begin to describe these murky transactions.” (pp.160-161)
Apart from sex, there is also the fact that many people pass through young Miro’s life without ever staying long enough to become friends. As she says “In this culture of comings and goings, the sheer number of people I become acquainted with is wildly inverse to the number I retain. This perpetual gaining and shedding leaves a powerful imprint. I am situationally agile… My observational eye has been piqued. There is anxiety, too.” (p.145) She certainly keeps her “observational eye” as her sharp character-sketches of people show, sometimes proving inadvertently how judgemental of others the adolescent eye can be. And this may possibly be the memoir’s greatest weakness. Often it resolves into a series of vignettes or pen-portraits of people who passed through and who, in the end, blur into one another.
For all the alternative lifestyle that she and others embraced at least for a time, Bilbrough finally finally quits what she calls “the whole malnourished hippy trip” (p.239). In her closing words, after presenting us with a gallery of old photographs of some of the dramatis personae, Bilbrough gives a kind of apologia for how she feels now about her youthful experience. It is not quite a refutation of her younger self and her way of looking at the world. Indeed it asserts how necessary it all was to her growing up, and she makes a half-hearted attempt to present the old Manaroan community as pioneers in Greenness and care for the environment. But underneath it all I sense a certain defensiveness – as if she wants to admit that maybe the square and settled life would have been better for her adolescent self, but she can’t quite bring herself to say so.
Possibly others will read this conclusion differently.
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Sometimes I think editors and publishers lay too much of a burden on poets whom they are promoting. I certainly think this as I look at the foreword and publisher’s note that precede the poems by Mary Maringikura Campbell Yellow Moon - E Marama Rengarenga. Apirana Taylor’s Foreword says “The blood of poets flows in Maringikura’s veins”. Mark Pirie’s Note tells us she is “a daughter of two of New Zealand’s most well known poets and writers Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Meg Campbell”. Doesn’t this raise unfair expectations, and imply somehow that the poet has simply inherited her gifts? Surely she deserves to be be judged on her own terms and by her own skills?
This objection having been stated, I make it clear that I enjoyed much of Yellow Moon - E Marama Rengarenga. The first half of this collection consists of new and uncollected poems; the second half reprints an earlier collection called Maringi, which was first published in 2015. Mary Maringikura Campbell’s poems are usually very short, as much statements as poems. Most are written in the confessional first person and many in direct address. She enjoys creating simple vignettes, as in the following complete poem, “Small town”:
Bends in the road
a small town
north of Pukerua Bay
A full moon
Bright as a torch
in your face
My parents sleep
outside my window
A giant gull disappears
nothing is as it seems
Similar charm is presented in “Ra – The Sun”, a childlike snapshot of the sun going to bed in the sea. Campbell sometimes adopts the tone of a suppliant praying to traditional gods and sometimes drops down to earth and refers to men who were unsatisfactory partners. There are moments of self-affirmation that are a little glib, such as “A Better Fit” which reads in toto :
“I am stronger
I have layers
I am a better fit
My life is as it should be
I found my feet
not far from my toes
More than anything, however, the poet is concerned with family, ancestry, children and grandchildren. As far as I can make it out “Teresia” lament for a dead sister and “Most Revered” endows a coconut tree with the motherly power of being able to nurture her. “Parents” seems to berate her parents for underestimating her, although “How We loved” suggests the opposite. There are invocations of the gods and of visions as in “Signs”, dedicated to a grandchild. Some poems I really wanted to like for their sentiment, but found them falling into bathos. “Imagine” tells us to honour as a goddess an ordinary woman struggling to bring up her children, a view I would happily endorse. But the language goes commonplace and editorial: “A mother of five kids / and the rest/ doing her best to feed and clothe / to love and hold, to protect / what she has.”
Despite such losses of quality, Mary Maringikura Campbell has the skill to fill “Going to Town” and “Foxy Boxes” with internal rhymes halfway to being rap. Like many poems in the book, they might work best declaimed at a live poetry reading.
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A completely different and far more complex world is presented in Michael Steven’s The Lifers. This is Steven’s second collection of poetry (on this blog there is a brief notice of his first collection Walking to Jutland Street) and it is impressive.
When I first grappled with the title of this collection, I thought it would deal exclusively with criminality, given that “lifers” usually designates people who are jailed for life. My mistaken interpretation seemed to hold good in the first few poems.
The collection opens in Auckland in 1996, with a drug-dealer at a casino snorting cocaine and then selling bags of crystal meth to construction workers and others coming onto their daily shift. Next comes the account of an armed robbery - a security van is ambushed and robbed of its money outside a bank in the Auckland suburb of Penrose, followed by the robbers’ getaway. Then we cut to an older-style crim with a vignette of Ron Jorgensen, notorious for the Bassett Road murders in the 1960s, now semi-retired from the criminal life and painting to pass the time. And elsewhere there is the violent piece “Strains: Big Bud” about a skull-cracking mugging in a prison yard. Criminality and drugs come into a number of other poems, too.
But it gradually becomes apparent that “lifers” refers to those who live life-long in New Zealand (like a sentence?), or to those who simply grapple with what life itself is. Yes, there is “A Brief History of Treason” referencing Cain and Abel and suggesting inherent violence in human beings. Yes, there is the brilliantly dark panoramic poem “The Old Town”, long, evocative and in many parts, being a series of night-time vignettes, set (presumably) in some European city – perhaps Prague, given that Kafka is referenced. Here night creatures of the mythical past meld into addicts getting their fixes and others simply lost in the darkness.
But there is also “Dropped Pin: Woodhouse Forest, Muriwai”, which is almost the idyll of a Kiwi hermit. And there is “Dropped Pin: Three Lamps, Ponsonby” on a disoriented woman finding temporary peace in a chapel. And there is “Yellow Plums”, recalling a not-entirely-satisfactory visit to the grave of James K. Baxter. “At Eastern Southland” is another panoramic poem, building a vision of a of a chill corner of New Zealand. In a couple of poems Steven references the impact of electronically produced music, and laments a vanished quality of life in Dunedin. I am not suggesting that these are poems of rejoicing. But I am suggesting that their survey a quality of life goes far beyond criminality. The sequence of four poems “Reading to my Son” credibly connects the raising of a child with the whole of literary history and religion.
As you will be aware by now, one of my abiding sins is to synopsise a work without paying sufficient attention to its style. On this, just a few simple statements: Michael Steven is a master craftsman. In The Lifers he moves from prose poems to the eight loose sonnets that make up the sequence “Leviathan” to free verse to the disciplined stanzaic forms of “At Eastern Southland”. His eye for detail is acute and he is fertile in imagery – so fertile that I will not start quoting him or I might go on a bit. His view of life in New Zealand and elsewhere might be chilly and dark, with just a few rays peeping through the storm clouds, but those rays are there. This is not the work of a pessimist, but of a realist. An arresting collection.