Monday, November 23, 2020

Something New


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

“HE PUKAPUKA TATAKU I NGA MAHI A TE RAUPARAHA NUI / A RECORD OF THE LIFE OF THE GREAT TE RAUPARAHA” by Tamihana Te Rauparaha. Translated and Edited by Ross Calman (Auckland University Press,  $NZ59:99); “BILLY APPLE* LIFE/WORK” by Christina Barton (Auckland University Press,  $NZ75)

            It is a great pleasure to read a work of real and precise scholarship, bringing to light an intriguing text which has never before been presented to the public in authentic form.

            He Pukapuka Tataku I Nga Mahi A Te Rauparaha Nui / A Record of the Life of the Great Te Rauparaha is a 50,000-word text written in the 1860s by the chieftain’s son Tamihana Te Rauparaha. It focuses on the years between 1819 and the 1830s, the years of the so-called “musket wars”, when Te Rauparaha was most active. Tamihana’s hand-written manuscript has been stored in the Auckland Public Library’s Sir George Grey Collection since the nineteenth century. Editor and translator Ross Calman explains in detail, in his 40-page introduction, that the text has been translated and published a number of times in abridged or otherwise mutilated versions, including one crude version in 1980 which wilfully played up sensational aspects of Te Rauparaha’s story. All versions so far published have relied on defective copies of the original text and have usually mistranslated much of the original Maori. Hence Calman’s determination to get it just right.

            Some major obstacles stood in Calman’s way – not least the sometimes erratic spelling that Tamihana employed, although Calman notes that his handwriting is usually excellent.

            Calman gives much thought to the manuscript’s provenance, dismissing Sir George Grey’s suggestion that it was dictated to Tamihana by Te Rauparaha himself. Not only is it written in the third-person, but the text was clearly written years after Te Rauparaha’s death. Calman discovered that the very paper on which Tamihana wrote had watermarks dating from the 1860s. Tamihana’s text often explains various Maori customs that no Maori of Te Rauparaha’s generation would have found necessary to explain, and it sometimes expresses a world view that Te Rauparaha would not have shared. Influenced by the Anglican missionary Octavius Hadfield, Tamihana (“Thompson” – his original name was Katu) was a baptised Christian who briefly studied theology at St John’s College in Auckland, but who did not take holy orders. Tamihana later helped his father build the famous Rangiatea Church at Otaki after Te Rauparaha had been freed from imprisonment. The old warrior was never formally baptised, but did adopt many Christian values before he died.

            Calman also essays to explain why Tamihana may have written this text. He could have been encouraged to do so by Grey, or perhaps by a member of the House of Representatives W.T.L. Travers. Possibly, in an age when Maori oral culture was waning and literacy was taking over, Tamihana wished to preserve, as a sort of aide memoire, oral traditions that had been passed on about his father. Perhaps he also wished to counter negative images of his father that had been encouraged by the New Zealand Company and Wakefieldian agents. Tamihana’s 50,000 words are generally an admiring view of his father, but they are not a hagiography.

            Ross Calman claims descent from both Te Rauparaha and leaders of tribes whom Te Rauparaha fought, saying he is in part the result of a “peace marriage” between iwi in the early nineteenth century. He has something personal invested in this text; but as a good scholar he is not blind to the defects of his famous ancestor. In his Editor’s Note, referring to massacres and unprovoked warfare, he declares: “There are… aspects… that many of us will find difficult to stomach from a modern perspective. However, I believe that it does no good to hide this history away and pretend it didn’t happen.” (p.3) He also notes in his Introduction that not all Maori regard Te Rauparaha as a great man: “He is venerated by his own descendants among Ngati Toa and Ngati Raukawa and, it is fair to say, widely reviled by those tribes who were on the receiving end of his military campaigns during the ‘musket wars’ of the 1820s and 1830s, most notably Ngai Tahu.” (p.6)

            As well as aiming for accuracy in his translation, Calman aims for readability. He sets out his principles on p.36, which include “Creating a clear and accurate English translation, using plain, modern language as much as possible that does justice to the original, but also reads well in its own right. For people with little or no te reo [which includes this reviewer], I have tried to craft an English text that I hope gives, in its own way, the flavour of Tamihana’s narrative.”

            And so to the text itself.

            After a generous gallery of images, the text is presented with Maori on the left-hand page and the English translation on the right-hand page. It opens with the words: “This is a record of the life of the great Te Rauparaha, from childhood to old age. Written by his own son, Tamihana Te Rauparaha, so that it is not forgotten.” (p.49). Tamihana begins with a truncated whakapapa and moves rapidly on to his father’s military achievements. It has to be noted at once that the text consists of brief, declarative paragraphs, often beginning with the weak connective “Well” (“Na” in the original Maori). This is not a carefully-crafted work of biography, but a work in which events are recorded often in a rather jumbled form. It is not in strict chronological order. As Calman’s careful notes make clear to us, Tamihana will not hesitate to introduce earlier events after he has already narrated later events.

            Even so, the story that is told is vigorous and vivid. After whakapapa, it moves on to Te Rauparaha’s iwi, based at Kawhia, taking revenge in the Waikato tribes that have invaded their land, and finding an ally in the Ngapuhi chief Tamati Waka Nene. He it was who first suggested to Te Rauparaha that it would be wise to settle near to Pakeha so that he might acquire guns. Later, Te Rauparaha migrates with all his iwi to Wairarapa, challenging and fighting other tribes en route. In this migration, members of his immediate family are caught sleeping by enemies and are murdered. Te Rauparaha takes great revenge. Later still, when he is settled on Kapiti, he does greater trade with Pakeha, basically selling pork and potatoes for guns and building up his arsenal. It is then (in 1830) that he seeks overlordship of all Te Waipounamu (the South Island). He descends upon the Ngai Tahu, thanks to Captain Stewart who transports Te Rauparaha and his warriors across the strait in his ship the Elizabeth. The most animated and sustained narrative Tamihana gives (pp. 178-193) is of Te Rauparaha’s taking of the Ngai Tahu pa at Kaiapoi – a siege in which the Ngai Tahu were essentially burnt out of their strong-point and then slaughtered. After this, there was the taking of Akaroa by subterfuge. Later, after many battles and campaigns in which Pakeha did not intervene, Te Rauparaha challenged the so-called “Wairau purchase” by the New Zealand Company, which is son clearly depicts as a matter of Pakeha trickery (pp.252-257), and it is for this he falls foul of Pakeha law and is eventually made a prisoner. (His son, however, depicts Te Rauparaha as trying to stop the killing at Wairau and blames Te Rangihaeata for the death of Pakeha.)

            Reading the text, we are often aware of how Tamihana explains things for the (Pakeha) uninitiated. Thus he explains caste: Among Maori it was the preserve of high-born girls and boys to invite guests and travelling war parties to visit their home in order to uphold their father’s reputation. Through this they became known as the daughter of so and so, or the son of so and so.” (p.51) After introducing huia and kotuku, he notes that they are “the famous birds of the land. The albatross is the famous bird of the sea. The feathers of these birds are used as ornamentaation, they are inserted into the hair. Among Maori, only chiefs are entitled to this taonga, the feather of these birds.” (p.71)

            Clearly, too, he wishes to present a more positive view of his father to Pakeha. So we get this statement: “Ngati Awa killed a number of Pakeha; some were killed at Waikanae and some Pakeha were killed by Ngati Awa, by Te Whakau, at Taitapu. Te Rauparaha’s was the only tribe who did not have a reputation for killing Pakeha, for murder. On the other hand there were these other tribes who at that time lived in ignorance and went about murdering Pakeha.” (p.265) Even as Te Rauparaha migrates with his iwi to Wairarapa, and fights battles en route, his son goes out of his way to emphasis his peacefulness; “… the migrating party was able to travel in peace… They did not kill in retribution one person here or two people there, they let them be. Nor did the migrating party resort to plundering food, they travelled in an orderly manner. When they were starving, they dug fernroot for themselves, collected karaka berries and tenderised paua to eat with the fernroot. There is no way that the people of the migrating party would have misbehaved as they had been instructed by Te Rauparaha to travel in peace: ‘Do not set about killing people in retribution or taking food, this will give the local people grounds for attacking the migrating party.’ ” (p.107)

            At the same time, Tamihana cannot gloss over all the savage things that Te Rauparaha ordered or oversaw. At his command, a child was strangled for making noise that would give his iwi away in the night (p.85). After fighting with tribes in Taranaki, and with Te Rauparaha’s approval,  Ngati Tama carried on to cut up the bodies and carry them on their back to cook in the hangi. This was the Maori way…” (p.87). Taking revenge on iwi in Taranaki, for those of his people killed at Waiorua, Te Rauparaha acted and “three pa were taken and two hundred men were killed; as for the eight hundred women and children, they were taken back to Kapiti as slaves…” (p.143). So, if you wish to be as sensationalist as the non-scholar who produced a Te Rauparaha book in 1980, there you have infanticide, cannibalism and slavery.

            Tamihana is situated between approving and apologising when he writes of Te Rauparaha’s predation upon Te Waipounamu.

            At first he writes matter-of-factly when he deals with the first attack on Ngai Tahu: “When night fell and it was dark, Te Rauparaha’s one hundred and forty boarded the ship’s boats and the canoe. When it was light they attacked the villages whose people were occupied in scraping flax fibre and catching fish with nets. They overcame them, two hundred men were left lying dead; women and children added a further three to four hundred.” (p.167)

            Then he praises Te Rauparaha’s cunning and says others praised it too: “The people were wholehearted in their praise of Te Rauparaha. Who else indeed could have come up with Te Rauparaha’s plan, a plan that would become known by all the chiefs of this country, that involved brazenly asking this great devil, the Pakeha, to allow his ship to be used in warfare to attack people[?]” (p.169)

            But eventually he has to admit the devastation of Te Waipounamu: “…the killing continued along the coast… The human population was drastically reduced. It was arranged that the survivors be left there as serfs. They were not taken back to Kapiti. Te Rauparaha had already taken two hundred captives back to Kapiti to become slaves.” (p.177)

            Throughout this whole narrative, we are aware of the huge difference that muskets made to Maori warfare. Tamihana notes of Te Rauparaha’s first expedition in 1818-19 that “Guns had not been acquired in those times, traditional Maori weapons were still in use.” (p.61) Of a conflict in 1821, he notes “Te Rauparaha’s weapon was a pouwhenua, his son had a taiaha and Tangahoe had a paiaka.” (p.83) But after 1823, when Te Rauparaha makes Kapiti his headquarters, the musket becomes his winning device and slaughter of enemies follows. It is also notable that other Pakeha technology helped him . Tamihana remarks (p.185) that in expeditions to Te Waipounamu, Te Rauparaha had the advantage of Pakeha spades and shovels which he had acquired at Port Jackson, and which were far more efficient when it came to entrenchment than anything his enemies had.

            Tamihana mentions that, as an infant, he himself was taken on some of his father’s campaigns. He also, very late in the narrative, tell a few anecdotes about being rebuked by his father for playing with, and inadvertently setting off, some gunpowder before a battle. This, however, is a book based on his father. It presents vividly a very capable soldier who lived by the rules and norms of his society and culture, no matter how different from, and repugnant to, our norms and culture they are. For this reviewer it stands as one of the liveliest accounts of the musket wars era.

            The scholarship that enfolds it is impeccable.


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            This is one of those horrible situations in which I have to admit that I read somebody else’s review of a book before I read and considered the book myself. And I so fully agree with the earlier reviewer’s comments that it is hard for me to adopt a different perspective. Briefly, in reviewing Christina Barton’s Billy Apple@ Life / Work in the 31 October 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener, Andrew Paul Wood tactfully suggested that Billy Apple is not the towering artistic figure his New Zealand admirers would like to portray; remains a little-known figure outside New Zealand, despite the many years he spent working (and sharing exhibitions) in the UK and especially the USA; and in the end does not present anything more innovative than a worked-out form of Pop Art and self-promotion. Andrew Paul Wood’s review is a bit more nuanced than my crude summary of it, and does make a number of approbatory comments, but that is the general gist of it.

            Noting that Billy Apple is now 85, I wondered if this meant Billy Apple@ Life / Work was really a ritual embalming of the man.

            Having expressed my general approval of Wood’s view, I’m nevertheless conscience-bound to say how I reacted to the book itself. 

            First I note that Christina Barton, respected art historian and director of Wellington’s university art gallery, is a real scholar. Her nearly-400-page text is a work of minute and careful research and the labour of many years. As she says in her preface, she has been studying Billy Apple’s work since the 1980s and has been working on this book since 2011. Nearly everything that has been said or written by or about Apple features in her text and is duly noted in her bibliography. One text she misses, however, is Antony Byrt’s TheMirror Steamed Over (reviewed on this blog earlier this year). Presumably it appeared when Billy Apple@ Life / Work was already on its way to being published. The Mirror Steamed Over deals with Apple’s early days in Britain and his association with David Hockney. Andrew Paul Wood also noted its absence in his review, and added the comment that, unlike Byrt, Christina Barton misses some of the details of people who were, at that stage, important influences on Apple’s early work.

            This aside, Billy Apple@ Life / Work is as comprehensive a book about Billy Apple as anyone could wish – a sturdy hardback reproducing in full colour many works from each phase of Apple’s work and in effect functioning as a curated gallery.

Barton divides her text into six sections, following the development of Apple’s career – first his life as Barrie Bates in New Zealand and his art-school years in England where, in 1962, he reinvented himself as “Billy Apple”; then his first forays into the USA and his transatlantic existence before seeing the USA as a better bet than England; and then, after some success in New York and elsewhere, his definitive return to New Zealand c.1990. Having fully embraced American Pop Art, Apple had separated himself from his New Zealand roots. His methods remain those of advertising-influenced Pop Art, sometimes with texts supplied by the art critic Wystan Curnow. (Here, of course, one wonders how much Wystan Curnow is the real talent behind some of Apple’s later work.)

            I have no quarrels with the prodigious work Barton has done, but not being sympathetic to the subject matter makes it difficult for me to assess this book fairly. Here we have pages of Apple’s playing with neon lights; reworking found images; playing “subtraction” games with spaces provided in art galleries and mass-producing posters indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill posters. At one point Barton remarks:

            Unlike his fellow pop artists, Apple embraced the methods of the advertising industry. His conceptualism is in large part stimulated by the central place of the idea in the adman’s methodology; his use of language has retained the clever brevity and double entendres of the sophisticated copywriter’s wordplays, and the graphic designer in him has always invested in the signifying potential of typography.” (p.109) In other words, he immsersed himself in advertising and, pace Barton, what results is of no greater profundity or perception than advertising per se. Copywriter’s wordplay? Brevity? Sure – and saying nothing of greater importance than they do. Then there is that relentless self-promotion, especially in the phases where Apple, as well as copyrighting his assumed name, fills galleries with images of apples, in effect branding himself like any other product.

            Later, Barton asks “why, exactly, does Billy Apple matter?” and answers her own question by saying “he demonstrates what art can do to help us understand the fundamental nature of being, particularly in our contemporary era.” (p.358). Really??? Not when his art offers only the shallowness of any other ad. I suppose at this point I will be accused of not understanding the swathes of irony in Apple’s word. I protest that I do get the irony, and it is still shallower than a footpath puddle.

            Oh dear. I have rather overstated my case, haven’t I? But these are negative comments about Apple and his art, not about the book, which will doubtless be essential reading for those who admire Billy Apple.

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



Very well. I know I’m cheating. The banner of this “Something Old” section says it deals with books four or more years old. But here I am presenting you with four reviews which have never hitherto been published, and all of which deal with books that first appeared in 2018 and 2019. Why am I doing this? Pure egotism, probably. I am a regular reviewer for the New Zealand “Listener”. But there was a hiatus of some months when the “Listener” was not being published, and therefore reviews which had been submitted were not published. Now the books in question are, in journalistic terms, no longer new or topical and cannot be run. That at least is the reason that one of these reviews was never run. The other three, however, got lost because I filed them before I went on an overseas trip for three months, and they were simply never used.

They’re a mixed bunch. I think one of these four books is rather lacking, but the other three are pretty good. See what you think.


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“AUTUMN IN VENICE” by Andrea di Robilant (First published 2018)


Dedicated fans of Ernest Hemingway consider A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls to be the man’s masterpieces. They quite like The Sun Also Rises and they can stomach the so-so To Have and Have Not. But even the most committed fans see Across the River and Into the Trees as an embarrassment. Hemingway’s last full-length novel reads like a bad parody of his earlier work.

This fact compromises Italian-born American-resident Andrea di Robilant’s Autumn in Venice. Subtitled “Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse”, this entertaining, gossipy and name-dropping book would have us believe that Hemingway was inspired by a young “muse” to resume his writing career, after he had gone nearly ten years without producing a novel. Alas, the novel the young woman inspired was Across the River and Into the Trees, which leads us to ask how great a “muse” she was after all

In 1948 Ernest Hemingway was almost 50 and seemed washed-up as a writer. With his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, he went to Italy to re-visit places he had first known thirty years before, as an ambulance driver in the First World War. But in Venice, the Hemingways fell in with a fashionable, aristocratic bunch of socialites and Ernest met 18-year-old Adriana Ivancich, who was just out of finishing school. The middle-aged man was immediately smitten with the “lovely, seductive, mischievous” Italian kid. A thinly-disguised version of Adriana became one of the main characters in his new novel.

Hemingway knew Adriana on and off for about six years. Unusually for him, their relationship seems to have remained platonic. Despite much gossip, it was basically a little cuddling with exchanges of kittenish letters and bad poetry. She called him “Mr Papa” and he called her “Daughter”. Adriana visited Hemingway in Cuba, and made him happy when he was writing his last good work, the novella The Old Man and the Sea. This may have been her greatest contribution to his literary output. Then she got married, struggled with deep depression, and years later committed suicide, just as Hemingway had done.

            In all this, you can’t help feeling most sympathy for Mary Welsh. She had to put up with her husband’s tantrums and public humiliation of her as she typed up his hand-written drafts and managed his social calendar. Blowhard that he was, Hemingway was never short of self-praise, claiming to his publisher that his dud novel was going to “knock Shakespeare on his ass”. Then there was all the boozing and the occasional brawls.

            Andrea di Robelant seems to understand that Adriana was never the centre of Hemingway’s life. He often shifts attention from her to follow other events. The result is a loose chronicle with many anecdotes of the publishers, journalists, movie-stars and other writers who walked in and out of Hemingway’s social circle. On that level Autumn in Venice is a diverting read.


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“LEARNING TO DIE” by Thomas Maloney (First published 2018)


Just a few years ago, it was fashionable to say, “30 is the new 21.” There is some truth to this. In western, industrialised societies, more people spend longer over tertiary education before they start a career. People marry later, if they marry at all. Having families is not part of the agenda for most people in their 20s. Result? Only when they’re in their early 30s do many start thinking about taking on long-term commitments. And only then do they consider that life doesn’t go on forever.

Now in his 30s, Thomas Maloney aims his second novel directly at this condition.

All English, all middle-class, all university-educated, Natalie, Dan, Mike, Brenda and James are all in their early 30s and feeling the walls closing in. Natalie’s just had a minor accident and is beginning to think her marriage to Dan lacks zip. She starts re-reading wistfully letters she got from an old boyfriend years before. Dan, a rational and logical particle physicist, is getting a bit bored with his job and is disconcerted by odd twinges and numbness his body is now throwing at him. Brenda is a loner who likes skiing, hiking and the great outdoors, but feels a lack of intimacy with anyone. Her brother Mike has made pots of money in high finance and investments, and is a hedonist regularly scoring one-night stands.  But he’s lost all sense of purpose in what he does. Meanwhile the bohemian James, who deludes himself that he is morally superior to all these materialistic people, is mired in writing a novel, which we know he will never finish.

So five 30-somethings question the validity of their lives, try to re-discover their lost youth, and know things can’t go on this way.

This could be the formula for soap opera or one of those cutesie ensemble movies if Maloney wasn’t such a skilful writer. It takes a little time to get into Learning to Die as, at first, we do not see the connections between these characters and think we are going to hear five discrete stories. Once the connections are made, however, Maloney shows exactly why and how all the characters have reached their current state. Their interaction is credible and the psychological disorientation of each convincing. Okay, there is a little dip towards moralising in the last few pages, but not enough to derail the novel, especially as Maloney is a master of style. The farewell soliloquy of one character, who is dying, is one of the most eloquent valedictories I’ve read.

There is a calm sanity and a broad sense of compassion to this novel. It is significant that each chapter is headed with a quotation from the essays of the French Renaissance sage Michel de Montaigne, who was Mr Calm Rationality himself. The Montaigne epigraph to Chapter 25 is a stunner: “If you do not know how to die, never mind. Nature will give you full and adequate instruction on the spot.” Quite.


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“IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY” by Guy Gunaratne (First published 2018)

            Novels are not government social policy. They are not required to present solutions to the social problems they examine. But by dramatising such problems, they can enlighten us. This is the way of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City.

A Londoner of Sri Lankan parentage, Gunaratne looks closely at the lives of young men who are the children of recent immigrants, living on a North London council estate. Nigerians, Ghanaians, Bengalis, South Indians, East Europeans, Pakistanis, Irish, West Indians and others get on well enough. Sure, there are some tribal tensions, but kids from all these backgrounds generally tolerate one another’s cultural peculiarities and match one another at football in the square between the estate’s bleak high-rise apartment blocks. Football is a universal language.

Then a radicalised Muslim kid kills an off-duty soldier and it seems game on for a major race riot.

The novel is told in braided first-person narratives of five people. Three young men are the focus. The Pakistani kid Yusuf has the rawest deal. His instinct is to integrate with his non-Muslim mates, but the Muhajiroun, the local Muslim “decency police”, insist that he submit to a stricter form of Islam. His main friend Selvon is the randy athlete who chases after opportunities for sex, listens to self-improvement tapes and hopes to get ahead in the world. His other friend Ardan is the dreamier type who likes hip-hop and defeats bullies with rap face-offs rather than fights. Gunaratne deliberately doesn’t reveal the ethnicities of Selvon and Ardan until late in the novel.

These kids, as Gunaratne sees them, are not “problems”. Their music, camaraderie and high hopes are celebrated. By their very language you know them, with much of their narration conducted in a local patois replete with keys words such as “truesay”, “ennet”, and “suttan”. But they are in a fraught situation where poverty jostles with prejudice and violence is waiting to break out.

As for the two older narrators, they are Gunaratne’s way of giving the novel a broader historical perspective. Nelson is a West Indian old enough to remember the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Caroline is an Irish woman who fled from the last round of Troubles in Belfast. Both have drawn the conclusion that fanaticism breeds violence, which just breeds more violence. Both are worried about how younger people are going to react to the latest outrage and the growing anti-immigrant chorus.

There is no overt moralising, but it ends somewhere close to Gandhi’s maxim that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” It does have tragedy but oddly, it’s not depressing. Mainly this is the effect of the language, which is lively, imaginative, filled with the rough and effective imagery that the young can cook up, and making us more aware that at least something good can be emerge from the worst situations.


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“DAUGHTER OF BAD TIMES” by Rohan Wilson (First published 2019)


From Brave New World to The Handmaid’s Tale, dystopian novels have always worked by taking a current trend and pushing it to its logical, and usually horrible, conclusion.

In his third novel, award-winning Tasmanian novelist Rohan Wilson is clearly worried by three things. They are climate change and the rising of sea levels; the way private corporations are able to run prisons for profit; and the way immigrants and refugees are treated in Australian detention centres on Manus Island and elsewhere. Put these three ingredients together and you have the nightmare of the future, Daughter of Bad Times.

It’s the late 21st century, about 50 years away. Apart from a few islands with huge sea-walls, the Maldives have been drowned by the ocean, leaving thousands of refugees stateless. An Australian “Migration With Dignity” scheme offers refugees work at the Eaglehawk Migrant Training Centre on Tasmania, which purports to teach migrants “Australian values” and the need for hard work and productivity so that they can win citizenship. In reality, run by the international “Cabey-Yasuda Corrections” corporation, the “centre” is a harsh prison and the migrants are inmates.

One Maldivan inmate, Yamaan Ali Umair, narrates about half the chapters of this novel. The rest are narrated by Rin Sakurai, a Japanese woman who has been adopted by the billionaire American woman who runs the corporation. A little improbably, perhaps, Rin and Yamaan have previously met and have had a brief, blazing affair, which is now on the rocks. She, compromised by her connection to her adoptive mother, wants to reconnect with him. He wants to survive. From very early in the novel, we know that there has been a massive riot and breakout from the “centre” and much of what follows is told in flashback.

            Rohan Wilson holds out some hope for the future. Human rights activists still make protests. The aftermath of the riot (again signalled early in the novel) is a commission of enquiry. In the main, though, this is grim stuff. We have not only the barbarity of the prison itself, but the hard fact that inmates are frequently at odds with one another. The moderation and humanity of Yamaan’s friend Hassan is often shouted down by the radical Islamicism of Yamaan’s cousin Shadi. There are ethnic frictions between Maldivan, Sri Lankan and other refugees. One firebrand Aussie bloke takes a leading part in the riot without fully understanding the different groups he claims to lead.

            As dystopian protest, much of this is convincing, but there are two major problems. When it comes at last, the details of the big riot (taking up about a quarter of the novel) are messy and confused. And the story of Rin, searching in Japan for her biological mother, takes us far from the heart of the novel’s matter. There may be some parallels between Rin’s loss of her original identity, and Yamaan’s loss of his family, but the adventures of Rin blunt the novel’s impact.

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.  



This may come as a surprise to some readers, but there are those times when I can find nothing profound, interesting or topical to say in these “Something Thoughtful” slots. On such occasions I resort to my old wile of presenting you with a poem or two that I admire or find appealing. So here we go again.

I first discovered the poetry of Andrew Young when I was a rookie teacher, using as a class tetbook an anthology of modern British poetry, Poetry 1900 to 1965,  compiled in the late 1960s by the critic George MacBeth. Amidst the selections from Yeats, Eliot, Auden and other luminaries, there was a modest selection of the poems of Andrew Young, of whom I had never heard before. MacBeth’s brief introduction to Young told me that his poetry was often mistaken for mere Georgian pastoralism, but that it actually grappled with religious issues, almost in the manner of the Metaphysics.

Thus it appeared to me once I began to read it.

A little further research told me that Andrew Young (1885-1971) began writing poetry as a serious young Presbyterian Scot, and was ordained as a minister of the very conservative branch of Presbyterianism, the Free Church of Scotland. But his theological views gradually changed over the years and in middle age he was accepted into the Anglican church and became a canon of Chichester Cathedral in England.

Young’s poems have a deceptive simplicity. You think you are dealing only with landscape, and then you get bitten and understand where Young is really taking you.

So here are two of his poems.

I like the first simply because of its clever inversion. Our human sense of how the world should be interpreted is turned upside-down. But then, of course, that calls into question our place on the Earth in the first place.

A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

But the poem by Young that really hooked me was The Fear. There can be few people who, on a solitary walk, haven’t imagined that something or someone is following them. We turn around and see… nothing. That is where Young begins, but read closely and you see he takes us to reflexions on body and soul; this life and a possible afterlife or other-life. Some part of us will always feel alienated from the physical world that we inhabit – that strong sense of being in, but not fully of, the world. Indeed it is this impulse that is at the heart of rationalist (as opposed to empiricist) thought. And lest anyone be annoyed at the religious sense of what I’ve here written, may I point out that another Scotsman, that sturdy Marxist atheist Hugh MacDiarmid, also wrote a poem about the alienation of human mind from physical nature. His poem is a long, discursive piece, running over many pages and with much obscure vocabulary, called “On a Raised Beach”. A worthy effort, but somehow Andrew Young got there more concisely and more memorably.

The Fear

How often I turn round

To face the beast that bound by bound

Leaps on me from behind,

Only to see a bough that heaves

With sudden gust of wind

Or blackbird raking withered leaves.


A dog may find me out

Or badger toss a white-lined snout;

And one day as I softly trod

Looking for nothing stranger than

A fox or stoat I met a man

And even that seemed not too odd.


And yet in any place I go

I watch and listen as all creatures do

For what I cannot see or hear,

For something warns me everywhere

That even in my land of birth

I trespass on the earth.


Monday, November 9, 2020

Something New

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

“WANTING TO TELL YOU EVERYTHING” by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (Caselberg Press, $NZ24:99); “NOWHERE IS TOO FAR OFF” by Peter Bland (The Cuba Press, $NZ25); “MY HONEST POEM” by Jess Fiebig (Auckland University Press,  $NZ24:99); “THE SAVAGE COLONISER BOOK” by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ25)



            Occasionally a collection of poetry, published by a small press, falls into your hands and suddenly and unexpectedly you realise that you are reading very good poetry. “Who is this poet I have never heard of before?” you ask. So you read all the notes surrounding the poems and you find out.

This was my experience when Elizabeth Brooke-Carr’s Wanting to tell you everything, a collection of 36 poems, was sent to me by Caselberg Press. As it turns out, this is not only the first published collection by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr, but it will possibly also be the last. Brooke-Carr died in 2019, aged 79. She had been writing poetry since the 1980s and some of her work had appeared in newspapers and magazines. Friends expected a collection to appear, but it was only after her death that a group of five women friends and fellow-poets got together, searched through her poetry folders, and assembled the poems that make up Wanting to tell you everything.

What is the special impact of these poems? At the very least, they all present a mature and experienced view of life, bearing in mind that Brooke-Carr was already in middle-age when she began writing poetry. As far as I can see, the women who edited these poems arranged them in three broad sections.

The first eight poems deal with childhood and family.

 The opening poem “Upright” is one of the poet’s very best. In six blank-verse stanzas it represents vividly a way of life now gone, depicting specifically a child doing homework at the bulky, square family table, but with the child’s mind wandering and seeing images in surrounding furniture. It is the precise observation of the child’s surrounding that makes it the powerful poem it is. There are childhood memories of the poet’s father ( “Many breakfasts since”, “Take as required”) and an attempt to reconstruct her brother as a child (“Memory of snow”). There is a childhood car journey and the dislocation of moving from one house to another (“A spot on the map”) and an affectionate memory of an old Clydesdale pulling a single-furrow plough, but years later replaced by new technology (“Nobby and Joseph”). “Geometry lesson” is a severe memory of high school. But “When bright red was eclipsed by silver shoon” is a more tender memory of the classroom. Brooke-Carr’s younger self is enchanted by hearing a teacher reading Walter de la Mare’s poem about the silver moonlight. Perhaps I am partial to this poem because, although considerably younger than the poet, I am of a generation that still heard regularly de la Mare’s poems recited by English teachers. I warm to the detail in Brooke-Carr’s poem where she admits that her young Kiwi self did not recognise all of de la Mare’s English vocabulary: “Your teacher is swaying a little, peering this way / and that as she reads. You know she’s walking / with the moon, and soon you catch up. / You’ve never heard of shoon, or casements, / but now you see them, glistening, reach out, / touch silver fruit on silver trees, step around / the sleeping dog, look up to doves.”

The next twenty-one poems concern art and the poet’s grown-up experiences.

 There are reactions to a famous painting by Goldie (“Monday afternoon with Ina”) and to a famous sculpture (“Pieta”) and to classical music (“Bethoven’s ghost”, “Demidenko’s fingers”) and to playing croquet (“Croquet”) and to romantic meetings with her husband or maybe with earlier boyfriends (“Out of the glare”, “Bannockburn sluicings” “Sparrrow antics in Arrowtown”). Often she reconstructs journeys through a precisely-presented South Island landscape with a glimpse of the Remarkables (“Thank you, fog”) or southern landscape seen from the air (“Whisky Echo Tango”) or the burial of culled wild geese (“All that remains is pressed flat”) or the straightforward image of “Quoin Point Road”. For some readers, the best sense-of-place poem will be the prize-winning “All this”, depicting a wild sea shore. Even in these poems, however, there is a strong sense of old age catching up. “Poolburn” is about visiting their “crib” (what most New Zealanders would call a bach) in a remote part of Otago. Brooke-Carr declares “All the days of our youth are behind us, / dust spiralling back along old roads / traversed; beneath seat belts clicked / across our chests there are years / we carry close”. Interestingly, this second section of poems includes a touching vignette of woman in decrepitude, suffering borderline senility (“Harsh Light”).

The final seven poems deal with the cancer that was killing Elizabeth Brooke-Carr and the death that she knew was approaching inevitably.

It is amazing how she can almost be witty while facing this situation in “On discovering your oncologist is a travel agent”. This poem, like “Upright”, the opening poem of the collection, in structured in neat, four-line, blank verse stanzas [or paragraphs] giving solidity, even solemnity, to statements even as the poet jests. The poems about her final experience in hospital have a hard realism to them in “Exhibit ABH1615”; or “The vein whisperer”, about an efficient nurse, or “Buzz cut”, where she feels the anguish of having her head shaved. In  “Black beret” she turns herself into a machine where “In High Dependency, dual wheels turn / and turn, labouring. A needle wavers, / traces an arc across the speedometer dial / on my brain’s febrile dashboard; / pumps deliver oxygen through slack fuel lines; / tubes loop to and from this bed / where I binge on bags of saline.” The title poem “Wanting to tell you everything” is the very last poem in the book, symbolically admitting the impossibility of saying everything before one dies.

Not only is this a very impressive collection, but it displays extraordinary nerve in the poet to be able to face debilitating disease and death with such clarity and imagination.


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Peter Bland, the poet who has spent half his life in New Zealand and half in England, is now in his late 80s.  His trim new collection Nowhere is too far off is the latest of the 21 collections he has produced since the early 1960s, not to mention his Collected Poems 1956-2011 (reviewed on this blog 21 January 2013). Bland here favours lean, short poems (one phrase per line) but also produces four prose poems and a few in more traditional forms.

Peter Bland is an old man. It’s not surprising that so many of his poems are about age and transience. The opening poem “Starting out” (p.10) is almost optimistic as it speaks of bright beginnings that happen again and again; but the very next poem “Holes in the story” (p.11) tells us of “Those journeys / that come back / to haunt us, / those settings-out / without a map. Such / urgencies! But why / the panic? It was / always in the grief / of our pauses / that something more / was going on…” The course of life is uncertain, and as one ages, one perhaps recognises opportunites that were missed.

Of course there are many poems here verging on the elegaic. Three poems are dedicated to Bland’s late wife Beryl. The poem “The visitor” (p.47) is about his deceased 1950s fellow poet Louis Johnson. Old friends are liked for their familiarity even if their jokes are corny (“Help” p.12), but they are a dying breed. The chimes at midnight are heard in poems like “The roadside camp” (pp.18-19) where “There’s / a hint of thunder / not too far off / as if the gods / are quarrelling again / or armies gathering. I suspect / it’s almost time to move on.” But as death nears one is “Beyond regrets” (p.29) where “It’s / like living in / an abandoned movie / full of lost horizons / and old hotels…

I’ve laboured this point a little too much. Peter Bland is not full of lamentations. Age and death are accepted and there’s room for wit and fond reminiscence. A clutch of poems, beginning with “America”, reflect a love-hate relationship with the USA where Bland can see all the huckster crassness, but is still  half-besotted with the myth of the wide-open Wild West and a ghost town in Nevada and the sunset in Orange County where he embraced Beryl. Then he digs deeper back to his English roots and Fulham and Putney and later three poems, vignettes of being a child in England in the Second World War.

Of the prose poems, “Walkabout” is a comprehenive account of being old on Dominion Road and some of its indignities. But the real gem is the quietly happy one “On turning into a tree” which calls unobtrusively on mythology to illuminate that sleepy back-porch moment when you feel as fixed as a tree, as resigned and as blessed.

This collection is as familiar as household words and as comforting as a favourite old coat.

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            “My Honest Poem” is the poem that closes Jess Fiebig’s debut collection, listing facts about her 28-year-old life. But choosing My Honest Poem as the title of the whole collection suggests that this book is going to be a candid, truth-telling work – an account of personal experience unvarnished. And indeed a superficial reading might suggest that it is just that. But when read more closely, it is perhaps not as candid as it appears to be.

Jess Fiebig’s poetry is very much in the genre of confessional verse. Nearly all poems are narrated in the first-person, and in loose free-verse, as if being wrenched from a mental diary of personal experience. She divides the collection into three parts.

Part One, titled  “I have no sense of direction”, opens gruellingly enough with “Maternal Distance” where, aged 9, the poet watches her mother drinking to the point of vomiting. Her mother is described (p.3) thus: “Life adorned her body; / stretchmarks creeping silver vines / around her abdomen, / freckles on her back / from too much time stoned…” So we are at once in a dysfunctional home, with threat of abuse from single mum’s partner. This is the childhood section of the collection, and it is not all dismal and negative. The poet remembers some tender things and writes a wistful poem “For Kelly” (p.15) about a girlhood friend who is also the dedicatee of this book.

            Part Two, titled “I get lost in lovers” moves into much upset in adolescent and young adult years. There are some references to a lost father and easy lyricism in poems about beach and caves and rendezvous and camping, and often a sense of relief at being away from home.. But there is also a coke-sniffing party in Riccarton and apparently a miscarriage and in “Saturday Night in the Emergency Department” (pp.63-64) self-harm or possibly attempted suicide . Boyfriends or lovers pass through her life or desert her and she experiences much depression. “Amitriptyline Dreams” conjures up visions brought about by taking a strong anti-depressant. At one point she suffers “Concussion” in the poem of that name. “Duck Hunting” tells explicitly how a lover cheats on her; and then there is  “The Night I Knew I Had to Leave My Man” (which almost sounds like the title of a c.-and-w. song). Through many of these traumas, the milieux Jess Fiebig describes graphically tend to be mould-covered poverty-signalling flats and other grotty digs.

            One theme that seems to run through all this is the lack of connectedness with family, or the reality of not having a supportive family. “What a funny thing it is / to share blood and not much else” she says in “Calling Hours” (p.54) while contemplating a physically-impaired aunt and remembering seeing her grandfather’s corpse in a casket

            Finally Part Three, called “I enjoy listening to sad songs”. Most of these closing poems are a little calmer, more reflective and wistful. They are the domestic aftermath, sometimes (as in “Dead Man’s Point” p.87) morphing into a more traditional landscape lyricism, even if there is still a sense of absence. There are attempts to reconstruct the man who left her in  “What I Would Say to Him, Now” (p.89) with its closing lines  How did I go from everything  / to nothing at all?” So there is no solace, no closure. “Twenty-Seventh Christmas” (p.92) has her on valium and more-or-less thinking of suicide

            After all this, how dare I say this collection is not as candid as it might first appear?  Partly because of the emotive definition of poetry Fiebig gives in “This is Poetry” (p.12) : “This is poetry, to feel emotions like hot iron / pressing on my skin, / burning to decribe the most / complex parts of myself / as simply as I can, / that someone might understand / how scared I am to be alive, / how happy I am to be alive, how confused I am / when words fly out / of my head…” While it may sound visceral and spontaneous, the reality is that the poet (like every other poet) consciously selects and organizes the experiences she is putting on paper. Experience is not so much conveyed as interpreted. And in this case it often tends towards the pathetic fallacy of personal feeling. The poem “Waiuta” (p.48) opens with a convincingly bleak landscape and becomes a lament for the hard times that miners used to suffer long ago. But in a later  poem “Panic” (p. 57) Fiebig uses the same imagery of mining as a metaphor for her own body. The external world becomes solipsism, being no more than an extension of the self.

            After reading My Honest Poem, my most fervent wish was that the poet will be able to move beyond her unhappiness.


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            As a white Pakeha male in my 60s, should I even be reviewing Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book? The last statement in the book, “Some notes for critics” (p.91) seems to tell me and others like me to back off – as well as assuming that we will say some ignorant things or talk in lit.crit. clichés. Still, I’ll forge ahead.

            Award-winning Samoan poet Tusiata Avia has the wit to know that her title can be read in two ways. The “savage coloniser” can mean “the coloniser of savages”, which is what the coloniser probably thought he was; or it can mean “the coloniser who is savage”, which is more in the spirit of this collection. Much of The Savage Coloniser Book is diatribe against white colonisers of the Pacific. The poem “250th Anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand” has modern Pasifika girls saying to Cook “we’re gonna FUCK YOU UP FOR GOOD BITCH”. In “Burnt Australia Fair” the continent of Australia says “Cook, you bastard / we’ve been hungry and angry and murdered for a long time”. “The Pacific solution” is about white Australians putting refugees on Manus Island. “BLM” sees police brutality against blacks in the USA as the result of an ingrained white sense of racial superiority, so that “Crushing the head of a black man / This is my God-given white”.

            One of the longer poems, “Massacre”, is a kind of chronicle of the Christchurch mosques massacre. All whites and colonisers are indicted and held responsible. Thus, when the moques massacre happens, “we, Queen Victoria – made of stone – who stares into the air / past every kind of massacre, rise / we, far right, we rise / we, skinheads, we rise / we, the white supreme, we rise / we are the white ghosts and we rise up out of the swamp.” Tusiata Avia pointedly rejects Jacinda Ardern’s statement that the terrorist who committed the massacre “isn’t us” and draws attention to Parihaka and Ruatoki and massacres committed by Pakeha soldiers in the nineteenth century.

            It is angry and forthright statement.

            This doesn’t mean that Tusiata Avia can’t also see the funny side of things. “Poly Kidz r coming “ is an assertion of the liveliness and creativity of Polynesian kids, but it’s written like a playground chant or the type of barracking you might get at a sports match. It’s more fun than warning. As for “How to be in a room full of white people”, one of the last poems in the book, is both rawly funny and very, very chastening. And there are the three repetitive and rhythmic “FafSwag” poems, more in the nature of insistent chants and written for a Queer Indigenious dance collective

            Avia has other interests, including a group of poems about sex, beginning with “We talk about sex poems”. How confessional they are, I don’t claim to know. Likewise, are the poems about epileptic seizures autobiographical? One of them has a

strong surrealist content. They too segue into candid reflections on sex and, later, the sombre historical poem “How to get an abortion”. As for “Covid in the time of Priminiscinda”, it gives pretty much the same reflections on the inconveniences of lock-down that anyone of any ethnicity or social group would have.

            The Savage Coloniser Book s a wild rollercoaster ride, with much deft wordplay. But it is the angry accusation that dominates.