We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“WHAT FIRE” by Alice Miller (Pavilion – University of Liverpool Press, $NZ37); “REJOICE INSTEAD – The Collected Poems of Peter Hooper” (Cold Hub Press, $NZ42:50)
If you look up Nowhere Nearer on this blog, you will find reviews of Alice Miller's two earlier collections of poetry, The Limits and Nowhere Nearer. What now interests me about these two collections is how different they are from each other. The poet’s voice and preoccupations had changed. The Limits adopted a style that was almost cryptic, sometimes impenetrable, relying very much on imagery verging on the surreal. One suspected that it encoded many personal things that were not immediately comprehensible to the reader. By contrast, Nowhere Nearer often dealt with public issues, reflecting on the inevitablility of death and the march of time, but also considering the loss of certain cultures and the rootlessness which had become what I described as “the malaise of the modern world”. In this second collection, Alice Miller often referred to what could be called High European Culture as well as Classical mythology. Given the severe and stoical tone of some of her work, I referred to Miller as “a latter-day Schopenhauer”. I am delighted to learn that she was not offended by this sobriquet. Need I add that I found her work enriching and enlightening?
Alice Miller is an expatriate New Zealander now based in Berlin, some of whose work has been published in German. Her third collection What Fire is a development and extension of many of the themes and ideas she expressed in Nowhere Nearer.
By and large, it is a very bleak world that is delineated in her verse, but it is not a series of counsels to despair. There are gleams of optimism and hope for human beings, even if they have to be grasped quickly before they vanish. Schopenhauer is modified by good sense and sometimes by love.
In this collection, Miller often situates her poems in specific landscapes. There is occasionally a tendency to Cartesian rationalism as in a poem like “After the Catastrophe”, which raises the possibility that life isn’t real. But most of her landscapes are based on hard empirical observation, even if this is a platform for ideas. One of her most delicately crafted poems “What Becomes Her” has a second-person “you” walking by the Berlin river Spree trying to read the angst in other people and in herself. The cold landscape of fjords is mentioned in a number of poems, while “After the Internet” presents a sort of apocalyptic vision of ruined land and both “The Lighthouse” and “Taillight” suggest a decaying world which one has to endure. A nightmarish fantasia, not exactly a real landscape, dominates the title poem “What Fire”, which appears to have overtones of “night and fog” (Nacht und Nebel) in the most sinister sense that would resonate with one based in Germany. This is the type of densely-considered poem deserving the type of detailed exegesis that cannot be given in a general review of this sort. It is certainly one of the poet’s best.
A strong streak of determinism marks one of Miller’s best river poems “The Fork of Five Rivers”. It pairs Samuel Butler, on his South Island sheep station Mesopotamia, with the river Spree and other rivers. But “We each have our own scheduled future, drowning. / We each have our own paradise inside / waiting to drown us from the inside out.” In similar deterministic tone, “Awake” declares that “the woods are all / the same woods, no divergent twig, no path / that wasn’t pre-written into existence by a programme / you’ve seen so many times before you could recite / each oak, each branch.”
Where, ultimately, does determinism take us? To death, obviously, and death is one of Miller’s major concerns. The opening poem “Seams” considers a life’s journey as a planned trip and ends “What song / will you sing as the light leaves, / as the mask’s lowered over your eyes?” Here the dominant image for life is a journey by plane over countries seen only briefly. The same image recurs in “New Wings”, “Orbit” and other poems. “Das Gift” and “Extinction” sound out decay and death. Death is “The Goddess of Death”, referencing Maori mythology respectfully and yet, in its profuse closing detail, also managing to be grotesquely funny. “New Valkyrie” has the female warriors of Norse myth gathering corpses from battlefields. In this collection, it is women who are most frequently related to the concept of death. “Exit” begins with the words “Do we begin in death? What kind of building / is a womb, to live inside, / breach the only way through?”
But then there are poems that relate to women in other ways. “Mutter” tells us that women grow into being their own mothers. “Volumnia”, which derives from Plutarch’s and Shakespeare’s life of Coriolanus, refers to a mother producing a warlike and destructive son. (Incidentally the epigraph of What Fire are words spoken by Volumnia to Coriolanus “I am hush’d until our city be a-fire, And then I’ll speak a little. “) And then there is the obvious fact that women interact with men, not always happily. “Held Under” concerns over-controlling men. Both “What We Find” and “The River” appear, in their allusive way, to be about a marriage or relationship breaking up. Not that misandrony is suggested when “Vanishing Point” declares “I wake up / with you and the world seems new” though the poem does then go on to say how odd this impulse is when the word is doomed. [For the record, I cannot help noting that in the acknowlegements the poet gives thanks to the man she loves.]
Having noted this, however, the dominant note of this collection is fearful, hesitant and uncertain of the future of human beings.“The Miracle” tries to find something unique in human beings as opposed to other animals, but is still waiting for such uniqueness. Most wrenching of all is the confessional poem “Sunday”, where there is a strong, and irrational, sense of guilt as she feels helpless to do anything about her friend’s cancer, and is not sure that poetry will be of any help.
I think in this review I have given a fair outline of Alice Miller’s preoccupations and philosophical ideas. Decay, determinism, death, the possible mitigation of life by love, and the importance of observation. But this does not really communicate to you the aesthetic quality of her verse. The philosophy is grim, it’s daunting, it’s challenging, sometimes it’s even depressing. But it’s clear, it’s forthright, it’s undisguised, it shows fortitude in the face of inevitable death and decay. It’s a brave voice clearly expressing itself.
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Rejoice Instead – the Collected Poems of Peter Hooper is an exercise in restoring the memory of a poet who was in danger of being completely forgotten. As Pat White, the editor of this collection, tells us in his Introduction, the poetry of Peter Hooper (1919-1991) appeared first in slim volumes that are now hard to find. Some of his verse appeared in anthologies in the 1970s and 1980s but then he faded from view. Hooper was fastidious in writing and re-writing his poetry, and many poems lay unpublished when he died. Though Hooper was born on the South Island’s West Coast, his mother was English and when he was a child she often read to him the work of English Romantics. Romantic, or more precisely the post-Victorian form of modified Romanticism better known as Georgianism, was the greatest influence on Hooper’s early work. He was a late starter and did not produce publishable poetry in earnest until the early 1960s, when he was in his forties and after he had spent time in England. Only gradually did he shuck off the English influence and begin to write about specifically New Zealand landscapes. In his case, this meant the landscape of Greymouth and the West Coast where he spent most of his life. Even so, his style remained very much that of early Modernism. He was loyal to simple verse structures and rejected post-modernism. As White notes, he did make friends with some artists and poets and was much admired by Colin McCahon. His poems inspired some of McCahon’s painting. But, though he worked as a school-teacher, his life tended to be solitary. Pat White makes a case for Peter Hooper as an early conservationist, and there certainly is a strong thematic thread in his work of respect for the natural wilderness. However, it is only in a few poems that Hooper becomes polemical. He is mainly concerned with interpeting the quality of landscape rather than preaching about it.
I read my way methodically through the well-presented 220 pages of these collected poems, lamenting only one thing. The table of contents lists Hooper’s poems chonologically, under the titles of the original “slim volumes” in which they appeared. The poems that follow also appear in chronological order of first publication, but for some reason the titles of the original “slim volumes” do not appear in the body of the text. Even so, I was able to walk through Hooper’s work from early 1960s to early 1990s, seeing how his preoccupations (slowly) changed.
In Hooper’s very first publication “A Map of Morning” (1964) the poem “Walking in Summer Wind” announces very clearly where Hooper was going to go, declaring “And I remember / Whitman would wrestle with brotherly trees / who gave no quarter / answering strength with strength / knowing what the wise and children have always known / earth has no limits to her joy”. There is a rejoicing in nature, Whitmanesque but also Wordsworthian in inspiration but (despite the free forms Hooper often employs) Georgian in effect, with much use of words like “benison”, “woe”, “embrace”, “Songs innumerable” and their ilk. And be it noted that nearly all of the poems in this, his first collection, are set on the other side of the world from New Zealand – Reigate, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, London, Daffodils and Oak Trees, Perugia, Provence, Japanese prints and poems honouring authors of his era such as “Reading Zhivago” and “For Patrick White”. But even in this, there are stabs at current realities. “Farnborough 1961”, for exmple, set at the show-place for Britain’s military aircraft, sees the planes as merely bearers of death. A pacifist tendency is implied.
Hooper’s second collection “Journey Towards an Elegy” (1969) may include a poem in memoriam of T.S.Eliot, and it may still often use traditional poetic forms – the perfectly rhymed sonnet “The Drudge” or the neatly crossed rhymes of both “Of Love and Time” and “Hoeing Beans”. But, as Pat White’s Introduction has clearly signalled, the scene has changed completely and is now definitely situated on the West Coast of the South Island. References to the West Coast abound – Stockton, Larrikins Flat, Blackball Creek, much wind from the sea, dense bush and trees, coprosma berries, and of course rain, as well as manly pursuits like chopping wood and hoeing beans. The most tragic work is coal-mining where (says the poem “Jimmy”) “the black hills have no cry / for death by stone dust razoring the lung”. Life is pinched and disappointing for some, as in the poem “Retired” about a disappointed retired schoolteacher. The title poem “Journey Towards an Elegy” is one of Hooper’s very best – commemorating his visit to the grave in Italy where lay his brother Tony, killed in the Second World War. The hard message it gives is that graves are not as potent as our memories of the dead; and “Journey Towards an Elegy” also emphasises the sense of distance and separation from home a visit to Europe means for a New Zealander. It is in this collection that Hooper produces a sort of poetic manifesto with “Poetry is for Peasants” claiming “Only when the feet and hands / know the earth / in agony and joy / can the mind be nourished / on beautiful words”. This is a call to life experience rather than intellectual concepts as the force of poetry. The concluding sequence “Notes in the Margin” show a radical change in style, Hooper now being terse, speaking more colloquially and stripping away much of the elevated vocabulary that was seen in his earlier work. The very short collection “The Mind of Bones” (1971) leaps very far indeed from Hooper’s first collection – now all poems are lean and short and referencing the present moment with garden reflections on sparrows and one inspired by reading Baxter’s “Jerusalem Sonnets”.
“Fragments III: Earth Marriage” (1972) begins with the prose essay “Earth Light” where Hooper begins by praising the unique quality of light on the West Coast and tells us how he has grown into the landscape. He notes that his poems often present isolated human figures but that does not mean that people on the West Coast are unaware of the greater world. He now does sound a clear conservationist view when he declares his continued loyalty to Thoreau (later in this collections comes the poem “Homage to Thoreau”) and speaks of “the earth-mother, whom modern man has so tragically rejected”. And finally, after listing his favourite poets, he despairs of the type of academic criticism that over-analyses poems. The sequence “Pencilled by the rain” yields the distressing but truthful lines “Here at the world’s end / we’re not exempt / from the harvest of folly. / At our roots / burn Europe’s poisons. You’ll find / no primal innocence beneath the fern.” Hooper builds beautiful but melancholy images of bird-life on the Coast, but is sure that “I wander the ways of a squandered country” mitigated only by the thought that “there’s not much time for cleverness / but a little maybe for love”. There is a moral robustness to this – a sense that no landscape is fully free of corruption. But in the same collection, poems like “Three Pines by the Hohomu” lay bare Hooper’s stylistic weaknesses – a tendency to Whitmanesque overstatement and bombast in such lines “I am become a part / of earth, of the river that flows forever, / I share the endurance of her centuries / in the roots of the pines….” Etc. The “Profiles in Monochrome” (1974) are vignettes of people who lived on the Coast either before the poet’s time or when he was a child. Some of the “profiles” are dispiriting, but collectively, they build up a convincing picture of a certain sort of community. What appeared in “Selected Poems” (1977) is still dominated by landscape but Hooper’s tone is more regretful, melancholy and dwelling on loss. There is a sense that human beings are destructive intruders, as in “Cloudfaring” where “I know without rancour / that the islands of the blest / were always mirage, / that our feet have only / the clay tracks word / in the rough pastures / below our sombre hill.” Certainly two poems about the ill health and death of his mother “Huia Villa” are pained elegy and “Rain Over Westland’emphasises one of the less pleasant features of the region. Naturally there is a strong sense of loss in elegy for Muriel, one of the few poems suggesting the poet’s sexuality
Then there are all the unpublished poems with which Hooper’s writing career ended. With the unpublished “Poems From a Study,” he begins to take up the habit of writing in the third person as “the Old Man”, who takes ovet the unpublished “Stones of Longacres”. While Hooper’s preoccupations are as they had been for decades, the vocabulary is different. Some locutions still linger from his earlier quasi-Georgian style, but you wouldn’t get words like “sheepshit” and “pisses” in his earlier work.. The language now is more raw and colloquial as in a very short poem like “Thumbs” which begins “He knows it’s winter / cold winds over the paddocks / when his thumbs / split at the corners / a thread of cotton / slices the cut / to instant torture.” Other poems suggest the roughness of rural life in a style some distance from dithyrambs on birds, winds and trees. “Poets and Paddocks”, one of his longer poems, attempts to fuse his academic past with rural realities. But there is rejoicing in the what is almost an epigram “Old Man in a Garden” which reads in full “Up to my knees / grass in the gully / over my head / a tui scold in the kowhai / I should worry / I rejoice instead” . Not only does this brief poem give this Collected Poems its name, and not only is it quoted in full on the back cover, but it gives a fitting note of serenity and acceptance to one who has so often brooded on the past and isolation and elegies. You accept your lot in the land where you stand, for all its defects, and you rejoice in the beauties nature gives. The closing essay “A Window upon Mountains” reaffirms Hooper’s Thoreauvian view of nature as a window to the soul and resonates most loudly with current conservationist thinking.
How do I assess this resurrected poet from the past? I do not think Peter Hooper will ever be remembered in the same way as Curnow, Baxter and other much-anthologised poets of his era. But I hesitate to use that damning term “minor poet”. Though his canvas is narrow, his interests few and early expressed, and his style often of a past age, he is a thoughtful poet who at his best conveys strongly the sense of a particular time and place. He observes nature carefully and expresses it vividly. Certainly a poet dserving a place in the New Zealand canon.