We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ALL TITO’S CHILDREN” by Tim Grgec (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “UNSEASONED CAMPAIGNER” by Janet Newman (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “AUP NEW POETS 8” – by Lily Holloway, Tru Paraha and Modi Deng (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99)
The horror of a closed, controlled society is not knowing, and not being allowed to know, the real things happening in the world. This is true of all totalitarian states (fascist or communist) where censorship rules and propaganda is the only permitted form of “news”. In such states, whispered rumour is rife, legends grow and nightmares accumulate. This appears to me to be one of the dominant themes of Tim Grgec’s debut poetry collection All Tito’s Children. After the Second World War, Josip Broz “Tito”, former Partisan leader, Prime Minister, then President (for life) of Yugoslavia, was greatly admired in the West as a communist who stood up to Stalin, kept his country non-aligned and seemed to favour a (limited) market economy… and yet he was a dictator and Yugoslavia did have a ubiquitous secret police. For most, it was an oppressive place.
Tim Grgec’s grandparents fled to New Zealand from Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s. All Tito’s Children in many respects reflects his grandparents’ experiences in Yugoslavia in childhood and adolescence. At a superficial glance, All Tito’s Children seems a loose bricolage or mosaic of brief prose statements, real quotations from official documents, fictitious quotations from official documents and short lyrics. But read more carefully, its seven discrete sections follow a strong narrative thread, bringing us nearer to the young peoples’ disillusion and will to escape. The young people in question are sister and brother Elizabeta and Stjepan, so presumably they are not a direct portrait of the poet’s grandparents.
We first have the voice of power in the section “The Quarrel With Stalin” where Tito separates definitively from Stalin and the Soviet Union, advising Stalin to stop sending assassins into his country, and Stalin retaliates by having all mention of Tito removed from Soviet publications. Meanwhile in “Elizabeta”, we hear the voice of a young girl in a small village where the image of Tito is pervasive: “In every sitting room, above the Madonna, / a picture of our brave, handsome leader: / Tito in military uniform, / to keep our actual fears away.” (pg. 19) Here, at village level, the dark rumours circulate. Not knowing which is which, Elizabeta resorts to playing games about what is, and what is not, the truth. There is the strong rumour, believed by many, that the real Tito is usually replaced, on public occasions, by a body-double: “We whispered stories like these around the village, even though they were forbidden. Tito’s name crossed many lips and, after many years, the pictures of him over every blackboard grew real pairs of eyes.” (p.23) The notion of Tito’s “double” could be read as the difference between the real Tito and Tito as understood by the general population.
In “Emergence from the Fog” Tito’s mythic and unreal status is mocked by the poet when he has the dictator broadcast the words: “I address you, my friends, in a voice that might be my own, or perhaps that of someone before me.” (p.31) Laws against emigration are passed, turning the country into more of a prison, while credulous citizens approach the dictator as if he is the arbiter of science. One petitioner claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine. Paranoia and myth coalesce. In “Stjepan”, the young villager hears his paternal uncle tells stories of war, but the details of which war are left unclear - is the uncle referring to partisanship in the Second World War, or to much earlier wars? Memories of war easily become legends, and there have been wars in the Balkans since time immemorial. But there is brutality in the aftermath of war. Perhaps the poet assumes that readers have sufficient prior knowledge to understand what is going on in “The Company We Keep”, where former Partisan leader Tito interviews the former Chetnik general Mihailovic. We have to know that the latter is about to be led off to a show trial and execution. Bogus official documents are presented as well as a miscellany of books that Tito is supposed to have checked out from a library – but then this could simply be the common pretence among dictators that they are men of great culture.
When we come to “Elizabeta’s Tiny Seeds”, we reach a final disillusion with the Yugoslav state. Elizabeta is now adult enough to be aware of the constrictions of peasant life and the state’s control: “A tiny seed of doubt. How disatisfaction and stillness for years thicken one another. Probably I would’ve gone back to life in the fields, the same rows of dirt in the beating sun, if he [Tito] had not forgotten us here on the Hungarian border.” (p.79) So at last to “Escape”, but it is not a wholly joyful thing. Bells do not ring. There are sorrows and regrets and a sense of guilt to be leaving the land partisans fought for and “bakas” (grandmothers) revered. Tradition has a very strong pull. So there are very mixed feelings when at last Elizabeta reaches Lyall Bay in New Zealand in 1959.
Despite its very specific setting in history, All Tito’s Children is neither history lesson nor polemic. It conveys a mood of fear, bafflement, confused loyalties, and in the end the deep melancholy brought on by a necessary exile.
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I’ll begin by brushing away a prejudice of my own. From my experience of reading new New Zealand poetry over the last few decades, I am always wary when I am sent for review a collection of poetry which focuses on rural life and nature. Too often, I have found, such collections rapidly become polemics about environmental decay and conservation matters. While these are worthy concerns, they often encourage cliché and a somewhat self-righteous tone.
Janet Newman’s Unseasoned Campaigner focuses on rural life and nature, but nowhere is it polemicaI. Newman’s version of New Zealand rural life is hard and true. The 62 poems that make up Unseasoned Campaigner are compassionate without being sentimental, thoughtful without becoming preachy, aware of environmental decay without making it an obsession, based on a very close knowledge and understanding of what farming entails and enriched with vivid imagery. Newman comes from a farming family and is herself (as the blurb tells me) a farmer of beef cattle in Horowhenua. When she describes, she describes what she knows intimately. I have to add that she is clearly a scrupulous craftswoman and critic of her own work. Though Unseasoned Campaigner is her first published collection, she has clearly been working at it for some years. I remember, nearly a decade ago, accepting some of her poems when I was guest-editing Poetry New Zealand in its old format.
Unseasoned Campaigner is divided into three sections, and unlike other collections, the three discrete sections signal three distinct themes.
The first section “How Now?”, addresses farm life directly, and the very opening poem, “Drenching”, is perfectly balanced in style and meaning. She feels for the cattle and understands they have bovine emotional responses … but we send them to be killed and that is the way it should be. In “Calf Sale”, written in the first-person, she is at first inclined to feel superior to (and possibly more humane than) the “veal man” who will take calves to be slaughtered at once - but then she says “Although I have no reason to / I feel superior driving my calves / to paddocks of plump grass / nursing their plain orphan hunger.” This is a poet who, unlike many, does not except herself from daily realities. She has memories of naming cows when she was a child (“How now?”); she describes a half-castrated, but still testosterone-driven steer being loaded for the slaughter house (“The rig”); she imaginatively pairs landslides created by rain with the gloop of a recipe being mixed (“Sponge and slate”). She is also aware of the way human intervention can have negative effects. The triptych “Good Intentions” charts three unintended consequences – making land barren by stripping it of unwanted foliage; over-feeding a young calf so that it dies; and accidentally running over an admired hawk. Death in one form or another fills the countryside. One could say the theme of unintended consequences if also found in “Ode to Mycoplasma Bovis”, about a stud bull passing on a destructive gene to hundreds of artificially-inseminated cows. Title sequence “Unseasoned Campaigner” personifies each season as a driving force demanding the farmer’s care. Though she loves her warm connection with a farm dog, she does not idealise the dog. After all, it does hunt and kill (in the poems “The huntaway” and “Suddenly rabbit”).
In all of this, the most impressive quality of Newman’s poetry is the precisely observed physical detail of farm and rural life, such as a townie could not express. Such precision is found in the image of wool dropping away under shears (in “The shearer”) and in her two “Meat processing plant poems” which are simply deadpan descriptions of the work and the place without any polemic attached. The five-part sequence “Drought, Horowhenua” is one of her best for carefully-observed detail when, while surveying parched land, she asks “How do the pines / retain their dizzy black, the conifers / their rowdy yellow in this / hollowing heat / intense as migraine? / Even the rushes / and Scotch thistles cling / to colour, though the dunes / are gaunt, ghostly…” Drive through a drought-struck region and check the truth of this.
I will not analyse in detail the second section of this collection “Tender”. It is a wonderful thing – a poetic portrait of Newman’s father in all his moods. He was, one understands, a hardy bloke, a tough farmer, but a man of odd tendernesses. This poetic portrait takes him through the things he said to his daughter when she was a child to his memories, and enduring pains, after having served in the Second World war to becoming a widower, to his own death. Clearly daughter loved father but father was obviously of a different generation from daughter and took for granted things she did not take for granted. His reaction to animals and their welfare appears to have been a bit less nuanced than her own. Even so, the image that emerges is of a hard-working man, a relable man, and somebody who really knew how the raw country works.
As for the third section “Ruahine”, this is the mature woman, now remembering her father but growing beyond him and reflecting more on the land than on the farm work, considering the wild birds, the kahikatea forests that are no longer there and the natural behaviour of birds and other animals beyond the farmer’s control.
And always, always the specificity of detail – in other words, the poems of somebody who knows, body and soul, what she’s talking about. What a great collection this is.
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It is obviously a worthwhile enterprise to encourage and promote young poets as Auckland University Press’s eighth “New Poets” publication does. Even so, Anna Jackson appears to overdo it in her Foreword where she not only tells us how to react to these poems and insists that the three young poets’ chief impulses are “Romantic”, but also makes such hyperbolic claims as “all [these poets] write with an intoxicating sense of the world’s beauty, its depth and distances.” Um… no they don’t.
Each of the three young women whose work is represented here has her own style and own preoccupations and often those preoccupations are not in any way connected to the “beauty” of the world.
Lily Holloway, self-described “queer” writer in her early twenties, writes poems of unspecified desire, but with much imagery of night, moonlight, and being a child or a young woman. Much concerns either what it is like to be about 22 years old or what it was like to be thirteen and younger. Her collection is called “a child in that alcove”. This is like a personality half-formed, balanced between childish impulses and mature loves. Holloway’s poetry is specifically grounded in Auckland urban settings. Always eschewing capital letters, Holloway sometimes produces unpunctuated blocks of prose poems, as in her listing of repugnant, nightmarish images in “you are my night terror i hope i am yours”. Personality, not fully formed, is also depicted as being in the process of disintegration. “departures”, consisting of largely-blank pages, purports to be drawing on a satire by Juvenal, but it erases so much (yes, erasing parts of given texts is currently a modish writing school exercise) that it is simply incoherent. There’s a great talent here waiting to be fully articulated.
Tru Paraha’s work is presented in an unusual typeface, mimicking an older form of presenting typed manuscripts. Her collection is titled “in my darkling universe” and it is an apt title inasmuch as Paraha does not deal with a specific setting but with a universal – indeed a cosmic – imagery, found in her explosive opening poem “spin”. Her Maori and Pacific heritage are important to her. Two of her poems draw on works by Hone Tuwhare and Alistair Campbell. Author notes tell me she is a choreographer and this would appear to be echoed in the way some of her work is set out like a pattern of dance moves. In effect, her work appeals as much to the eye as to the ear. Some of her typographical tricks don’t quite come off, however. I cannot see the purpose of driving words together in a solid block in her offering “wheniwasacannibal” unless if was intended to baffle the reader for a moment. Letshavemoreclarityinaddressingreaders.
Modi Deng’s poetry is poised, finely balanced and – greatest virtue of all – coherent. Her imagery is cosmopolitan. Here she is in London. Here she is watching the rain in New Zealand. Here (as a pianist) she is performing in Beijing. She draws up European culture. She draws upon Chinese culture. There are no outbursts of either extreme joy or extreme anger but a restrained, and therefore far more powerful, depiction of emotions – far more powerful than incoherent “list” poems or tricks with typography. In short, a real poet already in full maturity of expression.