Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Charles Simic on the last days* of the Key government



The Lights Are on Everywhere

The Emperor must not be told night is coming.
His armies are chasing shadows,
Arresting whipporwills and hermit thrushes
And setting towns and villages on fire.

In the capital, they go around confiscating
Clocks and watches, burning heretics
And painting the sunrise above rooftops
So we can wish each other good morning.

The rooster brought in chains is crowing,
The flowers in the garden have been forced to stay open,
And yet still dark stains spread over the palace floors
Which no amount of scribbling will wipe away.

*With Key's party still being favoured by about half the respondents in most opinion polls, the phrase 'last days' might seem rather hopeful. Even if we accept Mathew Hooton's argument that National's support is overestimated by the polls, it still seems very possible that Key will hold onto office by making Winston Peters deputy Prime Minister after the election on September the 20th.

But the scandals of the last year, and the last fortnight in particular, have given Key's government the frayed and frightened air of the sort of ancien regime that Simic's poem satirises. A National-New Zealand First marriage would be loveless, and would likely end with calls to lawyers. The slow unravelling of the Shipley government at the end of the '90s seems to me to anticipate the future of Key's regime.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Disorder of the herd

In an attempt to defy Brett Cross' claim that twitter is a hostile environment for every writer who does not resort to the brutal brevity of a Hemingway or Chandler, I recently tweeted this 'Meme Poem'. It was made at the Meme Generator site, and matches a line from the incorrigibly verbose Kendrick Smithyman's great poem 'Near Ellon' with a portrait of the arrest of a trade unionist during a demonstration in Wellington in 1931. I think the Meme Poem could be a new literary genre.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Whaledump tradition

Over the last week the hacktivist known as Whaledump has dominated New Zealand politics by exposing the links between the National government and sleazy bloggers like Cameron Slater. After initially feeding documents to Nicky Hager, who turned them into a lucid narrative of corruption and intimidation, Whaledump has decided to make his or her electronic loot available to us all on the internet.

Both supporters and detractors have presented Whaledump's campaign as a radical innovation in New Zealand politics. Rodney Hide expressed the popular view when he told Radio Live yesterday that "we've never seen anything like" Whaledump in New Zealand, and claimed that his or her campaign "had only been made possible" by "new technology".

Whaledump may be using twenty-first century technology to torment the National government, but the hacktivist's strategy of discovering and sharing the dirty secrets of the powerful has a venerable history in New Zealand politics. What Whaledump does with an internet connection and a filesharing site, earlier activists did with notebooks, printings presses, and pirate radio.

Whaledump's campaign can be compared, in its intensity and ingenuity, with the propaganda war waged in illegal pamphlets and on pirate radio by supporters of New Zealand's wharfies in 1951, during what some historians have taken to calling the Great Waterfront Lockout.
After Sid Holland's National government kicked members of the powerful and unashamedly socialist Waterside Workers Union out of their workplaces at the beginning of 1951, the wharfies' allies in the coal mines, freezing works, and railyards went on strike. Holland tried to break his opponents by declaring that New Zealand was 'at war', and announcing 'emergency regulations' that banned workers from marching in the streets, publishing their views, or even giving food to the wives and children of wharfies.

Holland's crusade had been urged by a paranoid United States, which feared that communist members of New Zealand's trade unions might be about to seize power and make their country a South Pacific satellite of the Soviet Union. Holland had another ally in Fintan Patrick Walsh, the leader of the Seaman's Union, who was known as the 'Black Prince' because of his fondness for violence and his dodgy business practices.

Instead of being intimidated by the suspension of their civil rights, the wharfies and their allies quickly published more than a score of pamphlets and bulletins that condemned the authoritarianism and corruption of the National regime and its helpers. These broadsides could not be sold openly, but were passed from hand to hand in union halls and pubs up and down New Zealand.
One of the strikers' pamphlets was particularly shocking, and particularly popular. If It's Treachery Get Tuohy was an expose of Fintan Patrick Walsh, whose birth name was Patrick Tuohy. The pamphlet showed that Walsh, who supposedly lived on the modest salary of a union official, had used a combination of thuggery and political connections to acquire all sorts of riches, including an enormous dairy farm in the Wairarapa. Pamphlets like If It's Treachery Get Tuohy were complemented by a pirate radio station that began to broadcast from the mountains outside Wellington.

After defying the New Zealand state for five months, the Waterside Workers Union finally admitted defeat in the middle of 1951. When a gleeful Sid Holland responded by calling a snap election, National won a record 51% of the vote. The wharfies had won considerable support in the working class suburbs of New Zealand's big cities and in coal mining and hydro station towns, but they had bewildered and frightened the farming communities that traditionally back the National Party. Because of Holland's emergency regulations and the limitations of print media, documents like If It's Treachery Get Tuohy, with their revelations of the corruption of the National government and its allies, never reached the eyes of many New Zealanders.

There are, of course, big differences between the political situation in 1951 and the situation today. Whaledump is not the spearhead of any militant working class movement, and the spectre of communism does not haunt John Key. But similarities exist amidst the differences. Key's use of Cameron Slater to intimidate his opponents recalls Sid Holland's distaste for dissent, and one of the persistent targets of Slater's blog has been the Maritime Union of New Zealand, the direct descendant of the Waterside Workers Union that fought so hard against National in 1951.
By sharing the dirty secrets of the National Party and its allies, Whaledump is following in the tradition of the anonymous trade unionists who defied the law to write, publish, and distribute polemics like If It's Treachery Get Tuohy in 1951. Today, though, Whaledump has technology that makes his or her revelations available instantly to a huge majority of New Zealanders, regardless of where they live and what politics they hold. The sort of propaganda battle that was lost in 1951 may be won in 2014.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Five tweses on Whalegate

Blogging has suddenly become the subject of popular fascination in New Zealand, thanks to the revelations of the manifold connections between the National Party and right-wing bloggers like Cameron Slater, the proprietor of Whale Oil. I've been too busy to post anything about the ongoing scandal here, and my services are probably not required, anyway, given the excellent coverage that bloggers like Danyl McLaughlan and Giovanni Tiso have carried. 
I have, though, been following and commenting on the bewildering events of the past few days on that bastard offspring of the blog, twitter. Here are five 'tweses' on what we may as well call Whalegate.

1. I was relieved that the anonymous hacker of Whale Oil gave his or her loot to Nicky Hager, rather than Penny Bright. A comparison of Hager's work with the stuff that turns up at Uncensored, the magazine Penny patronises, shows the truth of my mate Matthew Dentith's argument that conspiracy theories can be robust as well as wacky. 
2. Anyone who doubts Nicky Hager's ability to undertake sustained and painstaking research should read his long essay about radar stations and codebreaking on New Zealand's home front during World War Two. Hager's text was published by a peace group, and was undoubtedly motivated by his hostility to our contemporary as well as byegone spooks, but like all good pieces of scholarship it has a value that transcends its author's politics. As I've said too many times on this blog, bias is a precondition for good research. Nicky may not consider it an honour, but Paul Janman and I created the character of Felix Quail after becoming preoccupied with his descriptions of life in isolated wartime radar stations. 
3. I was amused by the way Cameron Slater attempted to dismiss Nicky Hager as a pseudo-scholar, when Whale Oil has featured plugs for such towering works of scholarship as Noel Hilliam's book-length claim that ancient Greeks sailed all the way to New Zealand and established a large society here, before apparently being vapourised by latecomer Maori. 
4. The febrile comments threads of Whale Oil and Kiwiblog have been scrutinised over the past week. I've documented a couple of forays into the Kiwiblog bear pit. Abandon hope of rational discussion, all ye who enter.
5. Talkback radio host and columnist Kerre Woodham, whose strident, unselfconscious manner would be well-suited to a Kiwiblog comments thread, claimed in yesterday's Herald that the sort of dirty politics Nicky Hager has documented have been 'around' for 'tens of thousands of years'. I know that Cameron Slater is a Neanderthal, Kerre, but I think you've made the same sort of mistake as the bank teller who adds a couple of zeros to a statement. I don't think Palaeolithic humans, like my mate Mungo Man, deserve to be associated with the primitive behaviour that Hager has documented... 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Caving with Nicky Hager

When Nicky Hager's revelations about the Key government's campaign of dirty tricks against its opponents irrupted into the media, Paul Janman and I were looking at this photograph, which was printed in the New Zealand Herald on September the 5th, 1940. 

The caption under the photograph reads:


COMMUNIST LITERATURE FOUND IN PAPATOETOE CAVE: Cyclostyled pamphlets in a deep cave on the farm near Papatoetoe where the police have seized a duplicating plant and other material.


Paul and I discovered the image in the online Papers Past archive while we were researching our documentary film about the history of the Great South RoadWhen we exhibited a tableload of artefacts from the history of the Great South Road at Papakura Art Gallery earlier this year, we blew up the 1940 photograph and its caption and placed it next to a newspaper article that described the detention without trial of the South Auckland rangatira Ihaka Takanini during the Waikato War. We wanted to suggest that the repression of civil liberties has been a recurrent feature of New Zealand history. 


This week Paul and I were throwing together images and footage from the whole one hundred and fifty-three year history of the road - images of the British soldiers and Maori guerrillas from the 1860s, but also pictures of the industrial zones of Otahuhu and Southdown during their heyday, and shots from the kava circles of Tongan immigrants to 'Atalanga - as we worked on a promotional clip. 


We wanted to juxtapose images from different eras, so that we could show the continuities and repetitions in the history of New Zealand. When a voice from the radio in the corner of Paul's editing suite began explaining that the Key government had used spies, bullyboy bloggers, and hackers to intimidate and ridicule its opponents, the photograph taken in that cave began to look not only eerie but premonitory.


To understand why communists were hiding out in a South Auckland cave in 1940 we have to do some remembering. 


By the 1930s the slaughterhouses and workshops of Southdown and Otahuhu had become citadels of socialist politics. Even after his Labour party won the general election of 1935 and made him Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage would visit the Otahuhu railway workshops and the freezing works in Southdown, mount an improvised stage, and speak to crowds of workers. He might have been an Athenian democrat talking to the city’s assembly, or a Roman senator addressing his plebian supporters.


The Communist Party never won more than a few thousand workers to its banner, but the discipline and masochism of its members, and their concentration in working class strongholds like Otahuhu, meant that the party was able to act as a left opposition to Labour inside several important trade unions. Party members endured discrimination from employers, raids by the police, and ridicule in the media to spend their mornings at the gates of factories selling their newspaper, the People’s Voice, and their evenings in unheated union halls reading Marx and Engels to yawning miners and wharfies. 
In 1940 the Communist Party and its publications were effectively banned, because they were opposing, on Soviet instructions, the war against Hitler. With the help of Christian pacifists, communists had organised a series of big rallies against the conscription of young men for the war. Communists caught with copies of the People's Voice or posters advertising anti-conscription meetings were tried and imprisoned, to the delight of Labour strongman Peter Fraser. Like several other members of Labour's cabinet, Fraser had been imprisoned for opposing the First World War using the same sort of rhetoric that the Communist Party now deployed.

Soon Sid Scott, the party's dourly prolific polemicist and pamphleteer, and Gordon Watson, a young poet and scholar who had shocked his bourgeois Wellington family and his university masters by converting to communism in the early ‘30s, were entrusted with the job of publishing an underground version of the People’s Voice. They took their mission literally, and set up a crude printing machine in a lava cave near the freezing works and railway workshops of Southdown and Otahuhu. 
By 1940 New Zealand's reserves of paper and ink were carefully monitored, and only publishers whose politics were acceptable to the government were entitled to supplies of the precious materials. Scott and Watson presumably had to scavenge old pages and inkpots from the desks and cupboards of party members and supporters, and issues of their underground People's Voice often consisted of a mere four pages of badly smudged print. Copies of the paper were nevertheless passed through the worksites of New Zealand's big cities, along with leaflets with titles like For Peace and Labour Imperialists. More subversives were tried, and detention camps were improvised to complement New Zealand's prison system.
Near the end of the winter of 1940, some kids exploring the back paddocks of a farm found the entrance to a cave. As the New Zealand Herald explained, the outlaws were absent when the children visited, but their traces were obvious:
In addition to the duplicator, which was mounted on rough flooring boards, two boxes were found. One box contained a number of publications on communism...Pieces of timber and sacks covered the sodden soil of the floor, and two pieces of asbestos board had been used to protect the duplicator and papers from the moisture dipping from the roof. An empty apple box had also been used. The depth and winding access to the cave prevented any natural light from penetrating, and candles had been employed for illumination.
Neither Sid Scott nor Gordon Watson ever joined their comrades in jail. They eluded police and published their paper from other locations - one newspaper report suggested that a printer was working secretly somewhere in the Otahuhu Railway Workshops - until the middle of 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Stalin explained to his Western satellites that the Second World War had turned from an 'inter-imperialist conflict' into a struggle to defend socialism. In New Zealand RAK Mason, another poet who had converted to communism, was entrusted producing a new, ostentatiously pro-war publication called In Print, which was quickly legalised by the government. Mason was chosen for the job partly because he had not helped publish the underground People's Voice.
After the Soviet Union ordered the Communist Party to change its position on the war Watson became a soldier. When he died in the rubble of a small Italian town, a couple of weeks before the fall of Berlin, the Communist Party proclaimed him a hero. In 1947 the poems, articles, and letters Watson had written for the party press and to party members were collected in a memorial volume by Elsie Locke; all of them show signs of thoughtfulness and vivacity, but most of them are compromised by their author's belief that Stalin's Soviet Union is an Empire of the Blessed.

Sid Scott continued to toil for the party after the abandonment of the People's Voice. In 1942 his eyesight suddenly deteriorated, and he was forced to dictate his articles and pamphlets to party secretaries. After being told that he had would lose his sight altogether, Scott took a holiday to the King Country, explaining that he had always wanted to see the famous limestone cave at Waitomo. Scott had enough eyesight left to make out a few faint glow worms, as he floated in a dinghy down Waitomo's dark current.


Scott turned against the Communist Party after the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956, and eventually became angrily and outspokenly anti-communist, 
writing letters to members of the Holyoake government demanding repressive measures against the party he had once led. One of Scott's denunciations of his old comrades found a home in the New Zealand Herald
It would be wrong to conflate the abuses of state power exposed by Nicky Hager with the repression suffered by activists like Gordon Watson and Sid Scott seven and a half decades ago. The Key government is not at war, and has no need of the special courts and detention camps that Peter Fraser built for his opponents. But Hager's revelations and the sinister photograph that appeared in the Herald in 1940 both remind us that New Zealand governments have a long history of persecuting their opponents.

Paul and I have located the cave where New Zealand's communists hid their printery in 1940. We'll be visiting the place soon - and you'll be invited along.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Limbo, and other ecosystems



In a book that is probably now out of print, Eric Hobsbawm ridiculed the belief that publication gives a manuscript eternal life. Far from enjoying immortality, Hobsbawm argued, most books and periodicals are consigned very quickly to the back shelves and stacks of research libraries, from which they will be, if they are lucky, briefly brought back to life by curious postgraduate students.
When I was researching my PhD I used to cherish Hobsbawm's words, because they made me feel important. When I pestered the librarians at Auckland university with a request for some obscure title, I wasn't being a smart alec, or a pedant, but a sort of demigod, who summoned texts from the underworld of the library's storage rooms back into the bright light of day - or, at least, into the filtered light of a reading room. 
Now that I'm the author of several books that are well on their way to the underworlds of research libraries, Hobsbawm's insight seems melancholy rather than inspiring.

Back in 2004 I wrote a rambling essay to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the publication of one of my favourite books of New Zealand poetry, Graham Lindsay's The Subject. I wanted to try to summon Lindsay's text out of the shadows of library stacks, but my own essay soon ended up in a limbo of its own. It was published at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, but quickly slipped off the edge of that vast website, and turned up in a corner of the chaotic original website of Titus Books. For reasons that remain obscure to me, Titus had made the font of the essay unreadably small.

I thought I would summon my essay about The Subject into the dim light of this blog, because twenty years have now passed since the publication of Lindsay's masterpiece, and because I've been in trouble, since the beginning of the election season, with Mark Harvey. Mark, who used to live across the road from me here in West Auckland, is renowned for performing onerous dances, and on facebook and in the comments thread beneath one of my blog posts he has good-naturedly taken on the onerous task of convincing me that I should vote for the Green Party. Mark feels that I don't appreciate the Greens' environmental policies; I'd prefer to believe that I have a different sense of what words like 'environmental' mean. 
In the essay on Lindsay I link the poems in The Subject to the ideas of Geoffrey Park, the visionary natural scientist and prose poet who gave New Zealand two great books, Nga Uruora: the Groves of Life and Theatre Country, before his early death in 2009. Although Park had close links with the Green Party, I think that his critique of the artificial distinction many environmentalists make between nature and humanity and his unease with the pursuit of an unattainable, untainted 'wilderness' would make him sceptical about some of the rhetoric and imagery the Greens are employing in this year's election.

Poem as Ecosystem: five meandering notes on Graham Lindsay's The Subject
1. 'The painter should be painting'
The Subject is not a famous volume of poetry. Published by Auckland University Press in 1994, the book received some tepid reviews, and has barely appeared on the radar of critics and anthologists. The Subject's neglect can perhaps be related to its author's peculiar position in New Zealand's literary industry. Graham Lindsay is often identified with what Alan Loney has called New Zealand literature's 'other tradition': his first book was published by Loney's Hawk Press, and his short-lived Morepork was one of the most loved of New Zealand's 'little magazines'. But over the years Lindsay has published extensively in 'mainstream' outlets like Landfall and the Listener, and his work has always had a sense of place which seems to tug at the nationalist and regionalist themes that have dominated our literary history.

By the early 1990s postmodernism had become very fashionable in the English Departments of New Zealand's universities, but most of the work published by the big presses remained immune to the influence of Barthes and Derrida. Visits by Language poets Charles Bernstein and Lynn Heijinian polarised the literary community.

It is difficult to relate The Subject to the quarrel between the 'two traditions'. Lindsay's recalcitrance may have irked the mainstream, but his rather rustic subject and strong individual voice would make him an unlikely postmodernist.

Neither wing of the literary community is likely to have been impressed with Lindsay's obsession with the problem of representing reality in language. Lindsay refused either to take his language for granted, or to surrender to the free play of the signifier. Reviewing The Subject in Landfall, Margaret Mahy signalled her impatience:

Lindsay is least enjoyable when he is gazing at his navel, worrying about reality and language, and at his best when he is describing the world around him. Instead of worrying about his palette, the painter should be painting.
2. Daring to see?
But there is little word-painting in The Subject, even when Lindsay is not 'gazing at his navel'. Most of the book's poems are constructed out of fragments of description. Lindsay's fragments are always more than tangentially related, partly because almost all of them are drawn from the 'real world' of the South Island of New Zealand, but mainly because of their author's artfulness. The Subject reminds me of Pierre Reverdy, who tried to create a 'Cubist' poetry out of bits and pieces of language. A Reverdy poem is a sort of grid: its images do not make narrative or descriptive sense, but they may 'charge' each other, to the extent that they are interestingly juxtaposed:

A fading star
A woman's dark hair
The lantern of the departing train

Another name worth mentioning is Tomas Transtromer, whose work might easily have influenced The Subject. Robin Fulton has discussed the method of Transtromer's early poems:

A series of contrasts is described — light-dark, dreaming-awake, stasis-motion, interior-exterior — and they are related to each other in such a way as to define the limits of an area at whose undefined centre some sort of epiphany is experienced...the poet seems to say 'I have aroused your expectations in the right direction; the rest depends not on my further definition but on your imagination and experience'.

But, as Margaret Mahy noted with dismay, Lindsay cannot resist 'further definition'. Again and again The Subject worries about the difficulty of relating language and reality. 'Cloud Silence' is typical:

The point is
to stop writing. Stop
using language to protect
yourself from the full
implications of the world — the world says
Look at me, I dare you to
I dare you to see

Lindsay complains about the difficulty of finding words to fit reality, and fantasises about getting 'beyond' poetry altogether by accessing a reality 'before' language. It's no wonder Mahy treated him like a frustrated landscape painter. Yet Lindsay's practice as a poet belies the naive realism of his ruminations on language: the poems of The Subject are not simple attempts to 'take down' some pre-existing 'reality', but very artful constructions which shape as well as apprehend the reality they reach through language.
3. Tuning in
How can we theorise the poet's practice, when the poet himself has been unable to do so? I turn to the term abstraction, which I learned from Bertell Ollman's book Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method. Ollman argues that humans think in abstractions snatched from an almost infinitely complex reality:

You use abstraction all the time. For instance, when you go to a concert, or listen to a piece of music for the first time, you might focus first on a single instrument, or a single part of the performance, to get a preliminary sense of the whole. Once you have done that, you will probably go on to 'tune in' to other instruments, and other parts of the composition. 
For Ollman, dialectical abstractions distinguish themselves by including the 'change and contradiction' that gets left out of 'the tidy categories of ideology'. Ollman emphasises the flexibility of the dialectical method: because reality can only be accessed by abstraction, and abstraction is always partial, different abstractions can cover some of the same reality. We must abstract again and again, from different vantage points in time and space, to understand any complex phenomenon. 'Common sense' or ideology may insist on the identity of reality and a single abstraction, but dialecticians know better. Ollman is a Marxist, but he's happy to acknowledge that plenty of non-Marxists have thought dialectically, from Heraclitus to William Blake to Roy Bhaskar. EP Thompson has ventured that all visionary poetry is dialectical, and that Blake's command of the method easily rivals Hegel's.

In The Subject, Lindsay abstracts details of the world he lives in, and creates larger abstractions by putting these details together, or by leaving them lying around together. The best poem in the book deploys a series of powerful abstractions to apprehend a reality than can rightly be called visionary:

Backwater

Sun above sea
bush out back. Raising a hand —
remote as a moon or star
stunning glib
3D effect, like a frame
of mind behind a mirror image.
Herekino, Matapouri,
Anaura, Waimarama, Okains —
a flock of names commercialising
the scenery, screening
ineffability.
'Come on in, the water's fine!'
Where do we get such ridiculous
lines? The STS Spirit of New Zealand
mainmast doubling as a funnel
motors sideways into the stream.
Going off on a note
notebook on forearm
like a waiter taking orders:
the seagulls want fat tuatua
waves complain of sand
in their sandwiches.
Shell crockery tinkles
in the backwash

'Backwater' is a poem which pulsates with 'contradiction and change', but whose ambiguities and instabilities speak to the complexity of its subject matter, not of any hankering after 'difficulty' for its own sake. Lindsay's opening sentence gives us a couple of the most recognisable motifs of New Zealand literature: following a title like 'Backwater', they suggest that we are about to be treated to an extra thick slice of Kiwi pastoral realism. But the poem's second sentence introduces an unexpected self-consciousness which is all the more disturbing because it does not carry a great deal of self-confidence. Lindsay is like an artist who paints himself into his picture, but then begins to doubt his own likeness.

Lindsay is not shy of alluding to philosophy, and whether he intends it or not his second and third lines remind me of GE Moore's famous attempt to prove his own existence to an audience in a Cambridge lecture hall in 1925. Defending the possibility of 'propositions that are known for certain to be true', Moore raised his arm and said 'I know this to be part of my body', adding 'I know that my body has always existed on or near the surface of the earth, and never on the moon'. Lindsay links scepticism about the physical with scepticism about the 'frame/ of mind, behind a mirror image'.

The poem's third sentence shifts the focus, as Lindsay abstracts a 'flock of names' whose import seems somewhat mysterious. Perhaps 'Herekino, Matapouri/Anaura, Waimaramara, O'Kains' are all 'Backwaters': why, though, should they be guilty of 'commercialising/ the scenery'? Because they are busy 'screening ineffability'? Are they broadcasting ineffability, or blocking ineffability, or both?

Instead of answering our questions, Lindsay throws us the 'ridiculous' line 'Come on in, the water's fine!' I remember a similar phrase being used as the punch line of a TV advert — for sunscreen, no less — in the early '90s. A flabby middle aged man lay on a beach, fell asleep, and got so badly burned he turned into a lobster: his daughter splashed in the shallows, shouting 'Come on in Dad, the water's boiling!'

Is a shipping line ridiculous, in a backwater like Lindsay's? The Spirit of New Zealand moves sideways, like any sensible line of poetry, but where could it be going? How many steamships ply the Herekino harbour these days? The first half of 'Backwater's' penultimate sentence gives us a clue to Lindsay's method: acknowledging 'going off on a note', he nevertheless asserts that he is responding to the demands of his subject matter, 'like a waiter taking orders'. When 'waves complain of sand/ in their sandwiches' though, we know that the poet is looking at the page as well as the world. The tinkling of the last two lines seems to linger, as Lindsay denies his poem a full stop.

Why linger over Lindsay, when he writes like this? 'Backwater' is undeniably a difficult poem, because the relationships it brings into view are difficult to grasp, or let go. The poem is a like a very dissonant remix of some of the most-whistled tunes of New Zealand literature. Mansfield's 'At the Bay', Glover's maritime poems, and Curnow's despatches from Karekare are all in Lindsay's sampling box. The achievement of 'Backwater' only becomes apparent when we consider some of the less ambitious poems in The Subject. With its string of entertaining conceits 'Pear' resembles the 'Martian' poems of Craig Raine, or Bill Manhire's early, 'Anglo-Saxon' work:

I put down the pen
and raise the pear to my lips again, notice
canal patterns, dust ripples
and star craters. Highland green meadows with children
in traditional costume playing near rocky
streams, wading through yellow flower.
Lots of broken dots like full stops
a broken headland where the stalk ripped off.
The pear leans like Pisa
or a drawing of a cannon by Leonardo da Vinci

'Pear' is a pleasure, but few readers will feel the need to revisit it, any more than they will wish to hear the same joke twice. 'Backwater', on the other hand, is almost endlessly rich, even if it gives up its riches more reluctantly than 'Pear'. 
4. Welcome to wherever you are
If we read Lindsay as a sort of 'dialectical' poet — as a poet shaping as well as apprehending reality — then we can understand poems like 'Backwater' as critiques as well as constructions. Geoffrey Hill has argued that a good poem can be seen as an 'exemplary action'; I believe that many of the poems in The Subject can be called exemplary constructions. In place of the 'ridiculous lines' of debased speech and mediocre poetry, Lindsay offers us his strange new details and their elliptical intersections. 'Backwater' can be read as a riposte, not to Mansfield or Glover or Curnow or Manhire, but to the exhausted tradition of sentimental localism that mistakenly claims their patronage. 
I will always associate The Subject with Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life, a book published by botanist Geoff Park in 2002. I reread The Subject earlier this year, at the same time that I was discovering Nga Uruora, and the books seem to belong beside each other on my shelf. Like Lindsay, Park is much concerned with the intersections between humans and the 'natural world', and with the way we think about nature.

Nga Uruora is the record of a series of expeditions to coastal lowlands where native forest thrived before the colonisation of Aotearoa. Park examines the disastrous impact of 'the agriculture industry' on the lowlands, and considers the history of attempts to save their forests. A quotation conveys the quality of Park's book better than any summary of its subject:

If it was just a matter of plants, I could be in a stream in the English countryside. I could round the first bend without noticing white seashells sliding down its collapsing bank, the only clue to what was once the cream of the Hauraki Plains' river pa. Not until the flow is about to take me out of the Hikutaia into the Waihou do I pull into flooded cow tracks and make my way ashore. I climb up onto a grassy flat vanishing under a yellow tide of ragwort and spreading blackberry. An abandoned milking shed flaps its rusted iron roof in the wind. A harrier arcs up and away, grasping for currents of air. There is not a native plant to be seen. Once, before the hooves of the dairy economy, you could have plunged your hand into loose, pliant humus. Now my feet are quickly clogged with the gouged, clayed ground of a meaner soil.

Park is critical of the 'industrialist' ethos of colonisation and Kiwi capitalism, pointing to its indifference to the ecology of islands that had been uninhabited longer than anywhere else on earth. More surprisingly, he is unimpressed with the 'cult of virgin nature' espoused by the Victorian 'Scenic Reserves movement', and by today's Department of Conservation. Park argues that virgin nature is a concept created by the industrial revolution, and is predicated on the alienation of humanity from nature.

Park's first chapter visits the Hauraki Plains, where the forest of huge kahikatea 'discovered' by Cook has been replaced by a set of very productive dairy farms. The Kaimai Ranges that rise at one end of the Plains remain heavily forested, and are designated as parkland today. I grew up not far from the Hauraki Plains, and regularly tramp in the Kaimai Ranges. I had always imagined the farmers' plains and the forested hills as two different and differently necessary zones, one consecrated to production and the other to the 'preservation' of nature.

For Park, though, the hills and the plain represent two sides of the same alienation. He recalls that Hauraki Maori lived amongst the lowland forest without destroying it, and shows how Maori intent on 'exploiting' their old forests, like the Tuhoe people of the Ureweras, have repeatedly suffered at the hands of the 'guardians of virgin nature'. Park wants his readers to renounce terms like 'virgin nature' and 'wilderness', and to think in new ways about their relationship with the world:

The 'empty places' that led Monte Holcroft 'straight back to the unknown' are like Cook's 'mild and conveniently vacant' plains...The Western approach to conservation sets nature aside as large tracts of land in a state of imagined innocence...settler culture was utilitarian, but they liked ferny glades, waterfalls, and forest clearings for bush picnics. The scenic reserve was just another masthead on which the empire could fly its banners...it marginalised ordinary nature.

In pursuit of his ends, Park seeks to renovate the concept 'ecosystem'. He makes it clear that, to him at least, an ecosystem is a human concept, designed to apprehend reality, and open to use in different ways for different purposes.

Of course, Geoff Park's arguments will only become influential if they find expression in some sort of social and political movement. Will Nga Uruora lose its whiff of fatalism, and read instead like a manifesto, or a prophecy? During the seabed and foreshore hikoi I marched over the Auckland harbour bridge close to a group of Hauraki Maori holding a banner which read OURS 4SURE — TO EXPLOIT AND PROTECT. Reading Park's book helped me to understand that slogan.
5. Constructing ecosystems
Can we relate 'Backwater' to Geoff Park's condemnation of the 'cult of wilderness'? We have seen that Lindsay's poem refuses any sentimental treatment of 'bush and sea'. Lindsay's bizarre anthropomorphisations — his waves that 'complain of sand/ in their sandwiches' — ridicule the solemn and pompous personifications of nature so common in New Zealand poetry. The double meaning of 'screening/ ineffability' suggests the important role that the cult of the 'unspoilt' backwater plays in 'commercialising/ the scenery' of this country.

Would it be going too far to argue that the best poems in The Subject can be read as elliptical, highly compressed 'ecosystems': that is, as constructs that attempt both to approximate a recalcitrant reality and to break through the old categories New Zealanders use to think about their relationship to their surroundings? Graham Lindsay does not, of course, present his book in this way. He sees himself struggling with the limits of language, not with the limitations of one or another social construction of reality. He offers metaphysical complaint, not social criticism. But the best poems speak for themselves, and they speak more eloquently than ever, ten years on:

A reread discovers
soft spots like this
where text covers
an underground spring. Billowing
waterbed for verbalists
to jump on.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Jack's archipelago



I wanted to thank Jack Ross for putting me on the same (web)page as that coolest of cool literary dudes, Hunter S Thompson. The inventor of gonzo journalism and I both decorate the blog that Jack has set up for the students of the Travel Writing Course he teaches at the Albanian campus of Massey University.

At the top of the page dedicated to the eleventh lecture of Jack's paper, the cigarette-slinging Thompson broods in black and white, during his expedition to a chemically enhanced Las Vegas; at the bottom, I peer through the windscreen of a 1994 Honda Integra at the rumpled green countryside west of Huntly. Hunter wears a hat because he's cool; I wear a hat because rain has blown in off the Tasman, and the roof of my vehicle is leaking. Jack presents us both as exponents of 'anti-travel', and brings Hackney perambulator Iain Sinclair and wannabe cosmonaut Daniel Kalder into the deal, as well.

With its pages of calm exegesis, its detailed but never pedantic bibliographies, and its carefully captioned illustrations, the blog for paper 139.326 will be useful to students inside and outside Massey. I hope that Jack's democratic spirit catches on amongst the academics who are still hiding their knowledge behind firewalls, and are thereby disenfranchising the communities they study.

Jack's travel writing site is only one island in an online archipelago that he has raised fussily but quietly over the past six years. As well as building sites for the various papers he teaches at Massey Albany - here's the blog for 139.123, or introduction to Creative Writing - Jack has recorded his own reading and writing on webpage after webpage.

When Nigel Cross was made a Burns Fellow at Otago University at the end of the '50s he set out to write a novel, and reportedly kept students and staff up to date with his progress by posting charts recording his daily and weekly outputs of words on the door of his office. Anyone who visited the blog Jack named Eva Ave could have read his science fiction novel EMO as it grew, one post at a time, into something big and complex.

On the blog he has named A Gentle Madness, Jack documents his library with the sort of austere zeal that would have pleased Jorge Luis Borges. Clicking on the hyperlink for 'Bookcase F', I find myself browsing shelf after shelf of 'Spanish and Latin American Literature', and coming face to face with half-famous, half-forgotten modernists like Vicentre Huidobro and Cesar Vallejo. Another section of the site lists books that Jack would like to own.

There are, it seems, limits to the democratic impulse that has led Jack to make so much of his academic and creative writing available for free. A note on the preface page of A Gentle Madness explains that:

Requests for the loan of any of the books or materials listed here will not be entertained seriously. It seems most unlikely you won't be able to find a nearby public library which can obtain the titles you're searching for.

Fair enough. We can't expect Jack to do everything for us, can we?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]