brief goes to war
A mere ten months after its conception, the 188 page 'War' issue of brief is on its way out into the world. The front and back covers of brief #34 feature Ellen Portch's extraordinary portraits of George Bush jr and Saddam Hussein. The butcher of Baghdad and the Texan bomber were two of the unsavoury politicians featured in a disturbing and much-discussed exhibition Ellen mounted at the University of Auckland's Old Government House last year.
Issue #34 kicks off with a sadly prophetic leaflet distributed by the Direct Anti-War Action group at Whenuapai Air Base in 2003, then devotes thirty pages to Leicester Kyle, the retired Anglican vicar, botanist, environmental campaigner, and poet who died of cancer last July. Jack Ross remembers Leicester as a close personal friend and keen contributor to enterprises like brief; I survey the extraordinary body of writing the good vicar produced in his short writing life; Richard Taylor recalls Leicester the scientist; fellow anti-mining activist Pete Lusk reveals the impact Leicester made on the West Coast, after moving there at the end of nineties, and marvels at the old boy's ability to read all the way through Engels' Anti-Duhring. Together with three previously unpublished Leicester Kyle poems and the contents page for issue #34, these tributes have been posted on the Titus Books website.
The anti-war theme is picked up by veteran trade unionist and rest home rocker Don Franks, who reproduces and ridicules Vincent O'Sullivan's sententious state-commissioned tribute to New Zealand's 'Unknown Soldier'. Bill Direen echoes some of Don's arguments in his short essay 'Rights of the Unknown Writer', which reveals that the Governor General of New Zealand used one of the texts of the 'Marxist sympathiser and utopian anti-imperialist' John Mulgan at the 2004 ceremony to open the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Wellington. Perhaps remembering the long essay on Mulgan that Dave Bedggood contributed to the previous issue of brief, Bill points out the absurdity of the Queen's representative in New Zealand appropriating the work of an ardent anti-monarchist. Olivia Macassey's 'Pick Up Sticks', which was first published on the Poets Against War website, offers a similarly sceptical view of the assumptions behind formal and less formal commemorations of war by Kiwis:
you exchanged blood for blood and mud
for the glum mud of the Waikato, and stilled
your tongue beside the waters.
Now heedless youths drink beer in the Turkish sun,
watch it gild their skin, and believe
that false old alchemy.
In two e mails composed on September the 11th, 2001, New York poet Charles Bernstein registers the impact of the event that has come to signify the beginning of the 'War on Terror':
all of a sudden tonight the smell of burning plastic pervades our apartment, making eyes smart. is it something in the building? no, a neighbour explains, that's the smell coming from downtown.
Writing from Christchurch, Sugu Pillay offers an equally personal response in her poem 'Nine Eleven and Me'. The atrocities of 9/11 triggered an extraordinary debate on the US-based international 'Buffalo Poetics' e list, as avant-garde guru and long-time left-wing activist Ron Silliman shocked many of his admirers by urging support for a retaliatory war in the Middle East. brief #34 reproduces Silliman's argument for the invasion of Afghanistan, as well as Barrett Watten's powerful reply. We also give space to 'War=Language', a text Watten read at a protest against the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
In their different ways, Richard von Sturmer, Kendrick Smithyman, Kathy Dudding and Brett Cross all offer the sort of historical context that Silliman's warmongering so sadly lacked. Von Sturmer's poem-sequence 'Old Ez' examines Ezra Pound's tragicomic support for fascism during the Second World War; Dudding and Cross present documents from family members who lived through World Wars; and three pieces pinched from the posthumous Collected Poems of Smithyman take us back even further, to the British army's war of conquest against the Waikato Kingdom in 1863 and '64. My poem 'Private Gurney' explores the madness of a great war poet in a less historically responsible manner.
The centrepiece of brief #34 is 'San Toni', a previously-unpublished short story by Greville Texidor, an anarchist refugee from the war against fascism in Spain who spent most of the 1940s as an unhappy resident of Auckland's North Shore.
'San Toni', which is grounded in Texidor's wartime experiences, has been excavated from Texidor's papers and given a long and insightful introduction by Evelyn Hulse.
A short quote should make it clear that Texidor's story is of literary as well as historical interest:
The river or the ridge? Time yet to decide. No decision to make. For either way it ended in the village. To see and not to be seen? In the village where every face is known. Where every name is known. His own name had been in the mouth of the village in the glorious days of thirty-six.
Sweating he descended steadily by rocks hot in the sun, seeing out the corner of his eye the pale peak. He had climbed it once. It was green and inviting and there was a pocket of snow near the summit. He wanted to see what made it stay all summer. It blazed like a beacon. From any point near the village you looked up and it caught the eye. But when he got there it was only a dirty patch, no larger than a woman's petticoat.
Issue #34 also features a number of writers who do not touch directly on the subject of war. In a sprawling prose poem called '/cities.33' Michael Arnold continues his visionary exploration of modern China; Hamish Dewe, another exile in Beijing, offers a more jaundiced and pithier take on life in the world's next superpower. Writing from the University of Malawi, classicist and wanderlust Ted Jenner mixes translations from the fragments of Archilochus with memories of life on two very different continents. At the back of the issue I've managed to cram in reviews of work by Bill Direen and Will-Joy Christie that were shamelessly cribbed from the blog. (Apologies in advance for the sloppy failure to re-italicise book titles, after the pieces were copied and pasted from the net: I was keen to get to the pub and watch Ross Taylor bat.)
With issue #34 out of the way, I'm handing the reins of brief over to Brett Cross, who has already established a reputation as an editor through his work with Titus Books. Brett promises better promotion, speedier publication, and more music. If you're after a copy of issue #34 or a subscription for the next three issues, then you can e mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org