Over the air and in front of the Board
If you've come to this website after hearing me droning over the airwaves, do stay a while and look about. You can find links to some of our many Smithyman-related posts and discussions here. You can buy copies of Private Bestiary from the University Bookshops chain, from Unity Books in Auckland and Wellington, from Parsons Books in Auckland, and via the Titus Books page. If you're not getting any satisfaction from these various institutions, then flick me an e mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll see you right.
The last time Radio New Zealand interviewed me, the station wound up in the High Court, as it sought successfully to defend itself against the slings and arrows of the anti-semite I exposed on air and an incompetent Broadcasting Standards Authority. I don't think my latest appearance is likely to cause the same level of fuss: I spend most of the ten minute interview, which was recorded back on Tuesday, talking about Kendrick Smithyman's unhappy experiences in World War Two, his pioneering attempts to establish a dialogue between Pakeha and Maori culture, and the enormous, pedantically chaotic collection of papers he left to posterity.
I doubt whether Smithyman would mind, though, if his latest posthumous publication did create a minor scandal or two. Smithyman was a gently mischevious man, who believed that controversy could sometimes be a valuable commodity.
Speaking at a memorial reading held for Smithyman at the beginning of 1996, Michael King remembered quoting his late friend's poem 'The Last Moriori' in an article on Moriori history he had written for a Sunday newspaper in the mid-'80s. The well-known Chatham Islands farmer and politician Tommy Solomon has traditionally been considered the last full-blooded Moriori, but King's article pointed out that Sir Peter Buck had located a full-blooded Moriori who had been taken from his Chathams homeland as a child, and who was alive and well in the northern Kaipara for some years after Solomon's death in 1933.
Smithyman spent his first few years in the little northern Kaipara milling town of Te Kopuru, and once had a glimpse of the 'last Moriori' in nearby Dargaville. His poem, which is full of brilliant but disturbing and perhaps morally dubious images, remembered that experience, and when King published parts of it in the national media the Solomon family was less than impressed. The Solomons were leading lights in the 'Moriori renaissance' which was gathering pace on the Chathams in the 1980s, and they were unhappy at what they perceived as Smithyman's challenge to the mana of their ancestor Tommy.
For a while, the Solomons suspended relations with Michael King, and his plans to write a book about Moriori history seemed doomed. Luckily, King and the Solomons patched things up, and King went on to publish his eloquent, politically influential Moriori: a People Rediscovered at the end of the '80s.
At the 1996 memorial evening for Smithyman, King remembered how the poet had been excited, rather than perturbed, by the controversy which 'The Last Moriori' had created. "Kendrick took the reaction of the Solomons as a sign that poetry still had the ability to unsettle and provoke" King noted.
In the spirit of unsettling and provoking, I want to post one of the most caustic poems in Private Bestiary, along with the note which I wrote to accompany it. Has a better poem ever been written about either the idiocies of military hierarchy or the agonies of haemorrhoids? (Alright, I admit: not many poets besides Smithyman have applied their talents to the subject of haemorrhoids. But doesn't that fact just underline yet again old Kendrick's originality?)
People don't believe I had to stand on my head
to get out of the Air Force.
The Medical Board was two doctors.
records. (What was my record?) One did
the donkey work, nothing exotic
You had haemorrhids. Indeed I had.
And surgery? Agreed."I suppose
we'd better take a look. Drop trousers, please.
Bend further...ah. Dear goodness me"
my head touching flooboards,
"that's very neat, that's very neat indeed.
Oh Charles, do look at this."
Charles thought it was very neat. My word, you don't see
work like that every day. Who did?
Me, still upsidedown, telling them
"Major Someone, at Papakura Camp"
he did them, Army, Air Force, Navy too
for all I knew. If you had piles
he was the man to take them to. He was The Man.
They'd heard of him, they truly liked his style.
They looked their last, Charles said I might unfold,
went back to signing things.
How it all returns, like an old film.
I didn't tell how Major Someone
examining prior to
smiled, only a little reassuringly.
Remarked, "Believe me,this is one time I can say
the doctor knows exactly how you feel",
sat himself at his desk so very tenderly.
[Note to 'Inspecting']
Kendrick Smithyman was perversely proud of the rather inglorious ‘war wound’ he acquired during his military service. In his 1988 poem ‘Confessions of a New Zealand Opium Eater’ he describes the bad case of haemorrhoids he suffered in the Air Force, as well as the uncomfortable way he initially sought to treat his malady:
"Try this," they said,
an ointment. Ung, opio et gallae, something
like that. You did it with a mirror,
getting it in place or nearly
in the ablutions block late night or early morning,
squinting, octopus-wise, when audience
was least. There was more to it
than met the eye. Learn quickly, not to cough,
especially, not to sneeze.
Remember, clean the glass before you leave.
If ‘Inspecting’ is any guide, then opium-laced ointment did not cure Smithyman’s complaint, and an operation was required. Papakura Military Camp was a facility hurriedly improvised in 1940 to house newly-mobilised troops, and used to host American servicemen later in the war, by which time it had acquired a permanent look, with large barrack halls, well-kept training and drill grounds, a mess hall, and a medical clinic. Papakura would eventually become the headquarters of New Zealand’s Special Air Service.
Smithyman may have spent some time at Papakura very early in his military career, but it is likely that any encounter with ‘Major Someone’ came much later. Smithyman did not escape from the Air Force until November 1945, several months after the end of World War Two. In his 1985 piece ‘Discharging’, which was published for the first time in the Collected Poems, Smithyman gives a picture of his liberation from the military that is somewhat different to the one offered in ‘Inspecting’:
A jar to piddle in, a compact cardboard box.
That was for crapping into just in case
you carried hookworm or the like
prohibited imports. Produce, or else.
It didn’t pay to trade with blokes in strife...
I gave the Air Force my small crate of shit.
They won out on the deal. They gave me
what I thought was my discharge,
found later wasn’t so,
only another posting, to Reserve Class C.
My little cardboard box not good for much,
scraped out, used up, might yet be used again.
In the same poem, Smithyman claimed that he felt at risk of being called back into the army to serve in one of New Zealand’s new military adventures, in occupied Japan, or in Korea, or, a little later, in Malaya. The absurdity of the ‘inspection’ Smithyman claims he endured from two doctors of the Medical Board certainly reflects the absurdity of the whole military machine which swallowed the young poet for almost five years, and which perhaps threatened to take him again in the years afterwards. But is the story told in ‘Inspecting’ literally true, or apocryphal?
‘Inspecting’ is undated, but the poem’s casual tone and anecdotal quality suggests it was written in the later stages of Smithyman’s career. Like many of the nostalgaic texts Smithyman composed in the final two decades of his career, the poem looks, on the surface, almost artless. Certainly, the careful arrangements of syllables and sounds found in many of Smithyman’s earlier poems are absent from ‘Inspecting’. Smithyman’s continuing concern with form is shown, though, in the subtle variations in the length of the poem’s lines, and in Smithyman’s clever use of enjambment.
In the poem’s long second stanza, Smithyman describes his ordeal in front of the ‘Board’, as he waits with his head ‘touching floorboards’ while the doctors admire the ‘very neat’ work ‘Major Someone’ did on his piles. The stanza’s sixth line is very short, consisting only of the words ‘blood rushing’; by suddenly, violently disrupting the rhythm of his poem with this short line, Smithyman evokes the discomfort and anxiety he felt, as he stood on his head, or imagined standing on his head, for a pair of pompous doctors...
[You can read more about Smithyman's response to military bureaucracy here.]