Saturday, December 11, 2010

Over the air and in front of the Board

I'll be popping up on Radio New Zealand at half past two this Sunday afternoon to talk to Justin Gregory about Private Bestiary, the collection of long-lost Kendrick Smithyman poems I recently published with Titus Books. In case you're at church or at the beach or at the pub on Sunday, my chat with Justin will be archived on this page (scroll down) in downloadable form after it has been broadcast.

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 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.
One checked
records. (What was my record?) One did
the donkey work, nothing exotic
about me.

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,
blood rushing
"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.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How disgusting. Poetry is supposed to be about edification, not scatology.

10:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Quite a lot of humour in those war poems of Smithyman! I once went to join the army and recall having them inspect (with perhaps more than a professional fascination) the deep interior of my arse! It seems to be an obsession of those homo military bastards!! Also this old doctor when I once applied to be a bus driver for the then ARA, as part of his check up, had look up into that region! Or it may have been the old way - just part of good old Homo NZ!!

Anyway I got some really good laughs for quite a few of Smithyman's poems.

(Anon - But poems aren't meant to be funny.)

When is Anon actually Maps and when not? That is the question...
Ubiquitous bastard, is Anon.

11:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I'll try to tune in a 2.30 pm. Enjoy the glory - you have done a great job with hat book Scott Maps and it deserves to be read by many people. Some really interesting poems.

Break a leg!

11:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

By the way, in one of his endlessly but brilliant rambling poems, Ashbery says something like - "I push my hemorroids up" (then later: " hangover is worse at 4 p.m.") - in media res so to speak (it is part of his usual flow of words)... but certainly it is a rare subject for a poem!! But I found it and several others actually not caustic or critical but simply very funny.

I don't see the military in that poem as being seen to be pompous or even criticized at all. Smithyman didn't have a political bone in his body. He just talked about things.

12:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lucklily some are still blogging about SIGNIFICANT things

8:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't smithyman still too difficult for ordinary people to understand?

11:30 am  
Anonymous All the arseholes in the world and mine said...

Anon 11.30am:

Yes, but as he once explained: "Poetry is not a popular art and there is no point pretending that it is... substantially the audience for the poet... is probably an audience which, if not intellectual, is made up of people of superior ability."

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

A poet can turn any thought/observation/event/circumstance into poetry - it's the given for the tribe of makars.
And we dont paticularly care if other people's sensitivities are wounded - actually, quite often we set out to wound.
As did Smithyman-

9:41 pm  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

Fine performance on the radio, btw, Maps. I had a listen to the podcast on the Radio NZ site ...

9:14 am  
Anonymous peter crisp said...

Smithyman was a big dick unlike yourself who is trying to fondle around in the smelly underwear regions trying to find it. If you have one, a dick that is and do find it then do not toss it away slowly. You have your future in your hand. Keep tossing. Tosser.

3:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I liked to the pod cast also Maps -great as Jack says.

I'm still working through your Smithyman book, some interesting things in there...

Yes Keri is right poetry or art can deal with any subject. Hopefully we try not to wound others, but it may seem necessary to be 'hurtful' or satirical or disturbing, but it may (sometimes) seem valid and be a part of what is our art, or whatever we are saying.

Also there are many kinds of difficulty.

I enjoy poetry of all kinds and times. Smithyman has a unique style. His way of saying. I find many of his poems quiet baffling, but, as Scott says, look upon reading him as a search, or an adventure, a "mystery" perhaps that is there, possibly never to be 'solved' or understood entirely, but to always be there; rather than trying to work it all out, or disprove Einstein's equations, or do the latest cryptic crossword puzzle while studying ancient Latvian torture techniques...

11:46 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Pleased you enjoyed it guys! A little was cut out, and so there aren't the plugs for things like the discussions on Smithy at this blog, Peter Simpson's Collected Poems of Smithy, and Jack's forthcoming book. Ah well...

12:01 am  
Blogger Maui Solomon said...

The Solomon's did not have a "falling out" with Michael King as stated in this blog. I personally wrote to Michael in 1985 and asked him to write the book on Moriori. There was never any "suspension" of our relationship stated in the blog - this is mischievous and wrong. I also know the Dargarville Moriori family that is referred too and they are wonderful people. Micheal was a remained a good friend of the Solomon family and indeed all Moriori until his and his wife Maria's untimely deaths in 2004. Maui Solomon, General Manager, Hokotehi Moriori Trust (4 March 2012)

7:44 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Maui,

my apologies for that mistake, which I'll correct. King mentioned that the Solomons were unhappy with 'The Last Moriori' when he spoke at the 1996 Smithyman memorial reading at the University of Auckland. I must have jumped to the conclusion that you were also unhappy with him.

You'll notice that I've blogged a number of times here about Moriori-related issues - about Smithyman's poem, Rhys Richads' book on Manu Moriori, the funding for langauge revival you received a couple of years ago...

8:27 am  

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