I spent part of last week writing an introduction to Then It Was Now
Again, a collection of some of the essays, reviews, letters, and
interviews produced by the poet and dramatist Murray Edmond over the past four decades. I was pleased when Brett Cross, the proprietor of Titus/Atuanui Books,
told me that Creative New Zealand was helping him pay for the publication of
Then It Was Now Again, because I think that the book is much more than a set of literary studies.
As I try in my long-winded way to say in the introduction to the book, Murray Edmond
began his career in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a time when politics and
culture seemed, for a young and rebellious generation of men and women,
inextricably connected. The Word Is Freed,
the literary journal that Edmond and other scruffy revolutionaries published from their lair in bohemian inner-city Auckland, denounced both American
imperialism and old-fashioned attitudes to punctuation and spelling.
Although the agenda of Freed may seem quixotic today, when the bans on smutty or subversive books and films that characterised
the postwar decades have been replaced by a sort of patronising tolerance, and
when even the most outrageous forms of culture can be recuperated and
commodified, Edmond has remained a
dissident, and has retained his belief in the necessity of linking literature
to social and political issues. As it advances through New Zealand history,
from the heady seventies to the chaotic eighties to the neo-liberal nineties, Then It Was Now Again describes
protest marches and bomb blasts, as well as poetry readings and literary spats.
One of the most moving texts in the book juxtaposes the death by cancer
of Kendrick Smithyman’s son Christopher, the murder of the trade
unionist Ernie Abbott, and the abduction and roughing up of left-wing playwright
and alleged rapist Mervyn Thompson to create a portrait of the crisis of New Zealand society in the fateful year of 1984.
Perhaps because he has spent much of his career on or near a stage, Murray Edmond is a
fine performer of his poems. A month or so ago I turned up to the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Auckland Zen Centre to see Murray read a
series of short poems he had written whilst riding a bicycle east across Poland
to the border of Ukraine several years ago. Murray combined his reading of
these pieces, which he called ‘baiku’, because of their resemblance to the
haiku associated with Zen Buddhism, with reminiscences about his journey
and reflections on this year’s Ukrainian revolution.
As Edmond described crossing the sites of World War Two battles and
sleeping in the former bedroom of the general who had brought the Red Army into
Poland, I was impressed by the contrast between his slow and solitary journey
east and the great and terrible movements of armies and refugees that Poland
and the Ukraine witnessed in the twentieth century.
When Murray explained that
he would be spending another month in Poland in the middle of this year, I
wondered whether he would take to his bicycle again, and end up riding into a
convoy of tanks despatched by Putin, that avatar of Ivan the Terrible and
Stalin. Would the veteran of New Zealand’s cultural avant-garde have to climb
down from his modest vehicle, offer his notebook to some agitated tank
commander, and try to explain that he was a poet, not a spy or a revolutionary?
How would his gentle, ironic baiku be received by Putin’s troops?
Murray Edmond is hardly the first poet to journey deep into Europe’s
east in search of inspiration. In the early decades of the twentieth century
Velimir Khlebnikov walked huge distances across his Russian homeland, and into neighbouring nations like Persia and Azerbaijain. Khlebnikov, who liked to
describe himself as ‘The King of Time’ and the ‘President of Planet Earth’ was
the inventor of a form of logic called ‘beyonsense’, a gloriously illogical
language called Zaum, and a set of mathematical-etymological formulae that were
allegedly able to explain all past and predict all future events. It was in the
Azerbaijani capital of Baku, at the end of one of his prodigious journeys, that
Khlebnikov discovered these formulae, and wrote a text called ‘The Tables of
Destiny’, which was intended to make the whole of human history luminously clear.
Khlebnikov was a member of Russia’s fissiparous club of Futurist
writers and artists, but he arguably had more in common with the adherants of
Cosmism, a doctrine popularised by the nineteenth century scientist and mystic Konstantin
Tsiolkovsky. The Cosmists regarded death as a humiliating encumbrance that
humans must throw off, and considered planet earth an enormous trap. Science and technology were the weapons with which
humanity would conquer time and space.
Many of the Cosmists saw the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 as a
victory for their creed. They submitted proposals for the construction of
spaceships to the new government, and denounced mortality as a legacy of the
vanquished bourgeoisie. When Lenin was embalmed and displayed to the masses in
Red Square, Cosmists decided that the Bolsheviks were preparing the great
leader for the day when he could be resurrected by scientists. They urged Lenin’s
successors to establish a ‘global cemetery’ in the permafrosted far north of
Russia, so that the rest of humanity could also await immortality.
Khlebnikov died in 1922, after suffering from typhus and malnutrition;
many of the Cosmists perished a decade or so later in Stalin’s gulags. The gap
between the Cosmists’ vision and the reality they were forced to inhabit is,
for me at least, poignant rather than ridiculous. I hope that Murray takes care
on those eastern roads.
Short History of Russian Cosmism (for Murray Edmond)
exile, amongst the library stacks
on the Steppe, Fedorov remembered
steer by the stars: the earth
a trap, he muttered, into the tin ear
his cup, as they queued together for soup
after their guts had been sated,
drew three lines
the dust. This is a rocket
ship. He drew a circle, stubbed a thumb in it.
universe, retrieving cosmic particles,
Tsars would be the first to stir
the labs of spaceship earth.
walked east, one soup queue
a time, escaping the city’s libraries
museums, those learned brains floating
ancient insects in amber.
Khlebnikov could think.
intellectual must turn irredentist
reconquer his body, its lost provinces
fur and salt. The mind must be broken up
dispersed around the body, so that it lights
walked further east, thinking
an overgrown brain, abandoned
revery and introspection,
billion boulders and thornbushes
to shatter and burn.
fly east, toward resurrected stars.
the horizon a new set of barracks walls grew.
could smell soup.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]