Limbo, and other ecosystems
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.
Poem as Ecosystem: five meandering notes on Graham Lindsay's The Subject
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.
A fading star
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
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.
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.
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' 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
'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'.
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.
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