Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Vegie pie wins supreme award

As a vegetarian I just want to say hah! It's great to see that the winner of this year's best pie is a vegetarian pie...you can read more here

Paralysis in Dili

I've often argued that there are important parrallels between the situations in Iraq and East Timor. And this latest imbroglio sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? The 'paralysis scenario' is being played out, and as he and his backers in Canberra get more and more agitated, Mr 22% is threatening to take matters into his own hands:

Ramos-Horta, who has been pushing for a unity government and attended the parliamentary session, has warned that if the parties do not reach their own agreement by Monday he will act unilaterally to decide.

With a little help from Anzac troops and cops perhaps? The simmering crisis in parliament and the protest that greeted John Howard in Dili last week suggest that Australasian plans to dig in may not be so wise. Click here to find out what that crazy map is all about, and what the occupation of East Timor is partly about.

Richard reviewed

A couple of months back I posted the positive writeup Titus writer Bill Direen had received in Dunedin student mag Critic. Now Critic's new book reviewer Naomi Caldintsky has taken on Richard Taylor's Conversation with a Stone, which Titus launched back in April beside titles by Will Christie and yours truly.

I don't think it'd be unfair to say that Caldintsky seems unaware of some of the more arcane avant-gardish literary models Richard's book employs; I think it's a good sign, then, that she was still able to enjoy a number of his poems. If you're intrigued by Caldintsky's gloss of 'Hospital', you can find out more about the making of the poem here.

Richard Taylor, Conversation with a Stone, Titus Books, Auckland, 2007

Taylor's collection of poems opens with a bleak, almost painful to read series of excerpts of time spent in a hospital ward. He engages with biblical commentary in 'Hospital 13', as he repaints the scene at Mt Sinai:

With Moses (the boss) away, the characters catorge in ecstasy: nakeds
copulate nakeds and savagely they sacrifice: then come the Tablets. Ho!

This is upset by Taylor's resort to a shameless 'I could ring for a hooker, throw away the tablets, get the orgy on, but I'm broke, as usual'. His poetry is real and blunt, and his obsession with death as a 'project to be worked on piece by piece' reveals a fear of not being heard.

In 'Hospital 39' he toys with the possibility of never having been born. 'Hospital 46' opens with playful imagery - 'a glass dragon on the windowsill - /and the clock by the kitchen on the wall' and closes with a memory of his father's friend, and 'the day he came and had so much fun with the fireworks...' However, this opening series is so infused with sickness and death that it is almost unbearable for the reader.

In 'Lookout' and 'The Innocent Age' Taylor's observations are, like those of all good writers, right on cue and in tune with the happenings of the outside world. His play with words and rhythms in 'The Red' is mildly amusing. He then provides a series of 'shorts', some of which are amusing, but many of which are almost child-like or even apoetic. In 'Patchworks' Taylor describes a pear with 'a red yellow husk which blooms as though she could a hundred things at one time', with words descending along the page. In 'Litany' he provides us with a quick and easy programme for happiness: 'eat your egg, and have a happy life'.

Imagining possible worlds in 'The Infinite Poem', Taylor examines the beauty of a bridge in its ability to leap the 'gap of time and space'. The poem's phrases are scattered and impressionistic, straddling childlike, amateur writing and moments of clarity and brilliance. 'Poem for Tamasin Taylor' ends on a high note, with 'lovers who are glad as new-born Gods', but 'You Are reading' is a sorry shot at attempting to hold the reader's attention. Taylor's poetry would appeal to a select crowd.

Verdict: thumbs up.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

How to land a coelacanth

Question the beliefs of any cryptozoologist and they'll invoke the coelacanth, the very old and very ugly fish that was extinct for thirty million years, until it was pulled out of the sea off South Africa in 1938 (one of the first scientists to attempt to inspect the beastie is reputed to have fainted shortly after laying eyes on it). Now Justinus Lahama, who caught one of the things a couple of months ago, offers some tips for twenty-first century anglers. Crass, I know, but the first question I wanted to ask was: can you put one of them on the barbie, and live to tell the tale?)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Decay and Beauty

[Here's my review of David Lyndon Brown's Marked Men...

]The 1990s was not a golden decade in New Zealand history. I can just understand how commentators of a certain ideological bent might honour the second half of the '80s as a revolutionary era, a time when the Young Turks of the fourth Labour government fearlessly opened up New Zealand's protected economy to global capitalism, promised economic salvation in a few short years, and even briefly made the share market and the America's Cup into popular passions.

By the 1990s, though, the share market bubble had long since burst, a colourless and cynical National government led by the plodding Jim Bolger had taken power, and the full cost of neo-liberal 'reforms' had become apparent to large numbers of Kiwis. In the 1990s, New Zealand was suddenly a country where pensioners were evicted from state houses because they couldn't pay market rents, and where otherwise healthy people died because their kidney dialysis had been judged fiscally irresponsible.

In Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and the capital of Polynesia, the side-effects of unfettered capitalism were felt especially strongly. In the '90s whole suburbs of the city acquired a sort of sad shabbiness, as loan shark outfits, massage parlours, and two dollar shops installed themselves in the buildings vacated by post offices, libraries, and banks. Winos and psychiatric survivors pioneered the squeegee business at traffic lights, and food banks boomed.

If anybody wants to know what it was like to live in the 'new' Auckland of the 1990s, they could do worse than consult Calling the Fish, the collection of short stories that David Lyndon Brown published through Otago University Press in 2001. Brown's book documents the lives of characters - stressed out wage slaves, drunks, unpublished writers, head cases - living on the margins of a city in decay. In my favourite story in Calling the Fish, a young man living in an increasingly ugly part of Auckland struggles to hold on to his sense of the beauty and potential of life. Living in an undersized and overpriced flat in a neighbourhood over-run by newly liberated psychiatric patients, the narrator of 'Faith' creates elaborate fantasies about an attractive, smiling young couple he glimpsed on a bus one day. The couple become symbols of a world untouched by the chaos and misery the narrator sees all around him. Eventually, though, the young man and woman turn up again, on a stormy winter day. They are haggard and dressed in dirty clothes, and look angry and bitter. The narrator's ideals of beauty seem to have succumbed to the ugliness of reality.

It is tempting to identify the narrator of 'Faith' with David Lyndon Brown, because Calling the Fish is marked everywhere by attempts to salvage brief glimpses of beauty from the ruins of the world. At once elegiac and celebratory, it is a book which dwells on suffering and ugliness without being overwhelmed by them.

Brown's distinctive response to contemporary New Zealand comes wrapped in a distinctive prose style. Influenced by Flaubert and Firbank as well as Raymond Carver, he has a liking for laconic sentences and strange, often elaborate metaphors that are at once realistic and fantastic. In a typical David Lyndon Brown passage the prosaic and the poetic rub against each other:

There was still Formica on the walls and stand-up tables with a hole in the middle for an ashtray. The sodden carpet was a psychedelic minefield of exploding purple whorls. There was a dartboard and a pool table and sports trophies in a glass case behind the bar. The barman looked like a ventriloquist's dummy. His dyed black hair looked painted on and he had two red dots on his cheeks and one on the other end of his nose, where the capillaries had broken.

I have been discussing Calling the Fish because it is an essential companion to Marked Men, the short novel that Titus Books launched last Thursday night at Alleluya Cafe. Marked Men was written in the late '90s, but a succession of publishers turned it down, citing its 'extreme' and 'unmarketable' subject matter. The book's plot is fairly simple. Its gay narrator, who is never named or described, meets a young junkie and prostitute called Sykes in a 'dated and rundown' bar, and soon falls in love with him.

Sykes and the narrator enjoy a series of encounters, and even take a truncated holiday together, but Sykes keeps disappearing into Auckland's hazy underworld. The narrator learns that his lover was involved with the notorious but enigmatic Poole brothers, a pair of sadomasochists who have been arrested for torturing young men at the 'Institute of Pain' they ran above a sex shop in a trendy part of Auckland. When a house where Sykes stayed burns to the ground the police become interested in him, and in his connection to the Pooles. Brown's narrator is driven to the edge of insanity by Sykes' erratic behaviour and infidelity, but eventually forgives him. The end of the novel is marked by the suicides of Sykes, who has diagnosed himself with AIDS, and the Pooles, who face long prison terms.

Like Calling the Fish, Marked Men is set against a seedy, decaying Auckland - a city of crumbling boarding houses, twenty-four hour bars, and overgrown gardens. But Brown's novel has far less sociological detail than his stories, and its characters are much less defined. We never learn much about the structures and rituals of the gay milieux the characters move through, and the evil conspiracies that surround the Poole brothers remain shadowy. The reasons for Sykes' permanent rebellion against the world remain mysterious.

Marked Men is a novel of surfaces. Its narrator is able to describe the faces and clothing and genitalia but not the feelings and ideas of the people he encounters in his sorties into the world. Even when he is thrown into a crisis by Sykes' infidelity, Brown’s anti-hero does not succumb to introspection. Instead of investigating his feelings and thoughts, he engages in a little therapeutic redecoration:

I spent the whole day in a frenzy of cleaning. I vacuumed and scrubbed and polished and rearranged the furniture. I emptied the refrigerator. I scoured the bathroom and then I started on the bedroom…Stripping away the layers. All those veneers of joy and pain and boredom and wonder. Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it.

This is the behaviour of a man who mistakes the objects around him for the feelings inside him. He seeks to regain control of himself not by investigating the emotional roots and intellectual presuppositions of his frustration and anger, but by remoulding his physical environment. Elsewhere in the book the narrator rhapsodises about his love for Sykes, but his love is always described in physical rather than emotional or intellectual terms. Sykes is an assemblage of eerily sensual images, not a human being:

I woke with a start to find Sykes standing naked by the bed. He was so thin and so pale that he seemed to glow. His skin seemed to absorb the frail moonlight that filtered in through the curtains...He was hot and cold at the same time...When I ran my hands over his back, I could feel some strange crenellations.

Perhaps it is wrong to make any criticism of someone who can write sentences as gorgeous as these. In Marked Men David Lyndon Brown has created characters who are driven by their balls and their bowels, not their hearts or brains. By suppressing the intellectual and emotional life of his characters, and excising much of the sociological detail found in his earlier writing, Brown has narrowed the horizons of the world he presented in Calling the Fish. Without a lucid, self-aware major character, the novel becomes a virtually uninterrupted stream of sensuous details - a beautiful, stormy prose poem with a disturbing vacuum at its centre.

Friday, July 27, 2007

David's half century

David Lyndon Brown wrote his way into Titus records books by selling a whopping fifty copies of his novel Marked Men at the launch of the book last Thursday night. [Weep into your beers, Taylor and Hamilton - ed]. Here a few photos from the party, along with some quotes my tipsy dictaphone preserved. David:
This is a momentous night for me. It's good to be here at the Alleluya, because this is the place where Olwyn, Richard, myself and others performed as the Poetry Brats in the early '90s. We'd rush down here full of inspiration and energy and vodka. It's good to come full circle. To Victoria University Press I'd like to say: ha ha! Brett Cross:
I'd heard about Marked Men for a long time before I ever got to read it, people I ran into kept recommending this 'fabulous unpublished book' to me, by an author I'd never read, David Brown. The book was supposedly 'quite extreme', extreme enough that the mainstream publishers despite being positive about the writing style were unwilling to take the plunge and actually publish it, it sounded intriguing. I told them to tell David to send it to me, and I was assured he would, it never arrived.

It took close to two years after I'd first heard about Marked Men for it one day to show up in the Titus mailbox, but when it did, and I started reading, I knew that here was a book that needed to be published. A lot of fuss has been made about the extreme scenes in the book, the torture chamber, the violent sex, the brandings, but to me Marked Men is primarily a poetic book, a tragedy, it is about human suffering, need and love. It's one of those books you get involved in publishing for, because you want to see it in the world, so congratulations to David for writing it, for you all for coming to the launch. Skyler:
Twenty dollars a book - it's a steal. Titus offers these sad old unsold copies of the Taylor and Hamilton volumes at desperate discounts, too. No freebies for Bob Orr, no matter how drunk he gets. Michael Steven:
Various are his ways, and infinite is his cunning. Graham Brazier:
I very much regret not getting here earlier, but I had to play a gig downtown. We all need our paydays - we all have habits to satisfy... Richard Taylor:
Why am I here? I'm David's mate. Plus there's not enough beauty in the world. Literature is beautiful. Chess is beautiful. England is not beautiful. England is a cesspool. We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the ditches, and all that. Why am I saying this? I've been reading about Scott and Amundsen and the race to the Pole. Scott: toffee nosed brat, though brave. He learned nothing. Amundsen studied. He was a cunning Norwegian bastard. I knew blokes like him in the railways. I'm pleased he made it to the Pole. David Lyndon Brown is the Amundsen of our literature. If he played chess he would be a champion.


Exporting Frame

Bill Direen is on the warpath:

I have just heard that a Janet Frame MS, handwritten, is to leave NZ. It will be offered for auction by, of all people, the NZ Studies Assn, who should know better.

Here's the release I've just received:

Dear All - Some of you may be aware that the Centre for New Zealand Studies was gifted a Janet Frame pre-proof MS (typed and significantly annotated) for 'A State of Siege'. The Centre has also been gifted an A4 size notebook of CK Stead's, containing many drafts and ideas for his work. The two were gifted from separate donors with the intention of helping to raise funds to support the future of the Centre.

Both were offered to the Turnbull library but the sums that they presented were very low, and far beneath the values placed by independent auctioneers. After some consultation the decision was taken to place both into an auction - which is taking place at Dunbar Sloane in Wellington on 2 August. Details are provided below. The two MS are catalogued as star items within the auction (the Frame Ms has a reserve of NZ$14,000). Please be advised that high quality photocopies of both MS have been made and stored within the Centre and are available for reference by visiting scholars.

IS THIS NOT A SHAME...let's do something to try and stop the sale...but what can we do?


Personally I'm not too worried about the manuscript of a great New Zealand novel going overseas, as long as a copy has been made for local scholars. I've always thought that the reproducibility of literature gives it a democratic quality that many of the other arts lack. Aesthetically speaking, one copy of a novel or poem or an essay (or of the manuscript draft of a novel or poem or essay) is as good as another. The cult of the original artifact which has done so much to ruin the culture of the visual arts does not have the same hold over literature.

Perhaps Bill should advocate the publication of a facsimilie edition of the original manuscript of A State of Siege? It's been done for Nineteen Eighty Four...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Marked Men

David Lyndon Brown launches his first novel 'Marked Men' tonight:

7pm at Alleluya, Saint Kevin's Arcade, K'Rd, Auckland

This is just a quick post to let everyone know about the launch tonight. We will post more on the launch and review the book shortly. Below is the book cover and a short review of the book from the titus website:

The Titus Books team is convinced about it -- this will prove to be the best novel of New Zealand literature in 2007. And if "best-written" isn't enough, David Brown hits us with an ingenuous plot that deals the death blow to a few taboos out there that hadn't yet been broken.

The world his characters move in is an eerie one. This is not a sentimental book. Prepare for an adventure into the realm of crime, subconscious longing and disappearance.
David Lyndon Brown's novel is a triumph of the imagination and literary style.

Monday, July 23, 2007

'Immense generosity'?! Has he ever tried to get me to buy a round?

Nevertheless, I'm grateful to Michael Steven for this over-generous review of the book Titus launched in April. Michael is writing for brief, which is a (mostly) offline publication, so I think I can get away with pre-empting him here.

Scott Hamilton, To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, Titus Books, Auckland, 2007
The late Allen Curnow once described a poem as ‘what a poet makes when he is passionately interested in something else’. In Scott Hamilton’s debut collection, To The Moon, In Seven Easy Steps, it is evident his interests are both varied and extensive.

Readers of brief, and the reactionary zine Salt, will already be familiar with his unique brand of poetic prescription. A doctoral research candidate at the University of Auckland, an ardent and unrepentant Marx scholar, he has devised a methodology that deals specifically in mytho-factual constructions, wrought from the annals of New Zealand history.

Whether he is contemplating the probability of lunar travel, writing a diary of an academic sabbatical to Hull, relaying a mate’s hilarious train ride, or lesser known but important aspects of the Maori Land Wars, here is a poet intent on dismantling the rigid demarcation between poetry and prose. This is demonstrated most effectively in the longer pieces of the collection:

Every time I raise the spoon to my mouth, I defeat the gravity of the entire earth. No human hands support me and, since the first time, I have felt no fear. It is as though an unseen power raises my from the breakfast table.

Now I sit at my desk. The earth rolls at my feet. The earth rolls at my feet, like a friendly dog. I sit at my desk, composing a poem. Every word I put down is a deletion…

(from 'Ivor 9/6' in 'Ukania! An Academic Adventure')

The train pushes out of the station, pushes through
thickets of gorse and cutty grass, comes back into
the sunshine outside Hellabys. Good old Hellabys
slaughter house. Across the aisle Mrs Cousins has
already closed her window, and is thinking about
holding her nose. I’m thinking about the pie I ate
at Papakura station – I ate it quickly because it was
only half-warm, and because there was no cheese
to hide the taste of the mince, of the cheap meat.

(from 'Terminator!')

This is a poetry inflected with genuine yet understated concerns. His subject matter is rendered more potent and immediate by not resorting to romanticism or unnecessary abstraction. Like his hero, Kendrick Smithyman, he has learnt to achieve this through the development of a careful and controlled use of anecdotal irony:

Space must be filled: the sky must be subdued
under rubble, or clay, or tinned chemicals.
Parliament ought to look into it.

(from 'Notes in a Mining Town')

To lock his door, knock on it. Knock as hard or as softly as you like: by the time the patient has jumped off the bowl, hopped across his cell, pulled his trousers up and tugged at the handle the room will be secure against your entry. He will be safe, and so will you. Sickness only comes with contact.

(from 'The Cure')

At the centre of this collection is a ficto-biographic account of heteronymic poet and minister, Reverend Roger Rountree, who could be considered as a lower-antipodean homage to James McAuley and Harold Stewart’s Ern Malley, or the many creations of Fernando Pessoa. Hamilton has discovered, or, more aptly, created an undersung and forgotten voice of post-colonial letters, charting his intellectual and spiritual development against the defining events of the early to mid 20th century:

The strife of the ‘30s surely contributed to the major mental breakdown Rountree suffered in 1935. Resigning from his Ministry, he would spend months on end at the hilltop sanotorium at Maungakawa, in the middle Waikato.

(from ‘The Archive Is Open’)

Attempting to publish his poetry and polemical writings, often without success, Rountree corresponds with R.A.K Mason, submits to the leading literary journals of the time, and spends considerable amounts of time in psychiatric institutions.

Scott Hamilton is a writer of immense generosity, a keenly acute observer who delights in the minutia that lesser poets would usually neglect. The extent of his research serves to make creations such as Rountree (real or imagined) ultimately more believable. To the Moon, In Seven Easy Steps, heralds the arrival of a unique voice and long-overdue initiative in New Zealand poetry.

Michael Steven

Something to do

on Wednesday night. I've been meaning to post properly about the locked-out cleaners, but I'm suffering from the double calamity of a job - yes, a real, more or less 9 to 5, time for money job - and a dose of the flu (the beer treatment failed tonight). Get your info from the Servos, anyway.

On a roll

I received this image yesterday with a message:

This is the cover of Michael's upcoming SECOND book, co-authored with Hamish Dewe. I didn't even know it'd been written yet!

Two books in two weeks! Who is this guy, the new Philip K Dick? Find out about Hamish Dewe here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mystery map

This blog's supposed to be called Reading the Maps, innit? Can anyone guess what the black dots on this particular map (click to expand) denote? The owner of the first correct answer gets a free shandy from yours truly at the launch of David Lyndon Brown's fine book next week (more of which soon). Clue for Muzzlehatch: they're not flies.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Introducing Wuxi

This blog occasionally features interventions from Michael Arnold, the Kiwi expat who has for years now been dispatching reports on life in China from the far side of that country's Great Firewall. Now the Dilworth College old boy has published his first book, a handsomely designed study of the city of Wuxi. Here's the capsule review at Amazon:

THE WUXI LEGACY is one of those rare treasures for anyone interested in China. But this should come as no surprise, as its author, Michael Arnold, is one of those rare writers who not only has a passion for China and its culture, but also an understanding of what readers will find most enthralling. When these attributes are combined with his polished style the result is a book that is a total pleasure from start to finish. Arnold combines just the right amount of history (never too little, never too much) with warm observations and descriptions of present-day Wuxi in a way that makes the reader want to catch a flight without delay (with his book in hand) to this obviously charming city.

Never heard of Wuxi? Nor had I. Are we Kiwis an ignorant lot or what? It's a good job we have Michael Arnold to enlighten us.

Footnote: read The Wuxi Legacy instead of the latest Harry Potter rubbish, which Nicholas Lezard has just pre-empted on the Guardian website. Potter fans buzz about in the comments box below Lezard's article...

Monday, July 16, 2007

The smiling face of Kiwi capitalism

On a country road east of Raglan.

Solids, fluids, and Al Gore

Someone left this in a comments box, but it deserves a post of its own:

When the Left’s propagandists speak, the Left’s slaves and allies follow and repeat. This is the destiny and fate of all that cannot face themselves and be willing to face and be flexible against greater powers than they. Their belief is in purity, ideological or otherwise. They believe strength comes from purity, purity of action and purity of belief. But that is not where true strength lies. Fluid is always more flexible and powerful than solids. Yet you need not change your core identity and beliefs to adapt to your situation, not if you are strong enough to return to what you were once originally. The Left cannot change, they cannot improve or evolve, for they believe themselves unto perfection itself. And perfection needs no improvement, least of all from flawed human hands where Gore’s purity may bring on a Golden Age instantaneously.

You tell 'em, Mister.

What do Roger Douglas and Mao Zedong have in common?

Wikipedia knows (check the end of the second paragraph). Come to think of it, the comparison doesn't seem entirely foolish...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

'But next time, can you leave the Bain sweater in Dunedin?'

Or, at least, drop it off on the way up, in Te Kauwhata?

Bill Direen is back in the warm south, where he has typed a quick account of his adventures amongst us Rangitoto Yanks. You can read more objective accounts of Bill's tour here, here, and here. If you're interested in the context of this photo, I can report that it was taken while Titus Books big man Brett Cross was interviewing Bill. I've consulted the transcript, and the relevant part of the dialogue is:

Brett: Do you have a favourite colour?

Bill: Yes. Gold.

Go figure...

Friday, July 13, 2007

0900 LOCKOUT (0900 56256)

Ring that number to donate $10 to the locked-out cleaners, and to hear about their campaign for better pay and conditions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Out of the cold

I've just reviewed a couple of books for the left-wing Aussie literary journal Overland. I don't think I'm stealing anyone's thunder by putting the review here - sadly, this blog's mostly Kiwi readers are unlikely to have heard of, much less read, Overland, even though it is one of Australia's longest-surviving literary rags.

When they look abroad for a fix of culture, Kiwis seem to bypass the big flat land to their west and head for the US or good old Blighty. There are far more Brit and American writers on the shelves of our bookshops than Aussies, and surprisingly few Aussie films make it to general release here. If we think of Aussie culture at all, we tend to think of caricatures like Crocodile Dundee, Jimmy Barnes, and Les Murray. The young Auckland poet Michael Steven is an exception to this dismal rule, and he is currently writing an in-depth study of Autralian poetry for brief; my understanding is that the study will have at the centre of its focus the enigmatic and tragic figure of Michael Dransfield. In the meantime, you can check out Overland here.

Jeff Sparrow, Communism: A Love Story, Melbourne University Press, 2007
Rick Kuhn, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, University of Illinois Press, 2007

After the Soviet Union was abolished by a coup d’etat in 1991, a peculiar sort of triumphalism flourished amongst Western intellectuals. In a thousand editorials and seminar rooms the long-overdue end of history was proclaimed and the final defeat of Marxism celebrated. A decade and a half after the end of history, the universal triumph of capitalism looks somewhat less assured. Disastrous imperial adventures in the Middle East, the emergence of popular opposition to globalisation in much of the Third World, and the spectre of environmental catastrophe have all helped to depress apologists for the status quo.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a reconsideration of Marxism has begun amongst intellectuals in the West. For instance, a number of talented historians and sociologists have begun to reject Cold War caricatures of communist ideology and practice. Scholars like Nina Fishman, Andy Croft, and Kerry Taylor have shown that, even after Stalin’s capture of the Soviet state and Comintern, rank and file communists were rather more than robots run by remote control from the Kremlin. Last year Hugh Purcell’s biography of Tom Wintringham introduced us to a British communist whose colourful personal life, deep and unapologetic love of ‘bourgeois’ arts and philosophy, and fiercely idiosyncratic interpretations of Marx and Lenin ran completely counter to the orthodoxies emanating from the Kremlin in the 1930s.

Jeff Sparrow’s biography of the Australian communist Guido Baracchi ought to be read alongside Purcell’s portrait of Wintringham. Like Wintringham, Baracchi had a love for Marxist ideas that was only matched by the love he felt for a bewildering succession of women. Both passions were dangerous, to party leaderships that became more and more politically cynical and morally censorious as Stalin tightened his grip on the international communist movement.

The son of a wealthy astronomer, Baracchi went to school with other children of the Australian bourgeoisie, before becoming one of the first radicals at the University of Melbourne. He was jailed for his part in the anti-conscription campaign that saved thousands of Aussie lives during World War One, was a foot soldier in the street battles of Weimar Germany, survived in Moscow during the ‘hungry year’ of 1933, was driven out of the Communist Party twice, spent World War Two in Australia’s fledgling Trotskyist movement, and eventually found a political home on the far left of the Labour Party. By the time he died campaigning for Gough Whitlam in 1975, Baracchi had become a hero to a generation of young left-wing activists – radical students, hippies, neo-Trotskyists, Euro communists – who saw in him a steadfast commitment to a radical politics independent of the Cold War orthodoxies of both Washington and Moscow. Baracchi’s personal life was never as noble, and he left behind him a trail of broken hearts and embittered offspring.

Jeff Sparrow has turned thousands of hours of research in archives and obscure secondary publications into a crisp, three hundred page narrative that I found myself compelled to read in a single sitting. It is clear, though, that Sparrow wants to do more than entertain his readers. In his Introduction he talks about writing ‘a book about communism in Australia: what it was, what it became, and what it meant to those who lived it’.

Sparrow certainly succeeds in rescuing Guido Baracchi from the enormous condescension of posterity. There may be difficulties, though, in converting the wonderful story Communism: A Love Story tells into a set of generalisations about rank and file members of the Communist Party of Australia. Baracchi’s social origins and the personal freedom his family’s wealth gave him, his intense, almost dandyish intellectualism, his extensive travels, his experience of a pre-Stalinist Bolshevism, and the many social milieux in which he moved surely combine to make him an exceptional figure in the history of Australian communism. There is no doubt that rank and file Communist Party members were cruelly caricatured during the Cold War; it is not clear, though, whether a portrait which relied on Baracchi’s peculiar life for its colour would not also be a caricature.

To say this is not to deny that there are many passages in Communism: A Love Story which should interest historians of twentieth century Australia. Baracchi’s life often offers a sort of portal through which fascinating details of half-forgotten milieux and events can be glimpsed. Sparrow’s descriptions of the small and heroic Trotskyist movement that appeared in Australia in the nineteenth thirties is particularly interesting, because the honesty and thoughtfulness of the Trotskyists illuminate the cynicism and stupidity of some of the more populous political tendencies of the time. Describing Baracchi’s first appearance on a Trotskyist platform in the Sydney Domain shortly after the beginning of the Second World War, Sparrow skilfully exposes the pressures faced by a dissident communist opposed to Hitler, Stalin, and the government in Canberra:

They made their way onto the Domain, a landscape suddenly transformed by their exclusion from the party. The familiar faces they met were distorted with hostility, warning a pair of Trotsky-fascists away from a workers’ forum...JB Miles’ Scottish burr floated across the crowd as they walked by:
‘Baracchi…pseudo-Marxist…agent of Menzies!’

When they reached the Communist League stump they found Gil Roper in full flight before a crowd of several hundred…He spoke about the war, about the killings that had been and the killings that were to come, and the falsity of the justifications made for them…There was no need to stick a bayonet into the belly of German worker in the name of Bob Menzies!

Not all the audience were supportive – there was a sprinkling of khaki uniforms amongst them – but Guido could see the occasional nod of the head and the quickened interest that showed an idea had taken root…Roper spoke the truth, and events themselves would confirm what he said.


He remembered a passage from Finnegans Wake and felt both Stalin and his local supporters slide back into perspective. ‘I thought’, Joyce wrote, ‘you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny.’…

The terrible sense of loss lifted. When his turn came to speak, he stepped, almost joyously, onto the platform.

Rick Kuhn’s Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism is another book which benefits from the historiographical thaw that has followed the end of the Cold War. The dismal reputation that Henryk Grossman still enjoys reminds me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges called ‘The Form of the Sword’. The central character of Borges’ tale recalls, in the third person, the follies of his Marxist youth:

He had studied, with fervour and vanity, every page of some communist manual or other; dialectical materialism served him as a means to end any and all discussion. The reasons that one man may have to hate another, or love him, are infinite: Moon reduced universal history to a sordid economic conflict. He asserted that the revolution is predestined to triumph.

Sixty-five years after Borges wrote ‘The Form of the Sword’, many people still believe that Marxism is a doctrine intended to reduce the infinite complexity of the world to a few formulations borrowed from the dreary science of economics. Even Marxists who reject the general validity of such a stereotype accept that it holds true for some of their precursors. It is fair to say that Grossman has had a bum deal even from left-wing histories of Marxist thought. Generally these histories give him a walk-on role, as the dry as dust, dogmatic elder at the famous Frankfurt School in the 1920s and ‘30s. Grossman, who spent much of those years poring over volumes of economic data and writing works like his magnum opus, The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System, is presented as an obstacle that restless young Frankfurters like Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno had to manoeuvre around, in their pursuit of a Marxism that was attuned to the cultural life of the twentieth century, rather than the economic doctrines of the nineteenth century. At best, the plodding Pole provides a sort of dull background against which the brilliance of Marcuse and Adorno can be appreciated.

Aussie academic Rick Kuhn’s carefully researched and smoothly written book aims to deprive historians of Marxism of a favourite Aunt Sally. In Kuhn’s hands, the stodgy economist becomes a dashing revolutionary who enjoyed wine and women as much as tables of statistics. The first part of Kuhn’s book steers us expertly through Grossman’s childhood in fin de siecle Galicia, describes the role the young revolutionary played in the Jewish Social Democratic Party that thrived in pre-war Poland, and demonstrate that the young academic played an agitational as well as theoretical role in the revolutionary tumult that swept through Europe in the twentieth century’s late teens and early twenties. Kuhn documents Grossman’s persecution at the hands of Poland’s postwar government, and chronicles the long years of intensive research and bureaucratic infighting that followed his exile to the Frankfurt School, which was itself relocated to America after the rise of demise of the Weimar Republic. After the defeat of Nazism, Grossman took up an academic position in East Germany, where he died in 1950.

Kuhn has succeeded in turning the caricature of Grossman into a nuanced and far from unflattering portrait. Ultimately, though, Grossman’s bad reputation rests on pillars which no amount of interesting information about pre-war Galicia or Polish revolutionary history will undermine. If Kuhn wants to rehabilitate Grossman, then he must rehabilitate The Law of Accumulation, and he must explain the older Grossman’s steadfast support for Stalin and, eventually, the Stalinist colony of East Germany.

The Law of Accumulation is often seen as a bizarre exercise in Talmudic positivism: a book which tries to ‘prove’ the inevitable end of capitalism with endless tables of statistics and quotes from the sacred texts of Marx. Many critics have seen in Grossman's arguments a denial of human agency, and a blind faith in the ‘iron laws’ of economics. Kuhn does his subject a favour when he points to the subtle, nuanced nature of the ‘laws’ Grossman saw operating in capitalism. He explains that Grossman’s famous discussions of capitalist collapse were carefully contextualised:

The Law of Accumulation developed and was structured by the account of Marx’s method that Grossman had outlined in earlier publications. After surveying previous Marxist discussions of the question of capitalist collapse, the book moved from abstract to progressively more concrete levels of analysis. The second chapter examined the law of collapse when a number of simplifying assumptions were made. The third dealt with countertendencies to the law, as these simplifying assumptions were lifted. The conclusion considered the connections among capitalism’s crisis tendency, the class struggle, and the concentration of capital. Kuhn’s book comes with the recommendation of Bertell Ollman on its back cover, and Ollman’s wonderfully clear expositions of Marx’s dialectical method appear to have influenced Kuhn’s explanations of Grossman’s method.

Kuhn is less convincing when he tries to account for the Stalinist politics of the mature Grossman. Isolation from events in the Soviet Union and Europe, support for the Soviet struggle against Nazism, and naivety about the new regime in East Germany do not really excuse the political degeneration of a man who had known the free-flowing and open-minded debates of the European revolutionary movement in the era before Stalinism. But Grossman’s political blunders should not prevent us from revisiting his writing, any more than Althusser’s occasional concessions to Stalinism should stop us reading For Marx. Like Jeff Sparrow, Rick Kuhn has made a valuable contribution to the understanding of a neglected corner of the history of Marxism.

Hen Island

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On Queen Street last Saturday

What struck me about the group of God botherers in the first picture was the completeness of their absorption in supplication. Not one of them noticed me, as I elbowed my way between them to get a decent shot with the cellphone. Their eyes were either closed, raised to the heavens, or glazed with tears. It was rather pleasant, compared to the aggressive style of evangelism I normally suffer on Auckland's main drag.

The quotes are from Marx, and are supposed to annoy those 'ligis types Skyler and Muzzlehatch.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.
Pompous German goat...

Monday, July 09, 2007

One for Bill

Over the past week I've been having running discussions with Bill 'decapitate her majesty' Direen about Republicanism. Bill will appreciate this new Marcus Strom article, which fuses the argument against John Howard's 'paternalistic assault on Australian Aboriginals' with a call for radical constitutional reform in Australia, and presumably by extension New Zealand.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Go Mike

Mike Beggs' Scandalum blog is going from strength to strength. This week Mike revisits his turangawaewae, the allegedly dull South Island town of Timaru, and lectures on Marx to an audience that includes a very worried investment banker.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The 25th of March, 1868

Is this the most important letter Marx ever wrote? James D White thinks it is. He could be right.

[London,] 25 March 1868

"Dear Fred,

I wanted to write to you yesterday from the Museum, but I suddenly became so very unwell that I had to close the very interesting book I was reading. There was something like a black veil before my eyes. In addition, a frightful headache and chest constriction. So I crept home . The air and the light did me good, and at home I slept for some time. My state is such that I really should give up working and thinking entirely for some time; but that would be hard for me, even if I had the means to loaf.

Ad vocem Maurer: his books are extremely significant. Not only the primitive age but also the entire later development of the free imperial cities, of the estate owners possessing immunity, of public authority, and of the struggle between the free peasantry and serfdom, get an entirely new character.

The history of mankind is like palaeontology. Owing to a certain judicial blindness, even the best minds fail to see, on principle, what lies in front of their noses. Later, when the time has come, we are surprised that there are traces everywhere of what we failed to see. The first reaction to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment bound up with it was naturally to regard everything as mediaeval, romantic, and even people like Grimm are not free from this. The second reaction to it is to look beyond the Middle Ages into the primitive age of every people — and this corresponds to the socialist tendency, though these learned men have no idea that they are connected with it. And they are then surprised to find what is newest in what is oldest, and even egalitarians to a degree which would have made Proudhon shudder.

And we are all very much in the clutches of this judicial blindness: right in my own neighbourhood, on the Hunsrück, the old Germanic system survived until the last few years. I now remember my father talking about it to me from a lawyer’s point of view. Another proof: just as the geologists, even the best like Cuvier, have expounded certain faits in a completely distorted way, so philologists of the force of a Grimm, mistranslated the simplest Latin sentences because they were under the influence of Moser, etc. (who, I remember, was enchanted that ‘freedom’ never existed among the Germans, but that ‘Luft macht eigen [‘town air brings freedom, country air brings serfdom’]). E.g. the famous passage in Tacitus: ‘arva per annos mutant, et superest ager’, which means: they exchange the fields (arva) (by lot, hence also sortes in all later Leges Barbarorum), and there remains over communal land (ager in distinction to arva as ager publicus), Grimm and others translate: they till every year new fields, and there is still (untilled) land left over!

In the same way the passage: ‘colunt discreti ac diversi, [they till separately and scattered] is taken to prove that the Germans from the earliest times cultivated on individual farms like Westphalian squires. But the very same passage continues: ‘Vicos locant non in nostrum morem, connexis et cohaerentibus aedificii’s; suum quisque locum spatio circumdat’, [‘they do not lay out villages in our fashion, with adjacent buildings one next to the other; each surrounds his dwelling with a free space’] and such Germanic primitive villages, in the form described, still exist here and there in Denmark. Obviously Scandinavia must become as important for German jurisprudence and economics as for German mythology. Only by starting from there will we be able once again to decipher our past. Incidentally, even Grimm, etc., found in Caesar’s writings that the Germans always settled as kinship groups, and not as individuals: ‘gentibus cognationibusque, qui uno coierunt.’ [‘according to gentes and kinships, which settled together’ — Gaius Julius Caesar]

But what would Old Hegel say, were he to learn in the hereafter that the general [das Allgemeine] in German and Nordic means only the communal land, and that the particular, the special [das Sundre, Besondere] means only private property divided off from the communal land? Here are the logical categories coming damn well out of ‘our intercourse’ after all.

Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider, namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times. But he is at the same time agronomist. He claims that with cultivation — depending on its degree — the ‘moisture’ so beloved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc. This man is both a thoroughly learned philologist (he has written books in Greek) and a chemist, agronomist, etc. The conclusion is that cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) — leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!

This Fraas is also interesting as a German case-study. First Dr. med., then inspector and teacher of chemistry and technology. At present head of Bavarian veterinary services, university professor, head of state agricultural experiments, etc. In his latest writings you see his advanced age, but he is still a dashing fellow. He has been around a lot in Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt! His history of agriculture is also important. He calls Fourier this ‘pious and humanist socialist’. On the Albanians, etc. ‘every sort of shameless lechery and rape’.

We must keep a close watch on the recent and very latest in agriculture. The physical school is pitted against the chemical.

Do not forget to send me back the letter of Kugelmann’s manufacturer.

Nothing pleases me better than to see you here.

K. M.

Apropos. Edgar’s planter’s hat has been found again, and this time you can take it to Mrs Lizzy."

Got all that? Here's Sean Sayers explaining the use that White makes of the letter:

Marx had become increasingly aware that there were extensive survivals of pre-capitalist forms in capitalist societies. In a letter to Engels of 25 March 1868, of which White makes a lot, he says, `right in my own neighbourhood, on the Hunsrücken, the Germanic system survived up till the last few years'...Such survivals posed problems for the ideas of capitalist development which Marx was working on in the early 1860s in connection with the second volume of Capital. For the assumption which had guided Marx's thought in this period was the Hegelian one that historical development was a progressive process in the course of which earlier forms would be swept away.

According to the story that White tells, Marx's Russian studies, together with his anthropological investigations, led to a questioning of this view which resulted eventually in a crisis in Marx's thinking and a transformation of his whole approach to social and historical questions. Indeed, White maintains, they led to a veritable `turning point in Marx's conception of socialism' (358). Marx came to reconsider his hostility to romanticism. Towards the end of the 1860s he adopted the view that ancient communal social forms, such as had survived among the peasantry in Russia and other parts of Europe, could provide the basis for an ideal future socialist society.

I agree, to an extent at least, and I think that the issue is of more than historical interest, even in Aotearoa. I don't go along with White's very negative view of Lenin and his revolution, though. I think Lenin inherited rather than created a problem. Sayers has some wise words to this effect, near the end of his treatment of White's book:

Marx's words conflict. Right up to the end of his life, Marx's thoughts were in the process of development; they were unresolved on crucial matters, incomplete and contradictory. This is clear from the account that White himself gives. As White well shows, Marx's Russian studies were pointing in directions which seemed to conflict with the ideas of historical progress that had guided his previous work. How these apparent conflicts should be dealt with is a matter for interpretation, and different interpretations are possible. In any case, such questions of interpretation raise philosophical issues which cannot be resolved by poring over the words of Marx as though these have sacred authority...Marxism is not a dead doctrine unchangeably laid down by Marx.

You can roam amongst Marx's letters here.

Remembering Leicester

It's a year since the death of Leceister Kyle, the priest, poet, environmental activist, Buller secessionist, and discoverer of giant snails who endeared himself to thousands of New Zealanders, and a few Brits and Indians as well, during the sixty-nine well-spent years of his life. I gathered some of the tributes that appeared after Leicester's death in brief 34 - you can read them here. My own tribute to the man was originally published on this blog. Richard Taylor dedicated his book Conversation with a Stone to his parents and to Leicester.

There are quite a few poems by Leicester floating about the internet - I've just found 'Letter to Lorine', which was originally published in Sport:

There are some words that I don't know.
Creosote is clear—
I've used it,
gestalte's not defined in my mind.
Sex is too small a word for the work it does...

With their wry mixture of authority and self-deprecation, those lines are pure Leicester. He is missed.


When Jose Ramos-Horta swept to victory in the second round of East Timor's Presidential elections a couple of months ago, his supporters in Canberra and Washington applauded gleefully. Horta's triumph seemed to signal the end of the troublesome, because occasionally independent-minded, Fretilin-dominated government that had been a target of the Australian-led military occupation of the island.

Horta, the Aussie and American political establishment and media reasoned, would consolidate his victory by leading his new National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party to a landslide in the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of June. Horta's support for neoconservative foreign policy, including even the invasion of Iraq, his commitment to an open-ended occupation of East Timor, and his mellow attitude towards Aussie exploitation of oil and gas in the Timor Gap had long made him a favourite of John Howard and of the Bush administration.

A closer look at the election results, though, suggested that Horta's new party would have trouble winning control of East Timor's parliament. Horta has been hailed in Canberra as the great uniter of Timorese, but he was defeated in the first round of the Presidential election, and only ultimately prevailed by cutting deals with parties based in the populous West of the country and by using Anzac troops and police to hamper Fretilin's campaign.

The preliminary results from this week's elections to parliament show how wrong Gusmao's boosters were in their predictions. Horta's party has failed to win a plurality, let alone a majority, of the vote. Its 22% is the same result Horta got in the first round of the Presidential election, and Fretilin's 29% is slightly higher than the share of the vote its candidate Lu Olo won in that poll. The Social Democratic Assocation and the Democratic Party, two organisations representing the interests of the Western part of the country, have once again done very well.

I think that this result is consistent with the forecast I made at the end of my article on the Presidential elections:

"East Timor’s constitution makes the post of President a largely symbolic one. To consolidate this victory and achieve real power, the faction around Horta and Gusmao needs to win a majority of seats in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June the 30th and create a new Prime Minister and Cabinet line-up of their choice. Their fledgling National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party is still a small splinter from the Fretilin organisation, and is unlikely to win anything like a majority at the end of June. If Fretilin wins a majority or even a plurality of seats, then a constitutional crisis could quickly develop, as Horta faces off against a hostile Prime Minister. If parliament is divided between Fretilin, on the one hand, and the CNRT and its western allies, on the other hand, then East Timor's regional tensions could be exacerbated rather than healed."

Watch out for Anzac troops playing politics, as Horta and Howard try to make the most of a miserable election result.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ode to the audience

Last night's Titus Books-Powertool Records bash at the Kings Arms appears to have actually made some money - that is what I infer, at least, from the fact that Muzzlehatch and Bill are buying me lunch today with some of their door takings. What's in Your Backyard? was a sort of experiment in eclecticism, throwing acts from the Powertools roster like shifty Westie rockers Juan Los Bastardos together with Titus Books scribblers like the clean-cut but dangerous Jack Ross.

Bridging the gap between the stoner's garage and the writer's garrett was Bill Direen, who releases his music through Powertools and his scribblings through Titus. Bill kicked proceedings off with a set of hushed acoustic performances that recalled the glories of last Friday, popped up repeatedly to noodle along to the performances of Titus writers, and brought the evening to an end with a long and decreasingly sober set in which first Muzzlehatch and then a mischievous Chris Knox made cameo appearances.

Highlights of the evening included Bill's performance of 'Iceberg Song', which proved that a broken string is no barrier to a virtuoso guitar solo; Richard Taylor's sobriety; David Lyndon-Brown's decision to set his tale of Auckland's sordid underbelly to whirling dervish music; the loping, jazzy playing of the Blue Wheel Filters, a band which threatens to make the double bass a cool instrument; and the open-mindedness - perhaps I should say tolerance? - of the eighty or so people who were willing to listen sympathetically to everything from punk classics to translations of Cesar Vallejo and Li Ho to Knox and Direen's acapella performance of 'Flip the Fire Engine'.

Reproduced below is a poem I read last night while Muzzlehatch bashed a drum and Bill unleased squalls of feedback on his seven string guitar. (Like I say, that audience was very tolerant...)

Ode to Auckland

The city wall’s condition varies. In some places it stands twenty feet high, and sprouts concrete watchtowers like sea monsters’ heads. In other places it is three strands of rusty wire, supported by warped and splintering puriri posts. In still other places one finds piles of scoria bricks of an irregular shape and size, padded by lichen and moss. The wall is punctuated by gateways at Orewa, in the north, and Mercer, in the south. The gates are never opened, because barbarians camp outside them, in fighting units of indeterminate size. In the evenings smoke from the barbarians’ campfires and the scent of their roasted opossums can be detected in Silverdale and Pukekohe. The barbarians are as necessary as the wall. The barbarians are part of the wall. Though their muskets have rusted and their hostages have expired, the fearsome reputation they won long ago deters more well-equipped and motivated armies from approaching the city.

but now it is time
and the microbes swarm
like stars in a midsummer sky

The city’s law is impartial. Rich and poor alike are strictly forbidden to sleep under bridges, or beg for bread. Young and old alike are strictly forbidden to drag race down Queen Street, or enter nightclubs without ID. Men and women alike are strictly forbidden to breastfeed in public, or buy gin while pregnant. Healthy and sick alike are strictly forbidden to sneeze in cafeterias, or cough blood on city streets. The law is impartial. Wells may on occasion be poisoned, but the city’s fountains must be kept clean. The law must be defended like a wall.

but now it is time
and the secret policeman advances
stooping to pick up butts

The city’s one hundred and eleven registered poets have three common tasks. They must make young women cry at weddings, make young men shout before football games, and prepare the elderly for dignified deaths. To these ends, each poet is supplied with certain meters and rhymes. In lines for young men, the spondaic beat of the agitated heart is preferred. Anapests are deployed at altars and in geriatric wards. Rhyme is encouraged, but it is forbidden to couple manoeuvre with manhole cover, or blackbird with blackbird. Occasionally a poet goes mad and runs deep into the eleven hectares of wilderness at the park, where he carves winking eyes and vaginas on the puriri trunks. On returning, he is asked to write a self-criticism in perfect blank verse.

but now it is time
and the insurance salesman advances
with sherry on his breath

The park covers one and a half square kilometres, and includes eleven hectares of wilderness. At the entrance to the wilderness you pause to watch two park rangers fitting a plastic cord and a label written in Latin around a puriri trunk. You remember the morgue two blocks away, tags tied around the blue ankles of tramps and junkies. You have come to the park to admire the city’s protected bird. The bird’s importance has been noted in several volumes of local poetry. You look up, and listen carefully. According to one of the city's poets, the bird’s song consists of a single repeated note, which can be heard at a distance of two kilometres. Up close, the bird's song is reputed to sound like a hammer beating an anvil. You hear a sudden shrill squeal, and look down to see the bird swooping low and shitting on a grateful ranger.

but now it is time
and all the heroes enlist
in a train station’s rush hour crowd

Above the city, the moon goes about in his white coat, like a doctor walking his wards. Sometimes clouds are rolled in front of him, like the stained curtains that separate beds. After every night shift you park, turn off your engine, and listen to the same waves breaking jellyfish and condoms on Bastion Reef. The moon stares back.

but now it is time
and the billboard shouts
in a language you’re afraid to learn

The city’s first governor civilised the extensive grounds around his mansion, but his successors have had little interest in gardening, and today environmental groups lobby to have the whole site turned into a wilderness reserve. Geese fly low, in formations of six or eight, under the radar, over the scummed surfaces of the four rectangular ponds. A silver-gray epiphyte wraps itself around an ageing oak, like an undercover policeman embracing a heckler in the mansion’s banquet hall. Blackberry bushes grow like barbed wire around a memorial to the war dead.

but now it is time
and the pill is placed in your hand
like a coin worn smooth

The city’s public hospitals were long ago consolidated into one super-facility, whose surgeons are noted for their technical brilliance. A middle-aged woman is raised from the underground waiting room, where she has been shaven and sedated. The operation lasts for seven hours, until the chief surgeon holds a blood-coloured cyst aloft and punches his other fist in the air, before accepting the handshakes of his colleagues. The patient expired four hours into the operation. The cyst will be bottled and handed to her family.

but now it is time
and the hated face congeals
into a blissful smile

Now and then a group of citizens assembles in the city’s central square, in the place of the clowns, jugglers, and karaoke singers who are normally gifted to the space. It is sometimes possible, in the interval between the expulsion of the city’s entertainment corps and the arrival of the police, for a particular citizen to make one or two statements from the stage that occupies the middle of the square. Along the edges of the space, statues of previous governors study his countenance, his gestures. When the police and protesters wrestle, they knock each statue off its flimsy plaster base, so that the city fathers appear to be prostrating themselves.

but now it is time
and the microbes swarm
like stars in a midsummer sky

now it is time
and the hated face congeals
into a blissful smile

Footnote: Skyler has put nice reviews of Bill's Wine Cellar gig and last night's bash up over at Dodgy Hippy Stuff. Thanks to veteran Kiwi blogger Russell Brown for giving us a plug at the bottom of this post, too.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Howard doctrine comes home

The World Socialist Website has the goods on today's election in East Timor. It's hard to vote freely in the shadow of a foreigner with a gun. There's been a lot of talk on the left about John Howard's new plan to roll back Aboriginal land rights and incomes, and a demonstration in support of Aboriginal communities will be held in Auckland on Monday.

What most critics of Howard haven't mentioned so far is the similarity between his military intervention in Aboriginal communities and the Anazc interventions in the Solomons and East Timor. There are obvious similarities in the phoney humanitarianism, in the usurpation of local decision-making processes by Canberra's chosen bureaucrats, and in the use of the police and the army to forestall grassroots opposition. Robert Bollard has filled out the picture at leftwrites. The Howard doctrine has come home, and it'll be no more progressive in the Outback than it has been in the Pacific.