Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Instead of insults

[I'm submitting this piece to the Scoop Review of Books, but I thought I'd put it up here as well. You can find another response to Napoleon Swings over at the blog of Jack Ross.]

Jen Crawford, Napoleon Swings, Soapbox Press, Auckland, 2009.

Jen Crawford had intended to launch her Soapbox Press chapbook Napoleon Swings at Auckland’s Forde’s Bar, which has proved over the last year to be a fine venue for literary events. Along with its large fireplace, its shelves of books, its detuned piano, its chessboards, and its cheap beer, Forde’s boasts a relaxed and amiable publican, who would rather listen carefully to poetry than count his takings. Unfortunately, Mr Forde can sometimes be a little too relaxed, and when Jen and her supporters turned up on a rainy Sunday afternoon for the pre-arranged launch party they found that he had forgotten to meet them.

After some quick consultations Jen and Michael Steven, the proprietor of Soapbox Press, decided to move the launch to Galbraiths, a spacious but expensive alehouse which always opens on Sundays. Galbraiths is located at the city end of Mt Eden, close to the offices of TV 3 and the Sunday Star Times, and it seems to attract many of Auckland’s better-paid, higher-profile journos. It’s hard not to overhear arguments about editorial lines and advertising revenue as you queue to pay nine dollars for a skinny glass of Munich Lager in the pub’s main room.

After Steven and Crawford’s negotiating skills won us the use of one of Galbraith’s back rooms, we sat between the huge fermentation vats of the pub’s brewery and the flapping doors of its toilets and listened to Jen read a few poems from Napoleon Swings. She had to cope with a series of boozers elbowing their way past her to the bogs, but her voice found a nice pitch, midway the deep bass hum of the fermenter and the shrill flushing of the toilets.

After Jen had finished I headed for the bar, where I found myself standing beside a neckless bull-faced man with bloodshot, slow-moving eyes. I recognised him as one of the journalists that make Galbraiths their habitat, but I couldn’t recall his name. The man wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his pinstripe suit and stared at me for some time, trying to focus his vision. ‘I thought you guys were a cult or something, holding that meeting’, he slurred. ‘But you’re not a cult are you, you’re having a pub quizz, aren’t you?’

I pondered how to respond to this interpretation of our little gathering beside the bogs, before deciding that the pub quizz was probably a necessary illusion. If I told my friend that I was helping to launch a chapbook of poetry, he’d probably consider me a particularly dangerous cultist. There are few things more terrifying to a journalist than poetry. Literature and journalism might seem to have something in common, and perhaps they did, in the era of Orwell and Hemingway, but they seem ill-matched today, in the era of the twenty-four hour news cycle, the five second soundbite, and the relentless pursuit of sensation by even the most ‘serious’ newspapers.

Compared to the reporters who chase after ambulances and the editorialists who are able to pronounce confidently on every ‘burning issue’ after a five minute google search, poets must seem hopelessly recalcitrant. Poetry – good poetry, anyway – refuses cheap sensation and easy judgement, and seeks to explore the nuances of language and human experience. Good poetry is the opposite of contemporary journalism. It was probably best, then, to let my sozzled friend believe that Jen was conducting a pub quizz.

A few days after the strange ceremony at Galbraiths, I opened Crawford’s chapbook – I’d spilt four dollars’ worth of Munich Lager over the cover, but the text had survived – and noticed that the collection was dedicated to somebody called Debbie Gerbich. Sometimes the dedication at the beginning of a book has little extrinsic significance – it might be a thankyou note to a tirelessly tolerant partner, or an apology to a less successful writer – but at other times it can offer a way ‘in’ to the book by giving a clue about the author’s worldview and intentions.

The name Debbe Gerbich sounded oddly familiar, so I googled it, and discovered a string of news articles written in 2007. In March of that year, Gerbich had approached the Sunday Times to explain that she’d been involved in some creepy but ostensibly consensual group sex sessions that involved Brad Shipton, a former cop who had been accused of rape by several women. Even after being convicted, Shipton had denied being a rapist, insisting that he was a loyal husband, a good family man, and a pillar of his community; Gerbich remembered him differently. In the aftermath of Gerbich’s revelations Shipton’s wife left him.

Gerbich had insisted that the Sunday Times use her as an anonymous source, but the rival Herald on Sunday newspaper discovered and printed her name, and the rest of the media quickly made her biography into a news story. When Gerbich contacted the Herald on Sunday’s assistant editor Stephen Cook to complain about the destruction of her privacy, he fired back e mails which demanded that she cooperate with his investigations into her sexual history. One of them has been quoted on the internet:

We have made enquiries today into your background and have turned up several interesting leads. I suggest it's in your interest to discuss those with me. We also have photographs of you both, I am in town for the next hour and can be contacted on … if you think you can continue to hide in the shows you are sadly mistaken. We will be running a story which names you this weekend and I would obviously like to talk to you about some of the information we have in our possession about you. This includes details of your conviction, your financial problems, your suicide attempt and your interest in bondage and discipline.

Gerbich had psychiatric problems, some of which seemed to stem from sexual abuse she had suffered as a teenager, and she found it hard to cope with the criticism she received from the media and the public in the weeks and months after the Herald on Sunday revealed her identity. She was called a slut, and ridiculed for claiming that her encounters with Shipton were consensual and yet still abusive. In June 2007 Debbie Gerbich committed suicide. The Herald pronounced her passing a ‘tragedy’, but did not reflect upon its own connection to the event.

The story of Debbie Gerbich’s last months tells us a great deal about our media, but it also tells us about a type of thinking which is widespread in our society. We like to think about concepts like guilt and innocence, consent and non-consent, in individualistic and absolutist terms – we like to think that people accused of crimes are either wholly guilty or wholly innocent, that sex is either consenting or non-consenting, and that people must be judged as individuals, without reference to the social structures and belief systems in which they are enmeshed. It is as though the behaviour of an individual human being can be isolated and minutely examined, in the way that a chemical or a microbe can be isolated and examined in a laboratory.

Debbe Gerbich was ridiculed because she refused to accept the sort of black and white, absolutist thinking we like to use when we judge human behaviour. She acknowledged that she consented to her encounters with Shipton, but said that she nonetheless found them abusive and traumatic. She questioned whether her consent could be adequately judged in isolation from the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager, from the chauvinist ideology that legitimated Shipton’s behaviour, and from the unequal power relationship between the wealthy ex-cop and the vulnerable young woman.

As I reconstructed the last months of Debbie Gerbich’s life, the name Stephen Cook nagged at me. I’ve never spent much time following the fortunes of the Herald’s senior writing staff, but the man’s name seemed familiar. I fished the previous day’s paper out of the rubbish bin, flipped to page four, and discovered an article about a complaint brought to the Employment Relations Authority by a former assistant editor of the Herald on Sunday:

A sacked newspaper journalist has claimed his editor believed rumours he was selling illicit drugs from office toilets and was linked to criminal gangs. Stephen Cook was before the Employment Relations Authority yesterday, appealing his dismissal in December from the APN-owned Herald on Sunday.

ERA member Rosemary Monaghan conducted a hearing in which editor Shayne Currie justified his actions against Cook. Cook, an associate editor, was at home sick on September 5 when drug squad detectives went to the newsroom wanting to speak with him. Currie was told by the officers that Cook had been picked up in their surveillance of an address. He had been to the house five or six times...

Ms Monaghan asked Cook why he believed he was suspended. He replied: "Most of the talk centred around far-fetched assertions I was a major Auckland drug dealer. There were also claims I was involved in a $5-million P ring allegedly being run out of Paremoremo Prison." He was rumoured to be involved with the Head Hunters gang. "And I was selling P out of the toilets of the
Herald on Sunday."

I might sound like a libertarian, but I must admit that I don’t particularly care whether Stephen Cook was hanging out with the Headhunters, or even making the Herald’s toilets into a retail outlet. Hunter S Thompson’s dubious example has inspired more than a few journalists to try to establish their street cred by hanging out with bikies or other accredited ‘toughs’, and Cook wouldn’t be the first worker to bolster his income by running an illicit small business in his downtime at the office.

What I find far more remarkable, and far more damning, is the sheer chutzpah implicit in Cook’s complaints about the invasion of his privacy by the police and his employers. Is the man not able to appreciate how he violated Debbie Gerbich’s privacy back in 2007, with such disastrous consequences? If he doesn’t feel sorry for the part he played in destroying the woman’s life, can he at least appreciate the irony of the situation he now finds himself in? How can he feel victimised, without remembering his own victim?

I’ve always had a weakness for coincidences, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I began to wonder whether the drunken bull-headed man I had met at Galbraiths might have been Stephen Cook. If he had been Cook, and I had known about his role in the life and death of Debbie Gerbich, and about Jen’s concern with the subject, would I have invited him to come and join us at the back of the pub, beside the fermentation vats, to read the poems that Jen dedicates to his victim? What, if anything, might Cook be able to learn from these poems?

Jen Crawford’s poetry questions, even if only implicitly, the black and white categories and yes/no questions that hacks like Stephen Cook deal in every day of their working lives. Crawford’s refusal of the faux-certainties of the hack journalist is found in the texture of her poems - in their lurches from first to third person, from past to present tense, from a tone of joy to a tone of alarm. Crawford’s poems are complex and difficult, because life is complex and difficult.

The first stanza of the poem ‘viaduct’ is typical of Crawford’s style:

a reward, a hand on the back on the small of the back.
walking out to a car. a night, a tiredness, a whisper.
your tiredness and that you did well.
building a wall around it. like a harbour with boats clinking.
like a sky, placed light and orange clouds.
the clubs and their liquid shout clinking.
your tiredness, your reward at the small of your back.

‘viaduct’ is at once vividly detailed and disturbingly ambiguous. Consider, for instance, the mysteries of the first two lines in the poem. Is the hand ‘on the small of the back’ supporting, pushing, or even punching the woman at the centre of the poem? Is the ‘reward’ the woman receives a token of endearment, like a bunch or roses or a ring, or a piece of abuse? Crawford shows us that the language and gestures which express affection can be creepily close to those that express anger and affirm control. Is it always possible, the poet might be asking, to separate these things completely?

The sound and shape of Crawford’s lines reinforce their eerie ambiguity. Crawford’s first line, for instance, contains fourteen syllables, but only five beats. Because of their relative rarity and their spacing, the stressed syllables may remind us of an aggressive voice breaking into the speech of a softer voice. The repetition in ‘the hand on the back on the small of the back’ makes the line stagger, in the way that a body staggers when it is suddenly pushed from behind.

If ‘viaduct’ is one of the more accessible pieces in Napoleon Swings, then ‘essay’ is one of the most difficult. The poem consists of a series of prose paragraphs which are internally consistently, but which make no obvious sense together:

Kneeling at the end of the bed, holding his cock in so it didn't slip out of her, I felt furious, sick, hot and patient.

The toreadors in the corridor with the dirt floor conducted their interviews of their selves speaking all at once. We had such long teeth...

And after the lake wake waited. Water and light occurred together. On the near shore whenever a wave ended a car on the far shore. This I claimed to have invented. Her brother and sister wouldn't shut up and so we got asked, nicely, to leave...

The whole incredibly hot day at the beach. Didn't feel very good. Under my hand a tiny plastic soldier. I put it in my pocket for the paratrooper but one of his legs snapped off then the other.

The startling details of Crawford’s first paragraph remind us of the theme and atmosphere of ‘viaduct’, but the paragraphs that follow it soon become a puzzle. Neither a narrative nor a linear argument can be teased from them, and their images do not seem related in any easily-discernable way. Some critics would affix the dreaded ‘postmodernist’ label to ‘essay’, and proclaim that the poem is some sort of complicated game in which words and images are moved about like decontextualised counters, but there are alternatives to this sort of valourisation of triviality.

We might ask, for instance, whether Crawford’s poem is really so different to some of the stranger sequences of thoughts we have every day, in the interstices of time when our minds are not detained by work or hack journalism or Harry Potter novels. The Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman, who has made a career out of thinking about thinking, uses the concept of ‘abstraction’ to capture the way in which our minds isolate one aspect of a complex subject as a sort of ‘sample’ to investigate. The world, Ollman argues, is far too complex for us to ‘think’ whole, in the same way that an ox is too large for us to swallow whole. We have to consume reality piece by piece:

We "see" only some of what lies in front of us, "hear" only part of the noises in our vicinity, "feel" only a small part of what our body is in contact with, and so on through the rest of our senses. In each case, a focus is established and a kind of boundary set within our perceptions...

In listening to a concert, for example, we often concentrate on a single instrument or recurring theme and then redirect our attention elsewhere. Each time this occurs, the whole music alters, new patterns emerge, each sound takes on a different value, etc. How we understand the music is largely determined by how we abstract it. The same applies to what we focus on when watching a play, whether on a person, or a combination of persons, or a section of the stage. The meaning of the play and what more is required to explore or test that meaning alters, often dramatically, with each new abstraction...

Ollman argues that, most of the time, we use ‘abstractions’ which express ‘bourgeois’, ‘commonsense’ views of the world – the sort of clichés and stereotypes that lazy journalists like Stephen Cook happily recycle. Sometimes, though, we happen upon ‘dialectical abstractions’ which bring together aspects of reality that are normally kept separate in our thinking. ‘War on Terror’ is a bourgeois abstraction, created by George Bush’s speechmakers and recycled endlessly in the media and on talkback radio; ‘War of Terror’, on the other hand, is a is a subversive, dialectical abstraction, because it implicitly asserts that the people pursuing Osama bin Laden have more than a little in common with him. When a graphic designer sticks a tattooed Maori face beside a geyser and a snow-capped mountain on a poster advertising New Zealand to tourists, he is recycling a bourgeois abstraction; when Shane Cotton paints a severed tattooed head floating alongside a fighter plane and a flock of exotic birds, he is creating a dialectical abstraction.

‘essay’ can be read as an attempt to create a series of dialectical abstractions, by bringing together things that are normally kept apart in our minds. Through all its changes in tense and context, the piece proceeds in the first person. As we read paragraph after puzzling paragraph, we cling to this fact, and struggle to treat the poem as the expression of a single individual. Because of its sexual subject matter, adult slang, and self-consciousness, we are inclined to treat the first paragraph as the report of an adult, but the naive tone and simple, sometimes defective syntax of some of the later sections of the poem suggest that a child, or children, may have spoken or written them. The last paragraph of the poem purports to step outside of human consciousness altogether:

Very shortly we were these ants, and we moved back and forth for a long time. Between our nest. We knew where to go. Then we had to go there too, but this was really difficult. Many got confused and forgot what they were doing. Many of us vanished completely.

How are we supposed to interpret these sentences? Are they the attempts – the attempts of an intelligent child, perhaps – to imagine the ‘thoughts’ of an ant, or are the ‘ants’ actually people? By ‘abstracting’ very different experiences and reporting them in the first person, Crawford seems to want to make us think about the limits of the self, and of individual experience. ‘essay’ is mysterious, but then so are some of Shane Cotton’s finest paintings.

The last pieces in Napoleon Swings are excerpted from a poem called ‘epithalamium’. Before she read these excerpts at the launch of her chapbook, Jen said that ‘epithalamium’ is a poem that she hopes to continue writing for the rest of her life. An epithalamium is normally understood as a poem or song made to celebrate a marriage, and Jen was recently married; it would be futile, though, to expect this difficult, equivocal poet to indulge in anything as simple as a celebration. The excerpts from 'epithalamium' in Napoleon Swings are not concerned with the clichéd images of matrimony – the ill-fitting rings, the awkward kiss at the altar, the picket fence, the joint mortgage – but with private, mysterious moments of intimacy:

I needed to be tender in those
pre-revolutionary moments,
tender with that crackling, as
with the lonely thigh over
distortional stocking, as with the
hurt car bending on through hot
water, whispering to the
I hope people wake
up. I so hope people wake up.

If Crawford commits herself to anything in ‘epithalamium’, it is to remaining aware of the complexity of human experience, and of the challenges of presenting that experience adequately in words. If Stephen Cook insults language and experience with his pursuit of stereotype and sensation, then Crawford honours our words and our lives with her dedication to what is difficult and true.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

From the centre

'Watch out for black ice, is waiting
at certain obscure bends en route to the Desert Road.
It waits elsewhere, local air sharpened by pines.
What is safety? You can’t count on it.'

- Kendrick Smithyman

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Shane should wait

There are few bowlers wore exciting than Shane Bond. The Cantabrian will never be one of cricket's leading wicket-takers: since the beginning of his career his body has struggled to cope with the demands that he makes of it, and demolitions of world-class batting line-ups have been interspersed with long spells in hospital wards and on physiotherapists' benches. But Bond is compelling in a way that more robust fast bowling legends like Michael Holding or Dennis Lillee never were: watching him lope deceptively toward the crease, windup, uncoil, and float an invisible ball toward the batsman at a speed of one one hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, we know we might be watching the very last over that the man ever bowls. Bond's fragility makes us constantly aware of his genius.

It's easy to understand, then, why Kiwi cricket fans have been so frustrated by the way that a feud between Indian businessmen has kept Bond out of contention for our national side for the last couple of years. A player of Bond's class and delicacy should not have been confined to the Indian Premier League and New Zealand domestic cricket because of arcane contractual disputes.

Now Bond has walked away from the IPL, and Black Caps Fans are rejoicing. I'm very pleased that the man will be playing for New Zealand again, but I won't be watching him make his comeback on the forthcoming tour of Sri Lanka. It may be hard for some of us to realise at times, but there are more important things than cricket. My friend Dhaya - a cricket-lover himself - explains what is really important in this letter, which is published in the latest issue of the National Distribution Union's paper Union News.

New Zealand Tamils are calling for the Black Caps tour to Sri Lanka that has been scheduled for August to be called off on the grounds that the Sri Lankan government has committed serious human rights violations and war crimes over the past few months.

Most of us know Sri Lanka for the 'Ceylon tea' and the Sri Lankan cricket team but many of us are not aware of the political situation and humanitarian crisis in the country. The majority Sinhalese government has discriminated against Tamils in Sri Lanka since independence from the British. Tamil politicians tried unsuccessfully to gain equal rights by democratic means before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam took up an armed struggle over the last thirty years.

Recently the Sri Lankan government has claimed that it has defeated the Tigers. In their final battle, the Sri Lankan forces killed between 20,000 and 50,000 Tamil civilians. These claims cannot be verified as the Sri Lankan government has banned all non-governmental organisations and media from the conflict zones to hide their atrocities.

Currently there are about 300,000 Tamils being kept against their will in camps run by the military. Reports of torture, rapes, and killing have leaked out of the camps. Calls by many coutnries including New Zealand to permit aid amd media to enter the camps have been ignored by the Sri Lankan government. Yet the New Zealand government has remained silent about this tour and the New Zealand Cricket Board has stated that unless the New Zealand government instructs them not to go on the tour they will have to go ahead.


After reading Dhaya's words, and meeting some of the Auckland-based Tamils who have had family members caught up in the chaos in their homeland, I lost my enthusiasm to see Shane Bond back in action in August. If the price of his return is the endorsement of a regime which has committed massive human rights abuses, then Shane should wait a few months.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who's the anachronism?

The death last week of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has drawn a number of readers to this blog, including Geoff Robinson, an Australian political historian. Robinson observes that Kolakowski was famous for his criticisms of Marx, and complains that the man's passing has prompted 'sore comments from the keepers of the Marxist flame', including yours truly.

I thank Geoff for his link to this blog, but I'm not sure he has entirely understood the post he has cited, which is called 'Tony Judt, Leszek Kolakowski, and the Stalinist school of anti-communism'. The post certainly doesn't contain any 'sore comments' on the death of Kolakowski - it was was written nearly three years ago, as part of a PhD thesis on EP Thompson which was finished last year. I was examining the debate between Thompson and Kolakowski back in the early '70s, and Tony Judt's interpretation of that debate. Judt claims that Thompson attacked Kolakowski because the Pole did not subscribe to the tenets of the most fanatical and faddish members of the New Left.

Anybody who reads Thompson's text 'An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', which (quite unfairly) describes the abortive 1968 revolution in France as a 'rich kid's revolutionary farce' and (more reasonably) mocks Western students who wear Mao suits and grow Che beards, ought to know that Judt's claims hold no water. Thompson, whose politics looked back to the 1930s and the Popular Front, not forward to feminism and black power and other emerging trends on the left, actually shared Kolakowski's unease with the 'generation of 1968'. He differed from Kolakowski, though, in refusing to abandon his commitment to socialist politics and Marxist ideas.

In his 'Open Letter', Thompson developed the notion of Marxism as a 'tradition' - a tradition of debate, as much as agreement. He contrasted this notion with the 'Marxism as doctrine' espoused by some of the more dogmatic intellectual gurus of the New Left. By coining the notion of 'Marxism as tradition', Thompson was attempting to engage with the New Left, without necessarily endorsing all of its ideas.

In the piece Robinson has quoted I suggest that, in retrospect, Kolakowski's understanding of Marxism seems to have many of the same qualities as the dogmatic definitions of the Maoists and other neo-Stalinists Thompson mocks in his 'Open Letter'. Both Kolakowski the anti-Marxist and his dogmatic Marxist opponents hold to the view that Marx's works form a coherent, unified whole, and both Kolakowski and his targets hold that these ideas have had a decisive impact on the development of nations like the Soviet Union and China, 'overdetermining' the interpretations produced by the people who actually run those countries.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that both the professional anti-communists of the West and the dogmatic Marxists who looked to regimes of the East for inspiration held to an interpretation of Marx and Marxist history that was legitimated by the Cold War, and not by the shape of Marx's oeuvre or the patterns of communist history. Marx's work is not unified and univocal: it is a vast collection of fragments. Even Capital, which is supposed to Marx's canonical work, is unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable. In his last decade, when he was supposed to be writing the final volumes of the work, Marx immersed himself in studies of early and pre-capitalist societies like Russia, North Africa, and Aboriginal Australia, and overturned many of his earlier assumptions about capitalist development and the likely location of anti-capitalist revolution. Anybody who reads the late 'Letter to Vera Zasulich' alongside the violently imperialist first section of The Communist Manifesto can see the change that the man's thinking underwent.

Marx's work was simplified by Engels and by members of the Second International like Kautsky, who actually suppressed troublesome texts like the letter to Zasulich. The Bolsheviks also promoted a simplified view of Marx's oeuvre, both before and after the Octber revolution. By reducing Marx's intellectual inspiration to three sources - French Utopian socialism, German idealism, and English political economy - Lenin was able to ignore vast amounts of Marx's writing, as well as much of his reading.

If a simplified Marx suited the man's political heirs, it also suited the anti-Marxists of the West. By treating Marx's ideas as coherent and self-sufficient, and treating the actions of every regime which called itself Marxist as a logical expression of these ideas, they were able to make the case against the 'God that failed' easier intellectually, as well as more significant politically.

The history of avowedly Marxist movements that took power was subjected to a similar simplification. For obvious reasons, Soviet rulers never admitted the profound differences between the policies pursued in different periods in early Bolshevik history - between War Communism and the New Economic Policy, for instance - and the incompatibility of many of these policies with texts like Lenin's State and Revolution, let alone Marx's The Civil War in France.

In recent decades some of the more neglected parts of Marx's ouevre have been published, translated, and circulated. Perhaps just as importantly, the Cold War has ended, and the freeze it seemed to impose on certain interpretations of Marx and of communist history has gone. Over the last three decades a series of scholars, including EP Thompson, have been able to reinterpret Marx as something other than a latter-day Moses, handing down a set of political commandments carved in stone. Over the last decade a succession of very innovative interpretations of communist history have appeared, including Lars Lih's monumental study of Lenin's What Is To Be Done? , which shows that the text has much in common with the Second International Marxism that Lenin would later condemn with such fury, and James D White's essays on the October revolution, which show that the event was far more chancy and involved far more Mensheviks than has previously been supposed.

Leszek Kolakowski liked to talk of Marxism and socialism as dogmatisms that had beem made obsolescent by the history of the late twentieth century. He was inclined to see anyone interested in Marx and in socialist politics as a quixotic anarchronism. In truth, though, it was Kolakowski who had become an anachronism with the end of the Cold War. Like the Stalinists he had so often condemned, he had adopted a worldview which relied upon an interpretation of Marx and Marxist history that was ballasted by the Cold War, rather than by facts. When the Cold War ended, and Marx was released from the rival simplifications of Stalinists and right-wingers, Kolakowski found himself with nothing interesting to say. Perhaps he should have listened more carefully to his old friend Thompson.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ambushing von Stormer

Richard von Sturmer is more versatile than your average writer. After escaping from Westlake High Boys School in the wintry second half of the seventies, von Sturmer hurled himself into New Zealand's nascent punk scene, fronting bands with names like The Plague and The Humanimals and co-writing the classic anti-Muldoon anthem 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand' with his old schoomate Don McGlashlan.

In the eighties von Sturmer moved from the stage to the page and the screen by publishing one of New Zealand's first books of prose poems, We Xerox Your Zebras, and working in various capacities in important films like Martyn Sanderson's adaption of Albert Wendt's novella Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree. By the end of the decade he had developed a deep interest in Zen Buddhism, and today he balances his writing with a senior role at the Auckland Zen Academy.

In September Titus Books will be publishing On The Eve of Never Departing, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories by von Sturmer. Last night the man himself was lured to an address in West Auckland on the pretence of being shown a draft cover for his book, only to be ambushed by a group of admirers that included Michael Arnold, Hamish Dewe, Ted Jenner, Muzzlehatch, Skyler, Alex Jespersen, and yours truly. Muzzlehatch and Alex presented Richard with a bottle of whiskey; I confronted him with a five dollar microphone. The result is an hour-long recording of negigible audio quality and a certain lack of narrative flow.

Muzzlehatch is running a few filter programmes to try to clean up the sound file, so that we can post it online, as the latest Reading the Maps blogcast; in the meantime, though, here is a transcript of an excerpt from last night's chat with Richard.

Ted: Perhaps we could start with a list of Richard's publications?

Scott: But what counts as a publication?

Ted: I'm talking about books, so we start with We Xerox Your Zebras. What year was that?

Scott: But I found an old book in the library, a ratty old book called Songs of the Plague.

Ted: Interesting. But it wasn't Richard's book, was it?

Scott: Yes it was!

Richard: You must have been digging in some obscure corners. That's a collection of the songs I wrote with the punk performance band The Plague. Early...I began as a songwriter. I still read my work out loud as I'm writing it. And I'm collaborating on some songs with Otis Mace, 'Guitar Ace'...

Ted: What's the name von Sturmer mean?

Richard: It means to storm. To storm! To storm a castle...

Scott: Is it Dutch?

Richard: No. Austrian. The name can also refer to soccer - to the people who attack, who storm at the goal...It's a name that looks good on film credits...Have you thought about being von Hamilton?

Ted: Are there any other prominent von Sturmers?

Richard: Yes, there's the jeweller Matthew von Sturmer...

Michael: The man who brought swine flu into New Zealand from Mexico was a von Sturmer.

Richard: Yes. I think he's from another branch...

Michael: Ten dead, so far.

Richard: The original family came five generations ago. All related.

Michael: Maybe eleven.

Richard: Austrians keep the von. The von disappeared from Germany centuries ago. But I'm not Austrian at grandfather was born out wedlock, he took his stepfather's name, which was von Sturmer. My grandfather was an adventurer -he explored the Kimberley coast in the northwest Australia in the Depression era, going some places no white man had visited before - or very few. He was a prospector, a big guy, six foot five, looking for gold, only gold, he threw copper away -

Ted: Was he being paid?

Richard: Yes, he was an employee of the Kimberley Exploitation Syndicate. In those days exploitation was a positive word! 'We're out to exploit the Kimberleys!'

Scott: Well I got in trouble the other day for using the word exploitation. There was a controversy at the Scoop Review of Books, because they were publishing some rhymed doggerel - shocking doggerel - by a woman called Mary Cresswell, who has apparently got a book deal with a prestigious New Zealand publisher, and I tried to explain what I thought poetry is - real poetry, as opposed to doggerel - by quoting Anthony Burgess, who said that 'poetry is the maximum exploitation of words', and I got an e mail from someone criticising me for using the word 'exploitation' in a positive way...

Ted: The maximum exploitation of words...

Scott: The use of all the resources of language, of all shades of meaning...

Ted: It reminds me of something Ezra Pound said...what was it?

Scott: As the former New Zealand correspondent for the Pound scholars' journal you're more likely than me to know...though we have another Poundian in the lounge -

Ted: Hamish! Hamish! Come in here lad!

Scott: Richard, you wrote a sequence of poems called 'Old Ezra' about Ezra Pound and published them in the issue of brief dedicated to war - you were discussing his romance with fascism, and the parrallels and differences between the Second World War and more recent wars...

Richard: Yes...

Ted: Hamish, what did Ezra Pound say?

Hamish: About what?

Ted: That's just it. I can't remember. It's like looking a word up in the dictionary. How are you supposed to find it when you don't know the spelling in the first place?

Hamish: Pound said many things, sir. Some of them were crap.

Richard: I read The Cantos right through when I was eighteen or nineteen. I started reading Finnegans Wake at the same time but gave up. The Cantos are full of garbage and beauty. So much rubbish, but so many pearls. You can pick out the pearls.

Ted: Somebody had a go at me at the Scoop Review of Books. They said I was too obscure. They said I was all Greek. Well, I am a Greek scholar! That's what I do.

Hamish: You might be thinking of Zukofksy...

Scott: The riches of Pound scholarship in this room and we can't -

Richard: Pound said it took a lifetime to produce a good image. I love the clear concrete images in Pound. They're like haiku...

Scott: Was there a particular Canto or set of Cantos you liked?

Richard: Probably the Pisan Cantos. But I also like the early ones, which are Homeric - before everything disintegrates...

Scott: It's ironic that he's an epic poet, and yet he deals in fragments.

Hamish: It's a modern epic. Ours is the age of fragments, sir.

Ted: An epic for the twentieth century.

Hamish: I like the very last Cantos, where the whole structure breaks down, all the arguments break down, and you're left with something very bare.

Scott: Do you think he achieves his aim of writing Paradise in the last Cantos, of getting out of Hell?

Hamish: No I don't, sir. And he doesn't want to. And that's what's so good about the last Cantos. He realises that perfection is impossible. He lets the structure break down, he lets the machine die.

Ted: 'Lie still, and listen to the wind in the trees - that is paradise.'

Hamish: He abandons his political beliefs. He comes back to the world, in its bareness, sir.

Scott: Donald Davie argued a point like that - he said that all the sensuous details in the postwar Cantos, all the beautiful descriptions of birds and insects, showed that Pound had moved away somewhat from the lunatic abstractions of his fascist period, had found his feet again in the world -

Hamish: Quasi-correct, sir...

Scott: But Geoffrey Hill took exception to this, he wrote a poem satirising Davie's view, he thought that the reason Pound wrote so much about insects is that he preferred them to humans - well, to certain types of humans, like Jews...

Richard: Sometimes imperfect works are greater than perfect works. They open up possibilities but don't fully explore them. They give you ideas for your own work...

Ted: But Scott likes Bob Dylan!

Scott: I won't ask you about the influence of Dylan on your work, Richard, but I wondered whether the mixture of chaos and structure in the Cantos might be something that we find in your work, too - I remember that your first book of prose poems We Xerox Your Zebras had no discernable structure, and that you defended this in an interview by quoting Ted's favourite philosopher, Heraclitus -

Ted: Can I jump in here?

Richard: One does not jump into the same interview twice, Ted -

Scott: You said 'the fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings' -

Richard: Right. There is an order to the book but it comes from recurring voices, and from the recurrence of the strange states of mind I drove myself into when I was writing the poems -

Scott: Were you using drugs?

Richard: No! No. I used mind. The mind.

Ted: Cratylus said we could not jump into the same river once.

Scott: The first postmodernist.

Richard: The mind is very powerful. There are also word games in that book, words transmogrifying and then returning to their original states, pinus radiata to penis erectus...if you are a writer you must have a love of words...

Ted: You like games?

Richard: I like structure, and games require structure. I was inspired by the group of French writers known as Oulipo who devised elaborate language games...

Michael: Like Perec's novel which avoids ever using the letter 'e'...

Richard: A lot of my writing is done according to predetermined rules...for instance I have a group of poems written in sections which consist of twenty-six words each. The structure doesn't have to be obstrusive, the reader doesn't even need to grasp it consciously, it can sit at the back of the mind...

Scott: We Xerox Your Zebras is full of surreal imagery - the title is a good example - but it also has a definite sense of place. It's an Auckland book. Like your old friend Don McGlashlan, who's been called 'the quarter acre visionary', you seem to like to mix the surreal with the suburban...

Richard: Yes. I like Breton's commandment - 'make the magical everyday, and the everyday magical'.

Scott: In your next major publication, A Network of Dissolving Threads, which came out from Auckland University Press in the early nineties, there is a more overt structure -

Richard: Yes. I had discovered the Japanese forms - the haiku, and the haibun, which mixes the haiku with prose paragraphs.

Hamish: I prefer We Xerox Your Zebras. Nothing personal, sirs.

Richard: That's okay, Hamish.

Scott: Were these discoveries connected to your interest in Zen Buddhism?

Richard: Yes. Actually I came to Zen through the haiku. And I liked the way the haibun could combine the poetic and the prosaic, make things flow...I was especially inspired by Basho, and his travel book The Narrow Road to the Deep North...later in the nineties I got thrown off the Auckland University Press list, because they decided they didn't want to do any genre-hopping - they didn't want verse and prose together...

Ted: I have also had problems with people who don't think you can mix the two. And a lot of Anglo-Saxons are very backward - they don't even accept that prose poetry exists! The French, they've been writing prose poems for more than one hundred and fifty years - you've got Baudelaire, you've got Rimbaud...they take it seriously. But New Zealanders, oh dear...

Richard: Structure can take many forms. I have bus poems, which I wrote on my half-hour bus journey to work. I'd describe what I saw out the window, and my thoughts. The journey was the structure. Now I'm catching the train, which only takes six minutes, so I'm writing train poems, which have a very different structure...

Scott: Your most recent book is Suchness, which was published by Headworx in 2005, and which is an avowedly Buddhist piece of writing.

Richard: Well, half of it...

Scott: I was wondering whether you see an evolution in your writing which parallels some sort of spiritual journey? I'm interested in the differing treatments of the same themes in different books. I remember an extraordinary poem in We Xerox Your Zebras, a sort of dream piece, a vision, where a mother is lecturing her daughter on mortality, and revealing a series of pictures which depict a human body decaying, becoming a skeleton, but the girl's attention drifts away from this eerie presentation - she looks out the window, and sees a unicorn, or was it an ibex -

Richard: I think it was an ibex -

Scott: An ibex is grazing on the lawn, innocent and perfect. I haven't read the poem for many years - I lost my copy of We Xerox Your Zebras - but it is lodged somewhere in the back of my mind, it's that sort of poem. There's a piece in Suchness which seems to deal with the same subject - it describes your mother dying in hospital - but it's calmer: the narrator of the poem does not turn away from the fact of death, but instead imagines how all of us will die, and how our bodies will decay and rejoin the rest of the universe in some way -

Richard: Yes. The first poem was written soon after my mother's death. It's very raw. Zen teaches you equanimity, I think. I don't see any sort of grand journey in my work, just a quest to remain alert to the world in its details, and a quest for clarity...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The guns of Te Atatu

In a new essay Mark Williams argues that, because Chinese New Zealanders haven't fitted into the settler-colonised dialectic which continues to obsess both Pakeha and Maori, they have often been treated as an alien and threatening 'Other' by their fellow citizens. But if the Chinese communities which have existed in New Zealand since the 1850s have been a visible Other - an internal threat - then the Japanese people have often seemed like a distant, mysterious Other - an external threat made all the more menacing by its apparent absence from New Zealand society.

For Pakeha New Zealanders in the first half of the twentieth century, there was also something worryingly inconsistent about the Japanese. On the one hand, they were a non-European, 'inferior' people, whose poor hygiene and ferocious sexual appetites might imperil civilisation. On the other hand, the Japanese could not, like the Chinese or the Polynesians, be dismissed as a technologically 'backward' race. Japan's industrial revolution in the early decades of the twentieth century and its swift conquest of much of Southeast Asia and Oceania in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbour upset key premises of the Eurocentric worldview which Pakeha New Zealanders held dear.

The very absence of a Japanese minority within New Zealand society made the Empire of the Rising Sun seem a more extreme threat. During both the First and Second World Wars, New Zealanders were able to expiate some of the guilt they felt for defeats on faraway battlefields by attacking shops run by men with German accents and names, and by throwing whole families of Huns into an internment camp on Somes Island. Some of the enemy, at least, could be seen to be less than fearsome. The Japanese, by contrast, remained an unknown quantity on the home front during the Second World War. As their armies advanced from one country to another, overwhelming supposedly impregnable forts like Singapore, rumours of their ruthlessness and invincibility spread through Australasia.

By 1942 the Japanese were bombing Darwin and sending submarines into Sydney harbour, and yet New Zealand's best soldiers were fighting and dying in the Mediterranean. In the rural areas of the North Island, expecially, men were rushing to sign up to the Home Guard and drill with broomstick rifles at improvised bases. Women wrote angry letters to newspapers, demanding the right to fight and die alongside the men. This epistle was published in the Dominion in February 1942, and republished in Nancy Taylor's history of the war effort at home:

There are hundreds of women living alone, carrying on farm work, business, etc., who have gladly dug their own slit trench; some are first class shots, but their only weapon of defence against paratroops is the wood axe...Give the women weapons, they can fight. The Japanese will never have the chance to take the women and children alive. The disorientation caused by Japan's victories was reflected in the sudden emergence of the Awake New Zealand movement in 1942. At a series of mass meetings which began in the Waikato and spread throughout provincial New Zealand, farmers, housewives, and small businessmen condemned the betrayal of the war effort by lazy Wellington bureaucrats, self-interested industrialists, disloyal trade unions, and conscientious objectors. Invoking the examples of Cromwell's New Model Army and the Yugoslav partisans defying Hitler, the movement's leaders demanded he confiscation of all property that could aid the war effort and the conversion of all industry to arms production. Awake New Zealand was an exercise in group therapy, not a political movement - by convincing themselves that New Zealand could defeat the Japanese alone, if only the nation pulled together and defeated its internal enemies, Pakeha New Zealanders attempted to banish the spectre of Japanese racial superiority from their minds.

New Zealand's vulnerability was emphasised in the middle of 1942, when a float plane launched from a Japanese submarine flew low over Auckland taking photos of the city. In a mischevious faux-documentary poem, Kendrick Smithyman imagined the reaction to the lone invader:

Ships in port and ack-ack batteries
argued about him. Eventually, hotheads won,
they phoned in to report a Japanese float plane,
requested permission to open fire. Denied.
More telephoning, site to battery, battery to regiment,
regiment to Area to Combined HQ to Wellington.
On Tuesday Wellington ordered "Shoot Mr Nakamura
out of our skies."

In fact, Auckland lacked a single anti-aircraft gun in the middle of 1942. The passage of the float plane helped convince the government to step up its preparations for the defence of the country against invasion, and soon thousands of guns were being distributed to the Home Guard, bomb shelters were being dug in the towns, harbour entrances were being strewn with submarine nets and seeded with mines, and huge guns were being aimed at the empty sky. A crack group of veteran possum hunters and deer trackers were formed into a secret army called the Guide Platoons, and instructed to wage guerrilla warfare from a string of well-resourced hideouts deep in the hinterland of the North and South Islands.

By the end of the war, New Zealand was suffering from an extreme shortage of housing - for years, almost all building materials had been given over to preparations for an invasion which never occurred. But these meticulous and desperate preparations were seldom mentioned in the postwar decades. Gun emplacements became overgrown, tunnel complexes were allowed to leak and cave, and the locations of the Guide Platoons' bush redoubts were lost. When an Auckland businessman proposed the commercial use of the labyrinth of bomb shelters and tunnels under Albert Park in the early nineties, there was at first widespread scepticism about the very existence of the underground complex. In recent years, archaeologists and military historians have 'discovered' tank traps and other anti-invasion infrastructure in areas like Kawhia and the Waitakeres, where regenerating forests and landslides hid the work of the Home Guard for decades. The deep pits and brick walls might almost have been the remains of some ancient, inscrutable civilisation.

The neglect of the material legacy of the preparations for Japanese invasion reflects the desire to forget a trauma. For Pakeha New Zealanders, the advance of the Japanese through the Pacific represented the first challenge to their control of New Zealand since the conclusion of the Land Wars in the early 1870s. It was a threat which seemed to appear from nowhere, and which disappeared quickly enough to be dismissed as a passing nightmare. Now, sixty-seven years after a Japanese float plane buzzed over Auckland, Waitakere City Council has acted to preserve the remains of the five gun emplacements that were built on the Te Atatu peninsula in 1943 and 1944. The guns were serviced and operated by a force of scores of men, and were part of a network that covered the skies of Auckland; in the years after the war, though, they were quickly forgotten. By the late fifties, when the new northwest motorway had brought hundreds of commuters out to live on Te Atatu peninsula, the guns had been removed, and the emplacements and storage rooms had been overwhelmed by squadrons of blackberry bushes.

Over the past decade, developers of varying degrees of scrupulousness have supplemented the traditional working class suburb of Te Atatu with an upmarket neighbourhood of pretentious but leaky houses that that face across the water toward the Sky Tower. The gun emplacements were rediscovered during this construction work, and have been incorporated into the coastal reserve that runs alongside the peninsula's newest and most expensive homes. Each emplacement has been fenced off, to keep out the pot smokers and grafitti artists, and a large sign has been erected giving the history of the site. The preservation of the Te Atatu gun emplacements reflects the enthusiasm of property developers and their friends on the City Council for the 'character' that acknowledged history can give to an area. On the shoreline beyond the emplacements exotic flora are being purged, and the few kanuka and cabbage trees left over from the farms that once covered the peninsula are being carefully tended. The developers have even departed from their custom of giving new streets French and Italian names, and called the strip of tar that runs beside the old emplacements Gunner Drive. A little history, they hope, is good for business. Their grandfathers may not be so eager to remember.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Acts of Confidence

No matter what age he or she dies at, a poet generally leaves behind unpublished works. Poets are usually less fastidious than publishers, if only because it is publishers who stand to lose money from poetry: even the most successful poet, then, is likely to have a few hundred lines he or she has failed to place in a journal, or sneak between the covers of a collection.

Often a poet leaves a whole book or more of unpublished work - a pile of promising early poems which later became an embarrassment, or a sequence of love lyrics too autobiographical to be published without the threat of lawsuits, or a last testament written in the throes of sickness and old age.

After Kendrick Smithyman died at the end of 1995, many observers would have expected a posthumous publication or two. Few, though, could have predicted the speedy appearance of a poem with a size, scope, and ambition unrivalled in the history of New Zealand literature. A sequence of two hundred and ninety-six pieces that cover two hundred and sixty-one pages and over one hundred and fifty years of history, Atua Wera had taken Smithyman decades to research and write, and still preoccupied him as he lay dying of cancer.

As a young man in the early 1950s, Smithyman had conceived of writing an epic poem set in his native Northland region of New Zealand. In the 1970s he seems to have decided to build his poem around the dramatic but mysterious figure of Papahurihia, the prophet who fused Maori and Christian beliefs and acted as tohunga to Hone Heke during the wars of the 1840s. Atua Wera - the words translate as 'fiery God', which was one of the names for the deity Papahurihia claimed to represent - makes a virtue out of the mystery that surrounds the prophet by supplementing the few reliable facts of his life with excursions into the history and landscapes of Northland, discussions of British imperialism and the complex dialectic between Pakeha and Maori cultures, and investigations into the many prophets who followed the tohunga of the north. The poem begins in 1814, and ends in the late twentieth century.

Anyone who writes an epic poem must have confidence - confidence in their ability to write with grace and with stamina, confidence in the importance of their subject matter, and - perhaps most importantly - confidence in their readers. As anybody who has slogged their way into the interior of Ezra Pound's Cantos or Milton's Satanic masterpiece can attest, an epic poem makes special requirements of its audience, as well as its author. When he wrote Atua Wera, Smithyman was betting that some of us would be prepared to follow him into the hinterland of New Zealand history, through a chaos of violent yet obscure events, fragmentary texts, and contradictory interpretations.

When it was published by Auckland University Press in 1997 Atua Wera received respectful, if slightly bewildered reviews. Writing in Metro, Smithyman's old friend Michael King called the book 'astonishing' and 'without precedent in New Zealand', but refrained from offering any detailed account of its contents; in Landfall, WH Oliver said that he'd enjoyed the text, but wasn't sure whether it constituted a poem or not.

In the last decade several more 'new' Smithyman books have appeared, and the man's reputation has grown steadily, to the point where his name is now invoked along with those of Baxter and Curnow when critics discuss New Zealand's greatest poets. Smithyman's poems and his literary criticism have attracted an increasing amount of academic attention, and a Masters paper based around his work has been taught at the University of Auckland.

Despite the growing renown of its author, Atua Wera has attracted little scrutiny from critics and academics. For all its size, the book is a backwater in the Smithyman oeuvre. It is true that in the late '90s Gregory O'Brien won the Landfall essay prize for a piece with the title 'A Journey Around Kendrick Smithyman's Atua Wera'. O'Brien spent part of his youth in Dargaville, just down the road from Smithyman's old hometown of Te Kopuru, but his exuberant, episodic essay is a nostalgiac road trip with the occasional rather throwaway reference to Smithyman's epic, rather than a close reading of the poem.

Atua Wera may have exerted more influence on visual art than on literature, thanks to the way it has been incorporated into several works by Shane Cotton, the celebrated Nga Puhi painter. In his Blackout Movement sequence, Cotton has brought Papahurihia into a pantheon of heroes that also includes Hone Heke and Hongi Hika.

The tepid response by the New Zealand literary industry to Atua Wera deserves to pondered. In New Zealand's major universities, students can study long poems by foreign English-language poets. Pound's Cantos, TS Eliot's The Wasteland, Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth's Prelude can all be found on reading lists. Students can invest in concordances, which remorselessly track the obscure allusions and now-obsolete expressions that haunt these epics, and choose from competing biographies.

Outside the academy, epic works of verse and of poetic prose are also celebrated: professional and amateur actors alike perform Shakespeare in community halls across the country, fans of Joyce gather in an Auckland boozer once a year to celebrate Ulysses, and Tolkien's translations of medieval Norse epics are displayed prominently in mainstreet bookstores like Borders and Whitcoulls. Why is it that we can consume and discuss these epic works by foreign writers, yet ignore a long and masterful poem by one of our own - a poem that surely speaks to our own concerns far more directly than the products of Milton or Pound?

Isn't it time that we justified some of the confidence that Smithyman placed in his readers by producing an introduction and guide to Atua Wera? I have been engaged in researching a book on Smithyman for Titus, but I've come to believe that a separate, complementary project should be set up around Atua Wera.

What is to stop a group being formed to read through Smithyman's epic and produce a sort of concordance to the poem, which could then be published in book form along with a series of essays by a range of contributors about aspects of the work? A collective approach would be well-suited to a poem that demands knowledge of subjects as diverse and complex as nineteenth century history, the evolution of the Maori language, Christian theology, British imperialism, botany, and millenarian religious movements.

Well, my friends - any volunteers? If you're new to Atua Wera, then you can encounter the work online here, as part of Holloway Press' magnificent electronic edition of Smithyman's Collected Poems.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Expanding the map

Fifty years ago it was possible for scholars to disagree about whether prehistoric Polynesians had been capable of long sea voyages. The decline of traditional aquatechnology and colonialist assumptions of racial inferiority had both cast doubt on the veracity of oral histories that described the crossing and colonisation of the Pacific.

Today, the Polynesians are rightly celebrated for their feats of seamanship. The reconstruction of traditional sailing craft and the combined efforts of hundreds of researchers have left no doubt about the broad outlines of the history of the settlement of Polynesia.

In the last couple of years, new research has further expanded our appreciation of the achievements of ancient Polynesian mariners. A team based in the Anthropology Department of the University of Auckland made headlines in the New York Times when they found Polynesian chicken bones in a Chilean cave, and thereby showed that the Polynesians had pushed on beyond Rapa Nui/Easter Island all the way to South America.

The discovery in Chile is already opening up new lines of enquiry for research into human prehistory. For instance, scholars are investigating the possibility of a connection between proto-Polynesian and pre-Columban American cultures by looking at the languages and artefacts of some coastal American peoples.

The subantarctic Auckland Islands have been the scene of some less-publicised discoveries in the last few of years. Digging into the frigid soil of the islands, researchers have discovered middens and fragments of artefacts which were left by Polynesians in or before the fifteenth century. It has been known for some time that the ancestors of the Maori not only quickly explored the whole of New Zealand after arriving here around about the twelfth century, but also journeyed from these shores to the Kermadecs, Norfolk Island, and the Chathams before the end of the fifteenth century. It now appears that the early Maori also made the journey south from Te Wai Pounamu to the inhospitable Auckland Islands. I spent yesterday afternoon in Te Papa, and I was pleased to see that the museum's curators have reacted to the discoveries of the last couple of years by updating the map which they use to explain the exploration and settlement of the Pacific and adjoining areas. New arrows record the Polynesian progress to South America and to the Auckland Islands.

Even if the distance between New Zealand and the Aucklands is relatively short, compared to the gulf between Rapa Nui and South America, the Polynesian foray into subantarctic waters seems as impressive as the journey to the coast of present-day Chile. Although the world's climate was going through a relatively warm period in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, the seas around the Auckland Islands would still have been enormous, capricious, and icy, and the waka that went south would not have been able to rely on a tailwind for long. The apparent ability of ancient Polynesians to survive for some time on the Auckland Islands is perhaps even more impressive. The islands get an average of one sunny day a year, and their never-ending winds and frosts make even subsistence agriculture a very difficult proposition. The British established a settlement in 1846, but even with the advantages of industrial technology they were unable to make the venture a success, and the colony they had named Hardwicke was evacuated after less than three years. A colony set up by the Ngati Mutunga conquerors of the Chathams and their Moriori slaves lasted a little longer, but only because the colonists had to wait for a boat to take them away from their ill-chosen home. Of the four prehistoric 'colonies' set up by the early Maori, only the settlement in the Chathams survived. Over several centuries, the Maori who settled on those cold but relatively large islands developed their own distinctive culture, and came to call themselves Moriori. Norfolk island and the Kermadecs appear to have been abandoned, and we do not know whether the discoverers of the Auckland Islands perished there or returned to the comparative warmth of Te Wai Pounamu.

If the European whalers and explorers who showed up at the Auckland Islands at the end of the eighteenth century had been greeted by descendants of the island's first settlers, what sort of culture would these people have had? It has generally been considered that the things which make Moriori culture unusual in Polynesia - its pacifism, its egalitarianism, its ingenious but simple technology, and its famous dendroglyphs - were all the product of the unusual environment in which the first settlers of the Chathams found themselves. Pacifism is supposed to have been essential on a small island, egalitarianism is thought to be have been an automatic result of a hunter gatherer economy, low-tech but clever devices like the wash-through raft are supposed to be responses to the absence of big trees, and so on.

I'm all for a bit of functionalism, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea that there is only one way that humans can react to a given environment, even an environment as distinctive as the one on the Chathams. There are many examples of small islands which nourished warlike rather than pacifist cultures - consider, for instance, Rapa, a little-known northen neighbour of New Zealand which is covered with earthworks that recall the pa sites up and down the North Island. The Chathams may have been cold, but they were actually far richer in food resources and trees than many other Pacific islands - far richer, for example, than the Kiribatis. The I-Kiribati, who live on the equator and never get cold, built huge common houses, despite the fact that their 'desert islands' had few suitable trees; the Moriori, who must have been cold all the time, slept in rough, temporary shelters.

It also seems somewhat demeaning to suggest that a people's choices are dictated wholly by their environment, and not by beliefs and values. How noble is a pacifism which is wholly pragmatic in origin?

If the prehistoric settlement on the Auckland Islands had persisted, then we might have something compelling with which to compare the Moriori experience. As it is, the Moriori are perhaps the only surviving example of an indigenous subantarctic people.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Unstained air

I came across this sign a few months ago in a remote part of Northland. It stood at the bottom of a hill of dripping punga fern and totara, at least a kilometre from the nearest dwelling, at the edge of a sharp bend in a narrow road.

It's not unusual to see religious messages on hoardings in Auckland, but they tend to be professionally designed advertisements, with eyecatching images and snappy slogans, footnoted by a website address and the name of some organisation. Normally the goal seems to be to attract punters to some pricey devotional event, or to sell some piece of didactic merchandise.

This billboard, though, is quite different: its author hasn't bothered with imagery, or a fancy font, or a web address. He or she doesn't seem to want to sell anything. The billboard does not even partake of the distinction, beloved amongst evangelists of all religious and political stripes, between the Elect and the to-be-converted. Rather than asking its reader to 'Join us' or 'Discover what we know', the billboard affirms the identity of the evangeliser and the evangelised. Christ died for Our sins. There is no elect: we are all sinners in his eyes.

If this billboard fascinates me, in a way that the local Anglican church's performance of Handel's Messiah or the Pontiff's latest encyclical never could, it is because it expresses a religious belief so ferociously ascetic that it seems to call into question the whole pattern of the society within which it exists. I do tend to see a lot of mainstream religion as a sort of elaborate insurance scheme, whereby believers secure a stake in an afterlife which is envisaged as a sort of bourgeois paradise - a Gold Coast where the sun never goes down, or a Las Vegas where the casino is always in your debt. Wasn't it Billy Graham, that perect symbol of the crassness of late American capitalism, who defined heaven as a place where everyone rides a cadillac over streets paved with gold?

For many Westerners, the sternly self-denying side of Christianity is undoubtedly symbolised by John Calvin, the French theologian whose brief rule of the city of Geneva was an early example of the misfortunes that result when bureaucrats are put at the disposal of intellectuals. I'm off to Wellington for the weekend with Skyler, who is attending a conference of women trade unionists there. She won't be wanting my lumbering male presence on Saturday and Sunday, so I may have an opportunity to take part in the celebrations which are being held in the city on those days to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Calvin - celebrations which are being organised by the Rev Nathan Parry, the Presbyterian Minister of Island Bay and an old and dear friend of mine.

Back in the early nineties, Nathan and I used to engage in ruthless philosophical discussions on the edges of the canteen at Rosehill College, but I'd like to think that both of us have moved on a little since then. In the fascinating account of his intellectual development that he wrote to secure his Masters of Theology degree, Nathan revealed that as a teenager he used concepts like the wrath of God and the plane of Hell to comfort himself in the face of bullying from the cooler kids at Rosehill (I wish I had had that sort of self-justification to draw on). Nathan has long since outgrown his Billy Graham phase, and today his worldview combines a mysticism informed by negative theology with a commitment to political activism in support of progressive causes. Nathan thinks nothing of retreating into the bush to meditate on the God who reveals himself by his absence, but he's equally at home running an ecumenical workshop on global warming entitled 'What sort of car would Jesus drive?'

Nathan has never been an uncritical admirer of Calvin, so he won't mind me suggesting that the sort of self-denial associated with the more 'primitive' parts of the Protestant tradition is not without its contradictions. Every ascetic is, in his own way, a sort of hedonist. By rigorously circumscribing his pleasures, he intensifies the meagre enjoyments that remain to him. A cold shower becomes an orgy; a bowl of soup becomes a five-course banquet. The much-celebrated ability of the great Protestant martyrs to endure denunciation and torture probably owes much to this curious self-denial-indulgence. How else can we explain the steady voice that John Hus retained, as he recited his death-prayers on a burning pyre?

Apart from Nathan, my main spiritual advisor is Bill Direen, the lapsed Catholic whose Jesuitical attitude to many aspects of life almost makes him an honourary Calvinist (it was, after all, a Catholic clergyman who remarked that 'the worst sort of Protestants are the Jesuits'). When I stayed with Bill in Dunedin back in September 2007, we visited the city's oldest Presbyterian church, and talked at length about the long shadow that John Knox has cast over the history of Otago. I wrote a poem at the time, in an attempt to express what I see as the double-sidedness of the asceticism that Knox practiced: it hasn't been published anywhere, but I thought I'd post it here as a sort of commemoration of the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Knox's precursor.

Knox Church Windows (for Bill Direen)

The dove on Christ's brow,
symbolising the Holy Spirit;
a pair of crossed keys,
representing Peter;
Samson, stowed in a bulging ox;
St Paul, pared to a sword.

Knox ignores them all,
looks upward, past the hammer beams
held horizontally, past the curved
rafters, all the way to the top
of the arched timber ceiling,
all the way

to his heaven,
his twelve cubic metres
of unstained air.

I'll let you know how the celebrations go this weekend. I can't imagine there'll be too much boozing.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Against the stream

This blog may have been becalmed in recent days, as its proprietor sees off the flu, but the rest of the blogosphere has buzzed on merrily, I'm sure. I’ve been informed by a reliable source – ie, by the guy who has to come over and repair my computer every time the weight of the music files on my hard drive crashes the whole intricate mechanism - that a new blog is created every second. I know it makes me sound middle-aged and otiose, but I must admit to being pleased by the thought that I will probably never have the time to see, much less read, the vast majority of these sites.

I have never been much of a technophile - it’s hard to follow the lead of Marinetti and Gates and worship at the altar of the machine when you can never even seem to figure out how to use a video player - but I did go through a stage of believing, or at least wanting to believe, that the internet might improve standards of intellectual discussion and political debate. A year or so of trawling through the websites of pseudo-scholars who believe that New Zealand was settled by Celts, that Jews were behind 9/11, and that Hitler was really quite a nice chap has put paid to that fantasy.

Even in the relatively sane sections of the blogosphere, there is a distressing tendency for blogs to become circus arenas where partisans of one opinion are treated to whoops of delight and shouts of encouragement as they endlessly perform the same rhetorical acrobatics in defence of some favoured orthodoxy. (I’ve noted in the past that, in New Zealand at least, the left side of the blogosphere is as afflicted with circus acts as the right.) Occasionally, though, bloggers with an unfashionable commitment to rational, open-minded enquiry and ecumenical discussion appear on my radar.

Tim Bowron must be the worst nightmare of Jared Davidson, the ferocious young anti-art activist who turns up occasionally on this blog to implore those of us foolish enough to look at paintings or read poems to give up our bourgeois ways and dedicate ourselves to political activism. Bowron is no stranger to activism – he has been a delegate for two unions, a national organiser for the far left Workers Party, and a socialist candidate for the office of Mayor of Dunedin – but early this year he announced that he was suspending his political activity, and devoting himself instead to the study of obscure Latin American modernist poets, like the Chilean avant-gardist Vicente Huidobro.

Bowron’s retirement announcement was, it turns out, a little disingenuous: alongside fascinating readings of Huidobro and other exotic scribblers his Fatal Paradox blog has featured some very fine commentary on political affairs in New Zealand and overseas. Bowron’s reflections on the state of the far left in New Zealand are particularly interesting.

Having stepped back from the hurly burly of week-to-week activism, Bowron is able to generalise about the strengths and weaknesses of Kiwi socialism with a detachment that is clear-eyed without ever being piously Olympian. His dissection of the reasons why so many far left outfits in New Zealand end up dissolving into feuding factions – a process famously satirised by the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ scene in Monty Python's The Life of Brian – is especially worthwhile, because it avoids cheap shots and focuses on the ways that sociology can shape the behaviour of even those people most determined to reorganise society. As any reader of this blog’s comments boxes will know, Edward Ashby has been an indefatigable fighter against the sort of pseudo-historians who specialise in destroying archaeological sites, stealing ancient bones, and vandalising the internet with websites promoting their bizarre theories. Ashby is a working archaeologist who grew up in Dargaville, and therefore had to put up with the activities of local pseudo-scholar Noel Hilliam, who thought nothing of tearing up ancient urupa in search of non-existent evidence for his theory that white people settled this country thousands of years ago.

After demolishing the pretensions of Hilliam and other pseudo-scholars in the comments boxes of this blog, Ashby has launched two websites of his own that help continue the good fight. With its posts on subjects like Ancient Celtic Supermen and the Round Earth Conspiracy, The Uncritiqued is a savage exercise in satire; Archaeology Aotearoa, on the other hand, is a highly serious explanation of the realities of twenty-first century archaeological research. Both sites deserve to be read.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Bacilli and beer

I must apologise for the lack of action on this blog in recent days: I've been forcibly separated from my keyboard by the flu. If I'd had swine flu then perhaps I'd have felt that the dreary old symptoms - the spluttering, the wheezing, the morbid sensitivity to cheerful healthy friends, the equally morbid desire to revisit the dogeared sci fi novels of my youth - had a certain novelty. With swine flu, I might be the member of a vanguard, a group of humans advancing over the frontiers of illness, fearlessly breathing in strange new bacilli, assimilating them, coughing and snorting them out, and somehow helping to steel the rest of the species against its new microscopic adversary. As things stand, I've just been displaying my own vulnerability to the same old foe that forced me spluttering off the soccer pitch when I was twelve. Hasn't my immune system learnt anything, in the intervening decades?

If my voice has returned, and if I've become non-infectious, then I shall be returning to the world of healthy humans tomorrow, by attending the launch of Jen Crawford's new chapbook Napoleon Swings at Fordes Bar from three o'clock onwards. Most writers treat their book launches as opportunities for monologuing: there's the obligatory thankyou speech, which can often morph into an elaborate exercise in autobiography, and then the equally obligatory reading of excerpts from the book. Jen, though, has turned tradition on its head by inviting some of her many friends to read their own work at her launch. It's a characteristically generous gesture from a person who has distinguished herself as a creative writing teacher and a critic of her peers' work. Napoleon Swings is being coaxed through the printers by Michael Steven's Soapbox Press, which seems to be going from strength to strength.

If the bacilli have been vanquished, then I'll be reading tomorrow at Fordes (that's 122 Anzac Avenue, in the city), along with Jack Ross, Sarah Broom, Tony Green, Olivia Macassey, Therese Lloyd, and Lee Posna. After the success of the recent Titus Books event, Fordes is developing into a real redoubt of culture. The beer is remarkably cheap by inner-city standards, too, though I'll probably be mixing my Waikato Draught with Lem Sip.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Two senior academics speak about the the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Dr Martin Hirst, Associate Professor of Journalism at AUT, and Margaret Trawick, Professor of Social Anthropology at Massey University, will be presenting talks tomorrow night highlighting the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Dr Hirst's talk is entitled "Journalism, Human Rights and Terrorism in Sri Lanka" and Professor Trawick's is entitled "Slow Genocide".

Date: Thursday 2 July 2009

Time: 6.30pm

Venue: Lecture Room WA220, AUT Wellesley Campus,
55 Wellesley Street, Auckland