Tuesday, December 18, 2012

From Masada to Matakaoa: three notes on Paul Celan and Vaughan Rapatahana

1. A remote location? 

During her talk at the recent launch of Celanie, a volume of Jack Ross' translations of poems by Paul Celan, Michele Leggott praised Ross and his publisher, Pania Press, for 'airlifting' Celan to New Zealand.

Leggott's metaphor can be interpreted in at least two ways. We airlift personnel and supplies to disaster zones - to villages surrounded by floodwaters, for instance, or to listing ships. But we also airlift people and precious objects out of disaster zones - we helicopter fishermen off wrecks, and sacred icons out of besieged cities.

Michele Leggott didn't explain whether Celan was a precious piece of literary equipment, being flown to a New Zealand in need, or whether his poetry was being evacuated from Europe to this end of the world. What her image of an airlift undeniably evoked, though, was a sense of distance. Whether New Zealand is a place of safety or a zone of distress, it is, the image insists, remote from Europe, and from the world of Celan's poetry.

Paul Celan was raised in a German-speaking household in Bukovina, before the Shoah killed his parents and destroyed the region's Jewish community. He settled in Paris in 1948, and lived there until his suicide in 1970. Celan was a polyglot, but he always wrote his poetry in the German language, despite or because of the terrible events of the 1940s.

Celan's poems evoke not only the Shoah but the wider history of Europe. They allude to other great European writers, like Osip Mandelstam and Rainer Maria Rilke. It is natural, given all this, that Celan might seem like a writer whose concerns are remote from us here in the South Pacific.
The subject matter and texture of Celan's writing might seem to exacerbate the sense of his remoteness from us, and indeed from all his readers. Because his works deal with such extreme events, and use such fragmented, intense language, many literary critics, and a few philosophers as well, have avoided treating him as anything so commonplace as a poet. Charles Bernstein has warned of the consequences of secluding Celan in this way:

Perhaps the greatest risk for the reading of Celan in our time...is that we have venerated him, in the process of removing him not only from his own time and place, but also from our own poetic horizon. . . . [A] crippling exceptionalism has made his work a symbol of his fate rather than an active matrix for an ongoing poetic practice.

Underlying the view of Celan as a very unusual, perhaps incommensurable writer is the notion that the genocide the Nazis perpetrated against Jewry was an event completely unparalleled in human history. It would be wrong to deny the many unique features of the Shoah. The location of the genocide in Europe, the enormous resources devoted to the task, and the deliberate, calculating way in which death machines like Auschwitz operated - all of these were exceptional as well as terrible.

And yet there are many scholars who have found parallels between the Shoah and events in places distant from Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In their recent books Hitler's Empire and "Exterminate All the Brutes", Mark Mazower and Sven Lindqvist argue convincingly that the Nazi conquest of Europe marked the irruption into the Old World of a violence that European powers had practiced for decades in their colonial possessions. In his passionate, precisely written book, Lindqvist showed that the dehumanising rhetoric of the Nazis echoed the discourse of colonial administrators in places like the Belgian Congo and German Namibia. Mazower documents Hitler's admiration for and envy of the British Empire, and shows how he dragged veterans of Germany's fin de siecle tropical empire out of retirement and put them in charge of swathes of Eastern Europe.
It would be very wrong, of course, to suggest that colonisation always involved genocide. The European acquisition of Africa, the Americas, much of Asia, and the Pacific was a long and uneven process, which involved many different strategies and produced widely differing outcomes. Here in the Pacific a single colonial power could behave very differently in different places, depending on its needs and on the situations it faced on the ground. France, for example, wiped out half of the indigenous population of New Caledonia and poured colonists into the territory, while at the same time running a low-profile, laissez-faire administration on the nearby islands of Wallis and Futuna.

Nor was the reaction of indigenous peoples to the coloniser always the same. Here in New Zealand some iwi, like Waikato, Atiawa and Tuhoe, resisted the invasion of their rohe and were expropriated, while others, like Ngati Porou, allied themselves with the expropriators and were able, through a mixture of cunning and luck, to hold most of their lands. No iwi suffered a fate as terrible as that of the Kanaks.

But qualifications like these should not stop us from recognising the links between colonisation and the machinery and ideology of genocide. If he were to turn his attention to New Zealand's colonial past, Sven Lindqvist would recognise the rhetoric of exasperated colonial politicians like Edward Traeger, who demanded the 'extermination' of recalcitrant Maori; the balmy predictions by pseudo-scientists like Ferdinand Hochstetter, who looked forward to the extinction of Maori; and the sinister talk about 'smoothing the pillow of a dying race' which became popular in late nineteenth century New Zealand, when the indigenous population was in temporary decline.

2. Drinking dirty water

In the 46th issue of the New Zealand literary journal brief, which was launched at the same time as Celanie, guest editor Bronwyn Lloyd has placed a poem by Vaughan Rapatahana directly before an essay by Jack Ross called 'Interpreting Paul Celan'. In 'he whatinga', which translated roughly as 'an escape', Rapatahana attacks the English language which his ancestors were obliged to learn during the colonisation of their rohe. Rapatahana calls English a 'hybrid bastard' tongue, which is incapable of expressing his thoughts and feelings:

with its preternatural
of spelling
and stupidities
of 'style'

In the essay that follows Rapatahana's poem Jack Ross discusses the difficulties that Paul Celan had in expressing himself in the German language. After the Shoah, Celan once said, language seemed like the only part of his heritage which was unbroken. It was a link to the extinguished world of pre-war Bukovina, and to the poet's beloved mother and father. But German had also been the language of the men who had killed Celan's parents, and deported Bukovina's Jews.
The famous obscurity of Celan's poems comes partly from his mistrust of the language in which they were written. Celan had a fuming desire to write, and perhaps hoped by writing to make some sort of sense of the traumas of his youth. At the same time, he feared that by setting down words and lines and stanzas in a contaminated language he was falsifying or dishonouring his experiences, and the experiences of his people. Celan was like a man lost in a desert who came across a pool of filthy water. He had to drink, but feared that the deep, desperate draughts he took might kill him. To read the poems in Celanie, with their gnomic images, oxymoronic maxims, strange neologisms, and dizzyingly sudden line-breaks, is to see Celan both slaking his thirst and sickening himself:

If one of these stones could
let us know
what keeps it silent
near the old man's Zimmer-frame
it would open like a wound
into which one dives
far from my voice
from all our redrafts

During his childhood in the 1960s, Vaughan Rapatahana attended schools where Maoritanga was a matter of indifference, if not contempt; as an adult, he has taught the Maori language in a series of schools and universities, and has argued aggressively for the importance of other Polynesian and Pacific languages. Rapatahana is one of the editors of English Language as Hydra, a new book in which a collection of anti-imperialist scholars berate the influence of English on their societies with a ferocity rarely encountered in academic texts.

Rapatahana's poems, which have been published in large numbers inside and outside New Zealand in recent years, are a mixture of elegy and invective. Even as he mourns whanau, friends, and old classmates who have suicided, taken up semi-permanent residence in prisons, or dedicated themselves to the harsh disciplines of alcoholism, the poet links these tragedies to the colonisation of his country in the nineteenth century, and to continuing indignities:

'typical bloody Maori'

she snitched,

of her kind:

'you don't look like a Maori'

her brazen
I protest...

didn't intuit



ready to rupture,

r e a c h   o u t

& strangle her
in irredentist fury...

And yet Rapatahana writes most of his poems in English, was awarded a PhD for a thesis on the massive oeuvre of Colin Wilson, the eccentric English mystic and novelist, and has, for the past few years, made a living teaching the hated English tongue to young Hong Kongers. Like Paul Celan, Vaughan Rapatahana is unwilling or unable to abandon the language he distrusts so intensely.
Rapatahana's tormented relationship with English is evident in the surfaces of the poems in his recent books Here, Away, Elsewhere and china as kafka. In his introduction to Home, Rapatahana says that his short, tight poems are 'an attempt to impose some form' on the 'massive chaos' of the world. A typical Rapatahana poem describes and discusses an experience concretely and rapidly, in lines that are rarely more than four syllables long. As he writes, Rapatahana frequently finds his feelings - his anger, his sadness, and sometimes his hope - chafing against his short lines. In apparent frustration, he begins to give words a bold type, or to capitalise them, or to tear them apart. Sometimes Rapatahana tries to make the shapes of his words embody their meanings. The letters of 'long-winded' are spaced out; the last letter of 'end' is capitalised. It is as though the poet is trying to break with language, and to communicate in some primordial and direct way with us.

Rapatahana has written often about his current life as an expatriate in China. Earlier New Zealand writers like James Bertram and RAK Mason reacted excitedly to China, seeing its vastness and wild complexity as a relief from the tight little towns of their homeland, but Rapatahana has found in the Middle Kingdom an elaboration of much that he detests about New Zealand. In the title poem of china as kafka he complains about the relentless brume/ of shale-shroud cities', and 'suited goons' who do the work of a neo-colonial gangster state, giving 'show trials/no trials' to ordinary Chinese who object to the theft of their land by mining companies and developers.

Bronwyn Lloyd's inspired juxtaposition of Rapatahana and Celan suggests new ways of reading both men. Instead of treating Celan as a poet sui generis, and a remote monument to a unique tragedy, we can perceive continuities between his work and that of an explicitly postcolonial writer like Vaughan Rapatahana. To say this is not to try to equate the lives and work of Rapatahana and Celan, or the colonisation of New Zealand with the imperialist rampages of Nazi Germany in 1940s Europe.

3. Fortresses and sieges

Neither Rapatahana nor Celan can ever take words or history for granted; both forsake the surface elegance and easy clarity that a more secure linguistic and cultural identity can give a writer. And yet there is a romantic strand in the poems of both men, a desire for security - personal, historical, linguistic - which is perhaps impossible. Celan and Rapatahana offer their readers symbols of safety and tranquility which stand like high islands above the storms of their texts.

Both poets celebrate territories which they believe offer sanctuary to their peoples. In a number of his later poems, Celan presented Israel, a nation he visited in 1969, as a site where Jewry could be saved and renewed. Celan was fascinated by Masada, the fortified rock where Jewish rebels had committed suicide en masse rather surrender to a Roman siege in 72 AD. When Israeli soldiers recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, Celan celebrated with a poem that invoked the ancient fort:

Imagine it:
Masada’s swamp soldier
hauling himself home
against the wire’s every thorn.

Imagine it:
the eyeless, the shapeless
rousing you to freedom
with their furious digging
until you strengthen
and rise.

Imagine it: your
own hand
has held a scrap
of earth,
more habitable, that
suffered upward again
into life.

Imagine it:
this was borne over to me —
a name awake, a hand awake
forever —
from the ones who will never be buried.

If Israel was the fortress of the Jewish people, then Masada was, for Celan, the fortress within the fortress. Its tragic history only seemed, in some mysterious way, to reinforce its inviolability.
Vaughan Rapatahana's sanctuary is the East Coast of Te Ika a Maui, where Te Whanau a Apanui and Ngati Porou have held most of their land, and the Maori language is still often heard in pubs and churches and at cattle sales. Although he lacks close blood ties to Ngati Porou, Rapatahana has bought a house in Te Araroa, a small town built where a gravel road turns off to the East Cape. In a comment on Reading the Maps, he explained that:

I also believe there are already semi-autonomous 'Maori states' anyway - Matakaoa [the district around the East Cape] and Urewera are just two examples - which is why my kainga is Te Araroa! Koro Dewes was never joking when he said there should be toll gates at the entry points up to the East Coast!

If the East Coast is Vaughan Rapatahana's fortress, the place of safety and beauty he counterposes with the chaos and ugliness of the wider world, then Whetumatarau, the mountain that stands over Te Araroa, is the fortress within his fortress.
Pressure from contending tectonic plates pushed Whetumatarau out of the Pacific, and the mountain's cliffs are sown with the fossils of vast extinct sea creatures. The pa on the summit of Whetumatarau was considered impregnable; any army trying to take it would have had to advance on its knees, in single file, up a crumbling parody of a track. Ngati Porou hapu from up and down the East Coast would shelter on Whetumatarau during wartime, and in 1821 hundreds of fighters and civilians took refuge there from Hongi Hika's fleet of musket-waving raiders. Rather than storm Whetumatarau, Hika pretended to retreat back up the coast, then slaughtered his enemies when they had deserted the safety of their pa.

For Rapatahana, Whetumatarua is a symbol of invulnerability and of cultural pride. In china as kafka, he juxtposes a tribute to the 'elemental.../ embedded inviolate' mountain with an account of a visit to the 'sagging...stuttered stone' known as Angkor Wat. Whereas Whetumatarau is pure and impregnable, the tourist-ridden, pockmarked Angkor Wat is a depraved place, both 'phallic' and impotent, self-aggrandising and violated.
There is irony in Celan's celebrations of Israel and Masada and Rapatahana's odes to the East Coast and Whetumatarau. The Israelis took control of Masada in a war which deprived another people, the Palestinians, of much of their rohe; Ngati Porou, the iwi Rapatahana idealises, fought with the Pakeha invaders of Aotearoa against more recalcitrant tribes.

Paul Celan did not live long enough to reflect on the wars Israel would fight after 1967, and the transformation of a nation founded as a sanctuary from colonial violence into a colonial power. Vaughan Rapatahana, the English-hating English teacher and anti-imperialist idealiser of a kupapa iwi, will have to deal with some of his contradictions in the years ahead. We should look forward to the next book from this difficult and important poet.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

if u hate english why make $ by teaching it???

6:32 am  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

A wonderful and thought-provoking post, Scott. I can certainly testify that Bronwyn didn't make that juxtaposition of Rapatahana and Celan casually, but you've unpacked the implications in fascinating depth.

Your final point about the 'irony' of Celan's heartfelt support of Israel is, I think, a just one -- there seem to have been no reservations in his own mind, from what one can judge from his letters and poems of the time, but of course history has arranged the irony for him. It all goes to illustrate the importance of Bernstein's statement: it's time to stop seeing Celan as exceptional, and start seeing him as representative.

8:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the Soviet invasion of Bukovina. Sick apologists for Stalinism forget that Stalin as well as Hitler destroyed Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

This is sad and sick:
Yes, that's Nazis and Stalin's men parading together in occupied Eastern Europe

10:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, Jack is right, this is very good. The problem Celan faced is echoed by Vaughan's dilemma.

The Holocaust seems particularly unique in the (hopeless?) annals of human vileness. But the US continued it. The Spanish all but exterminated the American Indians, the Australian whites did their best to wipe out the Aborigines and much else. The Israelis with huge financial backing hammered the Palestinians - have pushed them out of their own lands to get "Lebensraum" - and they in their own turn are acting like Nazis.

I just read "Is This a Man" by Primo Levi who was in Auschwitz. He survived but like Celan it seems he also eventually committed suicide. The prognosis for human "progress" doesn't look good. Are we simply "selfish genes"? Is it "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."?

[Jack is talking about Dante on his blog and in the book Levi quotes from the great poem (The Divine Comedy), and indeed it has parallels as the "hell" of Auschwitz is followed by the (hugely light (light and light) in comparison, of The Truce which is also fascinating - so that is perhaps the Paradiso! ]

As someone whose parents were English I cannot easily feel that it is the language that is bad or hateful (it isn't (inherently), but the iniquities of various colonialisms are a truth of history. (Maye dark process this will never improve.)

But Vaughan's poetry is interesting (he writes well indeed) and worth paying attention to.

3:19 pm  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

I have to clarify several areas in Map’s excellent exegesis. (Part One)

- The British really also must be held extremely accountable for the way they purloined Hong Kong and exterminated thousands in the then Canton - during the so-called Opium Wars. Did you ever read Said's Orientalism, by the way? In many ways England and Germany = interchangeable, and not just because they share royal families and nuclear scientists post WW2, but because they shared a late 1800s British-instigated eugenics and racial imperialism! Read, for example, Karl Pearson. Think also about the far more recent and evil case of Diego Garcia, where I will be headed next week.

- Te Atiawa is my iwi and they did NOT ever sign Te Tiriti o Waitangi - perhaps they could be added to Waikato & Tuhoe? More, the British DID slaughter Maori iwi on several occasions – as witness the terrible incident at Handley’s Woolshed in 1868 when several small boys were cut up, decapitated and horse-trodden by the local ‘militia’

- The chapter on Maori and the English language in Hydra has further quotes (as an Appendix) by ignorant and racist Englishmen re: how to be rid of/kill Maori per se...there were originally many terrible quotes, but MLM (the publisher) asked me to edit them down for reasons of space – literary lebensraum)

- I don't think te reo Maori was ever the 'butt of jokes' when I went to school, rather it was invisible and any aspirations as to having it available were seen as 'weird' By the way, I had finished school in 1970.

- I was actually the prime instigator of English Language as Hydra, asked Pauline Bunce (a friend from my five years in Brunei Darussalam) to help edit as the task went on, and wrote the Introduction.

- I actually have a Ph.D in Existential Literary Criticism and the Novels of Colin Wilson, from University of Auckland - from waaaaay back in the last century.

- I do write - increasingly - in non-English language script, but of course one of the main points of Hydra is that English language agencies have a stranglehold on avenues for publication - creative as well as, of course, academic. Ngugi wa Thiong’o – who contributes to Hydra – of course had expressly written in Gikuyu and Md. Haji Salleh – another important contributor, writes especially in Bahasa Melayu as oppositional to the pervasive nefariousness of English language agencies.

4:13 pm  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

(Part Two)

- I did also use to live in Mainland China well over 10 years ago now - I lived in the very 'real' PR China - in Xi'an, so do have looooong time experience of the entire place. It has also to be pointed out that my two step-children are half Chinese and their first language is Cantonese (my wife’s is Kampampangan as well as Tagalog, of course) so China necessarily raises ambivalence in me, as well as dominates in our household culturally and linguistically. English ain’t much there. And yes – other languages strongly influence ‘my’ English, while the staunch imperialists of that tongue still prattle on about some mythical (but potent despite this) ‘standardized English – which I do seek to dismantle, eh.

- Ngapuhi are still vilified today in Matakaoa - people have very loooooong memories, eh.

- I don't 'idealise' Ngati Porou - rather I first went to Te Araroa to teach in a kura kaupapa Maori environment, stayed and married into that particular iwi and bought a perpetual lease there, which I still maintain. Most Ngati Porou, by the way, had nothing to do with kupapa and remained fairly inviolate in their lands because of its inaccessibility and because of their very strong whanaungataanga, which they maintain to this very day. Ka nui te pai tenei.

- My 'next book' is already out as published in Las Vegas, Nevada last month = totally new poems and entitled SCHISMS - it's available on amazon.com.

- I have absolutely no problems with teaching English in an additive fashion to cultures with an already staunch indigenous tongue (and yes, the money doing so is damned excellent), given the imperialistic impetuses in so doing. However generally speaking English language has been imposed as a deliberately destructive force on all too many Indigenous cultures – which I have witnessed worldwide and which is why English Language as Hydra was written. The book also includes a chapter on teaching English in Hong Kong and in it I am definitely cutting my own throat viz questioning strongly the very scheme which employs me.

4:15 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for those notes Vaughan - I'll amend the post where necessary. I do think you have a rather sanguine view of Ngati Porou, given the conservatism of the iwi's leadership since the civil war of the mid-1860s, and the way they've sided with the Crown and sold other iwi out over everything from Rua Kenana to military conscription to the Seabed and Foreshore legislation. The fact that two Ngati Porou hapu in the Matakaoa area now seem to want to secede from the iwi (cf http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2009/08/should-moon-tell-truth-about-maori.html) is an indication, I think, of grassroots discontent with the leadership.

But out of contradictions fine poems often come!

5:46 pm  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

Engari mo ngā iwi Māori katoa ki tēnei whenua, he waka eke noa.

Mere Kirihimete.

1:57 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes the Opium Wars were quote terrible. The British actually forced the Chinese peasants to grow opium. This meant even more hardship for them.

Also - in an agreement with the French - they re-occupied Vietnam and refused any dealings with the Vietminh, who had defeated the Japanese and had them in jails. The British then actually released many and armed them to fight the Vietnamese freedom fighters. They can be seen in 'The British in Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began' by George Rosie (1970).

The atrocities in the Belgian Congo "shadow" Conrad's book "Heart of Darkness" (It is also used as the plot for the film 'Apocalypse Now' which is why Brando / Kurtz is seen obsessively reading 'The Hollow Men', a phrase from Julius Caesar by WS...)

But Roger Casement (who had met Conrad in the Congo) protested these atrocities and terrible mis-treatments (also in the Carribean) by the European powers, also got involved in the fight for Irish Independence. He was caught and hung.

So all is not well for sure.

10:03 pm  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

Kia ora ano.

In relation to the Opium Wars the British qua English - fuelled by dangerous racists similar to Houston Chamberlain and Karl Pearson (who actually wrote subsequently) - actually imported the opium by the ton from India via East India Company, to China...and made the Chinese pay for it big time.

We are off to Mauritius on Monday - to do further research on English Language as Hydra II and especially to talk to Chagos Islanders - who very recently lost their case in the European Court of 'Justice' re: the total loss of their islands and their forced expulsion to Mauritius and Seychelles et al, so that the infandous Anglo-American cabal could build Diego Garcia airstrips for these nefarious Americans to support their rendition activities in Afghanistan, Iraq - you name it. The lease for the Yankees will - inevitably - be renewed in 2015.

Then there is the sorry case of Tinian Island in Northern Marianas. And - yes - I have been there too, to check out how the Chamorros are reduced to live in a sort of shantytown (with no more ferry available to Saipan), how shitloads of Koreans and Chinese horde into the casino there, and - even more sinisterly - how the plaques to 'commemorate' the Enola Gay (which left there in 1945 en route to Hiroshima & Nagasaki) have been forsaken as much as the destitute runways. USA has convenient memory lapses eh - as does the rest of the Anglo Commonwealth - so don't get me started re: Republic of Nauru and the Cocos Islands!

& for local qua Aotearoa atrocities, there is another very serious case of slaughter by this selfsame cabal - in 1868 at Handley's Woolshed.

Not many people seem to be aware of these manifold examples of imperialistic evil, not merely historical, but happening right now. Not 'just' off-shore but in New Zealand too.

Which is exactly why I posted this, eh.

Mere Kirihimete.

9:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But I don't think it is logical or productive to attack the English language or even the English. Most of my forefathers had nothing to do with it.

And Celan was clearly destablilized by the Holocaust. I think he quite wrongly equated the horror to the German language and by implication to the German people. He couldn't accept the reality of it. Or realise profoundly that it was History, that it had happened and then get on with life. Perhaps he might have concentrated on learning to write also in French. Rilke wrote in French and German.

History, terrible history, like reality, happens.

We could condemn all Maori actions by reading about Te Raupapara's slaughter fests or some of the atrocious actions of Hongi Hika.

It is better to promote the Polynesian and Maori language and culture than keep a chip on one's shoulder about the English and their language. English people suffered oppression like any one else in the world and from their struggles produced some great culture and great justice systems despite the iniquities of Imperialism.

I feel there is too much negativity expressed by many Maori activists which alienates liberal and good Europeans who would otherwise support Te Reo etc

I DO agree we all need to know much much more about NZ's history though - there has been lot of iniquity, and terrible actions by Pakeha - I once read a book about how the Treaty of Waitangi was applied or not in the SI and I was appalled at the cynicism (land grabbing, ripoffs, broken promises etc) of Pakeha (and the land was stolen off Maori throughout Aotearoa in a really unjust way that is for sure) and I know there re some really rabid racists in NZ also...(I am sure some terrible and unjustified killings etc took place by Pakeha also) I've worked along side many Pakeha Kiwis who were quite racist...

But the issues are complex. It is not all bad news.

But I am very proud of being English.

10:42 pm  

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