Monday, 18 April 2011

In the Gap

I’m able to place, with quite some precision, where my first voyage around Kendrick Smithyman collapsed. Somewhere between “Flying to Palmerston” and “Research Project”, I gave up: my copy of Peter Simpson’s Selected Poems has a spine all broken and detached up to this point and then, beyond, is untouched and elegantly new. Smithyman, in my first encounter, was too difficult, too obscure, too demanding to count as what I considered real poetry. (In those stupid judgements I wasn’t alone; my copy is marked, as almost all my teenage purchases are, with the tell-tale vivid of the remainders sale upstairs at Dunedin’s UBS). The further Smithyman travelled from his early ‘contaminations’ – Auden, of course, Dylan Thomas, alas – the less his work fitted into my own sense of what poetry should be and what it should do. These weren’t, in other words, poems which shouted at me things I already believed, the demand, it seems to me now, of most latter-day Romanticism.

Re-discovering Smithyman some years later as a gauche and homesick student at the Baillieu Library in Melbourne, all those supposed vices had transformed themselves into virtues. Smithyman was worth the wait. Here was a poet at once intellectually absorbing and emotionally engaging, lyrically deft and formally inventive, and, above all, demanding, and with a fine ear and sense for what demands were needed.

We were/are all of us
Alienated. That’s how we belong.
He was deaf, deafened by such a distance –

out there, if you took a firm line
You’d fetch no landfall until
Chile. Think of that now! after
An afternoon at an old German pub downriver,
Pub and museum of a folk.

This was their cargo’s way,
crooked as a founder’s motives.
The distance which you swallow at a gulp –
it was their distance.

(“Movements for Coastal Voices”)

The detailed carefulness of “[t]hat’s how we belong” sticks with me, as does Smithyman’s commitment to a poetics capable of wit and mischievous humour while all the while recognising the complexity and difficulty of material produced in the New Zealand social formation. As he argued in Poetry Yearbook (1954):

Society is complex in its activities and its relationships, and the members of a community are complex. A section of the poetry of and advanced and intricated community must inevitably be complex, and because complex, obscure – which is not to say that most of the obscurity cannot eventually be understood in the major part. …

We have to reckon in short that the mirror which art holds to nature may be a dark glass reflecting a paddock where undoubtedly dark horses are capering.

It’s fitting, given the first gaps in my Smithyman experiences, that I’ve had to live through another, shorter, one on my way to encountering Scott Hamilton’s exciting selection of unpublished Smithyman poems, Private Bestiary. The first print run of this selection sold out very quickly – unusual, surely, for a poetry collection – and it was some months between my order and the book actually arriving here in Wellington. It’s worth the wait again.

Surely there is
a moral in those sandhills
if I had wit enough to tell it.

These “first steps into a private bestiary” (there are supposedly hundreds of uncollected Smithyman poems and drafts in his archives) is enormous fun: the poems themselves are beautiful – and often strikingly surprising – and the introduction and notes helpful and provocative. (Those who know the Reading the Maps blog will recognise the house style: erudite, engaging and engaged, witty, occasionally rambling).

Private Bestiary builds the case, already present in Peter Simpson’s selection, for reading Smithyman not as a self-consciously ‘difficult’ poet aiming for obscurity, but instead as another example of the Wordsworthian model of “a man speaking to men”, communicating about issues and themes of great difficulty, to be sure, but never in a needlessly off-putting or sterile manner. The great theme Private Bestiary selects and presents is the recognition that “there is / a rabid violence / in the earliest stories,” the violence of colonial settlement and expropriation.

This recognition is accompanied by an essential counter-tradition, the only way it can be given useful life: Smithyman’s poems – and it took the introduction and notes to bring this fully alive for me – are packed with the details of working-class Pakeha and Maori rebellion, the Red Feds, rebel unionism, unofficial history. There’s little pleasure here for liberal guilt or piousness; plenty of material to provoke the ‘rumour of another history.’


“Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is to create.”

There is difficulty in these poems, though, but it’s worth learning to seek in that difficulty the source of their pleasure. Smithyman’s formal experiments; his densely allusive world of private reference and location; his word-plays and asides building to a sense of menacing over-reading and excessive signification: all of these, I recognise now, are part of a pattern and artful design in the work – the source of the stimulation – instead of a flaws in pieces which could be perfected by a little lyrical smoothing out and simplifying. The broken, improvisational associations and asides of the poems in Private Bestiary point somewhere.

The strain here, and its symptom, an occasional obscurity, is History itself:

But whatever portion of this faculty we may suppose even the greatest Poet to possess, there cannot be a doubt that the language which it will suggest to him, must often, in liveliness and truth, fall short of that which is uttered by men in real life, under the actual pressure of those passions, certain shadows of which the Poet thus produces, or feels to be produced, in himself.

That language of real life, in the poems selected here, stresses both the dishonesty of Pakeha myths of origin, the anxious elimination of colonial history from our minds (“We are a myth of our making”) and its insistent presence, coupled sometimes with other social orders about, in this piece from 1965, to erupt:

A view of our circumstance is
narrowed: this side, unreal safety.
Down in the valley men console
in a thoroughly public bar.


The other, compelling, case made in Private Bestiary is for Smithyman as regionalist. The Northland Smithyman loved so much may as well be a foreign country to me, so different are its signals in botanical detail, historical reference and climate from my own stock of South Island memories and affiliations.

That sense of regional detail and particularity is useful, though: there’s nothing like an alienation effect or two to force the re-thinking of important issues.

There’s a politics to this aesthetics, too:

This is a political parable,
a harbour at low tide. Almost dark,
we’re only visitors, we don’t know twists and turns,
ins and outs of waterways or limits.
Like everyone else who doesn’t belong, we’ve heard
about disputed grounds, land claimed (and handed) back,
bad feelings, tensions, even death threats.

Yesterday afternoon, having made some of these notes earlier in the morning, I went to the premiere of Operation 8, a very important documentary about the “anti-terror raids” from 2007. I won’t write here about the politics of that particular – and ongoing – event, except to make the minimal observation that it represents a particularly shocking and disturbing injustice and assault on civil and political rights.

What struck me, amidst all the horrifying details of police maliciousness and media and Labour government connivance and complicity, was the ignorance so essential to the whole story’s success. There are the telling details of throw-away ignorance, to be sure – notably here the inability of most journalists covering the case to learn Tame Iti’s name – but a deeper, structural racism and ignorance (what might be glossed, following Smithyman, as provincialism against regionalism) sustained the entire media and police fantasy of a terrorist plot in New Zealand.

Time and again in the documentary people from Ngai Tuhoe being interviewed made reference to earlier land seizures, to sovereignty never ceded, to confiscation, struggle and resistance. They had a coherent, and detailed, narrative, reaching back to Rua Kenana, the 1860s East Cape wars, and further still. Each of them articulated demands for self-determination, and placed their own (extremely trying) current situation in an historical context of racism and oppression. Against this, the wildness and extremity of the Dominion Post’s coverage – and of the vocabulary from Bush’s “war on terror” translated into the New Zealand context – sounded maliciously fanciful and bizarre. The narrative those Tuhoe campaigners took for granted, though, was one which, I imagine, many viewers would have struggled to recognise, still less comprehend. National stories submerge the recalcitrant details of resistance.

The Ureweras are the site of plenty of Pakeha projection and fear, and those caught up in the October raids are the latest victims of that paranoia and its historical background. There’s important and detailed historical work – Judith Binney’s massive history, most obviously – which counters this, but something of the distortions of a nationally-minded pose remain.

Smithyman’s work reminds us of the ideological fictions which make up the imagined community “New Zealand”, of the regional specificity of so many of our struggles and campaigns, of the patchy – and often inconclusive – process of colonisation, of the presence of historical injustice pressing upon the present:

One thing for sure, Turuki isn’t going
to ride through here again; he’s been dead
a while since, somewhere over behind Ohiwa.
Things aren’t better than they were?
No way. No way at all.

("Moutain Stop")

I don’t find the familiar in this collection, then. No way. No way at all. And, for that very reason, it’s a New Zealand voice of a kind I’m finding more useful than ever.


You can – and should – buy a copy of Private Bestiary from Titus Books here.

Rebel Press have put out an oral history of the so-called “terror” raids, The Day the Raids Came. You can buy that here.

The line on form’s fascinations I’ve taken from p. 3 of Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (1981).

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