Everything’s Something in Place by John Geraets (Titus Books, 2019), 326 pp., $42; Contents Under Pressure by Gail Ingram (Pūkeko Publications, 2019),86 pp., $25; Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press, 2019), 108 pp., $25
John Geraets’ Everything’s Something in Place: Writings 1980–2015 is in many ways a celebration of the survivor’s right to write history. He gives us what he would like to be professionally remembered by: literary criticism, poems, general essays, anecdotes that are part of New Zealand literary history.
It is not a scholarly biography, however. Geraets revises essays published over a period of some years, to the extent that much of the material floats unattached to any identifiable date. This is fine – he alerts us in informative introductions that may well be the most recently written content, though he doesn’t specify. He reveals his journey from being a ‘lapsing Catholic’ (sounds continuous) to a ‘direct engagement in Vipassana and Buddhist life principles’ (sounds staunch). His first encounter with Zen is written as a travel diary, doubly attractive to me for not mentioning Alan Watts.
The poems may – perhaps – be the entirety of Geraets’ published poetry, and I think they deserve to have been better handled: for starters, there are no page numbers. The 200-odd pages of poems make up nearly two-thirds of the book, and this just doesn’t work. Use of colour or other (less expensive) changes in the layout would also have separated out the poetry books and made them more attractive to read. As it is, they feel tipped into the rest of the mix.
The poems track the changes in the author’s philosophy and style, and give us the contents of several printed volumes. In ‘stationmaster’ (towards the end, page whatever) we find a wonderfully no-nonsense statement, a fine answer to the question ‘Why do you write?’:
We climb into writing’s branches for protection. It guides us as we ascend to the height. It is the birds that circle and the circles that circle and the dancing letters of the alphabet that do so too.
A fascinating theme in this memoir is the background about print journals – mainly Landfall, but also Islands, Sport and the-journal-presently-known-as-brief. It assumes that we all agree on a particular historical take on New Zealand and its literature as well as a particular vocabulary for what works and what doesn’t. But this leaves out large parts of the country and quite a few journals and writers. The references to ‘Landfall’s “classical” period’ are a usage that takes our agreement for granted and calls to mind the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine.
The author talks about how New Zealand print-journal politics affected the way New Zealand literature was seen by its makers as well as by its consumers, but he leaves online journals entirely out of the equation. Even though New Zealand was late joining the trend, the prospect of such journals was clear long before 2015; further discussion from someone with Geraets’ experience, even if it were just expansion on a previous publication, would be very interesting indeed.
Gail Ingram’s collection takes the Canterbury earthquakes to a new dimension. They have spread into our permanent consciousness, so that ‘earthquake’ is no longer an individual recollected event but a part of our go-to library of images, on a par with ‘nature’ or ‘the sea’.
The norm is one of rubble, particles, dust and plankton, brokenness. This is reflected in (and by) the people living in it. The last poem, ‘Dendrites’ (p.80), could well have been the first. In full, it reads:
When the four-cornered skyline under the floating
hammer of the Southern Alps fell into piles of grey
rubble and liquid, the folds and depressions from above
looked to be forming clumps of grey matter.
A son gurgled tunes of teen rebellion on water pipes, his
brother dragged nails down precipitous self-set scales
of academic heights, leaving blood-streaked trails, while
their father grasped for papers and docs, tossed in the
air like dust, and their mother picked up the grey silt of
their wounds until it got too much, till everything slid into
fissures of grey, the university, billboards, shops.
And the family were seen dazed, branching outwards
onto the streets, waving blind fingers, sending out sparks,
creating their own fuzzy pathways around the city.
The narrator is a graffiti artist – she seizes a moment and tries to make an impression/expression in a place where the attempt to clean up one mess only leads to another. ‘Schedule of Damaged Contents’ (p.46) shows what it’s like:
… They want evidence, photos. She had to
price them. She couldn’t find the brand on
Google because it didn’t exist anymore so
she took a trip to the Warehouse to find a
similar sort. The potholes stuffed up her
suspension. And then there were things she
didn’t list – …
This book insistently welcomes the reader in, even as it drags them into a continuous stream of particles where safety is catch-as-catch-can, depending on the moment and by no means guaranteed. Illustrations by Rata Ingram and the imaginative use of typography throughout emphasise how much the reader must be actively involved in making meaning – must observe what’s going on in front of their eyes, to see as well as hear the calls that echo throughout the city after the earthquake – and after – and after.
Steven Toussaint, on the other hand, leaves the reader at a distance. His poems are a series of aide-mémoires to various states of mind – perhaps (as the publisher’s blurb states) a continuous meditation, perhaps a less structured contemplation of what’s in front at the moment. The arrangement is clearly not a final one and doesn’t need to be.
Toussaint is recording rather than describing what’s going on in his mind, using a variety of languages: among others, music (liturgical forms, birdsong), geography (Chicago, Rome, Mount Eden), philosophy (the stammerer, Anselm, Aquinas, Hegel, Pickstock), love, and the world outside the kitchen window.
Music is important. A comment in ‘Amsterdam, 1991’ reads (p.77):
… the music
was arranged to be virtually
unperformable. The composer’s
instructions require the total
conversion of the concert hall.
The private boxes, shuttered.
The gods remodelled utterly.
For not even the wealthiest
patrons shall witness
the orchestra in its entirety
The technical language of liturgical music keeps us at arm’s length, separated by several degrees of philosophy from a purely emotional response. This distance is increased if we wonder whether written-down music (or, at least, music subject to a composer’s instructions) has any sound at all – now or in the future or in the past. Maybe it is something separate, like describing time rather than experiencing it.
‘Aevum Measures’ – a suite of fourteen poems – is a significant part of the book, the title referring to Thomas Aquinas’ examination of mortal time in relation to divine eternity. Leaving aside time for the moment, here are two arbitrarily chosen ‘Measures’, quoted in full to show the strong concrete-poem aspect of the group:
abide more tritone idle mode
and tell us something radical
as cockles swim
for hollowed hull
and drawing breath
in darkness mull
and out of breath
And two pages later:
abide more tritone idle mode
the poor heart’s pooling mirror
for rivers must
reverse upon contrition
not by rote alone
in honeyed throats
the cardinals call
the passerine tradition
il stil novo
as cockles cling
to boats they know
In all fourteen poems of this suite, the mantra ‘abide more tritone idle mode’ is firmly placed on the top of the secondary title, rather like a capstone or lintel, and the poems fall as a column below the header. It is tempting to think of the group as a word-henge, surrounding an unmarked centre and providing a way of observing light if focused under the right circumstances. Perhaps the cockles hint at a pilgrimage towards this point. Perhaps none of this is true. Whichever way you look at it, these are intriguing poems, written from a world of many rich levels. They bear not just reading but re-reading.
MARY CRESSWELL is a poet and reviewer who came to New Zealand in 1970 from Los Angeles. She is a retired natural history editor/copyeditor and lives on the Kāpiti Coast. Field Notes, a satiric miscellany, is her fifth book, and is published by Mākaro Press (Submarine Books). For further information see: www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Cresswell,%20Mary