Everything is Here by Rob Hack (Escalator Press, 2016), 98 pp., $25; Red Woman Poems: Two poems after paintings by Dean Buchanan by Denys Trussell (Arcology Publishing, 2016), 11 pp., $20; Songs of the City by MaryJane Thomson (HeadworX, 2016), 86 pp., $30
Everything is Here establishes Rob Hack as the latest in a long line of poets associated with Paekakariki. Having supported poets such as Apirana Taylor, J.C. Sturm, Sam Hunt, Denis Glover, Michael O’Leary and Hinemoana Baker, Paekakariki has now given rise to Rob Hack, an important new voice from the Kapiti Coast. Hack’s collection, beginning with a scene from his front porch on Wellington Road, testifies to the town’s mysterious poetic aura.
Charting autobiographical episodes from Hack’s childhood in Porirua and Niue to his present in Paekakariki, Everything is Here is focused on place. ‘Togo chasm’, ‘All day on Mauke’ and ‘Station life in the Kimberley’ are among those poems that recount the range of landscapes in which Hack has lived, at times with a ‘rented bed and cardboard box furniture’. Through narrating his semi-nomadic travels, Hack’s first collection foregrounds the development of an authentic personal voice.
Despite coming to poetry late in his life, Hack shows little sense of concern with lost time. His tone is uninhibited and effortless – endearing in its lack of presumption: with simple syntax, short lines and few modifiers, there are no hidden meanings or extended metaphors, just what feels like a friend speaking in a direct and unsentimental way.
The development of Hack’s poetic voice becomes doubly important when one considers his background. For a young working-class male growing up in New Zealand in the 1960s, poetry was not considered a suitable pastime (or indeed, career). Place that alongside his Cook Island heritage – the knowledge of which was systematically denied to afakasi children such as Hack – and his first poetry collection is a significant achievement.
Much of the book charts his adult journeys to the Cook Islands and Niue and his tentative search for belonging. ‘The Island of Mauke’ and ‘Despite Meena’ weave important cultural figures into Hack’s own journey, while poems like ‘Roundabout Avarua’ bring Hack’s own family history into a wider context. Some poems take a step back from his encounters to recount formative moments during the colonial period, or bring historical documents into a new context. In each, Hack displays both the quiet understanding of an insider and resistance to colonial narratives.
Despite Meena’s temper and rhubarb politics
there is hibiscus to yell its colour at passersby
Manihiki’s black pearls and Maungatea to climb.
Despite Tom Davis gone the Sheraton money
gone there are rich fields of taro the reef roars
assurance all day and Mike Tavioni sculpting.
Very occasionally, Hack experiments with personae, and these poems make some of the best in the collection. ‘When you get to Aucklan’ (yes Aunty)’ is written in Cook Island English, and is a telling slice of the 1960s and 70s migrations:
Listen to me. When you get to Aucklan’
get a good job in the clothing factory,
there’s a big one in Ponsonbys. You are
a good sewer ay, so use the big machine.
You can make yourself a coat.
Denys Trussell began writing his thirteenth book in a ‘painter’s shed’ in the Waitakeres overlooking the Tasman Sea. Red Woman Poems: Two poems after paintings by Dean Buchanan is a highly personal expression of friendship. As the reader learns on the last page, one of the two ‘red woman’ paintings was gifted by Buchanan to Trussell, a kindness that prompted Trussell’s exercise in ekphrasis. But however admirable this act of friendship maybe, there are some problematic assumptions at work in Trussell’s poetic endeavour.
The poem’s preface, entitled ‘Two Women, Two Paintings, Two Poems’, begins by claiming that the nude women in Buchanan’s paintings can be seen to represent all women and, in fact, the ‘human figure’ at large. According to Trussell, the paintings are timeless images that ‘speak for themselves’ and have the power to elicit fundamental truths about humanity. ‘Each of these paintings,’ Trussell suggests, is a ‘reading of the human image that, without words, tells us so much about ourselves.’ Nowhere is it acknowledged that these paintings may be historically, culturally and politically charged representations of the female body: representations that shape the livelihoods of real women.
The preface is summed up by a declaration of poet and writer:
What Dean and I have done is used our work in an ongoing process of coming to know our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our lovers, our friends – that one half of humanity, irreplaceable in the continued existence and growing of life and art.
A reader might wonder, for what reason should one contemplate paintings of nude women in order to come to know one’s sisters, daughters or mother? And should the reader also expect to come to know his or her own female companions through these nudes, given that the painter is himself at a remove from lived female experience? Most importantly, can women still be defined and essentialised by their sexual bodies in the twenty-first century without contestation?
The paintings themselves employ pre-twentieth-century European logic in their depiction of the female nude, despite their kitschy sensibilities of rough and red painterly strokes. They are posited as timeless depictions of the female form and are more concerned with aestheticising or idealising form than the lived understanding of any real woman. These women in the painting are context-less, with eyes closed or averted, but with bodies open for the enjoyment of the spectator. As Trussell writes of one woman,
Her body was prophetic,
its perennial figure
a knowing from the histories
and condition of women.
Are there any such universal ‘histories’ of women? Do women in places as diverse as India, Guatemala, Nigeria and Germany really experience the same ‘condition’? Can women of colonised cultures be fairly represented by European art? Who is really speaking here?
The author goes on to resurrect the Renaissance idea that nude women can be a vehicle of expression for abstract ideas such as truth and meaning:
Shaped by the pedagogy
of this history, its powers
of eros and doubt, you
have revealed your life
as art, its meaning
both lived and portrayed.
In John Berger’s influential 1972 essay Ways of Seeing, he argued, persuasively, that ‘a nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude … Always, in the European tradition, the nude implies an awareness of being seen by the spectator [that stands outside the painting].’ Buchanan and Trussell, however, seem to have no problem in reinforcing the patriarchal paradigm of a male spectator and female object: Red Woman Poems begins by inviting the reader to share and reinscribe Trussell’s masculine gaze.
Perhaps what is most concerning about Red Woman Poems is that the author does make an attempt to give these painted nudes some context – but in a way that silences the efforts of so many female artists. Invoking Matisse and Rembrandt in his contemplation of Buchanan’s nude, Trussell simultaneously elides the efforts of an innumerable collection of women whose art presents more than adequate examples of ‘coming to know our sisters, our daughters, our mothers’: Cindy Sherman, Joyce Wieland, Carolee Schneemann, Mary Kelly, Frida Kahlo and Kiki Smith among them. It seems that John Berger’s comments are still relevant here: ‘Do these paintings celebrate, as we’re normally taught, the women within them, or the male voyeur?’
The nation’s capital is suggested by the title of MaryJane Thomson’s third poetry collection, Songs of the City, and a reader’s first instinct might be to assume that the collection will describe Wellington, given that the author is a long-time resident there. But in fact the cover images show an urban landscape with street signs in Sinitic text, suggesting that the city in question might be somewhere in Asia. As one reads through the book, however, it becomes apparent that there is no city in particular. It is the idea of the city as the totality of human action and interaction, a spiritual wasteland that intensifies human folly.
Songs of the City sets out with big questions. The attainment of wisdom, of peace, and an understanding of the human condition are all on the cards. Thomson’s typical way of dealing with such questions is to begin with encompassing statements: ‘We think our favourite thing is …’, ‘We think back and desire to be that …’, ‘We try to do again and again …’ But it is not long before the reader is left grasping for concrete details. Who are these people? In what country or society? In what contexts do these human foibles occur?
It is the insistent generality of the statements that makes many of the poet’s assertions fall flat. Aphoristic lines such as ‘the greed for knowledge lodges fact / in the disguise of fiction’ mean little when the reader hasn’t got a strong idea who the guilty parties are and in what context these abstract binaries of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ can be upheld. Abstract concepts, in fact, pepper every poem: as well as ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, we also get ‘the Industry’, ‘Paranoia’, ‘freedom’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘culture’:
The world is experiencing
Culture through Hip Hop.
Young kids appropriate
Till it becomes a new
Stereotypes and clichés also make themselves felt in Songs of the City. ‘Millennials’ are denounced for continual attachment to ‘social media’, ‘technology’ and ‘screens’: a well-rehearsed argument. Declining to participate in any serious critical thought about communication in the digital era, Thomson continues to reinforce stereotypes that young people are ‘narcissists’ and that Twitter’s 160-character limit is propelling us towards an ‘information dark age’.
Despite the author’s genuine concern for issues such as social inequality and the effects of new media on communication, critical reflection is not the strength of this book. Coupled with the persistent use of didacticism as a rhetorical tool, it is difficult for the reader to overlook shortcomings in critical thought and to take the poet’s exhortations to heart. The poem ‘Our world, share it’, for example, urges the reader to take action to ‘share’ the ‘world’ but provides only baffling and ambiguous reasoning: ‘Life is our universe, / We all have meaning.’
The speaking ‘I’ that unifies Thomson’s collection is a humble and curious one, someone on her own quest to work through the perplexing and often dysfunctional behaviour of human beings. Given that Songs of the City sets up to tackle such a significant task, it is unsurprising that the collection doesn’t always achieve the articulation it desires. Nonetheless, Thomson’s sense of determination and steadfast concern for the welfare of others is to be admired.
ERENA SHINGADE has recently completed an MA thesis on the Zen Buddhist poetry of Richard von Sturmer. Her writing has been published in magazines such as Atlanta Review, Minarets, Mimicry and Ka Mate Ka Ora.