Voicetracks, Jan Kemp, (Puriri Press, Auckland/Tranzlit, Kronberg im Taunas, 2012) 72 pp., $32.50; Shout Ha! to the Sky, Robert Sullivan, (Salt, London, 2010), 116 pp., $31.40.
Life as an expatriate is the theme these collections particularly share, their different approaches to it highlighting two aspects of a paradox that attends living overseas. Namely, that we submit ourselves to the world in anticipation of being swept up in new fields of experience, other languages, other people and all the things that make them tick, and so hope to assume some way of making ourselves at home among them; yet, at the same time, these new experiences and sensory stimuli present a mirror that reflects ourselves and where we come from, often in an unexpected light. The books share other common features: both are imbued with cultural, historical and literary references and both are overseas publications, though Jan Kemp’s Voicetracksis a joint German/New Zealand publication, the German imprint in a bilingual edition.
Kemp signals her association with Germany in the opening pages of Voicetracks. The collection’s guiding light is the German writer and critic Walter Benjamin, who died in mysterious circumstances, possibly by suicide, while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940. His presence is established in two frontispieces. Both are black and white photographs, one of a memorial plaque to Benjamin in Port Bou, just inside the Spanish border with France, where he died in 1941; the second, also from Port Bou, is of the English language explanatory plaque — complete with charming misspellings (‘exxiles’) — from the Dani Karavan memorial to Benjamin. The cover is a colour photograph of the same installation, looking down the steps of the structure, towards the sea — an image which is referenced in the title poem.
These photographs are the work of the author, as are six further colour plates, printed — in the New Zealand edition — on photographic paper, in the fine, handstitched production we have come to expect from Puriri Press. The colour images punctuate the collection’s six movements and if I devote some time to considering them, it is only because they are clearly to be read as a significant element of the work, illustrating or giving visual context to poems that respond to places the poet has visited, places that have spoken to her, as the title suggests, since making her home in Europe.
As a photographic essayist, Kemp appears to be offering high cultural tourism, attempting to evoke something of the mystery and tracks in time that places retain. Her camera captures buildings and seascapes, taking us on a trip from Chateau de Lavigny, a writer’s retreat where an elegiac sequence was written, through panoramic views of the aforementioned Port Bou, to Dali’s home-turf of Port Lligat, to architectural studies of Frederick the Great’s summer palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam, to Cecilienhof, also in Potsdam. This mock-Tudor palace, built by Kaiser Wilhelm II during World War I, was the last great architectural project undertaken by any European royal family: an oddly conciliatory gesture to the Kaiser’s English opponents that is now seen to have marked the end of an era.
And, more significantly, in 1945, almost at the end of World War Two, Cecilienhof was the location of the ‘Big Three’ conference, where Kemp pictures Truman, Stalin and Churchill:
meeting together in the circular room overlooking the lawn
leading down past the oaks to the sweet-water rushes at lake’s edge
The poem focuses on the landscape and architectural details, while remaining detached from the poker game of politics and diplomacy played out as the three wartime leaders took epoch-making decisions, divvying up the spoils of victory. One of those decisions was to prove immediately destructive. For it was there that Churchill, in the last act of his wartime premiership – he was replaced by Clement Attlee during the course of the conference, when the British election result came in – secretly met with Truman to sign off on the atomic bombing of Japan. It is said, incidentally, that Stalin barely batted an eyelid when, the next day, Truman informed him of America’s weapon of ‘unusually powerful destructive force’ – the Soviet leader had known of its existence from his spies at Los Alamos long before Truman, as newly incumbent president, gained security clearance. None of this is elucidated in Kemp’s poem, but the final image, of ‘gold temple flowers perennial in a five-pointed star,’ seems to say it all, suggesting the full implications of what went down in Cecilienhof.
Is it in this manner these photographs are to be regarded? You find yourself having to assume so, but wishing for clearer intentions on the part of the photographer-poet. As much as illustrating individual poems, Kemp seems to be inviting us to drill down into deeper mysteries, into events of the past that the places she depicts were once setting to, events which — as Benjamin suggests — can never, and perhaps should never, be fully understood. Kemp may well be referencing others of the myriad ideas Benjamin juggled with in his career, such as the notion expounded in ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ that filmic images have a haunting ability to regard the audience as much as the other way round, or (from ‘On the Concept of History’) the idea that time’s fleeting passage can only be pinned down in pictures.
You have to read Kemp’s photographs in this way because, otherwise, while they convey the competence of her camera-work, they offer little more as visual images than the allure of something you might see in a tourism brochure, or a blog. A little less glossy perhaps, but the sort of image we’re bombarded with all the time, a bland beckoning to Europe and the Mediterranean, a call to travel or holiday. The kind of imagery that is so prevalent nowadays it brings into question some of the great claims Benjamin made for photography. Perhaps, though, Kemp intends her photographs as a critique of tourism; or perhaps she’s speaking of a certain ambivalence towards her new life, as though telling us that in spite of becoming absorbed in European culture, she is never really more than a visitor, detached and hovering above it, or, flâneur-like, one who takes it all in, exults in the signs, but is always just passing through. All of the above are possibilities. Again, you can’t help wishing for a clearer steer.
There is a snapshot quality, too, to some of the poems — an immediate, diaristic enthusiasm for things and places Kemp encounters, though she tempers the exuberance of observation in tightly wrought lines and diction:
all the rocks in Cap de Creus
rise in barnacled pride
like yachts on the hard
the mountains stepping down in rangy schist
with all the heliotrope of wild geography
(‘At Port Lligat’)
The l’s running through that last line make for a languid and sunstruck turn of phrase, while ‘heliotrope’ could well be a reference to Benjamin’s essay, ‘On the Concept of History’. The poem, though, is principally recounting a visit to Dali’s home in Port Lligat, where Kemp concludes by musing on Dali’s placement of his and Gala’s bed: ‘The cheek to do it –/place a mirror/place a bed/send reflected sunrise/into your head.’ A throwaway ending, perhaps, but one that captures the whimsy of the painter’s genius, and cleverly deconstructs that earlier ‘heliotrope’.
While the photographs impose their presence in the collection, the poems move away from these seminal scenes, ranging widely in subject matter and sometimes coming at the reader with elusive and unexpected twists. Personal poems touch on a relationship’s halting movements: a harvested field of wheat stubble — and its rhyme with rubble — summons up war in the Lebanon; the ghost of Goethe seems to manifest on a train, while the shades of Proust, Shakespeare, Rilke, Dante, Katherine Mansfield and Charles Causley haunt other poems, some briefly referenced, others directly addressed. The omission of Baudelaire from this pantheon seems an oversight, though, in a collection so keen to mention Walter Benjamin.
For all Kemp’s fascination with Europe, there are also moments in Voicetracks when nostalgia for New Zealand — the expatriate’s inevitable homesickness — rises to the surface. It finds simple expression in the title poem, which elucidates the cover photograph, taken at the Walter Benjamin memorial, of steps down to the sea where:
the sea hurtles
up to us
of a far-away hemisphere
Of course, you could pull these lines apart, they seem so slight and breathless in the deliberation of their line-breaks. Even if the Mediterranean is largely tideless, so often a seemingly placid great lake, surely the sounds of the sea are universal – ‘the same sea in all of us,’ as Estonian poet Jann Kaplinski puts it – but the caught thought this image offers, with its gust of momentary yearning, summons up just enough emotion to carry the poem. In addition, the knowledge – though again it’s not given in the collection – that Karavan has installed a glass panel, halfway down the steps, that blocks this passage to the sea, adds a resonant poignancy to the Benjamin memorial and, one presumes, to Kemp’s own sense of exile.
The collection’s final movement makes her yearning more explicit, as the poems journey away from an enigmatic mushroom gatherer who sits on a fallen branch listening to ‘such silence as his busy life/hadn’t yet brought,’ through Kyoto, to the two final poems, two of the best in the collection. One is of a dream, in which images of New Zealand set up an emotional tautness that earlier poems don’t often achieve. This tautness is sustained in the final poem, a lyric that draws on a childhood memory of climbing planks propped against a hedge, which a carer has referred to as ‘the steps that lead to nowhere.’ The poet and her brother find themselves at the top:
we are worlds away
in the secret gardens children go to
the sky closer blue brighter sun lighter
we are nowhere we laugh how we laugh
(‘the steps that lead to nowhere’)
This poem is illustrated by the last of the six photographs, the most enigmatic of all, of stone steps leading up to a ruined beach-side lookout hut, also photographed near Port Bou. As a piece of found architecture, this echoes the Dani Karavan steps of the cover, but with the poem’s backward glance into memory, it’s the echo of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon that is resounding here, sending little shockwaves of recognition back into the book’s preceding pages, as though each of the poems were tracking its way to this place.
Voicetracksis a collection of accomplished lyrics, on the whole, but it’s an unsettling read, as though the poems haven’t quite settled into their new landscape. It seems at times almost an extended séance, a summoning of the dead, though not just any dead, but the great and good — and the spirit of Walter Benjamin, in particular. But, as in many a séance, there’s a sense of anticlimax. You are left wanting to know more, just enough more, about how to read the signs. And, sadly, Benjamin’s presence never manifests as anything more than a suggestion, though perhaps he appears as that mushroom-gatherer, or more obviously in a fine poem, originally written in German, ‘Stolpersteine/Tripstones’ — in which the poet literally stumbles upon another memorial plaque, to another victim of the holocaust, in her adopted German town. This reminds us of Benjamin’s idea that the construction of history should be dedicated not to the famous few, some of whom have walked through this collection, but ‘to the many that have no name’.
If Kemp tends to look outward to experiences encountered while living in Europe, and responds, perhaps, to a perception that momentous events happen elsewhere, far from New Zealand shores – an idea with which Cantabrians may strongly disagree – Robert Sullivan’s sojourn overseas finds the poet focused on, indeed closely scrutinising, the country he’s left behind. Shout Ha! to the Sky was largely written during the years Sullivan was teaching at the University of Hawaii. Not surprisingly, the experience of living elsewhere in Polynesia, but at its furthest flung shores from Aotearoa – and within a US rather than European colonial/cultural milieu – gives Sullivan pause to ponder his own bicultural ancestry and heritage, particularly his literary heritage, in terms of the colonial discourse that has shaped Maori-Pakeha relations back in the old country.
The titles of the book’s five sections — ‘Histories’, ‘Poetics’, ‘Tikanga/Customs’, ‘Personal’, ‘Foreshore and Seabed Poems’ — indicate something of the structural arc and nuances Sullivan brings to his theme in what is an expansive and complex work. Indeed, more than a collection, it’s an extended historical/cultural essay, made up of 69 numbered poems that shift easily from lyric to didacticism to political poetry and range in register from a voice that is wryly humorous to something more subtle and profound, a tone that offsets its capacity for authoritative wisdom with grief and provocative seriousness. But there’s a playfulness that runs throughout the work and is suggested, at the outset, in Sullivan’s numbering of the poems, the deliberate choice of 69 suggesting a sly, unexpected trope for the relationship of the nation’s two tongues, the physical linguistics fostered by biculturalism. How can we put it with fitting delicacy: the two tongues both stimulating and feeding off each other, perhaps?
Like Kemp, Sullivan is paying respects — as he puts it — to a wide range of literary touchstones, among them Homer, Keats, W.S. Merwin, Denis Glover, Albert Wendt, Allen Curnow and Aimé Cesaire. In ‘Review’, a poem from the section titled ‘Poetics’, Sullivan acknowledges this tendency — and a reviewer who once criticised how it characterised his earliest work. The poem deflects and subverts this criticism. It concludes with Sullivan watching and reflecting on seagulls performing aerial acrobatics: ‘Yes this bird and that bird today are my favourite poets’ — a marvellous line.
Sullivan is deft in his integration of these literary markers into his schema; indeed, they provide the lens through which he regards New Zealand, and this is a principal motif of the book. If Walter Benjamin is at the heart of Kemp’s collection, the guiding light of Shout Ha! to the Sky is W.B. Yeats. Poem 16, ‘The Winding Stair’, finds Sullivan on a visit outside Polynesia, to Boyle in Ireland, a place he whakapapas back to, and making a side trip to Yeats’ tower:
Then up I climbed
wagging my tail as I went. The stone steps
were narrow, windows were slits in darkness,
each chamber was a stanza of the great
(‘The Winding Stair’)
That ‘wagging my tail’ exemplifies the irony that Sullivan brings to bear throughout Shout Ha! to the Sky, but his debt to Yeats is real and profound. The winding stair at Thoor Ballylee provided the primary image for the idea that morphed into the ‘pern in a gyre’ motif that spurred Yeats’ later work, offering him a mode for exploring the reconciling of dualities and opposites. The irony of Sullivan’s wagging tail is deceptive, because the reconciliation of duality — the duality of Aotearoa-New Zealand bicultural identity — is the underlying motive of this book.
Not necessarily, I grant you, as an attempt to make any game-changing political gesture, but definitely with regard to the poet’s sense of himself as a writer, and his use, as a Maori, not only of those guiding lights from outside Polynesia, but also of the colonising language. This, of course, is one of the thorny issues at the heart of postcolonial discourse, though whether New Zealand can be considered within the scope of that field of literary criticism is obviously arguable. Regardless of that point, for Sullivan, with his Irish background, the issue is doubled in complexity.
The question of language finds profound expression in one of the book’s cornerstone poems, Sullivan’s take — here aptly titled ‘Took: A Preface to “The Magpies”’ — on Glover’s classic. ‘Took’ is umbilically linked to Glover’s original and should attain equal status as an anti-classic. Incidentally, it raises a perceptive question — one that Glover scholars may have already addressed — over Glover’s use of the verb ‘take’, in the opening line of ‘The Magpies’, as to whether this was intentional or unconscious play on the patrician phrase ‘to take title’. Despite an ironic apology to fans of ‘The Magpies’, for ‘taking liberties with (the) classic poem’, Sullivan is really taking no prisoners, here. The poem ends in a deadpan subversion of the most famous line of New Zealand poetry, transliterated into te reo in a projected conversation between new settlers and the Maori they’ve displaced:
Your talk sounds like the magpies –
all quardling oodling ardling wardling and doodling.
Do you mean korero, uri, arero, wairua, ruruhau perhaps, sir?
(‘Took: A Preface to “The Magpies”’)
And, of course, the birds — there are tui, as well as the colonising magpie, in Sullivan’s poem — fly away with all the incomprehensible, noisy otherness of their languages, away into the sky where the poet directs his great ‘Ha!’ It has become a more muted, and clearly Maori, ‘Haa’, though, that registers in the book’s final poem, ‘Karakia’. This is one of the tender, reflective lyrics that offset the book’s bolder themes, and here, conclusively, the sky of the title is fully realised as the ‘skyfather’ Ranganui.
But it is not the only sky that Sullivan is addressing. In an earlier poem his attention turns on Auckland’s Sky City Tower, with the great syringe and needle of its casino that seems so ready to fix us all into the heavens. Sullivan sees it, here, as a conventional needle, and in a Yeats-inspired dialogue between self and soul, has the poet’s self saying, ‘Helen’s people feed it thread.’ This reference to Helen Clark foreshadows the crisis in the book’s final section. Arising out of a sense of impotency at finding himself far from home at the time of the 2004 foreshore and seabed protests, Sullivan briefly circles the subject before directly addressing the former PM:
I’m disappointed in you for not protecting us mainstream
Maori. We had due process rights that needed to be explored
like Europeans explored us
(‘Suite of Poems Addressed to Prime Minister Helen Clark’)
It’s plain talk, for this is no moment for embellishment, nor, it seems, a time for anger. The poem is restrained in its exposition of grievance over the Crown’s latest land-grab, and almost naïve in its bewilderment at the cynicism of the politics. Then, after another appearance of the Sky Tower, now imagined as Cleopatra/Helen’s needle, Sullivan doubles back on himself. It’s a ploy he uses to good effect throughout the book, to check or undermine the argument of an earlier, often previous, poem, by almost deconstructing it. This is Sullivan’s mode of ‘perning in the gyre’, his way of reconciling dualities. So, the suite addressed to Clark concludes with a strangely moving paean to her and, in particular, her arts policy.
The next poem in the sequence, ‘Poetics Tunnel’, is one of the best examples of this discursive manner. It finds the poet agonising over the rashness of his leap into political poetry, without apparently testing its wings. The frequency of this doubling back and referencing of other parts of the book is, of course, a rhetorical device, and becomes increasingly absorbing as you move through the book. By the final section – if not long before – local readers will have recognised that Sullivan has forged Yeats’ method into a Maori mode of discourse. a hui and whaikorero of the many voices and ideas meeting in the marae of the poet’s mind.
It’s significant, in this respect, that Shout Ha! to the Sky was not published primarily for readers here, but as one of the few New Zealand books of poems offered to a UK audience. It contains an exposition of Aotearoa-New Zealand that will be new to many British readers, and might, hopefully, go some way towards remitting the overwhelming ignorance of our politics and literature in the land from which New Zealand colonialism sprang.
To help achieve this, it necessarily contains a number of footnotes, largely translating from te reo. I’m aware that I criticised the use of footnotes in a previous review, but while Sullivan’s footnotes don’t go so far as to establish an independent, significant sub-text and narrative — such as David Jones achieved in the greatest of all footnoted poems, ‘Anathemata’ — they do seem here to form an aesthetic of their own, as well as conveying important information, useful to both UK readers and, I suspect, many from this country.
Alert readers, both here and elsewhere, will have noted that when the book was published in 2010, two years after Clark completed her final term as PM, it was already apparently a few years after the fact. It’s a moot point, of course, because maintaining currency is an inevitable challenge for political poetry. In this case, though, keeping currency doesn’t present a problem. The ongoing controversy over the Sky City Tower development, the divisions in te ao Maori caused by the Marine and Coastal Area Act of 2011 and the recent dispute over water rights all suggest this book is growing, rather than diminishing, in political significance. Indeed, long after the foreshore and seabed issue is resolved in the only satisfactory way it ever can or will be – by an incoming Labour-led government returning us to the pre-2004 status quo, and only then entering into discussions about ownership, customary rights and amenity access — Shout Ha! to the Sky will stand as an erudite and moving personal testament to the turmoil of these recent times and the slow but sure development of an all-embracing Aotearoa-NZ cultural identity. OK, it’s an old chestnut, I know — a unified Kiwi cultural identity — but even after years of Waitangi negotiations and settlements, it’s a chestnut that still needs to be properly planted, bedded in and allowed to flourish into a tree that grows from all its roots.
CLIFF FELL is the author of two collections of poems, Beauty of the Badlands (Victoria University Press, 2008) and The Adulterer’s Bible (Victoria University Press, 2003), which won the Jessie Mackay Prize for Best First Book of Poetry in the 2004 NZ Book Awards. He teaches creative writing at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, and occasionally talks about poetry on Nights on Radio New Zealand National.
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