Always Song in the Water by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, 2019), 264pp., $45; Mary Shelley Makes a Monster by Octavia Cade (Aqueduct Press, 2019), 88pp., US$12; A Year of Misreading the Wildcats by Orchid Tierney (The Operating System, 2019), 108pp., US$24
A book about New Zealand’s remoteness from the rest of the world is timely right now. The fact that it has nothing to do with pandemics or politics is a blessed relief. Gregory O’Brien’s Always Song in the Water is an artist’s journal of dozens of sparkling essaylets, poems and artworks that together advance the thesis that Aotearoa New Zealand is first and foremost a Pacific nation. Based around two trips that O’Brien took to some of the farther-flung outposts of New Zealand’s territory—a road trip in Northland and a sea voyage to the Kermadecs—the book argues for an ‘archipelagic concept’ of nationhood. Only one-seventeenth of New Zealand is dry land, if you take into account its exclusive economic zone, and O’Brien makes a strong case that it is the sea that gives coherence to our lives and art.
O’Brien does this less programmatically than I am suggesting. A monograph on the subject could be written, I suppose, but it would surely be a less interesting book than O’Brien’s. He has a seemingly endless fund of curiously apt anecdotes that he drops like gold coins. There is a childhood story from artist Bill Culbert, who, near the end of World War Two, found a booby-trapped tin of cigarettes that had washed ashore on the beach at Moa Point in Wellington. It was destroyed by the bomb squad. O’Brien links the wiring of the explosive device to the ‘inner electrical life’ of Culbert’s work. There is a contemporary yarn about the harbourfront Copthorne Hotel in Omapere, where someone ‘attempted to remove the letter “l” from the end of “hotel” and replace it with “re”’ to spell (Ralph) “Hotere”’, who came from the area and is evidently still much loved there. O’Brien reminds me of the English social historian and critic Philip Hoare, another writer who marshals a stunning range of connections and has a yen for the sea. He reminds me of the nineteenth-century Parisian flâneurs Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, whose famous journal is a valuable meta-text for the writing and art of its time.
O’Brien touches on his artistic and personal relationships with writers like Janet Frame, Elizabeth Smither, Ian Wedde and James K. Baxter, and with visual artists like Euan Macleod, Noel McKenna, John Pule, Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon. Ultimately, what O’Brien finds attractive, both in his own work and the work of others, is ‘an “aqueous aesthetics”, a realm that [is] defined by change and motion rather than finished things’. It is fitting, then, that Always Song in the Water is subtitled ‘An oceanic sketchbook’, and that it moves fluidly—serendipitously—between subjects.
It is an unresolvable tension, the battle between fixity and flux. And it is a dynamic that O’Brien is still puzzling out for himself. His time in the Kermadecs has even thrown the language he uses to speak about himself into question, and that’s okay:
Years later, I am still pondering what it means to be ‘islanded’. I find myself gathering transitive and intransitive verbs as another starting point: how it was that on subtropical Raoul—and later on other Pacific islands—I was not only watered, aired and grounded, but also landed, islanded, tided over, harboured and beached. And how those same verbs have now come to bear on the manner in which I inhabit Aotearoa New Zealand.
‘Islands have long been considered sites of birth and rebirth,’ O’Brien writes, and it is as if he had to be reborn on a series of small islands in order to fully understand the island-ness of his ordinary life. That he interrogates this experience thoroughly, even on the level of grammar, is an invitation to us to do the same: to reconceive of ourselves as people of the sea.
What if Frankenstein’s monster had survived its suicide voyage on an ice raft in the Arctic Ocean and gone on to have further adventures? Or what if Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s monster at all—a mere literary character? What if the creature was actually Mary Shelley’s monster, a psychogenic companion that steps out of the text for which it was written and moves into the real world? This is the premise of Octavia Cade’s book-length poem Mary Shelley Makes a Monster, a macabre romp through literary history.
Shelley’s dysfunctional relationship with her monster mirrors her character Victor Frankenstein’s dysfunctional relationship with his monster. After serially mistreating the creature, including by neutering it, Shelley gets her comeuppance after her death:
The monster takes Mary’s face and wears it.
The monster takes Mary’s womb and bears it.
The monster takes Mary’s will and buries it.
The monster takes Mary’s past and carries it.
The monster takes Mary’s future and meets it.
The monster takes Mary’s heart and eats it.
Welcome home, heart, it says.
You should not have locked yourself so far away.
When it goes out into the world, no one can tell the difference.
From here the poem spins off into a series of visits with famous female authors, often writers with a penchant for the surreal or the science-fiction-y. (The book’s publisher, Aqueduct Press, is also a publisher of feminist sf.) The monster cohabits with Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Janet Frame, Sylvia Plath, Grace Mera Molisa, Octavia Butler, Angela Carter and Murasaki Shikibu. Like a zombie Time Lord, the monster travels through literature always looking for a new companion when its old one dies. It never finds fulfilment. Even in the last section of the poem, by which time the monster has had more extraordinary human experiences than any of us will ever have, we are told:
It does not always feel human.
It has been made from human, from parts of Mary that she couldn’t spare,
but it has been searching for a Mary-substitute for so long
that everything is other, including itself.
The poem is not characterised by what one would call ‘action’. Yes, the monster has new experiences with each author, often traumatic or heart-rending ones, but they tend to be emotional exchanges rather than events, and they tend to blur together. In fact, the monster starts to acquire characteristics of each author. Reality itself starts to become a confusing composite. Places and times are distinguishable largely through ‘voices’, or other artistic qualities:
Voices are different in Vanuatu.
They are different everywhere,
but always the monster can hear the landscape beneath
geology subsumed under tone and meter.
Mary rang of Switzerland to it, always,
the place where she first began the construction.
Katherine, below the surface sounds of Europe
was wooden and windy.
Grace lives on broken down volcanoes …
Cade’s monster is a poet-critic seeking its identity in its artistic models, taking, discarding, overcoming, moving beyond. This monster is the individual talent tossed on the sea of tradition, and so waterlogged by it that it’s got the tradition almost, but not quite, in its DNA:
It’s not genetic, clearly, the bond that links
the monster and the women.
They’re drawn together through time, and it’s not blood but it must be something.
Cade reminds us that the ‘something’ that constitutes our common literary culture is inevitably scavenged from many sources. We are only different from Mary Shelley’s monster in degree, not in kind.
A ‘petronaut’, in Orchid Tierney’s compelling A Year of Misreading the Wildcats, is, in the most basic sense, someone who goes to power plants, coalfields and the like. A significant portion of this book of poems and poetical prose revolves around Tierney’s visits to derelict industrial sites in the US northeast, where Tierney lived when she was at grad school at the University of Pennsylvania—and the book also features numerous ghostly Polaroid pictures that she took at these sites. But the term also has a broader, politically inflected meaning. In a conversation with her publisher, the Operating System, Tierney writes:
As a year of misreading the wildcats suggests, I am a petronaut, which is to say, I am implicated in the global obsession with petroleum supercultures. Which is to say further, I recognise that I am entangled in a system that privileges the migration and development of oil and oil-related products over human and nonhuman communities. Which is also to say that I see myself as monstrous (or monstrously human) in this system and curious about what alternative futurities are possible if we were to abandon our dependency on oil.
You’ll gather from this quotation that Tierney is good at contextualising her work. It’s worth hanging around for the context, because this is a plangent collection of experimental, anti-capitalist (eco-socialist) poetry, full of language repurposed from scientific and literary sources. Authors who pitch in with text include A.R. Ammons, Daffy Duck, Walter Benjamin, J.G. Ballard, and numerous environmental journalists and technical writers.
The poems can be lyrical and mischievous, and they may hint at the essential or the sacred, as in ‘garden | eden’:
The old petronauts were not native
to the floating islands
but they recalled
the petroleum romances:
the tallow-dip and lard-oil,
pine-knots and smokey candles,
that lit their prayerbooks better.
In holy texts they rubbed
tongues with shale
and distended their ripened stomachs.
Ore poured from their orefaces,
illuminated caverns with plankton.
One petronaut asked
if the Lord wanted
a thousand rams
or ten thousand rivers of oil,
but he misread the olives.
Even in the Garden of Eden,
Adam the graper
coated the tree with coal oil,
to sour the insects,
but incited the pipeline
snake to slide down
the sticky tree
could have avoided
trouble if you had bit into
the flinty rock instead
Or they may be staccato, associative, referential (with italicisation being used to flag borrowings), enacting a kind of eco-savvy plunderphonics, as in this untitled piece in the book’s ‘gyrotext’ section:
| there’s nothing more stable than a traffic island | soupy | sea surface completely covered in oil; cause unknown, everything stinks | this prophecy was written in 1903 | these are the facts | Rena on Astrolabe Reef | she’s no longer clicking right along | how to get after her wild ass? | all the locals became mute | how to let her rip | oil spewed from the subterranean Mexican basin into the sea | Tauranga was the hardest hit …
But the poems, whether lyrical or abrupt, invariably laser in on human-caused contamination, on waste, collateral damage and things that exist on either side of ‘the boundary between rubbish and non-rubbish’. ‘This book wants to interrogate the long history of oil, climate change, and plastic,’ Tierney writes in the conversation with her publisher, ‘although, along the way, my reading of contemporary Pacific poetry has introduced me to deeper connections between empire and island ecology. I’m still seeking a language to sufficiently address these issues of violence in a meaningful way that acknowledges my complicity as a settler and Pākehā.’ She describes A Year of Misreading the Wildcats as a ‘failed endeavour’ because it neither creates change nor comes to firm conclusions, but what I see is a robust, worthwhile, searching poetics being applied to the one issue that matters most. And no poetry that does that is a failure.
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, forthcoming from Auckland University Press in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, The Moth, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Sport and the TLS. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch.