Albatross Neck: Landings by the Ancient Mariner and Romanticism in Aotearoa New Zealand 1770–2022 by Nigel Brown and Denys Trussell (Arcology Publishing, 2022), 247pp, $90; The Wanderer: Book Two by Ron Riddell (Casa Nueva Publishers, 2022), 117pp, $20; Songs to the Unsung by Kayleen M. Hazlehurst (Blue Dragonfly Press, 2023), 141pp, $26.50
In high school, we studied the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S.T. Coleridge with the help of a teacher who had sailed around the world. It was an influential poem but the question that dogged me was, why are we reading this English poem from a bygone era? We were also introduced to a suite of Romantic poets and later to William Blake in The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski. At the time, I was a huge fan of the Ecologist magazine, edited by Edward Goldsmith, which provided challenging and stimulating essays on the global environmental crisis that was becoming increasingly apparent.
Based on an exhibition by Nigel Brown, Albatross Neck: Landings by the Ancient Mariner and Romanticism in Aotearoa New Zealand 1770–2022, serves in some way to help answer the question by recontextualising the poets and their poetry at a time when the environmental crisis and the human response to it have built considerably greater momentum. By placing the poets in New Zealand settings in the Deep South—Dusky Sound in Fiordland and Pahia on the Southland coast—their messages, philosophies and intent gain contemporary relevance.
The first section features paintings by Nigel Brown based around the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, accompanied by 30 interpretative poems by Denys Trussell. These poems added to my understanding and appreciation of the paintings, guiding me through the visual language of the image and demanding a closer inspection of the detail of each piece. These are arresting images, my favourite being ‘William Blake Reading In Fiordland’, with some of the jumbled clumps of issues of the day, such as ‘No Nature Left’, ‘Slave Trading Now Illegal’, ‘The Consequences of a Mind Lacking Imagination’, falling in like the waterfall from the steep slopes behind him in a language connected to the land.
They also introduce the substantive part of the book, an extensive essay on the Romantics and their legacy, together with additional paintings. Here, Trussell is at his best demonstrating his wide knowledge of the subject. For each poet, he draws together their background in England and Europe and aspects of their personality and education. He discusses the significant people who influenced them, their relationships with other members of the Romantics and their political leanings and philosophy. That in itself is insightful and valuable. He then examines the paintings of each poet and how Nigel Brown’s translocations resonate and amplify the environmental and human rights issues we find ourselves confronted with. For example, on page 86, referring to the painting, ‘More Advanced than Ever’, he states:
‘The juxtaposition is means of a ferocious moral examination of history and high technology. The central figure is a twenty-first-century technocrat, mobile phone to ear. Behind him is Cook, less blind morally but implicated in the moment of modernity at which we have arrived. Around the technocrat’s neck hangs the bird/soul albatross, dead now because of poisoned fish stocks or the disturbance of its nesting site by rocket launchings. In front of him on the ground is the aboriginal person of the land, fist upraised, skinny-armed, marginalised.’
Given that none of the poets actually visited this country, let alone went South to Murihiku, the book is partly speculation on what the poets may have felt or how they may have responded to the environment. As they were alive during the time that the colonisation project unfolded here, although they did not participate in it, Trussell asserts in his conclusion that:
‘With hindsight, we see that they helped prepare us to deal with the threats to civil society and the humane self, and to open up the largest of all debates – the place of humanity in Nature’.
This is a big book that affirms the value of printed books, bringing together art, poetry, history, interpretation, explanatory notes, bibliography and reference material. For fans of Nigel Brown, it is a valuable reference to his work. For fans of Denys Trussell, he again displays his finely tuned, insightful poetry and thorough understanding of the Romantic poets, which have significantly influenced him and his work. For the serious student of poetry, this is a valuable resource and reference, something to be dipped into, savoured, mulled over and, most importantly, acted upon long after the pages have closed.
As Trussell writes: ‘This is really a story of time going out of joint. The whole is a tableau of technics without ethics, of imminent violence, fully historical but highly contemporary. Everything is, by reason of sharing the same pictorial space, in the present tense. It is the now of our condition.’
The Wanderer: Book Two is a long poem by Ron Riddell. It is a series of takes, returns, observations, meditations, questions, answers and conclusions on the nature of being. I’ve not read Book One, but my first impression of Book Two leads me to agree with Richard Taylor’s comments in the introduction on the nature of the unfolding spiritual journey.
This is characteristic Riddell poetry, straightforward, direct, uncomplicated language, with occasional sequences of rhyme that serve to lighten and provide musical momentum. It is easy to imagine Ron with his drum happily reciting these verses at his favourite venues. As is the case with much poetry, each has a personal point of connection with the reader, or not. Take from these poems what you will. This is not a deep, ponderous text on the depressing state of the world. Instead, it is light and amusing in parts.
On the journey, we are given the author’s generalised description of his experience. Beginning at El Camino, we travel along that hallowed route taken by many. But soon, in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona, we are waiting for all kinds of things, people, signs to change, food to arrive, for someone to sort something out, writing a poem about waiting while waiting and then the questions start:
‘What does it mean
to reflect on such things
to reflect on anything
to change our way of thinking?’
This questioning continues periodically through Madrid, Portugal, other locations in Spain, Columbia, Riddell’s other residence, and then returns to Titirangi. These are obviously important places, but very little specific detail is provided; they serve more as a setting to a personal spiritual journey where the author reflects on where he has been, the cycles of sensation, perception and feeling, of being alone and with companions. It celebrates his awareness and the joy of being alive, speculating on answers, implications, possibilities:
‘the body lightens,
what life has it been living?
what life has it been the centre of?’
In Part IV of ‘Stations along the Way’, he writes:
‘what’s it like to be a poem
we can scarcely imagine
scarcely hazard a guess
yet we do, we persist’ —
and later in the same poem —
‘and so it is the poem is shaped
the person is fashioned
building himself into the poem
until poem and person are one’
Throughout, he is accompanied by various people, a woman on a bus (who mysteriously returns later), a book thief, one of his group who becomes a singing angel, friends, lovers, singers, dancers, mourners, strangers, as well as crows, roosters, canaries, sparrows, ruru, tui and many other beings.
It is overall a light-hearted book about the life of a poet; how he has shaped poetry and music, but also how poetry and music have shaped him. It is to be enjoyed; who knows where the next steps will take him?
Songs to the Unsung by Kayleen M. Hazlehurst is a collection of stories and poems drawn from a lifetime of writing. Born and raised near Mahurangi, Hazlehurst travelled to Canada to train as a filmmaker and study anthropology. She has worked in various research and public service roles in Australia and New Zealand.
The book is structured as a sequence of short stories or extracts from longer pieces, each followed by several poems. The first four stories certainly will appeal to young adults and may also, as they did with me, remind older readers of the experiences of their youth.
These are entertaining and well-written stories. One cannot help but be drawn into the family returning for another summer holiday to a bach at the beach: the irritation of travel quickly replaced by relief and cooperation at getting there and settling in. Whether it is fishing or swimming, surfing, bird watching, sailing or hanging out in the dunes, many of us have done it. The varied rituals of establishing friends are well-described: girl meets boy at the beach, or in the cafe, or at the bird care centre, or the apartment door. This may all seem straightforward, but each story has a twist, an unexpected turn that is interesting and engaging, revealing humanity and compassion. I especially liked the references to the food some of the characters were eating: ‘eggs and baked beans on toast, with hot Milo’; ‘four lamb sandwiches, a cold sausage, a lump of cheese, an orange, and a packet of gingernut biscuits to dunk in his tea’—classic fare.
The later stories reveal this writer’s interest in the impacts of the first and second world wars and the unsung heroines that remained behind in the home countries while those conflicts raged. They provide reminders of the immense cost incurred by many of that older generation. ‘Farewell to Relics’ is a war story set in the outback of Australia. The characters of the old soldiers are well described as we are led down a certain path to an unexpected conclusion. Similarly, ‘Safer Routes’ is an account of women who lost their men in the conflict. It is followed by three poems translated into te reo Māori.
The poems mostly serve to provide a counterpoint to the short stories. As we move through the book, the fresh exuberance and expectations of youth, such as is found in ‘Young Girl Waits’, change into a more sobering acknowledgement of the actuality, as in ‘King Tides’:
‘Tidelines to many are familiar,
Oceans appear our friends,
Yet the height of water can vary
King tides will catch us unprepared.’
The cover of this book, an image by artist Lynda Bell titled ‘The Guardian’, appears to sum up the author’s attitude to life: to care for and nurture the variety of life around us with compassion and understanding.
PIET NIEUWLAND is a poet, flash fiction writer and visual artist who lives on the edge of the Kaipara catchment. His latest books As Light into Water and We Enter The are published by Cyberwit and his writing appears in many anthologies and journals, and can be found online.