Saturday, September 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

[Kevin Costner and Jeanne Tripplehorn in Waterworld (1995)]

Well, we're really in for it this time, it would appear. I went to see Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth at the cinema yesterday, and - yes - it scared me senseless. Well, temporarily, at any rate. By the time I'd got home my senses of inertia and fatalism had begun to reassert themselves.

Some points about it interested me particularly. First, the statistic that a survey of nearly 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers on all aspects of Global Warming published over the last decade or so revealed 0% doubt on the basic processes at work. Second, that a survey of journalistic articles published on the same topic over the same period revealed 53% expressing doubt and reservations. In other words, the less you know about the subject, the easier it is to dismiss it.

It's interesting to notice the same trends at work here. The NZ Herald, that bastion of journalistic truth and objectivity, summarises Gore's film as follows (in the appropriately named TimeOut for 28/9/06):
A documentary about climate change which occasionally lets its focus drift but is a compact precis of urgently important material.

Pretty compelling write-up, huh? It's true that there's a lot of stuff about Gore's childhood, career ups-and-downs etc. in the film which might have been dispensed with on a strictly utilitarian basis. But cinema-goers are not strictly utilitarian people, by and large. What's more, one can see precisely why all the folksy just-plain-folks stuff is in there, too. "I am not a crank," Gore is trying to say. "I am one of you" (by which he means an ordinary God-fearing American, albeit a Democrat).

He really really wants people to listen, and uses every conceivable device of propaganda to achieve that end. I'm prepared to forgive that, personally. Like the Herald reviewer, I too would have preferred more content and less barnstorming, but there really is plenty of content there already, and it's desperately disturbing. Basically, we're all going to drown or fry if we don't listen up soon. Both Greenland and Antarctica are melting ... massive rises in ocean levels are no longer just possible but almost inevitable. Combined with out-of-control population increase, that paints a pretty grim picture. Where the hell are we all going to live? What are we going to eat?

Go and see it yourself. There were two other people in the cinema while I was there (admittedly it was the middle of the afternoon, when most decent folk are working). They were teenagers. They sat at the back and sniggered from time to time at Gore's wardrobe. It's hard to know what other reaction they could have to the discovery that their elders and betters have so comprehensively fucked up the world they're going to inherit.

Check out the website for what you yourself can do about it.

The real point Gore wants to make is that this process is not irreversible. It's not too late. Like CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer, we can actually slow down and even reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases. Even if we can't, we can stop it actually accelerating.


I watched another interesting film last week (on DVD, somewhat belatedly). You've probably heard of it. It's called What the [Bleep] Do We Know?

I guess I thought it might be interesting to contrast it with the Al Gore film because they might both loosely be grouped under the title of "science documentaries" - both have had a lot of success at Festivals and even in the mainstream cinema; both use a lot of heavy-duty authorities to back up their conclusions.

Don't get me wrong, I found the [Bleep] film fun. It was beguiling to watch, and even instructive in some cases, but for the most part I thought it the worst hash of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and garbled mysticism I've come across for a long time.

It began with a lot of very tendentious summaries of the "implications" of quantum theory, delivered by a lot of people in suits made up to look like Stephen Hawking-style physicists, but who turned out later (in the credits) to be teachers of psychic medicine, PhDs in other subjects, freelance lifestyle writers etc. (one of them actually turned out to be "channelling" a great healer from another dimension). This was then extended to the "discovery" that we're addicted to bad emotions, and that if we can just learn to love ourselves, then truth and justice will spread in all directions. The film claimed, in fact, that the crime-rate in Washington DC was lowered 25% one summer by a concentrated act of meditation performed by a bunch of the enlightened.

Now some of this stuff I sort of agree with, really. No-one could seriously contend that the mind doesn't affect the body. The psychosomatic effects of placebos are almost as well documented as the somatic effects of actual medicine. Quantum physics is weird and wonderful.

What I didn't like was this idea of making it all sound scientific by using authoritative-looking talking heads, dressed up in all the panoply of ideological respectablity, and then the gradual revelation that the film's real message was a kind of smug New Age quietism. "Don't worry about anything," it basically turned out to be saying, "because it's all in your mind."

War, cancer, injustice, Global Warming - we don't really have to do anything about any of those things except sit at home and direct good thoughts at them (maybe have a gin-and-tonic and admire the view while we're at it).

Fuck that, is all I can say. William Blake might have attributed much of the trouble in the world to "mind-forged manacles,"but that didn't make him any less prone to intervene himself. In one case the tiny poet accosted a man beating his wife in the street with such fervent indignation that the hulking brute ran away in terror. Acts of injustice (we're told) made him feel almost physically sick.

Al Gore's film uses the arts of persuasion to back up a message which is only too compellingly cogent. If you want to belittle his efforts, provide some similarly solid data.

The [Bleep] film uses half-truths and a vague fudge of science and mysticism to preach the 21st-century equivalent of Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science (like her female American disciple during the siege of Peking in 1900 who denied that any of it was actually taking place, claiming instead that all the shells and bombs were simply figments of their diseased imaginations ...)

The superficial similarlity of their methods is, I suppose, why I'm devoting so much energy to criticising [Bleep]. It would be just too tempting for all of us to shunt the warnings of Gore's film into the too-hard basket, and continue to console ourselves with the notion that scientists always disagree with one another, anyway.

If the UN stage smelt of sulphur after George Bush had been there, the Rialto cinema (for me) smelt of hope after Gore had had his say. At one fell swoop, Al Gore joins my select group of culture heroes.

Monday, September 18, 2006


[Gabriel White - photo by Lies Vandesande]

I remember back in the late seventies there was a lot of controversy because Richard Ellmann’s edition of the Selected Letters of James Joyce made public a few of the rather frank epistles he’d written to his wife Nora. I seem to recall a passage along the lines of how much he wanted to “fuck his little fuckbird’s cunt,” but it’s been a while since I checked them out.

An article I read at the time by some American smartarse began by debating the matter fairly solemnly before concluding that all obligations of decency and respect to the departed had to bow down before the sacred duty of giving the rest of us a good laugh. The author then went on to fabricate a series of similar letters by similarly grand men and women of letters (Hemingway, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein etc.)

Gabriel White’s latest video project Aucklantis is a fucking good laugh. That’s not all it is, of course, but isn’t that enough to be going along with? I mean, how many successful pisstakes are there out there that one can afford to neglect one?

If you don’t believe me, check out the sample here.

Gabriel’s been back in Auckland now for almost a year. He brought back a lot of video footage and a lot of interesting ideas. Some of those ideas will see solid form soon (hopefully) in a DVD / book called Tongdo Fantasia, part of which is already available on his new trial website. It takes the form of a talking-head travelogue filmed in Korea, but the setting could really be anywhere. Gabriel’s method is to weave strange thoughts and associations around everyday objects as he talks to camera – banality is his domain, unexpectedness his stock-in-trade. He stalks the city like a latter-day Baudelairean flâneur, weaving a complex meditation on the bizarrerie of the ordinary lives and landscapes we take for granted.

The packaging and the ideas have evolved somewhat, but one can still see a definite continuity with the two projects we worked on together:

A Town like Parataxis: A Colouring-in Book (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2000)

was a collection of poems by me with photos by Gabriel. It’s now almost unobtainable, as we only banged out a hundred or so copies on some institutional xerox machine before we got caught. The pictures, though, are still a miracle. Gabriel had a theory at the time that simple colour snapshots blown up to A4-sized black-and-white would show strange complexities of texture and design. The results certainly bear him out. That carwash looks like the gates of hell to me.

The Perfect Storm (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2000)

was an extension of the method to video. [That one I do have some copies of, if anyone’s interested (price $NZ10 plus $5 postage & packing)]. The Public Library catalogue described it as “poems read by Jack Ross set against Auckland landscapes” which about sums it up. I remember viewers tended to spend their time speculating where we’d shot particular bits of film, rather than noticing the strange dance of the cars around the roundabout, or the peculiar costumes of the boys crossing the street outside McDonalds. In a sense it was too obvious for anyone to see it. Once they’d worked out that there was no real continuity between the text and the pictures, they lost the ability to see what we wanted to point out: the hauntedness of the everyday.

Aucklantis seems to me a step beyond anything Gabriel has done before because the tone has shifted just a notch. His decision to look at Auckland as a tabula rasa, a blank slate literally anything can be written on, works because it’s so hysterically funny. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking seriously Gabriel’s descriptions of how to paint a rock grey or how to open a blank account, and yet – like the best stand-up – they make you see things, all of a sudden, in a new light.

Gabriel’s work is reactive, in the best sense. He takes the place he lives in and interrogates its peculiarities. His formidable erudition comes down, in these latest works, to one man talking on a moving screen – somehow he succeeds in making this the Platonic essence of cinema.

Of course I can’t help but see some connections between these ideas and my amnesia-novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, which Gabriel helped launch earlier this year (I’m actually a bit peeved at not having thought of that “Aucklantis” portmanteau-word myself). What mainly strikes me about it, though, is the elegant simplicity of Gabriel’s solution to problems I could only approach by wrapping them in layers of crabbed discordant text. (For a video-clip of part of Gabriel's launch-speech -- filmed by my friend Rowan McCormick -- click here).

His latest work is so brilliant it can’t help but make the rest of us feel a little jealous. I take some pride, though, in having had some part in stimulating him to make this quantum leap. I think anyone who watches the finished work will see just what I mean.

Happy Birthday, Gabriel!

Gabriel White: Select CV

Shows and Performances:

· Sep 5, 2006: Video work “Aucklantis” included in Lazy Susan and Smelly John (St Paul St Gallery, AUT, Auckland). Curator: Mark Harvey. Artists: Sean Curham, Alex Monteith, Tessa Laird, Brydee Rood, Cat Gwynne, Linda T, Susie Pratt, Cushla Donaldson, Ben Holmes, Melissa Durbin, Aaron Hurley, Gabriel White, Mark Harvey.
· Aug-Sep, 2001: Video work for Adrift – Nomadic Art from New Zealand (Conical Gallery Fitzroy, Melbourne). Curator: Emily Cormack. Artists: Richard Lewer, Caroline Rothwell, Patrick Pound, John Pule, Mark Braunias, Brielle Hansen and Anushka Akel.
· Feb-Nov, 2000: Senior Tutor, Studio One Elam School of Fine Art.
· 1999-2000: Member of Rotaction, sound performance group, directed by James McCarthy. Performances at Lopdell House Gallery, La Mata theatre and the Adam Gallery. Awarded best multimedia performance at the Wellington Fringe Festival 2000.
· 1998-2000: Stop Gap, Auckland based poster installation project. Curator and artist.

Published Work:

· “I for an I,” Landfall 200 (2000): 187 [article]
· Review of Tessa Mitchell and Ben Holmes, "I am a Dark River." Pander 9 (1999): 40
· Review of Ronnie van Hout and Mike Stevenson, "Premillennial: Signs of the Soon Coming Storm." Pander 8 (1999): 36-37
· Review of Ross T. Smith, "Hokianga." Pander 6/7 (1999): 54-55
· Forgiven by the Moon, CD with Steve Abel, (self-released, 1998)
· Spacesuit, self-titled CD (released nationally, 1997)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tony Chad on Leicester Kyle

Tony Chad writes in to say:

Hi Jack - strange though it may seem (I was in Mexico on 4th July) I have only just heard of Leicester's illness and passing - although I fondly kept in mind the thought of another visit to the West Coast and inevitably to Leicester's hideaway in the hills, I never did make it and now of course it is too late. I was deeply saddened and shocked to read the news in the August NZPS newsletter (only just received). I had (I think) 2 visits to Leicester's, where I enjoyed his hospitality and some memorable walks. These memories are often referred to in our home, and will I am sure, stay with me through time. He was indeed a real gentleman and touched many people's lives and hearts. As you so rightly remarked, he moved visitors to write poems about their visit... here attached is one from my latest book - all the best, Tony

Of chains & bondage & a walk in the bush

Two hours we journeyed in the faithful red land rover, the Ngakawau landscape instantly recognisable by the way the residents had transformed coal trolleys from the mines into flower boxes. We arrived safely at the secret parking place in the bush and travelled another hour on foot attended by the fantail and accompanied at times by bellbird, robin & tit. We smelled and glimpsed tiny native orchids and other memorable plants (whose names I forget), marvelled at gushing waterfalls, lunched on an island, carried the heavy rucksack by turn filling it with treasures until it was time once more for the faithful red land rover, a pint of Miners Dark at the Seddonville Hotel, then home to Millerton wondering who put chains around the trees, and why?
- Tony Chad (from Self Titled (HeadworX 2006)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Death of the Old Gang

For this week's post I thought I'd reprint a review which Alistair Paterson commissioned for Poetry New Zealand [33 (2006): 96-101]. The book is by my friend Sarah Broom, and it seems to have already attracted quite a bit of favourable comment in the UK, where it was published.

Sarah Broom, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

There’s a scene in the 2003 film The Sleeping Dictionary where a newly-appointed British colonial officer is disconcerted to find a Dayak headhunter who can recite the names of the Kings and Queens of England. The two alternate rattling off the dreary list for quite some time until they get to Edward VIIII (it’s the Abdication year: 1936). “You left out Queen Anne,” remarks the headhunter. “You left out Stephen” is the young Oxonian’s terse response.

English poetry used to seem a bit like that: a set of clear-cut generations with their stars and also-rans. The twentieth century began with the Georgians (Brooke, Masefield, de la Mare), then the War poets (Graves, Sassoon, Owen), then the Modernists (Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Pound), then the Leftist thirties (Auden, Spender, MacNeice), then the forties and the New Apocalypse (Dylan Thomas, Keith Douglas, Henry Treece), then the fifties and the Movement (Amis, Larkin, Wain), then the sixties and the Mersey Beat, then the seventies and … at about that stage the patterning ran dry. Who could make sense of the warring voices of the present? All those manifestos, slim volumes, blaring voices? What seemed certain was that at some crucial stage something had changed, the centre of gravity had shifted.

In New Zealand (about as far from literary London as a Dayak longhouse, I suppose) that shift was very clear. All of a sudden the literary gods lived in New York. American Modernism now ruled the roost. William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell had taken up the slack when the British faltered. One can observe the moment of change in the shift from 1950s Curnow (A Small Room with Large Windows) to 1970s Curnow (An Incorrigible Music).

It was, after all, a bit hard to get excited about post-fifties British poetry. There was Larkin whinging on about how miserable he was, and cataloguing the dreary appurtenances of what sounded like a used-up country. There was R. S. Thomas being grim and craggy. There was Geoffrey Hill being even grimmer and craggier. By contrast, there were the Americans, energetic, vital, sexy, humorous – New World. From the mid-sixties onwards America became the centre of the poetic universe (in English, at any rate).

And so the litany became: Williams and the Objectivists, Ginsberg and the Beats, Lowell and the confessional poets; then, in the 1980s, Ashbery and the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets. As a result, we gradually lost sight of British poetry. The odd gleam shone out here and there: Seamus Heaney (but he was Irish), Douglas Dunn (a Scot), the odd wild man like Tom Raworth or Jeremy Prynne, but otherwise the visionary gleam seemed to have departed for good for more congenial climes.

But here comes Sarah Broom to set the record straight. Her book Contemporary British and Irish Poetry is designed specifically to answer the question “What happened then?” She concentrates on the poetry written over the last two decades in the British Isles and demonstrates, in the process, that the scene there is anything but moribund – on the contrary, that what is moribund is that old-fashioned recitation of schools and influences we memorised in English class. If the tangled, complex biosphere of Caribbean poets, feminist poets, gay poets, Irish & Scottish Nationalist poets, experimental and postmodern poets that constitutes contemporary Britain can’t be neatly summed up under one convenient label, then it’s time to junk the model.

“Death,” as Auden so succinctly put it, “of the Old Gang.”


At this point in the argument, I have to declare an interest. I know Sarah Broom. In fact, she’s a friend of mine. More to the point, I’ve witnessed various parts of the long process of compiling her book.

Does this predispose me in her favour? I don’t honestly think so. I was quite prepared for this to be another disappointing piece of academic discourse about other people’s creativity, writing that makes no serious attempt to engage with a living audience.

Which is why it’s such a huge pleasure to be able to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sarah’s book, and that I found it profoundly informative about a number of writers and movements I’d had the sketchiest ideas about previously.

[Insert: a seminar room at Massey University. Dr Sarah Broom is giving a seminar on modern Scottish poets’ responses to devolution; Jack (as honorary Scot – by virtue of descent and four years’ study at Edinburgh) has been deputed to read out various pieces of Glaswegian in his best “Eh Jummy!” voice. The faces around the table assume a polite rictus of disbelief as the appalling racket goes on – and on …]

Like so many other books of this type, it began as a Doctoral thesis. What is unusual about it is how much it has improved along the way: how much the long process of turning it into lectures and seminar papers, and then reassembling it into this “introduction for students” has clarified its lines of argument.

The secret to Sarah’s success, I think, is sympathy. A good defence attorney, she tries to make the strongest possible case for each of the representative poets she has chosen. There are 24 of them in all, divided into seven chapter-categories, so you can see that requires a good deal of tolerance.

My own personal lowpoint would be, I think, Eavan Boland (b.1944) whose musings on her own status in Irish life and letters include the stirring reflection that when the younger generation of Irish women writers try “to combine writing and parenting”:

I wrote like that once.
But this is different:
This time, when she looks up, I will be there
. [122]

I suppose that W. B. Yeats got a bit above himself at times – all those exhortations to Irish poets to “learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well-made” – but for sheer arrogant silliness this remark of Boland’s takes some beating.

What I admire about Sarah’s writing, though, is that she is content simply to present the bathetic posturing of Boland’s verse without feeling the need to put the boot in:

Come back to us
they [“the collective of Irish women through history”] said:
Trust me I whispered [121]
“It is tempting to read ‘Mother Ireland’ in this case as representing Boland herself,” is Sarah’s deadpan comment on this passage. This is, of course, a perilous critical strategy. If you allow ironic juxtaposition to convey your reservations about certain poetic approaches, there’s a risk that you’ll be read as wholeheartedly endorsing them.

Sarah clearly sees herself as more of an anthologist than a legislator, though, and her chief regret seems to be the number of poets she’s been forced to leave out for one reason or another (there’s a list of 29 of them in the preface, including such names as Tom Paulin, Derek Mahon, Paul Durcan and even Geoffrey Hill). It’s a measure of her success as a commentator that one does indeed regret not being able to hear her views on these writers. Certainly I finished each chapter of Sarah’s book feeling I’d learned something new, even about poets such as Heaney and Tony Harrison whom I’d been reading for years.

If Boland shows the perils of Sarah’s catholicity of taste, I feel her two chapters ‘a fusillade of question marks’ (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland), and ‘The Tribes of Poetry’ (about postmodern poetry in Britain) show its strengths.

Of course I’d heard of Peter Reading. I think I even owned a volume of his selected poems. It wasn’t till I read the discussion of him in Sarah’s final chapter, though, that I realised just how profoundly odd and interesting his poetic project actually was. My first act on finishing her book was, in fact, to order his collected poems on, and you can’t ask for a more ringing endorsement than that. She quoted just enough lines from Perduta gente (1989) his episodic narrative of London’s lost people, to make me realise that I needed to read it at once:

sometimes it seems like a terrible dream, in
which we are crouching
gagged. disregarded, unsought
in derries, dosshouses and spikes,
and from which we shall awake,

mostly, it seems, though, we won’t
. [249]

Reading’s curious mix of discordant subject-matter, technically precise verse and formal innovation was just too exciting to be ignored.

It’s not just a question of poetry, you see. I was there. I lived in Britain in the late 80s. Edinburgh is, admittedly, a much harsher place for the homeless than London (you either migrate south or die when winter begins – and it seems to last at least nine months a year). They were always there, though – on the borders of our vision. I remember one man joining in our philosophical discussion on the steps of the university library before, with elaborate periphrasis, making the inevitable demand for change. I also recall a friend of mine describing a couple she’d seen walking down the Grassmarket who were smiling as if proud of their brand-new status. Their clothes, she said, were still shiny and new, as if they’d just walked out of the old life that day.

It was a world where farmers proudly turned their livestock into cannibals, where Thatcher’s ministers took the concept of “plausible deniability” (i.e. lies) to a whole new level. It was the time of the poll tax, where Scotland had become a laboratory for testing out ideas too extreme even for the English. Reading’s book, then, for me, is as much a palimpsest of memories and impressions as a Dantesque charting of the lower depths. What is certain is that its inner seriousness utterly exposes the hollowness of so much of what so facilely passes for poetry nowadays.

I suppose that’s also my attraction to Sarah’s chapter on Northern Ireland. For once a set of modern poets came face to face to with the real thing: a real live civil war, with snipers, bombs, and oppressive occupiers. In the age of television, the violence suddenly erupted off the screen. The discussion here of Seamus Heaney’s approach to the victims of the troubles, his perhaps too-ready tendency to see them as martyrs, sacrificing themselves for the community like the neolithic Tollund man, is subtle and illuminating The real surprise for me, though, was the next poet she discusses, Michael Longley.

And when they had dragged Melanthios’s corpse into the haggard
And cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls, a dog’s dinner,
Odysseus, seeing the need for whitewash and disinfectant,
Fumigated the house and the outhouse
… [159]

In these lines from Gorse Fires (1991), Longley unpacks a little of the sickening violence which has always been basic to European culture. The analogy with the events of his own lifetime is clear:

He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said
. [155]


Eugenio Montale, a man of singular integrity, who managed somehow to live through the Fascist era, the second world war, the boom, even the Dolce Vita, wrote in “A Poet”:

I hope
I shall have some way to dedicate my poor songs
to the next tyrant …
He will be eager for spontaneous praise
gushing from a grateful heart
and he’ll have it, in abundance.
At the same time I’ll be able to leave
a lasting mark. In poetry
what counts is not the Content,
it’s the Form

[trans. Kendrick Smithyman]

Is that correct? Is that what counts, not the content but the form? I was having an argument about it (or rather, a discussion – we didn’t actually come to blows) the other day at a dinner-party. My interlocutor quoted from a radio interview he’d just heard with the Booker prize-winning novelist John Banville, who said that when he sat down to write The Sea he’d done so with the deliberate intention of producing a work of art. It was technique alone, apparently, that counted.

Far be it from me to judge John Banville or his book. I haven’t read it. It clearly pleased a number of competent judges, or it wouldn’t have won the prize. The question is, will we still want to read it in twenty years time? fifty years? a hundred? That, it seems to me, is more a question of content than form.

Sarah Broom’s book offers a window on a number of poets whom I’m sure we’ll be reading for the rest of this century, but also a number we won’t. If the fag-end of the twentieth century has told us anything, it’s that ironic detachment generates very little heat. You can idle an engine only so long before it stalls. For me the most memorable poems / poets in this volume are the ones who engage most fully with the external world around them.

Robert Lowell’s sonnet on Flaubert ended, originally, with a quote from the writer’s mother, who complained that “the mania for phrases dried his heart.” When he rewrote it, the new version ended: “Till the mania for phrases enlarged his heart.” That’s the paradox the best of these poets – the Readings, Heaneys., Longleys, Muldoons, Carsons – engage with: the search for a technique which can illuminate, not starve, the human heart. On the evidence of Sarah’s book, these few of them (at least) have been brilliantly successful.

[Peter Reading, photograph by Jay Shuttlesworth]