Monday, February 26, 2007

Gothic Reviewer review'd

In one of the six “Supplemental” volumes to his infamous ten-volume translation of the Arabian Nights (1885-88), Richard Burton included a section called “The Reviewers Review’d,” in which he heaped scorn and contumely on various imprudent critics who’d thought to question his command of Arabic. It’s very amusing to read, though occasionally a little unedifying (in another part of the same volume he put in a long essay abusing Oxford’s Bodleian Library, who’d dared to deny him their copy of the famous Wortley-Montague ms. of the Nights – he’d had to employ someone to make primitive photocopies, or “sun pictures,” of it instead. If they had agreed to lend it to him, he crowed, he would have felt honour-bound to suppress some of the more explicit passages, but since he’d had to pay for the pages out of his own pocket, he’d felt at liberty to spell out every last unsavoury detail for the delectation of his readers!)

It’s an interesting idea, reviewing reviewers. The usual assumption is that one has to be pretty desperate to care that much about what other people say, but then critics (and sub-editors) do get away with an awful lot of tosh and misinformation because of their control of the means of production. If you write into the Listener, say, complaining about any misrepresentation of your work, your letter is bound to be followed by some bland, authoritative-sounding dismissal by the author of the original piece.

This week’s Listener contains a review of Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture (Otago University Press, 2006), a collection edited by my Massey colleagues Jennifer Lawn and Mary Paul together with Misha Kavka of Auckland University, to which I contributed a few poems under the title “Tiger Country.”

The review is by one Andrew Paul Wood. Sadly, the Listener no longer seems to include notes on its reviewers, but a brief consultation of the web reveals that he “lives and writes in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was born in Timaru in 1975. He is a BA(Hons) graduate of Otago University and PGDipMuStud (Massey). He is a writer, poet and art and culture critic.” [Southern Ocean Review 19 (2001] (& MA (merit) Canterbury 2003, as further research discloses).

That detail about “living and writing in Christchurch” one might have deduced from his complaint that Ian Lochhead is “curiously the only South Island voice” in the collection. What about Justin Paton? Or Jenny Lawn, herself an Otago graduate, for that matter? So what, anyway? Do we really have to descend to that kind of parish-pump niggling every time an anthology comes out? (I fear the answer to that last question is ‘yes,’ but I’d much rather it weren’t).

I guess, for the most part, I enjoyed Andrew Wood’s review. There are some awfully nice adjectives scattered about in it – the book (for the most part) he calls “enormous fun,” Martin Edmond’s essay on abandoned houses is “pure gold,” Stephen Turner and Scott Wilson on road-safety ads are “brilliant,” and Elizabeth Hale’s essay on Maurice Gee and Vincent Ward is a “revelatory tour-de-force.”

The poetry contributed to the volume by Olivia “Macassely” (sic. – for Macassey: that’s what I mean about sub-editors; the spelling error is quite likely not by Wood at all …) and myself is, however, described as “overwrought.”

Nice word that – it has a very satisfying air of the hysterical about it which I would certainly not disavow, though I can’t speak for Olivia. He goes on to say that it might have been nice to include Richard Reeve, which I would definitely concur with. Richard did edit the book for Otago University Press, though, so he might have perceived some conflict of interest if he’d been invited to contribute as well.

I guess where I part company with Wood is with his rather “sophomoric” generalizations about the history and antecedents of “the gothic sensibility.” It’s hardly news that Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and William Beckford were influential Gothic novelists. So were Maturin and Monk Lewis. What difference does it make to his argument that “the melodramatics of gothic were being mercilessly lampooned as early as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey”?

Why does it “make sense to attribute gothic sensibilities to 19th-century New Zealand colonial society” but not to “the present day”? Wood follows this remark by a series of (alleged) “omissions” from the book:

Art is explored, but only contemporary, and unconvincingly (Saskia Leek and Yvonne Todd, no Ava Seymour), ignoring the great provincial traditions (Don Driver in Taranaki, Laurence Aberhart in Russell, everyone on Banks Peninsula). There’s little discussion of the “Man Alone” idea, no mention of the 1984 film Heart of the Stag, or that whole up-welling of gothic-themed culture in the 1980s brought about by Rogernomics and Ruthenasia. Jennifer Lawn tries to fill some of the many gaps through vigorous box-ticking in her breathless introduction.

“Everyone on Banks Peninsula,” eh? A bit of “vigorous box-ticking” going on there, I’d say. And fair enough, too. Of course the book isn’t complete. It never had any aspirations to be (as I understand it, at any rate). Wood is more on the money when he remarks: “The book reads like what it is: a collection of conference papers – personal enthusiasms in fancy dress to entertain peers, with dubious connections to a theme and a few reprints from elsewhere.”

Yep. And? Your problem is …? True, it certainly is “a mixed bag.” But then it did originate in a conference (organized by Mary and Jenny in 2002). Wood himself concedes that “Gothic NZ is worth it for the good bits,” though he goes on to complain that “all too often [it] is more camp than Gothic.” But hold on, didn’t you yourself mention Jane Austen’s “merciless lampooning” of “Gothic melodrama” in the early nineteenth-century? How can the genre-formerly-known-as-Gothic not include an element of camp almost two centuries later?

And, in any case, if there are so many omissions, how does it make sense to restrict “gothic sensibilities” to “19th-century New Zealand colonial society”? Wood himself seems to detect it everywhere but the kitchen sink in “the present day” (especially on Banks Peninsula). Heart of the Stag may escape extended discussion (though I notice it’s listed in the filmography at the back of the book), but Alison MacLean’s classic 1989 short film Kitchen Sink certainly doesn’t.

As far as the “overwrought” accusation goes, what about the idea of describing Ian Wedde’s piece as a “whirlwind potlatch of eclectic waifs and strays” during which he “congees and salamalecs to the circle with an afterword more gratuitously stuffed with cultural possessions on display than Te Papa”?

“Congees and salamecs” – great stuff! I like it. Very excessive … very Gothic, actually.

All in all, I think Wood does a pretty good job. He’s dismissive and patronizing in parts, and lays on the erudition a bit unconvincingly in his opening (don’t forget that some of us actually know something about Gothic art and writing, and have even – in some cases – read Horace Walpole and the rest of them), but if the basic purpose of a review is to write entertainingly about the book on display, then I’d give him a solid B+ / A-.

The mark would be higher if it weren’t for the internal contradictions in his piece (trying to restrict “the gothic sensibility” to the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century, and then going on to complain about all the contemporary examples which have been left out of the book – you really can’t have it both ways). I also find criticizing a book which began as a series of conference papers for sounding too much like a set of conference papers a little paradoxical.

I take his point, of course. The book is bitty but fun, is what he’s saying. He expresses it more eloquently, but it comes down to that.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


We all know Auckland traffic is appalling -- and it's getting worse. One of the main reasons for living and working on the Shore (at Massey Albany), in fact, is avoiding this sort of thing: the grind across the bridge. Or at any rate having the opportunity to choose one's moment to take the plunge.

So what do you when you do get stuck in traffic, creeping along behind some bozo whose idea of fun is stopping twenty or so yards behind the car in front and then gradually drifting up on them, leaving you unable even to stop and cogitate in peace?

I guess I tend to wish I was somewhere else -- either snouting around some musty time-soaked secondhand bookshop, or lying supine on a sun-baked beach (Mairangi Bay, for instance ...)

So the question is, how do you get from one to the other: traffic-jam to state of inner peace? Well, the obvious solution is to listen to the radio, but there's only a limited number of times you can hear John Tesh dispensing "wisdom for your life" without wanting to strangle the smug bastard, or to those announcers on the Concert Programme who go on and on about every detail of the composer's life before they actually allow you to listen to any music.

Bringing along your own tapes or CDs, and listening to those, is probably the best idea -- if you're organised to remember to keep the supplies stocked up. But here's my own original extra suggestion for mellow, tension-free motoring ...

[I should probably add at this point that everyone to whom I've so far mentioned this solution has reacted to it a bit like Jim Jones's congregation when they got their first big satisfying slug of Kool-aid ... but you never know, you guys might be an exception. It works okay for me, at any rate ...]

What I do is listen to poetry in the car.

"Gaaah!" I hear you cry. "No, no, have mercy -- anything but that."

But wait a second. Jan Kemp and I have spent an awful amount of time over the past few years collecting soundfiles of NZ poets reading their own work (most of which now reside in the vaults of Auckland University Library and the Turnbull in Wellington). We even put out a text/ sound anthology of Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance through Auckland University Press last year (and very successful it's been, thank you very much).

But when can you actually find time to put a bunch of poets on the CD-player during an average day? I mean really, not just that one dutiful listen you give it before packing it away on a shelf forever .... In my case the answer is: in the car.

Not just our anthology, of course (though I've listened to that an immense number of times -- not to mention its sequel, Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance, covering the baby-boomer poets, roughly from Sam Hunt to Michele Leggott, and due out later this year).

I guess my particular favourites for traffic jams or long drives in the country are very long epic poems: The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid. I have a number of versions of each, and it's agreat way of comparing the different translations.

Too intellectual? Too pretentious. Well, as the immortal Blackadder once put it, there's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a nightshirt trying to get laid. That's pretty much the essence of most of these epics -- sex, sadism, family feuds, and lots of drinking. Life, as Homer sees it, is a grim struggle punctuated with moments of brightness, and it doesn't seem to make much difference whether you're a mortal or a god.

I like listening to other poets too, the Moderns: Ginsberg is great to crank up loud when you're cruising round campus trying to disillusion people with the life of the mind: "Moloch! Moloch!" Auden has a kind of dry charm. I like the mellifluous blarney of Irishmen such as Paul Muldoon or Seamus Heaney. And it's not long before you find yourself getting to know their poems far better than you ever did when they just sat in front of you on a page.

It's depressing to think that I can still sing the jingles of most of the TV ads which were on when I was a kid ("We are the boys from down on the farm / We really know our cheese ..." "They're going to think you're fine / 'Coz you got Lifebuoy ..." "Kiss me Cutex / Kiss me quick ..."). Wouldn't you rather din into your head the immortal cadences of Homer or Beowulf, or find yourself intoning "April is the cruellest month / Mixing memory with desire ..." instead? Okay, maybe not -- but it's got to be better than bitching about the traffic or (worse) listening to talkback.

[Editor's note (May, 2008): And here's the cover of the latest in our series, New New Zealand Poets in Performance, due out from AUP on Poetry Day (July 18) this year]:

Thursday, February 01, 2007

I like Mike

This is the text of the speech I'm intending to give at Mike Johnson's sixtieth birthday party / launch for his new book on Waiheke island tomorrow (fingers crossed):

Everybody knows that Mike Johnson’s one of New Zealand’s foremost writers of fiction. If you didn’t know you really haven’t been keeping up. His strange, futuristic debut Lear (1986) matured into the dark Faulknerian vision of Dumb Show (1996), but there are a host of other fascinating novels and stories to be enjoyed along the way – and I hope there’ll be plenty more to come.

The success of his fiction may have had the effect of obscuring to some extent the fact that Mike actually began publishing as a poet, and has kept up this side of his oeuvre with almost equal intensity. His 1996 AUP volume Treasure Hunt, for instance, is woven around the tragic 1993 death of the Chinese poet Gu Cheng, who committed suicide after killing his wife here on Waiheke island.

The book that we’re here to celebrate today, then, The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He, represents the coming together of a number of strands both in Mike Johnson’s own work and in recent New Zealand culture.

It’s a obvious truism that, like it or not (personally I like it a lot), New Zealand is moving ever faster towards becoming a multicultural society. The trend is clearest in Auckland, because it’s the biggest population centre, and thus plays a kind of Ellis Island role in our cultural melting-pot.

It’s evident on our streets, our shops, and (above all) in our schools. As a tertiary teacher, Mike Johnson has experienced this evolution firsthand (as have I in my own teaching jobs at local Language Schools and at Massey Albany).

For writers, of course, this is truly priceless material – an “international theme” to parallel the New World / Old World divide of Henry James. And what better way to signal this than by publishing this book of poems from the works of that classic Chinese poète maudit Li He (who some of you might know better under the earlier Anglicisation Li Ho)?

Each of the major T’ang poets has his English adherents. The great rivals Tu Fu and Li Po are probably the most frequently translated (by Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound intially, but then by a host of other more-or-less inspired amateurs or experts), but then there’s the beautifully contemplative landscape poet Wang Wei as well, and then – probably somewhere quite far down the list because of his perceived personal and poetic intransigeance – we eventually encounter Li He, the so-called “Chinese Baudelaire” (perhaps Lautréamont might be a better analogue, considering the fact that he died at the age of 26).

In my case it was in a Penguin book called Poems of the Late T’ang (still one of the great titles, I think), translated by a guy called A. C. Graham. I found the whole thing completely entrancing, and spent far too much time reading it the summer I was supposed to be studying for my end-of-school exams (which is one of the many reasons I bombed out so badly, I suspect. I don’t think the English examiners appreciated being bombarded with platoons of quotes from obscure Chinese poets).

I first came across Mike’s own translations when working on collecting texts for the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive, an immense collection of 171 New Zealand poets reading their own work, on 40 audio CDs, collected between 2002 and 2004 in all four of the major centres (and now housed in Auckland University Library and the Turnbull in Wellington, if you’re curious to check it out). I was very intrigued by the way Mike seemed able almost to ventriloquise through this 9th-century Chinese poet.

I had, however, encountered something similar with Kendrick Smithyman’s translations from the Italian. In Kendrick’s case, it was as if the necessity to incorporate an ideal of the Mediterranean – amore, pane e fantasia – somehow liberated him from late twentieth-century irony, the corner his exquisite art had ended by painting him into.

In Mike’s case, however, Li He appears to have liberated a kind of inner barbarian, a wilder, crazier poet than traditional Kiwi mores really allow us to be (perhaps he’ll prove me wrong later in the evening).

I don’t want to quote too many examples, as I know he’ll soon be introducing and reading from the poems himself, but I’d like to make just this one citation from “occult strings” – a poem about a female shaman exorcising demons:

on her passion-wood lute, the gold-leafed phoenix writhes
as she mutters and mumbles, face twisting to the harsh sounds
picking note for word, word for note

descend stars and spirits! come
taste meat!

That doesn’t sound like Arthur Waley. It doesn’t even sound like Ezra Pound (whom T. S. Eliot referred to as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”). It’s time for some new inventors now, I think: both of Chinese poetry in English, and of New Zealand poetry itself. Mike Johnson is among those brave, outward-looking pioneers.

[This is what came up when I first googled Li He, trying to find a representative image. It’s hard to feel that either poet would really disapprove]: