Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Kindness of Reviewers

The latest brief (#36 - The NZ Music Issue (2008): 111-13) includes what seems to me a fantastically generous review of my poetry chapbook Papyri from renowned poet, classical scholar and verse translator Ted Jenner. I guess I was a little afraid what he might say, since he knows Greek and I don't. Also because John Denny's Puriri Press published some of Ted's own Sappho versions in a beautiful little book called Sappho Triptych late last year.

Certainly he finds some things to criticise. Who wouldn't? But the overwhelming impression is of someone who's really taken the trouble to think through the various choices and decisions that go into making a book of poems, however slight the end result may seem. It's clearly a process Ted's familiar with, and he's interested in debating the pros and cons for interested readers.

You can check out some of the main points of his review here. It got me to thinking, though, about my various experiences with reviews and reviewers in the past.

Basically, while I've had a few stinging notices in my time, the really important point is that virtually every time I've put out a book, I've received at least one fascinating, complex, and thorough review from someone who's really devoted a good deal of time and energy to trying to understand what I'm up to.

And I really appreciate it. It's far more than one dares to expect - even once - and to have been so lucky repeatedly argues for a lot more generosity and selflessness out there in the literary world than we're accustomed to expect. Once before on this blog I had occasion to remonstrate with a reviewer (of an anthology which I'd appeared in, not edited), and that gave rise to quite an interesting conversation between the two of us. Generally speaking, though, I tend to think that it's a mistake to react too publicly to notices: good, bad or indifferent. It tends to amuse onlookers far more than it benefits oneself.

I feel I should make an exception for those thorough, generous and scholarly reviewers I've mentioned above, though - so here's (unfortunately very truncated) honour roll of particularly shining examples:

City of Strange Brunettes (Auckland: Pohutukawa Press, 1998):

John O’Connor, “Pound’s Fascist Cantos, by Jack Ross, Perdrix Press & City of Strange Brunettes, by Jack Ross, Pohutukawa Press.” JAAM 12 (1999): 126-28:
… Ross’s versions are alive with Pound’s energy and convictions; they spark and jar ...

Nights with Giordano Bruno (Wellington: Bumper Books, 2000):

Richard Taylor, “Review of Nights with Giordano Bruno.” brief 19 (2001): 14-17:
… transpierced throughout with sex, suffering, and a burning joy and queerness.

Chantal’s Book (Wellington: HeadworX, 2002):
Olivia Macassey, “Jack’s Book.” brief 27 (2003): 101-2:
He skilfully – and with almost an appearance of accident – lays bare the twitching nerves of the genre.

Tracey Slaughter, “Points on a graph of Chantal.” Poetry NZ 26 (2003): 100-07:
… diagrams of dead sciences encrust the page with the algebraic mystery of cells …

Monkey Miss Her Now (Auckland: Danger Publishing, 2004):

Scott Hamilton, “After the Golden Weather: Jack Ross and the New New Zealand.” brief 32 (2005) 115-19:
As postmodern as it is parochial, Monkey Miss Her Now drags a venerable tradition into the strange new worlds of twenty-first century New Zealand.

• [editor] Kendrick Smithyman. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2004):

Paula Green, “Review of Kendrick Smithyman, Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian.” brief 32 (2005) 108-12:
Smithyman’s versions represent a tender conversation with the Italian poems …

Trouble in Mind (Auckland: Titus Books, 2005):

Katherine Liddy, “Something Strange: Reviews of Coma by William Direen, Trouble in Mind by Jack Ross & Curriculum Vitae by Olwyn Stewart.” Landfall 212 (November 2006):
Underneath the eye of the sun, in the murky territory between Life and Death, the story unfolds like a papyrus emitting the spores of an ancient curse.

The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (Auckland: Titus Books, 2006):

Gabriel White, “Planet Atlantis – The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis: A Novel by Jack Ross.” [24/11/06]:
The Da Vinci Code gets geometric cum stain on it.

• [editor, with Jan Kemp] Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: AUP, 2006):

Peter Wells, “In Praise of the Poetic Voice.” Weekend Herald: Canvas (July 15, 2006) 31:
The book, and the CDs, are taonga. The result of a mission by poets Jan Kemp and Jack Ross, they reproduce the poetic voices of our past. …
But what is the bigger story of this collection? It is a treasure of voice and poem. I am hoping it is the beginning of a longer series. Every school should have one. There is much to ponder on, to celebrate here. And people searching for poems for significant occasions could do well to buy this book. It is of our people.

• [co-editor, with Jan Kemp] Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: AUP, 2007):

Graham Brazier, “Ferries at the bottom of my garden.” Weekend Herald: Canvas (11 August 2007) 29:
I will, in my twilight years, press the leaves of the puka puka tree (book) until dried to a parchment and write what I hope may be a slight but heartfelt tribute to what appears in this collection.

• [editor, with Jan Kemp] New New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: AUP, 2008):

Pat White, “A Delight for Poetry Lovers: Review of New New Zealand Poets in Performance.” Wairarapa Times (20/8/08): 15:
Without a doubt the monumental task Kemp and Ross set themselves must have grown to something more than they imagined possible. Now however, the results speak for themselves ... As editors Kemp and Ross deserve the nation's thanks for a task completed well.

To Terezín (Auckland: Massey, 2007):

Scott Hamilton. “To Terezin and Back.” Reading the Maps (June 14, 2007):
"I think you may look back on it in twenty years and not feel dissatisfied with it."

Jennifer Little, “Visit to Czech Nazi Camp inspires Massey Author.” Massey News 9 (16 Hongongoi, July 2007) 9:
To Terezín is an entrancing model of how travel writing can encompass a range of genres – essay, verse, images – as well as wider themes of ethics, philosophy, literature, art and history ...

E M O (Auckland: Titus, 2008):

Jen Crawford, “Launch Speech: E M O, by Jack Ross.” Titus Books launch, Alleluya Café, St. Kevin’s Arcade, K Rd, Auckland (19/6/08):
EMO reminds us – shocks us – into a new consciousness that we are not without means, not without tools, not without a language for understanding and engaging with the full substance of our world, if we choose to acknowledge it. Because we have our stories, and our stories are talking to us.

So is this long list designed purely as a device for skiting about how many good reviews I've got from my friends? Partly, I suppose. I mean, wouldn't you feel a bit proud - both of the reviews and the friends?

But that's not entirely it. Some of these writers I've never even met. Mainly it's meant as a heartfelt thank-you to a group of people who took the - not inconsiderable at times - trouble to try and work out what an almost wilfully obscure-looking text was trying to tell them. Above all, to encourage them to keep up the good work.

They certainly serve as an inspiration to me to go the extra mile when I'm given someone's work to review. I only hope that I sometimes live up to their example.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cats and/or Vases

I guess the main reason for not waxing too witty at other people's expense is so you won't look too silly when you end up doing the same thing yourself.

For a long time now my phrase-of-convenience to sum up naive poetry was to say it was about cats and/or vases.

A brief rifle through the files reveals the following particularly top-lofty examples:

... there is a kind of poetry which is uninterested in asking hard questions about the world – physical or intellectual – which it inhabits. In these poems (it’s not difficult to multiply examples) there is a world, it can include the quasi-autobiographical “I”, as well as cats, and vases, and lovers, and beloveds, and – while any or all of these details may be the purest fiction – they convey their freight of meaning by making reference to a cosmos where such things do make sense. These poems, then, are not about themselves (except in the narrow sense of making reference to their own process of composition), or language, but about a reality unproblematically external to their text. The world is the problem here, not world the word.
– "Necessary Oppositions? Avant-garde vs. Traditional Poetry in NZ." Poetry NZ 21 (2000): 80-83.


I remember, the first time I ever edited a poetry magazine, receiving a long autobiographical poem by an American describing in detail various of the homosexual pick-ups he’d made, with long descriptions of all the sex they’d had. “Nobody in their right mind would print this,” was my first reaction. “It’s wildly overlength for our format; it’ll drive the subscribers (who still mostly tended to send in poems about cats and vases) insane; we might even be prosecuted for obscenity ...” But then a voice spoke to me from out of the darkness: “Fuck it, I was born to print poems like this.”
– Quoted in Iain Sharp, "Poetic Licence." Sunday Star Times: Sunday (1/2/04): 23.

And so on, and so on ...

Well, blow me down if I haven't just contributed a poem about a vase to the exhibition catalogue for Len Castle's latest collection of ceramics, Mountain to the Sea (on show in the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery later this year, after which it'll be moving down the North Island from Whangarei to Wellington).

And, to add insult to injury, I've just had a poem about our pet cat Zero accepted for yet another anthology, due out next year.

What can I say? Sorry to all you cat-lovers and vase-aficionados out there. I misjudged you - or else I've become one of you. I'm not quite sure which. Anyway, here's the companion piece to the one in the Len Castle anthology. I think it says it all, really.


SH: … I think that one reason there is so much ugly antipathy to writers who are breaking form in any way is because people know that language taps an unpredictable power source in all of us. It’s not the same in the visual arts, where there are many abstract or form-breaking visual artists who enjoy wide popularity, are embraced by a critical establishment, and sell their work for a tremendous amount of money. You will see their work in museums and books about the work on large glass coffee tables. Try the same thing, with language, certainly in this culture, and you may find your writing lost. This is because words are used as buoys, and if they start to break up …
EF: If they’re stripped of their presumed meanings …
SH: Right. Then everything goes because words connect us to life.

– Edward Forster, Talisman Interview with Susan Howe (1990)

A monument being resolved upon
Dr. Donne
sent for a carver to make
the figure of an urn
charcoal fires being first made in his large study

& having put off all his clothes
winding-sheet in his hand
had this sheet put upon him
tied with knots at his head & feet
& his hands so placed as dead

Upon this Urn
he stood with his eyes
& with so much of the sheet turned aside
as might show his lean pale face

When the picture was fully finished
he caused it to be set
by his bedside
where it continued
& became his hourly object …

[Text sampled from Izaak Walton's "Life of Dr. John Donne" (1639)]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rita Angus Symposium

[Rita Angus: "Portrait of Betty Curnow" (1942)]

NB: All images in this post come from Rita Angus: Life and Vision,
the website for the Te Papa exhibition running 5/7-5/10/2008

Well, Bronwyn and I had a fascinating time over the weekend. We flew down to Wellington to take part in the Rita Angus Symposium at Te Papa.

There were seven papers read in the course of the day, an Artists' Roundtable with Robin White, Seraphine Pick and Julian Dashper, chaired by exhibition curator William McAloon, followed by a chance to question him and the other curator of "Rita Angus: Life and Vision," Angus's biographer Jill Trevelyan. We started at 9 am, and went on till past five o'clock in the afternoon. The whole event was excellently organised by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Director of Art and Collection Services at Te Papa.

The first signs of trouble started with the second paper in the morning session. Mary Kisler of the Auckland Art Gallery had just given an interesting paper about Angus's links with traditional European Old Master motifs, but then Prof. Wystan Curnow of the Auckland English Department set the cat among the pigeons by giving a paper mocking the various attempts which have been made to date to turn Angus's "Portrait of Betty Curnow" (1945) into an "iconic" (his inverted commas) image.

As I understand his argument, he detected a recrudescence of that old New Critical bugbear, the (so-called) "intentional fallacy," in the readings of this painting. When it came to providing his own reading, though, it was hard to see what precisely he wanted to put in their place. "Let the painting speak for itself," he said. But doesn't that generally mean (in practice) let the licensed Art Critic speak for it?

I quite understand the problems of historicism when it comes to dominate criticism ("How many children had Lady Macbeth" etc.), but I don't myself see any way in which one can remove history - or at any rate the cultural history of styles - from any interpretation of any artistic artefact. In other words, can one successfully take the history out of Art History and still have much left to talk about? Our categories of interpretation are so culturally determined and contingent, after all.

Jo Drayton and Professor Michael Dunn gave the next two papers in the morning session.

The afternoon session began with an interesting discussion of Angus's Hawke's Bay landscapes by Ron Brownson of the Auckland Art Gallery. Perhaps the most telling moment in his presentation came, however, when there was a question from the floor about the reception of Angus's late paintings.

"I can act it out for you," he said, and stood still for a moment.

"Silence. That was the reaction."

This formed the prelude to Bronwyn's paper, which I've reprinted in full below.

I don't know that I've ever seen anything quite so dramatic at an Academic gathering as the way this paper sorted the audience into two groups. On the one hand, most of the general public appeared to be moved and fascinated by Bronwyn's revelations about Angus and Lilburn's strange love-affair and its artistic aftermath. Some were actually in tears as she read out her short story "It goes like this Gordon," at the end. One girl in the audience exclaimed, "That lady rocked my day." Another lady leant across me to tell her friend that it was by far the best paper she'd heard so far.

But the Art Historians hated it. I guess they felt that it was biographical, not critical - and they tried to shoot it down with a series of objections and barbed queries. Bronwyn stood her ground, though. It is her PhD subject, after all, and nobody knows the ins-and-outs of Angus studies like she does (with the possible exception of Jill Trevelyan).

As a bit of a card-carrying New Historicist myself, I found it a bit hard to believe that Art Historians were still so rooted in the dogmas of mid-twentieth century criticism that they didn't understand that all that "affective fallacy" and "intentional fallacy" stuff was long since outmoded theoretically. Removing history from your argument simply means being a slave to alleged norms of cultural "meaning," as the post-structuralists should have taught us all by now. Isn't that the basic function of deconstruction, to remind us what slippery ground we're all standing on?

So when Wystan Curnow stood up to school this young whipper-snapper in the critical facts of life, I doubt he expected her to give him as good as she got. Wystan just doesn't think the Goddess paintings are any "good" (whatever that means), but more to the point, he doesn't think that the exploration of personal symbolism is a valid way of explicating pictures.

Fair enough. I'm sure we'd all agree with him that it's not the only approach. But when you've had an archive of letters expounding in detail exactly what the artist thought she was up to, addressed to the one other person she was counting on to understand her, land in your lap, it would surely be foolish not to pay them some attention?

As an outsider to this field, I found it quite fascinating to watch this battle of the rival interpreters. That's what Academic symposia are for, after all, aren't they? I may well be misrepresenting some of the arguments, but I prefer to think that I'm just contextualising them within the debates rife in my own discipline of Literary Criticism.

Bronwyn's position (as I understand it) is basically a New Historicist one. She thinks that exploring an artist's stated intentions, unpacking all the clues and following up all the leads in her published and unpublished writings and statements is an excellent starting point for interpreting her works. We're in an unusually privileged position with Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn, as Rita had to explain a lot of things to him, as a non-visual artist, which she might well have elided over in correspondence with another painter.

But Bronwyn is certainly not claiming that this is the sole task of art critics. Certainly there are many other levels of interpretation which can be applied to paintings, including purely formal criticism of styles. Close study of contexts does not preclude the close examination of texts.

Wystan's position appears to be that these letters are no guide at all to the actual content of Rita Angus's paintings. They provide material for biographers and historians, not critics, who should confine themselves to painted surfaces and the history of styles.

And this is of course still the establishment view - at any rate in New Zealand Art History Departments (though not, I suspect, within the discipline as a whole). His position seems basically New Critical to me, though he might prefer to see it as Post-structuralist.

To me, then, the argument comes down to one question: Is it ever worth listening to what artists have to say about their work, or should one treat them as inspired idiot savants, good at slathering on the paint but fatally biassed when it comes to interpreting their own creations? Taking their statements entirely at face value surely would be naive, but then that's not what an historian (or a New Historicist) does, I wouldn't have thought.

The alternative appears to be trusting that art critics know more about art than artists do, and I fear I just don't have that much belief in the acumen of my own profession.

The debate will no doubt continue. The gloves came off momentarily at this seminar. I'll be interested in hearing what some of the rest of you think about this issue. Are there sacred bounds which interpretation may not venture across? The New Critics would have said so, but then it turned out that the categories they were relying on to introduce objectivity into the field were so culturally coded as to be virtually meaningless to non-Europeans and even (it seemed at times) non-Anglo-Saxons.

Personally I'd rather echo Abraham Lincoln's words - we can no longer live by the dogmas of the quiet past. We study history because we have to - if we're serious about learning more about the vast tides which agitate humanity, that is. One of those immense chaotic forces goes by the name of "Art."

[Rita Angus: "Portrait of Douglas Lilburn" (1945)]

The Dream Children: Rita Angus’s Goddess Paintings

[Te Papa Symposium: 13 September 2008]

Rita Angus’s own description of the ideal way to present her art has determined the structure of the ‘Rita Angus Life & Vision’ exhibition, beautifully curated by Jill Trevelyan and William McAloon. Angus’s friend John Money recalled that she imagined her work displayed as a ‘kind of temple of art’ with her three Goddess paintings at the centre surrounded by a series of small chapels containing smaller paintings and watercolours related one to the other.

In this paper I want to look at why Angus envisaged the Goddess paintings at the centre of her temple of art. I believe that she was inviting us to inhabit the imaginative core of her creative world through the understanding of her three imaginary Goddess portraits: her trio of immortals.

To begin to understand the Goddess paintings we must first acknowledge two incontrovertible facts: That Rutu is not a self-portrait, idealised or otherwise, and that the Sun Goddess and Rutu are Angus’s imaginary children and in her mind they were real and very much alive.

If we can come to terms with these facts then we will realise that this is a very powerful temple indeed, because there inside it Rita Angus has placed her successors and her legacy to future generations.

When Angus died in 1970, these two paintings were among a lifetime's work that survived her. The secret of their identity as her imaginary children, however, the artist took with her to the grave. Documentary evidence of the imaginary lives of Angus's two painted Sun Goddesses is contained, as we now know, in an archive of some 400 letters written by Angus to the man she regarded as the father of her dream children, acclaimed New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn, who bequeathed the correspondence to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Through his bequest Lilburn posthumously revealed the hitherto unknown emotional and intellectual complexity of his 28 year friendship with Rita Angus, which included the story of their love affair at the end of 1941, the pregnancy that resulted and a miscarriage suffered by Angus in January 1942 as well as the remarkable story of the two dream children that their relationship generated.

'I have wanted to make a work of art of our relationship’ Angus wrote to Lilburn in 1943, ‘as much as is possible, I think so'. The two qualifiers used by Angus here render her motivating intention less absolute and signal from the outset that there were limits imposed on such an undertaking. The sexual and marital proprieties presiding over her era prevented Angus, a divorced woman artist, from giving full and open expression to the story of her love affair with Lilburn and the loss of their illegitimately conceived child, and from using this as a legitimate subject in her painting. Her desire to do so, however, continued unabated. ‘I have been in love with you,’ she wrote to Lilburn, ‘and it will be expressed in paint’.

If Angus wanted to tell this story in her art, and it is clear that she did, then the subject would have to be approached covertly, and for this she would need to find the right painterly language. What she arrived at was a method of painting in symbols and one in which two stories, a public and a private story, could exist on a single canvas. In order to tell a story that was simply unacceptable in her own time she had to hide or veil the personal and subjective, painting it into her compositions as one private layer of symbolism among other publicly accessible symbolic motifs. In short, Angus elaborated an art of subterfuge.

[Rita Angus: "Douglas Lilburn" (1944-50)]

She began with the Lilburn oil portrait in 1944, which was abandoned incomplete some ten years later. In this portrait, Angus wanted to represent the composer’s daemon: the very source and spirit of his creativity. She attempted to convey this through his expression of quiet repose, the strong line of his shoulders, which carried the hope of the world, and the qualities of honesty and humility in the position of Lilburn’s hands, for which Angus made numerous pencil studies. The tombstones painted in the work were a symbol of the violent conquests of man, and the group of anthropomorphic rocks, a representation of time. Lilburn’s creative power as a composer was symbolised by the majestic mountain range that formed the background to the portrait.

[Rita Angus: "Rutu" (1945-51)]

Shortly after Angus began the Lilburn portrait she had a dream and in it her first dream child, a Sun Goddess, later named Rutu, was born.

You may remember my dream, the latter part, of a child in the likeness of my father. Last Saturday week, I awoke with the idea of making this image, a sketch. I began with the water colour of my Father before me, and your portrait at the end of the room. My memory served me well, about three hours later a child about 16 or 17 years of age, like my family, but not mine; she belongs to you. Of European birth, simple, monastic, Western schooling, you will find her in the paintings on the walls of the Temple Caves of India, where wandering Yogi priests sheltered, in the Bodhisattas of the Buddhist shrines where the Chinese worshipped in the flower and tea ceremonies of the Samurai. The Geisha and the Priestesses of the Shinto shrines of Japan.

The Lotus

Angus had seen reproductions of the masterpieces of Buddhist art adorning the Ajanta caves in India. One of these, a galloping elephant, she incorporated into her marvellous pacifist portrait of Lawrence Baigent but another much reproduced image from the central shrine of the first Ajanta cave, an image of the Bodhisattva Padmapani, a serenely beautiful youth holding a white lotus, may well have been one of the inspirations for Rutu. Her reference to the Shinto shrines of Japan is also significant given that the most important Shinto shrine in Japan is the Ise shrine dedicated to the deity Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, her name meaning that which illuminates heaven. The white lotus or waterlily held by Angus’s first Sun Goddess Rutu is also an Egyptian motif, homage to an ancient civilisation greatly admired by Angus for the advanced social status enjoyed by women.

Over time Rutu became much more important to Angus than the sum of her many symbolic parts: ‘The 'Sun Goddess' is your child’, she wrote to Lilburn, ‘She is mine. The waterlily is painted.’

[Rita Angus: "Sun-Goddess" (1946-49)]

In 1946 Angus’s second Sun-Goddess appeared in watercolour. She is a Western Goddess holding a white orchid and standing in the foreground of a bushclad landscape densely planted with hydrangeas, orchids, shrubs and trees. Angus described the auspicious event in her letters to Lilburn. ‘She is beautiful, and brings peace. The Sun Goddess has come to earth. She 'lives'.’

[Rita Angus: "A Goddess of Mercy" (1945-47)]

Angus's painting, A Goddess of Mercy, sits chronologically between the two Sun Goddesses. She is a kindred work to the Sun Goddesses, although she is not one of Angus’s dream children. She is a young woman holding a single yellow crocus who delivers a message of mercy and compassion to the world. 'This year,' Angus wrote to Leo Bensemann in 1947, 'I exhibit 'A Goddess of Mercy' in memory of my sister, Edna, who died in December, 1939. Most of the idea of this painting was blocked in, just before and during, the week peace was declared with Europe. It is the pull between life and death, with the triumph of the living over the dead. 'Ruth' is the woman, and the painting 'lives'.

Angus’s repeated insistence that the Goddess paintings ‘live’ is an important part of the story. Few fictional or factual accounts of imaginary children invented in adulthood exist, perhaps because it is a subject teetering on the knife-edge of fantasy and madness, and presenting too disquieting a combination of the real and the unreal for us to openly or comfortably acknowledge. Edward Albee’s play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Robin Hyde’s fantasy novel, Wednesday’s Children, are two very powerful fictitious stories about dream children. Factual accounts of imaginary children suggest that the creation of fictive offspring generally stems from the desire to fill the void of childlessness arising either from the experience of losing a child or the sorrow caused by the inability to conceive one. Rita Angus and Katherine Mansfield were two prominent New Zealand women who had such a story in common.

Angus’s experience of pregnancy, although brief, was deeply spiritual and transformative. In her mind the developing child inside her was inextricably bound to her artistic creativity. In letters written to Lilburn before the miscarriage she described her heightened powers of perception and how pregnancy had brought the two parts of herself, the painter and the woman, into alignment:

In the months following the miscarriage Angus reflected on the way that her pregnancy had awakened within her a sense of life’s continuity, which she was attempting to harness and channel into her painting. ‘There's life in my painting of some flowers in water colour’, Angus wrote. ‘I sense the child, I loved the child.’ Her heartfelt reflection is immediately followed by a quotation from The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius: 'Love that which happens to thee and is spun with the threads of thy destiny. For what is more suitable?' (23 June 1942, MS-P-7623-050).

Were Angus’s words an offering of assurance to Lilburn that she had emotionally recovered from the miscarriage? Was she attempting to comfort herself in the knowledge that the experience of losing a child must have some higher purpose or value, or did she really believe that the loss of the child was somehow fated? A definitive answer to these questions is not possible but the appearance of her first painted dream child two years later suggests that the spirit of her lost child was an ongoing presence in her life and was to some extent directing the course of her painting.

In 1919, Katherine Mansfield, dying of tuberculosis, was beset by a desperate longing to have a child with her husband, John Middleton Murry. Her dream of motherhood went unfulfilled but an imaginary child was invented to fill the maternal void. Mansfield’s deteriorating health compelled her to leave England for the Mediterranean while Murry remained behind to manage their financial affairs. Her loneliness, depression, and illness only increased her desire for a child, so she imagined one, sometimes a daughter, sometimes a son named Dickie who is mentioned a number of times in her letters from this period. Murry whole-heartedly supported the creation of the dream child as a surrogate before the arrival of their own longed for child. Towards the end of 1919 Mansfield wrote to her husband:

We MUST have children - we MUST. I want our child - born of love - to see the beauty of the world - to warm his little hands at the sun & cool his little toes in the sea. I want Dickie to show things to. Think of it! Think of me dressing him to go for a walk with you. Bogey we must hurry - our house - our child - our work.

In C K Stead’s selected edition of Mansfield’s journals and letters, a journal entry from 1919 describes one of a series of almost hallucinatory dreams that Mansfield was experiencing around that time and which she considered to be the one positive side effect of her illness. In the dream she is on an ocean liner late at night walking on deck with her father. A break in the journal entry suggests a shift of scene in her dream and suddenly she is undergoing a medical examination:

‘Any children?’ he asked, taking out his stethoscope, as I struggled with my nightgown.

‘No - no children.’

But what would he have said if I had told him that until a few days ago I had had a little child aged five and three-quarters - of undetermined sex. Some days it was a boy. For two years now it had very often been a little girl. (162)

In Stead’s historical novel Mansfield he imaginatively reconstructs Katherine Mansfield’s life during the First World War. The subject of Mansfield’s dream child is raised in the novel as part of a private exchange between Mansfield and English artist Dora Carrington in which Carrington discloses that she secretly imagines herself as a man and Mansfield reveals in return that she secretly imagines herself as a mother:

Katherine’s face was so kind, so comprehending, Carrington found herself saying, “Mansfield, would you mind very much…Pretending, you know?”

‘That you’re a chap? I’m doing it already. You’re a chap.”

Carrington laughed. “Am I? Are you sure?”

“Absolutely certain. You’re a chap, and I’m a mother.”

“Oh yes you are. I’ve seen your little girl…”

“Boy,” Katherine corrected. “She was a girl last week, but this week she’s a boy.”

“I say, isn’t it nice that it can change.” (161)

When Middleton Murry purchased a cottage in the Sussex countryside in 1920 he hoped that he and Mansfield would fulfil their dream of a family and writing life. Murry wrote to his wife about the ‘two little daisy children’ they would have when they settled in their new home and Mansfield replied: ‘Oh Destiny, be kind. Let this be. Let these two children live happily ever after. Sadly, the dream did not eventuate. Mansfield never lived to see the Sussex cottage and their two ‘daisy children’ were never to be born.

The air of sentimentality and longing that pervades the characterisation of Katherine Mansfield’s dream children is the vital point of difference between them and Rita Angus’s two imaginary children. Mansfield’s children are innocents, inhabiting the role of loved and longed for children. While the loss of Rita Angus’s child was certainly the catalyst for the development of the Sun Goddesses, they emerged on the canvas, not as innocent children, but as fully formed young women, with the pacifist, feminist, and cultural role they were to play in the world painted into every aspect of their being.

A dream child is a unique creation, the fabric of the child's identity woven entirely from the imagination of its parents. A dream child can grow and develop from infancy through to adulthood. Dream children experience life, they develop personality and character traits, interests and beliefs, and their lives unfold in much the same way as real children's do.

Rita Angus’s Sun Goddesses developed an interest in anthropology. They thrived on the praise they received from visitors. They sent their love to Lilburn and asked to hear his music – especially the Allegro which Angus felt contained the spirit of her lost child. Rutu travelled abroad before Angus herself did to take part in an exhibition of NZ art in London organised by Helen Hitchings and a strange custody battle ensued between Angus and Lilburn upon her return because they both longed so much to see Rutu again.

The fact that only one side of the correspondence between Angus and Lilburn survives means that there are many elisions in the narrative of the lives of the Sun Goddesses. While Angus’s role as mother and creator of the dream children dominates the story the letters suggest that Lilburn was a willing participant in the fantasy, and that he accepted his role as father to the Sun Goddesses and actively contributed to their development. Much of the story of the dream children, I suspect, exists outside the pages of the letters, in the many conversations shared between Angus and Lilburn in the presence of the Sun Goddesses. A letter written by Angus to her sister Jean mentions one such private exchange between Angus, Lilburn, and their firstborn dream child:

Dear Jean
Many happy returns of the day. I intended to send you a wire but I did not go down to the village. Gordon came unexpectedly to lunch and we meditated with the Sun Goddess.

What was said between Angus and Lilburn during occasions such as this will never be known to us. As a consequence Angus’s written account of the lives of the Sun Goddesses presents us with only a partial narrative. The story of the Sun Goddesses spans a period of eleven years in the correspondence from 1944-55. The most detailed account of the dream children’s development occurs during the first five years of this period. Following the severe nervous breakdown suffered by Angus at the end of 1949 it appears that the fantasy became increasingly difficult to sustain on the part of both Angus and Lilburn. References to the Goddesses beyond this date are sporadic, the imaginative construction of their lives dissipates, and they are seldom mentioned at all in letters beyond 1955.

The story recounted by Angus in the letters is one of loss and love, transformed through artistic invention into a fantasy family. Angus's inclusion of the Goddess paintings in particular exhibitions and publications opens up the possibility for a fascinating contextual analysis in light of the revelation that she was displaying her children. Furthermore, the extremity of responses by both Angus and Lilburn to less than positive reviews and opinions about the Goddesses by third parties, not privy to the secret of their identity, reveals a great deal about the challenge of sustaining a fantasy family. For a brief period parental pride and devotion to the Sun Goddesses characterised the letters but a growing undercurrent of tension between Angus and Lilburn inevitably led to a dénouement and the unravelling of the fantasy.

It’s clear that for Lilburn the dénouement came in 1947 after he took his friend Charles Brasch to view the Goddess paintings at Angus’s Clifton cottage. Brasch didn’t like the Goddess paintings at all and he found very little to say during the visit which upset Lilburn enormously. Brasch recounted in his journal that while they waited for the train home Lilburn asked, ‘was I not going to say anything about the pictures, adding quietly but provocatively that if we could not talk about these we could not remain friends - I ignored this last & said that of course we could talk about them & went on to say what I felt about the paintings, that they - or rather it, the Sungoddess, was unreal with a kind of obsessional intensity but no life.’ This statement must have cut Lilburn to the quick and Brasch remarked that on the journey home ‘Douglas seemed really hurt - wounded, by my attitude.’

In response to Brasch’s critique of the Goddesses it seems that Lilburn spoke to Angus encouraging her to focus more on her landscapes rather than her portrait painting, a suggestion to which she responded angrily in writing:

Well, to tell you, I didn't accept your wishful speaking, I am too interested in portraying people, and if you, too, were more rational you could realize that I have variable abilities and, have been well schooled in many branches of painting, portraits, figure composition as well as landscape. (I've heard this attitude of mind towards me, as a landscape painter for more than 10 years now, I am sorry you cannot think for yourself)

Words don't unpaint paintings nor paint them. Line and colour do.

Though you are a musician (and one who does not paint) you astonish me, you have visited me, and are one of the few, privileged to see my mature and recent painting grow, works that I have been seriously devoted to for some years. You have not had the courtesy to see the truth. It is no longer important to me that you don't wish to see, you do not bind me with your narrow restrictions upon my artist freedom which you do not, and cannot possess. The spirit of woman is not crushed.

While her spirit may not have been crushed, Lilburn’s apparent desire to opt out of the psychological contract established between he and Angus and their imaginary offspring highlighted the fact that such a contract is binding only for as long as the parent or parents elect to keep the fantasy alive. It is a tenuous existence for the child, doubly so in the case of a two-parent family, where the child's life depends on the ability of the two adult participants in the shared fantasy to maintain the fragile balance between their kindred and competing desires. If one parent reneges on the contract the child is lost.

For Angus the unravelling of the fantasy came in a dream which she described in a letter to Lilburn:

Last night's dream I heard your 'Sonatina for Clarinet & Piano.' The clarinet was beautiful. Also I was in a large room, fire had gutted it, my haversack was half burnt & I couldn't find the 'Sun Goddess.' She was missing, she was burnt, she was ashes. I accepted. There was nothing to be done about it. I awakened to see the 'Sun Goddess' on my wall this morning. To me, my dream means the end of symbolism, and the beginning of a new abstraction, hearing the music.

As you will no doubt appreciate the story of Rita Angus’s dream children is a difficult one to tell. In many ways it is a very sad love story but out of the sadness and loss something amazing and beautiful emerged. It would be something of an understatement to say that at times over the past three years I have found the weight of the archive of Angus’s letters to Lilburn overwhelming. In a moment of research anxiety I composed a short cri de coeur addressed to Lilburn, known to his friends as Gordon, which summarises my response to the story of the Sun Goddesses. I would like to end by reading it to you.

It goes like this Gordon

For 28 years she tried to tell you that her peasant heart belonged to you. When you said you didn't want it she went inside her mind and made you her dream. When that wasn't enough she went inside her mind and made you a child. She made up a child with golden hair, fish swimming around her neck, and a lotus flower just starting to open in her hands.

She made you a Goddess, a daughter of the sun, for the daughter or son that she never had and neither did you.

And you're gone now Gordon but you left behind the 400 letters with her 28 years of questions and anger and devotion. You left them behind and now I'm reading them as if I'm you and I'm trying to understand what she was saying, only she wasn't saying it to me. And I'm reading all the books she recommended to you, the ones she thought would show you the way to understand her. I hope you read them too.

She tried to paint your daemon once but you kept shutting her out, you kept hiding your daemon from her because you didn't want her to find it, to really find it. After a while she gave up and made a cut through your left ear and across your throat and she painted out your face. It was a desperate act but you didn't see.

You took your friend Charles to meet the daughter she had made up just for you and he didn't see it either. He looked and he looked but he had no words. All he saw was Rita's face looking back at him and he was scared. And because he saw nothing and he said nothing he made you feel foolish for believing that she was real, that she was Rita's Mona Lisa, that she was your child. And you ran off down Aranoni Track, Gordon, and you were so angry at Charles and he couldn't understand why because he didn't know that she was your child and that he had been rude.

She made another daughter for you Gordon, a second Sun Goddess, so beautiful, with her halo and her flower. She hid parts of you in her face. You were there in her face all along.

Rita's dream caught fire. Your first daughter was burnt and there were only ashes but then Rita woke up and saw her there, your daughter, shining at her from the bedroom wall. It was an end though.

You wrote something to her once about lessons to learn for which there's no guidance except in myth and parable. In art these things have meaning, you wrote. She quoted your words back to you to reinforce the point. She had made a myth just for you Gordon.

Don't get me wrong, I know you tried, you tried really hard. You were kind. You made an offering of part of a chicken in her shrine once and she read too much into that. She read too much into everything you did. You sent her Rilke and she took his advice about solitude. You sent her The Life and Times of Po Chü-i with the sapphire cover and the gold letters. She loved that book. You sent her to Otago to make you a painting.

But she gave you two daughters - two daughters for you.

I'm going to take care of her kids now Gordon.

You just rest.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

20 Favourite 20th-Century Long Poems

Ever since she became a blogger herself (Mosehouse Studio – her new craft blog), Bronwyn has been prompting me to do something about the parlous state of The Imaginary Museum. “You’ve got to put up a new post! People are starting to talk – I’m ashamed to host it in my links list …”

Well, she's quite right, of course, but then I do have the teaching blogs to feed – not to mention keeping up with the reviews of New NZ Poets in Performance on my Bibliography site.

But then I remembered that Maps had made a very interesting suggestion in one of the comments on that 20 favourite 20th-Century novels post of mine, the one that got all the responses:

How about a post on your ten or twenty favourite long poems of all time, Jack?

I’ve been mulling that one over for a while now. I think I dealt with most of the usual suspects from the classical epic tradition in my Car Epics posts (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Milton etc.), so there's no need to go through all of those guys again.

Here goes, then, with a (very subjective) list of twenty of my personal faves among twentieth-century long poems:

[Byron & James Dean]

W. H. Auden: Letter to Lord Byron (1937)

This was originally included in the travel book he wrote with Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, and is perhaps best read like that, in situ. I prefer it to his more formal full-dress long poems from the forties: New Year Letter (1941), For the Time Being (1944) and The Age of Anxiety (1947). It's relaxed, funny and revealingly autobiographical.

[Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Catullus at Lesbia's"]

James K. Baxter: "Words to Lay a Strong Ghost" - from Runes (1973)

I guess the Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) or Autumn Testament (1972) would be more orthodox choices, but I really like this sequence. Runes is a fantastic book, anyway.

[Top 10 Drinking Quotes of all time]

John Berryman: Love & Fame (1970)

Yeah, yeah. I know how much everyone raves about the Dream Songs (1964-69). I like them myself. I'm just not convinced that they can be read as a long connected narrative rather than a group of lyrics with the same protagonist. This is the book of Berryman's I like best - at his least pretentious and most honest, and without all the (to my mind) rather forced fireworks of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956).

[Lovers (Herculaneum Fresco)]

Anne Carson, "The Fall of Rome: A Traveller's Guide" - from Glass, Irony and God (1992)

This was Carson's first book of poems, and it's fantastically strong. This particular sequence is about a misjudged trip to Rome to stay with an acquaintance who turns out not to be in the least bit interested in entertaining her, and really majors on the misery and dislocation of the whole experience. Splendid stuff. I like The Beauty of the Husband (2002), too.

[Helen of Egypt]

H. D.: Helen in Egypt (1952-54)

This is pretty cool stuff, I reckon. There are lots of other long poems to choose from in H. D.'s repertoire, but this one has a kind of classic precision I like.

[The Eye of God]

Walter de la Mare: The Traveller (1945)

An odd choice, you think? Maybe so. This long narrative poem describes an unnamed hero traversing the surface of an immense eye. Why? You tell me. The strange dislocatedness of it all appeals to me strongly. I like a lot of his lyrics, too: "Winter has fallen early / Upon the House of Stare" ... I think it might all have something to do with the horrors of the Second World War, also.

[The graphic novel version]

7) T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land (1922)

It's pretty difficult to reject the temptations of Four Quartets (1935-42), but I guess the good old Waste Land has to be the one. It evangelised me as a teenager, so I really owe it a lot. I can't exactly read it now, but that's maybe because I've virtually got it memorised.

By far Ginsberg's greatest poem, his most heartfelt, and his most frightening and disturbing. This tale (perhaps I should call it a transcript) of the growth and progression of his mother's madness is surely one of the great poems of the century. read it and see - or, better still, listen to him reading it out loud on his Holy Soul Jelly Roll collection.

[Eikon Basilike (1649)]

Susan Howe: A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (1989)

A very odd poem from a very odd poet. Susan Howe began in the visual arts, and layout clearly interests her as much (or more) than diction. There's a haunting power in the intensity of her vision, though. Who else would have thought of turning an old discarded library copy of someone else's bibliography of a forged seventeenth-century book into the basis of a poem? Nobody, that's who. Now it's been done once - anybody.

[Birthday Letters]

Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)

It still blows me away a bit that I can bring myself to put a Ted Hughes book into this list. I am - to put it mildly - not a fan. But this collection really is extraordinary, and has a cumulative power. Imagine deciding to answer all those iconic, accusatory poems of Sylvia Plath's thirty years after Ariel? It sounded like a bad joke at first - "You said I was snubbing you, but actually you were the one who was ..." Kind of like a bad marital quarrel carried out - in print - from beyond the grave. And yet there's a sort of dignity in it if you read it all the way through. Good on you, Ted. I'm forced to concede him a good deal for the sheer guts of it.


David Jones: In Parenthesis (1937)

I could have put in Anathemata (1952) instead, but I think the First World War poem is his finest. Well worth a look - his art work is extraordinary also.

[The Patrick Kavanagh Memorial (Dublin)]

Patrick Kavanagh: The Great Hunger (1942)

Cool - and very funny in parts. "The Great Hunger" is actually a plea for some surcease in the sheer boredom of country life in Ireland, rather than yet another lament for the victims of the Potato famine. Hence the fact that he was sued for libel when it first came out.

[Robert Lowell]

Robert Lowell, Life Studies (1959)

Is this a long poem or a series of poems? I think it's all one poem. The book as a whole has a unity for me which goes beyond that of his other collections. I'm not really convinced by Notebook (1969-73) in any of its many guises, but the three collections - For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967) are the others - he published in the early-to-mid sixties are each equally impressive and moving in their own way.

[Polis is This]

Charles Olson: The Maximus Poems (1950-70)

What a mass of craziness! And yet it's fantastic to read in and just contemplate, in that beautiful big 1983 University of California press edition. I can't claim to have got to the bottom of it as yet, but it fascinates me in a way that Zukofsky's A (1927-78) and even Pound's Cantos (1915-1972) (as a whole) don't.

[The Monkey's Mask (2000)]

Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994)

A verse novel, no less. Dorothy Porter has made quite a specialty of them. This one is a kind of erotic lesbian detective story (hence the saucy film poster). It works very well as a narrative poem, though - all power to her for originality, I reckon.

[Pound reads Mauberley]

Ezra Pound: Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts (1920)

The other one I was thinking about putting in was Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919), since I guess one can't really call Cathay (1915), which I love even more, a long poem. The Pisan Cantos (1949) are also a favourite book of mine – but not really (I have to admit) the Cantos as a whole: too disparate and uneven. Great to read in, though.

[Cardboard City]

Peter Reading, Perduta gente (1989)

A fantastic vindication of Reading's uncompromising methods of composition / accretion: a complex piece of storytelling with an antinuclear theme is almost overpowered by the sheer rage and indignation propelling his picture of London's homeless at the height of the Thatcher era.

[Gottfried Lindauer]

Kendrick Smithyman: Atua Wera (1997) / Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (2002)

I've yet to read any particularly cogent analyses of Kendrick's "long poem about history," Atua Wera. Gregory O'Brien's essay in Landfall 194 (1997: 306-21) seemed to confine itself mainly to descriptions of the Wairoa River and of dreams he'd had about going camping with the old man in the South of France. It's a tough nut to crack, certainly, but I can't help feeling there's rather more to be said about it than that. My own contribution to the debate is the assertion that these books are best regarded as one long poem in two parts. Atua Wera looks into the textual bases of received history, through the person of the shifting signifier Papahurihia. Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, by contrast, mines his own family past in order to enquire into the role of the anecdotal and personal in any larger, objectifying vision. It's a very ambitious scheme, and one which we'll be talking about for a long long time to come, I feel.

[Llareggub boat]

Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood (1945-1953)

This one's just delightful. Is it a play? Is it a poem? Is it autobiographical? Fictional? There's a wonderful recording of the first performance of the as-yet-unfinished work in New York. Apparently Thomas was literally scribbling out the parts backstage up to the last minute, and then had to be pushed on to take the part of the narrator. Somebody had left a microphone lying in the middle of the floor, and it picked up the whole bizarre occasion. Much better than the posthumous BBC production of the whole kit and caboodle, read by Richard Burton et al., fun though that is too.

[Paterson Islanders]

William Carlos Williams: Paterson (1946-63)

What shall I say about this? It's very readable, and very impressive in its way. A little old-fashioned sounding now, perhaps, but then I guess it largely created the taste which might now regard it as slightly backward-looking. Nothing short of a monument, really - the poet as roving reporter, covering the city beat.

I'd liked to have put in Wallace Stevens' "Notes towards a Supreme Fiction", but I have to confess that I've never got to the end of it, much though I like some of his shorter pieces. One has to be as honest as possible in compiling such a list, otherwise what's the point?

I also note the regrettable absence of any extended poems by Seamus Heaney or Paul Muldoon. Even Seamus loses it a bit sometimes in the midst of his more extended sequences, I fear. Station Island (1984) is pretty amazing, though -- and Muldoon's "Incantata" - from The Annals of Chile (1994) - is one of the greatest elegies I've ever read.