From the dark room, Michael Grimshaw

Snapshots on the Journey: through death & remembrance: an anthology of poems
ed Rod MacLeod
Steele Roberts, $29.95,
ISBN 1877228672

Anthologies of poetry serve different purposes; the intent can be as important as the content. Michael Roberts’ Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936) helped to create a history as well as a manifesto for modernism. (Having this sitting pinkly on your shelf signalled your progressive inclinations.) A P Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers (1944) was plucked from lines in his head, presented as personal memoir, autobiography by association, and an attempt to reclaim civilisation in the midst of World War 2.

Closer to home, Allen Curnow’s A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945) anthologised a new national consciousness, creating a poetic “year zero”. Jenny Bornholdt’s and Gregory O’Brien’s My Heart Goes Swimming: New Zealand Love Poems (1996) offered a bridge between private feeling and the public event of marriage. The editors presented it as a way for us to acknowledge and overcome what Van Morrison calls “the inarticulate speech of the heart”. In the last couple of years, I have been involved in putting together Spirit in a Strange Land: a Selection of New Zealand Spiritual Verse (co-edited with Paul Morris and Harry Ricketts), which attempts to restore and rewrite spirituality into the New Zealand literary and cultural environment. In effect, a counter to Curnow’s strident, secular nationalism.

Anne Ridler in the revised Faber Book of Modern Verse (1951) saw the anthologist’s role as describing both a period (or subject area) and the particular merits of the poets chosen to represent it. The anthologist must seek to avoid the monotony of “reading in the same key”, and should expect self-control and self-discipline on the part of the reader. While we all dip in and out of anthologies, Ridler reminded us that unless we are prepared to read in a leisurely way with a pause after each poem: “it is as if one had added to apple pie not only cheese but mustard and chestnuts and avocado pear.” Attractive and useful as this analogy is, it has to be said that it rather breaks down with the anthology under consideration here, concerned as it is with the moments when appetite declines, when life becomes messily mixed with death, when the urge to over-indulge one last time is counterpoised with the wish to gently, slowly decline.

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Rod MacLeod, the editor of Snapshots on the Journey, is director of Palliative Care at the Mary Potter Hospice in Wellington. Also a poet and photographer (with selections from both activities in this anthology), he is obviously a thoughtful, caring man, doing a job that most of us never could. This anthology also doubles as a hospice fundraiser, the poets having donated their royalty payments. And therein lies my conundrum. Are good intentions, a fine cause, and a worthy donation, enough to make a good anthology?

A good anthology trusts its readers to understand what is occurring within its pages. Of course, there is the introduction to set the scene, provide the history, justify the selections, settle some scores, cover possible critics and critiques and explain selections. But, that done, the anthologist should recede, letting the poems speak for themselves in the new conversation created by their relocation. Of course, the anthologist is always a shadow at the reader’s shoulder, attempting to order their reading. But, this is very often the anthologist’s dream rather than the reader’s reality. MacLeod never recedes. He is continuously present in didactic, directional prose passages, breaking the rhythm of the anthology. The focus repeatedly turns from the poems to MacLeod himself. This is the collection’s greatest weakness: an anthology that doesn’t trust its own poems.

This distrust of the poems to speak on their own is further underscored by the snapshots of the title. Scattered throughout are small black and white photos of “natural New Zealand”, which suggest a rather different kind of journey back through the much squabbled over “South Island myth” to a new version of Kowhai Gold. As such, the anthology begins to look and feel more like a liberal Christian hymnbook, keen to prove its “New Zealandness” while dealing with “unkiwi” sentiments. Is it claiming that our souls are only at home in rural New Zealand, that wilderness is more spiritual, more real, more true than any other Kiwi context?

But perhaps the problem with Snapshots should be traced rather to the underlying metaphor used: death is approached as a journey along a mountain ridge. Hence it is intended not so much as an anthology as a guidebook, telling us how and where to walk, what to look at, and how to think. The collection is a textbook or instruction manual for those working in the field of palliative care and for those “caring for people who are dying”; and a companion piece for those under palliative care.

So what of the poems themselves? Do they “work”? Some are excellent. “What do you see” by Kate (surname unknown) was written by an elderly woman unable to speak. Discovered after Kate’s death, the poem scolds her nurses for their treatment of her in her palliative care stage, for their lack of knowledge of and interest in her history as a person: child, bride, mother, widow, grandmother. Kate writes not of a journey along a mountain ridge but of falling into a ravine, trapped, injured, forgotten. Hers is no snapshot; this is a home movie on continual, silent replay. It is not the best poem – but possibly the most important.

Taken as a literary anthology, however, Snapshots fails. It reads like a good idea, a first draft, the basis for a good anthology. The problem is that MacLeod has made a personal selection of poems collected through his working life. It is essentially a commonplace book made public. It is eclectic yet constrictive and repetitive; in many ways more an insight into MacLeod’s reading habits than a workable anthology.

Often the best anthologies are those undertaken by two or more editors, the life of the final selection arising out of the interplay of interests, the “horse-trading” and dismissals, the culling and late additions. Single editor anthologies can fall prey, as here, to the compiler overshadowing the poems. What works within the expectations and aims of the single anthologist may merely become a literary curate’s egg upon communal digestion.

 

Michael Grimshaw teaches in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Canterbury.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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