Lucky dip, Nelson Wattie

After Bathing at Baxter’s: Essays and Notebooks
Gregory O’Brien
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734182

Structurally, as the subtitle suggests, this is a mixed bag, but on most pages most readers will find a sentence or two, a paragraph, an image, a sudden, startling turn of phrase that can set ripples trembling through the mind. It is, in short, a stimulating read, but better treated as a lucky dip than as a continuous discourse. Sparks of unexpected insight, flashes of surprisingly juxtaposed information, some of it from unexpected sources, keep the reader alert. There is rarely a dull moment, though more often a banal one, and it is hard to say what it all adds up to.

There are 34 texts – 35, if you include O’Brien’s annotated bibliography of his own writings – but only two or three are recognisably essays. The remainder are presumably “notebooks”. In that sense, the bibliography continues the notebook mode, taking the prevailing sense of disconnection and fragmentation to its final extreme. There are literary notebooks, such as those of Coleridge, Flaubert, or Robert Musil, which stagger the mind into fruitful thought and present insights into a writer’s inchoate, pre-coherent, pre-creative mind. But such notebooks of value are extremely rare, and the genre is more likely to be chaotic than helpful.

2

Most readers would probably agree that the opening text, which gives the collection its name, is a true essay, though some may not. “Bathing at Baxter’s” is a typically clever and referential title. It is the name of a Jefferson Airplane album of 1968; the record cover is reproduced here – a fantasy aircraft flying over an urban wasteland and fluttering a banner bearing the title. This use of popular culture is typical of O’Brien’s approach. Furthermore, the aviation motif will occur again and again in this book, and the urban wasteland, the devastation wrought by people on their own cities, will be most poignant in the writer’s reflections on the disappearance of his Remuera childhood home and the radical changes to the surrounding suburb made in the few decades since then. The autobiographical element will also be prominent throughout, verging at times on an egocentricity that threatens to exclude the reader. All this may be said to give the book a kind of consistency – but it is rather a desperate attempt to do so, running against the grain of the writer’s mind.

For O’Brien’s local readers, the name Baxter will, of course, have quite different connotations, and these are the true subject-matter of the essay. Those clever attempts at interconnection seem imposed on the subject from some remote outside realm. To bathe at Baxter’s is to swim in the Whanganui, and that can be taken as an image for spiritual immersion in the poems of James K himself. After such immersion, what remains for poets to do? That is the question posed and pondered in this essay. After reading it, I understand better than I ever did before why the writers of O’Brien’s generation (he was born in 1961) distance themselves from Baxter and his friends, many of whose names are absent from this otherwise wide-ranging book.

It is a complex matter but, briefly, the younger writers seem to blame Baxter for failing to achieve the impossible. He set out to find pattern, structure, and organisation in the chaos of worldly experience, and where he could not find it he strove to impose it. For him, the poet’s task was to find and create structure in chaos. It is a “romantic” task and really, by definition, unattainable. The excitement for those who follow it is not in the attainment but in the bold struggle for it. Disappointed at seeing that he did not (could not) do what he set out to do, his successors seem to have given up on the struggle itself. O’Brien assures us that “particularly in the work of Bornholdt and Johnston, there is no searching for blueprints or master plans, just an acceptance that life is, essentially, as it is experienced – i.e. all over the place.” The acceptance of things being “all over the place” – in a state of chaos – is the clearest explanation for the fragmentary nature of O’Brien’s writing. But if that acceptance were complete, he would not try rather sadly to impose order on his book by flicking in repetitive images in order to make things seem connected. As it is, his manner seems better suited to the notebook than the essay.

3

The opening text, “Bathing at Baxter’s”, has the feel of an introduction, reinforced by lending its title to the book itself. Having read it, I was conscious of a large number of names and issues being mentioned and passed over, and I then expected the rest of the book to explore them in greater depth. It would be, I thought, a book about post-Baxter culture in New Zealand, a sensible and interesting project, and I settled down for a good read.

What I found was something less coherent, and my read was not “good” in the sense of a sustained movement along the sweep of a developing idea. Rather, it was a jerky, jolting ride across (rather than along) the roads that break up the landscape. The second text is on Ruth Dallas, not mentioned in the first any more than Baxter is in this. But O’Brien remains lively, rather than consequential, by amusingly juxtaposing a “strand of femaleness” to the stereotype of the “Southern Male”. The next piece, extremely fragmented, tells anecdotes of Janet Frame. Brief treatments of Mahy, Smithyman, and Eric McCormick follow.

Structure is suggested by the fact that a “conversation” with Dennis McEldowney acts as a transition to a series of autobiographical texts. This is the weak heart of the book. The conversation seems to be the musings of two deeply self-absorbed men only indirectly making contact with each other. Yet even when boredom threatens, O’Brien can enliven with one of those characteristic flashes that illuminate the neighbourhood momentarily, like lightning. “I was drawn to reading and writing poetry, initially, as an antidote to the rationalism and utilitarianism of journalism,” he tells us. This is the sort of moment that I would enjoy seeing expanded into extended argument. Poetry seen as an alternative to the conventional, socially embedded forms of daily discourse – why bother with it otherwise? And yet so much contemporary poetry pretends to be in the voice of the ordinary bloke talking as others do, as everyone does, and hovering, therefore, over the abyss of the commonplace rather than soaring – as Baxter unashamedly does – away from such everydayness. Rather than examine his insight, however, O’Brien goes back to parallel navel-gazing with his collocutor.

The fragments that follow assume that the reader will have a personal interest in the writer, which may or may not be the case. The “autobiographical essay” is an oxymoron since autobiography is basically narrative while an essay is basically ideational. O’Brien attempts to bridge the gap by using symbols – a vase, his father’s shaving kit, a destroyed family home etc  – to suggest a dimension beyond the personal.

A third group of texts is concerned with the visual arts. Like the first, it offers flashes of insight, often of a high degree of subtlety and suggestiveness, but no coherent vision. They culminate with a piece, which again might well be called an essay. It presents a relatively well-known argument, but one that deserves re-visiting, re-considering, and re-confirming. Victoria University’s sale of a major McCahon painting was scandalous. No-one has delved more deeply into the reasons for the shock it caused than O’Brien. No other text in the book makes it plainer that his view of the cultural world is indeed an alternative to the entrenched, commercialised thinking of local bureaucracy. There is even sad comedy in the gulf between O’Brien’s mind, now grown familiar through the book, and the minds of the university authorities. Baxter and McCahon are like pillars that stand to support the ideas of this book, and the essays that treat them are the pillars that should hold the book itself together. But how can pillars carry a series of gaps?

4

Even “After Bathing at Baxter’s”, essay though it may be, is astonishingly porous. It has 21 subheadings in its 29 pages, and nine more untitled section-breaks. At first encounter, I thought the refusal to make things cohere was a deliberate rhetorical strategy, calling on the reader to fill in the gaps. But, as it persisted, it seemed rather to reflect its author’s mindset. Basically, it looks like an absence of historical sense. Things are as they are and where they are – how they came be so is a question unasked. The uniqueness and autonomy of people, places, and things is indeed one of the aspects they present to us, but their background, their development, their whakapapa is another, and it is one that seems largely absent from these texts. That New Zealand poetry and painting go back far beyond Baxter and McCahon, that they have strands and traces into the 19th century and then further back in other places as well as other times, linking Baxter, for example, with Wordsworth, Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, is probably something O’Brien knows about, but there is no trace of it in the texts of this book. The “things” he considers have a powerful “thingness” but he seems to have little awareness of their journeys. O’Brien’s mind, like a lively, buzzing insect, moves from flower to flower, thrilling at colours, textures and subtle pollens but apparently blind to the existence of the stalks that hold them and link them to the soil or the leaves that nourish them.

Like an Imagist, O’Brien uses empathy as a substitute for structure. Chameleon-like, his thought changes colour to match, or partly match, the thoughts it is resting on. Exploring the intricacies of Smithyman’s Atua Wera, O’Brien’s geographical sympathies become northern, specifically of Hokianga and the Northern Wairoa River. When he enters into conversation with McEldowney, both men recall family associations with Taranaki. In speaking of Baxter, unsurprisingly, O’Brien finds himself at home on the Whanganui, with moments lived in Otago and Wellington. Or, sharing the writer’s impulse, we become for some pages denizens of Southland, isolated but all the more intensely engaged with our sharp-edged environment as we read of Dallas. Similarly, in the text on Smithyman, the world takes on a spiritual dimension, while in the McEldowney interview it is centred in the individual, a brittle mosaic of personally perceived social and geographical elements. What is lost in terms of a stabilising orientation from the writer is gained – swings and roundabouts – in the way we are taken snorkelling into the colourful, below-surface worlds of creative New Zealand minds.

For O’Brien’s virtue as a guide is the infectious enthusiasm he has for those he writes of. If he dislikes any writers or painters, I suppose he stays silent about them. But those he writes of he admires, and he makes one want to join in admiring them – like all good critics he sends us back to the works he is speaking of. Certain names recur again and again, in flashes, especially those of Rita Angus, Jenny Bornholdt, Nigel Brown, Philip Clairmont, Allen Curnow, Tony Fomison, Janet Frame, Dinah Hawken, Patrick Hayman, Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Dennis McEldowney, Kendrick Smithyman, C K Stead, Hone Tuwhare, Ian Wedde, and Toss Woollaston. To the extent that these points on the map can add up to a geography, that is the shape of O’Brien’s New Zealand. Each reader will readily make up a list of absentees. Music, be it noted, is represented mainly by the exotic, such as Jefferson Airplane and Thelonious Monk. Reader, dip as you may. This is a colourful world, but it is up to you to make sense of it.

 

Nelson Wattie is currently writing a biography of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.

 

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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