Viking, 1992, $39.95
Rem tene, verba sequentur – I have it, like an archivist, on a filched catalogue card. For the novel: ‘Grasp the subject and the words will follow’. For the poem, the reverse: Verba tene, res sequentur: ‘Grasp the words and the subject will follow’. Should Umberto Eco, that labyrinthine librarian, or anyone know? The Name of the rose exits with an eaten manuscript and a mocking laugh. But this is not going to be as simple as Eco. What if the novel is a biography whose subject is a poet, and the biographer is attempting an assault (call it deconstruction) on an official, sanitised version for which he himself is being interviewed? Jack Skeat (poet manqué writing the unexpurgated story of Rex Petley (poet célèbre) has the inside running, but also a tendency to write himself into the perceived fissures of form.
Does Rex Petley, the considerably evasive hero-poet (a subject in itself: the choice between writing good poetry and being a good man: few poets seem to consider both possible) begin with verba (or verbum?) Or with things (family, locale – Loomis, with its loony sound) fenced off? Does he return to them via being a hospital porter and laying out the dead, helping a young girl, later his second wife, with sums? Does he rise to action like a trout, to fix a leak with a wooden spoon, then adapt this nightly task, via a dark coat (cloak) to murder? And when he drowns does he care nothing about craft, as he may have all along?
And since we, Jack Skeat, boyhood fringe-filler, camp-bed space supplier and circumlittoral modernist biographer, and Gee himself, being a Rem tene man, can’t know, don’t we have to leave it? Isn’t this more modest than excluding authorial positioning altogether and going for the jugular like those biographers of Lowell and Berryman and Larkin (though he is so awful he needs gentleness)? If you can’t know, why make a fuss? Circle and land and come at not one rem but several, not one mind but a selection, all in their individual torments, like Jack Skeat’s mother whom a stroke transforms from fear of poisoners to a girlish affection. What you, or the character that represents your curiosity, can’t see, can’t know, is important to a novel. The rem has its blindspots: even Jack Skeat has to admit the official biographer, the inaptly named Elf (a Frame trace?) sees things he, Skeat, doesn’t. The thing is the Elf can’t know nearly as much of the talk between poems that Lowell recommended and which ultimately dissipates leaving the poem to stand or fall to strangers. Harry (Jack’s fiancée) unimpressed by Rex, ‘kind of sudden’, is the giver of one image: a spring bubbling through sand that ‘feels like a fish under your foot. And when you get down close the sand is dancing.’ And Jack responds, registers, with his ‘dopey‑looking stillness, his facing out poet’s look.’
Gee does not attempt, as A S Byatt has done, yards, feet, stanzas or even a couplet of verse. Hence the need for some avoidance. Jack when he gives poetry away after one volume feels ‘it was like being told the lump is benign.’ Poets are at least as secretive as other writers, probably, more so, since they carry less baggage. Still this is something of a loss. We want to see not just Rex’s curling-over toenails (a secretive curl) and his jaw and ‘forrid’ resemblances to relatives but a line of Curnow/ Baxter/ Mason/ Fairburn pastiche. Poets might talk between their poems but sooner or later they must start writing. A few lines of the fascinating hospital series would have helped. Part of the function of poetry is to be remembered.
In fact Jack Skeat’s avoidance tactics amusingly resemble those poets who sabotage a group reading: there is always one, fanned by laughter or applause, who will go on and on. The dialogues of Jack in Olympic IB5 black biro and Warwick IB5 blue biro create not so much a flirtation with modern form as an unknowing portrait of the perpetrator.
For Jack is nothing if not a wily narrator, circling, skidding away, taking himself off, from parties or silences in conversation. It is the fast and striking things he observes: the rushing together of afternoon curtains, the rush of two young bodies towards buried barbed wire as they swim underwater, the modest Updike-like jump from the train that ends the life of his father. In all these Gee reveals his extreme skills at avoidance by verbs.
Auckland and Wellington are drawn like rival gunfighters. Wellington stimulates, ‘a real dry, not just a glorified main street,’ ‘a town for clean bones and moral certitudes.’ It makes one careful on slippery steps, ‘one in Ngaio, slimed by overhanging trees.’ Who hasn’t shared the elation of seeing it as you exit from the last tunnel? ‘Then out of the tunnel and Wellington burst like a bomb.’
For Rex it stimulates the creative juices. Freed from Loomis he becomes inventive, practical. Good secondhand clothes, a job that leads to his first published poems, delivered into the hands of Brasch. The wind and the steps and a particularly long coat create a murder. Gee’s way with wind is wonderful, scientific, like a filled-in weather forecast. ‘You bend into a southerly and fight back. The northerly comes behind your back and punches you.’ Wellington throbs like the trams with ‘the lovely throbbing underneath.’
But Auckland is loved. It is in the crater of Mt Eden that Jack turns to face west, which will do if his plans for euthanasia on Mt Dumpa (perfectly observed method and geography) prove impractical. ‘The Auckland isthmus drowning in mud, the mangroves, the west coast beaches lying in their bites of land.’ Jack and Rex learn Auckland on the Beezer, BSA motorbike, the Elf knows nothing about. On Muriwai beach Rex winds the Beezer up… If we’d hit a patch of soft sand the bike would have stood on its nose and somersaulted and we’d have bounced along the beach and crackled with the breaking of our bones.’
Harry, Jack’s wife, definitely an Aucklander, is one of the most interesting characters in Going West. Resistant to Jack, who contrives a bogus accident on some Wellington steps to secure an introduction to her flatmate, resistant to Rex (man and poems), even, one feels, to authorial directives. Firmly located in her Auckland she is both helpful (finding the bricks to stand on for their first coupling) and remote. She can as easily accomplish the fending‑off of Jack’s desire (giveaway Adam’s apple) as cramp his faltering memoir in his tiny windowless hole under the stairs’ where the slope of the ceiling pushes like a northerly. As she works with her collaborator, Jo Bellringer, on Weeds and Wild Flowers of New Zealand, one feels the gaze, the touch of tongue to lips, that might characterise the poet.
Swift action, circling to get a fix, a fix arriving, make up the novel. Verbs are Gee’s strong point. ‘His legs could not keep pace with his upper body, which leaned further forward as he ran until it lay parallel with the ground. Too late he dropped his bag and flung his arms to protect his face. The trolley was drawn up to meet the goods van. He tried to jerk his head out of line but the corner of the tray punched a geometrical hole in his frontal bone.’ In places like this Gee bears a strong resemblance to Rowena Jackson and her amazing fouettes.
And the fix that arrives is gliding, sinister. ‘On the far side, under the bank, they tangled in a barbed-wire fence washed down in winter floods and although Bert thrashed up several times Joy never surfaced at all.’
Least satisfying, flat-sounding is: ‘Jack Skeat’s recent entries are a confession then? He makes it dear that he took part in a murder. His role is not as minor as he’d like it to be. Written down, the memory frightens him. Is there a statute of limitations on murder? There’s no limiting the horror of the act. No limiting of responsibility.’ The moral policeman sits less easily, there is the danger of stating the obvious, the cliché.
Perhaps librarianship, Jack’s profession, is to blame. ‘The male librarian’, even the National Archivist, ‘seldom rouses much interest in a woman.’ And it is a profession that cuts and defines: ‘But taking up my Sears List of Subject Headings which cuts the cloth of life and knowledge into neat little strips, I passed into countries of impossible relevance.’
Sometimes the text seems to puzzle problems in cataloguing: ‘Love is a madness. If it isn’t then it isn’t love.’ or ‘I had my own things to do and did not particularly want him as a job; but a stance had been taken, an interest declared – so that shared boyhood came to seem – and both of us were in danger if we failed to carry on.’
Rex bounds up the steps to an Alice Rhymer party, his nose bleeds ‘into the chalice of his hands.’ It takes a house move and a prostatectomy, a sloth-like punch at the Elf, to begin Jack’s rehabilitation from twice-tied shoelaces, his ‘Land of Steady Habits.’ When Jack isn’t the rudimentary novel cataloguer his modesty makes him endearing.
Gee often shows you he knows what you are thinking. This must be Curnow? ‘Tight, hard, intricate.’ In the next sentence comes the word “Curnoid”. Was Ngaio Marsh in Wellington in this period? ‘…a woman I thought was Ngaio Marsh, but who turned out to be the next-door neighbour.’ ‘James K Baxter was not there’, in case you are, scenting something from the sugarworks. The literary party where the editor of a little magazine sits on one end of a bench and a man who has probably married the wrong woman, as revealed by his ‘flattened melancholy lower lip’ – could it be the flute playing? – sits on the other end piping, is all literary parties and one at the same time.
Later in the novel, Jack’s inadequacies as a narrator, lack of focus, nakedness, ‘Nakedness must be offered too’ is given a moral dimension. Jack and Alice and their failing marriage take over and Jack, arms at sides, shoelaces twice-tied, begins again: ‘A little of my story must find a place. I was entering the long middle portion of my life…’
In the closing chapters of Going West the layering becomes close-pressed. Verbs and allusions tumble upon discoveries: Jack’s father, Walter Skeat, was gay, considered himself one of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Harry’s collaborator, Jo, crashes her Deux Chevaux.
And Rex drowns while Jack and Harry are in Athens. It seems a case of ‘Take me if you’re ready. If not I’ll turn around and go home.’ There is the sinister Tod, who once trailed Jack and Rex’s canoes on Loomis creek, now come to put a proposition. Tod, wiped out by the stockmarket crash, has drowned his family and swum ashore.
Which returns us to Eco’s undefined rem: should the novel be simple or rich? One subject or many? How many deaths? Shouldn’t it all fade, given its beginnings, in a landscape-leaping, Jules and Jim, Wellington to Auckland to Loomis kind of haunting?
‘How will your gossamer dreams help to save the world?’ a woman asked Stephen Spender in Dallas. ‘How many movies have been made of your poems?’ enquired a man. Though we are not privileged to see them, there is obviously nothing gossamer (a well-picked insult) about Rex Petley’s poems. Jack almost writes a few of them for us: ‘Silence, except for the wind and the cicadas. Silence in me, a cold fog. Then advancing through it, almost subaural, a chatter not of voices, of events…’ Or he simply says: ‘I won’t say that I understood it, but I came into a state.’ And whenever Rex Petley appears, even in a mention, there is movie potential.
Elizabeth Smither is a poet and short story writer whose latest collection, Mr Fish and other stories, will be appearing shortly.