Seven Days on Mykonos
Auckland University Press, $19.95
To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from, says Seamus Heaney. But if you are a New Zealander, you also have to have a place to go to. Perspective, especially geographical perspective, has always been a feature of our self-definition. Think of Mansfield resurrecting her Wellington childhood from a distance of 12,000 miles. Think of the poets of the forties whose resolute here-ness was always nervously qualified by a resentful eye on the other side of the world. Expatriation was a seductive but dangerous act. Make sure, as Janet Frame did, that your return ticket is in your pocket.
Much of this pattern of escape and return was structured by the exigencies of technological patterns of behaviour that are now outmoded. Of course travel to Europe was a big thing when the journey by ship lasted six weeks, was arduous enough to rank with the Odyssey, and expensive enough to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A toll call to Britain cost, I remember from childhood, “a pound a minute”, an awful symmetry, as well as an unimaginable sum. Instant communication meant the telegram, a form where meaning and emotion were endlessly deferred and mediated by a particular kind of formulaic, staccato English. The world was enormous. To travel casually was practically as well as culturally impossible. And to contemplate travel at all necessarily involved facing the question all bright young things had to face – to stay or to go, defensive accommodation to nationalism or defensive expatriation.
How we have changed. Now a good proportion of any New Zealand short story anthology consists of challenging experiences in Provence, the Basque country, South America, postmodern reflections on Bavaria, close encounters in Cornwall. Travel as casual, random and common experience is the norm in our writing as it is (to a certain extent, for some of us) in our lives. And the literary establishment recognises and encourages this with fellowships in Menton, readings in Toronto and conferences in Adelaide. (Of flats in Bloomsbury nothing will be said.) To travel is no longer to engage in large questions of affiliation. It is, to the writer, simply copy, in much the same way as an affair or a nervous breakdown would be.
Anne French’s latest collection of poems, Seven Days on Mykonos, and especially the first section, “Postcards from Hamilton”, reflect this new ease with the world outside. The poems are exactly that, postcards, short uncontextualised communications from a traveller to the folks at home. They give a momentary, vignette kind of perspective on a place, a landscape, an encounter with a person, all with a slightly, but not emphatically, didactic bent. Travel may be casual and common, but it has a tutelary purpose. These encounters and epiphanies dramatise and make palpable the world that we know otherwise only at second hand. A down-and-out on a Washington park bench delineates the descent from safety to destitution:
They may smell you, unrolling your dirty
bed-covers, and talking to your pal across
the street (They probably do. I do);
But of seeing you they give absolutely
no sign. This is it. You’re inaudible
and invisible. You’ve arrived.
(“Falling, Washington style”)
Two taxi-drivers reveal, in the confessional-like intimacy of their cabs, a past that has little to do with Dupont Circle or Dulles:
Halfway down the freeway to the airport
I figure out he’s not Malaysian. Bare
woods in a litter of dead leaves
on either side; late winter and no snow
to show for it. ‘How long have you been
here? ‘ ‘Fifteen years.’ Does he speak
French, I want to know, but he, says
he’s too young for that. So when did he
I consult his taxi ID. Sokhon
E. Svay, born 1962. He was thirteen.
(“Two Washington taxi drivers”)
These are oral histories, testimonies of the intersection of the personal and the epic. French minimises formal, poetic intrusions into these accounts. The voice is left, stripped bare of any surrounding comment, although the implications the reader is asked to be aware of are obvious:
‘My wife’s sister, she
had a little trouble because of her
foreign relatives. ‘ ‘Trouble?’ I ask.
‘A little trouble.’ There is a silence.
Tiananmen Square is fifteen
months in the future.
(“Lunch in Hong Kong”)
French offers these moments as instances of insight and communication, while at the same time stressing their alien nature, as in the poem where a Czechoslovakian friend tries to describe eating oranges for the first time when he was eight:
Great sorrow and
trivial privations are equally
incommunicable to fools. You face
us across the gap, and try again.
(“European history lessons ‑ Czechoslovakia”)
Other poems similarly record rather than contextualise or moralise – photos rather than postcards – wondering at the detritus of another culture:
WINTERIZE YOUR CAR TODAY
Tim Horton’s Donuts. Wendy’s. Blue-
berry muffins, deep-dish apple pies,
Arctic char, popcorn at the movies.
(“Provincial: Postcards from Hamilton, 1983”)
French’s voice is unashamedly that of a visitor, amazed, delighted, shocked:
Paros has been arranged for the tourist.
Did you expect innocence? The very
landscape is aware of itself.
But often this naive eye is specifically a New Zealand one, and parallels, sometimes ironic, are drawn between the alien and the homely. At Goethe’s house she reflects:
In two hundred years’ time, just
imagine. We’ll have organised tours,
literary myths, souvenirs. Think of it –
the Frame house, the Curnow vicarage.
(“Guided Tour, Frankfurt am Main”)
In Monet’s garden, the lesson is a material one:
In my pocket is a piece of flint. I shall take it
to the other side of the world, to prove to myself
the past is older than gardens, trees, or battles.
(“In a spring garden, Giverny”)
To the tourist, home is always the more compelling reality:
That’s the Aegean down there, grey and heaving,
but it might just as well be the Hauraki Gulf
for all the notice we take of it. That evening
on Mykonos, we eat at the Garden of Dionysus
(souvlaki, skaros, choriatiki), admiring the waiters
and comparing at length, over a bottle of Paros Red,
the relative merits of Auckland and Wellington.
(“The ferry from Paros”)
How successful are these poems? As successful, perhaps as postcards are as communication, and for much the same reason. They are instances of awareness, of sudden understanding, whose form is such that they do not pretend to offer a general or more complex view. And the insights are deliberately and openly that of a tourist, not a player, someone who knows that despite everything, they don’t belong here. But only because they belong somewhere else.
There are two other sections in this collection. “The Anthropology of New Zealand Literature” contains pieces which are in many ways a return to the stance of French’s earlier collection, The Male as Evader. Two, “The New Age Evader” and “The former tree-feller seeks consolation in philosophy”, are a deliberate reworking of the stance and tone of those poems:
his best line is in boyish un-
assuming charm, which, with shy modesty
conceals a brilliant technique. Pin
him down? I’d like to see it done.
(“The New Age Evader”)
French’s time as writer in residence at Massey University has, perhaps, contributed to the rather jaundiced view of the academic, critical world that some of these poems display. “Bantamweight: academic v. poet”, for example, shows the poet discussing her craft with “Young Criticus”:
He adds helpfully: ‘Of course you don’t have to be clever
to be a poet.’ (I’m a bit slower to assent to this.)
“On Reading Kendrick Smithyman’s Selected Poems” gives a gloomily pessimistic view of reputation and posterity, in a sense a version of Auden’s “In Memory of W B Yeats”:
Years off, when I am famous
forgetting my contents pages in the right
order and you are buried, corduroy (or
the twenty-first century demotic e-
will tell posterity what you meant with all
the authority of a Stage Two essayist,
while the rest of us are powerless to gainsay
But it is the group of poems in the central section of the book, entitled “Stories from the Blue Chair”, that are the most powerful in this collection. They are what could be loosely called poems about “relationships”. Here French’s familiar tone – ironic, aloof, slightly mocking (but often self-mocking) is made more complicated by the seriousness with which she treats her subject and the strength of the language she employs. There is no clutter, no extraneous detail. She is writing for those who know what she is talking about only too well:
There is a lot I don’t need to mention:
The beginning, for instance, and the middle,
And most of the end go without saying.
Imagine it for yourself.
There is still the wry humour of the earlier poems:
The couple in a parked
car in a wet street at midnight, mouth
clamped to mouth, repeating not only
themselves but also everyone else (Monumental Folly a Speciality) ‑ well,
one of them was me, and recently.
And the technique she displayed in her 1990 collection, Cabin Fever, of using a metaphor to layer meaning in a mannered and deliberate way, is directly confronted. In “A piece of useful advice”, the suffering subject is comically incapable of expressing herself without recourse to imagery or allusion – blighted landscapes, pathetically supplicant flower arrangements, suggestively Freudian still life. She is told,
‘I prescribe complete rest from metaphor. It’s too
strong in your condition. Turn your face to the wall,
and let your heart feed on weak gruel and promises.’
What is obviously meant to be the set-piece of this section, “Stories from the blue chair” is a long sequence of spoken by two voices. It contains a good deal of strong, powerful writing – simple statements, little figurative language, a control of tone, an easy transition between the anecdotal and the general.
However, it is marred for me by its structural obscurity. I can’t work out, in a way that allows me to read the entire piece profitably, the identity or relationship of the two speakers. I can’t always be confident about which of the two is speaking some of the sections. French uses roman and italics, presumably to mark a change of voice, but she also uses speech marks, and their attribution is unclear. The narrative and biographical details, which should enhance and differentiate, instead seem to blur. Is this deliberate? The final section warns
There are no promises about your advice.
indeed there are no promises. Perhaps
there is no advice either.
But a fragmented and uncentered text must still communicate, even if just its own fragmentation. And this is not happening here. Some, very minor, adjustment or clarification is needed to allow the poem’s argument to emerge.
In contrast, “Advanced metaphysics” sets up a simple and clearly indicated narrative scenario ‑ the progress and demise of a relationship. There is no particular detail that personalises the experience. It is general, in an almost fatalistic way, and the use of the present tense throughout conveys the recurring, universal quality of what is thought and felt:
this is the progress of your disease:
aphasia, agnomia, athambia, apathia
The tone, as in the other poems in this section, builds on the voice that French employed in her earlier collections. It has the irony, self-mocking humour, and precision of language of the Evader poems, and the ease and literary playfulness of the Cabin Fever collection.
But there is more. There is a spareness and restraint that foregrounds the intellectual shape of each poem, the symmetry that French’s arguments work towards. Despite the messiness of her subject matter – the human heart and its deceptions – the basically descriptive, rueful, sometimes victim-like stance of her earlier treatments of the subject now seem to be giving way to a new confidence and authority:
It’s time to wake up,
to think not of you, beloved
absence, around whom the tree
has grown crooked,
but of the tree itself
so long neglected;
the ground from which
it draws strength,
its roots, its branchy
head buried in the air,
its dim imaginings.
Jane Stafford teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.