First and Last Songs
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 869401220
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 869401220
The notes at the back refer to quotations from Robert Burns’ Poems and Songs, and on the cover there is a score on a music stand included in the school‑of‑Glasgow oil painting, but Alan Riach’s First and Last Songs is, despite the title, less about songs than it is about stories. The poet doesn’t so much sing as talk. And he’s often funny in an understated way. The comedy emerges from his exact description and the tactful self‑deprecation. His writing has a subtle, conversational rhythm. He takes pleasure in ordinariness, but you are given to understand that it is grounded in a formidable education.
The pressure of so much unstated explication, of which the notes at the back are a symptom, gives the impression that this is a writer for whom poetry is a spin‑off activity. He does his central work elsewhere, as critic and editor. Yet the impulse to explain himself persists and poems which seem to begin as notations are soon tidied, justified and filed as self ‑referential, self‑enclosed writings. That they can be classed poems sometimes seem purely incidental, as in the prose memoir of his grandmother’s death, “Common Language”. This is a piece of writing worth having, with its strong sense of place and its plain‑spoken humanity. The honesty of purpose here challenges some of the other texts in this collection where, it seems to me, intertextuality has become a licence for wholesale use of chunks of other people’s writing.
Echoes and allusions to other texts are OK, but “The Final Word on Vegetarians” (someone else’s anecdote quoted verbatim), “Material of Dream” (reworking a piece by Caribbean novelist Wilson Harris) and the “transcriptions” from the poetry of César Vallejo, like the various epigraphs and inscriptions from a number of minor writers, seem not to offer deferred meanings but a kind of casual appropriation in the name of textual indeterminacy. This manoeuvre denies aesthetic bliss, denies words their authorial authenticity within their pre‑existing historical situation and anticipates and negates the reader’s involvement by providing the equivalent of ready‑made junk: someone else’s words, taken out of context, drained of the original authorial intent and pumped full of the sterile embalming fluid of theoretical discourse. It’s a pity that such a strategy (“Difficult Matter” as one section heading calls it) skews the rest of the book. First, last and always there are songs, but songs aren’t sterile, they’re organic.
Part of what Alan Riach is trying to do is to show how everything’s literature in the end as at the beginning. When his grandmother dies she is placed “lying in her coffin in front of the big bookcase”. “The big bookcase … had secret compartments. As a small child one might almost literally have climbed into it.” Later he describes how “when I was a young boy … (bookcases in his grandparents’ building) … had hidden panels, secret doors”. At his grandmother’s funeral service he reads the poem that he read at his grandfather’s burial 10 years before, which his grandfather had requested with almost his dying breath. It was “The Better Land” (included in First and Last Songs), taken from “a gilt‑engraved, leather‑bound, heavily embossed volume of Mrs Hemans, a popular Victorian sentimentalist”.
Literature, like life, is a matter of continuation. After the funeral Riach leaves Scotland and returns to Waikato University where he’s an English lecturer. New Zealand for the Brits is inevitably a source of pastorale. In poems like “Urlar”, “listening to the bagpipes”, he celebrates the lush countryside of the Waikato (“the bush falls / over itself down on the walls of the garden”) but even here he can’t help thinking back to his grandfather’s collection of “relatively worthless books” and of “blue mould on spines of books” ‑ another form of growth. First and Last Songs is itself in a sense a book made out of accretions of literature ‑ minor and neglected authors.
Alan Riach, who was born and grew up in Scotland, came out to New Zealand to do post‑doctoral studies in the mid-1980s and he now has an international reputation as a scholar for his work on the poetry of Scottish nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid. First and Last Songs, his third collection following on from This Folding Map (1990) and An Open Return (1991) deals like the others with the process of toing and froing, the everyday business of dropping out of the sky in another part of the world. Riach, as he points out, is from “a small recalcitrant country”. Glaswegians, with their Celtic heritage, combine truculence with humour. The artist responsible for the cover painting is the poet’s uncle, John Dunningham, whose idiosyncratic behaviour is the source of a quirky story in the poem “A Short Introduction to My Uncle John”.
Glaswegian chiaroscuro ‑ variations on gloom ‑ is remembered in poems such as “Nocturne”. The contrast with the clear light of the Pacific is implicit here and explicit in the Coromandel poem “Sleepers Awake”, where the poet gives to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. In the American and Australian travel poems, registering the giganticism, the space, the colours ‑ all binary oppositions for his homeland ‑ his sense of enchantment, discernible beneath the rationalising and qualifying, contains a hint of his fascination with the insubstantial, with things not quite seen but affirmed by, others in a way that could be said to have links with the doctrinal hermeneutics of literary studies. “The Otter” is about a creature he didn’t quite see and “Carnivorous Pick‑Up LA” is flatly literal, about a hawk snatching “a wee mouse … hardly/ anyone had seen.” We are invited to remember that Janet Frame compared language itself to a hawk.
There are some genuinely comic poems in a wry mode here: the uxorious “A Poem About Four Feet” and “Late Spring: Morning”, which is absurdly resolute, post‑hangover. The poem which best sums up the book for me, though, is “The Finger”, which is a lament for the passing of an old Glasgow pub, “The Rubaiyat”:
The mirrors in the bar were bevelled, pictures carved in silver
on them, verses from the sequence, masterworks of some
forgotten period, memorable as Fitzgerald, just as outmoded,
inauthentic (of course) …
Quotes within quotes, then. Edward Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam” is used as a signpost within the story of the poem. Perhaps here Riach clinches his point about texts feeding off other texts, literature disappearing into Literature. “The Moving Finger writes and having writ/ Moves on.”
Divided into ‑ or composed out of ‑ four sections which form a heterogenous mass of overlapping imagery, Photographs is a book of poems depicting an urgent search for Pacific unities ‑ “the apt connectedness of things” ‑ which the artist makes or finds, reducing to essences (tapa cloth mandalas) the chaos of the everyday world. The artist by definition is always a control freak. Albert Wendt’s philosophical quest takes him round the world, but it’s a world of selective experiences, of prearranged signification: Maori place‑names resonate; then a metaphysical epic based on the ancient legends of Samoa; then a visit to the cradle of Chinese civilisation; then through the migratory doors opened by the American annexation of part of Samoa to Washington’s Vietnam War Memorial, then photographs as a family shrine, confirming “inside us the dead”.
With its dominant earth tones (“Everything is earth moulded in Ruaumoko’s belly”) and conceptual maps (“the mountains of Ta’u … hum like Maui’s endlessly evolving mind”) and totemic animism (“sky stone river creeper bird tree dew lizard ant beetle: All their languages I trapped”) one danger this book risks is sentimentalising a vanished world, the glamourised simulacrum of the Edenic myths popularised by Gauguin, misrepresented by Margaret Mead and exploded by Levi Strauss. (The French via J J Rousseau’s romanticism have a special interest in exploiting the myth of the tropical idyll leading to the angry denials of indigenous poets and writers like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon.)
Wendt, in common with other Polynesian artists, is alert to the glossy idealisation of Oceania. Just as the opening shot of the movie Once Were Warriors has the camera panning from the billboard cliché of a paradisiacal New Zealand / Aotearoa to the polluted motorway reality of industrial south Auckland, so Wendt’s noirish novel Black Rainbow tackles conspiracy theories and Polynesian paranoia ‑ cultural schizophrenia ‑ through the presentation of a futuristic, corporatised New Zealand. A major section of Wendt’s other recent novel, Ola, is a direct assault on the effects of New Zealand’s colonial legacy on the Maori and, by historical extension, on the Samoan: the politics of dispossession, as third-world analyst Edward W Said phrases it.
More appositely, the centrepiece of Photographs, a long excerpt from “a novel in verse” entitled “The Adventures of Vela”, ventures back to a kind of dreamtime, a mythological space, to create a twist on the theme of “paradise lost”, with the Miltonic (metaphysical) as well as science fiction (video-village superheroes) and postmodern (relative autonomy of different cultural traditions acknowledged) parallels made plain.
With its lurid, not to say eroticised, comic strip panels or stanzas, Wendt here is a Picasso‑like shape‑shifter, his protean imagery as savagely metamorphic as anything in Ovid. But what begins magnificently with “a divining bowl of seawater / in my decaying skull … in it I read the tides of my life” soon begins to clot and clog with obscure numerology and prosaic prosody that clashes with the tribal drumbeat of the verse. The unresolved tensions in the technique eventually cause the poem to grind to a halt like an incomplete masterpiece with a flaw running through it.
Other poems, such as “A Sequence” more exquisitely orchestrate their mixture of scorn and poignancy, their lyrical tenderness and savage laughter in the dark ‑ their sense of rage: “you want to kill them with obsidian knives / that cut raggedly and slow / and feed their blood to the morning tide” leads to “Friday’s children turned / their guns on Crusoe’s Empire”.
Wendt has a knack for the satirical trope, nor is he squeamish, as both his earlier collections Shaman of Visions (1984) and Inside us the Dead (1976), reveal, about skewering the vices and vanities of friends and acquaintances, as in “Raiwaqa, Suva”:
Nail antiburglar wire
on all your windows,
get a good watchdog,
a dainty cocktail wife advises.
Eunuch or with balls? I ask
The matchbox sketches of the early poems reveal a gift for perverse comedy that can also be found in his short stories, such as “A Talent” or “I Will Be Our Saviour from the Bad Smell”. The cool intelligence is ever‑ready with a riposte for smug bumptiousness: “the faa samoa is perfect they sd … give me some more alofa on the rocks (i sd) “.
In Photographs the pen portraits are still there, like offcuts from a novelist’s workbench formed into miniatures, but there’s less mocking gaiety, more of an eloquent sombreness:
In the Vaipe your arthritic father wakes
each dawn to the Mulivai Cathedral bell
and can barely wade through the rooms of his life …
one day soon over the phone
the small words will choose you return
to the Vaipe and help bury
a man who weighs what he was at birth
Wendt, a curator of living Samoan culture, unwraps images like banana leaves from food parcels lifted out of a still‑smoking umu. The poems in Photographs are in a way redemption songs for things Polynesian. The language tonalities are hybrid, combining the flat intonation, the stripped down, no‑nonsense tone of the New Zealand pioneers, with the lyrical flights of someone saturated in the cadences of the King James Bible and the harmonies of the great island church choirs. Like Tuwhare and Baxter, both of whom are drawn or summoned into the greater narrative of the poems the way “the summer dawn nets stories / in the black waters of Whatuwhiwhi Bay”, Wendt’s voice is a communing voice, a communion voice.
His imagery almost seems to grow spontaneously, to be organic, to be capable of forming correspondences for everything: “the full moon/ wore a necklace of tabua”, “escaping stories / of rain”, “the tamarillo branches … / are wings”, “the wordless abyss”, “the dawn of small words”. For the most part this transcends the confessional hermetic mode to put across in a spiritual sense the freshness of things felt and seen. When the poet invokes the “carved tokotoko of whakapapa” we recognise a correspondence with his own litany of family names. We acknowledge his struggle to communicate, to order the polyphonic babble of the natural order, the way things flow into one another: “the dark turns all languages / into one shape of the tongue”.
He celebrates pantheism through language: “(we) watched the sun as it emptied out/ of the yolk of darkness every morning”. The constant use of ellipsis, the gaps, the white spaces between, keep suggesting other meanings, other patterns, things left out. Taking a tip from the title, these poems are composed of cropped images and the cumulative effect is that of photomontages: small stories built up as if into coral reefs. Or, the synergy of the snapshots forms Hockneyesque cubistic panorama: “we’ve bought a Korean camera that needs no instructing / and filled four fat albums with photographs”.
This last statement, too, sounds a note of Defoe‑like journalism (the popular mechanics of Robinson Crusoe), leading ineluctably to Michel Foucault and Umberto Eco ‑ those arch over‑explainers ‑ named in the travelogue/ catalogue poem “Nightflight”. Wendt’s sixties pantheon of heroes as listed in “God’s Road for the Middle‑Aged” (Shaman of Visions) included “Mao … locked up in the Great Wall” and so he journeys to China where “the Wall is / all other walls / … and their discourses”. Here we hear the flabby wheezing of rhetoric telling rather than showing ‑ the language slows and threatens to stop. It doesn’t, though, because “Nightflight” is finally a tour de force, its journalism woven into poetry out of a mass of self‑correcting details. With Mao and his Chinese multitudes, their “passionate calligraphy”, Wendt does for a moment “unlock (the) tomb”. He confirms his purpose in the last section of the book with his remembrance of things past in his aunt’s gallery of family talismans.
Taken together, fractured and anomalous as they sometimes are, these poems show one man weaving the threads of his life together. These woven fragments, like the “Hotere Wall of Moruroa sunrises and sunsets? of Black Rainbows and the Fourteen Stations / of Death” ceremonially celebrate the Pacific through art. “Every beach (is) a page to be written on” is perhaps the nearest Wendt’s holism gets to a cosmological constant before “darkness … like a gigantic stingray glide(s) in from the sea/ over the beach and slowly covers the spit”.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and writer.