Jane Stafford: Who we are not like

(Writers and Readers Week)

It is an assumption behind the existence of New Zealand Books that culture is self‑contained and self‑defining. Consequently, the logic goes, a journal devoted to reviewing books produced here will be coherent and make sense.

This not a mere editorial quirk. It has long been an impulse of our particular post‑colonial condition that we define ourselves in terms of our separateness (from Britain mainly), who we are not like, and the ways in which we are unique. The organic indigenous metaphors of the early poets ‑ Curnow’s moa, Glover’s cabbage tree and kauri ‑ all pointed to a way of seeing culture as springing from the soil, like the dragon’s teeth sown by Jason. Curnow’s moa may have been an “interesting failure to adapt on islands”, reflecting the poem’s lack of confidence in the present, but the solid future, the literature and culture that was tentatively expected, was not some external import. It was the child, who “will learn the trick of standing upright here”, an image of newness produced by and of the country itself.

Writers of the 1930s and 1940s recognised there were other places and cultures, but saw them in terms of loss and distance. Curnow (in “House and Land”) described us as “a land of settlers with never a soul at home”; RAK Mason (in “Sonnet of Brotherhood”) used the image of “garrisons pent up in a little fort … here in this far‑pitched solitary hard-assaulted spot/ fixed at the friendless outer edge of space”. But there was also an affirmation that the future New Zealand voice will be of these islands, home grown and kiwi green:

Not I but another
Will make songs worth the bother:
The rimu or the Kauri he,
I’m but the cabbage tree
          Sings Harry to an old guitar.


Hostility to the outside is presumably a stage in the journey from colony to nation, province to centre. As Bill Manhire says in “Milky Wayx` Bar”, “I live at the edge of the universe like everybody else. Sometimes I think congratulations are in order”, suggesting that such anxious geographical positioning is now rather passé. Humour is always a good sign, ironic humour even better. Of course writers here have always read and been heavily influenced by the outside ‑ how could they not unless they were living in an imaginative vacuum? It was rather the fiction of how our literary culture came about that insisted on the fantasy of virginity if not pathogenesis. But it is probably significant that it wasn’t until the 1960s and early 1970s, when poets here not only acknowledged but celebrated their debt to American contemporaries, that we embraced a world context. It is significant because of the explicitly trans‑national and anti‑nationalist nature of the then prevailing counter‑culture.

Now a New Zealand novel is as likely to be set in Mexico or the south of France (rather a lot there, thanks to Mansfield’s garden shed) as they are in Taumarunui or Mosgiel. And our poets have embraced European and American theories of poetry and the poetry of theory with rather more speed than many of their readers are able to follow. Even Maori writing, which has more logical reasons to remain introspective, has found parallels and models in the writing of other post‑colonial and indigenous cultures. But there are still gaps in our awareness of what is going on in the literary world. We still tend to focus on British and American writers ‑ the first from reasons of imperial hangover, the second because of the way in which American culture is becoming globally dominant. Language is a problem and literature in translation an uneven and rather random exercise. There are enormous reputations, literary movements, genres even, that we have knowledge of or access to. Which is where writers and readers week (WRW) ‑ 13‑17 March at the International Festival of the Arts ‑ comes in.

There have always been stars at WRW ‑ David Lodge, Margaret Drabble, Angela Carter, Alice Walker, Doris Lessing ‑ writers with huge reputations and a loyal following who would be happy to hear their idol read from the telephone directory, just so long as they could get an impression of their dress style and a sense of their dominant facial tics. (I cheerfully include myself in this category.) But the more rewarding aspect and one with innumerable results for both readers and writers here are the less well known guests.

As I implied, to be unknown here is no indication of reputation on a world scale. Take, for instance, the German poet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger (assessed by Bill Sewell in this issue). He is a poet of considerable reputation in Germany and Europe as a whole, occupying a position that only European culture affords, that of an intellectual, a thinker and commentator on things other than the purely literary, with a strong sense of the writer’s obligation to society as a whole. Untainted by the fascist experience ‑ he was too young and, he says, his parents too snobbish to have anything to do with the Nazis ‑ he was a socialist but one suspicious of ideology.

His first collection (1957) was provocatively entitled the wolves defend themselves against the lambs. He spent a year in Cuba in 1968‑69, but disliked its repressive nature and was denounced by Castro as a CIA spy. His long poem The Sinking of the Titanic which came out soon after was a response to these experiences. Despite his erudition, Enzensberger is by no means an élitist writer. He has said: “For someone who writes books I lean very heavily on the commonplace experience”, a stance reflected in the title of one of his collections, Poems for People who don’t Read Poems. Enzensberger reminds us that Europe may be a place of civilisation and modernity, but that it has also seen in recent years a series of conflicts that problematise its essential fabric ‑ from Irish bombs to skinhead racist gangs to drug wars to Yugoslavia. In his recent book of essays, Civil War, he discusses the notion of “molecular civil war” ‑ continuous, small scale, brutal and ideologically vacant. “War,” he writes, “once the simplest means of enrichment, has become bad business. Capitalism has realised that state‑regulated slaughter does not pay dividends.” Instead we have the post‑modern conflict ‑ meaningless and ephemeral, unconnected to the old power structures and thus unregulated by them, simply groups of young men with guns: “All the self‑proclaimed armies of liberation, people’s movements and fronts degenerate into marauding bands indistinguishable from their opponents.”

Enzensberger occupies a position ‑ as thinker and polemicist as well as poet ‑ with which we have no parallel in our society. In the case of the American poet Rita Dove, this role has been formalised. In 1993 Dove was appointed the United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, the youngest person ever to have held this position and the first African American. In 1994 the appointment was renewed. Rita Dove was born in 1952 in Akron, Ohio, studied English literature at Ohio and Tübingen in Germany and published her first collection of poetry in 1980. Thomas and Beulah (1987) won the Pulitzer Prize.

I had never heard of her and she is a great find. In explaining her view of poetry she quotes Stravinsky ‑ “One lives by memory, not by truth” ‑ and the past, defined in a very personal, familial way, is central to what she does, especially, as she points out, as the salient features of her own identity ‑ that she is black and female ‑ ensured that she wasn’t represented in the conventional historical record. But she is also conscious of the craft of writing. She notes Mallarmé’s response to his friend Dégas who enthused that he was full of ideas for poetry: “My dear Dégas, poems are not made out of ideas; they are made out of words.”

Thomas and Beulah is perhaps Dove’s best‑known work, telling the story of her grandparents, mediated through memory and family tradition, reflecting the way in which story-telling has a dynamic of its own. My favourite book, however, is Mother Love, where Dove takes the Demeter and Persephone myth, the only classical story to focus on the relationship between mother and daughter, and uses it as a way of exploring the subject:

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

Irish writers Colm Tóibín and Ciarán Carson come at a very precarious time, with the breaking of the ceasefire by the IRA. In an article about Tóibín, I came across a quote from a novel The Rose Tree by John Broderick ‑ “I thought it was over, like a fool. Nothing ever is in Ireland.” It seems very poignant now. Carson is a poet born (in 1948) and brought up in the Falls Road area of Belfast. He is bilingual and now works as the literature and traditional arts officer for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He sings and plays the flute as well as writing poems distinguished by their long lines and their detail, “poetry of the jumble sale and bomb site rather than the museum”, as in the poem “Dresden”:

He lifted down a biscuit tin and opened it.
It breathed an antique incense: things like pencils, snuff, tobacco.
His war medals. A broken rosary. And there the milkmaid’s creamy hand, the outstretched Pitcher of milk, all that survived…

The city and its semiotics ‑ the signs by which it can be “read” and understood ‑ are his concern. His poems are, he says, “not about the Troubles but they may be of them”.

They are, I suspect, unavoidable to an Irish writer. Colm Tóibín similarly writes personally and in a far more complex way than political propaganda works. But his country’s past and its politics are implicit in much that he writes. He has written two novels, The South and The Heather Blazing, but I especially like his travel writing. The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe is a series of accounts of encounters with Catholicism throughout Europe, juxtaposed with a ‑ to my mind ‑ rather strange and unresolved account of an episode of psychotherapy he underwent in Dublin. Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border was first published in 1987, pre-ceasefire. It is an account of Tóibín’s journey from Derry to south Armagh, witness not of conflict and action, but of desolation and sterility. Each village Tóibín walks through, each stretch of road, has witnessed countless murders, catholic and protestant, to a cause no one he speaks to can articulate and no one can abandon. This sounds grim, but Tóibín leavens it with an appropriately mordant sense of humour ‑ as in his account of extremely reluctant pilgrimage to Lough Derg, or his faux pas when a guest in a heavily protestant hotel on an evening when the television news is full of bombings:

I had said very little during the evening. I said nothing at all about the killings in Belfast. I felt a bit funny sitting there, contributing nothing. So when the talk came round to the soup made from beetroot I mentioned that it was called bortsch and was Polish.

“That’s right,” the landlady said. For one moment I had the attention of the entire company who smiled at me politely. Without an instant’s thought I added: “The Pope really likes it. He has someone in Rome who makes it for him.”

Everyone looked down. The room echoed with a deep silence. The landlady, the landlady’s husband, the man from Omagh and his wife, the man whose wife wasn’t well, paled at the remark. The Pope: I had mentioned the Pope. What sort of fool was I? I was about to apologise for mentioning the name of the Pope and go to bed forthwith, but that would clearly make things worse. The silence hung on, broken only by the landlady asking if anyone wanted more tea.

This inescapability from the Troubles in Irish writing perhaps has parallels in the relationship gay writers have to the subject of AIDS. Some, like Adam Mars‑Jones, have confronted the issue directly. WRW visitor Alan Hollinghurst has said that he deliberately set his first novel The Swimming Pool Library in 1983, “the last good summer”, just before AIDS became an issue in Britain. His latest novel, The Folding Star, he concedes, gains a desolation from that context, but he has said he is mistrustful of the mechanisms of fiction about illness and premature death, “be it little Nell or whoever”. His only character with AIDS dies in a car crash. The Swimming Pool Library was described by a reviewer as “the priapic progress of Hollinghurst’s aristocratic and endlessly available hero through the underworld of London’s bars and locker rooms”.

Hollinghurst at this time had a job with The Times Literary Supplement, and was thus indirectly working for Rupert Murdoch, who was horrified to learn he was keeping such a debauched imagination in employment. Hollinghurst has said: “I am aware that there might be a connection between being a constitutionally private person and writing these rather forward books about people’s sex lives.” But in The Folding Star the pure pleasures of sex are complicated by love: “I try to write about sexual feelings with as much seriousness and attention as I would use to describe any other subject… Our sexual and non-sexual selves coexist in life. It’s absurd that they should be cordoned off in literature.” It’s not written to be arousing, he says, and it’s certainly not arousing to write.

If WRW shows that we are becoming more aware of other literary cultures, it is strange that Australian writers always seem so little known here. Three will be at this year’s WRW: Ken Bolton and Cath Kenneally, both poets, and the novelist Kate Grenville. Bolton is perhaps the most challenging in terms of formal expectations. A critic has written “for those who appreciate the well‑made stanza, packed with cadences, sprayed over with bardic presence … Bolton’s poetry has always been a risky item.” Bolton writes poems where the process of writing, often random, unreflective and interrupted by the detritus of ordinary life, is more important than the final outcome ‑”poetry as a process, as a habit, as a problem, as a joke”, a stream of thinking rather than a stream of consciousness. This doesn’t mean he can’t be incidentally lyrical:

what’s the name of the feeling I have about you that says
you should be in a book and illustrating the easy life that comes

of never singing out loud but going round always singing in
your head and thinking there also?

But it does mean he is suspicious of “high art” definitions of poetry ‑ “anorexia poetica”. He has defined poetry as

the narrow road
the deep weird
where beer rhymes with bier
where everything is Kafka

Cath Kenneally has a similar eclectic range of subject matter and raw material, rather more accessible perhaps with its recounting of women’s experience:

we took our babies to Maslin’s in their basinettes
a surf baptism for longevity
under the cold Bass Strait water
we heard the world’s pulse

surely they’ll be desolation
when our blood‑tides
won’t respond,
moon‑wounds dry up.

Kate Grenville is best known for her bicentennial novel, Joan Makes History, where 12 women named Joan represent, as in Rita Dove’s poetry, the voice of the marginalised and unrepresented, “the view from the underside ‑ the sockwasher and helpmeet”. Grenville is aware the career of the woman writer observes similar constraints:

It’s all very well for greats like Henry James and Flaubert to pontificate about what writers must do, but their advice has nothing to do with her life. They all had housekeepers. I had a husband, two beautiful children, two goldfish, a cat and a million shiny cockroaches down in the kitchen. I’m quite sure Flaubert never had to fish Batman socks out of the goldfish tank.

Who else? Anne Fine is known mainly for her children’s novels ‑ the recent film Mrs Doubtfire was based on her alias Madame Doubtfire. But she has also written for adults ‑ In Cold Domain was described by a reviewer as “a sort of Gardeners’ World meets the Terminator”. Anne Stevenson, though a poet, is at WRW as biographer ‑ Bitter Fame: the life of Sylvia Plath appeared in 1989 to much acclaim but inevitably, given the subject, much contention. And Momoe von Reiche is a Western Samoan poet who writes about the clash of worlds and the west’s assimilation of Pacific culture.

Which leaves the stars. E Annie Proulx says that she was past 50 before she realised she had to become a novelist. The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize. Her characters have names like Quoyle, Punch, Partridge, Petal Bear, Billy Pretty and Nutbeam. She has been compared to Faulkner, Dreiser or Melville but in the New Zealand context an amalgam of Keri Hulme (whom she resembles in appearance) and Ronald Hugh Morrieson seems more apt.

And finally the jewel in the crown, Carol Shields, whom I have been reading for years, believing her to be my own secret, a writer speaking specifically to me, sharing her occasionally with appreciative friends, somewhat put out when The Stone Diaries made her famous. Born in Chicago, married to a Canadian and living in Canada and associated with that understated, ironic, morally rich literary culture, she is a writer to make you gasp with her mastery of the poetry of the everyday. The Republic of Love is one of the best novels ever written about love and family.

Jane Stafford teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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