Boxing the compass, David Eggleton

How Things Are
Adrienne Jansen, Harry Ricketts, J C Sturm and Meg Campbell
Whitireia Publishing and Daphne Brasell Press, $21.95
ISBN 0 958351341

Damien Wilkins, Elizabeth Knox, Bill Manhire and Emily Perkins
Published by the authors, no price given, no ISBN

Direct from Wellington, the current centre par excellence of literary realpolitik, two slim volumes packed tight as Japanese lunchboxes. How Things Are is an assemblage of poems from a quartet of lyricists selected as an assignment by a student board of 21 trainee editors at Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua. The four poets have some connection with the Polytechnic. The other publication’s raison d’être is unknown to me. Entitled four, it consists of prose extracts from three fiction writers and one poet, all of whom are associated with Victoria University Press, but, printed and bound on a Xerox machine, this portfolio is not published by VUP. It came out in November 1995 and is at least another way of plugging product, with tasters of wares that have since been published in full. The success of VUP in selling books and in winning awards is linked to the acute judgments of Fergus Barrowman and Bill Manhire and all those in four are associated with the Victoria University writing course. (The “Manhire High School” roll-call is due to be honoured in March 1997 with a paperweight-heavy anthology from VUP of some 250-plus writing course graduates.)

You can file both “books” under the genre “serious literature”. With their subfusc camouflage colours — black on gray, khaki on olive green — no-one’s likely to lunge greedily towards these anorexic-looking volumes in the local quality bookmart. And since now most of the contents of both have been published elsewhere, they come with a history of readers. Books find their readers, readers find the books they need. What is a review but a species of comparative literature. After reading you compare, you contrast, you reflect for a moment, then you make a snap judgment.

How Things Are, then, is literary consensus politics in action. Each poem has been scrutinised 21 times before being included. As a corollary, no-one here treats words as expendable; they are to be treasured and savoured. You have to dig deep to find out how things are. On one level an heuristic text for tyro writers — do it like this — the book shows these four Whitireia Publishing representatives journeying inwards. They stage-manage and re-enact domestic histories, domestic monologues, showing us how it’s done. A personal writing regime is about realising potential. For all four, self-policing is a form of micro-politics, best expressed as poems which are a form of social contract: authorised disclosures centred on recognised literary topics but expressed with an obliqueness which can only partly be decoded.

Many poems are addresses to named individuals and require contexts. Degrees of access for the reader are determined by how well we know the participants. Sometimes the badinage slips past us. These four poets exist in a milieu of writers and writing. Writing is the family business. Sturm and Campbell, both married to poets, have poems about the fallout from the literary life — the inky details the tabloids like — but here overwritten, disguised.

J C Sturm is the exponent of one kind of Kiwi classic vernacular: those straightforward, everyday utterances which conceal/ reveal so much emotion, as in the final lines of her poem to her deceased husband, the poet James K Baxter “How goes it with you?” (“Wintering — for Jim”). The sonic reverberations I hear here remind me of widow Caitlin Thomas’s memoir of Dylan Thomas: “Leftover Life to Kill”. Sturm’s poems are memoranda — wry, sardonic — to her daughter, son, grandchildren, friends, her husband’s biographer. Stacking up details wisely, she writes almost as an intimate of death, using words like coffin-nails: each phrase a piece of galvanised metal hammered home into the lid of a plain pine box. Like Meg Campbell’s, her poems to family are genetic messages informed by Maoritanga.

Campbell’s poems incline towards macabre imagery: “the scold’s bridle against my tongue”. In “Phantom” paranoia flickers in the form of a weta. Some poems have the air of a religious revival meeting. In “Not on a Hill” the Crucifixion is re-enacted as laundry-day blues; in “The Reverend Ashma Brassend” wobbly syntax mirrors the hiccoughing hysteria of a bowdlerised Victorian life. There’s a moroseness here, a mood she shares with others in this book. Her best poems are compressed essays in self-knowledge. She is honest enough to acknowledge personality quirks and skilful enough to present them as examples of comic self-deprecation.

Adrienne Jansen’s poems are well-turned shapely miniatures, often able to make a few brain molecules dance. They are poems about a kind of extended family of relations, friends and vulnerable young migrants. They use gender politics; some have a bone to pick. They are also poems of sensations, relishing pleasure. “Harmonica”, a melancholy lament which turns on the axis of its last word, captures her lyrical essence:

“I’d rather spend
the night on a beach
stringing ribbons of tunes
on the salty wind
while you stare at the fire
grit in your eyes

Harry Ricketts brings out into the sunlight the lumber stored in the attic of his mind. He’s British and his blurb tells us he lived in a lot of colonial countries as a kid. Looking at New Zealand with the eyes of an émigré — he arrived in 1981 — he clocks both the psychological distance between people here and the paradoxical sense of closeness in a lonely land. He skims the suffocating homogeneity and subscribes to the shibboleths without being wholly of them. In short he has experienced the dregs of empire. There’s a vague lassitude here, more than a hint of entropy. He notes British imperialism come to rest as Wellington’s empiricism, and observes with ennui, with Weltschmerz, the new dominant pop culture as so much New Age cargo cult flotsam and jetsam: “the BNZ building / as black as Darth Vader’s hangar / But really it’s all so tawdry” (“Wellington”). Various cultural hegemonies cancel one another out until everyone’s “a social leper” or no-one is.

His poem “Prep School Days” is a sub-Betjemanesque calendar, an emotionally-numb Larkinesque lark. That frozen emotion has been analysed by a whole regiment of English ex-public school types of his generation: Blake Morrison, Robert McCrum, Sean French, William Boyd. Revisiting his childhood, he’s the poet as psychic neurosurgeon, healing himself with his painfully-acquired personal mantras. He authentically conveys the felt details of a lived life, the long mulled-over aftermath of his world-wide rites of passage.

If How Things Are is bare remembrances, flat realism, therapy, community art, four ’s problem is preening self-conscious cleverness. The advertorial format turns it into a showcase for thoroughbreds: the dream team flexes its word power. The Nabokovian ardour, the glamour at first blush does make the other group seem like the glum-chums. It takes patience to dig those others out of their burrows of introspection, to discern their word-hoards, their worlds. However, the VUP frontrunners will not be denied: books exist in a matrix of possibilities and expectations. Here’s proof-positive that all four are busy deconstructing the process of national self-invention: the myth of nationhood is not undermined so much as shown to be full of holes: a net to be thrown around the globe. All four (forerunners?) are geographically adventurous: they get out of the house and go overseas.

Chapter 1 of Damien Wilkins’s Little Masters finds his protagonist about to peregrinate off to Europe. The careful, almost pedantic, way this author’s sentences advance in The Miserables has been replaced here by a greater sense of risk, a splashier kind of fictioneering. Thanks to the publication overlap, we now know that in Little Masters Wilkins has written a behemoth, created against the grain a brick-like emblem of cultural giganticism. Epics on this gargantuan order are rare in this lilliputian country, though not unknown. Wilkins’s sentences are chiselled-out, not written on automatic pilot, but sometimes they’re fussier than they ought to be, creating a dense, inspissated, prose style that slows you down but makes you consider every word, weigh its moral heft, ponder its etymology. He has considerable powers of observation, which can lead to a claustrophobic dwelling on of minute particulars.

Wilkins is obviously an omnivorous reader, a devourer of influences. His style rolls over other authors like a tank. He is a moral comedian, a reincarnation of Evelyn Waugh in the Antipodes; also a user of Saul Bellow’s rhetorical cut and thrust, and of the wicked fun of William Gaddis. He has learnt from the human behaviourist V S Pritchett. One set of sentences is driven by a punchy set of adverbs that reminds one instantly of Martin Amis: “weakly … tearfully … crushingly.” The misanthropy of a Thomas Bernhard co-exists with the egalitarian tolerance of, say, an Owen Marshall.

Like other big novels by males right now — Richard Ford’s Independence Day, Martin Amis’s The InformationLittle Masters (as its title tells us) is about fathers and sons. Here’s dad stuck with the kid while liberated mum takes a raincheck.

This is the novel as a road movie starring the ennucleated family. Now that the business of parenthood is expressed in therapy-speak, everybody’s having problems coming to terms with the father-figure role. Written from dad Adrian’s point of view about son Daniel (Adrian, Daniel: the names are almost homophones — both are locked in their own micro-narratives which circle round on one another), Chapter 1 paraphrases Tolstoy: all families are odd constructs but each family is odd in its own way. Son, mother, father, grandparent, biblical links between generations: Adrian’s is a family of such gooey sentiment — witness the sticky cakes they force on one another — and the nitpicking style of his mother makes you want to scream that they resemble a kiwi gothic version of TV’s The Brady Bunch.

This insight cues in another. Wilkins loves telling stories and the human pyramids the novelist can create. His creatures are fashioned like golems out of live clay. When he sends his characters round in the gravitron — a fairground ride at the trades fair — and they are distorted by gravity, by G-forces — temporarily reshaped into cartoons — he is signalling the godlike power he has over his creations. Here we see him operating as a satirist, albeit a slightly apologetic one. Meanwhile the running (or crawling) motif of skin, of touching, of the dislike of being touched, points to how all the time, despite the busy foreground, all his characters are poised at the edge of an abyss, the crevasse of non-being. Described as “hollow”, they are sculptured out of absences, their physical need to touch symptomatic of their solipsistic status as entities whose logical, though grotesque, behaviour makes them too obviously automatons, creatures of their author’s will.

Elizabeth Knox has the gift of the novelist’s fascination with the personal anomaly that turns the generic into the specific. She has an ability to sniff out the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour, though sometimes, perhaps in spite of herself, she uses this ability to mystify rather than demystify. Her exacting prose style, with its precisely-skewed descriptions, presents just the right kind of detail to convey a sense of the larger picture.

In Glamour and the Sea the sourness of her prose style gradually ripens into something rich and strange. In four the excerpted chapter — or core sample — “Sail”, is told partly through able seaman Ray and partly as a compendium of nautical information. It eulogises the days of shipping before the arrival of container-ships. For Knox the past is an adventure playground: you can order things differently there, you can anticipate the future. In the novel she shows a pretty nifty ability to give plot some switchback momentum. It segues artfully from section to section like a series of sliding doors opening onto secret compartments.

“Sail”, a marriage of the matter-of-fact and the elegiac, is really about young men in the springtime of their lives: tumescence in pursuit of nubile womanhood. Knox has her salty sea-dogs — three jolly jack tars escorted by a grizzled shellback — visiting a Canadian bordello. In the rest of the book this leads swiftly, like a knight’s move in chess, to the subjects of surrogate fatherhood, a patriarch cut down to size and a rationalisation of gender relations as a partnership of equals. Her writing stands revealed as a blend of the hip and the heartfelt. For her the sea represents the chaotic formlessness of the world from which experience salvages stories.

Wilkins’s story is similarly twisty, playing around with framing devices, bravura techniques of cinematic jumpcuts and brash juxtapositions. The shuffled-deck-of-cards manner of story-telling is something all three of these VUP prose writers share like a nervous tic, a mannerism.

Emily Perkins’s uncollected short story “Can’t Beat It” — about two New Zealand women visiting the United States — is told with the timing of a stand-up comic. In presenting her manic characters she writes from the inside out, like a clued-up psychiatric nurse with a literary bent. Her wayward wish-fufilment prose makes fun of its own depleted expletives: the ingrown New Zealander throws off her provincialism and becomes a world citizen, networking the semantic fictions of cross-cultural discourse for all they’re worth. Describing a Jack Kerouac lookalike contest she shows true trash aesthetic knowhow. Her story works itself out like a video samizdat, displaying an authentic camcorder graininess. Here, Perkins is at one with Jean Baudrillard who wrote: “No historical event can resist its planetary diffusion. No meaning can resist its acceleration.”

In his product sample “Hoosh” — a poem from the collection My Sunshine — Bill Manhire brings conviction and humour to his task of writing the text, telling the tale, singing the song. For Manhire a poem is an action vehicle — a performance arena — for a cut-up collage of rare words, rare information, rare air. In “Hoosh” breath has condensed into a poem. This is the poet as landscape designer. Where other poets have been content to work the country’s more lyrical toponyms into their poetry, Manhire has gone offshore and discovered the names of soaring volumes of frozen water with enigma at their heart. Manhire has turned to Antarctica for cultural excavation like some psychic cartographer of the ends of the earth.

Manhire’s activities as anthologist present the possibility that he’s a completist, a maker of mandalas. Of the eight writers it is surely he who best navigates the points of the literary compass, who doodles most creatively on the margins of the master narrative which, for simplicity’s sake, we can call “the New Zealand story”.

The austere minimalist environment of Antarctica lends itself to his needs. “Hoosh” sprawls with evocative details, though its pristine clarity is occasionally made grubby by the dust of libraries and it groans a bit under the accumulated weight of its learning. But mostly his lines chime against one another like icicles in a thaw. For Manhire happiness — a byproduct of his absorption in his architectonic task — like Montherlant said, writes white on the page. This continent, “doubling its size in winter”, serves up optical whiteness with everything.

Manhire, puzzling a fractured epic out of a global metonym for instability (“the greenhouse effect”), is himself a kind of armchair Hillary, planting his tiny flag (or possibly a Neil Dawson-type giant quill) by proxy at the pinnacle of the pole and claiming the area as a postmodern theme park for art and literature, slightly ahead of everybody else.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin writer. His Empty Orchestra was reviewed in New Zealand Books in March. 

Editor’s note: Emily Perkins’ Not Her Real Name and Other Stories is reviewed in the next article. Damien Wilkins’ Little Masters will be reviewed in the October issue. Bill Manhire’s My Sunshine was reviewed in June.

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