Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86940 157 3
A cynical critic, if asked whether Atua Wera should be described as Kendrick Smithyman’s masterpiece and one of New Zealand’s major poems, might reply like the Frenchman who was asked whether Victor Hugo was France’s greatest poet: “Yes — unfortunately!”
But such a comment would betray the cynic. Smithyman always moved at his own pace and wouldn’t be pushed by cliques or fashion. His dedication to literature was enduring, fundamentally internationalist and humane. I first came across his work in the early days of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies when its only publication was a mimeographed newsletter. There was the formidable name of Tom Crawford and nearby a handful of fascinating poems on Scottish landscapes by a man with the keen and curious eye of a trained observer, sharpened by the foreignness of his situation, seeing the place as “others” might see it.
It is no disclosure of a confidence now, but praise of the man’s independence of mind, to quote a comment which he once made on a book of poems submitted for publication in the 1980s, for it has a universal relevance. The poet concerned hadn’t been in New Zealand long and the poems ranged in subject matter, particularly returning to another country in reference and feeling. Smithyman approved them and wrote: “…let’s not earnestly revive the old business about ‘the New Zealand writer’ and ‘the writer in New Zealand’.” The book in submission was mine, my first, and the debt of gratitude I owe Smithyman I’d like to repay a little by focusing on the cautionary word in his comment, “earnestly”.
He was, I think, wary of earnestness, in literary debate but also in general. The warning against humourlessness was well-judged when one thinks of the graceless and small-minded seriousness of so much that has come to be called “discourse”. And yet earnestness was also a quality to which he was often attracted; and he was characteristically balancing that tendency against generous humour, sympathetic curiosity and a commitment to the garrulous. If earnestness is in some measure characteristic of the epic poet — which, in Atua Wera, Smithyman is — it is also a quality he eschewed in public. Impatience is a different thing. When asked why he thought Auckland University was awarding him an honorary doctorate in 1986, his “wry, gruff” manner belied an essential modesty: “I suppose it’s services to literature or some such elegant phrase.”
At the time a journalist in the New Zealand Herald (27 September 1986) noted: “Interviewing Smithyman is far from easy… He chats in a continuing series of digression, one anecdote reminding him of another, one piece of history bringing to mind some geographical peculiarity.”
Iain Sharp once commented on the daunting number of books in Auckland University library of all sorts and from every discipline which carried Smithyman’s name on the issue card, as if so much curiosity had led to so much learning. Sharp’s judgment was that it hadn’t all been adequately transformed into poetry (Landfall 156, December 1985).
There’s some truth in this. Smithyman himself agreed in an interview (with MacDonald P Jackson, in In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers, eds Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams, Auckland University Press, 1992) that many of his earlier poems were obscure or “would you like another word for obscure. Just call it incompetent.”
I think the quirky syntax has its purpose. A thrawnness persists in its determined obliqueness. But it has made Smithyman a difficult writer to describe comprehensively. When asked if he had consciously tried to become more intelligible over the years he replied, simply: “Yes.” He hoped that his later work reflected an improvement in his competence (although he insisted that a lot of his poems were not obscure at all). It was a typically direct and subversively humble thing to say, for there remained little doubt that his hunger for fact and history continued to be insatiable. For decades, that hunger was leading to Atua Wera, behind and beyond his other published work.
The book is a sequence of 296 poems or fragments, building into a coherent vision centred on the figure of Papahurihia, or “Atua Wera”. But Papahurihia isn’t so much a focused biographical figure as the pervasive mystery who is present in one form or another throughout the work. He was a holy man, war leader and prophet, whose ancestors were visionaries and people of magical powers. In particular his father, Te Whareti, had the ability to cover great distances in a moment. He seems to have been born in the early years of the nineteenth century and died in 1875. According to Judith Binney’s article in the Dictionary of National Biography, Papahurihia first appears in the written records of Christian missionaries in the 1830s as the name of the god of a new faith and of the man who founded it.
By the end of the decade, Papahurihia had taken the name Te Atua Wera, the fiery god, and throughout the Bay of Islands and the Hokianga — the whole area Smithyman refers to as “North Auckland” (the book has a frontispiece map for reference) — he acquired a great following and “became a formidable leader and prophet”. In the 1840s he became Hone Heke’s war tohunga and was consulted after Heke’s famous assault on the flagstaff at Kororareka (Russell). In the 1850s he converted to christianity and was appointed a warden of police and an assessor by the government in 1861. He was described as “the most influential man” in the Hokianga in 1866. He was consulted by Maori throughout his life and as the wars were spreading in the 1860s he prophesied that they would end “in a kind of drawn game”.
It seems he never claimed to be able to raise the dead, only to speak with them, so Papahurihia is also a metaphor, a symbol for Smithyman of what poetry and history might do. If Atua Wera is a form of archaeology, it also holds forth a vision in its own right. The poem builds into an enormously humanising document, where characters, events, conflicts and concurrences, are seen as intrinsically valuable.
There is formality in Atua Wera, a regard and respect for propriety, politeness and order. The work begins: “They approached in slow and regular procession / one after the other, with their faces inclined / towards the ground…” The second poem observes that “Within even a few miles / customs may importantly differ.” And the last poem “296 Postscript” points out that “it’s a question of good manners”. Such observances of civility are important, for they offer a medium of exchange and feeling understanding. But Atua Wera is also the god that turned the world upside down (“16 Baba”), “a red god like fire … he turned the world, will turn our world / right over”. (“19”)
So matters of personal history, local identity and national authority are connected. “Ships had flags. / Mission stations had flags. / Some traders flew their colours … Flags held power. Masts were powerful. / Each settlement had a flag of its own” (“45 Flags”). The stage is set for a splendidly dramatic account:
Heke and his boys
from over in the Bay
Nene, Taonui, Mohi Tawhai,
Arama Karaka and
all of them
had sharpened blades, loaded
weapons… (“123 Riders”)
The verse can be sharp as a film, vernacular and racy, or it can be limpid, pondering, a scholar’s marginalia. Smithyman is like the fiery god, “not in any hurry / to burst into outright flame.”
Instead, he waited while the so-called loyals
a shot here, a shot there… (“126 Also going to war”)
And in the waiting, the vast accumulation of historical information expands knowledge and understanding. But there is more than one form of inquiry and material data is supplemented by a dimension of spiritual power. There are portraits of individuals (such as “159 Penetaui”). There are short stories told in a voice unmistakably New Zealand’s, such as “156 Crime of Passion”:
Te Hunga, Kaitoke’s daughter, knew
what it was there for.
a goodlooking young stud who lived
at Maning’s, he’d been into her.
Her dad wasn’t pleased about that.
He went across to Maning’s. He waited
till the young chap stepped out
to get water from the well.
used a tomahawk on him.
The young fellow wasn’t altogether
surprised, he knew he was on borrowed time,
but he hadn’t tried to clear out.
Te Hunga herself remained “certainly … not / downcast”:
You should have seen her
on the way up to Waima in the canoes.
She made sure everyone noticed her…
There are endless opportunities for digression and there is wit in the way Smithyman gets the human value from the past hitting through to the present: “who killed and scalped / Lieu Phillpotts @ Owhaeawae”. There are deeply fixed allusions to other New Zealand writers who have offered different ways of presenting history and mythologising the past. One recurring figure is F O Maning, whose classic account, Old New Zealand, is rigorously deconstructed by Smithyman’s contextualisation.
The transformative power of poetry and vision is implicitly celebrated in the figure of Papahurihia himself: “This man is a ventriloquist, and by throwing his voice induces the belief that … questions are answered by the god they invoke” (“213 Opinion 1868”). Papahurihia’s gravestone is said to have turned itself round overnight and when it was turned back it turned round again. “In those northern burial places / usually graves face east.” But “Papahurihia looks to the north” (“231 Grave”).
In “225 Lone Kauri”, we’re told: “Whatever happened, it happened.” Smithyman records all the stories, historical and apocryphal. He seeks his base in human truth, as well as factual evidence. He is much closer in this to Herodotus than to Thucydides, and in a New Zealand so totally surrendered to the mortmain of wiseacre literalism we have need of him.
In the last 100 poems or so a greater sense of the elegiac comes into play, moments of saying goodbye or of reaching out for touching. In “256 Sophia (2)”, Sophia Hinerangi sees “the ghost canoe riding Lake Tarawera”:
For the last time she looked at
the terraces, she said her goodbye
to the mountain.
That night the air was filled as
with fiery comets. It was hard to
But the poem begins by reminding us that there is “Something you breathe from the air”, something taken in like mother’s milk, remembered somehow. And it’s this sense of a common depth of understanding that finally gives the work its affirmation. As Smithyman wrote in his densely worded book about New Zealand poetry, A Way of Saying (1965), “The things of this world are informed by spirit” (p71). The history we have been into is part of the poet’s personal past. We might find that “official records” are obscure about what happened in the past but Smithyman’s own childhood is clearly recalled in “277 Taipo”: “Mum and Dad drove past in the Essex”:
… past where the brickyard
used to be and you were running and running
calling after them but they just didn’t
seem to hear.
In “284 Community (3)” he advises:
If you talk of the dead, be tactful.
The dead are emphatic presence.
They are there in visible ground of being,
they are there, caved in the hills.
And this recognition of spiritual community is what takes the poem into a final certainty of vision, determinedly compassionate and anti-apartheid. Smithyman knows “The Treaty was a fraud” and all the sanctimonious piety in the world won’t make up for the damnable dearth of feeling understanding if it isn’t there. That’s what keeps the surge flowing: “Questions, yes, not answers,” he says. The work comes towards its end with “295 Night Riding” which pictures car headlights catching “only / a moment some elderly Maori thoughtfully jogging / on a no account pony”. But this rider is a talismanic figure:
Whatever his business — perhaps at Whirinaki —
he isn’t bound to roads, he will cut across
country. His pony takes to water like a duck
by moonlight or in dark of the moon
and never seems to tire…
That Papahurihia “is dead a hundred and more years is / not relevant. Of course there are people who doubt or deny him, / some who do not.” He remains “a shifting shape in a fog … metaphor. And mystery.”
Looking over Smithyman’s work as a whole, it’s easy to see how Atua Wera alters the scale and significance of it, and makes of him at last an undeniably major figure. He has been very well served by his publisher. Auckland University Press have produced a fine book, beautifully set and presented, attractive enough to be read at a sitting, to which one will return. There is more than half a century of work in Smithyman’s plenum and critical comment has not been lacking.
There are individual poems I would want to keep with me: “Colville”, “An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia”, “Reading the Maps”, “Waitomo”, “395”, “Pasternak: The Making of a Poet” and others. But it’s unnecessary to itemise poems or even to describe the individual volumes. Atua Wera alters the shape of a career, making it great.
All the other works are now to be seen as complementary to it. Peter Simpson’s excellent introduction to Smithyman’s 1989 Selected Poems gives the outline of that career succinctly, with reference to biographical and national literary contexts. The interview with Jackson referred to above is full of relevant personal details and their impact. For example, Smithyman spent his early years in an “Old Persons’ Home” (of which his parents were the managers) and there, he said, “you became aware of death. You became aware of old age too and also the variety of people…” The values displayed even in such an unostentatious comment link those early experiences with this posthumous epic. Peter Simpson’s memorial note on Smithyman and Landfall (Landfall 191, Autumn 1996) gives details of the critical responses to his work published in that journal by Reginald Berry, Murray Edmond, Wystan Curnow, John Geraets and others.
In The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature (1991) Elizabeth Caffin wrote that Smithyman’s “central poetic persona observes and discovers facts, things, history, geography, geology. Personal relationships are almost absent and people are alienated from place”. This is largely true of many individual poems and separate volumes, but Atua Wera qualifies the judgment. For now we have the personal world in human landscapes and can begin to understand Smithyman’s work as a search to find a way beyond that alienation. It is still true that for Smithyman, “Puzzling / hits deeper” and that — as Caffin puts it — the “world beyond speech … draws and grips us and, for this poet of facts, is ultimately what poetry is about”. But Atua Wera not only depicts personal relationships, it also indicates how fully all Smithyman’s poetry has been concerned to exemplify what such relationships might be.
It is almost as if he foresaw the cheapening commercial-isation that was going to come, the commodification implicit in the term “Maori renaissance” — the marketing aspect of it — and wished to guard against it, to put up a palisade, in literature, history and above all in politics, to keep connections possible. Smithyman was trying to protect a quality of knowledge and experience of the past and of otherness that has more to do with love than money. The political implications of the aspiration of Atua Wera in a country so given to hypocrisy, corruption and cover-up as New Zealand has become, are immense.
No-one was more a New Zealander than Smithyman and no-one has more fully caught something in writing that is in actuality this country’s inhabited past. Based so soundly on years of immersion and historical and geographical study, controlled, structured if you will, so securely on innumerable questions (again and again in poem after poem in Atua Wera he asks Who? When? What happened? What did it cost in human value? Where? What can we make of it?) — the whole work is an enormous testament to the depth of conviction he carried.
The sequence was completed and accepted for publication before Smithyman’s death — but not long before and there is a sense that although it feels in some ways properly weighted, rounded in the right places, it isn’t fixed in form primarily by aesthetic command. A race against time has taken place here. That it was ended by the grim reaper (with final notes and manuscripts eidently provided and reviewed by Elizabeth Caffin) is itself a testament to his conviction in the value of the epic effort — for the pathos of the epic effort is that it costs nothing less than your life, perhaps more than only your own, and death is the only administrator who really counts. Atua Wera is a magnificent work because of the whole sensibility of the man who wrote it and because that whole sensibility is engaged in it. The poetry of it happens because, as Eliot puts it East Coker, “the poetry does not matter”.
The first time I met Smithyman was at Auckland University. The only day I could be there he’d been hoping to keep free for research but he generously gave of his time and wrote later with helpful directions, steering me into some obscure byways I wouldn’t otherwise have taken. There was friendliness and truth as well as perfect idiosyncrasy in the lines he inscribed in the copy of Stories About Wooden Keyboards I’d brought with me: “Auckland, October 86 / with more to be said.”
There was more but never enough. For the most part literature is a slow conversation, usually with the dead. For Smithyman, the conversation would always be wanting to go on.
Alan Riach is a senior lecturer in English at Waikato University. He is general editor of the Collected Works of Hugh MacDiarmid, Carcanet Press. His most recent collection of verse was First and Last Songs in 1995.