The Bells of Saint Babel’s: Poems 1997-2001
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
They have all gone into the dark: the fellow poets of his youth and middle age, the critics, the early shapers and gatekeepers of New Zealand poetry. All gone, save only he. Gone too the brash young challengers of the 1950s. There is no one left to bury, save only he. It is not a healthy life, the life of a poet. Poets do not make old bones: wine, women, and the exigencies of the craft (like that of dentist) exact a lethal, premature toll. Allen Curnow has seen them all off and, by publishing a new volume in his 90th year, demonstrates again his super-human constitution and intellectual power. He is cock of the walk. To him fall the laurels of acclaim as “New Zealand’s greatest poet of the 20th century” (Hugh Roberts); to him the further consideration beyond New Zealand as “one of the greatest modernist poets of the English language” (Elizabeth Caffin).
There has always been an air of the sublime about Curnow, never a doubt for him that he is a poet and poets must write, that he is a critic who must criticise, that he is a man of fine judgement who must select what is worthy. Only a man of sublime self-confidence would select the work of “the poets I really like”, and publish the collection, not as “Allen Curnow’s Commonplace Book”, but as A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945); who would assume that such a collection would “dispose finally” of the poets omitted, and 30 years later (in an interview) would not consider that his actions or selections need be justified or modified. As Geoffrey Webster wrote, “[nowhere] does it occur to him that he could be wrong”. The self-deprecating tone of “the poets I really like”, and the demotic language of ordinary conversation he favours, fail to mask his true purpose as a mandarin whose weighty tasks are canon formation and establishing the climate and mode by his own poetic example.
Giving offence to fellow poets and critics has never bothered him. To be a student now going back over the critical battles of the 1950s and 1960s, to read Curnow in full spate against Louis Johnson or Charles Doyle, or James K Baxter, is to be struck first by the viciousness of it all. They drew blood in those days. But as one reads on aghast, the second – more serious – notion strikes, that we are watching from the sidelines as rival critical factions slug it out over the hapless bodies of the poets they were called upon to review. Johnson, side-lined by Curnow, is curmudgeonly, truculent. Baxter is all brashness, iconoclasm, demoting Curnow to raise himself. And Curnow, teasing, sublime, his infallibility of papal proportions, is master of hauteur, and in dealing with a rabble, knows no peer. No wonder so many young poets, particularly women, were stunned by their critical reception.
That was all so long ago, and we are in a new century, a new millennium, so why drag it all up again? Simply, that Curnow’s new volume, The Bells of Saint Babel’s, brings back to me the same Curnow voice I hear in all those critical disputes from the Dark Age. The battles might have been won, the antagonists long dead, but the voice, and the themes Curnow has always espoused, echo again through this new work and send a shiver down the spine. It is a voice I no longer wish to hear. The rest of this essay will explain why. Since there are legions of Curnow admirers to praise the new volume and to be grateful for his rich legacy, and there are dozens of reviewers to bring to light all the things that make Curnow great, it won’t hurt the man one little bit if I take a different tack, a tack perhaps befitting a woman of a later age.
As Curnow and the pioneering writers of New Zealand had to come to terms with living in a strange new place, so each generation has to make the same adjustment, and if we have to displace or demote our ancestors’ concepts of place and of the themes they chose to highlight, so be it. Curnow believes in the vatic role of the poet. Writing in 1940, he describes poets as prophets of their age, in tune with their time, and in step with the march of events:
[Prophecy] springs from the irresistible compulsion of the poet to speak with larger inspiration, addressing himself as teacher and philosopher to the individual, the nations, and the race.
Curnow’s decision to abandon his training in the Anglican ministry for journalism and academia is well known, but he has never abandoned the pulpit, maintaining throughout his career a secular ministry. He sees his role as teller of hard home-truths to a recalcitrant flock who cannot stand very much reality.
Underpinning Curnow’s ministry is the Christian myth of the Fall: we are born Fallen through Adam’s sin and it was a woman who enticed Adam to fall; thus we enter a fallen, spoiled world and must pick our way through the chaos. In “The Bells of Saint Babel’s”, the pilgrims hope to find paradise in Canterbury, but Curnow depicts their settlement as one of noise and disorder through his images of stink, faeces, sweat, barrenness. It is a place of negatives: “this pegged-out plain”, “an unbuilt city”, “unpaved wetlands / too near, too far”, and “unclimbed alps”. “Ten Steps to the Sea” focuses again on images of pain, decay, storm, destruction by flood, September sickness, rotting yellow blooms, and rabbit shit in the dunes. He undercuts the potential beauty of a white arum lily by placing it below “a slimed rock-face”.
Curnow is drawn as if by a magnet to pain (the child dying of cancer), to the grisly (“Cadavers couldn’t care less where they rot”), to morbid fascination with the grotesque and poisonous, as in “The Upas Tree”, which poisons every living thing beneath it. “A Winter Evening” produces “a pig of a gale” and “crazy wind’s dinning”. It is not that Curnow errs in what he sees, but that he takes them not as aspects, but as metonomies standing for the whole.
A title such as “A Nice Place on the Riviera” is ironic, because in Curnow there are no nice places. Katherine Mansfield and Pascal take their last gamble for health there and lose. Black siroccos bring death: “One // more dull day scraped / off a slaty sea”. At Menton the annual Mansfield Fellow “sweats // brief tenure out”. Curnow is marble-hard, as scorching and desiccated as a Canterbury nor’wester. To read the new volume of poems is to be seized by the blackness and negativity of his vision. As my grandfather said, when faced with nothing worse than toothache, we may as well all shoot ourselves and be done with it.
The myth of the Fall (expounded from a thousand Presbyterian pulpits of my youth) has hung heavily upon New Zealand, and a case might be made for it as a cause of our failure to prosper and stand tall as a nation. Allied to it and making matters worse is the fondness of Curnow and the first generation of “real” New Zealand writers to see the country falling short in every way when matched against the European homelands. Some are more fallen than others. We know now to call this the cultural cringe, but E H McCormick described the syndrome in his Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940), seeing in the work of Curnow, Fairburn, Mason and Glover an immature sense of “social disunity”. Where this group failed, he wrote, was in “their inability … to come to terms with their social environment”; such an attitude to country and society was reflected in their works “which appear to have been written in an unyielding spirit of antagonism (sometimes of petulance)”. Patrick Evans in The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (1990) notes that for Curnow “the undermining of New Zealand becomes an insistent task … for the worse New Zealand seems, the fitter environment it is for all kinds of failures”.
Thus we have, for Curnow and most of his generation of writers, a human race sure to fail, set adrift in a permanent state of unease upon a barbarous land which they could not accept as a fair substitute for Europe. The third strand to this rope which has strangled New Zealand is the demeaning way in which they viewed women. Inheritors of the sins of Eve, demoted to a position as weaker, less intellectual, less important, women appear in imaginative and sociological writings (for instance, those of Robert Chapman) as millstones about the necks of men. Such women, not content with ruining Man’s chance to live in Paradise with God, are seen to continue to inhibit and spoil an attempt to create Paradise in the new society of New Zealand. Kai Jensen has laid it all out in Whole Men: The Masculinist Tradition in New Zealand Literature (1996).
A woman born during World War 2, as I was, stepped into a black inheritance. Already Fallen and doomed to fail through a Sin I could barely understand, born in the wrong place and always having to apologise for it not being England, or anywhere that mattered; born into the wrong sex, having to defer and yield to the male. It takes the growing girl not long to realise that she is a second-class citizen in a second-rate country in a world set up to fail. If I were going to enjoy any life at all and not borrow my grandfather’s gun, I would need to find a way of coming up from under, of throwing off the triple burden of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. It has taken me a long time and a tortuous intellectual journey begun in my 40s, but I have fashioned a place to stand.
I no longer want to hear the old destructive myths. Allen Curnow may write all the books of verse he likes, but I am not listening any more.
Heather Murray teaches in the English Department at the University of Otago.