Spirit in a Strange Land (2002), edited by Paul Morris, Harry Ricketts, and Mike Grimshaw, is, apparently, the first anthology of New Zealand poetry to focus on “our spiritual experience”. The collection is a delight and a surprise. The appearance of such an anthology is surely illustrative and indicative of our present public interest in poetry and spirituality, neither of which has been exactly mainstream in our consciousness.
Virtually none of the poems chosen are ostensibly Christian, nor is the anthology an Oxford Book of Antipodean Religious Verse. These poems graze over a wide country, poets unfenced by any defining creed. Indeed, has New Zealand produced a fine Christian poet? Or, a better question, can New Zealand produce a Christian
voice that writes in verse? It may be an unkind and simplistic question, nevertheless it raises the issues of whether there are defining religious motifs in our particular history that shape our present consciousness, and (in seeking to express our deepest thoughts and soul-dreams) whether Christian language is adequate for the task?
Although initially Anglican settlers in Christchurch and Presbyterian in Dunedin significantly shaped their respective provinces, New Zealand’s isolation had great appeal for many early settlers who sought relief from religious institutional stricture. Consequently church and state have always been cantankerous neighbours, never in the same waka, let alone ploughing along synchronously. In the early years of the 20th century, the second Master of Knox College, Dunedin, urged New Zealanders to sing “Far from our ancient home, sundered by oceans,/Zion is builded, and God is adored” from Ernest Merrington’s “God of Eternity”. However, in “Every man has his own God”, Allister Evans, a more recent poet of Celtic extraction, articulates the earliest, raw, pioneering spirit, and the present secular one, that severs old ties in the new land:
You have no stake in deity.
You are the sole debtor and creditor.
Every man has his own God.
The great Sunday School movement post-World War 2 gave many baby-boomers some Biblical literacy, but the Christian Cross has fallen over for their children – Generation X – so that it must be damnably difficult for teachers nowadays to teach almost all English poetry and prose written before 1950. Andrew Johnston nicely illustrates this in “The Bibl” with a postmodern reading of the creation of humanity:
In the beginning were the first principles Atom and If …. (who) ate of the passionfruit …. conceived an Item …. Can and Can’t, or Ability and Disability …. What shall we do? they asked God. Sing, said God, but Can’t couldn’t hear very well and thought God had said Sin.
In general, our poets appear to delight in being acerbically iconoclastic, unrelenting questioners at the margins of society, deconstructing demagoguery and pricking pomposity in a bid to reveal the nature of our circumstance, mindset and values, as in Denis Glover’s “Sunday Morning”:
On Sunday the air more naturally breathes,
time stands still, and plants put forth
luxurious green life; sweet sunlight weaves
warm patterns on the wall facing the north.
No urgent task, we set our hands upon
hoe, spade or spanner; back-fence gossip tells
epic of artichokes, career of cars; later on
air falls under the heavy yoke of bells.
A typical somnolent Sunday morning, everything is in neighbourly mode, until the last line. The pleasant atmosphere is broken by the peal of church bells, which are an intrusion on this New Zealand Sunday and call to mind beasts labouring under a heavy yoke, cleverly flipping Christ’s words promising peace to all who come to him. Glover suggests that church in this land is an unpleasant interruption, a guilt message to those outside its walls but within earshot of its bells.
Interestingly, the ancient Hebrew poets were exceedingly acerbic, sometimes vitriolic, in their public comment. Termed prophets – which actually meant they were experts in theology, psychology, and foreign policy – they shaped public speeches of hope and remonstrance, their encouragement and bite more poignant through poetic design. Elsewhere I have argued that Christian ministers in the (post)modern era would more effectively serve church and society by ministering as poets and artists, rather than as saints and religious. The key task for ministers and theologians is to facilitate the transmission of the ancient poetic word to a new generation, and this might best be achieved through theological reflection crafted in poetic constructs. This is an uncommonly subtle task; I would like all ministers to be able to exegete Curnow, Baxter, and O’Sullivan as well as they do Jeremiah, Luke, and Paul. Likewise, if the Bible itself were understood as a poem, and interpreted as such, the church would be far better equipped to communicate with those who yearn for meaning without and peace within.
Certainly many New Zealand poets speak of God, but generally as an abstract concept, inscrutably remote. Here is Bill Manhire in “The God Who Watches Over All Perhaps”: “some god perhaps,/The spreader of crusted ice, watches/Over all”. And Lauris Edmond in “the planet”:
Aotearoa. Here strange creatures …
danced their dance
of quiet delight
dreaming the eternal dream
all creatures do,
that each of us, with each one’s God
may never die.
And Vincent O’Sullivan in “In My Father’s House”:
The day Richard got back into Parliament
my cat, not for the first time, vomited
in my shoe …
of course, God’s put it across us too,
another high-class inscrutable Act.
It is interesting how often the epithet “prophet” is ascribed to James K Baxter these days. Baxter eventually understood God with dirt under the fingernails and placed words like Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit in the midst of our experiences and metaphors. Thus the Maori Jesus “[breaking] wind” and making “the little fishes tremble” (“The Maori Jesus”), and the Holy Spirit “blow[ing] like the wind in a thousand paddocks/Inside and outside the fences” (“Song to the Holy Spirit), and God the Father “hid[ing]” from Baxter “in a chosen overcoat of night” (“Song to the Father”).
Baxter at least has helped us to associate religious language with intimacy which, for many New Zealanders brought up on a pietistic diet, is moving from concept to experience, as in Heather McPherson’s “Theology and a Patchwork Absolute”:
blaze in the patchwork quilt. Here are two women
naked on a bed.
Such proximity is heretical and a sin
to theologians and borough councillors.
Returning to Spirit, I remember an old teacher who used to urge us to spend 15 minutes reflecting on the “Contents” page before plunging into the book itself. Headings, chapter titles, subtitles, and the arrangement of subjects all provide indicative clues about the author’s or editor’s theme, purpose and interest. Spirit has seven sections; Godzone, Holidays & Holy Days, Saints & Sinners, Troubled Souls, Jesus Alone, Book of the Land, Rebels & Recluses. Aotearoa New Zealand as Godzone is veritably apocryphal, the pipi on our tourist hook; when we write glowingly about our people we take pride in our saints (like Sir Ed and Pinetree, or have I missed the point?); sinners we have galore (God bless ’em), along with rebels and recluses. And troubled souls? Every family has one or three. It is easy writing poetry about our strange ones that inspire, outrage, and engiggle us.
We are comfortable with all these section titles except, perhaps, Jesus Alone. Any poem that includes characters or lines from the New Testament – Pilate and Thomas (O’Sullivan’s “Liberal” and “TELEX FOR JIX RE SUNDAY”); Judas (Sam Hunt’s “If Judas Sat Alone”); “it is harder for a rich woman” (Edmond’s “Epiphany”) – is bound to go over the heads of the GenXers, those unchristened in the names of classical heroes and biblical saints. Baby-boomers may satisfactorily mine these poems, understand them even, but not their children. Their religious line is ever “Cruisefiction and Resterection”, as Elizabeth Smither wittily put it in “To Hugh a friend flying to London November 30 DC 10”.
We worry about this; it is a kind of deafness that denies wisdom from former times:
Her ear, a wall which locks her from the world,
waits no annunciation, no searing seed
flooding with light of love that soundless dark.
(Louis Johnson, “Deaf Girl”)
Realising this, we become eclectees, wrapping up all our ethereal thoughts and unexplainable experiences like chips in the newspaper of spirituality, a word that has become a hold-all for warm notions removed from the austere disciplines. Indeed “spirituality” could be likened to Brendan McCullum’s wicketkeeping gloves, catching every religious snick that blows through.
Paul Morris in his essay at the end of Spirit argues that an upsurge “in spiritual concerns and the promise of a new beginning after the longest and bloodiest century” indicates stirrings of a time for re-enchantment in this country. I heartily agree, but also hope that our poets do some theology, and our theologians articulate poetically, for both seek to describe our play and our plight, joining the dots to make KIWI and colouring in this previously shy and rather monochromatic animal:
The waters hold your face
And winds your voice;
I am memory
That keeps your history.
(Charles Brasch, “In Your Presence”)
Neville Emslie is the principal of the Presbyterian School of Ministry, Knox College, Dunedin.