Imperial Vistas Family Fictions
Auckland University Press, $24.95,
The Holloway Press, $65,
It’s an interesting parlour game to speculate how New Zealand’s literary history might have changed had Kendrick Smithyman rather than the slightly younger James K Baxter been Allen Curnow’s last-minute discovery when in 1945 he put together his landmark A Book of New Zealand Verse. It is, in some ways, hard to imagine two more different poets. Curnow – perhaps regretting the “hope for the future” gloss he had given Baxter in the introduction to that collection – compared the two to Smithyman’s advantage in the introduction of his later anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960). By then, what Curnow valued in Smithyman were his “conscious pains and anxieties over words and meanings”, elements that contrasted sharply with Baxter’s sometimes too-facile oracularity.
Smithyman – largely an autodidact – remained throughout his life one of the most intellectually curious, engaged, and unabashedly philosophical of New Zealand poets. By the same token, though, Curnow recognised that Smithyman’s cerebral and sometimes frustratingly hermetic poetry could be offputting: “Smithyman can obscure his [purpose] by elaborate solicitude, by what may seem a complex system of outworks round his fragment of truth.” Curnow reluctantly conceded, therefore, that even if “Smithyman is the most interesting and original of the younger New Zealand poets [it] is no less obvious … that James K Baxter will continue to enjoy the widest repute in his native land.” But would that have been the case if Smithyman had been given the prominence of Baxter’s position in the 1945 Caxton anthology? Anthologies, after all, form tastes as much as they reflect them.
Whatever the case, it remains true that Smithyman occupies a curious position in New Zealand’s literary pantheon (no doubt a curious enough place itself). He is, in some ways, our least easily classified poet. This may be as much a generational matter as anything to do with the qualities of his writing. Born in 1922, he was a half-generation younger than the poets who would make the vexed problems of New Zealand’s national and political identity the defining issues of the 1930s and 40s. Coming of age as a poet in the 1950s, Smithyman – rather like Louis Johnson in this, if little else – lies somewhat awkwardly in the trough between that great wave of New Zealand poetic ferment and that of the 1960 and 1970s to come. Unlike his near-contemporaries Baxter, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, and Hone Tuwhare, Smithyman did not learn the trick of seeming cool or vital to that younger generation. By the 1960s he was, as he would remain, a respected figure, but one slightly apart – not at the centre of literary trends or debates.
Not that Smithyman’s poetry remained unchanged. Over the years his poetry became less hermetic, less egregiously obscure. It is ironic, indeed, that his greatest achievements would be a string of poems in the 1970s and 1980s that took up questions which might have seemed right at home in Curnow’s 1945 anthology: mappings of place and identity. In a poem like “Tomarata” from 1974, Smithyman explores a small area of Northland landscape as an unstable meeting ground of subjectivity, culture, history, and geography. The poem reaps the full benefits of those “conscious pains and anxieties over words and meanings” recognised by Curnow; Smithyman’s language is nervously alive to the difficulty of constructing a verbal map of such unstable landscapes:
Shoreline, regardless of being defined
by reeds, is uncertain. The same maps will
contest its scope. Only
the name is constant, or perhaps what
ever (you might say) was the heart of it
if talking thus were not plainly
alien, to an event in terrain
which may know about physical reason,
nothing readily about feeling.
Tomarata is the name
for which the lake, reserved to
its own logic, has no word. Needs none.
In a poem like this, or 1985’s “Reading the Maps: An Academic Exercise”, Smithyman’s complex philosophical concerns (like many of his poems, these are full of allusions to Wittgenstein and Heidegger) and his other “elaborate solicitudes” surround a subject matter which rewards us for struggling through the poem’s “outworks”. The off-kilter enjambments in the passage above, for example, which force us constantly to reassess and rethink the sentence we’re moving through encourage a wary apprehension about language not merely for its own sake, but because Smithyman wants to awaken a similar wariness about the ways we take the landscapes we move through – and define ourselves in relationship to – for granted.
If all this is closely related to the concerns of Curnow’s 1945 anthology, it also represents a movement beyond that historical moment: Smithyman’s concerns are less with the specifically New Zealand context (although they have a special resonance in this nation of immigrants, who brought their languages and histories to an island that “needs none”) than with general problems of language and identity.
We now have two new posthumous collections of Smithyman’s poetry, which offer us rather different versions of the trajectory of his writing towards the end of his career. Auckland University Press’s handsomely produced Imperial Vistas Family Fictions could be read as the logical outcome of the stages sketched above. If the early poetry was dense and hermetic, the later poetry is still complex and challenging but more accessible in its subject matter. This is poetry that betrays no “conscious pains” whatsoever about language, relying entirely on exciting and affecting content to engage our interest. It is, moreover, content which appeals precisely to our sense of shared history for its effect. As the title implies, these are poems that situate Smithyman’s family narratives within the imperial background of New Zealand’s 19th and 20th century history, making the Smithymans a kind of “everyfamily” of New Zealand’s course from imperial outpost to independent nation.
Grandfather Smithyman serves in the Crimean war, finds himself on the goldfields of Victoria, gets shipwrecked on the coast of Patagonia for four years (escaping from the local Indians in a stolen canoe), works on the Hooghly River in Calcutta, and returns eventually to England. Father Smithyman (to whose story by far the bulk of these poems is dedicated) serves in the Boer War and the Great War, works the shipping trade all over the Pacific, becomes a passionate unionist in the 1920s and 30s, and gradually declines into that inevitably less vigorous, if more fully realised character: father of the poet.
These are fascinating stories, no doubt, whether or not we are meant to trust in their veracity. Some hints are given in the author’s introduction that family legend may trump dull reality at times, but that issue never gets thematised in any interesting way. The poems themselves are, in effect, a set of Boy’s Own snapshots of a time when New Zealand was just one of many corners of the foreign field that was forever England; and, as poems, they are remarkably uncompelling. Smithyman seems to have been aiming for a kind of laconic minimalism, but more often than not he delivers matter-of-fact flaccidity:
If you open a cask of salt beef /
salt horse and it’s really black and stinking,
put the meat in a canvas bag and tow it astern
for twenty-four hours. Pound with a chipping hammer.
Take ship’s biscuits especially if with weevils,
break up biscuits, throw in with meat,
boil until thick pudding-like and can be
got down. This saves picking out weevils
and makes biscuits and meat more tasty.
This is an interesting detail of life at sea in the 19th century, but it is “poetry” only because the line-breaks are unorthodox. Or consider this example:
Tom Young was going to be charged.
Father went to Tommy Wilford, then
a Liberal M.P., who appeared for Young
at his appeal but couldn’t for him
at the first hearing. Wilford sent him on,
to Sir John Findlay, who demanded
“How much money does the union have?
… Then that’s my fee.” He took the lot.
He put it into his books, he wrote a cheque
for the same amount, he made another account:
“It is likely the Government will shortly move
to seize union funds. The union now has no funds.
You will see me when necessary.”
Also he acted for free.
Again, this is a touching story, but there seems to be no “solicitude” – “elaborate” or otherwise – about the language used to tell it to us. Worse, there is a kind of meretricious drama in the final line, which reveals, like the closing scenes of a bad Victorian novel, that the apparently rapacious lawyer had a heart of gold all along. The clumsy “twist in the end” is a narrative trick to which Smithyman returns again and again in these poems. A poem about “Uncle Basil” describes the foxed photo of a young man “rather dashing” in his Norfolk jacket and little checked cap (the photo is conveniently reproduced opposite the poem). We learn a little of the man’s history (“his favourite breakfast was cold/roast beef with a half pint of beer”) and then are given the poignant twist at the end: “He was blown up/somewhere in France.”
Well, yes. Young, inoffensive, ordinary blokes get killed in war, whether they’re “dashing” or not. Smithyman is trying, I suspect, to shock us with the stark contrast between the banality of the photo and the grimness of the destiny. But this is a readymade sentiment; one which every anti-drunk-driving advertisement and Olympic athlete sob-story profile knows how to manipulate – and does so no less artfully than this.
There are good poems in Imperial Vistas, even if the hit-miss ratio is depressingly low. The quality of the writing takes a notable turn for the better once the author himself appears on the scene. The description becomes crisper, the emotions less prefabricated (lived reality enforcing a certain complexity). A poem recalling the family’s struggles during the Depression, for example, threads together disparate details that stick in the mind – subtly recreating the child’s half-comprehending perception of adult crises:
Lions at night
coughed in the Zoo, and outlandish screamings.
Father slept badly.
From house to house,
rooms here, a whole bungalow there,
a threesome of country mice we huddled
towards a mercantile future,
one no-hoper dairy,
something more like promise in another
as matter of course
lacking a right touch with icecream cones.
What could be sold off was sold.
Grandmother’s rubies and garnets went
but our portable Brunswick gramophone
stayed on …
(“To Point Chevalier or Even Further”)
That “Brunswick gramophone” has the weight and incongruity of reality: a last touch of luxury that speaks volumes about the very deprivations from which its music beguiled the family.
The Holloway Press’s Last Poems is a limited edition of 150 individually numbered copies that sweeps together a miscellaneous gathering of uncollected late poems. Lovingly and beautifully designed, printed, and bound by Tara McLeod, it has a slightly old-fashioned look. One half expects to see “Caxton Press” at the bottom of the title page, and Bob Lowry’s name to appear somewhere in the design credits. As a collection of poems, it is, not surprisingly, uneven. Only an excess of respect for the Illustrious Dead could have allowed a damp squib like “The elephant”, for example, to make it into print:
does not forget.
Do not forget
And there are moments when Smithyman aims at dense allusiveness but manages little more than self-consciously clever word-play:
Let us not to such marriage
admit impediment. Theirs was
a pairing might stand scrutiny
or partisan review, say …
(“Of Valuing, Fabius, Mousse and Zest”)
The reference to these influential literary reviews (the American Partisan Review and the English Scrutiny) seems to exist for the sake of the pun; which is no doubt why Peter Simpson ignores it in his otherwise detailed and helpful notes to the poems.
But there are also poems here of real and lasting value. Several, like “Making Sense”, “Whale Song When a Boy”, “After the Armistice” and “At the Far End of the Garden”, seem related to Smithyman’s project in Imperial Vistas and, indeed, address more directly the problems of memory
and personal history than anything in that volume. Above all, it is good to find in many of these poems that
Smithyman’s “elaborate solicitude” about language – its possibilities, its limitations – was only temporarily abandoned in Imperial Vistas. There are few poems in this c
ollection in which one is not constantly, sometimes uncomfortably, aware of a shrewdly intelligent mind weighing every word and asking the reader to think as hard as the poet has about how much language can make our situation clear to us. Let me end with one strikingly successful example
of this, the opening of “If I Stepped Outside, in May ‘93”:
If I stepped outside there would be no light to surprise
my body making demands.
without given notice rain surprises, rain tilts headlong
into fall, past rata, past silvery gum, oleander, Norfolk
a few minutes filling spaces which may wait on apology;
they want light at the moment.
Hugh Roberts teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine.