Previously unthought ways, Stephanie Johnson

These Lives I Have Buried
Lindsay Rabbitt
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
IBSN 0958251452

What Makes A Teacher? 
Jack Lasenby
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
IBSN 0958251444

Ghost Who Writes
Martin Edmond
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
IBSN 0958251436

A directive for enjoying all three of these essays may be taken from Martin Edmond’s elegant, discursive Ghost Who Writes, which is a meditation on voice and the identity of the author. The voice of each of these essays is individual, intimate, and so immediate that if the essays are read end-on-end the reader is left with the impression that they have enjoyed a conversation with three very different men of New Zealand letters, or at least a representation of them.

All employ, to a greater or lesser extent, autobiographical material. Interestingly, it is the least autobiographical of the three that is the most satisfying. Perhaps there is still some truth in the old teaching that the first person, the “I”, is an intrusion in a successful essay.

Poet Lindsay Rabbitt’s These Lives I Have Buried begins with an account of the death of his epileptic son Sam at the tragically early age of 19. Almost immediately, Rabbitt links his son’s death with his own alcoholism. His ex-wife asks, during his devastating phonecall to tell her of her son’s death,   “‘Were you drinking?’” Rabbitt assures her, and the reader, that he was not, although he begins to drink again soon after. The author’s battles with booze and cigarettes form a recurring theme throughout the essay until its very end, when he relates a little of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting he attended the evening before its completion.

Although there is a preoccupation with his addiction – he began drinking heavily at the age of 14 – the bulk of the work is taken up with sad but plainly told narratives of other losses of people close to him: his father, his brother, his second wife Jane, his grandmother. There are also family anecdotes and accounts of his ancestors near and remote, the immigrants from County Galway in 1879, his great-great uncle Father Paul who once lost his false teeth during a sermon, and his grandparents on both sides. It is family history, which is doubtless fascinating to his whanau, less so to those of us not related. Rabbitt is not alone in his possibly misguided desire to relate these family tales to a wider audience. A recent example is American writer Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, an overly detailed extrapolation on the life of one of his ancestors, a work that seems nourished more by Moody’s fascination with their common blood than an assumption of interest on the part of his readership.

Most readers, I suspect, will put down Rabbitt’s essay with a sense of frustration. A good, satisfying essay contains reflection and observation, not just the relating of event. This is not to say Rabbitt does not make observations, it’s just that the few he makes are often simplistic and left hanging, with little meditation or expansion. Although it is the most personally revealing of all the essays, it seems Rabbitt observes himself from a great distance as if he were both playwright and actor working through his own stage directions.

Jack Lasenby is a well-known children’s author who has been publishing since the 1980s. Having worked long years in the profession, he is better qualified than most to address the question of what makes a teacher. He recalls the instructors who influenced him as a child and young man, and in the process describes a New Zealand that has all but disappeared. The deerculler and possum hunter Ted Rye taught him bushcraft and survival, a man with a “pawky” sense of humour. This word sent me to my dictionaries – first to Harry Orsman, because I thought it was an idiomatic word, possibly derived from Maori, that had passed from common use. I found it in the OED and it means, tricky, artful, sly a word in existence since 1513. Orsman was useful for another word – “pikau” – which, being a city girl, I’d never heard. It can be both verb and noun, and means, to carry on one’s back or, a backpack. Like all good teachers,
Mr Lasenby expands our vocabulary.

Early in the essay Lasenby pays tribute to his own first teachers, all women, beginning with his mother – the “voice of my internal monologue. She is my unconscious mind.” With affection and detail he recalls Miss Real, his infant mistress, and his English teachers Miss Brown and Miss Bell, who introduced him to literature. This education was continued during his friendships with the poet A R D Fairburn, writer Maurice Duggan and architect Bill Wilson. Wilson introduced him to the works of Orwell, Camus, Nabokov, Mumford and Burhardt, and Lasenby paints an affecting picture of his young self heading off to the bush with these books, possibly in his pikau, for reading in his downtime. During those years in the bush, Lasenby also came into contact with the famous Barry Crump of whom he writes: “it paid to be leery: he was fun, but a dangerous teacher. Accidents happened to others about him … . In a negative sense he showed me a teacher needs some reliability and consistency.”

Distributed among the autobiographical anecdotes are thoughts on teaching itself, as Lasenby has observed it over his lifetime. He is anxious about its current state, especially about the trend for emphasising value-based education over knowledge. “I sometimes wonder,” he writes, “if our narrow reef of islands will drown in the confused seas that result from the conflating of teaching with therapy and counselling.” He loathes the “queasy” mission statements that vomit from the portals of the Education Department; he decries the fashionable “scribble-talk” use of the word “caring”, which has become “synonymous with facile compassion” and “contaminate(s) the word kindness”.

This is a clever piece of inspired curmudgeonliness, but he contradicts himself by berating the secondary and tertiary systems for assessing teachers on their command of their subject – “no degree will make a teacher.” He seems to not see the brain-deadening connection between the slackening of academic rigour and the value-based education he so loathes.

“‘He still has to move his lips!’” taunted Jack’s older brother and sister while he was a baby spending his days at Miss Real’s knee. Perhaps he would have been less tormented by this if he had known at five, as Martin Edmond does now, that St Augustine was the first person in history to read without mouthing. Ghost Who Writes is a rich, textural journey full of asides, such as the one about St Augustine’s silent reading. It is lively, ambitious and well-informed.

Edmond begins with the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s panoply of 72 different nom-de-plumes that he named heteronyms, as distinct from his real name, which he called his orthonym. Pessoa’s complex multiplication of self leads Edmond to other writers who struggled with the notion of identity; writers whose work was more inspired by agonised dilemmas of authorial voice and narrative truth than by the giddy delights of story-telling. Among them are the Jewish German Walter Benjamin, who “swore off the use of the first-person singular, the authorial ‘I’, as the voice of his thought”, and Baudelaire, whose “The Poem of Hashish” in Les Paradis artificiels is “an agony at the proliferation of selves he feels during hashish intoxication”. Edmond presents the German W G Sebald as a writer who “persuades you to read his work as autobiographical non-fiction then, with immense subtlety, manages to suggest that, on the contrary, it may be made up.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez counters with his belief that a writer requires “no proofs other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice”. Edmond himself, finally, suggests that “what we actually believe is the voice in which we are told things, whether they be memories, or inventions, or so-called facts.” He makes this argument in the last few pages of his book, which he reserves for a brief examination of his own work, mainly his well-known The Autobiography of My Father, his tortured and dissipated The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, and the recent, entertaining Chronicle of the Unsung. All of these books could be loosely defined as autobiographical. In the first, which he defines as “a book of mourning”, he directly addresses his father; in the second, he switches perspective in a self-conscious attempt to offer a change in tone; in the third, he sets himself the challenge of writing a book that maintains one voice from beginning to end. “But I is not me,” he reminds us, simply and effectively: “Part of the artifice of the personal voice is in its omissions.”

If the three essays are similar at all, it is in their shared note of self-effacing, dry and subtle humour. It is the only common trait in their voices, and an attractive one. I could echo or pre-empt one of Lasenby’s erstwhile colleagues by finishing with the sentiment that we are all the better for listening to them, but would rather end with Edmond’s comforting and inspiring “To write at all is to reserve a space from this process of flux, to make a provisional clearing of the wreckage of history in which to build a structure which may alter the flow of time in some previously unthought way.”


Stephanie Johnson’s Music from a Distant Room is reviewed on p8. Her collection Drowned Sprat and Other Stories is published by Vintage.


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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Review
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