The Place of Stones
The Holloway Press, $275.00,
Jumping Ship and Other Essays
Steele Roberts, $25.00,
When Martin Edmond picks up a piece of schist from Alaska – in which are embedded two red garnets, like teeth in a jaw – he feels a sense of wonder. It is “an inarticulate wonder at the actuality of the things of this earth, at the stoniness of stones, or the jewelledness of jewels.” This wonder is an echo of what he felt as a boy when marvelling at photographs of the Pink and White Terraces in a Reed encyclopedia. The photographs awoke in Edmond a luxurious sadness. The destruction of the Terraces was his first lesson in melancholy – and it gave him such desire for a personal connection that he invented one: his grandmother had seen the Terraces, he told boys at school, before the 1886 eruption of Tarawera.
In this slim, dense collection of five essays Edmond traces our comprehension of place and finds it endlessly shifting, riven with faults and invention. The ways in which people come to know a place are inevitably ways of reversioning it; a place becomes something other than what it was, just as a vivid dream becomes a version when we try to describe it. (An aside: Edmond must be the only person who can describe his dreams without sending me to sleep.) The original dream, like a stone in the hand, persists.
Edmond is deeply, restlessly curious about our shifts in perception. His personal accounts of places familiar to him in both Australia and New Zealand are almost mirage-like, constantly revising themselves. As he explores Tyurretye in the Northern Territory, the place seems to shimmer, though of course it is his perception that is shimmering. A riverbank becomes a liquid morass of quicksand, trapping his boot. A rock painting of dancing figures resolves itself into a snake resting.
These essays explore broader ripples in perception, such as the reversal of the names of the Pink and White Terraces (was the Pink Terrace in fact intended to be named the White, and vice versa?) and the suggestion that the Terraces were not only a place of beauty but also of apprehension, even terror. Edmond opens these possibilities with his characteristic, melancholic poise – and finds that our ways of knowing a place become part of its history, albeit a very small part, “a mere blip across ages”. Yet there is always the suggestion that the residues of human selves are left behind in places – especially in stones: “[This stone] somehow connects me back to the place in the land I come from.”
As with all of Edmond’s writing, a central joy for me is its free narrative movement: these essays comb through the personal and the historical, the introspective and the scientific. Edmond’s approach is often described as “digressive”, but with this collection I finally understood that digression – a branching-away from a central narrative – is the central narrative, and it is something I wish we could see more often in New Zealand non-fiction. In the opening essay we move from Edmond smoking a joint in 1995 overlooking Lake Tarawera, to an explorer’s 1882 account of the Terraces, to an exhaustive explanation of the sinter that made up the Terraces, to the story of Tuhoto Ariki, the tohunga who was reluctantly dug up after spending 100 hours buried underground. The movement of this essay is a kind of questing. But that movement seems only to intensify the mystery of place. That is another pleasure of Edmond’s work: its composure in the face of the unknowable. It gives itself over to ambiguity.
There were moments in this collection when I felt startled, almost alienated by the magnitude of a question: “Who has not heard, at some estranged or estranging moment, the stones cry out to us?”; “We are part of nature and nature is in subjection to death …. So can we then say that there are places on earth where that subjection comes closer to us than we can bear?” Somehow Edmond gets away with such heightened pathos. I think it’s because in these essays he is such a singular, and, yes, strange figure. Here is a man who lies down on the ground and feels himself turn to “some kind of pale fire”; who, when walking on a stony beach, feels a “trembling of expectation”; who has felt a whole landscape pausing and looking at him. He is acutely aware of his own existence as a sort of parenthesis between ages, and, like the old photographs of the Pink and White Terraces, this book is a kind of lesson in melancholy too.
Glenn Colquhoun’s approach to the indescribable is very different. One essay in Jumping Ship and Other Essays explores “ache” – a feeling that he describes as happiness, sadness, loneliness, exhilaration; “sometimes it is a dog barking at the approach of danger.” Colquhoun acknowledges that there are times “when nothing can be said and we come to a hard edge of the world” – and it’s then, in these small moments of restraint, that his writing is at its most interesting. I wished it to explore this space for longer. But Colquhoun is not fully at home in ambiguity, as I sensed from declarations such as “Perhaps all ache at the end of the day is a reaching” and “At the end of the day I think ache is that point beyond which human beings need faith to function.” I found myself wondering if this approach is connected, partly, with his considerable gifts as an orator: perhaps there is a need to reassure his audience that he comes from a place of sincerity and humility; that they are understood. I saw this need reflected in the tendency to string together potent adjectives, particularly in an address about Middlemore Hospital: “South Auckland was sensual and funny and excessive”; “ragged and dangerous and poor”; “irrational and tangential and infuriating”; “funny and beautiful and generous and proud”. Such moments are like reading song lyrics that have been recast as poems. Something of their emotional force is lost without music, without performance.
What infuses this collection is Colquhoun’s intense love – for Maori culture, for poetry, for his people, and especially for Rongo Subritsky, his close friend at Te Tii Mangonui and the central figure of the title essay. Colquhoun wants us to understand how this love, “our inner tides and waves tugged without mercy by the great moon of the heart”, informs his thinking about cultural identity, medicine, and family. The title essay – reprinted here from the Four Winds Press series – is the most persuasive in this. In it, Colquhoun tells the story of going to Te Tii after a painful divorce and becoming “shipwrecked” by love for the community. His friendship with Aunty Rongo is described as a romance; this story is interspersed with accounts of historical encounters between Pakeha and Maori by way of illustrating the “colonization” of Pakeha by Maori. There is a simplicity at work here that will trouble some readers and charm others.
Rongo is the woman to whom a series of poems (“Love Songs to an Old Woman”) are dedicated. Their sincerity – and that of the poems for Hone Tuwhare – is genuinely touching. Colquhoun’s affection is so raw and persistent that it overpowers all argument. Rather than reading these as poems, it is more sensible, and sensitive, to read them as songs, even lullabies. As poems, they fall too readily into sentimentality, into the imagery that we know is affectionate but that seems almost – can I say it? – silly:
Two neat mounds of mashed
potato remind me of the
wrinkles on the tops of
your cheeks when you smile,
carrots kindle brightly between them.
In some essays, Colquhoun’s insistence on love gives way to whimsy. This whimsy has become a kind of hallmark of his writing, and I feel that often it is his undoing. In the essay “Old Testaments, New Testaments”, Colquhoun’s argument that Maori poetic forms should be taught in schools is compelling, as is his detailed deconstruction of the qualities of moteatea. But if only he would restrain himself from, for example, personifying poetry as an old man at a bus stop with “burning eyes” telling him that “the world was beautiful, damned, aching and waiting for me”. (There are a number of nondescript old men in this collection who stand for vague qualities of righteousness and wisdom but who come across as quite unhinged.) His essay about Pakeha identity, a “State of the Nation” speech given in 2007, is stronger simply because for the most part it is rigorous, self-aware argument.
Nevertheless, I was troubled by the simplicity of Colquhoun’s arguments about cultural identity and also about medicine. I was curious about how some Maori would respond to such claims as “Maori is a Pakeha language as surely as the reverse is also true” and how some members of the medical profession would respond to the idea that spirituality is the most powerful medicine we have. Of course these things must be opened up and debated, passionately and constantly. My hope is that this collection will revitalise these debates. And perhaps my reservations about Colquhoun’s arguments say more about me and my experiences than they do about the work; I suspect that for many readers it will be the same.
Ashleigh Young is a Wellington writer and editor.