Grasping for something to say, Tom McLean

Charles Brasch: Selected Poems
Alan Roddick (ed)
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877578052

Let us begin with the face. It isn’t what you expect. On the back cover of this trim little book, a woolly-haired young man looks sideways, away from the camera’s gaze, against a backdrop of grass and sky.

One expects, somehow, a different face, without knowing how that face ought to appear. There is something undefined about Charles Brasch. Everyone can say who he was – the editor of Landfall – but not much more than that, in the same way that everyone can quote remindingly a few lines of “The Islands”: “Always in these islands, meeting and parting / Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.” He is, in other words, one of those figures surprisingly common in New Zealand literary history: the recognisable name appearing in all the biographies (or, in Brasch’s case, all the anthologies), but still awaiting further inquiry, like John Money or James Courage.

The process of incorporation (into the canon, and in other senses) is perhaps particularly difficult in Brasch’s case. These poems recall Ian Milner’s claim that “Charles’ real self was not easily accessible.” Where we might have expected a frank gaze, a confrontation, the eyes again slip sideways, as in the declaration concluding “Man Missing”:

I find no centre anywhere,

No real self, only a sort

Of unthought self-conscious thought;

A house with no one at home,

Where any visitor is welcome,

To name, try, spare or pan

A genuinely missing no-man.

The thought recurs over and over; Brasch rejects any self-definition in favour of acceptance, as in the lines from “Home Ground”: “‘I bid you welcome to my house. / Make it your own. Make me your own … For all who come to make me theirs.”

This placidity is perhaps admirable as a personal trait, but it makes something amorphous and cloudy of the poetry. The reader is left to somehow reconcile the claim of “At Pistol Point” (with its opening line “It is forbidden to question poets”) that

Poets are servants, not masters.

Poems ask their own questions.

Poems are questions put to you

At pistol point. They ask your life.

with the knowledge that the poems return always, divided, many-tongued, to the life they ask of, but which Brasch refuses to explain or argue. They ask his life, and we ask, and the gaze slips away from the camera to a point somewhere beyond our vision. We are in the world, “among its multitudes whose role is anonymity / Plunging his word of life in its incoherence” as we look at Brasch’s evasive descriptions of his friends, his great-grandfather’s house, his country without dead and his islands where parting is the inevitable counterpoint to meeting.

“Soldier in Reverie”, from which the above lines are taken, describes a soldier in a desert, reflecting on some solitary truth before being torn out of it by the intrusion of the world. It can be read as a reflection on the French priest de Foucauld; it is perhaps worthwhile to compare the soldier Charles, in the Algerian desert, planting Christianity and thinking of hidden water in the wilderness, to the poet Charles, planting a New Zealand literature in the “Otago desert” with “Its poplar-fountains soaring from some green well / Under the waste where there was nothing to tell / Of water’s sweetness”. The missionary goal overwhelms the individual who preaches something beyond himself, but it is insufficient to sustain the individual. Brasch and de Foucauld both disappear into purposeful anonymity. Brasch goes on to make explicit the comparison between Egypt in the North African desert and New Zealand in the Pacific in his memoir Indirections; later, recalling his early poetry, he describes “the prevailing cloudiness of my ideas and aspirations, the vagueness of my similes and metaphors (Shelley and water, Keats and water, sometimes Yeats and water, but mostly water.” (Alan Roddick’s introduction quotes this passage.)

It is tempting to say that we might escape this flowingly unfruitful ambiguity by talking of Brasch in terms of which he might not have approved. This uncertainty of identity can be read in terms of Brasch’s own outsider identity, as Jewish, wealthy and homosexual. The idea that wealth is exclusionary rather than buying opportunity may seem inaccurate, but Brasch seems to have believed it; on his return to Dunedin:

I soon realized that I was the only male creature in Dunedin who was not working, who hadn’t a job – for the unemployed were clearly marked as such. And no honest respectable man goes about without a job; if for some obscure reason he hasn’t one, he does not show himself. It is not only an offence against society to be seen in the streets flaunting the fact that one does not work like everyone else; it challenges the settled order of things, a threat that no right thinking New Zealander could tolerate. It makes one an object of suspicion, and more, an enemy.

All these unfair reasons to judge him harshly could certainly instigate the reluctance to define himself we can trace through the poetry. However, no consciousness of them is apparent in the poems themselves, although the later poem “Signals”, with its “tongues that taste each other”, is a possible exception. We are left with an indescribable gap of experience: something we know is there, and is a possible explanation, but is not apparent enough to speak of.

An interest in exclusion can be traced in one unusual way. Roddick’s annotation is concise and minimal, mainly because the major role of describing people who feature in the poems is rendered unnecessary by the dramatis personae appended to his edition of Brasch’s journals. There is one point worth raising, however. In “Waianakarua”, Brasch describes “Only the thorn / Alone on the parched rise, inhuman matakauri.” Roddick’s note, “ ‘matakauri’: the modern spelling is matagouri”, is incorrect and raises an interesting question. Matakauri is, in fact, a spelling unique to Brasch, and matagouri is the common usage of his and our time: see, for example, a letter from Ursula Bethell to Brasch discussing this poem and “matagouri (as I’ve been used to call it)”. It is instead probable that Brasch is attempting to reconstruct an authentic Māori word from a settler mishearing, although the attempt fails because of the g-like sound of k in Ngāi Tahu pronunciation. When combined with the assertion in “Forerunners” that “Those who were before us trod first the soil”, a contrast to the general impression of Brasch and other cultural nationalists as disregarding Māori settlement can be seen. Instead,

Behind our quickness, our shallow occupation

of the easier

Landscape, their unprotesting memory

Mildly hovers, surrounding us with perspective,

Offering soil for our rootless behaviour.


A people who, like him, have a place in the landscape are left hovering, “unprotesting”, in the background, an existence acknowledged but unexplored.

This, perhaps, is a similar phenomenon to my reluctance to recommend this collection, while at the same time I cannot say that the poems are not worthy of attention. They were written a long time past, to speak to a people now gone. It would be foolish to say that this makes them irrelevant, but, to adapt Marlowe, this was in another country and, besides, he is dead. Our era has lacunae of attention just as his did, and the interests gazed at by mannered, Audenesque and proudly provincial poetry are not ours.

This edition argues against this, trying to make Brasch corporeal and bring him out into his rightful place in New Zealand letters. Appearing now, years after Brasch’s poetry was last in print, an argument is being made in every aspect from the painting on the cover (Max Gimblett’s In the Beginning was the Word and the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Amongst Us) to the first poem in the selection, breaking the chronology, Brasch’s “Man of Words”. This ends:

I marry tongues, eras and lives, living

Them in these words I trace in dust and leave

For others in their day to bear and live.


We are told that Brasch is relevant and amongst us yet, but the argument relies on our bearing and living the words yet. We can neither be glad of, nor sorry for, the past; but it is gone and, on the evidence of these poems, we cannot yet say that the dust has not settled, and the words are still there. But nor would I be happy enacting the late poem “Winter Anemones”:

See, they come now

To lamp me through the inscrutable dusk

And down the catacombs of death.


Instead, there is only an ambiguous presence; Brasch, not faded, not irrelevant, but still not looking at the camera, leaving us grasping for something to say.

Tom McLean is an MA student at Victoria University of Wellington; his thesis is an edition of Dan Davin’s war diaries.

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