Express lane, John Horrocks

Peat 
Lynn Jenner
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531694

Lynn Jenner lives on the Kāpiti Coast, not far from the new expressway between Mackays Crossing and Peka Peka. She writes in Peat that thinking about the construction of the road meant that she needed “the close company of a writer as a bulwark against its enacted power and concrete”. Charles Brasch, whose work she hardly knew before she started her project, was the chosen author. The resulting book is a marvellous and unexpected combination of the two topics. In a typical instance, a matter-of-fact account of community discussions about the New Zealand Transport Agency’s noise standard NZS 6806 is followed by an imagined representation of Brasch’s family tree in the style of Colin McCahon’s painting, The Canoe Tainui. Brasch has “a ball of light from Great-Aunt Agnes on his left shoulder and his grandfather in his heart”, while the towns have their own colours and climate, with Invercargill “the colour of clay roads after weeks and weeks of sleets and rain”.

Juxtapositions like these can seem at first like uninhibited exercises in free association or synaesthesia. They are supported by two extended glossaries: one about Brasch and his life and writing, the other about the expressway itself, with notes about greenhouse gas emissions, choke points, benefit-cost ratios, bridge expansion points, audio tactile profiles and people affected by the development, including Patricia Grace, digger drivers, losers, masters and servants. The glossaries, which make up a third of the book, are an essential part of the text, and allow free scope for musings on subjects such as why people write and how George Orwell’s views on this subject relate to Brasch’s motivations for his own memoir, Indirections.

Peat is itself like an extended glossary item – an exploration of the curious decision to link the construction of the expressway with a poet and editor who died 44 years earlier. Its sheer inventiveness is striking, but the method has serious purposes. The disruptive progress of the development and the limited power of locals to challenge its effects are paralleled by the description of Brasch’s dismayed attempts to protect the character of Dunedin buildings, mainly through letter-writing, a venture that was consistent with his larger project as founder of the journal Landfall and his wish to nudge New Zealand towards self-definition and a more vigorous intellectual life.

Brasch disappointed his family after his return from Oxford in the 1930s by refusing to work in the family business. He wanted to be a writer. This rejection of the secure foundations established by a family of cultivated European immigrants was one of the unsettling questions of identity he faced, which also included his Jewishness, his sexuality, and his doubts about his place in New Zealand. Jenner observes that it can be presumptuous to write anything about another person’s identity, but the development of the expressway seems to be an apt metaphor for those rough and careless aspects of New Zealand culture that led Brasch to place a 30-year embargo on his personal papers.

Foundations and their stability were also at the centre of planning for the expressway. At an information booth in the Coastlands Mall, there were some shoebox-sized samples of the peat, sand, gravel and crumbly greywacke upon which the road was to be built. The peat itself had to be compressed by rock in order to drive out the water. Jenner reflects on these physical elements and comments later on the noise of traffic once the works were completed. The road is compared to a spectral creature that overwhelms its environment. It is an “exoskeleton, expanding across the sand and the wetlands”, inviting enmity between the forces of water, peat and concrete.

Amidst this scene of uncertainty and construction is the other Kāpiti – Jenner’s home near the coast beside two great pōhutukawa, and the scenes described by Brasch in 1950 when he travelled north over the Paekakariki Hill and looked towards Kāpiti Island. These reflections are part of a more lyrical component of Peat, which comes not only from the descriptions of the Kāpiti area, but also from some wonderful observations about some of Brasch’s poems, such as “The Clear”, a short piece about an intense moment in Dunedin’s Town Belt. The psychologist in Jenner comes through in her analysis of another poem which recalls his recurrent dreams about a steam engine, the “Lady Engine”, but when she is writing about “The Clear”, she expresses a more personal affinity with his experience, in language that is as fine as that of her ghostly mentor.

The Mackay’s Crossing to Peka Peka Expressway? How about the Jenner/Brasch Highway?

John Horrocks is a Wellington writer.

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Posted in Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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