It should be no surprise that I disagreed with Linda Herrick about the merits of the 214th - that's right, 214th - issue of Landfall: I'm in the thing, along with a lot of my friends and cronies.
Siobhan Harvey isn't (so far) a friend or crony, simply because I've never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I am very grateful for the warm review she gave me (and Andrew Johnston) in 214. Landfall isn't (mostly) an online publication, so I'm reproducing the review here, with Siobhan's permission (most of the discussion about Johnston's book has been excerpted, but you can read a review of his book here, in The Listener).
If you want a God's eye view of product number 214, then check out this fascinating post by Jack Ross, which includes a sensible and suggestive half-answer to that eternal question 'Where the hell is New Zealand literature going?'
Scott Hamilton, To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps. Auckland: Titus Books, 2007.
Andrew Johnston, Sol. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2007.
For the poet, the credo or doctrine is not the point of arrival but is, on the contrary, the point of departure for the metaphysical journey
wrote Nobel-Prize-winning Russian émigré poet, Joseph Brodsky . An odd choice to introduce a review of the work of two New Zealand poets? Perhaps; perhaps not. Both collections are, in their own ways, about explorations and discoveries which are as much cerebral and metaphysical as geographical and physical. Also, readers will find in these books excursions of the theoretical and improbable, not simply of the tangible and feasible. Mostly, the paths readers are taken along by Hamilton and Johnston have origins that are intriguing and transits that are stimulating; and only rarely (in the case of Hamilton) does the reader consider, in a segue back to Brodsky, the ideologue and poet, there might have been more interaction on a political and/or poetic level.
A short journey takes longer. (p. 25)
Hamilton’s opening line to the succinct poem ‘Ulysses’ exemplifies the ethos behind his first collection. Conundrum, confrontation, deconstruction, axiom: this is a book laden with possibilities, puzzles and the permeations that can result when the potential and the problematic align. So often these matters arise out of an engagement with and alienation from landscape, real but also mythically-charged; the terrain of the resultant debate, one feels, especially New Zealand in source. Take the prose-piece, ‘The Zero’. Here the reader’s taken through a landscape that’s once familiarly Auckland and yet simultaneously subjective, a combination that, come the conclusion, ensures that our view of the recognizable and intimate has become skewed into something at once estranged and anarchic:
he watched the suburbs slide by in their arbitrary order: Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Otahuhu, Mt Wellington, Orakei…. Villas and gardens were greys and greens, and the harbour was grey, or silver, or blue, depending on which way he looked. All that water was the rough pelt of some wild beast (p. 32-33).
The entire transformation hinges upon memory – upon whether what is remembered is truthful or a fabrication atrophying accurate recollection into a kernel of the literal surrounded, conker-like, by a hard shell of whimsical distortion. It’s a battle of logos versus memoria that’s also present in, amongst others,
‘Muriwai 1957’and ‘A Defence of Common Sense’. In the former, an evocation of Kendrick Smithyman’s life is transformed into a meditation upon poetic creativity, the environment turning into a stalking colossus redolent of the writer’s psyche. In ‘A Defence of Common Sense’, meanwhile, a prose list of scientific, philosophical, autobiographical and geographical absolutes conjoins the secretive and speculative:
I know that her hair is brown… I know that all planets follow elliptical orbits… I knowthat most philosophers die in bed… I know that a rock becomes conscious in mid-air (pp. 13-14).
The ‘journey’ is also the same, albeit framed by a different context, in the titular piece and the pensive postmodernist sequence ‘My Experiences in the Maori Wars’. Kicking the collection off, the title piece ruminates upon whether the much heralded 1969 Moon landing is a fable and, thereby, a metaphor for Civilization’s decline:
Perhaps we have never been to the moon. Perhaps we should shut windows and doors, and leave the floor undusted, and sit, silently, on the dirt, reading old newspapers in the dark. Maybe then we’ll forget that we’re at home, and be able to leave at last? (p. 9).
Whilst ‘My Experiences in the Maori Wars’, apart from being indicative of Hamilton’s delight in playing with recall, assumption, locale and history, personal and collective, also epitomizes an authorial interests in dedication – not only ascribing the work to an individual, but also using icons (Te Kooti, Smithyman again) to further poetical exploration of subject matter.
Often, readers may find themselves thinking of the parallels between Hamilton’s book and Chris Price’s recent Brief Lives (AUP, 2006). The subject matter of both works might be distinct, but there’s certainly a commonality in doctrine and investigation. And like Price’s book, Hamilton’s ends with biographical deliberation, matching Else’s reflection upon the life of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam with his own musings upon English Marxist historian, Edward Palmer Thompson. Entitled ‘Ukania: An Academic Adventure’, it’s part drug-induced contemplation, part road-trip diary, and transports the reader from Hong Kong to Worcester and Hull and back to Sandringham. Also charged with academic necessity (study for a PhD) and fraught personal interactions, including a meeting with Thompson’s wife, Dorothy, ‘Ukania’ paints Thompson, most famous for The Making of the English Working Class and The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, as the personification of all the conflicts – beliefs-versus-practice, memory-versus-history, public-versus-private space – that engage Hamilton’s work .
Absent, though, is a wider sense of Thompson’s enduring legacy. In ‘Ukania’, Hamilton rightly notes his subject’s pleas for the protection of civil liberties, but leaves unmentioned that in this he was, Cassandra-like, divining the future. The numerous encroachments upon social freedoms witnessed in the UK since 1979, including (but not limited to) the Thatcher government’s muffling of Sinn Fein and the Blair government’s ‘anti-terrorist’ measures, seem (to this Anglo-Irish émigré reviewer, at least) proof of Thompson’s right-minded predictions. Meanwhile, discussions of Thompson’s deep anti-Stalinism might have been framed in the context of an era of post-Khrushchev Soviet authoritarianism that saw (and here’s the link back to Brodsky) the sort of repression of artistic independence that forced numerous Russian ‘creatives’ into political asylum.
It’s a minor point, for so often in To the Moon, In Seven Easy Steps, Hamilton’s strongest where concision melds language and ideas; in ‘Ukania’, conversely, a little more loquaciousness would have been welcome.
So where does all this journeying lead us? In terms of New Zealand and its literary canon, Hamilton and Johnston offer us welcome tours through places and spaces that align with and expand our literary sensibilities. There's a tangible sense that both collections embrace an international outlook that doesn't compromise local tastes.