What Kendrick Smithyman can tell us about Anzac Day
Although few students witnessed the balcony fire, the event was recorded on film, and broadcast on national news programmes. Soon Cosgrove and Reith found themselves the target of condemnation on blogs and on talkback radio shows, and the website of Salient, the magazine of the Victoria University Students Association, found itself inundated with angry comments. University authorities issued an order temporarily suspending Cosgrove and Reith from their studies, supposedly because they had created a fire hazard; the Workers Party held several small demonstrations in their defence.
Last April's flag burning can be considered an act of political frustration. A large majority of New Zealanders opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Labour's refusal to supply troops for this invasion probably had a good deal to do with its re-election in 2005, yet there has been little public debate about, let alone dissension from, this country's ongoing involvement in the war George Bush launched against Afghanistan late in 2001. At least five thousand civilians died in the bombings and missile strikes that accompanied that invasion, and thousands more have died in fighting since then, as an unwieldy coalition of Western governments and local warlords and opportunists struggles to stabilise a country ruined by two centuries of imperialist military adventures.
Western politicians routinely present the post-invasion government headed by Hamed Karzai as a democratic alternative to the Taliban and to lawless warlords, but the regime's policies and its personnel tell their own story. The chief of staff to the commander of the post-invasion Afghan army is General Abdul Dostum, a veteran of the anti-Soviet Mujaheddin who is infamous for shelling the suburbs of Kabul, and for executing prisoners of war by locking them in sealed crates. Last year, in an attempt to court the support of Islamic fundamentalists, the Afghan government passed a Taliban-like law which allows men living in the Bamiyan province in the centre of the country to escape prosecution for rape, as long as they marry their victims. Bamiyan is, of course, the place where New Zealand troops and police have been deployed for almost a decade now, in 'peacemaking' and 'reconstruction' efforts that see them acting as muscle for Karzai's state forces. Joel Cosgrove and Alistair Reith deserved to be congratulated, rather than condemned, for trying to raise awareness of the real nature of post-invasion Afghanistan, and the real role of Kiwi forces there.
It is worth asking, though, whether Cosgrove and Reith's decision to burn a flag made discussion about Anzac Day and New Zealand foreign policy more rather than less difficult. The fire certainly prompted outraged reaction, but outraged reaction is not the same thing as informed debate. The following comment typifies the internet and talkback response to Cosgrove and Reith's action:
Anzac Day is not a day for politicking. Anzac Day is a time to remember the people who died to give these idiots the right to protest…
There is a contradiction which runs though communications like this one. The defenders of the flag insist that Anzac Day is a celebration of democracy, and of the wars that were allegedly fought to preserve democracy. At the same time, though, these champions of democracy proscribe any discussion about their interpretation of Anzac Day, insisting that the subject should be off-limits to 'politicking'. Anzac Day is to be a celebration of a set of pre-arranged meanings, not an opportunity for a discussion about those meanings. The proscription of political and historical debate on Anzac Day suits the New Zealand political class well. In the speech he delivered at last year's ceremony, John Key claimed that the young Anzacs who were dumped on Turkish beaches by British troopships were sent there to defend New Zealand’s democracy, when in fact they were pawns in a harebrained scheme of the gin-sozzled Winston Churchill, who cared far more about defeating the rivals of British imperialism than he did about democracy. Key went on to associate all of New Zealand's adventures abroad with the defence of 'freedom', and to urge support for the Kiwi mission in Afghanistan today. Nobody at the Anzac ceremony and nobody in the media saw fit to query Key's strange interpretation of the Gallipoli disaster, and his implication that the Boer and Vietnam Wars were struggles for 'freedom' - to do so would, presumably, have violated the 'spirit' of Anzac Day. Key is, after all, New Zealand's leader, and Anzac Day is a time for 'unity', not for thought and debate.
Joel Cosgrove and Alistair Reith hold a set of political beliefs which are diametrically opposed to those of our Prime Minister, and yet they share with him a certain approach to Anzac Day. Like the right-wing politicians who stand before the flag with their hands on their hearts, the young revolutionaries make Anzac Day the setting for a grand, uncompromising gesture - a gesture which precludes rather than encourages discussion about the meaning of the past. The burning of a flag is an act which it is only possible to support wholeheartedly or to abhor. The fire on the balcony at Victoria University was never likely to open a constructive dialogue between New Zealanders with different views about the meaning of our history.
Is there an alternative to the dichotomy between celebration and desecration, between flag waving and flag burning? Is a subtler, more ambiguous response to Anzac Day possible? These questions remind me of some of the discussions I had with members of the Returned and Services Association when I worked at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I remember one elderly veteran of the Vietnam War who volunteered at the museum, and who used to enjoy stopping to chat with me on his way to his morning coffee break. This man would talk proudly of how he had followed the example of his father, who was a decorated member of the Maori Battalion, by joining the army in the mid-60s. When I eventually asked him whether any of his own kids had carried on the family tradition by joining the army, he gave me a look of surprise and exasperation, and explained that he would never be so stupid as to allow his children to fight in a war. Vietnam had, he explained, been 'a green hell'. He was an active member of the RSA because the organisation was helping with the treatment of the diverse physical and mental injuries his comrades had suffered in Vietnam. He took part in the dawn ceremony every year not because he wanted to celebrate war, but because he wanted to remember an event which had determined the course of his life. He did not approve of politicians who used the day to glamourise the wars of the past, or to justify the military adventures of the present.
Am I engaging in semantics when I suggest that there is a difference between celebrating and commemorating, and that Anzac Day might be turned from a celebration into a commemoration? Anzac Day ceremonies that were commemorative rather than celebratory would differ in two important ways from what presently occurs on April the 25th. In the first place, they would resist conflating attitudes to individual soldiers with interpretations of the conflicts in which those soliders fought. At present, both the jingoistic right and the anti-war left tend to assume that veterans must be judged by the character of the wars they fought. Conservatives refuse to consider the evidence for the absurdity and futility of conflicts like World War One and Vietnam War, claiming that do so would be to 'insult' those who fought at Gallipoli or in the Indochinese jungle; for their part, leftists too often respond with indifference, or even contempt, when the sufferings of the men who served as footsoldiers for imperialism in places like Vietnam are raised.
A commemoration would also differ from a celebration because it would not demand that its participants share a pre-existing interpretation of the events it marked. Instead of being dismissed as divisive 'politicking', discussion about the meaning of these events would be regarded as an essential part of the commemoration.
How do we think in a commemorative, rather than in either a celebratory or a completely derogatory way, about the great and terrible events of our past? I want to make a suggestion by examining one of Kendrick Smithyman's lesser-known poems. The piece was written on April the 25th, 1985, but was only published in 2002, when it appeared in Smithyman's massive, posthumous Collected Poems.
Only passing through, we weren’t committed.
I couldn’t sleep for spasms of coughing,
shut myself into the motel unit’s kitchen,
made cups of instant, read You Can’t Go Home Again,
squared up to a window and looked forward
to the dawn chorus. In the event,
uneasy change of state in light among clouds
where the sea lies, and a something more becoming
visible. Flat wet paddocks lay either side of the river
with no outcry. At the edge of town
with shelterbelt and orchard, you expect more
than this. What is it depletes?
Downtown at the state Highway and Main Street junction
They were already gathered by their multipurpose
memorial waiting for daybreak. This is handy
to the Anglican church where the martyr priest was
hanged, then butchered. Another campaign,
motives are obscured, they could barely scan
each other’s faces whatever words may be said.
Along the highway, over the flats, across
the unpredictable river carried (wayward,
inconsequential?) fragments, the Last Post.
It’s always hard to hear, distantly.
'Anzac Day' is an undramatic poem. The piece is set in the eastern Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki, on the morning of April the 25th. The poet-narrator has passed an uncomfortable night in a cheap motel; just before daybreak, he and his unidentified companion or companions drive out of town, passing a group of locals preparing for the Anzac Day dawn service. As they leave Opotiki, hearing the 'Last Post' in the distance, Smithyman and co are disappointed by the paucity of bird life on the river flats outside the town.
Compared to the elaborate, self-consciously serious works about April the 25th produced by Kiwi poets like Vincent O'Sullivan and Kevin Ireland, Smithyman's text seems slight indeed. Where is Smithyman's acknowledgement of New Zealand's long and tragic history of involvement in foreign wars? Where are his reflections on the meaning of one of the most important days on our national calendar? Why has he written a poem about Anzac Day in Opotiki, when he did not even bother to attend the town's dawn ceremony? Doesn't his poem seem more interested in ornithology than in human life?
The first stanza of Smithyman's poem might seem particularly odd, to anyone expecting a conventional exposition on the meaning of Anzac Day. Why does the poem open with a series of trivial, personal details? Does the poet really need to tell us about his 'spasms of coughing', about his cups of coffee, and about his reading? In 'Anzac Day', as in many of his poems, Smithyman obstinately refuses to differentiate between what seems trivial and what seems important. Smithyman often seems more interested in the apparently unimportant - in 'the unimpressive shard carried home from the dig', as he puts it in one poem.
Yet there is a method to Smithyman’s messiness. A good Smithyman poem is like an arch without a keystone - every detail works toward the effect of the whole, just as every brick in such an arch supports the other bricks. All of the apparently pointless details in the first stanza of 'Anzac Day’ tell us something about the poet's situation and state of mind. Smithyman's inability to sleep suggests his restive thoughts, and his seclusion in the kitchen of his motel unit suggests an isolation from his travelling companions, and perhaps from other people in general. You Can't Go Home Again is a posthumously-published novel by Thomas Wolfe about a young man who attains literary success in a big city by writing about the small town where he grew up. Of course, his success comes at the expense of his reputation in his home town, whose citizens do not appreciate having their secrets told to the world. Smithyman himself came from a small town in Northland, and wrote endlessly about New Zealand's regions. Despite or because of his background and his writing, he sometimes felt self-conscious when he travelled out of his adopted home of Auckland into regional New Zealand. Many of his poems worry about whether he has the right to turn the people of unfashionable parts of New Zealand into literature. Smithyman’s reading of Wofle’s novel rhymes with his feeling of not being ‘committed’ to the place where he find himself on the morning of ‘Anzac Day’.
In 'Not a Poem for Armistice Day 1966', which he published in the left-wing quarterly Comment at a time when the Vietnam War was beginning to kill Kiwi volunteers, Smithyman looked back without fondness at his own time in the military, remembering himself as a 'cog of an immense/organised incompetence', protesting that the conflict for which he was drafted 'was positively not/my war', and confessing that he had said, and continued to say, 'emphatic No to glory,/honour and valour'.
The teenaged Smithyman was called up for six weeks of military training in the middle of 1941; while he was in camp the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and he found himself conscripted indefinitely. Smithyman trained initially as an artilleryman, but in 1942 he requested a transfer to the Air Force, where he became not a pilot but a storeman. For three years, Smithyman's unit was marched and trucked across New Zealand, from Auckland through the Waikato to Levin, and then on to Nelson and Blenheim. At the beginning of 1945, when the invasion of Japan was being prepared, Smithyman and his comrades were finally informed that they were being sent overseas. Their top secret destination turned out to be tiny peaceful Norfolk Island, where they whiled away the last months of the war. In New Zealand and on Norfolk, Smithyman the soldier spent much of his time in storerooms, writing poems and letters while he pretended to process orders for petrol and cigarettes. A series of witty but melancholy letters Smithyman wrote to his childhood friend and fellow serviceman Graham Parsons express his sense of being lost and powerless inside a vast apparatus whose purposes he finds inscrutable:
We have seen virtually all things shattered. We are, those of us who think, sophists by birth and confirmed in the habit of doubt. What values can we take as permanent? Precious few out of our way of life. If we go back to the country and look at the soil for strength, we find it betrayed and betraying. At the best the humanist spirit of this country, of its roads, its paddocks, hills crops and waters, is a palliative and not a matter for life itself. I see little remedy or hope in anything, though I turn more and more to Communist philosophy as a chance. Chance we must reckon on, since so much has been born from it…
I’m so much a cog, I can’t see anything of the machine’s working because I’m still bound to the routine that signifies its action. Life, in brief, continues on a practically animal plane…
In an unpublished poem called 'Confessions of a New Zealand Opium Eater' Smithyman reveals that, despite his determined lack of soldierly valour, he did manage to suffer one ‘war wound’: perhaps as a result of the long periods he spent sitting in his storeroom, he developed a bad case of hemorrhoids, which he had to treat with an opium-laced ointment.
In 'Anzac Day' Smithyman catches sight of the volunteers for the dawn ceremony 'gathered by their multipurpose memorial'. Opotiki has two war memorials: a classical pillar inscribed with the names of local men slain in the two World Wars, and a War Memorial Park. In the years after World War One communities around New Zealand were divided by arguments about how to memorialise the young men who had died in the 'war to end all wars'. The newly-formed Returned Servicemen's Association argued aggressively for 'single-purpose' memorials, like pillars or crosses or statues. Many mayors and councillors, by contrast, wanted to use public money to create something more functional, like a bridge or a park or a school. Often a compromise of sorts had to be reached, and two memorials were created. Is Smithyman referring to Opotiki's park when he talks of a 'multipurpose/memorial', or is he making reference to the pillar that rises close to the park, with its tributes to the dead from two different wars? In many ways, Anzac Day is itself a 'multipurpose memorial' - it lumps the score or more foreign conflicts Kiwis have participated in together, and claims to remember them all.
Smithyman notices that the mustering place for participants in the dawn ceremony is 'handy/to the Anglican church' where the 'martyr priest' Carl Volkner was 'hanged, then butchered' in 1865. Volkner was a German Lutheran who joined the Anglican-controlled Church Missionary Service, travelled to New Zealand in 1849, and became Minister at Opotiki's Church of St Stephen the Martyr in 1861.
Volkner ministered in Opotiki during the invasion and conquest of the Waikato and the renewal of the Taranaki Wars. Although neither of these conflicts directly affected Opotiki, they destabilised the town and its environs, turning many of the local Whakatohea iwi against the Crown and driving refugees into the area. Volkner was not a man to remain aloof from worldy matters, and he often used his sermons to defend Governor George Grey, the primary instigator of the invasion of the Waikato. Worse, Volkner passed the names of local Maori he suspected of 'disloyalty' on to authorities during two visits to Auckland in 1864 and early 1865.
On the second of March 1865, a group of Maori who had adopted the new, insurrectionary Pai Marire religion confronted Volkner outside his church, hung him from a convenient willow tree, cut his head off, and smeared his blood on their faces. Volkner's corpse was eventually dragged to the pulpit of his church, where a Pai Marire missionary from Taranaki named Kereopa Te Rau gave an anti-Pakeha sermon and ripped out the clergyman's eyes. Kereopa named one of Volkner's eyes 'parliament' and the other one 'the Queen and English law', and swallowed them both. Kereopa, who was soon renamed Te Kaiwhata, or 'the Eye Eater', had lost his wife and several of his children when British troops burnt down a church full of civilians during the last stages of the Waikato War. The bloody missionary and his handful of Whakatohea followers soon fled into the Urewera mountains of the Tuhoe people, where Pakeha soldiers, militia, and adventurers followed them, often accompanied by groups of anti-Tuhoe Maori. Smithyman describes the chaotic nature of the fighting that the slaying of Volkner provoked:
motives are obscured, they could barely scan
each other’s faces whatever words may be said
Ever since Kereopa's flight into the Ureweras, those mountains have been, in the Pakeha imagination, an obscure and frightening region, hospitable to outlaws and hostile to civilisation. The repeated invasions of the Ureweras between 1866 and
1872, the attack on Rua Kenana's separatist community at Maungapohatu in 1916, and the 'anti-terror' raid on Ruatoki North by paranoid police in 2007 were all presented, by Pakeha politicians and editorialists, as attempts to bring the 'rule of law' to this dark corner of New Zealand. As one of the main northern gateways to the Ureweras region, Opotiki has long been considered by Pakeha as something of a frontier town – a place where order and chaos, civilisation and savagery, can collide, as they supposedly did on March the second, 1865. The murder at Opotiki was reported throughout New Zealand and in many parts of the British Empire, and Volkner was quickly turned into a colonial saint. For many Pakeha, the slaying confirmed the bestial nature of native New Zealanders, and showed the necessity of bringing the whole of the North Island under white control. For land speculators in Auckland and their political allies, the death of Volkner provided a pretext for the confiscation of one hundred and eighty thousand hectares of Tuhoe land, and sixty thousand hectares of the traditional territory of the smaller Whakatohea iwi.
When Smithyman writes of a 'martyr priest' he is thinking about the name of Opotiki's Anglican church, as well as the fate of the church's most famous vicar. Does Carl Volkner deserve to be considered a martyr, like St Stephen, who became one of the first tragic heroes of the Christian church after being stoned by a mob goaded by Saul? Smithyman does not offer a definite opinion on Volkner, but he does use his allusion to this German friend of the New Zealand state to make mischief with some of the usual oppositions associated with Anzac Day. On April the 25th, windy politicians and newspaper editorialists like to talk about the bond that Maori and Pakeha supposedly formed during the First and Second World Wars, when many of them fought together against German imperialism. Volkner, of course, was a German friend of the New Zealand state whose death helped divide, and arguably still divides, Maori and Pakeha. In 1865, Volkner's supposed bravery was inextricably linked, in the minds of Pakeha, with the supposed treachery and brutality of Maori. Volkner may have come from a non-British nation, and given his sermons in a thick accent, but as a white victim of brown 'barbarism' he was considered a fallen comrade by British colonists.
Smithyman's reference to Volkner reflects his refusal to separate New Zealand's modern history from the country's colonial origins. The New Zealand state and the RSA both define Anzac Day as an occasion on which New Zealand's involvement in overseas wars is remembered, and Anzac Day services therefore scrupulously avoid reference to the wars that raged across much of the North Island in the nineteenth century. On April the 25th wreaths are laid on memorials around the country for the relatively small numbers of Kiwis who served in obscure conflicts like the Malyan Emergency and the Borneo Confrontation, but no mention is given to the Maori and Pakeha who fought and fell on battlefields with names like Rangiriri, Orakau, Nga Tapa and Te Porere.
The town of Opotiki is built on land confiscated from Whakatohea in the aftermath of the killing of Volkner, and the 'flat wet paddocks' Smithyman finds around the town are the factory floors of a dairy industry that was established on confiscated land in the Waikato and Taranaki, as well as in the Bay of the Plenty. The Pakeha-dominated, pastoralist society that threw itself into both the World Wars could not have existed without the conflicts of the nineteenth century. How can we hope to understand our involvement in one set of wars, if we are reluctant to remember those that preceded them?
Smithyman was aware of the way that one war can be premised upon the results of another. In a late, unpublished poem he describes the journey of a train full of New Zealand troops across what seems like an exotic landscape, before revealing that, far from crossing some remote part of the world, the soldiers are being transported into the interior of New Zealand:
Star of the evening, beautiful star the soldiers sang,
as the train rolled on, into the King Country
Smithyman's poem probably remembers his journey to do basic military training at Waiouru Camp in the middle of 1941. The King Country’s name reflects the fact that it sheltered King Tawhiao and his fighters after they were ousted from the Waikato by Pakeha invaders in 1864. A de facto independent state, it stretched from southern edge of the Waikato to the northern edge of Taranaki, and was not opened to Pakeha until 1883, when Tawhiao made peace with the government in Wellington and returned from exile, allowing settlers to dismantle the forts which had been built along the rivers that marked the 'aukati', or border, of his old realm, and to disperse the militia that had staffed these redoubts. When they entered the King Country, Smithyman and his comrades were entering what was, not so long ago, a foreign country.
The New Zealand army into which Smithyman was inducted at Waiouru was built on foundations laid out during the wars of the nineteenth century. For instance, the Waikato Mounted Rifles and the associated Eighteenth Armoured Regiment, which became famous for their roles at Gallipoli and during the Allied advance through Italy during World War Two, grew out of the Fourth Waikato Regiment, which was a settlers' militia formed in the chaotic aftermath of the conquest of the Waikato. The young men who charged the Turks on horseback at Gallipoli and drove tanks toward Monte Cassino were the descendants of the settlers who rode on night patrols along the northern border of the King Country during the years of Tawhiao’s exile.
As a returned serviceman, Kendrick Smithyman could have a place of honour at Opotiki's dawn ceremony, if he chose to attend the event. He seems more interested, though, in the 'dawn chorus' of the local birds than in the service held by humans. He drives out of town, leaving his fellow veterans behind. Is he like the old soldier in James K Baxter's poem ‘The Fisherman’, who chooses to cast his line on a lonely piece of coast rather than subject himself to the pious rhetoric of a church service? Baxter's soldier does not fish to forget the war: he broods over the conflict as he stands by the sea, just as Smithyman thinks of it even as he drives out of Opotiki searching for birds. Both Baxter and Smithyman seem to be suggesting that it is better to remember an event like a war thoughtfully and quietly, in the midst of the natural world, rather than with elaborate public ceremonies and windy speeches.
The relaxed, almost raconteurial style of 'Anzac Day' is typical of the poems Smithyman wrote in the second half of his career. Where the young Smithyman often worked within strict forms, counting his beats or his syllables, the later model treated the sentence rather than the line or the stanza as his basic unit of construction. The lines of 'Anzac Day' frequently overflow, as Smithyman draws out an observation or emphasises a point. Although his manner may seem almost artlessly casual, Smithyman has designed his poem carefully, and is able to use rhythm to underscore his meanings. Consider these lines, from the second stanza of 'Anzac Day':
a something more becoming
visible. Flat wet paddocks lay either side of the river
with no outcry.
The second line quoted runs to fifteen syllables. The full stop early in the line is followed by four stressed syllables, which slow its pace down even further. The line's length and pace is entirely appropriate, though, given the images of a waterlogged, rather dreary landscape it contains. A torpid scene makes for a torpid rhythm. As he leaves Opotiki, Smithyman hears a tune carrying over the sodden landscape:
Along the highway, over the flats, across
the unpredictable river carried (wayward,
inconsequential?) fragments, the Last Post.
It’s always hard to hear, distantly.
The final line of 'Anzac Day' might seem, at first sight, to make only the fairly obvious point that the ‘Last Post’, like any piece of music, is hard to hear from a distance. But the comma that Smithyman places before 'distantly' perhaps encourages us to give his line an additional, more recondite meaning. Is the poet suggesting that it is hard for us to 'hear' - that is, to recognise and understand - the past 'distantly'? What could such a curious formulation mean?
Arguably, Smithyman thinks that to 'hear' the past 'distantly' is to place the events of the past within proper, and properly complex, contexts. As we have seen, Smithyman refuses to treat the battles and campaigns and wars which are remembered with such fanfare on Anzac Day as dramatically isolated, self-explanatory events, about whose meaning we can all easily agree. Instead, he insists upon placing the conflicts our memorials and dawn ceremonies remember within deep and ambiguous historical contexts. He 'hears' them 'distantly', not with the false clarity of jingoists and sloganeers. In its own modest way, 'Anzac Day' is an exercise in hearing ‘distantly', and a corrective to the simplistic, sensationalistic treatment of New Zealand history by both the right and (sometimes) the left. Note: due to the eccentricites of blogger.com, the spacing of some of the lines from 'Anzac Day' I have just quoted has not been reproduced accurately. Luckily, you can read the text intact at Smithyman's online Collected Poems. The version reproduced at the bottom of my post (click it and then use your magnifying function to read it properly) is a draft I found in the University of Auckland's wonderful Smithyman Papers.