Book Review: Under Glass, by Gregory Kan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_under_glassIt helps to approach Gregory Kan’s new work Under Glass expecting a creative encounter rather than a series of poems which will tell you something. If you anticipate rightly you’ll have a great experience, because poetry will not always offer what you’d expect.  I don’t think Kan is using language to create meaning or to communicate; instead as Malcolm Budd says, ‘it is the imaginative experience you undergo in reading the poem’ which is on offer.  That’s a way of saying that Kan’s poetry is art and (like many other art forms) the experience of it is paramount.

Under Glass is a dialogue between interlacing prose and verse poems. The prose poems focus on a strange physical landscape which is void of others. These poems are active – the speaker is moving through and within a science-fiction like environment which may seem strangely familiar – because it is. Kan singles out the influence and sampling of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation novel which shares some similar scenery with the prose poems in Under Glass – a lighthouse, the finding of an old photograph, a huge pile of written text. In many ways the speaker is trying to discover the nature of ‘the second sun’ (Kan singles out The Crystal Text by Clark Coolidge as inspiration for the figure of the second sun).

This referencing and borrowing is part of how Kan writes. ‘For me, creative labour is essentially driven by organisation and reorganisation, combination and recombination.’ Kan told Carolyn DeCarlo in an interview for http://cordite.org.au. ‘It is not about creation ex nihilo, creating something from nothing. This is not a coherent concept to me. Everything new in the universe is assembled from something or some things that preceded it. Sampling in music is now something that is widely accepted, and I’d like to see the same happen in writing.’

In contrast to the prose, the verse poems focus on an internal landscape where the speaker talks regularly to the “you”, the “we”, the “they”. The verse poems are more observant, the speaker seems unwillingly stuck –’Here is the place where they will keep me’ he recites on page 35. There are intersections between the two landscapes, but where? That is the place for the reader to discover.

Kan is a master of creating atmosphere on the page, and it’s this atmosphere that provides an engaging  experience through its 65 pages. But if you want to stay you could stay a long time – Kan acknowledges a sampling for 22 other texts, can you find them? What is it like to read the sequences separately – all prose then all verse? How is the experience changed if you take a deep breath at each double spaced line, or if you say the lines out loud? You won’t find a firm narrative line in Under Glass, or even poems which resolve; but Kan offers you so much else.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

Under Glass
by Gregory Kan
Published by AUP
9781869408916

Book Review: Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, by Sugar Magnolia Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_because_a_womans_heartIt is impossible to know what to say about this book because I want to say so many things about this book. It is complex and honest and heavy and light and tender and brutal. It is narrator and narrated. It is the moon and the people looking at the moon.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson graduated with her MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2012 and while she’s done so much since then, including publishing work independently and in journals and co-founding Sweet Mammalian, it feels as if she has spent the better part of six years creating this book. Like only a long incubation could form something so delicate and weighty and sharp.

I opened first to the titular poem. I wanted to know what question the title was answering. Why is a woman’s heart this way? Are we defending her actions, or accusing her? Is it simply because her heart is as unknowable as a needle at the bottom of an ocean, and with the same potential to cause you to bleed if you were to ever uncover it?

The poem answers none of those questions for me. But with its play on narrative voice, it’s mixture of English and Mandarin, it’s evocations of gender and nature, it does set the scene for the book.

As does the opening series; nine poems, each titled Dear Sister, which appear from language and detail to take place in history, but could as easily be a conversation between women today. The fourth describes the needle of a woman’s heart through a gifted horse.

I think the theory presented here by this gifted horse is: you can’t
take the wild from the heart of a girl, but maybe you can put the
wild girl upon a horse and teach her to master some of her own
terrible hysteria. I am expected to ride her and learn to hold my
tongue. But really, she is a strange letter with a heartbeat asking
me not to be myself.

From Dear Sister we wind into the present, where we traverse the uneasiness of children watching their parents love other people, or not be present at all, hot, sick places where

Everyone is slick and fast
even if they’re sad

And then into the consuming terrain of culture and interracial relationship. I fell in love with the poem Snow chart, the story of one person drawing the seasonal nature of feelings for another with a graph. The line –

But love is just another way of looking at the weather, I think.

leading to the final –

You wave the paper at me. See did you see that?
This is how much I love you now.
I nod. We both look out the window, where the
snow has covered everything.

I loved the bizarre, captivating imagery of throwing golden dogs in the air in Pup art, like so much hope catching the sun, and the cold mirror for this in Moon-baller, with the blossoming of the first couplet –

Open up your mouth and
we’ll press our lives together

and the soft, brittle closing of the door in the final stanza –

So, I’ll kiss you on your
big, pink mouth, but leave before
I learn it’s me who’s not fit
for life.

The weaving and shifting of voices and perspectives leaves it unclear where the poems are true to the author’s life – true as a poem can ever be – and where we’ve shifted into a more imaginary landscape. This alone is a testament to Wilson’s craft.

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean tells us secrets about ourselves, invites us into strange new worlds, and shines kind, wry light on dark places. It’s a collection I see myself returning to again and again and again.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean
By Sugar Magnolia Wilson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408909

Book Review: Galleries of Maoriland, by Roger Blackley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_galleries_of_maoriland.jpgGalleries of Maoriland is a study of the people, works and objects of what would become known as ‘Māori art’, and the genre’s heyday between 1880 and 1910. It is a new appreciation of the value of the works produced, circulated and displayed during those years, and how they found a place in the fabric of our national identity.

While the focus is on the complex interactions between Māori art (art by or about Māori), its makers, collectors and traders, Māori themselves (as subjects or consumers), and the public, it is also an amazingly detailed glimpse into many other aspects of New Zealand life at the time.

It is an insight into how Māori and Pākehā saw themselves and their neighbours, as both adjusted to a shared future, and how an art and story appeared to express the spirit of this cohabitation, as the realisation slowly dawned that Māori would remain a living part of New Zealand.

Blackley recreates the wild hunt for authentic and exotic relics of a Māori past, so-called curios, and the many ways of obtaining them: trade in ceremonial gifts, tomb-raiding, or excursions to maniacally rake up the land to find buried treasures. The curios collected were often displayed (as the book’s remarkable collection of images shows) in incongruous, sometimes ghoulish arrays, of huia feathers and weapons, pounamu and disembodied heads.

Blackley explains how these displays also helped to revise the country’s pre-European material culture and its inhabitants into a more acceptable (though not particularly factual) story for the Victorian mind, enabling collectors to place these items (and perhaps their makers) on a scale of development towards the apex of supposed British superiority.

Curios also allowed Pākehā to make sense of Māori and their culture, although often with little relation to how Māori actually understood and lived it. Despite this, Blackley observes that the creation of this Māori-inspired folklore by Pākehā for themselves laid some of the groundwork for the bicultural imagery that distinguishes New Zealand today.

The book’s biographies of portrait subjects and other figures demonstrate how Māori adeptly navigated the art market, not only as suppliers of curios but also by availing their romanticised image. By recreating sittings for Goldie’s ostensibly melancholy Māori portraits, Blackley underlines this pose was agreed and negotiated, rather than disingenuous or manipulative.

Blackley explains how portraits were valued by Māori as a new taonga, and by Pākehā as an art form with uniquely local features. He details how for Māori, portraiture was a revelation, reproducing the awe of Māori in city galleries and including grateful comments to the artists in visitors’ books of the time. While Blackley recognises portraits did help reinforce prevailing beliefs of Māori fading away, he counters Māori also saw in them a medium to reach out to their descendants. As a descendant of the subject of a Goldie portrait, I appreciated this balance.

Blackley’s investigation of traders, artists, and their subjects reveals a remarkable biculturalism among Pākehā in this world and a worldly sophistication of Māori subjects, often nameless in titles of the works, who rather than brooding elders in decaying pā, were frequently influential, well-travelled, sophisticated citizens of the world. He notes these subjects felt Pākehā artists belonged to them, upending preconceived ideas of relationships between artists and these subjects.

On the other hand, Blackley observes biculturalism allowed traders to use their knowledge of Māori lore and custom to manipulate Pākehā purchasers and Māori suppliers of objects. Similarly, public figures we imagine as honourably representing the Crown, after receiving hugely significant gifts with due solemnity, did not hesitate to dip into the profitable side business of trading taonga that had been gifted with the expectation they be returned in like form.

While the period’s ongoing transfer of Māori land is not his focus, Blackley provides interesting links between the whittling away of Māori land and Māori art. Māori attending land courts were inspired to contract portraits as they passed strategically placed galleries. Pākehā legal representatives with knowledge of te reo and tikanga represented claimants and claimed healthy commissions, later funnelling them into the profitable patronage of Māori art or trade in Māori gifts.

While the book provides examples how the colonial gaze could crush innovations in Māori art that challenged the narrative about what Māori art should look like, it also provides counter examples of the fruit this fertile cross-cultural environment could produce.

In one example, idyllic visions of how Māori lived in pre-European kāinga were cobbled together to create a performative culture for visitors, the inhabited model pā. Although these did not prosper like other manifestations of Maoriland, they were surprisingly empowering for Māori, who took ownership of this idealised past, reclaiming it to fortify and revive their tikanga. We also learn how it was a Pākehā artist that brought to life a symbolically rich new flag for the Māori King – the embodiment of aspirations for Māori self-determination.

Towards the end of the period, Blackley shows how the gloomy gaze into an uncertain future so commonly associated with the pose of Goldie’s subjects could more appropriately apply to early Pākehā commentators on Māori-inspired art. The days of freewheeling theorising gave way to a more formal and structured approach, and the curio mania too became a thing of the past, although its images remained thoroughly embedded in the national psyche.

Although Blackley reveals much of so-called Māori art was Pākehā fantasy, he does not deride its makers. He recognises Pākehā collectors, amateur scholars, and artists reinterpreted or embellished Māori art not only for profit, but also in the spirit of nation building, in search of what made New Zealand unique. Māori also found a means not only to preserve their images, but to ensure their material and immaterial culture remained central in the imagination of the colony.

The resulting hybrid folklore still dwells in our national subconscious, and Blackley’s work helps to identify some of its origins. His book subverts our understandings of history, art, engagement, ownership and appropriation. It is layered and diverse as it delves into the minutiae (not to say curios) of the times it studies and does so in the spirit of those times.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Galleries of Maoriland
by Roger Blackley
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869409357

 

Book Review: He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao by Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 
cv_he_kupu_tuku_ihoIf te reo is the door, as in the title of this compilation of the words of Tā Tīmoti Kāretu and Tākuta Te Wharehuia Milroy, it is the threshold between the wharenui of the past and the open courtyard of the future. Standing at the paepae, these kaumātua describe the transformations they have both witnessed and led in te reo me ōna tikanga, the language and its customs, creating a taukaea, a bond, from past through present to firmly anchor the future.

Kāretu and Milroy’s work to revitalise te reo me ōna tikanga could be compared to the restoration of poupou (carved panels) in the wharenui of te reo. Guided by knowledge handed down to them, Tā Tīmoti and Tākuta Te Wharehuia carefully bring the faded panels to life, revealing the figures within that will guide new generations of orators as they breathe life into almost forgotten words.

It is fitting that He Kupu Tuku Iho is written entirely in te reo. With its conversational style and personal stories grounding the discussion of core tikanga, the language reaches out even to the learner. Lively discussions between the pair hold the reader’s attention by deftly varying spoken rhythm and subject matter, from the lofty heights of spirituality to earthy humour.

The transcribed words of the authors reflect their voice, cadence, and favoured turns of phrase and expressions leaned upon and brandished for emphasis like tokotoko (walking sticks). This is a written record of an eloquence rarely heard, let alone read.

Tā Tīmoti and Tākuta Te Wharehuia have kept the linguistic fires burning despite passing showers of pessimism about the future of te reo. Now, ka rite ki te kōpara e kō nei i te ata, like the bellbird singing in the morning, te reo rangatira resounds throughout the motu, adorned by vocabulary restored and reintroduced by these kaitiaki reo.

Tā Tīmoti is known for arguing te reo is in better shape than often feared, though he recognises it is changing. Whatever shape those changes finally take, this book preserves the language wielded by these tohunga reo for future speakers, teachers and learners.
Yet this book is a door to far more than language. In chapters on wairua and tapu, Te Wharehuia leads readers through the mist into the world of his childhood, of kēhua (ghosts), tohunga, and a white-feathered guardian morepork that dodges stones thrown by mischievous boys.

And as befits the sharing of such knowledge, there are stern words about treading neither on tikanga nor on the wrong place in an urupā that will echo in readers’ ears long after turning the final page. But on the other side of the kapa (penny), there is warm and helpful advice on how to find the right balance between humour and remembrance when speaking at a tangi.

Complementing Tākuta Te Wharehuia’s kōrero on tikanga, Tā Tīmoti shares his lively but piercing analysis of te reo of yesterday and today. He spots English words dressed in Māori kākahu, and observes the changing flow of the language as it is channelled into the thought patterns of speakers whose first language is English.

Their book sits in a unique space between wānanga and a talk between koroua; between history, current affairs and musings on the future; between autobiography and chronicle. It is informative, never dull, and sometimes hātakēhi (hard case).

As a path in te reo to the pou (pillars) of te ao Māori, this work has few rivals. It is the fruit of two lifetimes of gathering and sharing knowledge. Although the language may challenge some, the rewards of taking this wero and opening the door are many. Ka mau te wehi!

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao
by Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408800

Book Review: He’s so MASC, by Chris Tse

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

‘This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.’

cv_hes_so_mascSo writes Chris Tse in his poem, Punctum. And this quote is the first thing I find in the blurb of He’s so MASC after flipping over the dazzling cover. If you’re familiar with Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which revisited the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, then you know how incredibly potent this single sentence is.

Tse’s promise to be personal involves exploring a variety of identities. In doing so, Tse brings visible light onto invisible minorities. In Punctum, he describes a Chinese girl ‘behind the counter being bullied into saying “fried rice”‘. Here, she thinks about her own bleak future; she knows that there is no career progression for her unless she marries her boss’s son.

And what about her children? They could be actors taking on different identities, from a pregnant teen goth to a simple restaurateur. But even as Tse spins out all these possibilities, these are still simply acts. Even if her children do take on new identities, they will never be removed from the race they were born with; race is the first thing that others will see and judge them against accordingly. She knows that when she dies, she’ll be left wondering whether she pushed her children ‘hard enough to never settle / for being the token Asian in a crowd scene’. And when Tse asks, ‘Can you see her?’ at the end of the piece, it is evident that the answer is nothing close to yes. She, like many other minorities, is only a small little dot. A punctum.

All throughout He’s so MASC, Tse plays with this idea of personal identity, and the influence of the identities we carry. In Performance—Part 2, Tse goes through a variety of characters, who are all belittled in some way because of their identity. He starts with ‘CHRIS TSE AS DELETED SCENE’, who tells us that he didn’t have the ‘right look / to play a New Zealander’ even though he sounds like a native speaker. The next character is written in a way that speaks volumes. Tse simply states: ‘CHRIS TSE AS ASIAN HITMAN #1: / (non-speaking part)’.

Tse also delves into the personal in a tender and precious way. In the poem Next year’s colours, Tse ponders why we take photos while travelling, and how our phones end up filling up with photos that once meant something. He portrays the desperation of recording memories when in new places. Another tender poem is Release, which explores the emotions that come with letting go of a lover. The piece is so gentle, even if it’s about heartbreak, and Tse portrays each moment with such clarity. Especially moving is a verse where Tse describes himself going through the motions of the day, and then at last:

returning home to

duvet, sheets and pillows

hastily abandoned

and finally finding the time

to cry.’

In He’s so MASC, Chris Tse takes an oath to explore the personal. As well as exploring the emotions that come with memories and growth, his poems make you reconsider the layers of identity that you hold true. They also make you consider the identities that you appropriate onto others, and the ones that they appropriate onto you.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

He’s so MASC
by Chris Tse
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408879

 

 

Book Review: Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War, by Chris Bourke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good-bye_maorilandOver the past few years, we have remembered many of the events during the Great War, 100 years on. Each battle is commemorated, medals are displayed, letters rediscovered and exhibitions opened to the public. The influence of the Great War on our distinctive New Zealand music was a story waiting to be told. I was delighted to find Chris Bourke has contributed another book to help chart the growth of music in our land. In his previous book, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of Popular Music 1918-1964, he covered a huge range of styles and developments over 50 years. In Good-Bye Maoriland, he looks at the individuals and influences on our New Zealand music as a result of the Great War. Chris Bourke is a writer, radio producer and editor. He is meticulous in his research and I always appreciate the thorough notes that support his writing.

Bourke begins by describing the place of music in the family home. In 1916, 40% of New Zealand homes contained a piano. This is a staggering statistic when you consider the pianos were imported, heavy and very expensive. Music shops flourished selling the latest sheet music and music making was an important part of life for towns and cities. This was the era of Brass bands, the local Choir and Vaudeville Shows, which often travelled the length of the country and included visiting celebrities. However, the idea of making a living from music was still undeveloped for most citizens and the part played by music during the war shows how important it was as in uniting and entertaining the troops. Add to that, the patriotic nature of many songs and we begin to see the influence on the war to the development of New Zealand music.

The chapters follow a logical progression as they include the songs to stir recruits, the memories of soldiers lost, the Concert Parties, Waiata Maori and returning home. Each section shows the changes that occurred as the war advanced. It also charts a maturing of a distinctly New Zealand music. I can see Bourke writing Blue Smoke and realising that the Great War was a rich story on its own. Often it is not until we begin to seek answers that other questions arise.

This book is not just a well-researched history. Every page is illustrated with appropriate photographs. I found these fascinating as formal and informal shots allowed the reader to see the high standing in which music making was held. The cover artwork of many New Zealand written songs could actually make another book in the future. Especially, because so much of this music will be lost as families move and downsize.
This book will inform those interested in both war and the cultural history of New Zealand. It is a source book for anyone working with music of the period and a fascinating read for the generally curious, like me.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War
by Chris Bourke
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408718

Book Review: Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

This book is longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-fiction Prize

Strangers Arrive, a lavishly illustrated production written by Leonard Bell, reads like two books between one set of covers: on one hand, a series of often fascinating portraits of some of the European artists, writers, and intellectuals who fled Fascism and found themselves in the comparatively provincial mid-century New Zealand; on the other, book-ending polemics about our enduring close-mindedness about welcoming to New Zealand people displaced by conflicts neither of their nor of our making.

cv_strangers_arriveBell recounts the stories and presents the work of oddly-named people with strong accents ‘from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin…who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius’ who were welcomed as cultural saviours by a small clique of arty locals. The balance of opinion, however, spanned from ambivalence to outright hostility towards our quota of escapees from Nazism. Bell amply conveys the blinkered churlishness of the naysayers, whose chauvinism predated but was piqued by the bohemian newcomers. Although notice is given of the destruction and prejudice that set the refugees to flight and which they sometimes encountered again on arrival in New Zealand, generous space and strong emphasis are placed on the mutual creativity, restoration, and beneficence that sparked between the strangers and those who welcomed them.

Any reader with an interest in the arts in New Zealand, especially that of the mid-twentieth century, will surely be delighted by to encounter the extraordinarily rich and strange work produced by men and women such as Frank Hoffmann, Irene Koppel, Kees Hos, Jan Michels, Henry Kulka, and Tibor Donner, along with many others, even as they struggled with the inevitable difficulties refugees encounter in navigating everyday life in an alien environment. Modernism’s fundamental cosmopolitanism was given expression in their lives and labours alike, both of which played a crucial part in moving local artists and writers beyond the cultural nationalism that had begun to be more of a hindrance than a help for them by the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties.

It becomes clear that visual artists, architects, musicians, and taste-makers, who traded in an international lingua franca, had a better time translating their work into a New Zealand context than did refugee writers who came up hard against the language barrier. Amongst them was Karl Wolfskel, a Jewish-German poet whose work in his native tongue stands with the finest of the 20th century, whose poems and letters have been blessedly made available in two books published by Cold Hub Press. Even though his international reputation is probably greater than most of the men and women whom Bell treats at length, he only makes fleeting appearances in Strangers Arrive. Men and women of words, greeted with an incomprehensibility beyond which visual artists could move, faced difficulties much more in common with a cobbler from Munich or a seamstress from Prague. Nevertheless, my pleasure in encountering a number of artists hitherto unknown to me far outweighs what one might take as Bell’s omissions, most of which can be readily justified by the wealth of talent that landed on our shores.

And yet although all refugees share in the trauma of displacement and alienation, no matter how generous their welcome, Strangers Arrive reminds us that it is impossible to generalise about them, and not because of the exceptional cast of players presented by Bell. Although they share the brute fact of their dislocation, beyond their common bereavement of citizenship and human security, they are as diverse as any group is likely to be: war is indifferent to personality, vocation, talent, and goodness and badness alike. The humility required to place oneself at the good offices of an – at best – disinterested state is difficult to imagine from our privileged position, the very position, of course, that makes it possible for us to help.  Incomprehension matched with fair-mindedness can easily blind even the charitable to the myriad differences contained within a superficially homogenous mass. Individuals must be allowed to define themselves. So, too, despite the parade of brilliant people readers encounter in Strangers Arrive, most of whom hailed from the well-educated European bourgeoisie, it is worth remembering that welcoming refugees to New Zealand is not something we do for our benefit – it is an act of beneficence. As much as I admire many of the cultured and creative people who inestimably enriched New Zealand, potential benefits shouldn’t be our motivation to do, quite simply, the right thing.

And in such a light Strangers Arrive is a book that ought to give readers pause for thought, even as they revel in its moveable feast. A celebration of creativity and terrific object in its own right, it offers a vision of humanity at its finest and most terrible.

Reviewed by Robert McLean

Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1950 – 1980
by Leonard Bell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408732