Book Review: Vanishing Points, by Michele Leggott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vanishing_pointsVanishing Points is a poetry collection that brings a unique perspective to visual art. The collection itself is divided into eight parts, my favourite being a section titled ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A Family Story.’ In this section, Leggott depicts two different paintings in an exhibition, hanging opposite each other. The way Leggott describes each piece of art is a whirlwind of description that is incredibly evocative, even without the presence of the physical paintings themselves. It feels like Leggott herself is the artist, creating brush strokes as she moves from describing the background of the painting to the foreground, and then to smaller details.

When Leggott describes one of the paintings in a poem titled still life: self-portrait with lacewing, she starts by portraying the sunlit view of ‘swimmers no bigger than dots’. She then moves through a set of French doors and into a domestic scene before pinpointing even smaller details, such as flour and pink dough upon a table. Leggott presents a beautifully precise description of the scene. She describes how ‘pink stars are arranged on a baking tray to one side and the leftover dough shows the negative field of stars’. Leggott then picks out other details within the home: an apron, a measuring tape, a full-skirted sundress.

These details reappear throughout other poems in this section. Leggott delves deeper into the world of the painting by describing the possible life of the woman who inhabits it. She depicts a woman who is a creator, ‘a composer, an arranger, a sculptor of the bright air and light permeating surfaces visible and invisible’. She is also a woman who plans to bake pink stars and wear a new dress on Christmas Day.

Finally, Leggott turns to her own experience of these paintings. She talks about how these two pieces of art were part of an exhibition by Elva Bett. ‘I have no recollection of Elva Bett’s show’, Leggott tells us, but she knows that she must have been brought there. This is because she finds the exhibition as a diary entry in her mother’s journal. In this way, Vanishing Points talks about art while being a piece of art itself. These poems not only describe the paintings themselves, but they also portray the lives and experiences surrounding these paintings.

However, a wide array of images can also be overwhelming. In the final section of Leggott’s collection, ‘Figures in the Distance’, Leggott continuously puts forward one image after another. Some images are well connected enough to keep the piece flowing at a steady pace, allowing each image to take its turn in the spotlight. However, other images clashed and culminated to the point that they ended up creating clutter.

Nevertheless, Vanishing Points is a beautiful and unique collection of poetry that looks at visual art through the art of poetry itself. In the collection, Leggott also explores scenes captured through photographs and describes memories surrounding her father’s paintings and drawings. Using poetry as her lens, Leggott is able to reveal the other facets, interpretations, and lives that can be found within art.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Vanishing Points
by Michele Leggott
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408749

 

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Book Review: Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885, by Michael Belgrave

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dancing_with_the_kingGrowing up with the late night time sounds of the steam trains puffing their way around the Raurimu Spiral – a sound interspersed with the melancholy cry of the Ruru (Morepork) – I had no idea of the significance the main trunk railway line had to the politics of the post Waikato War and the shaping of New Zealand politics. That is until I read Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885.

Author, Professor Michael Belgrave, from Massey University, has an extensive list of titles, many of them related to the Treaty of Waitangi and has also has carried out much research and written many substantial papers for the Waitangi Tribunal. Understanding this background is to understand why this book provides an extremely authoritative account of the post-Waikato War, rise of the sovereign authority of the Māori King within Rohe Pōtae and then the gradual loss of sovereignty and influence 20 years after its birth. The fall was symbolised by the first sod being turned for the main trunk line at the aukati – the boundary – between Māori controlled King Country and the Victorian Empire conquered Waikato. As the main trunk line pushed into the King Country, it served not only to open up the Rohe Pōtae but create a wholly new relationship between Māori and Pākehā eventually leading to united New Zealand Aotearoa.

The story of what happened after the sod was turned is well told in Vincent O’Malley’s, The Great War for New Zealand, which traces the political consequences of the Waikato land confiscation, or Raupatu, right up to 2000. Within Belgrave’s 428 page masterpiece of research is an illuminating account of how the Kīngitanga established itself strategically, economically and politically and prospered in peace – for a time.

Dancing with the King opens with an account of the defeat of Rewi Maniapoto and his small band of supporters of the Māori King at the battle of Ōrākau, marking the end of the Waikato War. The second Māori king, Tāwhiao, led the defeated Waikato tribes into armed exile within the Rohe Pōtae, where the Queen’s writ did not extend and Pākehā dared their lives to cross the aukati.

They established towns such as Te Kuiti and Ōtorohanga. While there was much hardship and deprivation among the Waikato refugees, these towns had a degree of prosperity, even without the aukati, with trade from local Māori in wheat and kumara, even without the aukati and with Pākehā.

The book’s title is a reference to what happened next, described by Belgrave as “diplomatic history”. War gave to a long period of negotiations. “Māori leaders and colonial government negotiators both adopted, however reluctantly on the European side, the language of sovereignty and diplomacy in their dealings with each other”. But it was not just negotiations between two sides: there were many layers of interest on each side. On the Māori side, Tāiwhiao could only move as far as the many iwi, hapu and whanau would let him. The political structure of Tāwhiao’s kingdom can be likened to a federal structure with each different iwi chief having a part to play. Over time Tāwhiao’s power to call the shots became subdued.

On the Pākehā side, there were in fact two governments, the New Zealand Government in Wellington and the British Government in Westminster, and they were not always in agreement with regard to Māori issues While the British parliament had given the colony self rule in 1852 by way of the New Zealand Constitution Act, Britain was still the ultimate power. Tāwhiao quite often stirred the pot of argument between the two, especially when he and his band went off to see the Queen in London. He didn’t actually see the Queen but made a very good impression as to the rights of Māori with the people and government of Britain. The story of that visit is one of the highlights of Belgrave’s work, as it is a good example of how the British Empire was managing issues with indigenous peoples in many countries they had conquered, rightly or wrongly.
It is the detailed accounts of the negotiations between the various layers of the Māori side which for this reviewer proved fascinating. Belgrave’s research brings to full view the impact on traditional Māori land ownership. This was based largely on the establishment by an iwi by war of occupation, food gathering or conquest with collective ownership imbued within the authority of the chief.

On the European side, land ownership was established by survey and registration, sale and purchase with individual rights of ownership. The colonial government set up the Native (later Māori) Land Court essentially to establish, the European method of ownership by deciding among competing chiefs as to which iwi owned which areas of land. But within the Rohe Pōtae, no trig stations were allowed to be built for some time. Any attempt to erect them often met with them being destroyed. And there was great resistance to allowing the Māori Land Court to operate within the King Country. Much of this resistance was due to the involvement of lawyers and surveyors in establishing tribal boundaries.

This reviewer, as a young newspaper reporter attended a Māori Land Court hearing in Tokaanu in 1966 where the process of deciding on a dispute of 600 acres on the side of Mount Ruapehu was decided by the judge on the authenticity of the waiata (chant) carrying the iwi’s history. Whanganui and Tuwharetoa were the claimants. Tuwharetoa’s waiata was considered to be the most accurate and thus the title of the surveyed block of land was awarded to that tribe.

And so the dancing and feasting went on and the accounts of the four hui held between, former Governor and now Premier Grey and Tāwhiao between 1878 and 1876 are as colourful as any court ball.  “The dancing that took place did not involve traditional Māori haka or poi, but waltzes, Schottische, polkas and quadrilles.” But in the meetings before the dancing there was also the deep seriousness of political dancing with high stakes. Tāwhiao, as he always did, demanded the Waikato be returned wholly and Grey responded that that could not happen. But Grey did offer a settlement which according to Belgrave “Grey immediately went on to make what would be a substantive and detailed offer of peace, to settle the issues of King and Queen.”

There would be three more hui involving Tāwhiao and Grey and it would be a spoiler if the outcome was revealed here. Eventually though, the first sod for the railway at the boundary of the King Country was dug with three spadesful by Chief Wahanui on behalf of Māori loading them into a former children’s’ toy barrow which Premier Stout wheeled down a short plank “turning the sods onto the grass”. While the ceremony signalled the start of the opening up of the King Country it ended the independent sovereignty of the King Country.

A disappointing footnote: Having grown up in the Ohakune, this reviewer has always proudly stated as being from the King Country only to discover, while reading Dancing with the King, that the southern boundary of the Rohe Pōtae crosses westward over Mount Ruapehu’s highest peaks, Te Heuheu and Paretetaitonga leaving Ohakune on the wrong side of the aukati.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885
by Michael Belgrave
Published by Auckand University Press
ISBN 9781869408695

Book Review: Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_totaraThe ‘mighty tōtara’ has been central to life in New Zealand for thousands of years. It was used by Māori for carving and building, and when the white settlers arrived in New Zealand they found it a perfect wood for cutting into fence posts as they divided up their farms.

Botanist Philip Simpson shares his knowledge of these trees in his book Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History, which is well illustrated with many excellent photographic examples of trees still to be found around the countryside.

New Zealand has four recognised species of tōtara: lowland, Hall’s, needle-leaved, snow and one distinctive variety (South Westland). The biggest trees being the lowland tōtara and the smallest ones the snow tōtara being found among the alpine rocks.

Growing up in the Takaka Valley, Simpson recalls second growth tōtara was a major feature of the valley, as settlers had cleared the earlier forest, and in this boyhood playground his love of the trees began.

In the Foreword Maui John Mitchell says, “Philip has written a history of Aotearoa/ New Zealand from the tōtara perspective. He has seen it as part of the primeval natural world, he has clearly portrayed why the tōtara is the leading rakau rangatira-‘chiefly conifer’-to Maori, and he has shown how critical the tōtara was to successful European settlement.”

Throughout New Zealand, tōtara trees have been honoured by inclusion as place names, for example just south of my hometown of Oamaru there is a small rural school called Tōtara. Its name came about because of a lone tōtara tree growing on a limestone outcrop.

This excellent publication is a book for all to enjoy, the well written text is supported with a variety of photographs in colour and black and white. The cover has a stunning photograph of Pouakani, the largest tōtara tree in New Zealand at 3.88 metres, found at the northern end of the Hauhungaroa Range in the King Country. It can be picked up time and time again to be reread and devoured. I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Where tōtara lives and who lives with it” which discusses climate and environmental factors which influence distribution, and the author also discusses the importance of the tōtara to wildlife including spiders, butterflies, lizards, microsnails and birds.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History
by Philip Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408190

Book Review: The Truth about Language, by Michael C. Corballis

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Truth_about_language.jpgThere are wonderful variations in the way we tell our stories, seen even in the smallest parcels of language. In Turkey, there are over two million forms of each verb – each word-form a complex interplay containing not only tense but the subject, object and indirect objects of the aforementioned verb. Walpiri, an Australian aboriginal language, can be scrambled: you can shuffle the words and it does not change the meaning.

How does this work then? Is it first things, then words? We have been looking at these sorts of questions for some 3000 years, beginning with the linguistic traditions in India and then in Ancient Greece. The Truth about language –what it is and where is came from adds to this ongoing conversation, one that has been dominated in recent times by Noam Chomsky, who argues that language arose suddenly and ‘in a way that cannot be explained by ordinary evolutionary process’.

In this engrossing book Professor Michael C. Corballis tames an array of findings, theories and disciplines to provide context for his take on the matter. What results is a highly digestible and enjoyable account of language for the general reader.

A look at our current world reveals that there are some 6000 languages spoken, over one hundred of which are spoken in Vanuatu alone. Our open-ended means of communication is far more evolved than that of other animals; it is a ‘Rubicon’ that our species has crossed. These things we know. But this gives rise to more questions and the central themes of the book: What do all of these languages have in common? What is language? Is it something we are born with or something we learn? Or both? And where did it come from?

Corballis tells us that any person can learn any languages ‘in spite of the extraordinary differences between the languages of the world’. Regardless of what we speak, we follow rules of how we put language units together to form meaningful content. We can recognise something is correct on an intuitive, but cannot tell you why. So how did we get to here? This is potentially the ‘hardest problem in science.’

Cleve-van_construction-tower-babel.jpg

Tower of Babel, by Hendrick van Cleve, from Wikimedia Commons 

Detective-like, Corballis pieces all the parts together, accommodating the findings of various disciplines – from anthropology and archaeology, through to zoology, linguistics and genetics. He guides the reader through this vast puzzle by laying out his points in a series of stepping-stones: physical characteristics, grammar, speech, how children learn, and how animals differ and are similar in communication, to name a few.

Then there is Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, a general linguistic principal. Chomsky argues that there was first a new way of thinking, which was available only to humans (the I-language), and that the languages we speak or sign are secondary and external (E-languages). The way we form language is an unbounded merge where elements (such as phonemes or basic sounds) merge into larger units (such as morphemes or elements of meaning) and those larger units merge into still larger ones (phrases and so on). ‘The merges occur within I-language, the language of thought itself, but are manifest in the external languages we actually speak’. He explains language’s emergence in the human experience as a miraculous leap in evolution, due to a change in brain size or a minor mutation.

Enter Corballis. He argues that it came to us by ‘incremental process of Darwinian evolution, and not as some sudden gift that placed us beyond the reach of biological principles.’ He guides us through the precursors to language and the gradual changes along the way, tracing the transition from gesture to speech. Our ancestors achieved bipedialism and the hands were freed; gesturing accommodated the need to communicate information effectively in more dangerous surrounds, such as the exposed savannah. We needed to be social for survival.

Then there is speech – a triumphant culmination of fine motor skills, breathing, and the larynx. And don’t forget grammar. Corballis also takes us via the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows us to understand scale and has a generative capacity to mind wander or to ‘time travel’ by imagining future possibilities – something other animals also demonstrate. This shared capacity lays the groundwork for the unique generative property of thought processes that language communicates. So, as Corballis concludes, it is the ability to communicate our mind wanderings, not the mind wanderings themselves, that makes us different from animals. The difference is one of degree not of kind.

Corballis writes ‘Language thrives on variation. And so does evolution’. It is a pleasure to read about the intersection of the two.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Truth about Language
by Michael C. Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408633

Michael C. Corballis will be speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival at 10.30am on Saturday, 20 May. 

Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

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cv_mister_hamiltonMister Hamilton
is John Dickson’s first poetry collection in eighteen years, and it is clear he has honed his poetry well. The precision of Dickson’s writing is intense. It’s like being placed in a whole new country with so much to see, and there is an amazing rush in his writing as he shows us his world and more.

The story, like many stories, begins at home in New Zealand. ‘Plainsong’ is one of the first poems in Mister Hamilton. Often, images of home can become cliché after reading them over and over again. However, Dickson brings clarity to this poem with unique images that call your attention and make you stop for a moment. He describes ‘Southland’s slow intestinal rivers / laden with manuka dust / And my detachment from anything plain.’ Dickson perfectly captures the feeling of being homesick: a background noise that is always present, pervasive. Something that ‘smoulders still’despite all the time that has passed.

My favourite in the collection is the poem Something Else. While reading it, I wanted to speed up in anticipation of the words to come, as well as slow down in order to take everything in. I think what makes this poem so effective and enjoyable is how it brings you into its rush of words and images. Although it may seem fragmented at first, there is story underlying it all, with a selection of images that recur and words that repeat. At its heart, the poem tells of a lost girl and her father, who carries an ‘anguished stare’in his eyes. It is how Dickson uses this story to open up a certain world that makes it so interesting. There is a lost girl but she is also so much more than the girl others see on the six o’clock news. She is also the girl falling, the girl full of rage, the girl who finally stays silent and lets the snow enfold her.

Mister Hamilton is also a collection that’s very conscious of the rhythms of poetry. In Dickson’s own notes at the back of the book, he explicitly states: ‘I attempted to compose verses that would not only use the speech rhythms of other people as well as my own, but also match the rhythms with various metrical patterns’. ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’ is a satisfying poem that seems to sway with a steady rhythm, and captures the methodical nature of the exercise. The final verse in the poem mimics the motion of someone working back and forth while mowing the lawn: ‘you mow your fescue that way / way this fescue your mow you / you mow your fescue that way’.

As the dust settled from the rush of being brought into all of Dickson’s various worlds, I quietly finished Mister Hamilton. And I was left with an urge to go back and read some of my favourites in the collection again, and an additional urge to write my own. The words in some of these poems seem to crest like waves as you read them, and they rush with a mix of images that seek to both inspire and question.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mister Hamilton
by John Dickson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408558

 

Book Review: Tell You What: 2017, edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2017This third AUP collection of ‘Great New Zealand Nonfiction’ was an engaging summer read, and may even turn out to be the best such compilation. Through a miscellany of styles and themes, patterns emerge, just like little ripples in a swimming pool, or batting statistics in test cricket history. At first it was a useful read during the slower periods in the recent Basin Reserve test match. But as the cricket got more exciting, and the injuries more serious, I realised that the essays demanded greater concentration.

Personal narrative and in-depth history are woven into everything from slave runs in 17th century Iceland and the 19th century Marlborough Sounds, to the previously unknown story of a Muslim immigrant herbalist, and a 1960s case of arsenic poisoning. Seriously obscure literary texts and pop culture kitsch from the 1970s form the background to tales of gendered angst. There are also some good selections from more mainstream journalism and essay subjects.

Giovanni Tiso makes a very good point about the assumptions of policy reformers over the course of a century when it comes to the spending habits of the poor. And Dylan Cleaver’s piece from the NZ Herald brings new life to the odd world of pigeon racing. There are also important and contrasting takes on the role of Maori protocol and sense of whakapapa in a number of the selections, some in specific cultural contexts, and others in the more complex considerations involved in the wreck of the Rena, or purchase of the Awaroa inlet. Talia Marshall’s treatment of the latter is both grammatically and thematically challenging, covers a whole sweep of Maori and colonial history, and also notes the loss of bird life in the Abel Tasman national park. Like a number of the authors, she questions our sense of place.

The main theme that emerges in this collection is the struggle for understanding between parents and children over time, including how to overcome a denial of family history. Toni Nealie’s ‘Bequeathed’ is a very structured piece that draws together her very fragmented family history, and focuses on lost grandparents, the complications of their ‘mixed race’ marriage, and the role of particular inherited items in creating meaning where memory had been shunned. The pain of maternal death and its implications are examined in Ashleigh Young’s ‘Anemone’, as she describes the journey to London to help her brother and nephew cope with the suicide of her sister-in-law. Young’s brother’s reaction is similar to that of a sea anemone; and her nephew finds an explanation in the intricacies of something called Minecraft. But Young herself can’t quite fathom the situation, or even use the word suicide.

Equally challenging, and somehow unfathomable, Tracey Slaughter’s account of her childhood in ‘Ashdown Place’, and the life changing effects of a swimming pool being installed. It becomes the venue for tawdry adult parties, what is now called ‘swinging’, and the seeds of permanent splits and reallocation of partners. Slaughter’s description of the cultural artefacts and reference points of the time are evocative in the extreme, at least for those also growing up in the ‘70s. And her final paragraph, where she recounts the seedy morning afters, as the child within returns to the swimming pool for a contemplative paddle, is sublime. But for all its literary merit I found myself troubled by this one, and the part where she suggests that the explanation is sociological – couples who married too young discarded their sexual mores in the heat of summer, but otherwise remained suburban conservatives. Perhaps infidelity was re-invented in the 1970s.

With that point made, Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood have done a fantastic job in compiling these essays. 2016 was also a good year for non-fiction writing if nothing else.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tell You What: 2017
by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood (eds)
Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408602

 

Book Review: The World, the Flesh & the Devil, by Andrew Sharp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_world_the_Flesh_and_the_devil.jpgHaving written this review in the lead up to Christmas seemed very appropriate, as it reviews the life of Samuel Marsden, who brought Christian missions to New Zealand with the first service held on Christmas Day 1814 in the Bay of Islands. The traditional Maori Christmas carol Te Harinui commemorates this event. It seems strange then that Samuel Marsden is relatively unknown and absent from representation in New Zealand history.

Andrew Sharp is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Auckland. This latest book is the product of a great deal of research over eight years. It is a very strong addition to New Zealand History in the 1800s. Andrew’s book is strongly referenced and illustrated throughout with images of the locations and people described. It is not a quick read, but a satisfyingly deep one.

Samuel Marsden had a modest upbringing in England. He had a straightforward, uncomplicated belief in The Bible, and in man’s place in society. His belief and scholarship meant that he became involved with the London Missionary Society. He married shortly before leaving England for Australia, after a charmingly awkward written proposal to his future wife, Elizabeth.

Samuel Marsden moved from England to Australia, initially to Botany Bay, then moving to Paramatta. He became a magistrate, and an antagonist of a series of local Australian governors, in particular Governor Macquarie. The feud between Macquarie and Marsden is an excellent example of strong contradicting opinions in local government! It was around this time that he developed his reputation as ‘the flogging parson.’

His ability in Te Reo and friendship with Ruatara and later Hone Heke helped him to settle in New Zealand. It seems remarkable that he met Ruatara, as Ruatara returned from his unsuccessful trip to meet George III. Samuel took care of him during the long sea journey and Ruatara lived with the Marsden family for a few months before attempting to return to New Zealand. Samuel Marsden was very interested in ‘civilizing’ through agriculture, and gave Ruatara wheat seed to take with him.

Overall Samuel Marsden preached a message of adherence to the bible, leading a productive life full of bible reading, church attendance and work, to avoid giving in to the temptations of the flesh and to show commitment to a ‘lively’ repentance from sin. He felt sure that hearing his evangelical message would have a civilizing impact on all audiences. It was felt that you first tame the ‘uncivilised’ population through agriculture and then they would be receptive to his sermons. He was a committed sheep farmer, determined to breed the perfect productive sheep for the local environment.

This is a big book. I would have liked to hear a little more about Marsden’s family life. That being said, given that it was such a long time ago it is probably quite difficult to research that. There are a number of dry sections – explaining religion and English societal structures being two I found that demanded my concentration, but these did provide important context to the events described in later chapters.

Andrew Sharp notes that reviewing people with today’s standards is somewhat unfair. I found Samuel Marsden as a historical character difficult – he is hard to like when you look back. However, his accomplishments and achievements in quite short time periods were quite remarkable. He was active in New Zealand during a really interesting time in our history. Whether or not you agree with his religious beliefs or thoughts on bringing ‘civilisation’ to ‘native populations’ he was someone who got stuff done, and did it with an eye to his ‘eternal reward’ rather than necessarily making friends or seeking glory. A thought-provoking read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The World, the Flesh & the Devil
written by Andrew Sharp
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408121