Book Review: Kaitiaki o te Po: Essays, by J. P. Powley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_kaitiaki_o_te_po_essays.jpgThere is a very specific form of discomfit in reading this collection of essays. Particularly for a middle-aged man, growing up in particular urban culture, and still mired in the education system. Powley is a social studies teacher who really can write essays.

The essays vary in form and length, and some are written in the third person. But all weave together consistent themes of grief, bordering on despair, and the restless search for new ground (often overseas), while exploring colonial New Zealand history. This involves going with his class to Opotiki, to learn about Rev. Volkner’s ghastly death and its local context; as well as a deconstruction of Anzac Day myths.

The title of the book is also that of the first essay, which sets the scene in many ways, both personally and culturally. The grief is for mostly men, first a friend named Matt who dies of natural causes in London. Along the way there are elegies for students who have committed suicide. And by the end we reach into the grief for his father, who died relatively young, and was never replaced as a parent. It is Powley senior that appears on the book’s cover, looking out over a braided river, on a bridge built in 1963. This isn’t made clear in the book, even if he remains a kind of presence within.

A lot of the content involves the teacher talking out of school, rather literally. This seems to be alright if the names are changed, and the schools are unnamed, but some of the language is unfortunate. The key one is titled ‘The March of Progress’, and is something of a masterpiece, if you can cope with the younger protagonists dying, and Powley’s guilt as a Dean, at leaving the particular school prematurely. The weave of historical context, based in the Wellington suburb of Berhampore, and the Japanese experience, both in a school trip and his own feeling for the culture, is rather brilliant.

Powley’s longer essays are written in numbered sections, and this allows jump cuts to other themes. In ‘Time Never Cares’ one of the sections is simply a quote, and the many references to other writers does not necessarily add to the elegy. Also, the fourth and seventh sections begin with the same paragraph, word for word, about a photograph of the young John-Paul and his mother in an awkward first day of school pose. He understands the first day nerves better, perhaps, than the distaff side of his family.

For me, the essay titled ‘Pastoral Scene’ is problematic. He seems to actually refer to the concept of ‘pastoral care’, as described in an opening quote from Judith Collins (Powley likes to quote from correspondence with National Party cabinet ministers). This revolves around his work as a Dean at the earlier school and a time capsule which is opened as the cohort leaves that school. He includes sections of dialogue with recalcitrant students, usually of Māori heritage. An analogy is introduced based on the writing of Eric Blair (George Orwell), and his shooting of an elephant while working as a colonial administrator in India, who had to be seen to please the natives. The theme seems to be the difficulty of disciplining children who are already a lost cause.

I’m reminded of an incident at my high school, when a social studies teacher was assaulted in class, but chose not to take any action. He left teaching and went on to be big in the financial world.

Powley’s last two essays concern the walk-out of the classroom by his late father, the suicide of rock icon Chris Cornell, and the taking anti-depressants. These stories descend into swearing and self pity without resolution.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays
by J. P. Powley
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134592

Book Review: The Fuse Box – Essays on Writing, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_fuse_boxWhat a fascinating collection this is. Poets, novelists, playwrights, tutors all write about their experience of writing. Their stories are remarkably different – Elizabeth Knox says she learned stories first as spoken narrative (her old sister Sara told her stories all the time) and later to read independently. That’s not so unusual, most kids hear narrative first – but few have the same talented sister to spin the tales, and even fewer find their creative voice as successfully as Elizabeth Knox has.

James Brown discovered at some point that reading could make him laugh and cry, and that it is not necessarily so for everyone. His piece is an alphabetic framework of his experience of writing and what the intending / aspirational writer should keep in mind. It’s well done and ranges from discovery through flarf (look it up!), intervention and shit detection to zing. It’s a clever idea and it works really well.

Lloyd Jones writes ‘to unlock something I don’t know exists. It’s in me somewhere and I’m in search of it’.

Damien Wilkins sheds light on Dennis McEldowney, among others. Stella Duffy views writing from a mid-point in life, with ideas to assist new writers. As she says, you can ignore all her points except this one: do the work. You have to do the work.

She also says that writing is not hard work. ‘Being a miner is hard work. Working twelve hours a day in a textile sweatshop is hard work………Writing…is not hard work…. but you have to work hard at it’

Patricia Grace is interviewed by her playwright daughter-in-law Briar Grace-Smith in a wonderfully interesting set of questions and answers. Much to be learned here.

For Victor Rodger writing is a political act, and for Nina Nawalowalo, necessity is the mother of her invention – there are stories which need to be told. As Tina Makereti quotes at the beginning of her essay, ‘Beautiful writing alone is not enough. Not now – look around you.’

There is a wealth more in this small book – it’s a really excellent insight into how many of our best writers write, teach, learn and create. If you want to write and don’t know how to begin, most of the experience in this book seems to say “just do it” and then see where it goes. That is really great advice. I think this is a great addition to our New Zealand literary canon, and I just have to end with the most wonderful quote from the last piece in this book, a poem by Hera Lindsay Bird where she says:

‘You start to wonder about the future and the great untitled project of your life

It keeps you up at night, like a big fluorescent sadness’

Maybe the solution to that is simply to start writing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Fuse Box: essays on writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters
Edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561650

 

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974

 

Book Review: The Journal of Urgent Writing, edited by Nicola Legat

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_journal_of_urgent_writingThis book, or journal, is the first in a planned annual collection of long form essays from (mostly) academics and journalists, addressing “urgent” topics that they have been researching or thinking about recently. If continued as planned, these journals should give a snapshot about issues that were concerning us at that time – or that should have been concerning us more, in retrospect. In any case, this collection brings specialist writers to a more generalist audience. A fine idea that seems to be gaining in popularity, considering that Auckland University Press has also just published a collection of non-fiction stories and essays.

Some editorial decisions have probably been made about the order in which these essays are presented, but I could not pick up any logic in the placement. In some cases essays that touch on similar subjects are placed far apart, making me wonder whether they would have given the reader a different impression if read sequentially. I only wondered this after reading two essays that did seem to segue: historian Peter Meihana writes on how the concept of “Māori privilege” may be part of New Zealand’s national creation myth, used by colonial governments to both claim egalitarianism and to sanction Māori dispossession. This is followed by Krushil Watene’s piece on water, law and philosophical concepts of ownership. Watene argues that indigenous perspectives on humans’ connection to and responsibility to nature are among the philosophical forces that can lead us away from recent (environmentally disastrous) ideologies that privilege exploitation of natural sources for individual gain.

I suspect that, as with a magazine, these pieces should be picked up in whatever order the reader cares. No more energy for new arguments? Flick to the sole pictorial essay and marvel at diatoms! I just wasn’t feeling it when I turned to an essay about why children can’t read, so came back to it later only to realise that it wasn’t the subject that had left me cold, but the fact that the essay had none of the conversational qualities that made some of the others so engaging. Nothing wrong with a list of well-argued refutations of myths on this topic, and I’m sure the piece could have formed the basis of a good lecture, but there was no illustrative anecdote, no insertion of the authors’ voices into the narrative along the lines of “when we first looked at this issue we expected X, but here’s what happened…”.

Other readers may well differ, but the most successful essays for me were the ones that gave the feeling of a good sit-down chat with someone who knows way more than you on a particular topic and would just love to tell you about how they discovered it. The first piece – Dan Salmon on the problem of sustainable tuna fisheries and so much more – is a fantastic example of this. The next piece is a complete change of tune: an address to graduates about how to live a good life which, although containing plenty of warm and worthwhile advice, did not strike me as especially “urgent” or new. Paul McDonald’s address does, however, incorporate advice which could be a commissioning brief for this kind of collection: “Tell stories, too, especially those that exemplify our humanity. Constructive change is most likely to result from a combination of logical data and a compelling story”.

To that end, Jarrod Gilbert makes riveting use of statistics combined with shocking examples of how those stats are or are not addressed, in his essay on crime and justice. He writes like a guy who could talk your ear off about any number of maddening stories on these topics without getting at all boring.

Mike Joy is angry about the state of our rivers, and this is hardly news, but it is perhaps fitting that his subject and angle was the one I could most easily predict from looking at the author list. His essay charts his personal and professional journey to becoming “that scientist who campaigns about freshwater”, and the dramas along the way.

Teena Brown Pulu tells an intensely emotional family story to illustrate the irrelevance of rules that force people to nominate only one ethnicity to identify with. Paula Morris and David Slack also do lovely work weaving wider themes into their reflections about life stages and parents. Slack’s final essay ends the collection beautifully on a poignant and hopeful note.

Richard Shaw addresses arguments for why young people disengage from democracy and what should be done about it, in a topical and indeed urgent piece that is hard to read now without thinking ”ah, this was written right before THAT THING happened in the USA…”
Speaking of which, it’s only fair that a collection of urgent 2016 writing should allude to the political news in the USA. In the one essay that genuinely irritated me, Paul Thomas started off with what seemed like a “damn kids get off my lawn” invective against the “cult of self-esteem”, politically correct outrage and social media narcissism. He then annoyed me further by seguing into what may be a fair point, arguing that Trump’s rise to power is linked to his embodiment of extreme narcissism which is only now seen as normal. Frankly that’s an argument I was just not ready to read about, even if it contains a grain of truth. 2016, everyone.

To sum up, a quote from another highly topical essay reminds us what this compilation is aiming for. David Hall’s fair-minded discussion about the meaning of environmental politics buzzwords such as “green growth” concludes: “By taking seriously other ideas, even those we disagree with, we force ourselves to think better about our own.”

With that in mind, bring on the 2017 round of thought-provoking rants.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

The Journal of Urgent Writing
edited by Nicola Legat
Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994130068

Book Review: The Interregnum, ed by Morgan Godfery

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_interregnumThe Interregnum promises a collection of essays by ten of New Zealand’s “sharpest emerging thinkers”. It’s ambitiously framed around the idea that we’re living through the titular period of uncertainty, described by Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci as an interval where an old dominant ideology is dying, and the new is yet to emerge. Gramsci reckoned that in this interregnum, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

The collection is edited by prolific Wellington writer, commentator and trade unionist Morgan Godfery. In the introductory essay Godfery drops us into an anti-TPPA rally, which he says is evidence the “neoliberal political settlement” is beginning to fray as people reject the “market values” he alleges have come to dominate our political space over the past three decades. Godfery also cites the emergence of populist movements around the world, such as Corbynism in England and the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, as evidence that many of us are beginning to be fed up with the free-market liberal consensus.

It’s an engaging introduction that had me hoping we were about to get stuck into 1) an exposition of a new left-wing policy program to replace neoliberalism, and 2) a series of polemics against New Zealand’s most craven establishment hacks. Basically, I was after a readable Kiwi version of Thomas Piketty, mixed in with a few withering attacks on Key and Hosking.

But I was disappointed with a lot of what followed. Don’t get me wrong: five of the ten essays were entertaining, informative and genuinely thought-provoking. The others were not.

The best pieces form the core of the book, and redeem it somewhat after a decidedly mixed start. Carrie Stoddart-Smith’s essay gives an especially interesting perspective on radical Kaupapa Maori politics and her view of its potential to reshape the country. Lamia Imam provides a valuable overview of the place of identity politics and social media in modern New Zealand.

The most interesting chapter in the book is probably Holly Walker’s essay on the challenges of balancing being a mother and an MP, and Walker refreshingly provides some actual, concrete steps we could take to achieve true gender equity in parliament.

The essay by Salient alumnus Wilbur Townsend is also worth a look. It’s an exploration of the well-founded concern that robots are about to steal all our jobs, and Townsend makes a number of interesting points about the challenges that increasing automation poses for the labour market. He ties it all together with good local examples, like those horrible screens at McDonald’s, and he’s also got genuine flair for pretty hilarious writing.

However, the book’s sorely let down by the other chapters. These include a plodding overview of New Zealand’s well-documented failures to enact meaningful climate policy, and an earnest little piece which did little more than reiterate the prevailing left-wing line on Key’s (admittedly deplorable) personal attacks on Eleanor Catton.

The worst is saved for last: number nine is a puzzling analysis of what Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate change means for New Zealand (the reader is left none the wiser by its end), while the concluding essay is a dire little meditation on “The Politics of Love”. Here we’re treated to author’s idea of how “the politics of love could refresh political language and address loneliness”, which seems to be some sort of half-baked theory that if we’re more polite to each other then we can somehow overcome the appalling everyday injustices of unfettered capitalism. One of the worst things I’ve seen in print, and I’ve read both of Shane Warne’s books.

In my view, the book lets itself down in two key areas: 1) the lack of any vigorous, novel application of theory, and 2) its lack of humour or irony. The title and introduction seem to promise that Marxian ideas and theories would be applied in the New Zealand context. But nowhere are we treated to any sort of application of hard theory, and in fact the only place Marx is cited is in Godfery’s introduction. But the greater crime is the weary earnestness of many of the pieces.

The Interregnum offers some interesting takes on kiwi life in late-capitalism, but it looks like we’ll be waiting a while yet for a genuine left-wing manifesto for 21st century New Zealand, and many readers will find it more than a little preachy.

Note: for an example of a left-wing writer who combines hard theory with great writing, please read Sam Kriss, especially his recent post “In Defence of Personal Attacks”: https://samkriss.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/in-defence-of-personal-attacks/

Reviewed by George Block

The Interregnum
edited by Morgan Godfery
Published by Bridget Williams Books (Texts)
ISBN 9780947492649

Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

Sport
is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

Essays about Death: Diana Athill’s Alive Alive Oh! & Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude

 

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Recently I made a trip to Tauranga to spend some time with my grandfather, who was born in 1917. Nearing ninety-nine, nonetheless capable in body and mind, he moved about his apartment making cups of tea, talking about the war and the reality of the approaching end of his life. I returned to Dunedin but the theme continued; waiting quietly in the mailbox were two books, both slim, both hardcover, both dealing with memory and death.

cv_alive_alive_ohAlso born in 1917, Diana Athill has in recent years made an art form of the memoir. In 2009, Athill won the Costa Biography Award for Somewhere Toward the End. This gives you some idea of the quality of her writing and subject matter. Alive, Alive Oh! is her seventh such book, but the reader needn’t worry that she might be running out of material. Ninety-eight years of life gives a writer plenty to render, and Athill’s prose is as sharp as her memory and perception; too, she has lived a remarkable life, as an editor alongside Andre Deutsch and as a woman during a century in a society which tried its best to prescribe a woman’s life.

This memoir describes, with humour, clarity and honesty, Athill’s unconventional relationships, the history behind her childlessness and “lack of wifeliness”, and her abhorrence of “romanticism and possessiveness, which can be dangerous, and in conjunction with sexuality even lethal”. It also focuses on the joy and richness to be found in life, even and especially as the end of one’s own time draws near. The book’s final chapter is a poem, entitled ‘What Is’, and it seems to sum up the tenor and quality of Athill’s perspective on life. It concludes with the lines, “Look! / Why want anything more marvellous / than what is.” Dead right.

cv_gratitudeA similar vein of lucid, often joyful reflection runs through the four essays written by Oliver Sacks, which together constitute Gratitude. Described by the New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks is likely to be well-known to readers for his many books detailing the conditions and predicaments of the patients he encountered in his work as a neurologist, such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, which was subsequently made into a film.

Like Athill, Sacks had something of an expectation-defying life and career. He came from a Jewish family, but at a young age distanced himself from a religion that would not tolerate his sexual orientation; he experimented prodigiously with hallucinogenic drugs, which he credits with paving the way to insights about the brain and mind that may otherwise have remained obscured from him; and with his capacity for compassionate enquiry, he is said to have captured the medical and human drama of illness more honestly and eloquently than perhaps any other writer.

Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 at the age of eighty-two. During the last few months of his life, he wrote this set of essays in which he explored his feelings about completing a life and about coming to terms with his own death. In his short essays (one could read them all over a pot of English Breakfast) he approaches these themes with a combination of directness and allusion. He writes of the elements of the periodic table, samples of which he had among his possessions, adding to them as his years advanced – gold for 79, mercury for 80, thallium for 81, and as a souvenir of his 82nd and final birthday, lead. By aligning his life and thoughts with these elements, which he describes as “emblems of eternity,” Sacks manages to reconcile himself. And in his final essay, ‘Sabbath,’ completed and published a few weeks before his death, Sacks returns to the paradigm of his boyhood, and while doing so finds the parallels — “the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

The book ends, a life not long after. So there is a sensation for the reader of loss, but one leavened with a sense that the writer (and the human being inside the writer) lived long and well. In the face of death, which could be described as the central crisis of human life, Oliver Sacks wrote that his predominant feeling was one of gratitude, for having loved and having been loved, for having been “a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet.” The same attitude is described by Diana Athill. It is a mature approach to life, to death, and though such sanguinity is easier read than done, readers might lay down these two slim volumes and reflect on their own lives and inevitable deaths.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter
by Diana Athill
Published by Granta
ISBN 9781783782543

Gratitude
by Oliver Sacks
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509822805