Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_quarrels_with_himselfWe’ll mythologise anyone in this country, rate anything a holy relic – how many thousands of words spent on Sargeson’s house? How many of Mansfield’s receipts, hair tufts, gnawed pencils have been ziplocked, catalogued, glossily photographed? The lit scenesters of 2067 will probably be reading paeans to Hera Lindsay-Bird’s Hyundai, crowding around tables at the archives for a look at Witi Ihimaera’s toenail clippers. If some notable tried to sate us with taxidermy, we’d bemoan the lost chance to inspect the artist’s guts and then prop the mummy up in the birthplace, pensive-posed if they were sensitive, wrestling a stag if they were Crumpishly butch.

Unusually, we collect James K. Baxter’s words and not his skin flakes, but we often treat them about the same – Baxter’s actual work becomes another artefact, interesting just for its relationship to his life and image. Quarrels with Himself is the first major study of Baxter’s prose, which prior to the landmark release of his Complete Prose in 2015 had been generally dismissed even by Baxter himself as far lesser stuff than his poetry, placing it in an interesting position of establishing a new critical precedent for the author; is Baxter’s prose of interest outside of how it illuminates and complicates the Baxter myth? Are these notable works in themselves?

Quarrels answers with a resounding ‘vaguely’. As editor Geoffrey Miles puts it, Baxter ‘is not only one of New Zealand’s great poets, but also a prose writer of some distinction’, which isn’t as faint a piece of praise as it sounds. We’d still talk about Baxter if all we had to judge him on were works like his idiosyncratic essays on New Zealand poetry and the cosily derivative lyrical novella Horse. However, most of the essays here are focused less on close analysis of Baxter’s prose works in isolation than in how they ‘uncover how much more complicated Baxter is than his popular stereotype’ – that is, what they tell us about Baxter the poet.

As an academic text, Quarrels is obviously essential for Baxter scholarship. If, as a pioneering critical work, it doesn’t demonstrate that its subject calls for much future study, that’s mostly because it feels pretty comprehensive, even definitive. It’s not likely to be superseded as the book about Baxter’s prose for decades, if ever. But there’s a conspicuous absence, as Miles acknowledges, of an essay on Baxter’s complicated relationship with Māori culture, especially disappointing given the missed opportunity to engage with Baxter a little less reverently. The collection steers clear of hagiography, but could steer clearer; contributors often allude to the flaws in Baxter’s work (and personality) but don’t really dig into them, generally assuming the reader’s already hip to Baxter’s warts.

More interesting is the question of Quarrels’ crossover potential, since Baxter’s an ideal subject to appeal to both an academic and popular audience. Robert Christgau called Dylanology ‘the thinking man’s philately’, a quip that applies just as well to fellow rebel-cum-institution Baxter, who rewards obsessives the same way. Brilliant epigrams and pieces of imagery are buried in obscure speeches and essays, and instead of having a consensus major period, the phases of his career lend themselves to ranking in a way both non-linear and subjective – half the fun of reading him is getting to debate the relative merit of Baxter the aesthete, Baxter the Catholic, Baxter the satirist, Baxter in Dunedin, Baxter in Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the amateur Baxterologist, Quarrels isn’t a pedantic academic text but a pretty good read. Most of these essays are in an enjoyable, accessible, relatively jargon-free style, and they cover an interesting range of topics. Highlights include Peter Whiteford’s piece on Baxter’s social voice and Janet Wilson’s study of Baxter’s autobiographical writing, which has some of the best in-depth commentary on Baxter’s prose. John Davidson’s essay on Baxter and academia is a delight and my definite favourite; his style is clear and charming, and he doesn’t try to resolve Baxter’s academic ambivalence into some phony synthesis, opting instead for sly complicity with Baxter’s contradictory dependence on and healthy contempt for the academy.

Some of the essays are a bit stiff, though. Sharon Baxter’s essay ‘Women are All Mothers to Him’ contains the best analysis of Baxter’s fiction in the book, but it has some undergraduate-y connective tissue (‘in what follows, I focus on’, ‘James K. Baxter’s short fiction – by which I mean…’) that an edit could’ve fixed. There’s a couple outright drags. Kristine Moffat’s essay on Baxter and Puritanism is probably insightful but it’s pretty dry stuff. Nicholas Wright’s essay ‘The Incarnational Formalist’ makes a few decent points, but it’s written in ultra-turgid lit-theory style, simultaneously impenetrable and trite– who would read an essay that starts with ‘What does it mean to know how or why one writes and reads as one does?’ unless they had to review it? Check it out:

‘As I’ve suggested, pursued to the ends of its paradoxical or unmethodical method, formalism must surrender itself once again in that ritual of self-refusal or disavowal, which, for the formalist, becomes evidence they have discovered the vessel of the ineffable – that source of reverence to which the critical clerisy were devoted.’

Baxter would spin if he knew this stuff was being written about him, not to mention Denis Dutton. Still, it’s the exception in a generally highly readable collection.

Quarrels with Himself would be a pretty weird buy for someone who isn’t already a Baxter enthusiast, but it’ll satisfy anyone who’d want to read it. This study of Baxter’s second-tier work might not uncover hidden depths so much as elaborate on the tensions and contradictions in the myth we already knew, but it does it very well, and besides, it’s just fun to talk about him. This is more or less a compulsory companion for those who’ve committed to Baxter’s Complete Prose, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone Baxter-mad enough to have even considered it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer
edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561711

Book Review: Out of the Shadows – The life of Millicent Baxter, by Penny Griffith

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_out_of_the_shadowsThis excellent book packs a real punch in introducing readers to the life of this very formidable woman.

Born in 1888 into a family of some means, Millicent’s was not to be the traditional path that young women of her class were expected to follow. Opinionated and well-educated, Millicent was determined to make her own choices based on what she believed, not what Society thought.

Hers was a full life and not always easy, her husband Archie was a conscientious objector during WW1 which along with Millicent’s pacifist beliefs, did not make them popular. Millicent’s father disapproved of the marriage to Baxter: put simply, he wasn’t good enough. The marriage produced two sons Terence and James, and the family unit was a hardworking but strong one.

It was the second World War that placed the greatest strain on Millicent, as her son Terence was punished for his pacifism.

James, the younger son, became a poet and a leader of men, establishing a well known commune and reaching out to others as his mother did throughout her life. Millicent never really stopped, her always inquiring mind meant that she was always learning and growing and there were always friends and family that needed her helping hands. For a woman of her time, she was also well-travelled.

This is a book that succeeds wonderfully in giving the reader a complete picture of its subject, the research is impeccable and the illustrations complement the narrative. It is easy to read and its subject is a most engaging lady who had a life full of adventure, challenges, hardship and blessings, a lady who lived life as if every minute counted. Millicent was never boring or dull, she was always kind, caring and compassionate, accepting of others and non judgemental, a supportive wife and mother and a great friend to those who knew her.

Penny Griffith has done a great job in bringing Millicent Baxter, perhaps the least known member of her family, to life and has ensured that her story can be heard. Every Secondary School in New Zealand needs a copy of this book available for students to read.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Out of the Shadows – The Life of Millicent Baxter
by Penny Griffith
Published by PenPublishing
ISBN 9780473335106

Book Review: The Stories of Bill Manhire

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_the_stories_of_bill_manhireIn my English class back at high school, we had the opportunity to analyse poems by Bill Manhire as part of our close reading practice. It was great to hone our analytical skills with the works of Manhire, an award-winning New Zealand poet, academic, and writer who was named the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate in 1997. His name was written in bold on a poster on our classroom wall, situated beside posters honouring other New Zealand greats like the Impressionist short story writer Katherine Mansfield, the poet James K. Baxter and the writer Maurice Gee.

The Stories of Bill Manhire, published by Victoria University Press, is a collection of short stories taken from The New Land: A Picture Book (1990), South Pacific (1994), and Songs of My Life (1996). Added delights to this assemblage of literary gemstones are the entertaining choose-your-own-adventurenovella, ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ (published in 1988, with illustrations by Gregory O’Brien) and the memoir Under the Influence (2003).

Manhire’s stories exhibit unique structure and a genuine Kiwi voice. New Zealand and global histories form the contextual backdrop of most of the narratives. I particularly admire the way Manhire glides between local and global history, from tales of New Zealand pubs and railways, to political and historical events such as Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953-54 visit to New Zealand. In one of his short stories, Manhire imagines the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous novel, Treasure Island, who died in Vailima, Samoa. His incorporation of Samoan language, culture and mythology provides cultural vibrancy throughout the text.

My favourite short story was ‘Some questions I am frequently asked’. This piece, amusingly formatted Q&A style, pokes fun at the public life of a writer. The structure of the text mirrors a conversation at a book signing. ‘The Poet’s Wife and The Ghost who talks also’ concern the writer’s lifestyle and social relationships, treating these with humour and sarcasm.

In sum, Manhire’s writing is comical, imaginative and observational. His short stories are magnificent products and imprints of the culture that enlivens the land of swedes, sheep and deep thinkers.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Stories of Bill Manhire
by Bill Manhire
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739254

Book Review: Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe

Available in bookstores nationwide. There is also a nationwide tour accompanying this publication, details can be found here. 

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (2014) weighed heavily in my cv_essential_nz_poemshands. It had some major shoes to fill. Its predecessor and titular sibling of thirteen years earlier, edited by Edmond and Sewell, was my first guide to New Zealand poetry. A veritable treasure trove − I found New Zealand poetry pioneers Bethell, Fairburn, Mason within the pages, as well as shiny new gems from the likes of Emma Neale and Vivienne Plumb. With time, I wondered at the title. The word ‘essential’ troubled me. Could New Zealand’s rich body of poetic works really be sieved through to reveal its ‘essence’?

In this latest anthology, Harvey, Norcliffe and Ricketts approach this issue head on and, with admirable candidness, describe the collection as ‘Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like’. Moreover, the new collection has an adjunct title, ‘Facing the Empty Page’, taken from a poem authored by Elizabeth Nannestad. The problem of ‘essence’, though scarcely resolved, seems to be shrunk.

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page is a literary slumber party, where old-hands and newcomers coalesce. Baxter is bedfellow with Hinemoana Baker, Kiri Piahana-Wong is bunked down with Alistair Paterson. The assemblage is egalitarian, insofar as each author is represented by one poem. Poets are arranged, not chronologically, but in alphabetical sequence. Such an arrangement lends itself to surprises. A page turned can occasion a completely new mood and style. Bub Bridger’s comedic ‘A Christmas Wish’ jolts the reader out of Diana Bridge’s meditational and exquisite ‘Jars, Bubble Bowls and Bottle Vases’. Approaching the book from cover to cover, the reader is sent on an affective rollercoaster. And though giddiness may ensue, the buzz is something addictive.

This anthology, unlike its predecessor, kicks off in the 1950s. So while Curnow is included, Bethell and Mason are not. This is a shortcoming, perhaps, but it does serve to open up the field to a greater number of lesser known contemporary poets. Helen Heath, Courtney Sina Meredith and Ashleigh Young are new kids on the block but, in each case, their poems hold their own.

The book itself is testament to the survival of books as pulp and ink. It is a handsome production − cloth bound, and peppered with haunting greyscale images of New Zealand landscapes. These images serve as reminders that this poetry is ‘earthed’, that the works within were born into the New Zealand context.

Yet many of the pieces featured extend beyond their geographical location. Fleur Adcock’s ‘Having Sex with the Dead’ introduces Greek mythology, Koenraad Kuiper’s ‘Tales’ hauls in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Then there are poems that take us on trips through our very own streets. We are in Titirangi with David Eggleton, the Maniototo with Kevin Ireland, Banks Peninsular with Denis Glover. And James K Baxter enlightens us about Auckland, that ‘great arsehole’ of a city.

This is a beautiful and considered collection. Essential or not, this book is worth getting your hands on.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775534594