08 December 2014

Brimming with Hopeful Settlers

David Eggleton
Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand. A History, by Paul Moon (Penguin, 2013), 432 pp., $55; Changing Times: NZ since 1945, by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow (Auckland University Press, 2013), 520 pp., $50; The Mighty Totara: The life and times of Norman Kirk, by David Grant (Random House, 2014), 512 pp., $50; Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand became nuclear free, by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, 2013), 344 pp., $55; John Key: Portrait of a Prime Minister, by John Roughan (Penguin, 2014), 256 pp., $38.

Among New Zealand’s standard repertoire of icons, emblems, people and place-names – the potent symbols of nation-making – a handful reoccur in context after context, cultural survey after cultural survey, book after book. The best-known general histories, from W.H. Oliver’s The Story of New Zealand (1960) to Keith Sinclair’s A History of New Zealand (1991) to Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) tell the New Zealand story as a drama, or as a sequence of melodramas: short-term conflicts followed by short-term resolutions. The general tenor of these volumes presents history as semi-fiction, agreeable myths, endorseable legends; thus they serve to highlight that all such narratives have their blind spots, their favouritisms, their banged-on-about obsessions, their honed agendas. One reason Michael King’s populist The Penguin History of New Zealand proved a best-seller was that it carefully rang the changes on agreed national myths so as to reinforce or endorse them rather than challenge or revise them.

01 December 2014

The Modeller

twiss book cover
Andrew Paul Wood
Greer Twiss, Sculptor, by Greer Twiss, Rodney Wilson and Robin Woodward (Ron Sang Publications, 2013), 387 pp., $140

Since 2003 the Auckland architect Ron Sang has been publishing lavishly illustrated monographs on some of New Zealand’s most important and fascinating artists (not excluding craft) of the Modern period. So far, veterans Len Castle, Michael Smither, John Drawbridge, Ralph Hotere, Guy Ngan, Vincent Ward, Pat Hanly, Mervyn Williams and Robert Ellis have all had volumes dedicated to them. Curiously no women artists have been so honoured yet, but hopefully this is only a matter of time – Gretchen Albrecht, Ria Bancroft or Jacqueline Fahey would seem fairly obvious choices. The book under review, a runner-up for the Illustrated Non-Fiction category in the 2014 New Zealand Book Awards, is about that redoubtable elder statesman of New Zealand sculpture, Greer Twiss (b. 1937), surely the longest continually working sculptor in the country; he is a national taonga and a world-class artist. And Twiss would be one of the few artists in New Zealand to whom the heritage of the sculptural human form from the Bronze Age Cyclades, to Michelangelo, to Rodin, is still accessible in a meaningful way. Look at the Athletes works of the 1960s for example. 

The Roll of Honour

ANZAC cover image
Nina Seja
ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart, with an introduction by Jock Phillips (Victoria University Press, 2014), 108 pp., $60

What are the implications of cultural remembrance? As theorist Marita Sturken points out in her book Tangled Memories, the ‘process of cultural memory is bound up in complex political stakes and meanings.’ The output of publications devoted to one cataclysmic conflict in cultural memory increased substantially this year as we entered into a period of centennial commemoration for the Great War of 1914–18. 
As a nation New Zealand suffered tremendous losses on the frontline, and the impact of war was felt almost equally strongly back at home, psychologically, economically, physically. One hundred years offers distance to reflect on the War’s legacy, but also an opportunity to see what types of official narratives have emerged, persisted, been revised. And beyond these historic or bureaucratic interpretations, how might artists reframe a culture remembering? Esteemed photographer Laurence Aberhart’s body of work entitled ANZAC offers one artist’s nuanced view of the event called ‘World War One’ that is at once personal and universal in its quiet critique of war and in its depiction of how memorials construct, or are invested with, the sanctity of the past. 

Stories in the Sky

heartland cover image
Tim Upperton 
Heartland, by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, 2014), 114 pp., $27.99

Not since Ian Wedde’s The Commonplace Odes have I read a poetry collection with this rich combination of earthy sensuousness, celebration of the fleeting moment, sense of mortality and unashamed kiwiana. Michele Leggott’s contemplative poetry invites slow reading. She controls tempo by unorthodox means: of the three poetic resources that traditionally put the brakes on our reading pace – punctuation, metre and the line-break – she uses only the third, and more often than not lines are enjambed in ways that make the break incidental. In lieu of punctuation, Leggott will frequently follow a phrase with a space, an interval within the line:

I saw my angels    they were beautiful
beyond compare    flags snapping above the headland
combed blond by wind    they were sitting
each with disaster in a small pocket and they were
so beautiful in their resistance to the idea
of letting it fall into the world    they were meeting
in a room with light powered by small engines

(from ‘degli angeli’)

The Urgency of Now

born to a redheaded woman cover
Richard Reeve
Born to a Red-Headed Woman, by Kay McKenzie Cooke (Otago University Press, 2014), 72 pp., $25

Born to a Red-headed Woman is Southland-Otago poet Kay McKenzie Cooke’s third collection of poetry. The book’s initial launch postponed due to the death of her mother the title has a special poignancy, embodying what Cooke calls the ‘urgency of now’, revelations of poetic life that surface in the occasions informing her poems. Life with her farmer father before his premature death is one such recalled revelation of poetic life in the collection; others are less obvious, life as corridor kids at school, Sunday in Hedgehope, UFO sightings, the poet wetting herself in the back of the priest’s car. Cooke’s vividly conjured poetic memories are variously profound, comic, tragic, everyday, one-off; they are the minutes of her life, arranged in an evocative generational narrative from early life in Orepuki, to Gore, and now Dunedin as a grandmother.

A Good Pyromaniac Never Blames the Kindling

lonely nude cover
Sarah-Jane Barnett
The Lonely Nude by Emily Dobson (Victoria University Press, 2014); 70 pp., $25; 
Raspberry Money by Alison Denham (Sudden Valley Press, 2013), 64 pp. 

The Lonely Nude opens with lines from American poet Mary Ruefle: ‘Always when I glanced inwards she was there,/ completely naked and turned away’. The protagonist in Dobson’s new collection is equally interested in understanding the relationship between her inner and outer self, between seeing and being seen.
The Lonely Nude is Dobson’s first collection in eight years. Born in Hastings and raised in a family of apiarists in rural Hawke’s Bay, Dobson attended the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2004. She was awarded the Adam Prize for her folio of work which then became her first collection, A Box of Bees (Victoria University Press, 2005). The collection drew on her childhood experiences of bee-keeping. Dobson was also awarded the prestigious 2005 Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States.

Three Years at Sea

james cook cover
Brian Clearkin
James Cook’s New World, by Graeme Lay (HarperCollins, 2014), 368 pp., $37

Ah – if only we could have had such literary works in schooldays, when our prescribed textbooks fiercely competed against each other for dryness and boredom. Graeme Lay has done a masterful re-creation of James Cook’s late-eighteenth-century world and given us a finely nuanced and well-drawn characterisation of the man himself. This is no mere flight of the imagination; the author’s many sources are detailed in the Acknowledgements, along with his thanks to the individuals who helped ensure its historical, technological and geographical accuracy.
Bernard Cornwell has set the bar at an Olympian height in the field of historical novels, and on first impression Graeme Lay’s work seems a little low-key in comparison. I would prefer to see this as an observation rather than a criticism, since readers will soon find themselves subtly drawn into Cook’s world as the newly promoted captain sets out to make his second historic and lasting contribution to cartography and exploration.

01 November 2014

Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like

Michael Morrissey
Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, selected by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts, (Godwit, 2014), 318 pp., $45

This new collection has a splendid format: a lovely, tiered landscape cover subtly suggesting geological depth and solidity; plus interior, etiolated, black-and-white ‘wash’-type landscape photo-images that are at the same time attractively old fashioned and aggressively up to date – like a cousin of a tinted photo in Granta. The general production of the book makes for a handsome tome that sits well in the hand. The compilation is presented as a sequel to the earlier Essential New Zealand Poems selected by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell published in 2001. It is surprising to reflect that, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first generalised selection since that millennial tome.