01 August 2014

The Dispossessed

cover image for andris
Brian Clearkin
Andris, Where Are You? From Latvia to New Zealand: The family story of Andris Apse, by Ron Crosby, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013), 254 pp., $39.99

The story of our lives cannot be told without some recounting of the lives of those closest to us. Thus, the story of Andris Apse begins with the flowering adolescence of his mother and father in the closing years of the 1930s. It is a testament to the enduring qualities of the written word of times past, since so much of the tale is told through the letters and diaries of his parents. Through these faithfully safeguarded papers, they communicate their feelings and experiences, even as their lives entwine in the turmoil of World War II. A tentative courtship and brief marital bliss is swiftly followed by separation and seeming loss – until their final mutual rediscovery more than 40 years later. Will the proliferation of emails and digital photographic images of our times be as accessible to those who seek to write our life stories half a century from now?

This is the Path of Glory

cover image for images of war
Max Oettli
Images of War: New Zealand and the First World War in photographs, by Glyn Harper, (Harper Collins, 2013), 399 pp., $99.99 

‘You were in the Great War?’ I said. ‘Tell me about that.’
‘I’ve been in all the wars,’ Johnston said, ‘but I couldn’t tell you anything about it.’
‘You won’t talk about it?’
‘I couldn’t tell you anything even if I did. It wasn’t anything. You wouldn’t understand unless you saw it. Even if you did see it you wouldn’t understand it.’
                       Man Alone (1939), by John Mulgan

Images of War, a tombstone-sized book, a coffee-table tester, is the overgrown bastard brat of a rather better publication by the same author that came out five years earlier, primarily re-issued, we assume, to cash in on the Great War nostalgia market. A ‘stunning’ large-format book, says the blurb. I am duly stunned. This tome weighs in at 3 kilos (according to our bathroom scales), and has a grey cover that looks thick enough to stop bullets. The cover design is of a singular unattractiveness, with lettering masking a fine photo of Kiwi soldiers looking out at us, which has been combined with a design of another photo of men scampering across a battlefield to their grey death.
The book’s archive of photographs was largely made largely possible because the technology of the time had recently enabled the vest-pocket-sized camera, placed in the hands of any untrained operator, to produce photos of an acceptable quality. Kodak’s slogan ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ had been around for a while and had beome a practical reality around the time the ‘Great War’ began. Many soldiers involved in World War I set out to document their experience, at least partially, usually without authorisation or censorship (by the time of World War  II regulations were far stricter). So this work pays tribute to a unique and epic collective effort; it’s a combined personal view of the disastrous 1914–18 conflict.

Fanny and Fitz

cover of Fitz
Edmund Bohan
Fitz: The colonial adventures of James Edward FitzGerald, by Jenifer Roberts (Otago University Press, 2014), 392 pp., $40

This is a first-rate and welcome biography of one of the most interesting of all New Zealand’s nineteenth century celebrities and his equally fascinating, multi-talented and adored wife, Fanny Erskine Draper. Jenifer Roberts is an accomplished and experienced English author, and also happens to be one of their numerous direct descendants – a great-great-granddaughter. But rest assured: this is no reverential hagiography. Far from it. This is very much a true ‘warts and all’ life of a man, some of whose legacies are still with us; and perhaps her most interesting reassessment of the ancestor she and other FitzGerald descendants had been taught to idolise, has been to establish that he was certainly bipolar – which explains not only his spectacular mood swings and bouts of depression, but much else about his character. 

The Misshapen Tea Cosy Head

cover for green with envy
Mary Macpherson
Green with Envy, by Layla Rudneva-Mackay, (Clouds and Starkwhite, 2012), 120 pp., $59.95

Green with envy, red with rage, white with fear – in Western culture these are some of the human emotions we’ve associated with particular colours. Colour psychology also pairs colours with qualities, like yellow with emotion, green with balance (in contradiction to envy) blue with the intellect, and so on. In Layla Rudneva-Mackay’s photographic work Green with Envy her subjects literally wear their colours as paint or masks, or conceal themselves behind stretches of fabric, in a way that seems to point to their inner states, or suggests the need for protection from the world.
The book opens with solo portraits of individuals, mostly indoors, their skin lightly dusted with a variety of colours. While the staging is varied, the feeling from the works is remarkably consistent – the sitters looking serenely at camera, or off to the side, with a sense of inner life in their eyes. As photographs they’re contemplative, cerebral works inviting the viewer to think about the choices of props and staging and what the colours employed might symbolise, rather than providing immediate emotional engagement. With the direction of the book’s title in mind, is the red-haired woman in the blue-patterned dressing gown, with a pale green face, starting to feel a tinge of jealousy? Is the yellow-faced woman sitting in front of a vibrant yellow backdrop wearing a blue top and red skirt, an emblem of the positivity that’s associated with yellow?

An Empty Tent Flapping in the Wind

cover image for 45 south
Kathryn Mitchell
45 South: A journey across southern New Zealand, by Laurence Fearnley with photographs by Arno Gasteiger, (Penguin, 2013), 191 pp., $65.00

Our journey in this book begins at Hilderthorpe, where a large boulder marks an invisible line laid down by map-makers: 45 degrees south, halfway between the equator and the south pole. 45 South documents a strong sense of place and time as author Laurence Fearnley, avid kayaker and lover of solitude, takes to the road. Through a dry blustery nor-wester that stirs dust and stings the eyes, past barren hills and valleys punctuated by fresh, green spring growth, and alongside the author, we make camp to gaze at the Orion constellation. Before long we tour on to marvel at the jagged peaks of the Remarkables; kayak down the Eglinton River; and eventually arrive in Fiordland, where we are told a tale of two Te Anau locals who made an unexpected discovery in the caves of Lee Island. The invisibility and yet navigational dependability of the line of the 45th parallel is echoed in Fearnley’s travels as she recounts stories and histories that have left their own ineradicable traces.

Gorgeous Particulars

cover of intercolonial
Robert McLean
Intercolonial by Stephen Oliver (Puriri Press, 2013), 76 pp., $28.50 
Aspects of Reality by John O’Connor (HeadworX, 2013), 84 pp., $20.00

To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the ‘contents’ of a subjectivity.
Christopher Middleton – Reflections on a Viking Prow.

Christopher Middleton, in his essay Reflections on a Viking Prow, talks about how poetic reality can be glimpsed through poems that do not actually contain any overt subjective content but are poems that are functioning as apertures on being; that is, they are structures through which one experiences revelations of being. Stephen Oliver, throwing unabashed ego into service in his proto-modernist book-length poem Intercolonial, presents an alternative approach to the domestic solipsism that renders so much contemporary poetry inert and lifeless, not least of all that which receives the most acclaim. 
Nothing is held back in Intercolonial. Poundian ‘copulas of agglutination’ are baroquely parcelled, and sometimes ignite into luminous nodes that blaze so as to light up great swathes of the self and its philosophical inclinations. Time and space might collapse and become one and the same – or Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit, as Wagner’s Grail-questing Arthurian opera Parsifal has it. With Intercolonial, Oliver is the poet as Parsifal, albeit one formed in a lustier and less youthful mould. Wellington shares, as it were, postcodes with the castle of Monsalvat, home of the grail and its knights, where time is space and space is time. These are highbrow attributions and comparisons, but I doubt that Stephen Oliver would shy away from them. He has made for himself – and us – a weighty oeuvre. His approach is Joycean in manner, word-tumbling; recruiting the ancient Greeks, and tracing substrata below a humming verbal surface: the pull of Ariadne’s thread, a flurry of Socratic daemons, the weight caught on fate’s fishing line. 

The Weaver’s Shuttle

cover of beyond the ohlala mountains
David Eggleton
Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968–2002, by Alan Brunton, edited and introduced by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond (Titus Books, 2014), 316 pp., $38

Alan Brunton was a poet, a Sixties millennial prophet and a theatrical instigator who flamed out at the beginning of the new millennium, dying of a heart attack while on the road with Red Mole in Amsterdam in 2002. Mutant offspring of the McLuhanite Sixties zeitgeist, the Red Mole theatre troupe – which Alan Brunton founded – was perhaps conceived of, and certainly grew into, a cultural omnivore, a world-eater: an energetically organic enterprise with international ambition, acting out the role of a brilliantly coloured and exotic provocateur in the black-and-white landscape that was New Zealand in the 1970s.
Red Mole’s cabaret performances in an assortment of curious venues were fractured epics, portraying glimpses of surrealistic odysseys in search of ‘Paradise’, or else they were mordant socio-political critiques of the post-colonial world. Its members sought to be brand new cartographers, charting not Mercator’s projection of the old navigators, but psychic maps of the ‘province of Novoi Zelandi’ and its place in the scheme of things, accompanied by bells, whistles, flutes.