01 July 2014

Improvers in Trousers

Lindsay Rabbitt
Unpacking the Kists:The Scots in New Zealand, by Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon (Otago University Press, 2013), 412 pp., $70

In the nineteenth century John Polson, my maternal great-great-grandfather, downed tools as a cooper in the herring trade in West Helmsdale and said goodbye to his family at their croft in Marrel, a neighbouring village in Sutherlandshire, Highland Scotland, and sailed for New Zealand/Aotearoa. He arrived in Lyttelton in 1862 and sailed on to Port Chalmers. By chance a fellow passenger, contracted to walk a mob of sheep to Morven Hills Station, fell ill during the journey, and John, with apparently little experience in shepherding, manned up for the gig. Perhaps he travelled the Pig Route to the Maniototo Plains, or alternatively on a track the miners took to the goldfields, starting in Outram, West Taieri, on to the Lammermoor Range at Rocklands, and across the Rock and Pillar and over the Knobby Range, descending to cross the Manuherikia River near Alexandra, then on to Tarras and the Lindis Pass to meet John (Jock) McLean, one of the first leaseholders of Morven Hills who, according to John’s grandson Ian Polson, ‘saw his mettle and employed John as a boundary rider on the spot’.

The Mana of our Tūpuna

rekohu cover

Tasha Haines
Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, by Tina Makereti (Random House, 2014), 280 pp., $37.99

Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings is a fascinating and revealing novel by Tina Makereti, who is ‘of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā, and in all probability Moriori descent’, says the book’s introduction. The emotional trajectory of the narrative certainly reads as though Makereti has a great deal personally invested in this story. 
The substance of the book is thematically three-fold: firstly, what is identity; secondly, what is the truth about the history of the Moriori people; and lastly, what do ‘we’ do with our shame? Fundamentally this is a work of clear, concise and unfussy fiction, but the real-world debates it stirs up are its most potent legacy. 
The book begins in the late 1800s in Waimua in Queen Charlotte Sound with Mere, a strong-willed and strident Māori girl, and her family’s mokai (slave) Iraia, who is Moriori. Theirs is a simmering and quite beautiful love story. If Mere and Iraia want to be together, they cannot stay in her father’s house so they run away, in 1882, and head for Picton and on to Wellington, where their happiness is short but sweet before Iraia suffers fever in a typhoid or cholera epidemic. A baby is born which Mere calls Te Kaha, and history is made …

Amid a Host of Wanderers and Migrants

cover of orr
Iain Sharp
Odysseus in Woolloomooloo, by Bob Orr (Steele Roberts, 2014), 60 pp., $19.99

If James Joyce could reanimate Ulysses on the banks of the Liffey, why not bring the wily old wanderer to the South Pacific? As well as this handsome poetry book by Bob Orr (his eighth), Steele Roberts recently published a new version of Homer’s Odyssey – ‘an Antipodean translation for the early twenty-first century’– compiled by Brian Dawkins, an ardent self-taught classicist who lives in Ngaio. The near-simultaneous arrival of these volumes seems a fulfilment of the hypothesis offered in Landfall more than thirty years ago by classical scholar John Davidson. Riffing on the theme of ‘Baxter, Odysseus and New Zealand poetry’ in the June 1980 issue, Davidson suggested that the do-it-yourself methodology of the Homeric hero resonated with the male Kiwi psyche and observed that ‘the Polynesian explorers themselves, as well as Tasman, Cook, Dicky Barrett, even Samuel Marsden, could all perhaps be said to have a touch of Odysseus about them’.
James K Baxter was firm in his conviction ‘that the Greek myths and legends are never out-of-date since they form that mythical stratum in the mind of modern man which enables him from time to time to make a pattern out of the chaos of his experience’. This passage comes from the preface to the 1967 play The Sore-Footed Man, which has Odysseus has its protagonist. A little later, Baxter remarks, ‘The character of Odysseus had in fact haunted me for many years, from the time I began to realise that neither conventional ethics nor the theology of Aquinas were much use in determining what choices a man should make who wishes to win a war, or court a woman, or even free himself from the chains of family conditioning.’

When the Kingfisher Flies

equanimity verse cover
John Horrocks
Book of Equanimity Verses, by Richard von Sturmer ( Puriri Press, 2013), 60pp., $28.50; One Human in Height, by Rachel O’Neill, (Hue & Cry Press, 2013), 56 pp., $25

How does one read a book inspired by an ancient collection of Chinese Zen poems, The Book of Equanimity? At least in traditional Chinese poetry the allusions could be recognised by educated readers, while the Equanimity Verses themselves have generated centuries of commentary. In the case of Richard von Sturmer’s own verses there are unusual and multiple challenges – the form, an expanded version of the Japanese five-line tanka; the relationship of the themes to Zen koans; and the presence behind the stanzas of the original Equanimity Verses, together with their associated interpretations. 
The 100 verses in Richard von Sturmer’s collection can be like koans themselves, subtle and indirect enough to break down one’s expectations. The reader, unless a Zen adept, has to approach them naively, as poems. There is no teacher present to nudge one towards understanding. 

Almost Home

between the kindling cover
Vaughan Rapatahana
Between the Kindling and the Blaze, by Ben Brown (Anahera Press, 2013), 50 pp., $27.99

This, his first slim book of poetry, compiled by and for Ben Brown (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Mahuta), comes in a finely presented format from a fledgling small-press publisher, with a flaming cover painting by Rewi McClay depicting the fire (ahi) of the title. 
Except this collection is not so much poetry in any ‘traditional’ English language sense, the métier of – for example – the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, but is far more intensively mōteatea in all of that genre’s multifold formats – laments, lullabies, lashings, laconic reflections and long pieces that some would nominate as prose. Ben Brown carries, with considerable mana, the coat tails of Baxter and Tuwhare and Hunt and doesn’t go near the vanilla-and-villanelle nature of much other contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand verse. All good.
Brown is also a performance poet par excellence and these mōteatea, as with all such oral poetry, are intended to be declaimed and exclaimed to an audience: to be performed in front of a crowd, preferably in an atmosphere of beers, guitars, perhaps a whiff or seven of dak (‘a slang name for marijuana’ – as the extensive glossary defines it.) 

Out of the Ordinary

rising to the surface cover
Jenny Powell
Rising to the Surface, by Latika Vasil (Steele Roberts Publishers, 2013), 128 pp., $29.99 

Rising to the surface is a slow process. There is furniture to navigate, the world beyond the window to consider and the difficult decision of doors; should one anxiously open them or leave well alone. The underwater world, depicted on the cover of Latika Vasil’s debut collection of short stories, portrays these possibilities. While some book-cover illustrations seem to lack any link with writer’s intent, Michael Soppit’s image ‘Swimming in the Living Room’ is apt and enticing. It is a definite precursor to the lives lived beyond the cover-door.
These short stories utilise the economy of the genre in terms of numbers of characters and episodes of action, but the limited time span is only present in a measured sense. It is not to be found in a more involved reading of the text, as Vasil manipulates time. She alters the expected experience of time by connecting us so deeply to her characters that before we know it, the story ends, and we have abandoned our own sense of time in favour of each character’s version. 

Smugglers’ Contraband

promoting prosperity cover
David Eggleton
Promoting Prosperity: The art of early New Zealand advertising, by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013), 440 pp., $79.99; From Earth’s End: The best of New Zealand comics, by Adrian Kinnaird (Godwit, 2013) 447 pp., $59.99

You approach Promoting Prosperity: The art of early New Zealand advertising as if through a cheering crowd. The back cover and cover flaps are decorated with encomiums and endorsements by figures ranging from Martin Snedden to Al Brown to Gareth Morgan. And in a way the cheerleading is not misplaced, as meticulous production values do indeed render its images ‘luscious and valuable’ as Brian Sweeney, one of the book’s essayists, exclaims. But if the book is a celebration, what exactly is it celebrating? Is it period-era graphic art? Is it New Zealand as a little industrial powerhouse in the South Pacific? Or is it the power of persuasion and propaganda? Do values all come down to marketing, best profile forward?
Containing around 750 images, most of them in full colour, exquisitely rendered, this heavy tome is not quite a history of commercial poster illustration between 1920 and 1960, because it only partly fills in a complex narrative and doesn't attempt much in the way of cultural contextualisation. (What else was going on at the time?) Instead, it’s a decorous sampling of graphic design that complements Alsop and Stewart’s 2012 book Selling the Dream: The art of early New Zealand tourism. The new book is fundamentally volume II of the same project, showcasing place-specific commercial art.