new zealand electronic poetry centre

 

Murray Edmond


essays
[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, footnotes]

    

THEN IT WAS NOW AGAIN:
NEW ZEALAND POETRIES AND COLONIAL HISTORIES


continued

 

But Heaphy's colonist's dream of an (at worst) 'gently undulating' land persists. It reaches from what Belich has called the 'extractive' nineteenth century economies of whales, seals, gold, and flax through to such latter day extractive economies as natural gas, logs, venison and shares. The dream of the quick buck has been respectabilised again as fundamentally 'good' (it trickles down), just as it was in early colonial times, but whether it ever went away and was replaced by a caring society based on egalitarianism in the intervening period, or whether this was another colonial myth to mask a further and comprehensive phase of total colonisation, is becoming increasingly problematic. To have been the 'social laboratory of the world' for experiments in social welfare seems to mean that you are equally suited to be a social laboratory for experiments in Neo Social Darwinism by the New Right. All it might mean is, that you are small enough, isolated enough, coherent enough and willing enough to be used again and again as a subject for experimentation, as recent suggestions that New Zealand is presently being used as a try-out for a cashless society tend to confirm.

Heaphy had energy. He went on looking for things to extract; for instance, coal was an ostensible object of search (new settlement land was the real aim) in an epic journey down the West Coast of the South Island, with Kehu and Tau, William Fox and Thomas Brunner, from March to August 1846. Heaphy and companions tramped, waded, paddled and swam their way from Nelson as far south as Arahura, the river which yielded pounamu (also spelt poenamu) or greenstone. His account of this journey was published in the Nelson Examiner between 5th September and 17th October 1846. Sixteen years later he published a shorter version of his travel journal under the title 'A Visit to the Greenstone Country' in Chapman's New Zealand Monthly Magazine. Nancy Taylor comments that, in this second version, 'there is less verve and gusto, and . . . more of packs, cliff-climbing, food-contriving, and weariness'. (24) At the farthest outward point of the six month tramp, as he recounts in the earlier version, Heaphy reached the small community at Arahura (also spelt Araura):

At the termination of these rocks the perpindicular cliff of Temiko rises above the beach, and, projecting out until washed by the sea, appears to debar further progress. It is 120 feet in height, and its descent was first effected by a war party, the natives composing which let down a ladder made of the rata vine of the forest above. There are now two stages of ladders, made of short pieces of the rope rata, lashed together with flax, with steps at irregular distance, the whole very shaky and rotten. In order to ascend to the foot of the first ladder it is necessary to place a tree against the slippery limestone rock. Our baggage and the dog had to be hoisted up by flax rope. . . . . In the afternoon we ascended the point of Punakaiki, and having walked about 300 yards along the summit we obtained a view of the coast as far as Kararoa, the first village of Araura, distant from us about 14 miles . . . . Having descended, we reached the Pakiroa or Poenamu beach . . . . and about a mile farther came upon the carcasses of a number of sperm whales . . . . at length came in sight of the village of Kararoa . . . . [C]ontinued on four miles to the Teramakau settlement. . . . We found here six men and about fifteen women, with a large proportion of children. The inmates of each house were busily engaged in making meri poenamu [greenstone adzes] and ear pendants of that material for 'trade' or presents to the northward. They saw the slab with a piece of mica slate, wet, and afterwards polish it with a fine sandy limestone which they obtain in the vicinity. The hole is drilled with a stick pointed with a piece of Pahutani flint . . . . They fish in the shallow parts of the Teramakau and Mawhera rivers in the summer, catching eels, soles, and whitebait . . . . There are no canoes large enough to proceed to sea . . .It is probably the worst off community in New Zealand . . . . (25)

In 1937, poet Robin Hyde, in order to write her poem 'Young Knowledge', raided Heaphy's account of this meeting at Arahura. (26) At the end of her impressionistic, meditative poem, which juggles a rich array of images of knowledge, she stands Heaphy on a cliff at Arahura:

By bridges slender as the ake ladder
Where Heaphy, climbing, found the Greenstone people,
Saw the wide nets wash out in thundering surf
Too huge for the canoes, drawn in by moonlight;
Watched the brown women drying out inanga
For fodder in the nights of eaten moons
When wind prowls round the thatch with thievish fingers;
Saw the marled greenstone littered on the ground,
And how they fine the edge with whalebone drills (27)

And so she recreates the scene for us, vividly ('marled greenstone littered on the ground'), slightly gothic ('the nights of eaten moons'), a touch mystical ('the Greenstone people'). But she never loses touch with the fact that the then is now for us, and for Heaphy too. For Hyde, Heaphy is standing there in 1937 as well as 1846 the poem knows this! and he gets to have a second go at drawing his journey to a conclusion:

And turned away at last, and climbed the ladder,
And standing on the clifftops, saw their smokes
Final steam up, blue parting of a dream.
There standing on the clifftops weighed his knowledge
The thin precarious weight of early knowledge
And staring in a sun, half steeled his heart
To tell the cities there was no such world.(28)

The poem lets Heaphy take part in the politics of knowledge in 1937, just as he had done in 1839 and 1846. He never sloughs off '[t]he thin precarious weight of early knowledge' and returns, a second time round, to his conclusion that he is looking at a world that never was, which is what the Maori world had become for Pakeha in 1937. The places of 'no such world' are everywhere, and as numerous as the mass of paper filled with blind or blinding speech or the innumerable dead who sit on our shoulders like small birds, always talking in our ears, but swiftly flying away when we turn to catch a glimpse of them.

'Young Knowledge' is a poem written in a style distinctly at odds with the progressive mode of New Zealand poetry in the 1930s:

Old vine on walls, thick-jointed, stiff with knots,
Knowledge creeps up the mortised centuries;
White grapes from this; but here with darkling pride
Burgundian clusters silk their sides in sun.
A thousand stamping feet across the vats
Press out each grape-year; now the rosy foam
Seethes up in hillocks, and the vintner's rods
Stir the dark coil of potency beneath. (lines 25 32.)

Words such as 'darkling,' and 'hillocks,' at the time this poem was written, rendered this poetry broadly characterised as 'Georgian' by those innovators who were successfully constructing modern New Zealand poetry, poets such as Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and Charles Brasch, whose combined work represents a spectrum of styles, rather than a unified school, but who saw themselves unified in opposition to the sentimentality, the poetic diction, and the pastoral lyricism subsumed under that name 'Georgian'. Charles Brasch, for instance, praised Allen Curnow's anthologies of the 1940s and 1950s as 'a hard frost' which killed off the weaker plants. (29)

The narrative that was told for Robin Hyde's poetry, its 'history', was that, from being 'a Georgian poet', she suddenly, in 1937, two years before her tragically early death, broke out of this mould by writing her sequence of poems, 'Houses by the Sea' '[W]hat is remarkable about them is their tone - it's unmistakably modern . . . . What you feel is that a real person is talking to you in a familiar language'.(30) This assessment by poet Alistair Campbell was written in 1964, demonstrating how, once established, this summation of the Hyde story persisted, despite the 'familiar' language of 'Houses by the Sea' being, by then, nearly thirty years old. It might be more useful, now, to suggest that in 'Houses by the Sea', Hyde, very successfully, and with great skill, brought her language into line with the dominant, progressive modernist line of the time, and that this language still held sway in New Zealand poetry in 1964. The history of Hyde criticism is an exemplary case of the past rushing up to overwhelm the present. Within a broadly feminist framework, Michele Leggott's 1995 essay, 'Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record', begins to assign value rather than embarrassment to Hyde's 'hybridity, "unevenness" and emotional excess'.(31) And Mary Paul's 1995 doctoral thesis, 'Reading Readings' sets about contextualising Hyde's restoration within the growth of feminist criticism, a process that began quietly in the late 1970s and gathered pace in the 1980s and has continued until now; so that comments such as Curnow's that her work displays 'an exhibitionism verging on hysteria' can now be read 'as an example of the masculinist erasure . . . of an important woman writer'. (32)

Yet I venture to suggest that something else has returned in Hyde's poetry the very language that was once Georgian, archaic, genteel, poeticised, excessive and hysterical, now actually sounds very good; its rich, Keatsian density and heavily wrought imagery - the wine and the vintage, which twist through and saturate the passage quoted above (and the vine as rata, 'ake,' returns in the final section to build Heaphy's fragile ladders) and the bumpy diction (down to the delicious "mortised," which draws on the arts of architecture and printing, as well as providing an echo of both mortar and mortality and the locksmith's craft, 'locked centuries') are peculiarly satisfying to the baroque, fragmented sensibility of a postmodern age, when the dry and careful ironies of 1930s Anglo-modernism, out of which modern New Zealand poetry emerged, now sound a little too dry and a little too careful.

'Young Knowledge' knows a thing or two:

Soak the lithe toro-toro, and best yarn
Was not so strong for tying up stockades,
Three pickets for defence, a carved head fixed
Red-ochred, on the height of every gate. (lines 127 130.)

The toro-toro is Metrosideros perforata, another rata vine (like the 'ake', Metrosideros scandens ) and here, rather than for building ladders to facilitate trade, the vine is used for binding defensive stockading for war:

The mangrove roots were ground for making powder
At the three secret mills among the Maoris,
When the lost war-dance thudded through the North.
They cut the yellow twisted horoeka
For sticks; the grass springs best when thin-bellied cattle
Trample their path, dung-dropping in the fern;
And the young shoots were burned off once a year
But food for bellies when the crops were drowned.
And these I know, and ghosts of dead men's knowledge (lines 136 144.)

'Young Knowledge' knows how the shape of New Zealand's colonial history was forged in a protracted series of conflicts between 1845 and 1872 between Maori and Pakeha ('thudded through the North' which was where the fighting began), almost analagous to Europe's 'Thirty Years War' of the first half of the seventeenth century, in that the fighting ranged widely across most parts of the North Island and engaged as many as 18,000 British troops, many different iwi (tribal groupings) and settler and mercenary groups, and, to some extent, even created several different sides. But the essential struggle was always about mana whenua or 'control of the land'.

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Last updated 11 July, 2001