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

 

Poetry participates in the construction of history, it is part of the body (metaphor) of knowledge; it does not, in some sense, exist in another realm (metaphor): 'The hierarchical division between literature and history or politics, one eternal and idealized, one temporary and debased, is entirely a disciplinary fiction.' (59) Lyn Hejinian's encapsulation of the idea of the 'West' in the 'West' implies that 'knowledge' has taken on a character trapped between 'anxious circumspection' and 'endemic nostalgia'. She attempts to shift the ground of what we think knowledge is in a way which might allow poetry more acknowledged participation and release our sense of knowledge from this present stasis:

Knowledge, like speaking or writing, is not an entity but a function - it would best be called "knowing" – and the purpose of that function is to contextualize – to contextualize in the profoundest sense, so that knowledge is not only knowing of (which is experience in potentia) and knowing that (which generates propositions) but also knowing how. (p. 181.)

'Knowing' provides an 'incitement', whereas 'knowledge' brings us to a 'terminus' (p. 184.) – the noun suggests a thing which you do or do not have, or have adequately or inadequately, whereas the verb is an act, which needs to be carried out, in a time and a place, by someone, which requires an object: 'Knowing is transient, though recurrent, occurring in situ, in experience, but not automatically'. (p. 185.) Like the sea-green soothsayer Proteus, knowing is a shape-changer; nevertheless, as in the story in the fourth of Virgil's Georgics, in times of need, this body can be forced to tell its tale of Orpheus. Then poetry can tell us what it knows, which Hejinian calls 'in both writer and readers an experience of experience'. (p. 180.)

The poem is not the thing itself, nor the song, the map, the painting, nor the chronicle, but rather the experience of the experience, the sound of the sound, the place of the place, the image of the image, the idea of the idea, the story of the story, the names of the names. 'Do not be deceived - you may be living in it and not know, because two times can live together', as Janet Frame says. In knowing, certainty and uncertainty can both exist, and so whatever is canonical becomes provisional. As Frame goes on: 'the one [time] doesn't know the other one is living because if you're in one time whatever would make you think there is another there going on through the light of day and the dark of night?' This quotation also suggests that there is no subject without an object, no self without (an)other, no world without relationship between subject and object. At first the sense of threat, doom, horror, which haunts the quotation seems to come from the notion that another world lurks there waiting to grab us. But, in fact, the horror is 'not to know' this, to be unable to 'think there is another there going on through the light of day and the dark of night', the horror is to be trapped in the one. What I like about the quotation is that it supports the usefulness of uncertainty, it makes partial knowledge into a provocation, it reaches for the preciousness of being surprised, it makes us think again.

It would be a comfort to suppose that one could rest here, in this paradox, which might even suggest a breakthrough to some understanding, except that, in Frame's story the exercise book Milly leaves behind for posterity is disregarded, and Milly herself and all her family have already been eliminated in the name of progress as the book ends. Intensive Care was written in the 1960s, published in 1970, just before New Zealand's post- World War Two period of prosperity came to an end. At a talk James Belich gave at Victoria University in June 1996, in which he reviewed the history of New Zealand historiography, he proposed a schema for New Zealand history from the beginnings of Pakeha settlement to the present: the period from 1840 to 1900, a period of colonisation, the period from 1900 to 1960, a period of recolonisation, and the period from 1960 to the present, a period of decolonisation. Frame's novel was written in the shadow of the recolonisation period, when beneath the time of prosperity, another time, forgotten, discarded, ran on through the light of day and the dark of night. The period since, the time Belich labelled 'decolonisation,' a period which has seen both Maori and Pakeha nationalisms become more confident and assertive, might easily be mistaken for an instance of progress. It would be a comfort to think that in this time, nothing has been lost, discarded or eliminated, that at last posterity can be forgotten.

Yet, it may not be as comfortable as this. The actual situation in relation to the survival of Maori as a spoken language is problematic, probably more precarious than it has ever been; and this is part of a wider probability, that over the next 40 years perhaps 90 percent of the world's languages as spoken, living entities are under threat of extinction. When the world is viewed as a giant market place, then the law of the market is just – the weak languages go under, the humans who cannot eliminate the animal in them are eliminated, what survives is what ought to survive.

It is in the shadow of this situation that, as Rancière puts it, 'the "end of history" is thereby posted in our orders of the day'. While he acknowledges the 'inanity' of the idea of a 'time . . . without history', he goes on to allude to the 'lassitude' of those historians who feel their discipline is being eroded by the 'evil empire of the text and its deconstruction' – those who forget that each history is a creation of its time. Poetry too, as earlier quotations from Cary Nelson have pointed out, often suffers from a similar defensive desire to create for itself an immutable exclusivity. Rancière concludes: 'nothing threatens history except its own lassitude with regard to the time that has made it or its fear before that which makes its material sensitive to its object – time, words, and death'. (pp. 102 – 103.)

What, then, can be said, now? Are we left with Whaea Kairau's repetitive version, the small trader's small vision writ large, as she describes it after her daughter, Puawai, has shot herself?

Bury her. I can't stay here. (She goes to put the cross by Puawai. Then she decides to keep it.) No I'll bury her myself. I know a place by the river. My cart's a hearse, eh. You shall never know a lover and die childless and of song mute. That's me. (She makes a strangled Puawai type sound.) There's land up for a penny in Poverty Bay. Maybe I'll buy a bit of dirt and sell it as soon as the price is right. Trading's all I know. I survive. The dead are worthless to me. (Hemi and Constable carry Puawai off. Black Jack exits.) Who will buy my flowers. My pink sweet roses. Me cart's a hearse. I'm old and cold. This is how we live through wars past and those to come . . . (60)

The phrase 'wars past and those to come' links past and future in a sombre vision.

Yet there is also the present, infinitesimal, amnesic, impenetrable, maybe as short as it takes to save this document or as long as the week between one garbage collection and the next: gone, irretrievable. Those news shots on television of police in protective clothing and masks sifting the mountains of trash at the city dump for clues and evidence. Or, again television, in Jakarta, the kids who live at the dump, waiting for each new load of rubbish to be trucked in so it can be searched for a livelihood. Poetry also presently takes its place in this world of the small trader's vision, sometimes in surprising ways. Poetry sits there on the shelf in my bathroom, printed on a packet of tissues, announcing itself as part of 'Snowtex The Poetry Series,' with offerings from William Worsdworth ('I wandered lonely as a cloud'), Percy Bysshe Shelley ('Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar'), William Shakespeare ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day'), and our very own Katherine Mansfield ('O mystical marriage of Earth, With the passionate Summer sun!') and our own, less known, Ruth Gilbert:

Find me the rose that will not die,
The tree no axe can fell,
The spring no Summer's drought shall dry,
And this last miracle:
Show me the wood, the timeless wood
Where tall and steadfast stands
(The lightnings quenched, the storms withstood)
A house not made with hands.

The answer to the paradoxes the poem proposes turns out to be 'love', yet when I stand in the bathroom, the tissue box in my hand, turning the box to the light (for the print is small), it is not love I think of, but the tree that made the paper and the box which holds the paper, on which the poem has been printed, and that I chose this one from the supermarket shelf and wheeled it to the counter, this poem, which, by the end of the week, when the box is empty, will be tossed in the rubbish, but now becomes, for a hauntingly transient yet bathetically comic instant, the brief voice of an argument against itself: 'the rose that will not die/ The tree no axe can fell.'

 

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Last updated 11 July, 2001