Title: When God Died

Author: Michael Hulse

In: Sport 8: Autumn 1992

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 1992, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Literature

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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

♣ Michael Hulse — When God Died

page 131

Michael Hulse

When God Died

Six Contemporary New Zealand Poets

Reviewed in this essay. Dinah Hawken, Small Stories of Devotion (Victoria University Press, 1991 $19.95), Michele Leggott, Swimmers, Dancers (Auckland University Press, 1991, $16.95), Gregory O'Brien, Great Lake (Local Consumption Publications (Sydney), 1991, $14.95), Jenny Bornholdt, Waiting Shelter (Victoria University Pres, 1991, $17.95), Anne French, Cabin Fever (Auckland University Press, 1990, $16.95), Robert Sullivan, Jazz Waiata, (Auckland University Press, 1990, $16.95)

When God died, a lot of other characters died with him, or at least they never felt quite themselves again. One was Social Authoritarianism, a tedious old patriarch in a top hat who spoke bigly and carried a soft stick. Another was Tradition, a whiskery old fogey who had forever, as long as anyone could remember, been telling people that things would always be the way they were because they had always been that way. Another was known as the Sublime, and lived on a mountaintop in the fading glow of perpetual sunsets, listening out for awestruck oohs and ahs. And another, a cousin of all of these, for whom most people felt a secret fondness which they rarely owned up to for fear of the odium they'd incur, used to whisper to anyone who'd listen that poetry should be in structures of symmetry and repetition, from stanzas to rhyme (because in all things, from the human body to the alternation of night and day, there was pattern); and so on. This last fellow was generally agreed to be a well-meaning bore, nice but hopelessly out of touch.

In the end it became possible to write like this:

The harbour is hallucinating. It is rising
above itself, halfway up the great
blue hills. Every leaf of the kohuhu
is shining. Cicadas, this must be the day
of all days, the one around which
all the others are bound to gather.
page 132 The blue agapanthus, the yellow fennel, the white
butterfly, the blue harbour, the golden grass.
the white verandah post, the blue hills, the yellow
leaves, the white clouds, the blue
book, the yellow envelope, the white paper.
Here is the green verb, releasing everything.

Imagine behind these lines dozens and dozens
of tiny seed-heads whispering. They are a field
of mauve flowers. What they say is inexplicable
to us because they speak another language, not this one
written from left to right across them, made up of
distinct and very subtle, ready to burgeon sounds.

The second sestet is conceived in the spirit of a Bonnard or Matisse: a Mediterranean brightness and colour and light, a love of thing for being things. For five lines it is an act of naming: affectionately anti-hierarchical in its juxtapositions, and at least implicitly anthropo/gynocentric. Envisaging Dinah Hawken's landscape and palette, I don't care too much about the missing main verb. Still, when (the godlike author) she does provide one, she releases the world into motion, into autonomous existence; she frees it of the stasis of human cognition.

The main verb is aptly the umbilical to be. And it's apt too that after refusing to assign the colour to her landscape Hawken identifies the verb as green. It is a poem 'about' (among other things) the relation of words to the things of the world; and that 'green' puts me in mind not only of Chomsky's famous paradigm but also and particularly of a stanza from Marvell's 'The Garden':

Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

page 133

The association with Marvell's poem is a cogent one, I think. Marvell writes of a garden; Hawken writes (in her third sestet and passim) of a natural world the real life of which is independent of human encoding. Marvell soon writes: 'Such was that happy Garden-state / While man there walked without a mate'; but Hawken's fifth sestet addresses the meeting of the sexes squarely:

Having broken the argument down and down
we come to a place in the text—a clearing—
where a man and a woman have unexpectedly met.

And if we compare the conclusions of both poems we see that Hawken has taken from Marvell just as much as she needs for a radical revision. 'The Garden' ends,

How well the skilful gardener drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new!
Where, from above, the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run:
And, as it works, the industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned, but with herbs and flowers.

Hawken's final sestet is a beautiful misprision of this passage in Marvell. Gone, of course, is God, the skilful gardener. Hawken's is no monotheistic world created by design; and heaven, if there is such a thing, is to be sought in our everyday world.

She is telling us that time is still, that only
what we make to measure time moves. There's no past
or future in her dreams, heaven is here with dirty shirts
and congenital disease. Carpet comes from live sheep,
coal comes from trees, honey comes
from flowers and thousands of frantically active bees.

Time, in our own century, is relative to the beholder. A bee is a bee is a bee, and it gets on with whatever bees get on with. Marvell of course knew that page 134 bees don't run to the same schedule as we do—he wrote of 'its time', after all; and Allen Curnow, adapting Marvell's dial in the opening lines of 'Keep in a Cool Place', emphatically had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote, 'A bee in a bloom on the long hand of a floral / Clock can't possibly tell the right time'. But Dinah Hawken, in her sequence 'The Harbour Poems' which ends and recapitulates her new collection, has gone further, insisting quietly that time is a human concern, that it includes humdrum 'realities', and that bees are out there somewhere in a universe all their own, getting on with it.

Buzz, buzz, you might say. But there's more to Hawken's sequence, indeed to Small Stories of Devotion, than that. I've said 'The Harbour Poems' are 'about' the relation of words to the things of this world. They're also 'about' relief that the characters in my opening paragraph no longer call the shots. And 'about' tenderness and love. Immediately before that last sestet in which she rewrote Marvell's conclusion, Hawken had these four lines:

He is lettuce planted by the water.
The plants and herbs in his field are ripe.
He has sprouted, he has burgeoned;
He is lettuce planted by the water.

Hello. Are we back in Marvell's garden? Actually, no. Hawken's note points us to a source in the courtship of Inanna (the Sumerian goddess) and Dumuzi the herdsman. It is wise (Hawken strikes me as a wise writer) to return to first instances whenever we can, if only to remind ourselves that certain touchstones have weathered better than some of the ideas we've more recently invented. In the world's oldest myths, Hawken has found images that go effectively and beautifully with her modern revisionism. Small Stories of Devotion is a sensitive work of radical re-invention, a breathing, thinking, feeling book by a wonderful craftswoman.

I've been putting the word 'about' in inverted commas, as if I were keen on perpetuating contemporary squeamishness about implying that a meaning can be paraphrased. In fact Hawken, multi-layered and ambiguous and evocative as she is, can often be paraphrased. I don't say that's a prerequisite; but it's often a fact in her case. In Michele Leggott's case, the possibility is much more remote; she subverts language, the usual yokings of syntax, the forms in which what passes for thought is conventionally put into some kind page 135 of logical articulation. To judge by her practice, Dinah Hawken would agree with Donald Davie that syntax is the bedrock token of civil intent in human communication. Leggott wouldn't. Her post-Pound, post-Olson, post-Zukofsky aesthetic gives pride of place to the principles of juxtaposition and association. Reading her poems repeatedly, I've grown to like the charge of excitement that flashes through Leggott's language, and one poem in particular, 'The August Girl', which is 'about' a woman reading a book in order to review it and uses extended metaphors of swimming to define her progress, now seems to me as clear as day—which is absurd of me, because frankly it isn't. The lines I'm about to quote are from 'Deluge in a Paper Cup' and strike me as more typical of Leggott's work in the quality of resistance they put up to sequential, logical analysis but also in the vivacity with which Leggott paces herself:

what belongs
what moves like the Arahura in port this morning
for repairs at the navy dockyard
well hello Wellington
and Mansfield permeating repatriate hearts up and down the country
atmospherics spoon-curls
scooped from the incomparable
she will begin something called After Lunch
it will stop comparisons hearts at nothing when you do
lost for words
skindeep in chaos and laughter crossing the harbour
on the last of the picturesque ferries.

That fireburst 'stop comparisons hearts at nothing when you do' is characteristic of the localized bezazz Leggott often affects. It is like a freeway version of Geoffrey Hill: the implications of multivalent association which Hill likes to tuck away in etymological allusiveness are up in neon on Leggott's farçade, brash and unsubtle but—let's admit it—with the fast, contemporary attraction of a flashing sign in the night. Gregory O'Brien, Jenny Bornholdt and Anne French live in a different conceptual universe from Dinah Hawken and Michele Leggott. O'Brien, for a start, doesn't seem to have been to God's funeral. All his instincts move to a kind of cognitive celebration which is essentially deist in nature. The page 136 beautiful title poem, 'Man in a Field of Goats', 'Cosmos and Damian', and the two Visigothic hymns that close Great Lake, make no sense whatsoever if we refuse to allow a premise of possible divinity. Gregory O'Brien's commanding rhythms and tender phrasing have been widely praised, and rightly; so I shall only draw attention to that point in his work where intellectual richness and emotional maturity meet. In 'Wellington Harbour', it is not only wit that informs the wordplay on 'reflection', and it is not irreverence that adapts the words of Christ (Mark 8, 36) in the last six lines:

Such reflections as
flow from her

a day beside water
a shed feeding red and black

balloons into the sky above
the harbour, waves crossing

the sea-wall. These times
of day she retreats to.

Too late for you to
join her there

you might have lost
an afternoon, but gained

a towel, warm
across her shoulders.

The simplicity and justice of this are breathtaking. Jenny Bornholdt sometimes manages a similar simplicity, but hers is a simplicity that comes fresh, without the weight of deliberation that is in O'Brien's. That is why Waiting Shelter is such a captivating book: the voice is a straight one, sophisticated but natural, streetwise at times but never sly. The long title poem is about (no need for inverted commas) the quest for an emotional home, for the heart's accommodation. It is an observant, unforced, open poem, occasionally funny; and elsewhere in the book Bornholdt is very funny. But the one poem that seems to me to sum up the best in the page 137 collection—all that is warily warm-hearted, defensively engaging, and shrewdly naive—must be a self-effacing piece titled 'The Visit':

You approach the world
with open arms and hope
it wants you. Hope to be
asked in to sit amongst the
fine furniture. The world is
busy and polite and believes
in independence. You want
to make friends, be
boisterous. You'd expected
something a little more
gregarious but you'll
take a photo anyway to show
your friends. Here it is.
Here's the world on a good
day, turned slightly
away, but this is no
offence, merely the sun was
in its eyes and it turned
briefly to avoid being
blinded by it.

Anne French's Cabin Fever is the work of a very different personality, undeceived but unembittered, warm at heart but cool when it comes to assessing motives and taboos and codes of conduct. A preoccupation with the claustrophobic side of sexual politics runs from the opening lines of the first poem,

Here we are ashore with the metaphors.
Here is my small cabin trunk, from which I
may not unpack certain items. Nor, if at all
possible, allude to them [...]

through images of confinement ('that wall of sandbags', the cabin of the title) to the confrontation, near the end of the collection, with a photograph:

page 138

I applied to it all the interrogatives
I am capable of; I held it to the light;
I tried to stare it out, but it resisted.

Urbane, detached, ironical, remote,
your face looked back. No question
of absence—it asserted we had never met.

French is the most traditional of these six poets, not only in her approach to the rhetoric of poetry but also in her unvoiced assumption that some totem figure must occupy the centre of her attention.

Three of the gentlemen I mentioned in my opening—the patriarch, the fogey, and the man on the mountaintop—are only ever persuasively answered if a writer has first felt and understood, thoroughly experienced, exactly what their claims upon her/him are. Hawken is so impressive because she has been there, done that, and gone on. The reason I don't warm to Robert Sullivan's rather brash Jazz Waiata, I suspect, may well be that I don't believe, despite his genuflexions to Curnow and Baxter, that he has seriously grappled with organization of social and spiritual life, with the concept of tradition, or with the aesthetic ideas that have at one time or another been imagined to express the noblest in humanity. Maybe I do him an injustice; but lines like these seem awful:

Went to the DB Onehunga last night. It featured this group
that played Freddy Fender, and the best Samoan lambada this

side of Apia. We drank Double Brown danced and I smiled.
The finer things keep shining through. Reminds me of what Denys

said about Prince Tui Teka, how he was a bigger star
in Rarotonga than David Bowie! Later us guys went back

to the girls' flat. They were singing the gospel.
Something about justice, freedom, and love [... ]

But then, I suppose, Fergus Barrowman suggested I write this review so that if I turned out to be stupid about someone I could always be shrugged off as just another ignorant hidebound colonial Brit. My bad luck.