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'Along the way he turns aside to explain that nature as manifested in the climate of New York is displeasing to him; Nature, he remarks, never intended anybody to live in such a place, "only in a little bit of Europe and New Zealand". A welcome moment of light relief'. (Frank Kermode, quoting W.H. Auden.)
In 1961 the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem published Solaris, an SF novel about the discovery by humans of sentient life on a distant planet. The planet is given the name Solaris and at once becomes the object of study by Earth's scientists. But these scientists soon find to their amazement that it is the entire planet itself which is alive and not simply some creatures inhabiting the surface. Attempts are then made by the scientists to observe and understand this phenomenon, and several chapters in Lem's novel offer detailed catalogues of investigative data concerning the ocean which seems to cover the planet, though none of this information gives any insight into the deeper workings of the living organism. The ocean, which at first is imagined to be the source of the planet's life, turns out to be only something else which resembles an ocean. Eventually a space station is built in orbit around Solaris which scientists can visit, and in an effort to communicate with this baffling planetary life form X-rays are fired into its surface. This action results in a series of bizarre appearances on the space station of people created by the planet from the scientists' own memories, soon revealing a lot about the scientists themselves but failing to reveal anything about the planet's consciousness, much less any way of communicating with it. At the end of the novel the scientists are no nearer to understanding or communicating with this utterly exotic form of life which they have found than they were at the book's beginning.
It is possible to read Solaris as a contemporary updating of the many European voyages of discovery in the centuries between Christopher Columbus and James Cook. European explorers, and then settlers, arrived in lands so alien as to baffle them, and any indigenous inhabitants, to the extent that these were regarded as anything other than a hindrance, were often viewed simply as reflections or extensions of the Europeans themselves. Bafflement and a limited viewpoint were natural responses to an alien world, just as the scientists in Solaris can understand the living planet before them only in terms of its not being like the world they know. For the European settlers who followed the explorers any new landscape--the primary node of contact with a new environment, a something-else which only spuriously resembled things at home--could offer no easy point of entry. Thus among early New Zealand settlers a sense of anxiety, an intense desire to understand and feel at home in a foreign landscape that they had chosen to inhabit (or even more alarmingly in a still-pristine landscape they had been born and raised in), permeated through settler life and its art from near the very beginnings, and continued to be a common theme among New Zealand writers for most of the first half of the twentieth century.
Edward Tregear's 'Te Whetu Plains' is a case in point. It was published in a collection in 1919, though possibly it was written as early as 1872. The poem therefore frequently appears near the start of anthologies of New Zealand literature since, as Tregear's biographer, K.R. Howe, has noted, 'Te Whetu Plains' 'has often been seen as encapsulating a more general state of mind--that of an immigrant's alienation in the strange landscape of a new country'. In the poem Tregear regards Te Whetu Plains at night, an empty place in a densely forested area near Tokoroa--a place notable above all for being dark and silent--as a kind of primitive isolation tank. He makes this location stand for an image, redolent with nineteenth-century religious doubt, of the horror in any possible life that might exist after death. If the newly scientific view of the creation of the world is correct, Tregear reasons, and any afterlife does not involve a conventional Christian heaven, then that afterlife would be somewhere permanently removed from all the sights, sounds and sensations of home, somewhere just like Te Whetu Plains. It does not matter to Tregear that the plains have perhaps their own beauty in their 'moonlit darkness'; he cannot see anything familiar in the outlines of the 'giant terraces' below him. Despite the plentiful bird sounds to be heard during the New Zealand daytime, at night this antipodean landscape is silent, without birdsong and also with no noise from a 'far-off' stream, but Tregear can express all this only with a kind of colonial negative capability, as lacking English and Romantic-literary sounds:
'tis a songless land
That hears no music of the nightingale,
No sound of waters falling lone and grand
Through sighing forest to the lower vale,
No whisper in the grass, so wan and grey, and pale.
Unlike most birds, nightingales sing after dusk, and moreover they were a common Romantic-era trope for the nature-inspired poet, so that therefore Tregear's 'songless land' firmly suggests a cultural as well as a geographic failure. Tregear may even have in mind John Keats's Romantic reverie in his famous 'Ode to a Nightingale' as an implicit contrast, where the sound of a nightingale's song in a garden at evening, allied to 'the wings of Poesy', puts the poet into a blissful reverie which he then compares to the ecstasy of being in heaven after death. But the antipodean plains offer instead only a 'ghastly peace' of silence, mocked by the old-world sonority of Tregear's own versifying, a nothingness for an alienated consciousness totally deprived of any familiar comfort. Unlike Keats's cosy garden with its English nightingale singing in the twilight, the exotic Te Whetu Plains fail as a site for any ecstatic release from the self in nature; and once Tregear feels deprived by science of the spiritual comforts of Christianity, his immediate environment no longer allows him any opportunity for the worship of nature as a substitute for religion.
The uneasy relationship with the landscape expressed by Tregear, in which the environment is viewed wholly in terms of non-recognition and negatives, so that its birds are not nightingales and its rivers are not grand, coalesced at length in the work of several New Zealand-born writers, most of them based in the South Island, into an attitude, an approach to the country, which was then available for poetry. The New Zealand environment was soon deemed recognisable--since it was the only landscape available for direct experience--but it was one still unwelcoming and indifferent to its new inhabitants, unlike the British landscapes of the settlers' origins. The environment was seen as unwelcoming in its rugged contrast to the civilised countryside of Europe. It was indifferent because, despite its evident beauty, it offered only cold comfort to settlement. Sometimes the place was even considered downright hostile, the sort of location in which a new people's development was left stunted and damaged. This unwelcoming quality in the local landscape appeared to a greater or lesser extent in the work of New Zealand poets as otherwise diverse as D'Arcy Cresswell, Ursula Bethell, Charles Brasch, Denis Glover and Allen Curnow, and it became known loosely as the 'South Island Myth'. The critic Lawrence Jones's excellent account of the growth of this idea and of the literary movements which developed in the early 1930s and 40s details how the South Island Myth actually grew into fruition as an 'anti-myth' to the rosy-tinted view that 'New Zealand was "God's own country", a pastoral paradise and a Just City, based on an ideal English model, being perfected through an historical process of triumphant progress'. It was a conviction fuelled by disappointment. The South Island Myth was nicely epitomised by Allen Curnow's 1941 poem 'House and Land', with its Auden-influenced, proletarian-style rhymes describing a New Zealand 'spirit of exile'. The poem's much-quoted closing lines emphasize for the reader some vague and general:
Awareness of what great gloom
Stands in a land of settlers
With never a soul at home.
The South Island Myth was also described at length, and often in mystical terms, in the essays of M.H. Holcroft, and perhaps reached its high-water mark when Holcroft's book The Deepening Stream won the essay prize in the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Literary Competition. The idea also received possibly its most plaintive, Romantic articulation in several of Charles Brasch's poems, notably 'The Silent Land', where 'The plains are nameless and the cities cry out for meaning', and where the problem with the landscape is explicitly diagnosed as a lack of satisfactory history:
Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,
Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh
Of a century of quiet and assiduity
It is worth noting that the South Island Myth was, above all, a Pakeha notion of the land. Maori, the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand, featured in this view of the land scarcely at all, a fact that seems incredible today. But at the time the prevailing belief was that the Maori were a dying race, a tragic group of Romantically dusky forebears being swept away by more advanced Pakeha arrivals. Furthermore, those Maori who might survive this replacement process would do so by becoming thoroughly assimilated into Pakeha ways, so that any remnants of indigenous familiarity they might have with the landscape would become, at the very least, irrelevant and quaint. It was a convenient view, if you were Pakeha, and perhaps it was no coincidence that the South Island Myth flourished in the South Island, where picture-postcard scenery was plentiful and the Maori population was low. But excluding Maori from any consideration of the relationship between Pakeha and the new land also masked a subtler and darker aspect. On the whole the alienation of Pakeha from their new environment was seen within the framework of the South Island Myth as a failure on the part of the environment itself, and thus not so much a failure by Pakeha settlers. The Maori, with their own indigenous culture already adapted to their homeland, could figure in such a relationship merely as an indicator of Pakeha failure, as a reproach or, at the very best, as an encouraging pointer towards future adaptation by Pakeha and the possibility of later success. But then such views would only contradict the notion of Pakeha as being more advanced, civilising arrivals than their fading Polynesian predecessors, and might even highlight the ruthlessness of Pakeha appropriation of Maori territory. While the scenery was being observed with anxiety, suspicion or disgust, Maori were best left out of the picture.Waikato Railstop
The Pakeha sense of alienation from the land and the disappointment that fuelled it did not vanish with a generation so much as decline over successive generations. Born in 1922--therefore half a generation after Brasch and Curnow--and having grown up in Northland and Auckland instead of in the south, Kendrick Smithyman saw the South Island Myth and its conventions for writing about the New Zealand landscape from some critical distance, both in terms of time and geography. Early on, together with fellow aspiring poets Keith Sinclair and Robert Chapman, Smithyman even formed the Mud Flats School in specific opposition to the dewy-eyed mysticism of South-Island-Myth-inspired writing. The School did not last, but from the outset Smithyman clearly intended to write poetry that was tougher and smarter than the work of his predecessors, and which would be more of a direct response to the New Zealand landscape than a complaint of what the landscape was not. It was a tall order, but from the start of his career Smithyman was a very fluent composer of poetry and was technically gifted. C.K. Stead has noted shrewdly of this fecundity that 'Baxter and Smithyman seemed to compose quickly and constantly, as if poetry was no more than the way you talked to a blank page'. Smithyman himself referred to this fluency much more modestly as 'verbal diarrhoea' and even seemed suspicious of it, so that he frequently revised his poems throughout his writing life. As a result Smithyman's initial, diary-like process of composition stands in curious contrast to the appearance of his finished poems, which on the page are polished and famously difficult.
'Waikato Railstop' was regarded as an early success for Smithyman. Notes in Smithyman's Collected Poems state that the work was written on 15 March, 1958 (internal evidence shows that the poem itself takes place during the month of February), and it was first collected in Inheritance in 1962. By then the South Island Myth was already becoming old news, and 'Waikato Railstop' is an attempt to appropriate the ideas of the South Island landscape writers and marry them to an anti-Romantic stance. As Smithyman was to observe later: 'The romantic breeds the anti-romantic. Either has and had latent a capacity to be modified'. One method of achieving this anti-Romantic transformation was to use an up-to-date metrical form, in this case the syllabic stanza. The syllabic stanza is a technique in which corresponding lines in stanzas are each arranged so as to have a corresponding number of syllables; it was an experimental form popular with Modernist writers and made famous by Marianne Moore. Another method was that Smithyman adopted the anti-Romantic step of making unusual syntax one of the features of his work, packing the lines tight while also increasing their ambiguity. Finally the poem takes suicide as its topic, a subject which has been close to the heart of Romanticism ever since Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, though here suicide is stripped of any glamour and treated in a very anti-Romantic way.
A note to Smithyman's Collected Poems makes it clear that 'Waikato Railstop' is set in Te Kauwhata, a farming town in the Waikato which is known for its viticulture and for being bordered by the enormous Whangamarino Swamp. However, this information concerning the poem's location is never mentioned in the text and the setting is instead presented as a generic small town which could be anywhere in New Zealand where the trains might make a stop. The setting is thus not so much an instance of local colour as something like a paysage moralise, a landscape whose aspects suggest some kind of broader moral significance. 'Waikato Railstop' begins with an image of despair, with an announcement by the poet of not one but two local suicides which have occurred in or around the town, and this fact, together with images of gunfire, permeates the poem. The issue of suicide in rural New Zealand was something which interested Smithyman, supporting his belief that a failure of community in a new environment lay behind feelings of alienation and isolation, and also causing him to believe that the high rate of these sad acts was often kept quiet. He makes reference to the New Zealand suicide rate again in his 1967 poem 'Research Project'. For Smithyman rural suicide was not so much a grand individual gesture of rebellion in a uniquely difficult antipodean environment as merely an unhappy and commonplace sociological response to stress; and in fact the writer Larry McMurtry has observed a similar situation amongst the settlers of the American west, a melancholy concealed beneath the euphemism 'prairie derangement'. McMurtry notes: 'Although there is an abundant diary literature piled up in state historical societies containing numerous accounts of hardships, child death, and general mortality in the West, not much has yet surfaced about prairie derangement. No one talked about it'.
Following this announcement of suicide at the start of 'Waikato Railstop' the poet, who is apparently a bemused outsider to the town, intrudes further into the writing to observe that these twin deaths did not happen close together in one season 'materially', that is, in terms of local weather patterns. Presumably, instead, these were suicides occurring within a single more spiritual season of depression. The poet then goes on to say that he has been in the town before and remembers it mainly for its sheer ordinariness, a quality 'so neutral' that the town is therefore only distinguished for (and by) 'what is unusual there', namely its pair of suicides. Thus the town's reputation appears to rest solely on this small local scandal. It is February, the height of summer, and later in the poem the speaker will mention peat fires with 'acres of peat/ smoke' that seem to darken the surrounding area, but here at the start of 'Waikato Railstop' he talks of 'February's/ smoke and haze' in a more metaphorical fashion, imagining the pair of suicides as a window punched through the overbearing fog of the town's bland exterior. He suggests that by taking their own lives the suicide victims, presumably acting with shotguns, 'shot peepholes' through the veil covering the town's depressing everyday life. What the peephole-windows reveal are 'purest motives', an absolute willingness on the part of the suicides to link their own action of killing themselves to any possible perdition, or damnation of the soul, just in order to escape such a terrible place.
By this point already, after nearly two short stanzas, Smithyman's poem has imposed upon itself a limiting factor which it never really seeks a way out of. On the one hand, the poet who describes everything he encounters in a syntactically convoluted, tonally detached and educated manner, is an outsider who does not live in this particular place, along with his reader who is presumed to be capable of understanding such educated talk. On the other hand, both speaker and reader must be familiar with this type of place in order to grasp that the landscape is ordinary, neutral and typical, and thus the poem's speaker can only be a certain sort of New Zealander, disapproving and superior, speaking to New Zealanders of a similar background. This is a poem of disdain. And it is perhaps with this in mind that the poet next moves on to a complex disclaimer. He instructs the reader not to see the 'hamlet' as the sort of place 'mortuary-minded' people might 'misrepresent' to themselves and be ghoulishly enthusiastic about, not even in a 'death-centred/ democracy' where poets and readers alike are constantly concerned with the big questions of life and death. But the word 'hamlet' comes loaded for the literati with witty Shakespearean echoes of indecisiveness, and the sentence's imperative form is highly ambiguous. Perhaps the poet is at the same time instructing readers not to 'misrepresent' the town as somehow promoting the poet's own enthusiastic endorsement of those 'mortuary-minded' victims of suicide who found a way out of a 'death-centred/ democracy', meaning a town where everyone is equal in their hopelessness and misery. Either way, the ironic cleverness of this sort of writing rather mitigates against any compassionate message. But the poet continues, and maybe a little more charitably, to speculate in a straightforward manner on the reason for the local suicides: 'That certain young women should find/ themselves unseasonably with child is to be/ understood'. He even concedes the inevitable gossip value of this to people on remote 'outlying farms'.
The locals lead isolated and thwarted lives. As an instance of this the poet in the fourth stanza mentions the sort of gifted eccentric who often appears in small towns: 'an engineer who built an aircraft in his backyard'. Perhaps the poet has half in mind the famous example of Richard Pearse in Temuka, who built his own flying machine and, it is claimed, flew it in 1903, several months before the Wright brothers in America. But in 'Waikato Railstop' the would-be aviator is unable to fly his aircraft and gain any kind of immortal reputation. His ambition is 'not licensed', suggesting local bureaucratic hindrances, or maybe the force of the townspeople's disapprobation. Returning to the notion that such unusual matters merely distinguish the featurelessness of the town by their sense of contrast, the poet comments: 'Such an ascent measures most days'/ custom of being flat'. Even in comparison to the pottering activities of an engineer who makes a plane that never actually flies, the customary life of most people in the town is flat and earthbound.
At this halfway point in the poem, the poet addresses the reader with an impersonal 'you' and suggests that poet and reader together examine some of the surrounding landscape, though he does so in a characteristically ambiguous way. He begins with the expression 'You may set off/ one day from another,' referring once more to the distinguishing of any particular day amidst the unending sameness of the town's life, but he then uses the irony in the verb 'set off' to extend that sameness of time into the sameness of space as he leads the reader round the outskirts of the town. Still referring, perhaps, to days, the poet counsels 'skirting their outlook'--both the boring days' view and their attitude--by taking in the local scenery. But the scenery in this place offers up only a highway that 'consigns traffic elsewhere' and a 'rake', or line, of coal wagons on a train which seems equally determined not to stop on its way south. The speaker also notes in passing that the disappearing train does not disturb the squabbling of local 'mynahs and bulbuls', introduced birds which are usually classified in New Zealand as pests. None of these quick snapshots of the local scenery is uplifting or reassuring, and already the poet intrudes again with the rather vague oracular comment: 'Let orchard/ and vineyard tally freights of purpose'. Perhaps he means that it should only be the orchards and vineyards local to the area which measure up the purposes and intentions behind sending their freight away out of town--and not the local people themselves, who might be tempted to reckon up and 'tally freights of purpose' in the suicides who got out of town by means of their deaths.
Unlike the local fruit which is taken away, and the local people who take their own lives, the best a person can really hope for from living in the town is to 'wither and rot' in the process of growing old. Entertainment in summer such as in the February of the poem, the poet says harshly, consists of passively listening to the 'child's play/ musketry' in the crackling sound from the pods of gorse plants, another noxious pest, splitting themselves open to eject seeds in a random pattern and thus aiming 'at no target big/ enough to miss'. Even nature in and around the town seems to be involved in shooting at the world, though here in an act of natural reproduction rather than the unnatural case of a woman's suicide, performed to forestall unwanted reproduction. Again the poet intrudes with an acid comment: 'Admiring does not get you far'. Nature here exhibits little to be admired, and its worship in the Romantic manner epitomised a century earlier and a world away by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats will not be any escape. Continuing his walk outside the town, the poet notes that the seeds he crushes underfoot from a wattle tree 'stink' (the tree is yet another introduced pest and one notorious for its seeds' foul smell) in a way that Romantic renderings of nature are certainly not supposed to do. He heads a little into the Whangamarino Swamp on a tangled collection of tracks which appear to be 'ravelling out/ and winding mazily'. But the syntax in the poem here also becomes tangled and confused in its lack of helpful punctuation, and so it seems to mix itself up with the tangled smoke trails rising nearby from several acres of burning peat. Peat, partially decayed vegetable matter that often appears in boggy ground or swamps, is highly flammable, and once ignited it can burn out of control for long periods. These burning acres on the landscape appear to send smoke signals, the poet muses, but there still seems to be no one around who 'cares to separate smoke hulk from thundery cumulus'. The swampy land has thus blended into the peat-fire smoke which has also blended into the cloudy sky, and there appear to be no witnesses anywhere to sort this all out except for the poet himself; and his own confused and unpunctuated musings here suggest that even he is failing to do so.
Thus the poet, near to the close of the poem, observes that the smoky, sooty noon sky that has been produced here, and which is complex and obscuring and gathered above, completely 'blackens cloudland', obliterating the literal view but also 'cloudland' in the further idiomatic sense of the imagination. The messy noon sky also blackens 'a cuckold/ below', suggesting, perhaps on first glance, the unhappy state of some local husbands whose wives became 'unseasonably with child' and committed suicide. Nevertheless, 'a cuckold/ below' is more likely refer to the poet himself, since the phrase is expressed with the singular indefinite article 'a', and since nobody else in the landscape is anywhere about. This cuckold is a poet who has been betrayed by the muse, because his capacity for an imaginative responsiveness to what is around him has been cheated by the realities of a harsh, inhumane, antipodean environment, so that he does not feel at all uplifted or inspired. He has been denied any possibility of semi-divine Romantic inflatus. Certainly the confusion of the poet's senses brought on here at the close of the poem has not produced anything like the synesthesia of Romantic ecstasy famously described by Keats in 'Ode to a Nightingale'. In that poem, written at a time and place where poets could be real poets, Keats reported feeling mystically transported by birdsong at twilight, in 'verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways' until, he wrote: 'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet/ Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs'. He approached a sense-befuddling state of mind so ecstatic, so similar to being in heaven, that he even felt it would be 'rich to die'. In 'Waikato Railstop', however, the natural environment around the poet--swamp, smoke and sky--is merely a churning tangle of layers 'seething skein by skein' in a manner surprisingly similar to Tregear's landscape in 'Te Whetu Plains'. Indeed, like 'Te Whetu Plains', in 'Waikato Railstop' these complex blackening layers of muck are not even spiritually malevolent, but only act on the poet 'impartially'. In 'Ode to a Nightingale' Keats was brought back to reality by a word, 'forlorn', which for him tolled 'like a bell', but in 'Waikato Railstop' the poet is brought back from his reveries, if such they can be called, by a truck off in the town, backfiring near the billiard room. The sound closing out the poem is both trivial, in the sense that there is nothing Romantically poetic about it, and ominous, since it reminds the reader yet again of the fateful gunfire of the twin suicides, the event that started the poem and the poet's reverie.
'Waikato Railstop' is a poem written for the urban cognoscenti which strongly implies that any inhabitant of a typically bleak small New Zealand town would be foolish not to commit suicide. The poem cannot have been much liked by the people of Te Kauwhata, if indeed they ever encountered it. Thus the indifference or even hostility that New Zealand writers had sensed emanating from the natural landscape early in the century did not so much fade away as expand to include hostility from, and to, those people residing in the country who were struggling to adapt to their environment and accept its limiting qualities: the local-born population. Critical accounts of the South Island Myth usually end with the 1930s and 40s, but the South Island Myth may not have disappeared so much as evolved into something else, an idea not discarded but merely transformed. Certainly, by the 1950s and 60s the New Zealand literati were noticeably affecting a kind of urban hauteur towards their still largely rural nation, and one could say that the disappointment behind the South Island Myth had been modified into the complaint of the sensitive artist, an inheritor of European sophistications, about living in a philistine environment. The anxiety of New Zealand writers no longer indicated solidarity with Pakeha inhabiting the harsh wilds of a daunting country, but rather it had become an unease about living and creating art in a land where practical activities counted but where poetry and culture did not. This view, broadly speaking, has been interpreted in various forms by critics as indicating a Provincial period in New Zealand literature. One good example of a direct engagement with this view, and of an interrogation of the advantages and disadvantages to being a member of the urban cognoscenti, is Smithyman's 'Colville'.Colville
In comparison to 'Waikato Railstop', Smithyman strikes a rather more subtle note in 'Colville' because his evolving ideas cause him to take a more nuanced view of the local inhabitants he describes. Between 1961 and 1963 Smithyman had written a series of articles entitled 'Post-War New Zealand Poetry' for the literary magazine Mate and then expanded his views into a book-length work of literary criticism, A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry, which he published in 1965. Among other things A Way of Saying was a New Zealand anti-Romantic manifesto, and one of its aims was to reorient New Zealand poetry away from its focus on a uniquely hostile territory--a hostility which, in any case, Smithyman felt was not unique at all--and onto larger concerns such as the New Zealand community as a whole in its challenging new environment. Smithyman announced this reorientation as a rising poetic movement:
Some other activity, the assembling of alternative myths of settlement and occupation, was in the offing. The effects of landscape had been handled at length. The energies of society were less treated. The scene was still virtually to be humanized. The work was hardly begun that was, in poetry, to populate the country where previously the solitary walked with Wordsworth.
'Colville' is a recasting of 'Waikato Railstop' that attempts to show the way forward. Once again the poem is written in six-line syllabic stanzas almost as an exercise in technical virtuosity, this time with the added challenge of a rhyme scheme (involving pure and sometimes near-rhymes): a, b, c, b, c, e. Once again the subject is a small town which is presented as typical. Colville is located near the top of the Coromandel peninsula, with its lone general store regarded as a last stop for provisions and petrol, and since Smithyman's Collected Poems records 'Colville' as having being written on 11 January, 1968, the poem may have resulted from a summer-holiday visit. Smithyman had a son who lived for a time in a commune nearby. The area is well known for its fishing, and today Colville has an alternative-lifestyle, cosmopolitan atmosphere that it did not have at the time when Smithyman wrote of it. For this reason Smithyman at one stage titled the poem 'Colville 1964', to place it in the context of the recent past, although the date was dropped from the title in his Selected Poems (1989) and in later publications. But some years after the poem's appearance Smithyman was pleased to learn that a copy was being displayed on the Colville store's front-door noticeboard.
The poem begins by describing a visit to Colville with the same dismissive tone as in 'Waikato Railstop', announcing that the town of Colville is typical of 'That sort of place' where you do not pause long except for buying petrol, local items like plums, and an ice-cream snack. As with 'Waikato Railstop' the poet employs an impersonal 'you' in speaking which appears to be the product of his train of thought as events unfold, but which also usefully includes the reader. The visiting poet's shopping activities involve entering the general store and thus, inevitably, being sized up by 'somebody local', a person who comes in and 'does not like what he sees of you'. This local hick is also presented as typical, an inarticulate 'monotone with a name', someone hard to read but nevertheless vaguely threatening and therefore 'intangible as menace'. The visiting poet concludes in a self-satisfied manner that as a place Colville reflects, and is shaped by, 'an aspect of human spirit' which is 'mean, wind-worn'. These crude local people, so unlike the erudite poet, have turned the drab local environment into just another aspect of their stunted lives. But significantly it is the inhabitants here who have created such an unappetising environment, rather than the environment creating the inhabitants.
Moving away from the counter at the store, the poet faces out towards the view 'over the saltings', the narrow bay of coastal water visible nearby, while also he takes in a broader view of the place as a whole. He asks himself what 'merit' the bay might have. His answer over the next two lines, addressed to himself and to the eavesdropping reader, is at once accessible in terms of a general impression but also frustratingly difficult to pin down in terms of its meaning. It highlights a feature of Smithyman's writing: his fondness for yoking together two words or phrases whose meanings are mostly abstract, thereby rapidly expanding the poem's thematic range. In 'Waikato Railstop' this appeared in the lines 'marrying perdition/ with action'. In 'Colville' it appears in two gnomic phrases: 'wise as contrition, shallow/ as their hold on small repute'. The 'as' which forms the linking device may have appealed to Smithyman precisely because of its ambiguity; it can act, among other forms, as a conjunction meaning 'in the same way as' and as a preposition meaning 'in the form of'. To complicate matters further, the first of Smithyman's phrases seems to use 'as' as a preposition, and the second as a conjunction. Thus the two lines might be construed as the bay being: 'wise in the form of showing some sort of contrition or sorrow for its own sins' and 'shallow in its waters in the same way as the locals have any small claim to a good reputation'. Even this seems inadequate. Ultimately, the extreme compression of the phrases aims to yield the poet's fleeting impressions rather than his carefully formulated thoughts, so that the reader's first encounter with the indefinite feel of the phrases may be the best way to absorb them.
After these moments of very abstract speculation the poet's mind directs itself further outwards again to take in more concrete details. He notes the bay's utility: it may be a handy spot for fishing with nets, and he observes some men doing just this in the late afternoon heat. The men are difficult to see and thus 'disproportioned' because the afternoon is 'down-going' into sunset while the rising tide is 'fire-hard' (meaning both intense and strengthened) with sunset's colours. The poet's gaze lifts and he observes and half-imagines this geographical activity occurring 'upon the vague where time is distance', perhaps meaning the indistinct horizon where time and distance intersect, and from where changes in time and distance at sunset appear to derive, or perhaps meaning the wider intersection of the space/time continuum across the vagueness of the universe which produces a sense of here and now. Where, the poet seems to be wondering, does a merely human settlement, somewhere provisional like Colville, really fit into all this natural vastness and eternity? Smithyman may also be providing an echo here of Charles Brasch's famous line from his poem 'In These Islands', 'distance looks our way', a line arising from Brasch's contemplation of the sea as a location for 'meeting and parting' and often seen as encapsulating the tone of the South Island Myth. What Smithyman is certainly doing in his poem is conjoining time and space, a form of conjunction which reappears on other occasions in his later landscape poetry and which carries over with it some of the anti-Romantic confusion that arose in the poet's senses at the close of 'Waikato Railstop', where the smoke from burning peat filled the sky and the poet's resulting departure from the space-time continuum meant only a failure at mystical transportation out of the earthly realm into ecstasy. Furthermore, the tentative nature of all of the poet's musings here, on contrition, reputation, utility and the conjunction of time and space, is emphasised by the question mark that appears, a little surprisingly for the reader, at the very end of the third stanza and the long sentence that has formed the poet's train of thought. Perhaps--the question mark may offer as a warning--none of what the poet is observing should be interpreted solely in the manner it first appears.
Indeed, in the next stanza the poet goes on to reconsider his previous views. He begins by thinking that the men 'dragging nets' might be doing so for 'plainly simple/ pleasure', like holidaymakers, but decides instead that their activities 'have another tone/ or quality, something aboriginal'. They are working in the manner of people who have become, at least to some degree, indigenous to their environment, and so their fishing is as 'reductive', or simple and unembellished, as the 'soil' or land which they live on. The poet now suddenly muses in more general terms, admonishing himself and perhaps the reader that 'bone/ must get close here'. Just as the beginning of the stanza played with the expression 'plain and simple', rendering it as 'plainly simple', so too here the poet plays cleverly with the expression 'close to the bone'. His cleverness may be a small, linguistic act of avoidance of the full implications of his thoughts: it is certainly a bit close to the bone, or true to the point of discomfort, for the poet to acknowledge that this, the act of dragging fishnets in a shallow bay, is what it means to be local, adapted, like a native, rather than showing off the urban sophistication which the poet evidenced at the start of the poem and which he has maintained until this point. Communal fishing, people feeding themselves, is precisely that sort of rough, basic work by which people get their living bones close to the soil. It is the 'final' state in the process of adaptation to a new environment, and yet it is not refined at all. European culture, in the highbrow sense of the word 'refined', is not anywhere involved in this. 'They endure', the poet concludes of the local men going about their fishing, with a weighty implication unspoken that the poet and his big-city ways, which are merely imported from overseas, will not endure. The poet's initial consideration of the bay, 'wise as contrition, shallow/ as their hold on small repute', a view which was both as unfocused and over-compressed as 'bone/ must get close here', suddenly might apply just as well to the poet himself.
Before leaving, the poet has a last look at Colville, taking it in at a glance. What he sees are buildings related to the simple necessities and rituals of a settlement, 'A school, a War Memorial/ Hall, the store'. After that there are only the saltings of the bay and the nearby hills. The poet announces that 'The road goes through to somewhere else', a line that could have been lifted out of almost any poem expounding the South Island Myth, except that in this case the poet's departure suggests only a revived self-importance which is also perhaps tinged with a sense of relief at his escape. He begins the second half of his final stanza with the observation that the place he has visited is not a 'geologic fault/ line', or some kind of mistake in the landscape (though like most of New Zealand Colville probably lies along earthquake fault lines, and the place does perhaps form a fault line, a pressure point, in the poet's thinking, albeit one which he is keen to deny). Colville is just a place which makes 'scars' of habitation on the environment and which is in turn scarred and shaped by that environment--the language in the poem here runs on without punctuation, as in 'Waikato Railstop' when the poet's musings became confused in response to a confusing landscape. These visible 'scars' of habitation are indistinguishable from the 'textures of experience' of the landscape, the poet decides, as the locals' experience accumulates of and in this new land. (Furthermore, in terms of the poet's own knowledge, the uncomfortable truth that ordinary fishing may be more important than high culture as a basis for people's adaptation to the environment has left mental 'scars textures of experience' on the poet himself.) In the last line of the poem, as Colville recedes into the distance for the departing poet and becomes no more than a reference on his map, Smithyman uses the ambiguities available in the language of map-reading in a manner that he will further exploit in later poems, notably 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise'. Colville can be 'Defined' and 'plotted' on a map, but it is defining itself and plotting its own story in a way which maps, the products of urbanized and sophisticated methodologies, cannot record or explain. At the poem's close Smithyman uses the word 'speak' in perhaps an ironic nod to the famous close of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, itself the product of an urbanized and sophisticated philosophical methodology: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence'.Tomarata
'Tomarata' is the result of a push by Smithyman towards a new level of attainment in his landscape poetry: an attempt at once more adapting the ineffable in the South Island Myth to his own anti-Romantic agenda and also this time at pressing it into the service of an anti-Wordsworthian attack, an attack specifically on the notion of the sublime. No other writer comes in for quite as much disapproval from Smithyman in A Way of Saying as does the Lake District poet William Wordsworth. Smithyman writes of 'the insidious effect of William Wordsworth' on New Zealand literature and declares himself 'in the anti-Wordsworth camp'. For it is Wordsworth who is most associated with the sublime as a response to landscape, particularly in his famous 1798 poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey'. The sublime, the articulation in poetry of lofty feelings of rapture or occasionally terror, began from the 18th century to refer to a loftiness found in nature, especially any natural landscape that evoked wildness or grandeur. Thus in Wordworth's 'Tintern Abbey' the poet revisits a landscape that he is familiar with and, in the company of someone dear to him, feels restored by a connection with the environment which is so direct that he experiences:
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
Contemplation of a landscape therefore makes possible the experience of spiritual transcendence. But 'Tomarata', by contrast, is a poem in almost every sense antipodal to 'Tintern Abbey'. Lake Tomarata is a New Zealand environment which is viewed as being typical as much as it is special, somewhere encountered by the poet for perhaps the first time when part of an unremarkable group of visitors, a place which refuses to yield up information about itself and is available at best only for a relationship based on a hard-won respect. Any Romantic 'sense sublime' is noticeably absent as the poet's faculties struggle to deal with what is before him at the lake; his environment is not in any way transcendental.
'Tomarata' was written only two years after 'Colville', but in the meanwhile Smithyman had travelled overseas for the first time (apart from a brief wartime posting on Norfolk Island). In 1969 he was Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Literature for six months at the University of Leeds. Thus by 1970 Smithyman was seeing his native country with a new sense of perspective and in much more concrete relation to the landscape of the old world of Europe. Significantly, too, he had published the poetry collection Flying to Palmerston in 1968, in which his mature style had begun to emerge. Now displays of technical virtuosity were largely gone, replaced by a quick, efficient and organically structured free verse. The poem 'Flying to Palmerston' and its collection of the same name were influenced by Smithyman's reading of the Confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, which itself first appeared in Lowell's collection Life Studies in 1959. In his Confessional poems Lowell worked to get more immediacy into his work by using the first person and by introducing the poet as a character. He aimed to show the poet in the process of thinking, in a manner similar to the novel's use of stream of consciousness. Lowell also loosened up the textural arrangement of his poems on the page to make the lines read more like the flow of thought, something which Smithyman does in 'Flying to Palmerston' and in his work thereafter. Smithyman likewise introduces the poet as a character in his poems and, significantly, makes his poet no longer an all-seeing judge but rather what the critic Heather McCann labels a 'bumbler'. The poet figure in Smithyman's mature work is a learned man who is struggling to understand what is happening around him, mostly by applying his considerable knowledge though usually without much success (and thus he may, or may not, be a little different from Smithyman himself). But this change in the character of the poet, from a man who knows and tells the reader what he knows, into a man who is trying to know and who lets the reader watch his efforts, is a crucial and invigorating step forward for Smithyman's poetry. The viewpoint of his new bumbling poet is not only more appealing for readers but also more inclusive, since his readers struggle to learn along with him. It also expands what Smithyman himself can do with his poems as they become investigations of the world rather than mere pronouncements, and there is a notable increase in tonal range.
Lake Tomarata is a somewhat obscure dune lake located off Atkins Road, near Te Arai Point on the east coast of Northland, about 1,500 metres inland from the sea. There is a walking track along the eastern, seaward side. The land to the south and west is covered by swampy wetlands with dairy pastureland beyond it. The wetlands provide an important habitat for rare birds, such as the bittern, the fernbird and the banded rail. There are no streams or rivers flowing into or out of the lake, so that the lake's water accumulates from rainfall and seepage. The lake water is rather brown in colour, due to the peaty organic material coming into it from the wetlands. The lake is not especially large, at least not nowadays, being approximately 300 metres wide and 600 metres long and going down to a depth of about 4 metres. Vegetation around the lake includes sedge, raupo, and umbrella fern, and manuka further from the shoreline. For a long time lupins and other plants once grew on the sandhills on the lake's eastern side, and when Smithyman heard in 1970 that these were to be replaced by a stand of pines, he visited the lake in order to see the territory before it was irretrievably altered. Sometime after this a poem began to form itself in his mind, one of a number of longish, meditative landscape poems that Smithyman was writing at around this period.
The critic and editor Peter Simpson has described Smithyman's composition of 'Tomarata' in detail in his 'Afterword' to a special edition of the poem, an edition including maps and manuscript pages, brought out as a small book in 1996 and published by the Holloway Press.
There were no handwritten manuscripts; the poem was composed (as was evidently his usual practice) directly onto the typewriter [...]. Composition began on 21 October 1970, a first draft of 55 lines (equivalent to the first four sections of the finished poem) being completed the following day. This draft is already surprisingly close to the published poem [...]. On 22 October this draft was set aside and the poem was immediately recast into numbered sections, spaces being introduced between groups of lines [...]. These changes of lay-out opened up the texture of the poem considerably, aerating it, so to speak [...]. The poem was virtually completed on 24 October by the addition of sections 8, 9, and 10. Apart from subsequent minor changes and additions the whole poem of almost 200 lines had been completed within four days.
Poems can sometimes be written at great speed--Wordsworth claimed to have written 'Tintern Abbey' entirely in his head after his visit to the River Wye. But despite the speed of 'Tomarata's' initial composition, Simpson notes that it was first published in the collection The Seal in the Dolphin Pool in 1974, as long as four years after it was produced. It was not included in Smithyman's 1972 collection, Earthquake Weather, perhaps because Smithyman already had the poems he wanted for Earthquake Weather, or perhaps because he put the poem aside to consider revising it further. But though Smithyman was what Simpson calls 'a compulsive tinkerer', he clearly decided that 'Tomarata' needed no further revision after its initial publication, since thereafter it remained unaltered.
'Tomarata' begins with an epigraph from a most non-antipodean source, the English sixteenth-century scholar, Roger Ascham, a didactic writer and a tutor to Queen Elizabeth I when she was young. The quotation from Ascham is taken from his book The Schoolmaster, published in 1570, specifically the section entitled 'What We May Learn From Athens', which discusses methods of obtaining knowledge. Smithyman's quotation is only half of a sentence in which Ascham weighs the benefits of gaining knowledge through book learning against learning from the direct experience of life. These two approaches to knowledge are generally considered to be the ways available to humans for understanding the world. But in 'Tomarata', a twentieth-century New Zealand landscape poem which the reader is invited to go through in much the same way that the poet walks through the landscape itself, and in which the reader overhears, and is thus privy to, the poet's observations and analytical musing, both traditional methods of obtaining knowledge will prove utterly inadequate. Neither learning nor experience will succeed in fathoming the mystery of a small, rather minor dune lake on Northland's east coast.
The poem starts briskly but indirectly, with its first section linked to the Ascham epigraph, by announcing: 'Open as experience, this day, this/ high-flying island coast'. This statement involves another yoking together by Smithyman of two abstract words, 'Open' and 'experience', linked by a characteristically ambiguous 'as'. It is possible that Smithyman is using a conjunction to imply a comparative expression here: that the day and the coast will be as 'Open' as experience itself can be. But more likely 'as' appears here as a preposition, suggesting that the day and the coast, like the poem itself, are now 'Open' in the form of being an experience available for the poet and for the reader. The adjective 'high-flying' may refer to the ongoing development and growth of the east coast of Northland, or it may be an ironic reference to driving fast towards the lake over the rather flat, rolling terrain of the surrounding area. In any event, both day and coast are presented as being ready for experience at just before midday, 'a mile beyond the top of noon's arc', with time being measured in terms of space through the old-fashioned manner of judging the hour of the day by the position of the sun. Thus at the beginning of the poem Smithyman has managed once more to conjoin time and space, as he did earlier in 'Colville'.
However, the long opening sentence which continues on from this ambiguous start, running across most of the first two stanzas, is without doubt one of the more remarkable examples of Smithyman's mastery of tricky syntactic tangles. The expressions 'this day' and 'this high-flying coast' only appear to be noun phrases acting as subjects which are 'Open to experience' but are in fact, grammatically, prepositional phrases with the word 'on' deliberately omitted. What is actually 'Open to experience', i.e. the subject of the sentence, will come later. The sentence's subject is certainly not the expression that immediately follows: 'opened/ a mile beyond the top of noons's arc/ a mile further east than a gumland pond', since grammatically this is a relative clause, minus the initial pronoun and auxiliary: 'which is'. Nevertheless, with this expression Smithyman is here introducing Lake Tomarata itself, albeit in undistinguished terms, as a mere 'gumland pond' located a mile from the east coast in the midday sun. Northland, including the Te Arai area, was briefly famous at around the end of the nineteenth century for its swampy 'gumland' places in which men could dig pieces of buried kauri-tree resin, or gum, from the soil for profit, and Smithyman in A Way of Saying also makes reference to 'the sour wind-beaten gumlands of the North'.
Next in the poem a first impression of the lake and its brown water is offered up, the image of a 'severe quartz-brown puritan face', and this at last appears to be the true grammatical subject of the very long, very convoluted sentence which makes up the bulk of the first two stanzas. It is, with the indefinite article omitted, the lake's 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' which is 'Open to experience.' (It is perhaps also worth noting that the line 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' appears at the exact centre of the first two stanzas of the poem: at line 5 out of 9, assuming that the two half-lines count as one). This little moment of personification in the word 'face' links the hard, flat surface of the lake with the austerity of the puritan, gum-digging settlers of the past and also with the brown quartz often used in the hard surface of floor tiles--and further, perhaps, with the serious and sun-bronzed faces of the lake's visitors, including the poet. Kauri gum-resin is not directly related to quartz, but Smithyman's rather surprising initial description of the lake seems more like a vague compendium reflecting what is around the lake than a precise depiction of the thing itself. At the very start of the poem, then, the complex syntax is working in accordance with Smithyman's purposes, to confuse and misdirect the reader about a feature in the local terrain, when any terrain is always difficult for a poem to capture.
Indeed, the place does not even appear to be like a proper lake. The poet notes that its alienating hard brown face is neither adorned nor represented, 'not figured', by the typical water birds one might expect to find in identifying such a spot. The normally ubiquitous 'duck or swan' are not present, nor even native birds like the 'swamp/ hen or bittern'. Instead of the noise of birds, the lake exhibits only 'an indrawn quiet', keeping itself to itself. Once again yoking two abstractions, Smithyman compares the 'stiff' inflexibility and introverted quality of this quiet to 'doctrine', and doctrine in its purest, most inflexible form, when it is 'revised and contracted to/ the essential'. It is unclear whether Smithyman has any particular doctrine in mind, but it is certainly possible to insert here the doctrine of the South Island Myth, an idea that, when reduced to such purest terms as the alienating and hostile qualities of the land, Lake Tomarata seems perfectly to embody.
However, Smithyman has not finished playing syntactic games with his poem's first sentence. The noun phrase '[a] severe quartz-brown puritan face' appears to be the subject of the sentence and thus 'Open to experience', with the verb 'is' omitted and understood; but the expression 'an indrawn quiet' which follows later, in a half-line which deliberately omits any helpful punctuation that might connect it to 'hen or bittern' and clarify its grammatical position, could also equally be the subject of the sentence and thus what is 'Open to experience'. This would relegate 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' from subject to the grammatical status of a mere phrase in apposition. All this is confusing--purposefully so--but for some clarity here the two possible opening sentences might be written out in full as follows:
Open as an experience on this day and on this high-flying island coast, which is opened a mile beyond the top of noon's arc, a mile further east than a gumland pond, is a severe quartz brown puritan face that is not figured by duck or swan, and not by swamp hen or bittern, an indrawn quiet which is stiff as doctrine revised or contracted to the essential.
Open as an experience on this day and on this high-flying island coast, which is opened a mile beyond the top of noon's arc, a mile further east than a gumland pond, a severe quartz brown puritan face that is not figured by duck or swan, and not by swamp hen or bittern, is an indrawn quiet which is stiff as doctrine revised or contracted to the essential.
Is the 'puritan face' of the lake or its 'indrawn quiet' the subject of 'Tomarata's' elaborate opening gambit? Smithyman offers no clues. What is clear is the second, very simple declarative sentence which rounds out the stanza: 'Maps call it a lake'. This sentence is so simple and bland in comparison with its baroque predecessor that it seems almost robbed of any referential power, so that the reader is left with little confidence in the second sentence's ability to mean anything much at all. Maps may very well call the 'gumland pond' of Tomarata something grand, a 'lake', but that is only a word. Tomarata is something other than an empty word: it is itself, and this fact--that Tomarata is beyond words as labels and also beyond the slippery syntax which organises words into arrangements for communication--embodies the ineffable in the South Island Myth.
But this extraordinarily knotty start to the poem is not its only surprise--far from it--because in the second half of the first section the poem's style and tone change dramatically. The first half of section 1 is written in the compact descriptive language Smithyman used in his early works like 'Waikato Railstop' and 'Colville', but he now seems to reject this approach and a new and more accessible sort of voice becomes apparent: the mature, ruminative voice of a poet who evidently is thinking to himself about what he is encountering. And what the poet's mind notes first is the instability of the body of water he is seeing in the distance, an 'uncertain' shoreline which is uncertain also on the 'same maps' that record it--the same maps mentioned earlier which he has apparently consulted. The poet observes that 'Only/ the name is constant,' although the name Tomarata is a purely human appendage. But since the lake plainly exists in the world, the poet then acknowledges that, in addition, something vaguely like 'the heart of it' must also be a constant, and his own use of the metaphoric word 'heart' sets him off on a meditative reminder to himself that a geographic 'event in terrain' may have a 'physical reason' for being but may know 'nothing readily about feeling'. All the same, everything that the meditative poet says in the course of this display of common sense undermines his own point of view. The language he chooses, such as 'event,' 'know' and 'readily', all hint at dealing with an animate object. The oddly placed comma between 'alien' and 'to an event in terrain' encourages the reader's eye to connect 'talking' in the previous line with 'to an event,' an intransitive verb with an indirect object, as though the 'event in terrain' were something sentient that could be communicated with. (The poetry of clever syntax has thus not entirely disappeared but has now been subsumed within the poetry generated by a contemplative persona.) Finally too, the poet's refusal to allow the term 'heart of it' to slip into any kind of animating personification has plainly been contradicted by the expression 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' earlier in the poem, so that the poet simply cannot help thinking of the lake as an animate creature, and this ambiguity in his own feelings informs the somewhat stern three lines addressed to himself which round off the first section of the poem:
Tomarata is the name
for which the lake, reserved to
its own logic, has no word. Needs none.
Section 2 then opens with the poet reasserting the simple objectivity of his view of the lake, claiming that it is not his task 'to value' the place by making judgements, and he makes a rhetorical gesture towards the Biblical verse from Christ's Sermon on the Mount: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged'. But it is a peculiar matter to think of an event in terrain being judged and somehow judging its human visitors back, and if anything this emphasizes the alien nature of the terrain under observation. The poet next goes on to observe that there is certainly life to be seen which is 'near while not of the pond' and he offers some examples. It transpires that there are birds at least in the vicinity of the lake--magpies and 'a single black shag'--and the poet watches them carefully. Towards the end of the section he notices that 'East, larks went up' and this supplies the first instance of dramatic action in the poem, an event which intrudes on the poet's thoughts. For 'Tomarata' is not just a poem about a person contemplating an area of landscape but about a person experiencing and exploring that landscape, and trying to come to an understanding of it through interaction. The poet's position is roughly analogous to that of the scientists orbiting the planet Solaris, or to the explorers--Polynesian as well as Pakeha--who arrived in New Zealand in the past. The section ends with the poet doing precisely what he said he would not do: making a judgement. He mentions 'the warm mazy scent of lupins flowering' near the lake, undermining his resolve with the evaluative words 'warm' and 'mazy' in much the same way as he did concerning the act of personification in the first section.
Section 3 opens abruptly with 'In which', referring back to the lupins in section 2, and suggesting that the poem's division into sections should not be read as involving a series of complete breaks or any lack of interrelatedness between parts. The poem itself is happening within the poet's unifying consciousness. Indeed, section 3 introduces human beings as genuine actors into the poem at last, since until now only the lake's geology and fauna have been accounted for. The use of 'we' indicates that the poet is part of a group visiting the lake, and that the 'We' which opened section 2 was not merely a rhetorical device referring to humanity in general. The visiting group attempts to approach the lake 'after a track of sorts', appearing to have a definite purpose and to make progress, but once again this is subtly undermined. In the next line it is the personified track, not the humans, which in fact 'intended to get to the fishing grounds'--the humans are merely following along it. Furthermore, the track only leads them into a 'domain of rabbits' with a swamp harrier hawk hunting overhead. The humans are still not really at the lake, and nature seems indifferent to their presence. The poet has time to observe the plants around him, which yield no useful information about their age or condition, and then the track peters out, leading to no goal. The poet's initial sense of progress has got him nowhere.
In section 4 the poet examines the sand dunes, a key feature of the area around Lake Tomarata, in which he now finds himself. Indeed the nearby Mangawhai Forest, which extends over ten kilometres of coastline, was established precisely to prevent the drifting inland of coastal sand. The stanzas of section 4 are very much ruminative poetry--more so than was the case even in the preceding sections--and to this end Smithyman employs several devices lifted from stream-of-consciousness writing: a general 'You'; imperatives directed at oneself; and the hesitating search for the appropriate word in 'canyon,/ basin, inept gully system' at the section's close. In section 4 the poet focuses in particular on changes in the dunes since sand dunes are a famously changeable form of terrain, even more so than the changeable shoreline of Lake Tomarata itself. Firstly the poet notices 'patches where sand is missing' underfoot and, because these are exceptions to the sandy terrain around him, he concludes that this is where former swampland has been taken over by sandhills. Next he observes the shape and colour of the sand formations, all in the careful and technically precise language of a lay geologist. He even recalls aerial survey photographs of the location that he has seen--also very much like a geologist--which indicate that 'ten years ago here was wholly sandhills'. His rather expert eye observes that in the interval the sandhills have 'opened': a surprisingly non-technical term and one somewhat undercutting his previously assured language, a term which presumably means that the sandhills have become bare. Then he notes that: 'They may/ close again, as the plants take over'. After this the poet focuses on a single dune which he claims is 'building', though in fact all he can really observe is that it is also being cut back by water and wind eroding 'the weather side'. Clearly the poet's confident geological appraisals are being undermined by evidence, and once again the landscape is shutting down the poet's perceptions, resisting any useful engagement. The erosion reveals to the poet only 'old haggard disorder, signifying/ a sometime liveliness', with the personification employed in 'haggard' and 'liveliness' indicating an abandonment of any attempt at the jargon of scientific objectivity. The poet's observations then become vague, as he notes how this old disorder is 'less sombre/ in temper' than that exposed and on view at the base of the dune. Finally he is left merely fumbling for the correct word for the dune's base, 'canyon,/ basin, inept gully system' (with the telling word 'inept' smuggled in), as his skill with technical terms deserts him altogether.
In section 5 the poet solves the problem of the unknown technical term for the base of a dune by means of a pronoun. 'We blunder to it,' he announces vaguely. He then adds that this feels like entering a separate world of 'total theatre' (meaning a performance that includes equally all the elements of theatre: music, dance, song, spectacle and so on), suggesting an environment which is new but utterly enveloping for those who are experiencing it. Thus the environment around him is 'inordinately/ involving', and in addition he notes that his group is 'entering into contriving' this place, altering it even as they perceive it. As if free and on holiday from reality in this separate world, the group feel their responsibilities have vanished, left behind them 'locked up in the car'. However, in the second half of this section the poet stresses that his group is here for the purposes of scientific inquiry, and not just for play. He lists the technological equipment they have brought along, 'a camera, a set of lenses, a book on botany'. It is equipment for recording and classifying this new environment, although the poet has previously admitted that the group's own 'contriving' presence is already altering that environment and thus making impossible any objective measurement and appraisal of the sand dune in its pristine state. Furthermore, despite having declared at the beginning of section 2 that they are not coming to the lake 'to judge/ or be judged', the poet now concedes that the group has brought along in tow with them 'the manner of our lives'. The visitors are people engaged in a serious investigation and this itself is 'open/ to be judged' as non-frivolous. The poet then alters the word 'judged' to 'tested'--somewhat mimicking the tentative way that his own presence is altering his environment. The group's serious investigative purpose will be 'tested' by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those circumstances are the 'discrete, particular silence' of the area around the lake, a distinct silence arising from the indifferent landscape--a silence mimicked also by a gap after the preceding lines--which suggests that yet again the landscape is resistant to any attempt to get at 'what/ ever (you might say) was the heart of it', as the poet put his case near the poem's start. In addition to the reappearance of the word 'judged' in this section, the word 'open' appears for the fourth time (and by no means the last) in the poem, forming something like an ironic motif. Other verbal motifs and also variations on concepts will begin to recur, creating a network of internal references, a structural device Smithyman found increasingly valuable in long poems.
In terms of the number of sections (five out of ten), though not in terms of the number of lines, the poem has reached its halfway point. At the start of section 6 and the second half of 'Tomarata', the poet now instructs himself to 'read the text' of the dune before him. But instead of being able to apply a scientist's expert eye to this bit of terrain, he begins 'dithering/ from one to another shape', relying only on his previous experience for help, and finding that each shape reveals or 'discovers' itself merely as 'accidental, substantial'. Formed in 'accidental' and thus unknowable ways, the dune in front of him is 'substantial' but without particular features. The poet declares that he is not seeing the dune with any cultural bias--the dune is 'removed' from the theatrical catharsis of purifying 'pity or terror'--but he does not seem to be making any progress at seeing it in a dispassionately scientific manner. Nevertheless, he tries examining the dune from a number of angles: 'Seeing into./ Looking up to, and down from'.
Then in the next stanza the surveying term 'datum line', a horizontal base line assigned as a reference point for measuring heights and depths, makes a useful appearance in the poet's vocabulary. The poet notes that his datum line, along the base of the dune he is attempting to observe, is where the sea has worked by means of water and wind to cut the dune back, even though the sea is far enough away to be 'out of hearing'. Above the datum line are 'sandstone dykes' (vertical bodies of rock formed in cracks among the horizontally layered rock), some of which are in the process of partial collapse, leaving soil strata available for examination. The poet also notes that more of these dykes have come and gone over time, and that this is further evidence of the area's 'inconstancy'. As a mode of investigation, any view of the terrain has to acknowledge dramatic historical changes that have occurred, so that 'Some other time, this was forest'.
At this point the poet appears as an individually distinctive 'I' for the first time in the poem, inserting himself at the very moment when he wishes to be at his most scientifically impersonal in his complex observations. He takes a piece of 'fossilized gum' from the lowest part of the strata and then, working upwards, tries to discover the geological history in the soil layers before him. He twice notes a 'difference of textures' in the strata which indicates separate layers of buried trees. But despite the technical language he employs and the appearance of the portentously Biblical word 'fall' (here to describe simply the collapse of a forest), his investigative efforts lead only to noticing deposits of oxidized iron grains which show themselves as rusty 'sculptings/ pointlessly carried out' and which he compares to the look of rusting oil drums. Finally, at an upper level of 'bog or swamp' he detects 'moa crop stones', the gizzard stones swallowed by New Zealand's now extinct moa birds to aid digestion which are frequently found together with heaps of moa bones in Northland caves or swamps. The stones, brought by the moa in their gizzards from elsewhere, are 'foreign/ to that terrace'. The poet notes that the stones are 'of two characters', probably suggesting that they are either rough or smooth, although interestingly, in the light of what follows, he does not offer any further specifics. This is because he yet again departs from rigorous scientific detachment to personify the crop stones, presenting them as 'keeping/ themselves to themselves' and even as 'mute'--albeit that their only animate quality is their refusal to communicate. He then notices the presence of shale stones used by the ancient Maori to make ovens, presumably for cooking moa, and he observes old, frail pieces of seashell most likely left over from meals. But despite these promising signs there are no moa bones to be seen anywhere, and no further 'artefacts' which might inform him about ancient human habitation.
In the seventh section of the poem the poet focuses more intensely on the scant evidence available of a pre-European human presence, trying above all to locate that evidence within the history of the levels of strata he has been observing. But having noted in the previous stanza that there are 'no artefacts', he now finds that the ovens he is examining and their spills of shale stones from the 'transient cooking sites' appear everywhere among the strata, 'from sandstone base to the tops/ of the weathered knolls'. Although he finds that one of these ancient kitchen middens contains an unusual sea-snail shell for the area, 'Struthiolaria', the rest of the ovens reveal ordinary shells from the nearby beaches, and so his attempt at scientific analysis, replete with scientific terms for shells, gets nowhere. The poet concludes in the next stanza that 'Stratification is probably all to hell', abandoning scientific terminology in his frustration. Then he goes further and admits to himself that despite his earlier planning and hopes he is 'not a professional' anyway but 'frivolously puttering', and that nothing important is riding on the results of his investigations. He finishes up this little instance of humility with the ironic comment, 'Doctor Watson', a reference to the assistant to the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan-Doyle's stories. Holmes is a man for whom nothing is a mystery for long, a detective who once stated that 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth'. But for the poet the appearance of the middens at all levels of the strata makes the process of elimination itself impossible, and in any event it is unclear whether the poet is casting himself here as Sherlock Holmes, the man who always knows, as though addressing his assistant, or instead as Doctor John Watson, the man who always fails to understand, and thus admonishing himself.
Still ruminating on Sherlock Holmes, in the next stanza the poet thinks of a case Holmes once famously solved by considering what he termed 'the curious incident of the dog in the night-time', where a dog did not bark at the approach of a criminal because the criminal was not a stranger. Holmes managed to find significance in absence, and the poet aspires to do the same, deducing that a hawk nearby has 'refused/ to stoop' because it has already scavenged any foodstuffs remaining amongst the exposed shells. From this the poet concludes, rather doubtfully, that he understands 'why, with so many oven stones, so little/ shell remains'. It is not much of a victory for deductive science and the poet is left turning his rather unsatisfactory theory over in his mind, hoping that the silence will speak conclusively to him 'before/ the sand comes back again before/ the plants take over' and the evidence in this collapsing, shifting landscape is itself lost. The covering over once again of the middens by sand and plants will leave the landscape, like the poet's current sense of insight, 'Stabilized,/ but not open'.
The poet's reasoning process seems to have been defeated by the landscape, but in section 8 he suddenly comes up with an alternative theory for the problem of 'so many oven stones'. However, coming up with another theory does not resolve the poet's puzzlement by eliminating the impossible so much as merely add the further complication of yet another possible answer. He wonders whether 'the middens dribbled down and were/ washed elsewhere'. He suspects that the presence of so many cooking sites at so many levels indicates 'waste', since the Maori using the sites probably scattered material carelessly or even built up deposits of material around themselves, 'banked/ like dykes' (meaning mounds of discarded oven stones). Perhaps the Maori even used these heaped-up dykes as 'causeways', or pathways across the tops of the dunes. But this plethora of possibilities then leads the poet to feel in the next stanza that solutions are eluding him. He asks himself whether the shells that he could not locate earlier might also have been treated in this way, as scattered waste and building material, and concludes that if this is true then the shells are under the dune and are even now part of the dune's geological composition itself. They would have been transformed by time into the 'calcium/ carbonate' (i.e. chalk) fraction within the dune's material. The poet now closes out this line of argument with 'I do not need/ you, Watson', in a complicated allusion. On the one hand the statement suggests a dismissal of any further Sherlock-Holmes-style detective work because no further progress can be made. But it is also a less obvious reference to the words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 to his own assistant, Thomas Watson, which indicated a major breakthrough in the invention of the telephone: 'Mr Watson--Come here--I want to see you'. But whether deductive science is being dismissed here for reasons of failure or of success, the poet notes as a Parthian shot that: 'The matter is more/ for Thomas Norton'. This other Thomas was a fifteenth-century English alchemist, the author in 1477 of the influential The Ordinall of Alchemy, and an early exponent of the arcane ways in which base materials (in this case shells) might be chemically transformed into something more remarkable.
At the beginning of section 9 the poet introduces a variation on what was his very first line, back at the start of his poem, in order to introduce a radically new departure in his train of thought. Having wrestled in great detail with just one intellectual issue, a sand dune's strata at the periphery of the lake--wrestled with it to the point of distraction from all else--and having got nowhere in his attempts to explain and understand it all, the poet now announces that he is 'Open', in the sense of being willing, 'to experience that satisfying/ feeling of what goes unexplained'. But he has little choice except to settle for what information has been offered to him. In any event, after examining the middens the poet is also open to thoughts of historical 'continuity'. He notes in passing that 'True is when/ whatever was hidden is revealed', slyly suggesting that the revelation of the truth occurs when information comes to the surface all by itself, without any outside agency. This would make the discovery of such truths a grammatically reflexive action (i.e. something simply reveals itself--without need of outside assistance) and the poet notes that this type of revelation of the truth, of information simply arising on its own, is not really congenial to human language and thus to human ways of thinking. Our language when we have recourse to it, he argues, 'will not cope well/ with reflexives'. Nevertheless his thoughts now turn, running on in a sentence from one stanza into another, to a different type of landscape which reveals itself very easily: the landscape of England. The Maori middens at Lake Tomarata have offered up very little for inspection and have proved as difficult to interpret as the geological landscape itself, but in contrast the poet can remember travelling, as Pakeha New Zealanders used to say, 'home' to Britain, where he had the experience of seeing Britain's long-settled countryside.
In The Making of the English Landscape W.G. Hoskins comments, 'Not much of England, even in its more withdrawn, inhuman places, has escaped being altered by man in some subtle way or other'. The poet recalls that in Yorkshire the landscape revealed something of itself when in early spring the grass began to grow on the 'dales' (a very English term for a river valley), and with the annual seasonal change 'the land spoke out again'. The new grass made clear the presence of ancient 'lynchet lines' (the terraced downslope of a hill caused by ploughing in ancient times) and 'Celt field marks' (earthworks which are traces of ancient agricultural field systems) in the landscape once more. He recalls the River Wharfe, which originates at Langstrothdale Chase and flows over 'shallow/ terracings' while getting ready 'transparently'--in both the sense of being obvious and of being clear water--to take on what the poet jokes are 'civil properties'. By this he means that the developing river will become part of civic life when passing local villages, and so take on civic qualities; but also the poet is playing on the meaning of 'properties' as pieces of local real estate and suggesting that the approaching river will competitively take these places on. Near to the river in Langstrothdale Valley is the village of Hubberholme, which is notable for its Norman church, and also the village of Yockenthwaite, which is known for its circle of ancient stones. These may be what the poet has in mind when he refers to 'a farmhouse' in which he can 'read'--just as he attempted to do with the sand dune at Tomarata--various past rebuildings all the way back to an old 'Norse steading' (or farmhouse), and when he refers to 'hut circles', which are the ancient stone foundations remaining from Bronze-Age roundhouses.
Recalling the Yorkshire landscape he has known inevitably leads the poet to make comparisons with Tomarata. He finds Tomarata 'Downstream a little, culturally': a land as geologically old as Yorkshire but culturally more recent. The poet has been focusing on the human occupation of the Yorkshire landscape rather than on the land itself, but such a domestication of an environment over time undoubtedly helps people to feel more at home in it, and to feel as if their questions about it can be answered. In contrast, the Tomarata sandhills do not answer questions but rather put them to the poet, and the sandhills put their questions 'obliquely', in indirect ways that, for the poet, render them insoluble. The poet then reminds himself with great hesitation--using the word 'Partly', the impersonal 'one', and repetition with the words 'questions of scale,' 'in perspective' and 'sensible of proportions'--that he should not let comparisons of his experience at Lake Tomarata with Britain take over his thinking: of course Tomarata is culturally younger than Yorkshire and he needs to keep that sense of scale of mind. This point should 'temper', or moderate, the poet's experience at the lake and, thus keeping his thoughts in proportion, keep his view of the place objective and 'as something, so to speak, true'. Nevertheless, the hesitancy in the poet's tone continues and his lines in the poem mimic his line of thought by running on once more, awkwardly, out of the end of the section and into the start of section 10. This truth about the lake is not something which has simply revealed itself in a reflexive way but is rather a point about which the poet needs to admonish himself and to be careful.
Indeed, the poet in section 10 now compares the experience of Tomarata (along with the feeling 'of what goes unexplained') with the experience of happiness. Happiness is a state 'which you do not/ understand, or need to'. Merely having the experience is enough in itself. Happiness is a 'Compound' or mix of various emotions, such as 'wonder' and 'awe' and including even maybe 'exaltation', yet it requires 'No protesting/ or remedying action' and need not be analysed but only enjoyed. It is, as well, an active state of mind to be entered into, so that a 'passive response' is not sufficient; instead, what psychologists refer to as having 'insight', or an understanding of one's own situation, is necessary. Nevertheless, the pleasant understanding that one is happy is always a positive experience in and for itself: 'self-defining, self-sufficient/ and justifying'. Repeating on purpose a phrase from section 1 which described Lake Tomarata's essentially hermetic condition, 'Reserved to its logic', the poet notes that with happiness 'you have only to stand open to it'. He is prepared to settle for the experience itself, rather than try and pry it apart. The poet declares this 'Conceded', both in the sense of accepting the points of his argument and also in the sense of yielding himself to a state of happiness completely. He then also notes that, once wholeheartedly entered into, the condition of happiness may be impossible to convey in words, even in the poetic language of what T.S. Eliot famously termed 'objective correlatives'. In any event, when we are happy we tend to communicate the fact before we have understood the why's or how's of our condition--not least because understanding is not nearly as important as staying open to the moment.
In the next stanza the poet concedes that he has communicated before understanding 'Even here', at the lakeside--and perhaps as the result of something like happiness. The realisation that he need not explain what he is experiencing at Tomarata seems to have relieved some of the pressure in the poet's mind, and he decides that it is 'Not wholly incongruous' to recall another occasion where an experience was enthusiastically welcomed though not totally understood. His thoughts drift back to Yorkshire again and 'the first time I went into/ York Minster', the enormous Gothic cathedral in the city of York which dates back as far as the seventh century. The poet had visited soon after preservation work begun in the late 1960s uncovered, to everyone's surprise, a corner of the headquarters of the Roman fort in York under the cathedral's south transept, the 'Roman brickwork' being even older than the cathedral itself. The poet recalls, no doubt feeling wonder and awe, looking up and down the walls at the conservation process:
where scaffolding went, watching
men at work in the church, building;
down, through medieval, through Saxon,
to the Roman
This is history indeed, and the poet's way of observing it is similar to his up-and-downwards method of reading the geology of the Tomarata sand dunes, except that this is a human construction which he is trying to comprehend rather than nature itself. He is left 'speculating' about what pagan site may lie even lower down, under the Roman fort, but he nevertheless feels that historical knowledge here is 'All continuous, at once/ present'. This pleasing experience of a near-totality of knowledge, albeit in a sensation communicated here by the poet before he has really understood it, he now describes ambiguously. The experience is still 'Less than total insight', both in terms of comprehending the ancient human habitation before him and of the poet understanding the nature of his own feelings, but it is nevertheless satisfyingly apparent and 'defines itself', using reflexive grammar. The poet comments that this experience appears 'uniquely', in the sense of being remarkable and of being the only one of its type, and that it is necessarily brief.
After these second thoughts, where now a memory of Britain has not hindered his appreciation of Tomarata but rather assisted it, the poet feels in the final stanza that it is 'A long haul', both in effort and distance, to get back 'downstream' to the here and now of Tomarata in the hot and also passionately 'fervid/ afternoon'. But he has made peace with himself over his failed attempts to understand the local landscape, even when drawing comparisons with attempts to understand the somewhat more accessible landscape of Britain. He recognises 'A quality of difference' between New Zealand and Britain, and also a difference between his naturally enquiring mind and the raw, intransigent natural environment in front of him, and he feels this is 'to be respected'. This respect is to be managed before nature reclaims everything, as ultimately it must. For nature will outlast everything human, the Maori middens, the poet's visit, and even changes made by people and nature itself to the environment, and it will have the last word. Tomarata's plants--the poet suddenly tries for a list of native scrub grasses but soon gives up on any attempt at being comprehensive--will begin to 'take over' the landscape again as soon as he retreats, and he acknowledges that this process, like an insight which defines itself 'uniquely, briefly', will happen 'usefully'. The writing's tone at the end of the poem has become wistful, tired and quiet, unlike the overconfident, energetic and knotty writing at the poem's start. The poet himself has been defeated in his attempts at understanding his environment, but he has come away with a new level of respect for its powers.
In 'Tomarata' Smithyman wishes to remain open to the direct experience of a Kiwi environment, such as a gumland pond, by refusing to bring to it the Romantic loftiness common among imitators of old-world landscape poetry. He therefore makes use of the trope of the South Island Myth but only in order to create a subtle poem about an intensive interaction with a new-world landscape, a place that is one's own while lacking the comforts of earlier European cultural points of reference. But faced with the new and unknown, although Smithyman's mode of thinking is of necessity closer to Tregear's frustration and dismay than it can be to a writer like Wordsworth (with Wordsworth's expansion of feelings into the realm of the Romantic sublime), Smithyman is nevertheless aware that any kind of earlier cultural baggage inside the poet's mind must be brought into some sort of balance with the present for his poem to succeed. 'Tomarata' dramatizes this process, a process at the heart of the Provincial period of New Zealand literature. The very failure to manage such a balance cripples Tregear's ability to remain open to his environment in 'Te Whetu Plains', but for Smithyman in 'Tomarata' comparisons with Britain ultimately assist him in orienting himself in, and thus coming to terms of respect for, the environment he is encountering. 'Tomarata' is a poem of successful, though difficult, cultural adjustment.Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise
With its prominent subtitle Smithyman warns anyone who approaches 'Reading the Maps', which was written in 1977 and collected in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985), that his poem is 'An Academic Exercise'. The subtitle is not merely an ironic nod to those critics who were inclined to label Smithyman an obscure poet, since for Smithyman the word 'academic' carried a special resonance. In A Way of Saying Smithyman suggests a putative 'academic' form of writing as 'being a counter to romantic writing'. He defines this further as follows:
The attributes of academic writing are not merely the contraries of those predicated by romanticism. Academic poems favour more complex, even baroque, structures and more ramified operations than is usual with romantic writing although elaboration is not the essence of the academic. The academic writers are, if not given to elaboration, at least more readily given to 'tragedy, irony, and multitudinous distinction'. They like to capitalize on the pleasures of intellect in verbal play and wit. Their poems are based, if not on learning, then often on an active body of information. They tend to uphold the claims made for the autonomy of rhetoric as a discipline.
This description can easily be applied to 'Reading the Maps', which seems to have been written not in reaction to Romantic notions of poetry but rather in an attempt to set the terms for what a successful academic poem might be. Perhaps for this reason, unlike Smithyman's previous poetry where the contemplation of a landscape prompted the appearance of certain ideas, with 'Reading the Maps' the contemplation of an idea then prompts the appearance of landscapes. This is because the poem consists of the various reveries of a poet who is examining 'four/ map sheets of Hokianga', the Northland harbour and its environs, pinned to a wall in front of him, a remarkably uncomplicated framework for such a complex poem. The focus of the poet's contemplation, and thus the trope of the poem--and it again is remarkable that such a large poem should centre on such a simple trope--is sometimes referred to as 'the map-territory relation': the discrepancy between what is geographically real and the products of any human attempt to record this reality. Reality is definitely, objectively, around us, but we are inadequate before the task of recording it or describing it, and ultimately, of even knowing it. Cartography, very much like art, has to operate within the limitations of this conundrum.
Smithyman had an especial fondness for using maps while he was travelling. He was married to the poet Mary Stanley when 'Reading the Maps' was written (she died in 1980) but his second wife, Margaret Edgcumbe, noted in an interview: 'Before each trip he would go to the AA and get a new [map], and he had all his old maps in a folder in the car along with the camera (which usually went phut, or didn't work, or got cooked along the way). He also took bird books, and any historical guides he needed, and so on'. Thus a poem by Smithyman on the disparity between information recorded about terrain on a map and the terrain that one encounters in reality can be said to have grown quite inevitably out of his own interests. But it was a theme, too, that he had employed off and on in his poetry for a long time. 'Colville' finishes with a reference to a new type of territory 'Defined, plotted; which maps do not speak'. In 'Tomarata' the poet wants to see the landscape in front of him as a 'text' that he can 'read'. Heather McCann begins her astute analysis of 'Reading the Maps' by making a case for the poem being viewed as an 'imaginative key' to Smithyman's oeuvre. Furthermore, the trope itself--a highlighting of the disparity between the recorded and the real--is not at all new to literature. Among twentieth-century works Elizabeth Bishop's 1935 'The Map', for example, exploits much the same dissonance, and Smithyman himself acknowledges the long pedigree of his poem's central idea when he includes a quotation in 'Reading the Maps' from Samuel Daniel's 1602 essay A Defence of Ryme, which begins: 'Nor must we thinke, viewing the superficiall figure of a region in a Mappe that wee know strait the fashion and place as it is'. Jorge Luis Borges's 1946 story 'On Exactitude in Science' imagines the perfect map of an empire, one made on the exact same scale as the territory of the empire itself, a map which then breaks into pieces that become part of the landscape. This story in turn was heavily influenced by a passage in Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, where a mysterious character named Mein Herr describes a map made on the scale of 'a mile to the mile' with the result that 'we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well'. Smithyman is therefore adding his own particular version of the trope to a long-established literary tradition.
Smithyman's poem about reading maps is itself arranged rather like a map, displaying many formal features commonly used in cartography. Although there is no central illustration of a terrain, certain narrative sections of the poem seem to carry out that function, and adjacent to them are set other sections, often headed with map-related titles, which then elaborate on topics such as map references, magnetic bearings, symbols and scale. Cartographic jargon abounds, and occasionally cartographic iconography appears. The second section of the poem reproduces instructions for finding grid references on an ordnance survey map, with the title of the section running cheekily into and through the elaborate grid-lines of the instructions. The seventh section of the poem, titled 'Reference', reproduces the brace symbols which appear on map lists to show that listed items are to be considered as one unit, though Smithyman again cheekily declares regarding any further pictorial symbols for objects, 'I am leaving out all the signs for them, you understand?'--perhaps exemplifying the need for selection which always limits cartographers and poets, or perhaps merely in deference to printing difficulties.
But just as 'Reading the Maps' teases its readers by drifting out of conventional poetry into areas laden with cartographic features, so too it manages the opposite by drifting out of cartography into areas showing off very traditional poetic aspects. Nothing exemplifies this better than the poem's use of rhyme. The opening section's seven sextets, despite its chatty tone, showcases an extraordinarily intricate pattern of rhymes and repeated end words, so that the rhyme scheme must be written out as: AbCddC EfAggA HiEjjE KlHmmH NoKppK QrNssN tuQvvQ (where capitals indicate repeated words). The poem also ends with a heavily patterned section entitled 'A Question of Scale' involving four triplets which rhyme (or half-rhyme): abC deC abC deC, and which conform in each triplet to a syllable count per line of 9, 14, 5. Throughout the rest of the body of the poem 'Reading the Maps' meanders through prose passages and passages of free verse, sometimes within the same section, with the free verse occasionally drifting into and out of rhymed portions. The section 'How to Get Back by Magnetic Bearings', for example, opens and closes (if one ignores a trailing last line) with octaves which are both rhymed abcdbdac, while in between appears technical language and information on calculations for converting magnetic north to true north and vice-versa. The stanzas of the next section, 'Symbols', are mostly written in unrhymed triplets, except for the second stanza which is a quatrain that rhymes abab and for the third stanza which breaks up from verse into an italicised list of some items which are represented on an English map by symbols. The section 'Legend', though mostly written in free verse, sometimes features regular stanza patterns (four-line stanzas in part II, nine-line stanzas in part IV [with an extra line at the start, and with one line broken into half-lines], three-line stanzas in part V, four-line stanzas in part VI, and five-line stanzas in part VII), and in addition part IV's nine-line stanzas are all rhymed ababcabba. The same sort of fluid to-ing and fro-ing occurs with Smithyman's notorious obscurity. Some sections of 'Reading the Maps', whether inclined to poetry or cartography, are extraordinarily clear. Other areas are as opaque as anything Smithyman has ever written. The section 'How to Get Back by Magnetic Bearings', for instance, features jargon-filled instructions for calculations that seem even to challenge the poet himself as he ponders them, so that he sums up the process with: 'You may not read the same map/ twice. On such least point we may agree'. Since compass readings use magnetic north and maps reflect true north, then not even a simple map on a sheet of paper can be viewed as unchanging. Everything in the poem, as with the real world around it, is rendered as being in a state of flux. Indeed, Smithyman acknowledges this by wittily alluding in the poem to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who claimed that constant flux was the essence of all things in the universe, and whose famous argument for the always-shifting nature of reality was: 'You can't step twice into the same river'. This is because no matter how much a river may look the same its waters move and are ever-changing, so that at any two separate instants it is not possible to be in exactly the same body of water. Smithyman converts this into a statement that we 'may not read the same map twice', which he then repeats four times in the poem and, naturally, never in quite the same way on each occasion.
'Reading the Maps' is thus segmented into many sections and forms, corresponding to various moments in the poet's reveries, and so unlike most of Smithyman's other landscape poetry it offers its reader only the most slender chronological thread to follow. It is perhaps 'Reading the Maps' which best exemplifies the critic John Geraets's observation on Smithyman's oeuvre that 'each poem as an entity does not represent a distance traversed so much as an extensive grid of intersecting remarks'. Even the poet's reveries are subject to a flux of varying depths. Many places in the poem certainly reveal a poet's brooding thoughts (the customary mode for Smithyman's landscape poems), but in other places the poem seems to drift purely into the language of cartography, albeit with strong hints that this jargon is being filtered in a sardonic manner through the poet's mind as he 'reads' his maps. In still other places, however, such as the opening section at the very start of the poem and the closing lines of each of the sections titled 'How to Get Back by Magnetic Bearings' and 'Symbols', the poet appears to be engaged in a dialogue with someone else, at least within his own mind. It is the poem's opening section that first frames this dialogue, setting it up as an internalised conversation occurring with somebody close to the poet, a wife perhaps. The poem's very first lines, 'Today when I was leaving you were gone/ to the Library, hunting', and the jokey musing thereafter about 'departmental cats' certainly suggest the intimacy of a couple who are both working in academia. The poem then, with its sections featuring jargon, quotations, recollections of earlier journeys and even internalized conversations, continues despite its jumble to shift within the consciousness of a poet-persona--and a persona furthermore of the type who has been present in previous Smithyman works.
Above all else, as an apparent expression of the poet's complex thoughts 'Reading the Maps' circles in both its content and form around the very academic issue of epistemology. In a now-distant echo of the South Island Myth's issues with unknowable landscapes, the general question of what can truly be known is the poem's dominant theme. For the basic problem facing cartographers, artists and, ultimately, anybody trying to understand the world, is that there is too much of reality to encompass it all within a map, a poem, or even the workings of the human mind. Maps, like language, work well enough on a day-to-day basis, mostly by keeping the objects they refer to 'Within limits', so that as McCann notes: 'The space within which an object is described equals the object itself'. But when maps and language are considered in a rigorously academic fashion, at an epistemological level, their inability as representations to pin down an object itself, rather than merely indicating the approximate limits within which something exists, becomes obvious. Reality is just too various to be pinned down--indeed, this is a despairing claim often made by literary writers--and thus in map-reading Smithyman has found the perfect correlative for a much larger issue. The selection process necessary for managing representation in a work of cartography or art means that there is always a point in such a work where the supply of detail must stop, while details in the reality that the work aims to capture can continue to multiply, i.e. a point of failure, where the path goes no further. And this is why 'Reading the Maps' is necessarily about the failure of human endeavour, in art and in life, to get to grips with the reality manifestly all around us. The old world--as usual Smithyman's representative sample is Yorkshire--fares no better in this regard than the new. The poem illustrates the failure of cartography (and other forms of knowledge) to encompass and capture even New Zealand's still relatively pristine geography, much less anywhere else in the world that is more settled.
It is perhaps for this reason--the inevitability of failure at dealing with reality--that the poet is always getting lost when trying to navigate in 'Reading the Maps', or feeling anxiety about where he may be, or missing some connection with another person. Even the poem's epigraph suggests this failure: 'All grid coordinates on this sheet are in terms of false origin'. This implies, at least in a metaphoric reading, that the tools which will be used in the poem's attempt to nail down the truth, namely maps and language, are 'false' in that they are necessarily representations of things rather than the things-in-themselves. What is more, nature in the poem, and thus reality itself, is 'shiftless', always failing to coalesce into something helpfully unchanging, and likewise information in the poem is always uncertain, hovering awkwardly between a surfeit and a lack. The sense of getting lost is also reproduced in the poem on a formal level. Firstly the poem's flux, the to-ing and fro-ing between map-like passages and poetic passages, unsettles the reader. But in addition motifs, allusions and, in places, the possible meanings of the ambiguous language used, proliferate, replicating the variety found in the wider world until the poem comes to a halt in the final section (even though the poet recalls plunging forward in a car) where the measurement of anything is 'outmoded'. This huge proliferation of internal and external references means that 'Reading the Maps' more-or-less successfully resists any explicative commentary on it that might be carried out in a standard academic manner--and this despite the fact that parts of the poem, at least, remain beguilingly accessible to the reader. The poem's accessibility draws the reader in, but its endless referentiality then causes the reader to feel as lost as the poet does when he is treading in recall the paths laid out on maps before him. Thus any kind of reading experience of the poem is ultimately inclined to mirror the poem's main topic: the unknowability of reality. In 'Reading the Maps' obscurity is employed as yet another feature that can work to Smithyman's advantage.
Laying much of the referentiality of the poem to one side in order to read the work analytically may be tantamount to ignoring much of the poem's special grace, a grace which the critic Frank Kermode insists is 'not always taken into account by scholars who seek to dissolve the text into its elements rather than to observe the fertility of their interrelations'. Nevertheless, a necessarily provisional commentary on the poem may proceed as follows. The first section of 'Reading the Maps' opens with the poet sitting in his office contemplating four maps of the Hokianga pinned to the wall. The maps relate to an unsuccessful research expedition spent 'hunting for Mahimai', an early Pakeha Maori who lived in the Rawhia area of the Hokianga in the nineteen century and on whom information is sketchy at best. The problem is that various versions of Mahimai's life have proliferated until they are impossible to follow further, much like the proliferating or sometimes absent roads and tracks on the poet's unsatisfactorily inaccurate map. For the poet, legends about Mahimai can even compared to mere 'legends' or dreams of tracks that have got 'nowhere much', and they can also be compared to the expansive dreams of a future not 'out of joint', as Hamlet would have put it, once dreamed by members of a church parish, such as the local faithful at Hokianga. But the dreams of the faithful inevitably lose their substance. As evidenced by the Hokianga area, any buildings and works that a parish might have caused to be put up have 'ailed materially' until 'the vision in them failed'. Those projects and the dreams behind them have become little more than bits of flotsam, washed away like 'junk' into the landscape or left 'slumped' on 'water frontages', remnants which are now incorporated into guides for modern tourists and explorers. That is what happens to dreams. The poet finishes this section by thinking of his own 'schemes' which have not come off, though he is also left feeling hopeful that 'our ways work out', like the sea's tide turning at the Head of the Hokianga harbour.
The poem's second section, and the first which appears with something like a title, is formally the strangest in the whole sequence. It begins by reproducing part of an ordnance survey map that the poet is evidently focusing his attention on: the part of a map which gives instructions for determining an exact location by means of a six-figure grid reference. Put in technical terms, a map reader uses estimated measurements, termed eastings and northings, from the origin (the south-west corner) of a map's grid-square in order to pinpoint the location of an object in more exact detail within that square. This more exact location is then listed as a six-digit numeric reference. In the second section of 'Reading the Maps' the poet is performing this task in order to locate Rawhia, a hill near the top of the Hokianga harbour where Mahimai owned a block of land, so that the peculiar-looking grid-reference in the poem, '105426', is not merely a reproduction of information from a map but also a representation of the poet using that information. However, a key word in this section is 'Estimate' and so, as McCann bluntly puts it, 'It's all guesswork'. Despite the predominance of scientific jargon and typography, the poet is still only taking a kind of guess at where he was when he visited Rawhia. Thus, as the poet goes on to muse and acknowledge to himself in the more conventional verse which follows in this section, he knows where he was only 'Within limits', and he wryly notes that, in any case, the grid coordinates on the sheet are (true only in terms of false origin'.
Memory will pinpoint a place visited just as accurately as a map reference, and this appears to be what the poet resorts to in the third section of 'Reading the Maps'. Using the maps as a prompt, he describes, in something approaching stream of consciousness, a journey through an unnamed landscape, though mention of 'the Head' and 'the Harbour' suggests that this is indeed a remembered research trip to the Hokianga. This section of 'Reading the Maps' is arguably the poem's most accessible, but no sooner is the reader established along with the poet in the territory than the map begins to lose accuracy. The road mark on the map ends too early, and on the route that the poet then still mentally follows the map is soon unable to account for his recalled old 'line/ of a Maori trail'. The route peters out and the reader, like the poet, is left in an unknown place. The next two sections of the poem also appear to be memories. The first is an apt passage from Samuel Daniel emphasising the unknowability of 'times, men and manners' and showing that an awareness of the problem of knowledge is anything but new. The second, titled 'The Book of the Road', describes a journey by car in Yorkshire, which a note to the Collected Poems makes clear was an actual journey carried out by Smithyman through the Yorkshire Dales and Yorkshire National Park in 1969. The route which the trip follows is essentially circular, and is notable for the very detailed pieces of information--place names, highway numbers and features of interest--that seem to be available for the poet by means of maps and what he calls a 'Treasures book' as he travels. But despite what is almost a surfeit of map-related data, the poet remains full of anxiety and he questions himself constantly as he proceeds. Some roads are not numbered, some stopping places may not be open and information on some sights is uncertain. The section even closes with a 'Note' mentioning an ancient Roman road which the 'A 66' is following and which, much like the problem with the Maori trail during the poet's journey in the Hokianga, is too old to have an identifying name. In Britain more detailed map routes and information can be provided for travellers than can be the case in New Zealand, but the long occupation by humans of the British Isles offers merely an illusion of being closer to the landscape. Thus in comparison to the poet's seductively comfortable relationship with Britain's more settled and accessible old-world environment in earlier Smithyman poems, here the poet feels alienated from the Britain he sees around him--in fact, the theme of 'Reading the Maps' requires that all relationships with any landscape must ultimately be alienated, so that in the final analysis the unknowability of the New Zealand landscape now operates as a trope for the unknowability of any environment at all.
The mention of 'Langstrothdale Chase' in 'The Book of the Road' section may provide the associative nudge which leads to the next section of the poem, albeit in a peculiar way: through an earlier Smithyman poem. Langstrothdale Chase and the Northland setting of the next section of 'Reading the Maps' have both appeared previously in Smithyman's 'Tomarata', and so although the poet-persona at the heart of 'Reading the Maps' may or may not explicitly be Smithyman himself, clearly the distance between writer and persona is much closer than was usual in Smithyman's previous work. The new section's opening line, a repetition from earlier in the poem of 'We may not read the same map twice', wittily brings the poet's thoughts back to New Zealand concerns, and the poem's major theme, the problem of the map-territory relation, is now made explicit. Previously in the poem the poet had mused upon the inability of maps to account for changes over time, and how they can only 'tell you about what is supposedly present'. But in this section it is nature's ever-changing transformation of space that maps cannot account for, and indeed no example from the natural world will survive much careful scrutiny since an ever-transformative nature can know nothing of its own past or future: 'unsure in its election as well/ as in its origin, in its ground/ of being as well as in its becoming--'. At this point Lake Tomarata itself appears in 'Reading the Maps' in a kind of cameo role, producing a link outside 'Reading the Maps' to another earlier part of Smithyman's oeuvre. Smithyman references his visit to the lake in 1970, a visit which led to the composition of his poem 'Tomarata', to see the sandhills on the eastern side of the lake before they were replaced 'by forestry men and engineers' with a stand of pine trees, in an attempt to further stabilise the landscape and 'right an aberrant nature'. The sandhill lake has been shapeless and 'came and went', and even when not actually existent 'it was essential', both because its existence was necessary for its name on the map to make sense, and also because it still existed, even when vanished, as an essence in a somewhat Platonic version of reality where 'real' objects are mere shifting imitations of pre-existing ideal forms. Thus the lake always exists in space although sometimes it is also absent: 'In remove/ a presence, in presence a fact'. The poet naturally concludes that the attempts of the forestry men and engineers to halt all this transformative movement is a futile act of human arrogance based on unsubstantiated assumptions.
Then how, best right aberrant nature?
Terms of reference not precise,
you guess, we may not read the same map twice.
The section closes by circling back to the line with which it began. Throughout this section the lake in question is unnamed, and Smithyman's previous poem, 'Tomarata', not directly referred to, but McCann mentions these as canny instances of how objects can still exist in a place even though absent--brought into consciousness, into a poem or onto a map simply by means of implication--so that in nature's flux anything 'which lies outside the demarcated space has an existence of its own'.
The next section of the poem, titled 'Reference', illustrates the much-observed phenomenon that, when classifying and defining an object, increasing the quantity of information does not necessarily make the act of classification any more accurate. The poet contemplates 'two sections' marked 'Reference' on a sheet on the wall in front of him. One reference section is comparatively uncluttered, categorising 'Roads', 'Railways' and 'Bridges' into a few more specific types marked with specific pictorial signs on the map. There are also signs for 'some other things', although the poet observes with disappointment that there is nothing available about 'Pylons', perhaps in a wry nod to 1930s pylon poetry. To simplify matters the poet announces, presumably to himself, that he is still 'leaving out all the signs' from his word-based train of thought, but a second reference section has a plethora of classifications, including pictorial keys, numbers and notes, which the poet absorbs and lists at some length. Now armed with a great deal of reference information, the poet feels that he should be fully able to match his map to reality and be 'able to operate/ within or without prescribed or designated limits'. But the acknowledgement of his inevitable failure at this then leads to a kind of despair. He declares: 'You may yet have to go to the wall'. This may simply indicate the action of getting up to examine the map more closely, or more likely it may presage a sort of going out of business, of the poet completely giving up on his research scheme which has already 'gone/ mainly down the drain'. The poet finishes up by asking himself how he ever got into such a situation in the first place, employing a sardonic question for a map-user: 'How was I ever able to find my way there?'.
Despair continues to hold sway over the poet's reveries in the next section, ominously titled 'How to Get Back by Magnetic Bearings'. This section involves the poet trying, and largely failing, to understand how to manage the necessary calculations for returning by means of a compass which uses magnetic north and a map which indicates true north 'to harbour'--clearly a reference to the Hokianga harbour and also to a place of safety. The comparative inadequacy of a compass as a real-world tool for navigating in tandem with what is depicted artificially on a map resonates in a symbolic manner which is all too obvious to the poet himself. He begs for instruction, unsure whether he needs to try addition or subtraction, but the instructions he reads to himself that follow are no help. In any case he observes in the section's large penultimate stanza that, whether he may successfully 'Add or subtract' on a map, the unknowable 'something' which is reality remains 'still to be read as before'. Reality is 'contemptuous of cartography', because cartography, much like art, cannot change reality itself but merely endeavour to reflect it.
However, at this point a more personal source of tension which has being lying dormant in the poem begins to come into the foreground. The poet has occasionally been engaged in some sort of dialogue in earlier parts of the poem, recalling a failure to meet his wife, though mostly by using a general 'you' and 'we' while seemingly talking to himself. But the focus of the stanza is now transformed from a comparison of the limitations of cartography with artistic endeavour into a criticism of the poet's very own creative efforts, and it becomes clear that the poet is remembering an oft-repeated conversation with somebody else, someone who is presumably his wife. She suggests in an almost unpunctuated run of words that his poetry is 'lacking bearing' in reality and is a 'puerile seen-through act'. The short line break and plaintive last line of the section, 'so you say. As you say', brings this even more clearly into focus. The change seems to result from a deepening of the poet's reverie, of the poet arriving at that intermediate state between waking and sleeping where, half in talking to oneself, a person is inclined to remember and scramble up old conversations. All of this hints at the possibility that, aside from everything else happening in the poem at an 'academic' level, the poet is sublimating some sort of mental crisis or breakdown resulting from his relationship with another person, his wife, while gazing at his maps. It is a breakdown involving some unavoidable failure to know and connect, an issue which the poet nevertheless seeks to overcome.
But in any event this confusion in the poet's process of recall, creating a sense of flux in the space between imaginative reverie and intruding reality, leads only to an even deeper crisis in the next section. The symbolic implications entangled in the image of compass navigation on a map perhaps once more provide an associative nudge necessary for the section's title, 'Symbols'. Like the speaker in Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' who falls into an ecstatic reverie and announces 'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet', the poet is beginning to pass into a day-dreaming or heavily abstracted state. Indeed, his steady drift towards this mental condition may account for the tendency for lines and phrases to circle in the poem, mimicking the spiralling thoughts of a mind settling into something approaching sleep. Far from feeling ecstasy, however, the poet begins the new section with the worrying announcements:
I cannot see our land clearly.
It comes and goes because covered with symbols.
Isn't this symptom of a psychotic state?
It is disconcertingly unclear whether 'our land' may refer to the New Zealand land on the poet's maps or to something broader, such as the reality of New Zealand itself and the poet's life within it. The poet then commences a comforting diversion with considerations of England and 'another life' in which as he was passively driven about as in 'The Book of the Road' section. At that time he had in his possession a guidebook to the plethora of symbols on his maps, so that all of them were neatly accounted for. His mind even darts for a moment to a further distraction in the reference symbol 'CS 32', customarily used to indicate Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet: 'Leave me, O love! which reachest but to dust!'. In the sonnet Sidney extolls the virtue of abandoning ephemeral earthly love for higher, more artistic or spiritual pursuits, a notion which might console an academic poet who is feeling unhappy with his own earthly love-life. But even 'a necessary guide' must fall short of its job and fail to offer symbols for absolutely everything, although as in the earlier 'Reference' section the poet offers a long sample list. Once again, as in the 'Reference' section, a large quantity of information merely results in too items many for proper management. The poet then obsessively focuses on the symbol for 'Frontier post' before seeming to step through the symbol overlaid in print on the map down into the territory beneath of the map itself.
I shall go down to the river which may be
demented. I shall go on hoping to cross over.
Perhaps this is a frontier. We have crossed
frontiers before this.
The poet's mind is no longer tethered to the conscious world. It is then that a further unsatisfactory and frustrating attempt at communicating between the poet and his wife ensues, a communication which seems to exist entirely in recall within the only semi-rational flow of thought in the poet's unhappy mind. The wife, as a surrogate perhaps for the muse, is asked and cajoled by the poet to write something on a sheet of paper. This results in the poet receiving and refusing to recognise the written word 'No', mistaking it for the abbreviated symbol for 'number', and thus insisting on seeing a symbol rather than the plain truth.
The very dense, very interiorised section that follows is titled 'Legend', a word, like everything else in this section, rich in ambiguity. A legend is the explanatory table or key for symbols on a map, but it can also be an unverified story or even a character who inspires legends--all of these possible meanings can apply in what follows--and McCann is surely correct in suggesting that this section invokes 'the interpretive key to the poem-as-map'. The 'Legend' section is divided into eight numbered parts. The first part begins apparently in mid-sentence with the poet's sudden arrival, under the influence of his dreaming state, within a landscape. The choice of the word 'landfall', however, with its implication of an explorer arriving after a long voyage, gives a sense of doubling, of the poet's language echoing older, more archetypal events, which will be an approach central to the entire section. Part 2 opens with the poet near Tokomaru Bay on the east coast of the North Island. As part 7 of the 'Legend' section will later make clear, the poet is most probably recalling a research trip to find information on John Rutherford, a historical figure who lived in the area. Rutherford was a Pakeha Maori similar in type to the Hokianga's Mahimai, and thus no doubt at one time he formed part of the poet's failed 'research scheme'. The poet finds himself equipped, like the early pioneers--or like anyone in a dream--with a map too new to be accurate or helpful. It features a 'loop road' which has still not been built, so that for the poet the only way of proceeding further turns out to be following the probable course of the loop in a circle through hill country. The expression used to round out his introductory stanza, 'Way forward proved the way back', echoes Heraclitus once more, but also indicates the poet's own frustration at his progress.
The poet then describes the track he is walking as pressing doggedly forwards 'Like a one track mind', until the track dies away under a small 'mount', or mountain, and he is 'spent'. The vaguely sexualised language of the poet's dream-work here helps give some context to what follows. On the round slope of the mount before the poet there emphatically appears a bull, a creature rising up out of nowhere 'to design'. The bull no doubt has its own designs or plans, but the creature may also be appearing as part of the designs of the poet's subconscious mind. The bull is aggressive, with its neck arched and its scrotum and erect penis on display, so that clearly the animal is in some sort of heat. The bull is dangerous, and the poet realises that his only way to proceed now is to retreat. He briefly notes, in part 3 with his thoughts also running on into part 4, that he is standing in a place where any maps may need 'a change in legend' by adding a new symbol to them for dangerous bulls--and also perhaps a change of 'legend' as mythological story--in order to account for the 'masculine landfall' of the rampant bull's sudden arrival on the landscape and seascape.
The scene before the poet constitutes the local landscape but includes the seascape of the bay nearby. Because of the wind the material which is thrown off the bay, a combination of earth ('grit') and water ('spray'), gets in the poet's eyes and makes it difficult for him to see. He feels further confused by his senses because the 'dun/ sands' of the beach behave like the sea and erode the 'berm and cliffs', while from his rather distant vantage point the 'sea leagues' themselves have the same sort of solidity as the land: he thus feels as though land and sea have 'collogued' in a conspiracy to become one. This makes it difficult for the poet to estimate the distance in both space and even historical time that he is 'astray' from the safe harbour of the river-mouth, a river-mouth which he describes curiously as unadorned ('plainjane') and common ('plebeian'). He also oddly insists on locating the river-mouth spatially as 'beyond the quarry', where 'quarry' could mean a place of excavation or a hunted animal, and temporally as 'beyond the mundane', meaning the everyday or worldly. But the opaque writing in this passage seems less mysterious if the passage is read as a Freudian dreamscape. The section 'Legend' thus alludes to the poet in a landscape encountering a bull with an erection and his being driven driving back by its greater masculine force. At the same time this masculine presence prevents him from connecting with a feminized seascape, which results in the poet's riddling and regretful question, addressed to himself:
Could you well say
how far in space or time you were astray
from plainjane rivermouth, that plebeian
rivermouth beyond the quarry,
beyond the mundane?
The question goes sadly unanswered.
The critic Peter Simpson has written at some length on the difficulties that arose in Smithyman's marriage to the poet Mary Stanley. In 1943 Stanley married her first husband, Brian Neal, only a few days before he was posted overseas for military service, and he was killed fighting in Italy just over a year later. Stanley then remarried to Smithyman in 1946, but Neal's tragic death 'continued to resonate grimly throughout their marriage'. Together Smithyman and Stanley had three children, Christopher, Stephen and Gerard, born in 1947, 1950 and 1953 respectively, but shortly after Christopher's birth Stanley began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a progressive disease which put her in great pain and at last left her incapacitated. After the publication of one book of poems, Starveling Year, in 1953, Stanley's writing dried up while Smithyman's developed. Unhappiness and resentment appear to have followed all of these setbacks. Thus by this section in the poem, though seemingly the most cerebral of works, 'Reading the Maps' has now become extremely personal indeed, albeit still meeting the qualities of 'tragedy, irony, and multitudinous distinction' which Smithyman claimed were important to his definition of academic verse. However, any distinction between the poem's persona and Smithyman himself appears by this point to have dissolved into something approaching psychodrama.
The poet's mind now surfaces briefly from its reverie of past misadventure to remember pinning 'years ago' on his wall-map of the Hokianga a plastic toy bull from a wine bottle to mark the spot, the 'there', where he thought Mahimai might be buried. Since Mahimai is another legendary figure, this time located in the Hokianga on the west coast of the country, the poet feels his action further unifies the 'proclivity' that legends have for becoming part of reality. His next thoughts appear to sink towards a dreaming state again as he recalls another encounter with bulls, this time on a Hokianga beach in 1969. There the view on display of 'skyline/ crests' or ridgetops broke from their usual, austerely puritan 'habit', or clothing, and above this confusion of ancient landscape clearly arose some 'young bulls in line'. These bulls' presence is once more emphatic--they are etched like preliterate pictographs onto the view--even though the land is not supposed to 'wear' such a 'myth's host/ plausibly' as part of its habit or habitation. Thus the bulls are very much of a piece with the land and yet they are not supposed to be there, so that the bulls 'define/ and redefine' the state of the landscape for the poet--they appear 'an unlikely stock'. The poet says nonchalantly that surveyors must have 'missed them' when 'running out' their maps of the coast, but that, yet again, a symbolic legend for the animals, on survey maps or as stories, will be necessary. This time in the poem the 'unlikely stock' may well refer to Smithyman's three sons, creatures who line up unexpectedly on his mental landscape and do not bar his way exactly but rather redefine for him what landscape means. The 'Legend' section continues, then, to present the very specific environment of Smithyman's own unconscious.
The poet next refers to Shakespeare's famous lines about life, 'We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on', and turns these inside out into 'We are what dreams shock/ briefly to become'. We are, thus, made up of what our own dreams shock us with, since our mental and even archetypal existence is an unavoidable part of our own selves and must be taken into account, as it is in this portion of the poem. Furthermore, since Sigmund Freud argued that artistic endeavour finds its impetus in sublimated neurosis, of which dreams are an example, the poet wonders exactly where, and at what cost, he will have to delve into himself to find poetic inspiration. What form of genuine neurosis, he wonders, lurks somewhere deeper beneath his own sublimating dream-work? The poet proceeds now to frame this in terms of yet another bull-image: the mythical Minotaur who was said to dwell at the heart of the Cretan maze. In The Divine Comedy Dante and his guide Virgil approach the Minotaur in the seventh circle of hell by descending along a ravine of broken rock, and this setting may have influenced the poet's description here of plumbing the depths of the mind. He considers where to:
press the rock
channel deep, final, face him who will lock
and batten on us?
Though mythic and fictive, will the notion of a Minotaur in this context of buried neurosis, he wonders, turn out to be mostly factual? The poet acknowledges that perhaps the way forward, through self-analysis, is in fact going 'way back' into the unconscious, a path 'baffling' even to his own changeable 'plan or chart' for his life, into a subconscious maze that is both 'end and origin'. He notes that this is a difficult track to follow, even though the 'trick' of nightly sleep is one entrance to the subconscious that he has 'by heart'. The Minotaur exists at the heart of each of us; it is 'the black/ kruptos, that animates each crafty art', whether that art be our usual daily activities or some special artistic endeavour. The Greek word 'kruptos' means 'hidden' or 'secret', and the poet suggests that each night during sleep and dreams people pay their own Minotaur-neurosis 'tribute' (as the Cretans did), and then try to 'kill him off' (as the Greek hero Theseus did), before starting to run through the course of the labyrinth again by waking and proceeding through another neurosis-driven day. This cyclic process is both 'shiftless' (lacking the initiative to break it) and 'bleak' (lacking hope).
The confused lines which follow, continuing from the end of part 4 into part 5--a series of ambiguous verbs which often lack any clear subject--seem to indicate the messy process of waking up from sleep, a process which is resolved with the repetition from section 1 of 'Promise still rides'. The now biblically 'fallen' masculine landscape tumbles away and spreads out in disorder, and something heaves itself up which seems to be a 'scarred hide' or body. Many of the words in these lines, perhaps chosen for their very vagueness, can refer ambiguously to land, animals, maps and also to the sheets of a bed. At this point it is probably worth recalling the close of the introductory section of 'Reading the Maps', where the poet failed to see his wife and to say 'what I wanted to say' and then further failed to reach her by telephone. His words, as he first contemplated the map of a harbour, now take on a deeper resonance:
Like schemes which I may think of, truth to tell.
No matter--no, that isn't true. Dusty, bitter
our ways work out, crudely move like tides,
nonetheless turn; comes turnabout in flow
and ebb, they matter. Down at the Head glow
finely the dunes. Promise still rides the tides.
The promise at the head, where the river-mouth is located, may perhaps be each new day in which the poet finds himself able to follow his ways and schemes.
In any event, after a line break in part 5 of 'Legend' the poet seems to come back from the dreamlike depths of his reveries to a more conscious sense of himself. He notes that off in the south-east (Smithyman lived on Auckland's North Shore) he can see the lights of the town in the skies, and to the north lies a television repeater station which puts him in mind of a symbol for 'the Muse'. Part 6 then begins to lay out a somewhat complex and evolving symbolic tableau, drawing its elements from previous symbols in the 'Legend' section, which describes Smithyman's still drowsy, half-conscious view of his own source of creative inspiration. First the poet is threatened again by a powerful and angry bull on a hilltop above him. The bull is a crossbreed--it appears to be a mixture of Brian Neal and the poet himself--and is also the 'sire' of a number of other younger, capering bulls below. As a result of the encounter the poet finds himself 'shit-scared' and caught on a swing bridge, clinging to that emblem of rural Kiwi improvisation, a strand of 'No. 8/ fencing wire'. He is suspended over a creek, presumably including a reference to the earlier 'rivermouth' which is Mary Stanley. Matters proceed to deteriorate, since the planks of the bridge ahead are missing and next, as in the peculiar logic of dreams or half-remembered dreams, the bulls gather at 'either end' of the bridge while the poet suddenly seems burdened by the recording equipment ('all the camera gear') amongst his provisions. Trapped like this, he claims of the whole tableau, 'We are offered, in season'. The expression 'in season' may refer to an appropriate time or to a period of sexual heat. But in any case the poet with this complex entourage, being 'promised' like one betrothed to the muse of inspiration, is offered up 'not at the dark heart' of any neurosis but 'out in the open' of everyday life--and in this way he is 'taken' off to creative realms.
In part 7 the poet compares being taken in this awkward manner to the fate that befell Mahimai and John Rutherford. Both men were taken away by indigenous Maori tribes into a New Zealand environment in which they then became more fable than fact. Their lives became the stories of themselves, with an unbridgeable discrepancy arising between reality and the products of any human attempt at a record, much like the epistemological conundrum of the map-territory relation. The poet is even rather sure that Rutherford, who wrote a dubious account of his time with the Tokomaru-area tribes, 'disappeared/ in a cloud of bullshit', something of which the poet, who was himself 'shit-scared' while describing his source of inspiration in part 6, might well be wary. December 1969, the poet next recalls, was the first 'season' in which he went hunting for Mahimai and Rutherford and was soon 'sidetracked' into searching among the local graveyards, one of the few features available offering any physical connection with the past. But the graves had wooden headboards and their iconography was of an old 'lost style'--or perhaps, more unfortunately, the wooden headboards were so badly deteriorated that even their iconography, or symbolic shape, had lost all style. Either way, the graves do not appear on any maps of the area. Maps, like history and even the land itself, cannot accurately record or represent what may have only partly true from the very outset.
In a somewhat debased form of the poet's previous image of the creative process as comprising himself on a swing bridge, the poet notes that during that summer he 'swung between' a family burial ground and a Wesleyan graveyard--presumably while searching for Mahimai in the Hokianga, since Rutherford departed New Zealand and was most likely buried overseas, and eventually disappeared from any historical record. Distracted among the headboards he could not read, the poet did locate the possible resting place of an important Maori tohunga, Papahurihia. Asking the locals, however, if Papahurihia was a 'vates', which is a dated, academic and old-world term for a prophet, he receives only unhelpful denials. The whole section then closes with an eighth part, in which the poet notes that more information is needed in order to understand 'the legend', whether that be a Maori tohunga, a Pakeha Maori or the poet himself. The final 'and for' indicates that more information is also needed in order to understand something else--but at this point the concluding sentence breaks off. It may well be that the broken-off sentence is meant to circle back to the beginning of the entire 'Legend' section once more, where part 1 began in mid-sentence, thereby implying that more information also will be necessary in order to understand even the poet's arrival in 'this landscape landfall', the very part of the poem where his reverie suddenly deepened. Certainly, there is textual support within the 'Legend' section itself for this notion of circularity, since part 3 also breaks off in mid-sentence, with 'where maps may need a change in legend for', and then continues in part 4 with 'this masculine landfall/landscape' in a heavy echo of the whole section's end and start. Just as when in John Berryman's much larger psychodrama, The Dream Songs, the hero Henry feels that 'his thought made pockets', so it appears that the 'Legend' section of 'Reading the Maps' is the bottom layer of the poet's spiralling, increasingly dreamlike thoughts, with its start and close looping round and round their barely suppressed core until the mind or eye at last chooses to move on. For McCann is no doubt right in suggesting that the 'Legend' section's final part-sentence can also be completed, and the whole dreamy circling ended, by that broken-off sentence being read as running on into the title of the next section: 'A Question of Scale'.
The concluding section of 'Reading the Maps', which smuggles the word 'Question' into its map-related title is, like matters of scale in cartography, concerned with establishing a useful means of fixing a relationship between reality and its representation. But the entire section also serves as a repudiation of these same means and methods. Firstly, scale in terms of simple distance, as on a map, is suggested with '1 inch to 1 mile'. But the imperial system of inches and miles is an arbitrary business and, in any case, has been 'outmoded' by the appearance of a new metric system. In addition, the grid ordinates on the maps which the poet is examining, and which are supposed to pinpoint locations accurately, are of 'false origin', meaning that their number values are rendered falsely for convenience's sake in a compromise with the maps' fidelity to truth. This is a system that almost works, operating as a useful approximation until at last failing, and thus becoming 'outmoded', at the severest levels of absolute accuracy. The poet then turns the issue of scale inside out and recalls his attempt at creating his own standard scale for his maps: this involved the cumbersome business of being driven in a car while using the car's odometer to measure a distance and compare it with distance travelled on a map. But the odometer dial is little more than 'telltale' in its inaccuracy, the dashboard itself is 'outmoded', and the data received about 'Then/ and There' is only a 'nearly true' approximation of 'the literal' truth. Such creative initiatives prove fruitless. Finally the poet mentions that 'Metaphor' and 'parable', operating simply as forms of symbols and references on maps, or even in a more drawn-out manner as magnetic bearings, are also 'long since outmoded'. But also, in a similar way, 'Metaphor' and 'parable' as basic forms with which two people might communicate--operating as representations of the unconscious and as poetic tools in creating works of art--are no longer of any use. Historical changes of fashion, which merely expose the artificial nature of metaphoric language and mythic parable, and also raise the question of their fundamental value as mere representations of things-in-themselves, have long since made such attempts at representation futile, not least because reality is, in any case, so ultimately unknowable. The poem ends on such a resigned, downbeat note that the reader may wonder whether the poet might have been better off merely letting his thoughts remain in the enticing, creative circles of the previous 'Legend' section.
Learned, knotty, allusive, crammed with internal references and determinedly focused on large, abstract themes: any full exegesis of 'Reading the Maps' would require James Joyce's 'ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia', and by its very scope and ambition the poem certainly confirms McCann's statement that it may serve as an imaginative key to Smithyman's oeuvre. But 'Reading the Maps' is also one of a number of poems written by Smithyman in the mid-1970s which include within them reference not just to Smithyman's thoughts and feelings in relation to landscapes and abstract issues but also to the intimate circumstances of his own private life and history, and this approach was to become more and more central in his later poems. Indeed, in all these respects Smithyman's 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise' bears remarkably favourable comparison to that seminal text for academic poetry, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Like The Waste Land 'Reading the Maps' is a long lyric poem divided into parts, dauntingly learned and almost epic in its sweeping consideration of large themes, while yet at its core it remains a poem driven by the writer's very personal concerns. Both poems thus ultimately play fast and loose with any Eliotesque, high-Modernist notions of impersonality. Though written by an American, The Waste Land is an old-world poem and focuses mostly on London and Europe, yet its intellectual themes and tone help it seem universally applicable. In the same way 'Reading the Maps' focuses on New Zealand but has a universality similar to Eliot's poem and for similar reasons. This is because, perhaps fortuitously, the unknowable is just as beyond any epistemological reach in Northland or Tokomaru Bay as it is in the north of England or anywhere else. In fact, with its consideration of the relationship of maps, language and reality Smithyman's poem serves, again much like The Waste Land, as a superb example of W.B. Yeats's high-Modernist riposte to the problem of epistemology: that 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it'.Deconstructing
'Deconstructing', written in 1983 and published in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985), has about it the feel of a poet's late work. Though Smithyman was to produce a great deal more poetry before his death in 1995, including the epic Atua Wera (1997), 'Deconstructing' is plainly the kind of work a poet produces when his major poems on a topic or theme--a topic such as one's interaction with an unwelcoming landscape--have already been written, so that he is in a position to relax and write something on the same subject more playfully. In fact, playfulness was in the air at that time. By the 1980s, as New Zealand continued to develop and diversify, the essentially provincial complaints of local writers concerning philistinism had begun in themselves to seem old-fashioned, and the last remnants of the South Island Myth were largely gone from the country's literature. This was not entirely the end, however. Once the South Island Myth had degenerated into little more than an old-fashioned attitude, it became a trope which revisionist poets could then take advantage of. New Zealand landscape poetry was moving on to other themes and sometimes served to express very personal views; thus the consideration of the inevitable onset of death in Allen Curnow's late 'Kauri Road' poems, for example, occurs against a scenic backdrop that is no longer threatening or indifferent and that instead offers imagery which can even seem familiar and comforting. Nevertheless, the South Island Myth continued to exist as an idea that could be updated and played with, which is what the poet Bill Manhire, born in the South Island in 1946, did in his well-known poem 'Zoetropes', written in 1981. The lines that close the poem are not thematically new but aim in their essence to restate a now-cliched provincial complaint in a more interestingly outre manner.
The land itself is only
smoke at anchor, drifting above
Antarctica's white flower,
tied by a thin red line
(5,000 miles) to Valparaiso.
Manhire is adept at using the ideas of his predecessors in clever and witty ways, and it is frequently the conventional nature of his topics that makes it possible for some of his otherwise puzzling poems to yield up their meanings.In addition, at around this period of the early 1980s Post-Modernism and the literary theories expounded by French critics such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida had begun to make an impact in New Zealand universities, and nowhere more so than in the Auckland University English Department, where Smithyman worked as a Senior Tutor. 'Deconstructing' is thus something of an answer to the newfangledness of the times, as the critic Scott Hamilton has noted. Hamilton observes: 'In this witty poem, Smithyman turns the tables on fashionable postmodernists by taking the ancient unfashionable Heraclitus and the equally unfashionable countryside near Dargaville and using them to deliver a lecture on the fluid nature of reality'.
Like all of Smithyman's landscape poems, 'Deconstructing' is set in and responds to a specific place, in this instance a largish creek flowing through the lush farming area near Donnellys Crossing, on the west coast of Northland. The musing poet (and it should be noted that any distance between the poet persona and Smithyman himself becomes wafer-thin in Smithyman's later poetry) begins a little perversely by taking an anti-landscape-poetry stance, declaring that he is 'not going to try describing that run/ from down by the creek where it starts being a river'. A 'run' in somewhat old-fashioned New Zealand English is an open tract of grazing land, and the poet's refusal to describe it indicates a weariness with the now all-too-conventional openings of landscape poems, and also an acknowledgement of the then intellectually-chic Post-Modernist notion that words and language are a linguistic patterning ultimately separate from reality--perhaps, indeed, all there is of known reality--and that therefore language must be ineffective in any attempt at pinning reality down. But despite all this, the poet slips quite a bit of descriptive information into the opening of his poem, and this information is presented in the then-fashionable form of binaries: not describing--actually telling; creek--river; 'up to the ridge'--'falls/ away westward'. Even the sea in the distance is looked at 'for the first time' on this trip and yet is 'remembered' from earlier journeys north on the same road.
Next the poet presents his impressions of the township that he has just passed through while he was waiting for the ridge and the sea-view to appear, supplying the descriptive words in his poem first--'shabby, ramshackle, derelict are just terms for occupation'--and then separately the things themselves which the words might adhere to: a railway station on an abandoned line, a 'scruffy general store', and sites where there used to be a post office and a school, and once an even older school before that. The places where the schools and post office once existed are indeed 'derelict' and are now grazing land for sheep, while 'shabby' and 'ramshackle' are clearly apt terms--regardless of how cleverly the poet has separated them from their referents--for a township in which 'old milkcans' were once used as makeshift meat safes and mailboxes, and where these have now in turn been superseded by dumped 'wornout fridges'. The town is dying, and the poet reflects with some small exasperation on the many years he has passed through the town and, largely ignoring it, passed it by. Once again binaries predominate in the poem as the poet notes that he has been transported as a passenger in cars through the area and has also driven himself, as he is doing now. Mostly he was on the way to somewhere else, heading 'from here to there', and from this very simple binary he observes with some wit, bowing to the fashions of the moment, 'that's a text'.
A 'text' is usually a written document available for literary analysis, though it can also mean a topic raised for discussion; but most importantly, for the French literary theorists and semioticians of the late-twentieth century anything could be a text, a set of signs and symbols imposed by people on reality which can be read and analysed for hidden ideological meanings. Aware of this, the poet then playfully posits that such reasoning can produce a multiplicity of texts--an aspect of the world which is actually experienced ('The seeing part') as well as an aspect of the world which is conjured up through communication (the 'saying part')--and that these aspects themselves can be 'rewritten' as they are returned to by a person over and over again in the course of passing time. After this the poet goes on for most of the stanza that follows to apply this grandiose line of abstract reasoning to an example: a simple pothole coming up in the road. The next several lines of verse are thus both very clever and very silly. The poet piles nuance upon increasingly abstract nuance, proceeding to parse his situation with a virtuoso display of analysis, deconstructing his 'text' of pothole-reality by breaking it into parts which remove the language further and further from its referents--until the ugly word 'whang!' indicates the impact of the actual pothole and brute reality intrudes, as it were deconstructing the deconstruction process.
The poet has married twice (like Smithyman himself, who remarried to Margaret Edgcumbe in 1981), and so in the next stanza he starts by thinking of occasions on this road where he has spoken to 'one wife' about the pothole and then later to 'another wife', and both have 'replied'. Each wife indicated a separate situation which meant 'another text, another saying, another seeing' (and the poet cheekily reverses the process of 'seeing' and 'saying' from the previous stanza to emphasize the ease with which they can be substituted for each other). Next the poet complicates his recollections by declaring that the 'one wife' did not see the pothole nor did 'the other' wife say anything about the pothole, and in the line after that he declares that whatever 'one' wife perhaps 'saw' of the pothole, 'another' second wife 'has or has not' spoken to him about it. But then to complicate matters even further, the poet next announces that all this occurred during two time frames which currently overlap in his mind: 'while I am telling one' wife 'what I am thinking', and while I 'said' something about the pothole to the 'other' wife (with the verb tenses here also cheekily reversed, the first 'one' wife recalled in the present and the second 'other' in the past, to emphasize once more an ease of interchangeability). At this point, with the entire analysis reduced nearly to mush, the poet's remembered warning of a pothole intrudes at almost the same instant as the pothole itself does. The final, shattering intrusion of the pothole is offered up by the poet as a noisy interference, 'whang!', reaching the poem from far off, coming in upon the remembered direct speech of the poet which is itself made more of an aside by being quoted within parentheses. After this the poet then goes on once again, outside parentheses and within the poem's narrative present, to comment on the thinking and saying to various wives about the road hazard: that all this was 'as if it were always true'. And in fact, since the pothole was always there to see and talk about, then all the absurdly convoluted analysis earlier in the stanza is indeed 'true'.
Dazzlingly complicated as all the preceding witty analysis may have been, the poet acknowledges in a very compact conclusion to the same stanza that we 'live by/ what's past' in the sense that the past is the only warning we have of future hazards, and furthermore we live with past-memories which are 'made over' by their inevitable repetition. Our perceptions of the world are thus provisional, so that as well as being our only warning system the past is 'made over "As if"' through our always imperfect recall of its events. The past and what we live by form 'so many milkcans'--the words 'so many' suggesting a large but limited number of containers, waiting to be filled up by us--and most likely, too, these milkcans will finally be superseded, as the earlier description of the township hinted at, by dumped 'wornout fridges'. In addition, this flux of past and present is also influenced, and even shaped, by our 'so many projects for the future'. At length the stanza ends without a full stop, as though to allow for the poet's thoughts to plunge further onwards.
But in the last stanza thoughts of the passing of time, and the additional prompt of the creek-river near the road, cause the poet once more to recall the Greek philosopher Heraclitus's argument for the always-shifting nature of reality: 'You can't step twice into the same river'. Smithyman had employed this earlier in his major poem, 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise'. The notion that reality is a flowing continuum, however, and thus has something essential about it, is a challenge to the non-essentialist theories espoused in the school of Deconstruction with its Post-Modernist emphasis on surfaces. But this essentialist view is one that the poet, by adopting his description of memories as a muddled continuum rather than as a series of separate, analytically readable instances, has been smuggling into his poem from the first stanza onwards when he was initially waiting for a sea-view that arrived and which was 'bigger, further' than he had recalled. It was central to his examination of the gradually dying township and, by means of his applying a diametrically opposed tactic, to his ridicule of an endlessly-parsed, Deconstructionist analysis of a mere persistent pothole. The poet goes on now to observe that when he was young the changing river of life which he first 'dipped toe in' was indeed only provisional, or 'as if', in accordance with his view of the past expressed at the end of the previous stanza.
But next, taking his cue from the landscape in front of him with its 'ridge where everything falls/ away westward' to the sea, the poet considers what happens 'when you get up on the top, and the sea/ is there'. At the end of life, he wonders, there may be not only our first memories of life but 'the remembering of it as well/ from before first perhaps'. This is a gesture towards the idea of the pre-existence of the soul before birth, a view espoused by the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato argued that the soul exists before birth, but that prior to birth it drinks from the River Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) and so has no memory of any previous life. The condition of pre-existence, however, means that we do not learn anything in our lives but merely rediscover what we once knew 'from before first'. This spiritual view of reality is far removed from the focus on surfaces and signs that constitute Deconstruction and Post-Modernism, but the poet comments that such a view is 'another/ part of a text'. It is yet another way reality can be read--and in fact a 'text', something so fundamental to Deconstruction's language-based view of a world to be interpreted, can also be a term meaning a passage from religious scripture. Plato's idea of the pre-existence of the soul inevitably leads to some sort of belief in reincarnation and in life as a cyclical process. Just as the poet's pondering of the landscape is bringing his poem round full-circle to his opening lines, so too he wonders if the 'part of a text' which he is remembering 'from before first perhaps' might lead to a mystic feeling of life being 'the same again'.
Even so, at the very beginning of his work the poet refused to try describing the landscape before him, and at the end he backs away from his musings on what sort of life may exist before and after death. He tells himself that 'Heraclitus was only talking about rivers', or more accurately in this case that Heraclitus was talking about 'when a shallow creek running over stone/ begins to think that it's a river'. Heraclitus's view of everything in flux is focused on life as a process of continual becoming, much like a meditative poem's drifting onwards from mental point to point. Furthermore, in concluding this way the poet personifies the creek, a strategy Smithyman employed so usefully in 'Tomarata', by having the creek run over stony obstacles--obstacles to flow, such as Post-Modernist literary theory imported from overseas--and begin 'to think' of being a river. A state of continual becoming leaves room for personal hope and aspiration, and is open-ended.
To see all as a state of continual becoming is a wise position for an aging poet to adopt when contemplating the landscape of his country, particularly when that country is new and has inspired but little for consideration in the way of poetic antecedents. For it is ultimately fallacious to argue that there is some fundamentally real or true perception of New Zealand which indicates a perfect act of experience; rather, there can be only our many individual perceptions of the land, while our own observing presence influences and thus changes the environment during the very act of observation. A pioneer, arriving and discovering a poor variant of Britain, or a Britain in potential, has not failed to see what is before him or her any more than an indigene might. At best there may exist successive changes of view that can be embodied in successive works of art, or in the long oeuvre of a single artist, like Smithyman, who writes for many years and whose ideas and work evolve. This is probably what Marcel Proust has in mind when he writes in his own long and evolving novel, Remembrance of Things Past, of artists like Elstir the painter and Vinteuil the musician.
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only really rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.
To show us our own environment through the eyes of another, and to have our ideas challenged by another's point of view: this is something that poetry can do.
1. Kermode, Frank. 'Auden on Shakespeare' in Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003: 395.
2. Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris (trans. Kilmartin, Joanna, and Cox, Steve). First published in English by Walker & Co., New York, 1970, and Faber & Faber, London, 1970. Solaris also famously appeared in a film version, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, in 1972.
3. K.R. Howe has found evidence for this early date. Howe, K.R.. 'The Dating of Edward Tregear's "Te Whetu Plains" and an Unpublished Companion Poem.' Journal of New Zealand Literature 5 (1987): 55-60.
4. Howe even goes on to say that: 'Thus while most "colonial" poems no longer appear in modern anthologies, Tregear's "Te Whetu Plains" is still included'. Howe, K.R. 'The Dating of Edward Tregear's "Te Whetu Plains" and an Unpublished Companion Poem.' Op. cit.: 55.
5. In the 1985 edition of The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, where 'Te Whetu Plains' appears on page 97, the first poem in the anthology by a Pakeha writer, the editors observe in their introduction how Tregear's 'description drops wearily into negatives'. Wedde, Ian, and McQueen, Harvey. 'Introduction' to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Penguin Books, Auckland, 1985: 32.
6. Jones, Lawrence. Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2003: 73.
7. The critic John Newton has written in much greater and subtler detail about this dark aspect of the South Island Myth, characterizing it even more sinisterly as part of Pakeha efforts at 'the prime ideological task of disavowing colonial conquest'. For Newton the presence of the Maori did not merely offer an affront to Pakeha attempts at adaptation to a new environment. With particular reference to Allen Curnow, Newton writes of a nationalist stance which aimed intentionally, through culture, to legitimize a Pakeha presence in New Zealand after the appropriation of indigenous Maori lands: 'the history on which nationalism seizes in order to establish its legitimating ground, superimposing this contingent local narrative onto a grimly romantic landscape, as if the landscape itself could account for it'. Newton does not pursue such questions as why Pakeha would have gone to such lengths to legitimize their behaviour, and whom they sought to persuade. Newton, John. 'The South Island Myth: A Short History.' Australian Canadian Studies 18, 1 & 2 2000: 23-39. Also available at: http://www.acsanz.org.au/archives/2000-1-2-4newtonarticle.pdf See also: Newton, John. Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2017: 172-5.
8. Much of this toughness is connected to Smithyman's notorious employment of literary wit, a habit which he seems to have had from the very beginning. It is on display in the early and much-anthologised 'Hint for the Incomplete Angler' (1955), a memento mori poem about a fisherman whose dignified response to the inevitability of his death is held up as an example for readers who, in turn, are fishing their way through their own lives. The trope of the poem is thus not especially complex, but Smithyman cannot resist the clever distraction of adding a title which ironically refers to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler (1653) and of addressing his readers as those whose fishing-lives are still 'incomplete' (i.e. unfinished).
9. Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2002: 234.
10. Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 403-20. Also available at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/smithyman/interview_landfall168.asp In the same interview Smithyman recalled: 'I'd bat stuff out on the principle of let's have a look at it and see how it goes, you can always stick it aside and come back and have a look at it later'.
11. See for example Peter Simpson's inclusion of 'Waikato Railstop' in his list of Smithyman's 'splendidly intricate and subtle poems written in the late 1950s'. [Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989: 15.]
12. Smithyman, Kendrick. Collected Poems. http://www.smithymanonline.auckland.ac.nz/
13. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry. Collins, Auckland, 1965: 133.
14. C.K. Stead writes about Smithyman's use of this technique at some length. [Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op.cit.: 236-7.]
15. Smithyman's use of syntax has been a matter of some critical controversy. Reviewers have attacked him for it: for example Peter Crisp complaining of 'writing that twists experience into words that insist how cerebral, how fearfully complex, their job is' and Iain Sharp complaining that: 'His syntax is often distorted to no good purpose' [Crisp, Peter. Review of Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Landfall 112, Dec. 1974: 363-7. Sharp, Iain. Review of Stories About Wooden Keyboards. Landfall 156, Dec. 1985: 515-521.] On the other hand the critic Reginald Berry has argued that Smithyman's poetry, from his earliest work onwards, 'is and always has been about syntax'. Berry points out that 'syntax is what draws the reader into participating in the conceptual activity of the poem'. [Berry, Reginald. 'Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman's Colourless Green Ideas'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 388-402.] Heather McCann has conceded that: 'Even those who enjoy the verbal engagement and exuberance of the work sometimes find the complexity and deviance of his syntax to be a stumbling block since the twists and turns, incomplete structures, and unusual syntagmatic choices make reading the poetry extremely hard work. Many question the necessity for a syntactic strategy that seems to get in the way of the poetry's ability to communicate'. But McCann then goes on to demonstrate convincingly that 'in fact it is possible to use the syntax to open up the poetry'. [McCann, Heather. 'Introduction' to 'Syntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman.' M.Litt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002. Also available at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/smithyman/mccann.asp]
16. Elsewhere Smithyman noted: 'Perhaps, indeed probably, our so often debated feelings of alienation and isolation go back in the long run to an acute and fairly widespread feeling about our lack of community, about the instability of our community which is historically the product of social mobility'. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 113. During conversations connected to a biography of Maurice Duggan which I had with Kendrick Smithyman in the early 1990s, Smithyman mentioned on more than one occasion to me the high number of suicides among farmer's wives in the isolated backblocks of New Zealand during the mid-twentieth century. He implied that these events were often hushed up. Whether this concealment is a verifiable fact or not, it is certainly something Smithyman held as a belief.
'Research Project' was collected in Earthquake Weather (1972).
reports (so many more than one would have
expected) of suicides, until you remember
how commonly men were alone.
18. McMurtry, Larry. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999: 74.
19. John Newton, for instance, claims the demise of the South Island Myth occurred in 1951. Newton, John. 'The South Island Myth: A Short History.' Op. cit.: 36.
20. For critics, labelling and dating periods of New Zealand literature will always prove a challenge, as with periods of literature elsewhere, and not least because in New Zealand's case overseas fashions interfere heavily with any natural development of the nation's literary culture, in whatever terms 'development' may be defined. Lawrence Jones, writing of the New Zealand novel, usefully 'periodised twentieth-century New Zealand literature into late colonial, provincial, and post-provincial, with the last period beginning in 1965'. [Wevers, Lydia. 'The Novel, the Short Story, and the Rise of a New Reading Public, 1972-1990' in A History of New Zealand Literature (ed. Williams, Mark). Cambridge University Press, New York, 2016: 249.] Jones characterizes the Provincial period, which he dates 1935-64, as managing 'the painfully accomplished formation of native traditions of critical realism and impressionism', as opposed to the mid-1960s when 'a "Post-Provincial" sensibility begins to emerge in the novel as the conventions of the earlier period are recognised as conventions and increasingly seen as outworn'. [Jones, Lawrence. 'The Novel' in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 119, 154.] Patrick Evans also usefully comments on the mentality of the Provincial writer: 'Two things happen: through constant representation in literature, the metropolitan setting becomes the only setting legitimate for "true" art, so that, conversely, writing set in the provinces cannot be "true" (and this, I take it, is why the provincial writer has such a horrified distaste for the environment he is obliged to describe); and second, literature, through its detachment from the here-and-now and through its depiction of a prettier, happier world than that of the provinces, becomes elevated above the processes of everyday life and is given the status almost of a religion'. [Evans, Patrick. 'Maurice Duggan and the Provincial Dilemma'. Landfall 142, June 1982: 221.]
21. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 141.
22. Hamilton, Scott. 'In Search of Smithyland'. http://readingthemaps.blogspot.jp/2010/04/in-search-of-smithyland.html
23. Smithyman, Kendrick. Personal communication. 17 May, 1994.
24. Smithyman, Kendrick. Personal communication. 17 May, 1994. The critic Jack Ross, as part of an engaging account of a Smithyman-inspired visit to Colville, also notes: 'For one thing, on his Stout Centre recording of the poem, Kendrick remarks that the poem caused quite a lot of fuss when it first appeared, and that people kept on assuring him that "it's not like that now." As a result (presumably), when it was included in Ian Wedde & Harvey McQueen's 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, the title had been changed to "Colville 1964". Subsequently he seems to have gone back on that decision, though, and the title reverted to its original form.' [http://mairangibay.blogspot.jp/2010/04/visit-to-colville.html]
25. McCann touches on this obliquely when considering criticisms others have made of Smithyman's poetry, citing a 'lack of consistent hard image'. She also observes Smithyman's fondness for 'the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images'. [McCann, Heather. 'Introduction' to 'Syntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman.' M.Litt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002. Also available at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/smithyman/mccann.asp]
26. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: 7.
27. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 81, 88.
28. Wordsworth, William. 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798.' Lines 94-9.
29. C.K. Stead observes: 'In the post-1960s phase such experiments are almost entirely abandoned. The poems dictate their own forms from within. This change, too, seems directly connect to Smithyman's six months in Leeds.' [Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op.cit.: 237.]
30. The critic Peter Simpson describes this process in detail in his introduction to Smithyman's Selected Poems. [Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989: 9-20.] Simpson also cites two other critics, Reginald Berry and Martin Edmond, who perceptively discuss the shift from syntax to persona as a central strategy in the development of Smithyman's poetic technique. [Berry, Reginald. 'Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman's Colourless Green Ideas'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 388-402; Edmond, Murray. 'Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman's Poetry'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 447-56.] See also: Richards, Ian. 'they flower/ in an air of being suspended': Kendrick Smithyman's 'Flying to Palmerston'. (http://nofrillsnzlit.angelfire.com/Smithyman.html).
31. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Journal of New Zealand Literature 22, 2004: 157.
32. Smithyman was an immensely learned but also a habitually self-deprecating man. Something of this appears in the poem 'Stories About Wooden Keyboards', where a charming, very successful artist (based on Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a man chosen in the poem for his exoticism and therefore someone almost beyond the limits of people's usual knowledge or experience) is juxtaposed by Smithyman with an obscure and downtrodden artist confined by circumstances in a prisoner-of-war camp--and Smithyman then identifies himself with the latter artist. For an excellent reading of the poem, see Simpson, Peter. '"Sinfonia Domestica": Mary Stanley & Kendrick Smithyman' in Between the Lives: Partners in Art (ed. Shepard, Deborah). Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2005: 81-2.
33. The shifting of tone, so beloved by a later generation of Manhire-influenced poets, was something that Smithyman became adept at in his mature poetry. A good example is 'Waitomo', written in the 1970s and published in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985). Set at the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves, a popular New Zealand tourist destination, the poem opens with a tour guide asking for silence as a tour party, including the poet, is led underground. The poet, however, cannot seem to stop talking--perhaps mostly to himself, but also addressing the reader--in a manner that implies he has seen everything in the caves before and wants in his internal monologue to show off his sense of being experienced. He points out the nicknames of the caverns and their features, even taking over the role of the guide to declare: 'We call this the Modern Art/ gallery'. In the Glowworm Grotto, where visitors get onto boats to pass along the underground Waitomo River in a cavern lit only by shining glowworms, the poet cannot help unpleasantly explaining that the delightful larvae shining above are, in fact, cannibals that 'consume their partners'. His rather smug tone then moves to clever musing on the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Coleridge's celebrated opening to the poem 'Kubla Khan': 'Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea'. As if in competition with Coleridge, the poet insists on calling the calm river water under his boat 'verbless' (since it needs no verb to describe it). But in the next stanza the poet's tone suddenly changes from his hectoring manner to something much more tentative, since what he is seeing in the glowworm-illuminated underwater cavern all at once triggers a romantic memory of his own, of the intimate moments after the 'climax of love'. Because physical presence together is enough for lovers during such delicate moments, he feels that at such a time 'If you speak, all the lights will go out'; and from this point in the poem it is unclear whether the poet is now reacting to what is going on around him (and the necessity for quiet in the Grotto to keep the glowworms from ceasing to glow) or to his own memory of a loved one (and the desire to keep a special moment between them alive). What is clear is that, in contrast to the start of the poem, the poet now commands himself to 'Say nothing'. The tender moment of mutual physical contact that follows--reaching for a hand, pressing a finger--may be occurring only in the poet's memory or may be happening in the boat with the person he is accompanying, or even with a couple he is observing. It is the poet's reverence for such tenderness that matters. Then finally the boat is back at the landing stage and, far from now insisting, explaining and hectoring because of his experience of visits in the past, the poet is reduced to asking a question, put with a note of awe. The question itself goes unanswered, but the sense of mystery it invokes remains, both for the poet and the reader. The core of meaning in 'Waitomo', therefore, derives precisely from Smithyman subverting the tone of know-all bluster that he is sometimes accused by critics of displaying. [For example in, Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op.cit.: 243; or Sharp, Iain. Review of Stories About Wooden Keyboards. Op.cit.: 518-9.]
34. The critic Scott Hamilton mentions this in his blog 'Reading the Maps': 'Lake Tomarata sits close to Te Arai Point, on the eastern coast of Rodney District. When Smithyman came visiting in 1970, lupins and other unglamorous plants grew on the stabilised sandhills on the lake's eastern edge. At the launch of the Holloway Press edition of Tomarata, Smithyman scholar Peter Simpson said that the poet travelled to the little lake because he had heard that pines would soon be planted on its eastern shore. Smithyman "wanted to have a look at the place before it was altered"'. [Hamilton, Scott. 'On the Island'. http://readingthemaps.blogspot.jp/2009/12/on-island.html See also: Hamilton, Scott. 'Reading Kendrick Smithyman.' brief 26, Jan. 2003: 51-5.] Smithyman himself also alludes to this in his later poem 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise', where he writes:
You follow me: I talk of what we have
and have not, of a sandhill lake
which comes and goes. Or maybe, came and went
since when I was last probing there
forestry men and engineers intent
on reform were then debating
how best to right an aberrant nature.
35. In an interview Smithyman commented on this process of visiting a particular place and then writing about it: 'I'm a very literal sort of person, and I like to sort of have my feet on a fact before I start to write about the place. That's the kind of thing...I go and walk the ground, see what's there, and smell it.' [Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 403-20.]
36. Simpson, Peter. 'Afterword' to Tomarata. The Holloway Press, Auckland, 1996.
37. Simpson, Peter. 'Afterword' to Tomarata. Op. cit..
38. The full sentence reads: 'Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty; and learning teacheth safely, when experience maketh more miserable, than wise.'
39. The full sentence reads: 'Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty; and learning teacheth safely, when experience maketh more miserable, than wise.'
40. The poem 'A Showing Forth by Day of the Nankeen Kestrel', also written in 1970 and published in Earthquake Weather (1972), begins like 'Tomarata' with the word 'Open', which may be one reason why it immediately precedes 'Tomarata' in Smithyman's Selected Poems (1989). Smithyman remarked in an interview that his own religious conviction was 'nil since an early age' [Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 403-20.], but 'A Showing Forth by Day of the Nankeen Kestrel' is a landscape poem in which the poet, an atheist, is haunted by a moment of unexpected faith. (There may even be a faint reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins's 'The Windhover'.) The poem begins at Herekino harbour on the west coast of Northland, near to Kaitaia, in midsummer, with a description of the shallow coves and their shoreline, including slabs of exposed mudstone and dry sand which is 'powdered crisp'. Amongst this the poet wanders alone, regarding himself as little more than a type: an unhappy man 'on the brink' and 'wanting policy', or a course of action. He has been hurt or jilted in love and is 'broken-/hearted', and he remembers happier times when he felt free and was sure of himself 'in the world and the world was/ wholly fact'. In the happy past the poet had no need for any divine providence to be standing behind the facts of his world, but on such a day as this he feels 'you might wish for/ an illustrious providence, to be/ convinced'. Then at that moment the poet sees a Nankeen kestrel, a bronze-coloured Australian falcon very rarely found in New Zealand, hovering in the air near the harbour's south head. He regards the bird with awe, a 'creature of its own music', one so seldom observed as to be 'part fable', and he pronounces it a miraculous 'improbable fact'. There is, however, some ambiguity hidden in the poem's language about whether the poet really sees the kestrel or just wishes it up, since the expression 'then see/ the Australian windhover' could be using the word 'see' in the exclamatory sense of 'behold!' or could be using it more conditionally, extending the earlier 'might wish' to 'then [you might] see'. It is worth noting that for a supposedly academic poet Smithyman is a master at writing poems that reproduce certain emotional states, and that at their best Smithyman's poems often show a strong tension between an undercurrent of feeling and a framework of thought which seeks to hold emotions in check. In any event, in the next stanza the poet announces that his sighting of the kestrel is an 'Epiphany', though at the same time undercutting this idea self-consciously with 'you may well wish that it were so'. But the 'Fact' itself of the kestrel's appearance gives him 'more/ to ponder' and he tries to place this fact within the context of the harbour's landscape. Further off he can see the surf throwing up leaping mullet, which he notes are 'ecstatic' and which he cannot help concluding must jump for no other reason than 'the pleasure of leaping'. This natural beauty on show then leads him in the next stanza to feel that the scene is 'As though it were all designed' by God, although he remains uncertain about whether this is true, as a fact, or not. He tries invoking the writer Thomas Hardy, whose religious views were notably ambiguous, and who was interested in the relationship in this world between what appears to be godless chance and providentially-fuelled fate. Attempting to have it both ways, the poet concludes with philosophical seriousness that 'Unconscious mindless nature/ culminates in design'. But the poem then continues for one more stanza, returning the poet's thoughts to the scene, the kestrel, and the ambiguous 'as though or as if' of why beauty might manage to exist. The poet then remembers a 'morning at Worcester' where, presumably in happier times, 'we stopped'. Together perhaps with the person who has now left him, he went 'on impulse' into the local cathedral and there, inside a church in a moment of serendipity, he heard the organist practising one of Edward Elgar's Enigma variations. Elgar was himself once an organist in the cathedral, and his Enigma variations are pieces of music with real people standing behind them as inspirations; and the church, the music and the presence of a loved one make the moment feel for the poet almost 'right as of design'. What else, the poet asks himself, could sudden consoling happiness in beauty be but the apprehension of something deeper--although it is significant that he can frame this thought only as a question which then goes unanswered, like the enigma behind the Enigma variations themselves.
41. The lake must be approached by road from the west and so the sun, still slightly to the east of its midday zenith, would seem to an observer to be still a little 'beyond' the peak of its noonday ascent.
42. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 91.
43. Smithyman's poems occasionally begin with just this sort of knotty opening, a barrier which then operates as a gateway to the more accessible verse that follows. The poem 'Backwaters', for example, written in 1971 and published in Dwarf With a Billiard Cue (1978), starts with the poet meditating on what constitutes a 'Masterpiece', and his suggestion in answer to this question is a paraphrase of Stendhal's famous definition of a novel as something open to experience: 'a mirror dawdling/ down a lane'. (Stendhal in fact wrote: 'a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below'. [Stendhal. Scarlet and Black, 1830. Part 2, chap. 19. This translation Shaw, Margaret R.B. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1953: 365.]) The poet's use of the British word 'lane' immediately prompts him to think 'after Old World fashion' of the obscure Kiwi turn-off which he is heading into by car from 'a side road' as an English-style 'lane'. His thoughts then run on to wondering in general what kind of person can 'master the hold' that such language, with received terms like 'lane' acting as 'precedent', has on the mind. But at length the poet cannot 'piece together' all this speculation, and without being able to draw any conclusions, he is left to reflect further on what is merely appearing in front of him. After this difficult start, the poet proceeds to describe arriving at a run-down mill town, with its local economy dead and its history mean. In the poem's second section the poet then employs a tactic very similar to that used in the final sections of 'Tomarata' and contrasts this mill town with a remembered visit to Fettercairn, a village in Aberdeenshire in Scotland, in the old world. It is a village with a long and rich history. The poet does not know what 'Hope' this Scottish village may have for the future, but he is well aware of what it already has as 'Memory', and he feels that he himself may be able to share in this 'vicariously'. Such sharing is possible because the poet is of British descent and, as a colonial, has been brought up on this sort of history and imagery--old-world forms of these things which, in turn, have corrupted his ability to be truly open, to be a mirror on the roadway, when it comes to experiencing his own new country's history and imagery. For the poet the local mill town seems already barren, while Fettercairn, where 'Hope' conspired even in the selling of contraceptives in the pub's toilets, seemed fertile. In the poem's third section the poet wonders how W.B. Yeats, a writer from a rural country, and Stendhal, a writer born in a provincial town, would cope with living in and writing about a New Zealand mill town. In such a culturally impoverished setting history seems to be merely newspaper pages used as wallpaper and a memorial to a war which took place overseas. The only people the poet observes are a woman whom he cannot help likening to Rapunzel, a character in an old-world fairy tale who tried to escape from imprisonment in a tower, and 'her prince', a man who in the fairy tale tried unsuccessfully to assist her. Finally the poet has to decide whether to go, ominously, 'forward or back'--implying thoughts about his own future: being here in philistine New Zealand or in Britain where he feels, at least vicariously, at home. The refuge of the nearest city, which he ironically refers to as Saint Augustine's holy city of God, is off on the highway to the south, although people on 'another island', presumably Britain, regard it as the sort of philistine place that already has 'barbarians rumoured at its gates'. At last the poet acknowledges that the town he is in has been built from milling and its resultant flimsy sawdust and is founded only on 'sectarian' (or narrow-minded) zeal, a mentality which will not allow him to enjoy old-world thinking if he chooses to stay on in such a backward place. The poem, without a definite conclusion, breaks off and leaves the reader merely with what 'one may reflect'.
44. The Bible. Mathew, 7.1.
45. In this paradox Smithyman nicely anticipates the so-called 'measurement problem' of quantum physics, where it is believed that the process of locating and examining the wavefunction of a system alters the properties of the system so that it cannot therefore be observed in its pristine form.
46. The word 'open', in various forms, appears eight times within the body of the poem.
47. In addition to this, McCann refers to Smithyman's 'constant revisitation to certain themes that appear repeatedly throughout the poetry, resulting in what Robert Chapman called a "reiterative musical style"'. [McCann, Heather. 'Introduction' to 'Syntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman.' M.Litt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002. Also available at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/smithyman/mccann.asp The Chapman quotation is from: Chapman, Robert. 'An Approach to the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman' in New Zealand Poetry Yearbook 5 (ed. Johnson, Louis). Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1955: 90-101.]
48. Nevertheless, Smithyman himself was a keen amateur geologist, as well as being an amateur ornithologist and an enthusiastic and accomplished amateur local historian. The poem 'Where Waikawau Stream Comes Out', written only a month after 'Tomarata' and also published in The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974), and the poem 'Site', written over a decade and a half later in 1988 and published in Auto/Biographies (1992), are both examples of verses appearing to involve the same sort of geological sleuthing as 'Tomarata'.
49. Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of the Four, 1890. Chapter 6.
50. Doyle, Arthur Conan. 'Sliver Blaze.' The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1892.
51. This is sometimes rendered even more closely to Smithyman's lines as: 'Mr Watson--Come here--I need you.'
52. In grammar a reflexive is defined as a verb and pronoun in a combination where the subject and direct object are identical, e.g. 'She dressed herself'.
53. Hoskins, W.G.. The Making of the English Landscape. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1955: 19. Smithyman mentions something similar in A Way of Saying: 'Europeans in their homelands co-operate with Nature and their landscapes are often, as a result of co-operation and deference, humanized. The powers latent in Nature are not diminished by such behaviours of men, who must still respect natural power. In New Zealand Nature is scarcely humanized, scarcely affected at all by men's interference'. [Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 89.]
54. In 1969, during six months in Britain as a Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Literature at the University of Leeds, Smithyman absorbed much of the Yorkshire landscape. In an interview with Mac Jackson he later said of the experience: 'I was going mad with seeing--and touching; you know, the things to be seen and that you had seen as two dimensional had a third, solidity. And a fourth, history.' [Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 403-20.]
55. The objective correlative is loosely defined as the representation or evocation of emotion through the poetic use of symbols. It was made famous by T.S. Eliot in his 1919 essay 'Hamlet and his Problems'.
56. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 129-30.
57. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 131. The quotation 'tragedy, irony, and multitudinous distinction' is from Lionel Trilling's description of the qualities of Henry James's 'moral mind', as opposed to Walt Whitman's more Romantically-inclined rhapsodic mind. [Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. Viking Press, New York, 1950: 11.]
58. Characteristically of this poem's approach to fundamental information, it is unclear whether the four maps, '[o]ne weakly faded', cover separate parts of the Hokianga that together make up a whole picture, or are various versions of the same map and territory. However, in a private communication Smithyman's wife, Margaret Edgcumbe, has explained that Smithyman really did have four maps pinned to the wall of his office, and she describes them as follows: 'In the back room I have a box with the maps you mention. Four of them--Hokianga, Kerikeri, Kaitaia and Kaikohe--have turned a reddish brown shade, from exposure to light (?), except where the borders have been folded over. So you are right that they were arranged to make one big map. That's the way I seem to remember them in his office in Wynyard St in 1968, but not in the new offices in the Library building post 1969.' [Edgcumbe, Margaret. Personal communication. 21 Aug, 2017.]
59. Ross, Jack. 'Life with Kendrick: A Conversation with Margaret Edgcumbe'. brief 26, Jan. 2003: 103-9. Also available at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/smithyman/edgcumbe.asp In the same interview Edgcumbe also recalled that Smithyman had an excellent visual memory for terrain: 'As I say, he could drive down the Great South Road to Palmerston and remember every inch, and be able to say what he saw: people by the side of the road, and horses in paddocks, and houses and so on.'
60. Also worth noting is the sonnet 'Cartography An Inexact Science', written as early as 1945 but published for the first time in Smithyman's Collected Poems.
61. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 141-59. McCann acknowledges that the term itself is borrowed from Northrop Frye.
62. Carroll, Lewis. Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893. Chapter 11.
63. Reproducing these grid-lines and braces has defeated the makers of Smithyman's online Collected Poems, for example, where these analphabetic symbols do not appear.
64. I am indebted to Heather McCann for noticing the regular number of syllables per line in the final 'A Question of Scale' section, and for pointing out that the number of syllables in each first line (9) and in each last line (5) add up to the number of syllables in each second line (14). McCann accurately refers to this as 'extreme patterning'. [McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 151.] It is worth noting that the stanzas of the opening section also conform roughly to a syllable count per line of 10, 12, 9, 10, 10, 10, although there are several exceptions.
65. Heraclitus. 'On the Universe', fragment 91. The quotation itself is from Smithyman's later poem 'Deconstructing' (1983), which also makes use of Heraclitus's famous image.
66. Geraets, John. 'Kendrick Smithyman and Brasch's Landfall'. Landfall 160, Dec. 1986: 443.
67. McCann also states that the poem 'becomes a search for a foundation on which to base truth'. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 146.
68. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 147. The quotation 'Within limits' comes from the second section of 'Reading the Maps'. Smithyman's point again anticipates the 'measurement problem' of quantum physics. (See note 45.)
69. An example roughly contemporaneous with the composition of 'Reading the Maps' is Philip Roth's famous complaint that modern America's reality is impossible to write about: 'It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents'. Roth, Philip. 'Writing American Fiction'. Commentary, Mar. 1961: 223-233.
70. In fact, the term 'false origin' is taken from the National Grid System of England, which is administered by the British Ordnance Survey. The system involves a 'true origin' at 49 degrees north latitude and 2 degrees west longitude from which grid ordinates are then calculated, starting with 00. However, if coordinates are calculated from true origin, then the positions lying on a British map west of the central meridian are negative, and so a 'false origin' (which is 400 km west and 100 km north of this) was created to ensure that all National Grid coordinates remain positive (i.e. to the east and north of origin 00). Thus an expression such as 'true only in terms of false origin', which appears in the second section of 'Reading the Maps', is perfectly acceptable cartographic jargon.
71. Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1979: 63. It is also worth reproducing McCann's summary of the poem, which is slightly different from the reading given here though very useful. 'The poem begins with reference to a map of Hokianga, moves through a 17th Century treatise on poetry, to a journal entry of part of a road journey in the north of England. Then it shifts into a philosophical discussion of the shiftless nature (unreliability) and shiftiness (changeability) of maps, which resolves itself, without marking the resolution, into another (this time unsited) geographical description. Then there are three sub-headed sections on map signs and symbols--the first two taken from the map of Hokianga, the third from the map used for the north of England road journey. The poem then changes gear again into a discussion in eight parts of the landscape idea--central to much New Zealand poetry--embedded into both a landscape description and a journey narrative. The final section of the poem returns us to the question of truth value and representation posed (declaratively) at the start of the poem'. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 143.
72. Smithyman's own notes on 'Reading the Maps' in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (reproduced in his online Collected Poems) include: 'Mahimai is John Marmon, also known as Tiaki, the first and most notorious white settler in the Hokianga, who figures in various memoirs including his own'. Born in Australia around 1800, Marmon lived from the 1820s onwards among Maori at Rawhia in the Hokianga, sometimes acting as an interpreter and middle-man between Maori and later Pakeha arrivals.
73. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. I.5, line 211.
74. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 145.
75. McCann makes the same point and also places Daniel's essay within the context of other seventeenth century discussions on poetry. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 147-8, 152.
76. See note 34.
77. Plato famously illustrates this version of reality with his allegory of a cave, where people chained to a cave's blank wall watch shadows projected onto the wall from objects moving in front of a fire behind them and thus assume that the shadows, not the ideal Forms moving behind them, constitute reality. Plato. Republic. Book 7.
78. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 150.
79. Still further ambiguity remains tucked into this idiomatic phrase, since 'to go to the wall' can also, more obscurely, mean to do everything possible to achieve something.
80. 'CS 32' refers to 'Certain Sonnets' number 32, the final sonnet in the series. The poems were composed by Sir Philip Sidney at around 1581. 'O take fast hold' is on line 9.
81. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 156.
82. Smithyman's notes on 'Reading the Maps' in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (reproduced in his online Collected Poems) include: 'John Rutherford--which is almost certainly not his real name--was the once celebrated tattooed white man whose account of living with Maoris appeared in The New Zealanders (1830). I regard it as the first sustained piece of fiction about this country'. Born in Manchester around 1796, Rutherford claimed to have been taken prisoner by East Coast Maori in 1816 and to have lived among them until his rescue in 1826. Rutherford thereafter supported himself as a showman by exhibiting the Maori tattoos on his body.
83. Heraclitus also wrote that 'The way up and the way down are one and the same', suggesting that, just as one road is used to proceed on two different routes, there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action. [Heraclitus. 'On the Universe', fragment 60.]
84. Simpson, Peter. '"Sinfonia Domestica": Mary Stanley & Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 54-87. The quotation is from page 61. Simpson also comments that in his poetry Smithyman 'chose to confront his personal demons not "confessionally" [...] but, as it were, allegorically'. Op. cit.: 81.
85. The Spanish wine 'Sangre de Toro' (Bull's Blood) has been produced since 1954 by the Torres family business, and has for many years come with a small black plastic bull attached to the neck of each bottle.
86. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. IV.1, lines 168-9.
87. Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. 'Inferno', Canto 12. Smithyman may also be referring to Daedalus's advice to the Greek hero Theseus for locating the Minotaur at the centre its maze: go forwards, always down and never left or right.
88. The connective used, 'As/Was' is syntactically complex, suggesting both a comparison with the case of the two Pakeha-Maori, 'As', and also the start of a sentence with the impersonal 'it' elided: 'It was Mahimai and probably Rutherford (if that was his name) who disappeared [...]'.
89. In an example of what McCann terms the poem's remarkable ability to refer 'beyond its own limitations', this is an early reference to the shadowy central figure in Smithyman's later work, the epic Atua Wera, published posthumously in 1997. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 150.
90. Perhaps significantly, in A Way of Saying Smithyman defines 'vates' as a role for the Romantic poet, something sought by many of his literary contemporaries. 'The vates is the supreme romantic role. He is the poet as celebrant, in which he is man as priest, as ritualist. He is the prophet, in which exile or isolation befits him as the honourable man who may be without honour in his own country'. In 'Reading the Maps', however, the Romantic vates is only a long-dead Maori tohunga, part myth at best, about whom the locals are cagey. [Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 62.]
91. Berryman, John. 'Dream Song No. 5' in The Dream Songs. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1959: 7.
92. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 156.
93. McCann has conducted a rigorous analysis of this concluding section of the poem. See: McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Op. cit.: 151-8.
94. New Zealand adopted the metric system in 1976, one year before the poem was written.
95. See note 70.
96. Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Faber and Faber, London, 1939: 120 (lines 13-14).
97. Yeats, W.B.. Letter to Lady Elizabeth Pelham, 4 Jan. 1939 in The Letters of W.B. Yeats (ed. Wade, Allan). Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1954: 922.
98. For a reading of 'Zoetropes', see: Richards, Ian. 'Bill Manhire's Poetry: Some Personal Responses'. (http://nofrillsnzlit.angelfire.com/Manhire.html)
99. Hamilton, Scott. 'In Search of Smithyland'. Op. Cit.. See also: 'Reasons for Choosing Smithyman over American Idol'. http://readingthemaps.blogspot.jp/2009/02/reasons-for-choosing-smithyman-over.html
100. Smithyman mentioned his love of the Northland area in an interview: 'I go back physically, but in a sense I never left, or it's never left me'. [Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 403-20.]
101. It is worth noting a similarity, probably coincidental, between the opening of 'Deconstructing' and the opening of Allen Curnow's poem 'The Loop in Lone Kauri Road', which was also written at around the same time as 'Deconstructing' and then published in a collection in 1986. [Curnow, Allen. The Loop in Lone Kauri Road: Poems 1983-85. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1986.] Like 'Deconstructing', Curnow's poem begins with an account of approaching the seashore on a country road in Northland. This time the place is Karekare, where Curnow had a bach, and as Andrew Johnston has noted, this is one of a number of Curnow's late poems where the poet is musing on his surroundings while taking a walk. [Johnston, Andrew. 'Late, Late Curnow: A Mind of Winter.' Journal of New Zealand Literature, no. 25, 2007: 46-69.] More significantly still, as with Deconstructing', 'The Loop in Lone Kauri Road' offers itself up to a cursory reading when attention is paid to binaries. In the first stanza, while approaching the coast on foot, the elderly poet considers the sea, a large, enveloping body of water somewhere before him, as an emblem of death and, feeling unsure 'in the same two minds', he imagines two possible ways of living out the remainder of his life: to hurry to the end of it and 'run the last mile blind' or to put off death as long as possible and 'save it for later'. Then he acknowledges the fact that, in life, we do not get a real choice about how we approach death and 'These/ are not alternatives'. But the poet is uneasy and feels it is 'difficult to concentrate', both in terms of thinking calmly and also, as Johnston mentions, of synthesising his alternatives into one useful whole. The poet considers how to push the sea of death away from him, or how to encourage it and 'haul it/ in' towards him, but it seems impossible to find a middle course that does not involve 'overbalancing'. The poet thinks that other people may feel he is not paying proper attention to the issues of life, 'depending on the wind', meaning the situation that he is in; but in fact experience and observation have given the poet a great deal of knowledge about the ordinary world, albeit mostly of a trivial nature, such as the difference of 'a rimu from a rewarewa', the sort of thing bookish people can pick up by reading about leaf-outlines in a field guide. Having shaped his thoughts and concerns through a series of binary opposites, the poet's mind now returns briefly to an observation of his surroundings on 'the road roping/ seaward' before drifting quickly off again in the fourth stanza, in which he imagines himself cleverly faking attention when faced with the world's other trivial issues, such as the time somebody tried to explain to him what 'Fine crystal' is--as if 'the weight,/ the colour, the texture' of a piece of crystal might matter more than its simple beauty. The poet may have tricked an expert on crystal by pretending to '"look interested"', but the poet's thoughts then descend into bathos as he muses that even dogs can perform tricks, such as the trick of shitting properly in the right place. His thoughts next move on to the issue of seeking some comfort in this world of here and now, again considered in binary terms. He thinks of physical pleasures, such as having the warm sun on his back, and this again briefly makes his mind return to the roadway and an observation of 'the raw red cutting' in the road beside him, an example of construction and also of damage done to the natural environment, which exposes a little of the water of death but which is both useful and beautiful. From this he muses more generally that 'injured natures are/ perfect in themselves', meaning that our lives are all about our own self-construction and the damage done to us, with the eventual result being lives that are 'perfect', that is, both beautiful on their own terms and also finished. The binary alternative to physical comfort is the cerebral comfort of the imaginative arts, exemplified by the poet here not with his most likely choice, literature, but through a more popular art form, film. He imagines an exciting movie in which a city is 'nuked', the sort of purely imaginary mayhem which must, in Coleridgean terms, involve willingly suspending 'our disbelief/ in doomsday' but which also happily distracts us from our own real doomsday. For this reason we willingly proceed in 'helping out the movie' by succumbing to its escapist entertainment. At this moment an event in the real world along Lone Kauri Road interrupts the poet's thoughts: another person, an emblem of youth, cosmopolitan with a 'NEW YORK STATE' t-shirt, and energetic and thoroughly up-to-date with the latest pedometer 'software', jogs past, all set with the biologically programmed arrogance of youth for a fast 'once round trip'. The jogger, the poet says, 'crosses my mind' as they reach 'the bridge/ at the bottom' of the incline in the road and of the path's loop. The poet can see the road over the bridge and the stream underneath, both means of ultimately making towards the sea, which 'are thoughts/ quickly dismissed' as the poet and the jogger ahead both 'double/ back', choosing to move away up the road once more from the sea, though each at their separate speeds. The poet suggests that they are both 'pacing ourselves', implying that he has decided to put off death this time and make this occasion just another health-giving walk. Again he tells himself to concentrate, but the poem finishes up with two more opposing images of the inevitable death that waits for everyone and which the poet wants to rid from his thoughts: with an image of a natural death, and becoming silent 'offal' on the road which is then borne away by a hawk to places unknown; and with an image of a man-made death, of a helicopter bringing the sea-water inland and suddenly extinguishing a 'nested flame' in the forest by means of a fire-bucket. Neither seems especially palatable. 'The Loop in Lone Kauri Road' is presented by a speaker using Curnow's famously cool and detached tone, but as with 'Deconstructing' the poem suggests that binaries were very much in the air during the early 1980s. (For a different reading see: Sturm, Terry. Simply By Sailing in a New Direction: Allen Curnow: A Biography. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2017: 576-7.)
102. Smithyman gestured towards such as view as early as 1970, when in the sixth section of 'Tomarata' the poet tells himself to 'read the text' of the geological features he is encountering.
103. Smithyman may have in mind here a reference to Samuel Johnson's famous attack on Bishop Berkeley's philosophical argument for immaterialism. During a discussion of Berkeley's clever claims for the non-existence of matter Johnson kicked a stone and announced, 'I refute it thus'. [Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. 1791.]
104. And even more cheekily the poet deliberately muddles the distinction between 'wife' and 'text' by using the words 'one' and 'another' in front of, or in place of, both. The literary theorists of the time were notorious for the obscurity of their writing.
105. It is worth noting that Heraclitus was not entirely inimical to Post-Modern theorists since he was fond of binaries: he argued that all entities, existing in flux, should be characterised by pairs of contrary properties. He was also fond of expressing himself in obscure riddles or paradoxes.
106. Plato. The Republic. Book 10. Intriguingly, the same view is espoused in Wordsworth's famous 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' (1807).
107. Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past, 'The Captive' (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, C.K., Kilmartin, Terence, and Mayor, Andreas). Chatto & Windus, London, 1981: 259-60.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2017
This essay was collected in The Poor Itch: Essays in New Zealand Literature, Lonely Arts Publishing, Osaka, 2021.
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