Transplanting Colenso: Taxonomy and Translocation in Leicester Kyle’s Koroneho: Joyful News Out of the New Found World

By | 1 August 2015

‘Language adheres to the soil, when the lips which spoke it are resolved into dust,’ wrote William Colenso in 1868, and again in 1883. ‘Mountains repeat, and rivers murmur, the voices of nations denationalized or extirpated in their own land.’ The 19th century New Zealand missionary, printer, explorer, and naturalist was conscious of massive, irrevocable changes to the botanical and human ecologies of New Zealand occurring as he wrote; it’s apparent that he was also conscious of the role of language in defining these systems and the encounter between them. The botanical work he undertook throughout his missionary career and after his expulsion from it was the work of finding words to describe and place the flora of one world within the taxonomy of another. This intense labour registered and contributed to momentous change, as both indigenous and imported languages, and the cultures and ecologies they defined, encountered the influx of entirely new systems, materials and desires.

Almost a century after Colenso’s death, the New Zealand poet Leicester Kyle (1937-2006) ‘re-presented’ Colenso’s botanical language in the long poem Koroneho: Joyful News Out of the New Found World (1996 ), opening a revisitation of his work and legacy oriented in linguistic aesthetics and potential. In Koroneho Kyle, also an erstwhile Anglican clergyman and amateur naturalist, variously excerpted, rearranged and responded to Colenso’s writings on fourteen orchids. His method draws attention to the poetics of translocation that pervade Colenso’s life and era: poetics that perform the transposition of taxa from one order to another as severance, loss and creative irrealism.

A prefatory page of Koroneho is exemplary of the book’s methods and interests, seeming at first to cite a printed talk of Colenso’s (‘1888, 38p’) titled ‘Fourteen new cryptograms’ (13). Colenso might well have written a text in 1888 about non-flowering, non-seeding plants titled ‘Fourteen new cryptogams’ – he did write about cryptogams that year, and it would be in keeping with Kyle’s procedure in Koroneho to reference that work. But Kyle has written cryptograms, rather than cryptogams. Colenso did not write about codes: the note can instead be seen as introducing the book at hand, composed of fourteen new ‘coded’ texts, based on Colenso’s botanical descriptions of fourteen orchids, and including, as the preface-poem continues,

… several remarks
on the principles of nomenclature
relative to time and space, and instances of 
the ability of the taxonomist 
to create specific existence
at will.

Nomenclature’s creative work is already in motion. The malapropism is slippery, productive in the movements of meaning amongst its terms. An orchid is not a cryptogam, but the word ghosted here has special relevance to Colenso’s life, which looms large behind the transcribed botanical material: cryptogam derives from the Greek for ‘hidden marriage’, apt for a man whose later life was largely defined by the ‘moral deviation’ of a sexual relationship with his wife’s servant Ripeka Meretene, and the paradigm rifts this revealed.

Kyle’s choice of orchids as the subject of his text seems to have been prompted by the plants’ erratic taxonomic history, also defined by creative error: Colenso identified and described the orchids, and gave them Latinate botanical names, but their status as discrete taxa was later challenged, removed and in some cases restored again. According to Kyle’s executor Jack Ross, ‘it was the ‘mythic’ or non-existent character of these 14 flowers which appears to have fascinated Leicester’(Koroneho, Introduction, 8). Indeed, the instability of the poem’s subject foregrounds the potency of the naming act, its apparent ability to create existence out of non-existence. Kyle’s Afterword puts the case for this nominative determinism: ‘(t)he act of describing classifying and naming a plant (Taxonomy) does in a sense cause it to come into being, in that it is made distinct from its neighbours and relations. Before this the plant has, of course, existed but not as a recognisedly separate identity’ (105).

Yet Koroneho is dialogic, and also calls for a nuanced understanding of the nature of the linguistically creative act, tempering what might otherwise become the taxonomist’s hubris. In an imperative voice that can be read as the poet’s or Koroneho’s, but is most likely God’s, an earlier page enjoins the addressee to

Remember this: 
the subject’s always right,
in itself correct.
All living things are accurate,  
with own centricity.
… A name codes recognition, 
but does not make identity, 
nor signify lightly.

To mistake the taxonomist’s work – or the poet’s – as creative of identity ex nihilo is here posited as a spiritual error, a failure to recognise the quiddity or ‘centricity’ of individual identity. For Colenso, taxonomic genesis also often involved creating classifications for plants that already had a recognised identity in another language – either Te Reo Māori or botanical Latin. Although Colenso was, at times, naming and classifying plants that had not previously been identified in either language, he was also at times naming anew species that he had misidentified, or whose existing Linnaean classifications he was unaware of. Such errors of semiotic reinvention ‘can cause difficulties,’ writes Kyle.

(I)t’s like discovering a new cousin—the whole family is recontoured … One might feel defrauded by the former identity, that it was not real … In such a re-location, does the plant actually change? Most certainly it must be regarded with new perceptions, if only because it has new relatives. (106)

Kyle’s comments here describe identity in relational terms, and ‘location’ is understood, powerfully, to be a position amongst semiotic relations that defines perceived identity. Accordingly, a change in relational position is a change in identity. And the relocation forced by error is doubly productive: not only does it create a new object, as defined by the new set of ‘corrected’ perceptions, it also creates what is ‘not real’, the identity whose defining relations are now in some sense mythical.

Kyle brings the function and effects of this kind of repositioning into focus by the use of textual translocation as one of Koroneho’s primary methods. Much of the language of the poem is transcribed from Colenso’s documentation of the orchids, so that a typical section opening begins as follows:

Bulbophyllum ichthyostomum                                        B. ichthyostomum
(Transactions of the N.Z. Institute 1894. 26:p.319)

Plant small, epiphytal, prostrate, creeping, densely matted. Stem slender,
3in.-5in. long, tortuous, dry, whitish, longitudinally striate, emitting many
thickish terete succulent white rootlets, their tips obtuse ...

Further subsections reiterate, disorder and lineate these descriptive texts, before (sporadically) separating from them with directly or obliquely responsive material. The poem as a whole is arranged in fourteen sections under both the names of the orchids and repeated subsection names that derive from the taxonomic method, calling attention to both the linguistic substance and the site specificity of the work at hand (‘Field Notes’, ‘Obs.’, ‘Hab.’ and ‘Glossary’). Each section also contains a ‘Note’ that refers without comment to a further publication of Colenso’s. These cited documents form a textual substrate invoking Colenso’s physical and cultural context, and the intellectual life he formed within it.

Kyle’s stated intention in this transcriptive method is ‘to unlock (Colenso’s) documents and release their contents.’ Presumably the documents are unlocked from the privacy and obscurity of the archive (some, at least, of Kyle’s materials come from Colenso documents he inherited in a family collection) , but also from their early functionalism. As taxonomy, the descriptions must be evaluated primarily in terms of their accuracy, and in these terms Colenso’s scientific legacy has had an unstable reputation. In contrast, ‘a re-presentation,’ Kyle notes in the introduction to another of his iterative works, ‘… is a renewal, a transformation, and that is at the least a useful thought, even if it may not be accurate’ (Kyle, A Voyge, 2). Renewing Colenso’s language as language art – transplanting it from one context to another – recasts instability as explicitly productive. It makes visible the imaginative and aesthetic performances involved in Colenso’s writings, both at his hand and beyond him.

On Nomenclature

Kyle’s work in Koroneho begins with names, including that of Koreneho itself. The title is a transliteration of Colenso, and was one of the names by which Māori knew him and by which he referred to himself. Its use locates him in the Māori language, where he was for long periods immersed, having arrived in New Zealand at the end of 1834, in the early years of British settlement. Colenso began his mission while Māori culture was still in ascendence, and he actively sought immersion – indeed, his two oldest children were brought up speaking Māori in the house, and could not speak English fluently until that household dissolved in 1852, following the disclosure of Colenso’s affair with Ripeka, with whom he fathered a third child.

There’s a still more specific choice operating within Kyle’s title, in that Colenso used both Koroneho and the variant Koreneho. Kyle’s choice of the former is a very small but articulate detail: Koroneho predates Colenso and European contact as an existing Māori name. And though it is a weaker phonetic match for Colenso, it also carries echoes of other potent transliterations – koroni/colony and koroneihana/coronation. These lines of association engage the tensions that characterised Colenso’s life and erupted in the intimacy with Ripeka and its after-effects, which saw Colenso lose his status in both Pākehā and Māori society. The name and its associations mark both Colenso’s missionary labours, and the immersion in tikanga Māori/Māori custom that he sought at the same time, with disastrous results. In one light the transliterated name suggests naturalisation, the ability of both the newcomer and the native language to assimilate, thanks to a mutual flexibility. In another it seems a masquerade, offering native appearance for colonising functions (‘Like this the stranger fights,’ writes Kyle of ‘British plants’, ‘sending out disguised / to infiltrate …’ (42)). Kyle’s use of the name as title draws both biography and setting into focus, articulating Colenso’s early-settler status as that of the translocated – both colonist and immigrant, ‘gaping / at the wounds of severance’ (23), an object of a language not his own.

Colenso’s work in classifying the flora of the new-found land, perfervid to the degree that many of his identifications were considered by other botanists to be superfluous or wishful, might be seen as an attempt to counter his own objectification with the sense of divinity attached to the work of naming and ordering. The effect has significance beyond the personal. ‘In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike,’ wrote Horkheimer and Adorno of the role of taxonomy in Enlightenment thinking (6), and that association helped to rationalise and motivate the bringing of both the ‘light’ of reason and that of religion to the colonies. Peter Wells observes that Colenso’s botanical work, conducted exhaustingly on the fringes of his missionary employment, performed precisely this service. Through it he was ‘furthering the taxonomic reach of the British Empire. In one sense he was making New Zealand a horticultural colony of the imperial capital of the botanic universe, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew’ (345).

Wells (following Jim Endersby’s Imperial Nature) notes that this work had an intrinsically material endpoint: ‘New resources were needed to keep the British industrial machine powering at peak capacity. A limitless supply of new materials was necessary – cocoa, oil, coffee, opium, flax, kauri gum – anything that could be commodified and sold’ (348). But the transition of resources was also epistemological. In finding a place for the objects he identified within the new (to New Zealand) imperial taxonomy, Colenso was transferring use value and currency to that epistemology from the preceding order, with attendant losses and degradations to the earlier order. Just as the correction of an error ‘recontours’ a taxonomy and its constituents, so the translocation of knowledge from one taxonomy to another alters both. The network of determining relationships – the knowledge by which taxa are constituted – is extended and reconfigured in the new taxonomy, and begins to lapse in the old.

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