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

By | 1 August 2015

Colenso was very conscious of the potential for the distortion of informational integrity as these transformations were made, and attempted to resist such distortions. Among the essays of his that Kyle cites is ‘On Nomenclature’, an impassioned criticism of inaccurate orthography and the loss of meaning that resulted from uninformed renderings of Māori words in Latin script. Here and elsewhere Colenso pleaded for better renderings of place and object names, and for a written culture that respected and preserved the historical, geographical and botanical information and culture embedded in Māori nouns. It was his observation that ‘with the old Māoris, the name of a thing meant a great deal – very much more, concerning its qualities, uses, etc., etc. – than we at best can possibly suppose’ (21). He wrote in some depth about the nature of this knowledge, and made early attempts to incorporate Māori plant names into the botanical names he coined for new species, though these coinages were generally rejected by the European botanical community (Endersby, 207). He also lamented that even amongst Māori, a ‘pure’ version of the language was being abandoned for ‘the incorrect broken Māori of the settlers’, a loss which he saw as ‘very great … more than most Māori scholars are aware, and (the language) is daily becoming more contracted and corrupt’ (21).

Endersby notes the irony of this complaint, in that ‘Colenso had contributed to the impoverishment he complained of by bringing the first printing press to New Zealand’ (206). He also had both professional and intellectual investments in the Linnaean taxonomic system and its Latinate nomenclature. Endersby notes that ultimately, in the broad forum of the international botanical record,

Colenso adopted Europe’s botanical terms, abandoning a rich local language in an effort to be taken seriously by Europe’s men of science. However, the effect of his compliance was that he lost the ability to express or record much of the local knowledge he valued; Māori names, like their plant lore and place-names for obscure local habitats, were invariably missing from the metropolitan publications in which Colenso hoped to see his name. (208)

Colenso’s drive to advocate for Māori culture and language was in this respect subsumed by the more forceful colonising project he was an agent and supplicant of. This outcome had parallels elsewhere in his life: his stated concern at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi is on record (he made sure that it was), but it was a minor salvo against the agreement he helped to facilitate and print. His domestic life was a further painful embodiment of conflicted investments: his attempt to cohabitate with both Ripeka and his acknowledged Pākehā wife, Elizabeth, as well as his efforts to keep and raise his son by Ripeka after her return to the Māori community, suggest both utopian hopes for cross-cultural intimacy and a framework of exploitative potential. His dual commitments, once exposed, flouted the appearance demands of both societies he participated in, at the cost of his family and career.

Perhaps Colenso hoped that his mediating efforts on behalf of Te Reo could help preserve a certain cultural plurality, despite the force of the transitions he was an envoy of as a missionary and settler, and despite his own vision of ‘nations denationalized or extirpated in their own land’. The dual commitments, insofar as he pursued them, might be seen as his way of ‘recontouring’ a life and ethos split by immigrant disjunction and the destructive ingresses of colonial change. Through them he fabricated an attempt to make translocation out of displacement – to make a crossing, a relational orientation, out of the loss of place.

Obsolete and Succulent

In one of Koroneho’s prefatory pages, Kyle suggests that readers ‘who wish to discover Koroneho’s life and works must search out biographical material elsewhere’ (13). With Colenso firmly at the poem’s centre, Kyle thus liberates it from constraining narration, redirecting the reader’s attention to the language at hand – language which ‘adheres to the soil’, articulating the layered conditions and purposes of its first use, and yet is ‘unlocked’ into new shapes and relations.

The names of Colenso’s orchids that Kyle presents are all from Greek and Latin roots. Four of these names survive as currently accepted for the species they describe; the rest are now obsolete synonyms (‘obsolete and succulent’ reads one line (25)) for names published earlier than Colenso’s, and/or for more accurate classifications. Of the Bulbophyllum Ichthyostomum, for example, Kyle ‘wonders what prompted Colenso to attempt to make a new species of it, for in fact nothing can be found to distinguish the new from the already named.’ Colenso’s name for the species he thought he’d identified, (which translates roughly as ‘bulb-leafed fish-mouth’) suggests the terrain of his imaginative flight. ‘In the instance of this orchid he was more than usually far-fetched,’ explains Kyle,

being led astray by the ripened seed-capsule, which gapes wide on drying, to expel the dust-like seeds. To Colenso they appeared like the mouth of a gasping fish—hence the name. He made sketches to show it, and in his enthusiasm overlooked the fact that this was in no way unique to the specimen before him, but was a characteristic of B. pygmaeum as a whole. (110)

The poem enters the imaginative space opened up by the erroneous classification. Lines directly quoted from Colenso describe ‘The ripe capsule gaping so curiously at its sutures, somewhat resembling the open mouth of a fish’ while the ‘Obs’ for this section moves the image to the point where, through repositioning, it speaks directly both to taxonomic and biographical concerns: ‘lost criteria/confused // miscegenation // gaping / at the wounds of severance’ (23).

The section goes further, shifting Colenso’s descriptive criteria into a formal arrangement (predominantly trochaic tercets) that no longer describes the orchid – or that describes it in terms of proliferating physical qualities which seem to spill beyond a single organism. ‘Small prostrate creeping dense / many wrinkled patent hairs / matted between the eye and light’ begins the subsection ‘Fish-Mouth Orchid’, evoking (to this reader’s eye) Burns’s mouse and Blake’s tiger, and ending again with gaping, the wound become a sign of surprised witness:

Gaping not to base post-
gaping so curiously at echinate.
gibbous at the yellow peduncle.

Colenso’s botanical language is densely material, both in the profusion of qualities and parts it names in the objects it describes, and in the way it suspends the non-specialist reader (perhaps gaping) in an encounter with the exotic, erotic substances of unfamiliar vocabulary. Kyle’s reordering of these substances throws further emphasis on that second physicality, the sensory dependency of disorientation. Patterns of rhythm, half-rhyme, alliteration and line length propose an aesthetic order that is not dependent on the alleviation of unfamiliarity, and that in fact capitalises on the kind of polymorphous energies that emerge from descriptive disorder. Amongst shining peduncles, anastomising veins and laciniated lobes, we experience newness as both eroticism and discomfort, sensations that open the phenomenal experience of the stranger and explorer. The imposition of formal structures is a taxonomist’s territory claim over these forces:

… a land
I’ve made my own

by name for the nameless
and by claim
on order
in a wild world
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