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

By | 1 August 2015

The lips which spoke it

Recent ventures in iterative poetics (Kenny Goldsmith, Vanessa Place) demonstrate how aesthetic translocations within the nexus of social injustice can, with their attendant authorship claims, activate and inflame existing conflicts. In several ways, Kyle’s appropriations are not as provocative as those of the conceptualists. Certainly the source texts’ relative obscurity and inertia is one mediating factor; another is that that in Koroneho Kyle presents reactive and characterising voices alongside the text he repurposes. This strategy explicitly interiorises complicating and explicatory dialogue within the work, rather than projecting it, through staging, into social reaction.

This is not to say that the voices in Koroneho are always dramatically distinct, nor that their purpose is to conduct prosecution of Colenso or Kyle. Identity is kept somewhat fluid: there is material that is clearly quoted from Colenso’s documents, material that appears to be quoted from these documents but may or may not be, and material in a reflective first person voice that characterises Koroneho as written by Kyle. At times the latter bleeds into material which takes a contemporary voice, describing contemporary settings, blurring the line between Koroneho and Kyle’s own persona in the work – the persona who makes ‘claim /on order/ in a wild world.’ The other prominent voice or voices are God’s, at times indistinguishable from the President of the Penzance Natural History Society, from a self-address or fantasy of Koroneho or Kyle, and from Koroneho or Kyle ministering to his dominion. To the degree that moral accountancy is conducted in this dialogue, it is held in reasonably close proximity to Koroneho’s viewpoint and concerns.

The central dialogue between Koroneho and God runs across the book’s seventh and eighth sections, ‘Gastrodia leucopetala’ and ‘Microtis papillosa’, with supporting material elsewhere. A refrain of knocking that has appeared earlier in the poem is developed, and we see that Koroneho is locked out, seeking entry into (in metaphoric parallels) a society that is at once the botanical Society of his first home, from which he has been excluded for unpaid dues, and the place in the public and domestic realms he has lost following the breakdown of his family. Koroneho’s appeals to ‘Mr President’ are in the first instance mundanely self-centred, even petulant. Laments for lost posterity, acknowledgement and comfort cover over inarticulate grief for lost family, before opening into sensory immersion in the natural world. Mr President/God in response offers fulsome, even gratuitous praise of Koroneho’s scientific achievements, ‘Mr. Colenso, you’ve done it! Succeeded!’ then meets his more sombre reflection with a more resounding affirmation. Colenso admits that

Elizabeth has left me
and Willie’s come to you. I’m wordless, 
so I write, 
page upon page of discovery.
(I’m congested with newness, 
my throat choked,
heaviness at heart)
harmonies of sun and sea
so precious rare and delicate
they rest on me
and my name, to be.
I daren’t turn my back nor blink,
lest they die.

God responds:

Then, William, it’s as well you lived so long.
You found sense when you were seventy ...
your nature brass, 
you made it gold,
then died.

A third unlocking is now in play in Kyle’s text. Immersion in the natural world, as represented by the quotes of Colenso’s botanical descriptions, unlocks value, perhaps unlocks God’s kingdom, his society, another homecoming. This idea is consonant with other primary writings of Colenso’s, in which the study of botany is described as a spiritual path ‘… of a calming nature, beneficial and mentally profitable to the student, leading him genially on ‘through Nature up to Nature’s God’ (‘Plain and Practical Thoughts and Notes on New Zealand Botany’, 408). For Colenso, this devotional aesthetic attention to the natural world had the capacity to weave across epistemological rifts, including that which opened as a function of his dual roles as scientist and missionary:

… it is all one to me, at such times, whether those many and varied, yet regular and symmetrical, forms were produced by creation or by evolution. Rather, however, would I set the consideration of that deep and difficult question aside that I might the more fully drink in and enjoy the exquisite living scene before me. (407)

Indeed, this investment in the particular – in the ‘thisness’ of his studied objects, rather than their nominal categories – also provided Colenso with a defense for the errors that appeared in his botanical work, despite his love of nomenclative precision. Kyle recounts botanist T. F. Cheeseman’s reproach to Colenso in 1884, that he found it ‘impossible to accept as distinct species most of the plants (Colenso had) described in the recent volumes of the ‘Trans. Of the N.Z. Institute’’. Colenso’s response asserts the value of description beyond a first pass at taxonomic correctness:

it makes little or no difference – that is, to me. If you knew those plants I have laboured to describe, you would, I think, alter your judgement concerning, at least, some of them: and further, that even in those instances in which I may be wrong (although I am not conscious of any) I shall not have laboured in vain, because I have brought forward in every case certain characters … that will be of service to working botanists … (Kyle, 108; Colenso, Letter, 95).

If such defenses seem a little easy, Kyle makes the point that Colenso’s ‘acute sensitivity’ to detail was fundamental to his imaginative capacity, a capacity which enabled ‘observation that might be contrary to the culture of the time’. Kyle’s example is Colenso’s awareness of environmental change: ‘as pakeha settlement remorselessly progressed and the bush retreated, taking with it many plants long known to him, he described the process as desertification’ (110). We might see in that consciousness (as in the objection at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi), a willingness to step forward in time, a temporal translocation which is reflected a century later in Kyle’s own imaginative juxtapositions. Against the replete verbiage of the orchid descriptions, and the spiritual authority of those voices that affirm them, Kyle places momentary flashes of the contemporary desert in the form of a mall, a deathly world that occupies the end-point of the taxonomic project as materialist transaction:

no change 
to the sound
of the business in the mall 

whose music masks 
a smell of blood
at McDonalds
and spit at Georgie Pie

uncertain smells of leather
from these white boxes
stacked end dry
like a catacomb
in Mexico 

The jarring entry of this setting reminds that the resituation of Colenso’s taxonomic language does not nullify or erase the functions it has performed, large or small, within the taxonomic project, with all its colonising and modernising freight. In duplicating that language within the aesthetic telos of the poem, Kyle places it alongside some of its sources and outcomes, effecting at least a partial translocation of its energies from function into reflective relation.

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