Owen Bullock Reviews A Transpacific Poetics

10 October 2017

Murray Edmond’s essay is both a memoir and re-examination of place, namely Hamilton, in the Waikato of Aotearoa New Zealand where he grew up. He describes ways in which writing poetry helped him come to know that place (‘Tattooed Rocks at Whāingaroa: A Personal Archaeology of Knowledge through Poetry’). For example, as a student in Auckland, Edmond wrote about Von Tempsky, who fought alongside government troops against Māori in the land wars of the 1860s, and in the Waikato. The town of Hamilton was subsequently built on confiscated lands.

Edmond identifies with a very different figure possessing a strong tie to Hamilton: Richard O’Brien, writer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. O’Brien’s musical offered an alternative way of knowing, ‘in opposition to the settled world of farming and soldiering and rugby’. O’Brien said that he had met all of the characters from the play on the streets of Hamilton. Edmond reminds us ‘there is always a politics of knowledge’, but it’s not static. The erection of a statue to the character of Riff-Raff on Victoria Street in Hamilton ‘is a recuperation of knowledge, an inclusion of what was once excluded’. The knowledge Edmond sought as a young man seems to be the possibility of escape into another, imagined place ‘yet to be settled’. The text quietly asserts that the difference between this impulse and colonisation is that the latter imagines a place without allowing for the existing and already occupied space of others.

I found this historical background helped me understand Hamilton better myself. I went to university in Hamilton and lived just over an hour away in the small town of Waihi – the meaning of whose very name (contracted from Waihihi, place of gushing water) is obscured by the colonising process. It’s a place I have many times returned to and hope to do so again permanently. I could also relate to Edmond’s need for such escape, having grown up in a working class family in a small village in a mining area in Cornwall and meeting very different characters from London at a formative age.

Co-editor Sawako Nakayasu’s concluding prose poem reminds one of summings-up at conferences. But rest assured this is a very creative take on that ploy and uses the trope of repetition of the word ‘if’ to reiterate, revisit and expand, sometimes with new references, some of the ideas encountered in each contributor’s work (‘Outro: And If’). It evinces a poetics which remembers histories and carries them forward into lands, structures and movements of varying dimensions. All the ‘Englishes’ of the book can be an anthology, an anthology of porousness, the ‘loaded boundaries’ between art forms also ‘salvaged by feeling’, looking at new oceans and ‘imagining new formations’.

This is a substantial book in every sense. It prompts deep questions about culture, how it changes and fuses, and the dark residues of colonisation. The diversity of writings is marvellous; it’s a pleasure to read such a generous sampling by each writer and to get to know their voice/s – most are represented by 12-20 pages. One gets a sense of transpacific poets merging worlds and world views, with a great deal of originality, evidenced in the work of writers such as Ravine, Choi and Manzano.

The transpacific and transnational labels which Samuels encourages are tempting ones. I emigrated to New Zealand in my early twenties and spent 25 years there before migrating to Australia. For many of those years I had the feeling that I didn’t quite fit in Aotearoa – I was not tangata whenua (people of the land – implying an original status) in any sense. But when I returned to my native Cornwall people asked me where I was from. The editor of a publication in Australia recently described me as an Australian poet, which shocked me somewhat. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to correct the entry; perhaps it’s an opinion about poetics as much as a fact of nationality or residence, I’m not sure. I’ve always considered myself a citizen of the world and have entered that phrase on official documents. Should I call myself a transnational poet? I worry that there’s something slightly pretentious about the term, though that’s often the feeling with what’s new or unfamiliar. I’ll think about it and at least use the word in print. I’ve learnt something about myself from reading this book and, as the introductory essay forecasts, about people who occupy more than one zone of Oceania.

A permaculture dictum states ‘life is richer on the edge’. This book is all about edges; it’s an education, and a stimulating evocation of other lives, testified by a progressive and cutting-edge transnational diversity. Reading the anthology has been a process of unhomogenising, like travelling to many places in a short space of time, and talking to 16 writers who all have something important to say.

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