Across the Tas­man: they do things dif­fer­ently there

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Tran­ter

LAND­FALL is a large, well pro­duced lit­er­ary mag­a­zine from Otago Univer­sity Press, on New Zealand’s South Is­land. First pub­lished in 1947 and now re­leas­ing two is­sues a year, it is the old­est arts and lit­er­ary jour­nal in the coun­try.

The present ed­i­tor — this is his sec­ond is­sue — is book re­viewer, cul­tural his­to­rian, per­for­mance poet (The Mad Kiwi Ranter from the 1980s) and film ed­i­tor David Eg­gle­ton. Part Poly­ne­sian, he grew up be­tween Fiji and New Zealand.

This lat­est is­sue, ti­tled Christchurch and Be­yond, has the usual mix of prose, po­etry and var­i­ous kinds of art, but it also has a spe­cial fo­cus on New Zealand’s re­cur­rent nightmare: earth­quakes.

The vol­ume opens with the win­ner of the mag­a­zine’s an­nual es­say com­pe­ti­tion: Philip Armstrong’s long and fas­ci­nat­ing On Ten­u­ous Grounds, which ex­am­ines the ex­pe­ri­ences of earth­quakes from a dozen per­spec­tives, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing mean­ing as it goes.

The dis­as­ter in Christchurch 12 months ago is cen­tral, of course, and in this age of in­stant tele­vi­sion news we have all seen the hor­rors of such a catas­tro­phe in what is ef­fec­tively a big coun­try town full of or­di­nary peo­ple like you and me.

Armstrong fills in lots of strange and aw­ful de­tails from daily post-quake life, but casts a much wider net, seek­ing to un­der­stand earth­quakes through his­tory and cul­ture, from Euro­pean his­tory and leg­end, from At­lantis to to­day. It’s the odd de­tails that stick in the mind, though.

He tells of the destruc­tion in the Lyt­tle­ton East ceme­tery, where he walks his dog. A ‘‘ rest­less motil­ity’’ af­fects the grave­stone and mon­u­ments, he no­tices. Many are sim­ply smashed; oth­ers, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, have ro­tated: ‘‘ the sub­se­quent af­ter­shocks have in­spired the stones with wan­der­lust . . . They had swiv­elled, like spec­ta­tors at a ten­nis match or sun­flow­ers in a meadow, all in the same di­rec­tion and all to the same de­gree.’’

Prose pieces, mem­oirs and po­ems from other writ­ers fill out the hu­man di­men­sion of this catas­tro­phe well, but it is the philo­soph­i­cal range and the supple style of Arm- strong’s writ­ing that lingers in the mind.

An­other fo­cus of this is­sue is a 40-page trib­ute to poet and lit­er­ary fig­ure Allen Curnow on the centenary of his birth, con­sist­ing of po­ems, es­says and mem­oirs from his erst­while stu­dents and col­leagues as well as from writ­ers such as Sea­mus Heaney, Michael Hulse, Janet Frame, Chris Wal­laceCrabbe and oth­ers.

Lawrence Jones sketches in Curnow’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer: 70 years, from stu­dent po­ems in 1931 to his last book in 2001. Peter Simp­son talks in de­tail about how he worked closely with the poet on a com­pre­hen­sive edi­tion of his crit­i­cal prose. Jan Kemp re­counts with af­fec­tion and re­spect be­ing taught by him at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

Of course a mag­a­zine such as Land­fall in­clines a reader in Australia to think about how sim­i­lar, and yet how dif­fer­ent, the two neigh­bour coun­tries are. In 1890, on Henry Parkes’s ini­tia­tive, the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of seven Bri­tish colonies (which in­cluded New Zealand) met in Melbourne and agreed in prin­ci­ple to es­tab­lish an Aus­tralian fed­er­a­tion. But changes in gov­ern­ment, the De­pres­sion and other fac­tors held back the move­ment, so that it was 1900 be­fore a final draft con­sti­tu­tion was ap­proved, and by that point New Zealand had opted out of the pro­posed fed­er­a­tion. So close, yet so far.

Seven years later my mother was born in In­ver­cargill, New Zealand; a few years later the fam­ily moved to Australia — oth­er­wise I would have been born a Kiwi. Like my mother’s fam­ily, many New Zealan­ders are of Scot­tish de­scent. The name of Dunedin is in fact the Gaelic form of the English word Ed­in­burgh.

The po­ets of Curnow’s gen­er­a­tion were very like the po­ets of the same gen­er­a­tion in Australia: well versed in Shake­speare, equally at home in mod­ern Amer­i­can, with a dry aca­demic aware­ness of the dis­tance to London, Ox­ford and Cam­bridge.

Sev­eral things make us dif­fer­ent, of course. The vi­o­lence of earth­quakes is one, the vi­o­lent re­sis­tance of the indige­nous peo­ple is an­other. White New Zealan­ders were forced to make a treaty with the Maori, one that gave the na­tive in­hab­i­tants im­por­tant cul­tural and land rights. That has yet to hap­pen in Australia.

As a writer it has of­ten struck me how alike the gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers are in the two coun­tries, nat­u­rally in our use of post­colo­nial English, partly in our dou­ble al­le­giance to Bri­tish and Amer­i­can po­et­ries. When as a jury mem­ber of the Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val a decade ago I was asked to sug­gest some writ­ers from the re­gion who might be asked to Ber­lin, I nat­u­rally sug­gested New Zealan­ders along with Aus­tralians. There have been strong moves to share po­ems, po­ets and po­etry con­fer­ences across the Tas­man in re­cent years. But if we are so alike, why don’t we in­flu­ence each other more?

Be­cause we are so alike. Be­cause we are so dif­fer­ent. John Tran­ter has pub­lished more than 20 col­lec­tions of verse and is the found­ing ed­i­tor of the free in­ter­net mag­a­zine Jacket.

A dev­as­tated Christchurch last year

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