Smithyman: Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (2003)

Mark Pirie, ed.: JAAM 19 (May 2003)

Kendrick Smithyman, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002. ISBN 1 86940 274 X. ix + 161 pp. [RRP $24.95].

Kendrick Smithyman: Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (2002)

I cannot be sure
anyone understands this, but I should like to. (59)

In 1983, the same year he began writing Atua Wera, Kendrick Smithyman started work on a companion piece, a kind of family history set against the background of European imperial expansion, the turbulent era of change and folly between the 1880s and the end of the Second World War. Like most of his later poems, the pieces are anecdotal, peopled with drunks and scapegraces and ne’er-do-wells, free of the pieties of the official version:
They did not know how to conduct themselves.
They were unpardonable. They had style. (11)

Even those of us allergic to genealogy can immediately see the point of this sprawling picaresque saga. In structure, it’s like a cross between Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Melville’s Moby Dick, full of ships, and wars, and sex, and good stories.

More importantly, however, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions provides a necessary counterpoint to the intensities of Papahurihia’s strange vision, and offers vital clues about how to read the longer and more labyrinthine poem. “Poetry is in the pity,” said Wilfred Owen. Kendrick, in Closing the Chocolate Factory, a videotaped reading recorded a few weeks before his death in 1995, disagreed, but went on to say that it might be “in the story.” Reading this book, one begins to realise just how serious and complex was Smithyman’s interest in the science of storytelling: the snatch of anecdote, the snippet of news, the soundbite – essential currency in what Hermann Hesse called “the Age of the Feuilleton.”

Calling it a whakapapa poem is perhaps too facile, though that’s certainly how it’s being marketed. I’d prefer to see it as a kind of morphology of the family anecdote (in the tradition of Vladimir Propp). Let’s take one poem as an example, the one I quoted from above, “Nightingales”:
In Wellington he chummed up with a son and heir
of a coastal shipping / freighting company
who was in love with (oh, blueball smitten for)
a politician’s daughter.
They would climb
Tinakori slope at evening, Father with bird whistle,
Jim with horny cornet. They blew into nights
fresh as anything coming up from the south,
the devastatingly pure south, ‘Last Night
the Nightingale Called Me’. (59)

Some things stand out at once: “blueball smitten” undercutting the “devastatingly pure south” the two young swains are blowing into … (Tennyson’s “Dark and true and tender is the North” perhaps needs reversal in the Antipodes); the nice double entendre of the “horny cornet” … but then the stanza concludes: “I cannot be sure / anyone understands this, but I should like to.” If you don’t, how can we expect to? Why are you telling us the story in the first place? Patience, patience, Act Two begins …
In Te Kopuru a C of E lady spiderweb lined
of more than mature years was courted. She gave
her hand to a suitor who carried her off
honeymooning as far as Tangiteroria.
… returned from Tangi ‘a married woman’
to several villagers’ raw delight.
“Floss,” they demanded outside the general store,
“Floss, did he make the nightingale sing?”
“What’s a nightingale?” I asked Mum, “what does …”
who was hauling me away before
I ever
did not understand.

“I’m not sure / that any better now I understand if at all / though I should like to.” We tend to assume we’ll understand the point of stories – especially jokes and anecdotes. Here I was flexing my wordly muscles and cooking up a scenario of “nightingales singing = no sleep” or (alternatively) “ditto = singing out during lovemaking,” until having the rug abruptly jerked form under my feet by this throwaway ending. If Smithyman doesn’t get the (presumably smutty) allusion, how can I hope to? But then of course he does. He understands what the villagers meant, as did his mother. What he doesn’t understand (“though I should like to”) is the larger point of the story – and, by extension, the poem – what can perhaps only be paraphrased (in period style) as “sweet mystery of love.”

Love at its most plaintive and ridiculous has become his subject (as one might have expected from that title): youthful unrequited (blueball’d) yearnings transmuted into song, the elderly spiderweb-lined Miss Havisham swept off her feet “as far as Tangiteroria” (so far!). The adroitness lies in the poem’s sense of context – the quiet way in which it conveys a whole world of Victorian courtship and ritual. How final that “a politician’s daughter” sounds – as distant, unattainable, as any of Propp’s fairytale princesses. Our C of E lady too, “had a nephew getting into politics / who looked like doing all right; she too was / politic” – politic enough to demand marriage before granting her favours, at any rate!

I could go on in this vein for quite some time: the youth / age, (unrequited) passion / (expedient) matrimony dichotomies are perhaps meant to signal a changing of the guard between repressed Victorians and pemissive 1920s, a then vs. now patterning … and yet both appear almost equidistant, equally inexplicable to Smithyman (and thus, by extension, to us). He wants to understand both stories, but cannot be sure of understanding either.
… people are always finding
themselves on the dark edge of the universe,
losing the race, losing out, whose sneakers
make commas all over in dust. (108)

Perhaps these lines (from “Father’s Opium War”) would make the best epigraph for the collection as a whole. These are the people who make bum investments, who go broke in gold rushes, who blow all their winnings. All of them “leave / behind things which they mean to go back for.” Losers, in a word.

It puts one in mind of that Far Side cartoon showing a stream of possessions – carpet, piano, pet dog – being sucked out of a house up into the clouds by some mysterious force. “He’s trying to take it with him,” remarks one woman to another. No, you can’t take it with you. What’s to be done, then? You can live with a touch of style, have an interesting time, leave a graceful memory.

As Smithyman’s father said, when accused by his rebellious son of stealing one of his stories from a book by Shalimar:
He used to write
down things people told him.
He didn’t get that story right, you know. (141)

The point doesn’t always depend on getting it right.


JAAM 19 (2003): 246-49.

[1092 wds]

JAAM 19 (2003)

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