Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (2008)

Owen Bullock, ed.: Poetry NZ 37 (August 2008)

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi[1]

Alistair Paterson, Africa: //Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter. ISBN 978-0-908943-36-4. Auckland: Puriri Press, 2008.

Alistair Paterson: Africa (2008)

I thought I might begin this discussion of Alistair Paterson’s latest long poem, Africa, by quoting a few lines from his previous book, Summer on the Côte d’Azur (Wellington: HeadworX, 2003):
The Dictionary of Battles
covers more than three millennia:
from Thothmes III against the Hittites
(Megiddo Pass 1479 BC)
to the Golan Heights, the Gulf Invasion –
endless bloodshed, constant warfare . . .

I turn the pages –
identify the man next door
people who live on the next block
someone dressed in black
who’s walking towards
an empty house two streets away –

and you, my love, and you . . .

Two points stand out at once, I think.

First, how concerned Paterson is to emphasize the continuity of human experience, from ancient times to now (“endless bloodshed, constant warfare”).

Second, that he does so from a standpoint of compassion for human frailty. It might seem rather paranoid of his narrator to identify “the man next door,” or “someone dressed in black / … walking towards / an empty house two streets away” with those great marauders from history: “Tancred and Raymond, / Godfrey and Robert.” However, when he adds “and you, my love, and you”, we see at once that it’s the things that he can’t bear to see threatened which motivate such suspicions.

All of us are vulnerable through the things we care for most: lovers, children, pets, mementos, precious possessions. In that sense, yes, the human drama is continuous: each of us has an immense amount to lose:
You take your coffee in Vulcan Lane
walk along Wyndham, Wellesley, Durham
risk your life –
you’re reading The Wealth of Nations:
somewhere near Customs Street East
there’s a man with a knife . . .

and you, my love, and you . . .

It’s that man with the knife we can’t guard against, however much we try. It’s that man with the knife, whether we call him Hitler, Lee Harvey Oswald, Osama bin Laden – or, for that matter, George Bush (let’s paraphrase Joseph Campbell, and refer to him from now on as “The Killer with a Thousand Faces”) – who motivates us to undertake futile war after futile war.

It’s as if, by doing so, we hoped somehow to outrun death.

Alistair Paterson’s career as a poet has been dominated by a series of book-length poems. Africa is the fifth in a succession that began with The Toledo Room: a Poem for Voices (1978), then continued with Qu’Appelle (1982), Odysseus Rex (1986) and Incantations for Warriors (1987).

While the long poem is clearly a form that interests Paterson greatly, the five poems don’t exactly constitute a sequence. Each of them seems designed to speak to its own moment. Certain continuities can, nevertheless, be observed. There’s a strong visual element present in the design and layout of each volume. Odysseus Rex and Incantations for Warriors even include suites of drawings by (respectively) Nigel Brown and Roy Dalgarno.

The arrangement of the poems on the page also draws attention to Paterson’s Black Mountain-influenced theories of poetic form, as expressed in his 1981 monograph The New Poetry: Considerations Towards Open Form (itself largely derived from the introduction to his influential 1980 anthology 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets).

“Open form” – at any rate as Charles Olson described it in his classic essay “Projective Verse” (1951) – is “based on the breath of the poet and an open construction based on sound and the linking of perceptions rather than syntax and logic”:
A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. … So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent energy which propelled him in the first place … and which will be, obviously, different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away?

How is this transfer of energy from writer to reader to be accomplished? Olson has two further points to make about it:
FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley, and it makes absolute sense to me ….) There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE.

Now … the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points … get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. …

There is, admittedly, something very dated about all those “brothers” and “citizens” – those attempts to jive and be hip – but it’d be a mistake to let them distract you from the substance of what Olson is saying.

It’s not that I mean to imply that Paterson is in any way a doctrinaire, card-carrying adherent of North American open form poetry (any more than he’s a follower of Whitman, Pound or Eliot). But there’s a basic affinity, I’d argue, in all his verse with these electrifying precepts of Olson’s.

How, then, does he accomplish his own transfers of energy “from where the poet got it” to that “which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away”?

“A third term.” It’s a strangely resonant expression. Olson is thinking presumably of the third person in grammar – but perhaps also of Greek Drama. It was Sophocles (we’re told) who accomplished the innovation of placing a third actor on stage. The implications were so enormous that they took quite some time to grasp. No longer did two characters have to address each other only, using “I” and “you” – the first two personal pronouns. Now they could confer about a third character (using “he” or “she” or even “they” – the advent of the third person), and thus conspire and gossip piecemeal as well as collectively.

Paterson’s Africa (like his poem “The dictionary of battles”) is couched, for the most part, in the second person, but this time the poet’s interlocutor remains general and undefined:
You travel by train
to wherever it’s going
– Morningside to Newmarket –
knowing what’s been done
has been done
& the destination
doesn’t matter … [11]

This is certainly an unusual decision for a long narrative poem. It has the effect of involving the reader in every action, every debate, every decision. Somewhat adventitiously, some might complain. After all, do we really share this extraordinary range of opinions, travels, deeds with the author of Africa?

It’s clearly a deeply meditated choice, though. No accidents of grammar need be expected in an Alistair Paterson poem:
when you were
twelve years old
wading the tidal flats
watching the gulls
wheel overhead

of the mountains
lifting up behind you
tides falling away
in front of you.

And I remember it,
all of it – the stillness
of air, of earth,
that the sky
called my name. [17]

That’s a beautifully resonant passage, but the point I want to make about it is the shift: the change from generalised experience – from the Jungian collective unconscious perhaps? or even from Wordsworth’s description of the reflection of a mountain in a lake in The Prelude (1805) – to the strictly personal: “I remember it, / all of it” [my emphases] … “that the sky / called my name.”

It’s a risky procedure Paterson has adopted. There are moments when the range of personal, historical and literary events he admits into his poem threatens to overwhelm it. How, for example, are we advanced by the following short passage?
Forster’s in India –
he’s writing a book
thinking of a title
– something catchy –
perhaps calling it
A Passage to India … [54]

E. M. Forster, yes. He visited India twice: before and after the First World War – as recorded in his travel book The Hill of Devi (1953) as well as his classic novel A Passage to India (1924). And of course there’s the further interesting detail that the title “A Passage to India” was in fact borrowed from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But what do these lines, in this poem, actually tell us that’s new?

“Out of Africa always something new,” is the standard translation for the Latin tag I used as a title for this essay – it comes from the Roman naturalist and encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, killed (a premature martyr to science) when he ventured too close to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD (it also supplied the title for Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir Out of Africa, inspiration for the 1985 Robert Redford / Meryl Streep film).

The point of India in Paterson’s book, then, seems to be largely as background or contrast to his own principal discovery in the poem – the vehicle he uses to convey a complex of ideas about time and experience: the mythological schema he has derived from a defunct sub-tribe of the Bushmen of South Africa. Or, rather, the record of that set of myths made by the European scholars Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the late nineteenth century.

Africa has always played a well-defined role in European thought: the perpetual Other, the source of novelty and wonder. One might perhaps express it in a series of binaries: black against white, savagery against civilisation, desert against irrigation, jungle against clearing, darkness against light. Paterson’s Africa seeks to go past that, however, past the orientalising tendencies of shopworn, bargain-basement cultural assumptions, to something of the living reality of those long-ago /Xam tribesmen.

Paterson makes the point, in the blurb to his poem, that:
Africa looks at and considers the complexity and disjointed nature of everything that floods into us from radio, television, and the events of everyday. … The magical and mystical system of beliefs of the /Xam-Ka !ei included a deeply held conviction that animals, people and their spirits, the past and present coexist with each other. [7]

In other words, he finds in the beliefs of this long-vanished tribe an analogue to Marshall McLuhan’s global village, where the medium is the message and white noise the result of so many talking at the tops of their voices all the time. He goes on:
The poem reflects the world as the /Xam-Ka !ei people might have seen it – with the past and present occurring simultaneously – and allows it to be experienced in terms of linguistic and verbal impressions and colours in a manner similar to that in which a musical composition might be experienced. In doing this it follows up on the work of Bleek’s and Lloyd’s /Xam teachers presenting their voices and experiences as they might have wished and as respectfully and effectively as poetry allows.

Paterson, it would appear, wishes us to regard all the disparate elements in his poem as being held in balance in one single packed moment of time. A time which is simultaneously all times: a point of suspension like Borges’ Aleph (in the story of the same name) – or, for that matter, like Mozart’s description of his own process of composition: the fact that he could apprehend the whole duration of a symphony or concerto as a single durationless thought.
If the poem has a theme it’s that reality comes from within as much as it does from without, that our African origin persists in all of us and links us together, that in belonging to the same world we have a duty to care for and support each other.

The disparate pieces of Paterson’s mosaic do lack resolution and completeness. Like the passage above about E. M. Forster, or the restless invocations of Columbus, Mendelssohn, even Sir George Grey, they fade into one another like slides in a magic lantern. As individual passages some are moving, some dismissable. But that, of course, is the point the poet is making.

Outside our web of necessary relationships nothing does mean anything in particular. The strength of Paterson’s poem is that it gradually begins to build up a complex image of such extraordinary tenderness and vulnerability.

That is Paterson’s secret strength as a poet, the source of the “equivalent energy” he can give to his readers to take away with them. He cares deeply about the people around him and the world we inhabit in common – not in a rhetorical sermonising way, but with passionate intensity.

The point of Paterson’s India, then, is that it might function as someone else’s Africa. In this case, I’m forced to admit, my India as much as E. M. Forster’s (or Walt Whitman’s). On pp.52-53 of his poem, Paterson refers to my own description – from A Bus Called Mr Nice Guy (2005) – of “The most beautiful thing I’ve seen in India:” an extraordinary, half-decayed fresco of the god Shiva with Parvati on his knee in a room in Kochi, Kerala. Needless to say, Alistair wasn’t there himself. Even I had to recheck the book to remind myself of the details of the experience.

The point Paterson is making is that we all have this residue of what seems incommunicable experience. In his case, the discovery of Wilhelm Bleek’s notes on the mythological system of this extinct South African tribe. How can we tell, at this distance in time, how accurate their transcriptions and descriptions are? Perhaps Bleek and Lloyd got it significantly wrong. We’ll never know. But it’s insulting to them and to their long-dead informants to see all that detailed work as wholly futile.

In Africa, Paterson has tried to present “their voices and experiences as they might have wished and as respectfully and effectively as poetry allows.” It’s not his own experience of Africa he wants to get across – Africa is, in fact, for him, simply a term for the Other: for that separate consciousness we can never entirely share but can impinge upon.

“In belonging to the same world we have a duty to care for and support each other,” he says above. It’s not a question so much of should as must – we must care for and support each other because otherwise the game threatens to get away from us altogether. We’re forced by circumstances – by the facts of ecology and history – to hang together or separately.

Might Paterson be accused of plundering the sacred repository of this extinct tribe’s cultural riches? It has been known. Cultural appropriation is one of things Europeans have become notorious for in the past couple of centuries, the era of colonialism.

I hardly think such a charge could be made to stick. His point is quite different – not that //Kabbo and the other /Xam witnesses inhabited a world of particular interest, but that we all do. Are we to give up translating and making allusions to Grimm’s Fairytales (Wilhelm Bleek’s countrymen) for fear of being accused of similar insensitivity? What does belong to us? to you? to me? On the one hand (of course), everything we’ve ever read or heard about – on the other: nothing at all. Did you craft the underpinnings of our own particular cultural paradigm? I certainly didn’t. He’s not speaking for them but for himself.

In Paterson’s vision, then, I too become one of his informants, as do all the others he’s read and talked to in the course of a long, rich life. Africa, then, is Paterson’s Summa: the distillate of a thousand places, people, traditions, thoughts.
That it’s so life-affirming a message, so beautifully balanced a piece of writing, is a tribute to those decades of poetic dedication, that hard apprenticeship learning that “form is never more than an extension of content” and that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception” in order to convert “an energy which is peculiar to verse alone” into one which the reader, that “third term,” can take away.


1. “Africa will always bring something new” – Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79).


Poetry NZ 37 (2008): 101-08.

[2726 wds]

Poetry NZ 37 (2008)

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