In the Shop of Wah Lee (2006)

Alistair Paterson, ed.: Poetry NZ 32 (March 2006)

In the Shop of Wah Lee:
Denys Trussell – Poet, Musician, Ecologist

Of cassia bark,
ceremonial swords,
pungent black beans,
basmati rice fragrance …

of the ten thousand things
named in the tao
of your people

you have made
a trading house
to distract and delight.
Walking into the Millennium, 38-39.

Early in 2005, the poet Paula Green curated an exhibition for the Auckland City Council called “Poetry on the Pavement.” Of the twenty-odd poems she chose to have painted on the footpaths of the Auckland CBD, one was Denys Trussell’s “Poem in the Shop of Wah Lee.” Where? Outside Wah Lee’s on Hobson Street, of course.

My friend Mary Paul told me she was in the shop on one occasion when the subject of the poem came up. “Some people just don’t get it,” remarked the young man behind the counter. “A woman came in the other day complaining that it was just a list. I told her that meant she couldn’t see the difference between a husband and a lover …”

The difference between a husband and a lover. The poem is a list: “of mung dhal / and dried anchovy, / kumquat syrup / and granite pestles, // of greek olives, / the golden oil / and the dull / blue metal of woks …” It’s a list, but not an inventory – the intoxication and romance of a lover, not the dull quotidian of a husband.

Nothing wrong with husbands, mind you. Very useful in their way, but, yes, they do tend to lack poetry. Unless, of course, they moonlight as lovers – hopefully of their wives, but then you never know …

Trussell’s poem is not complex in form. Each of the first five stanzas begins with the word “of,” a syntactical pattern completed in the last stanza with the words “you have made / a trading house / to distract and delight.” If the variety of the “ten thousand things” is the tao of Chinese culture, then simplicity could be said to be the tao of Trussell’s poetry. He, too, wishes to “distract and delight” – distract us (at least to some extent) from the pedagogic designs he has on us; delight us with the musical naming of things.

In a lecture on metaphors, Jorge Luis Borges once calculated that if each of the “ten thousand things” which make up the material world was matched up with one of the remaining 9,999 in order to create a new metaphor, then one would end up with 99,990,000 of them. That’s a mind-numbing number. It’s also a completely pointless exercise. The “ten thousand things” is (of course) itself only a metaphor for the countless phenomena inside and outside us. The naming of things thus becomes an extraordinarily risky exercise in selection. What is (or is not) significant? What needs to be named?

Trussell’s longer poems, in particular, have a geologist’s insistence on classifying the levels that go to make up a self in this world:
we sleep,
and deep beneath
our body dreaming
the basalt rhythms,
the granite waves,
the tensile ribs
of limestone,
vast frames
of earth’s hull
rock in their seismic tides.
Archipelago, 48.

There is, it must be admitted, a case for the prosecution. There’s an austerity to Trussell’s poetry which can be distancing. He seldom laughs, tells a story or an anecdote, seems to lack patience with the jagged little details of everyday life. He is, in short, high maintenance: he demands that we sit up straight, wipe that smirk off our face, take things seriously for once in a while …

“Just the kind of book to give your sister,” said Dylan Thomas of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, “if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy sort of girl.” I doubt the same could be said of Denys Trussell’s latest, Speaking to the Islands of the Ancestors. This is poetry with a capital “P” – designed for the concert-hall rather than the booze-barn.

And yet, and yet … there’s a place for dignity and ceremony, times when the guffaws should die down. Trussell is good at those:
J’ai rêvé tellement fort de toi –

I have dreamed so much of you

J’ai tellement marché,

I have walked so much

tellement parlé

spoken so much

tellement aimé ton ombre

loved so much your shadow

qu’il ne me reste plus
rien de toi –

that there remains for me
nothing more of you –

Il me reste d’être l’ombre
entre les ombres.

There remains to me only the being
of a shadow among shadows.

L’ombre qui viendra et reviendra
dans ta vie ensoleillée

the shadow that will return again
and again in your sunlit life.
Speaking to the Islands of the Ancestors, 19.

“The lines in French are a re-translation of a verse by the poet and resistance fighter Robert Desnos, who died at Terezine concentration camp in 1945. His words … are etched in red onto the wall of the island crypt.” The interesting thing here is the contrast in tone between the French and the English. Desnos’s verses are as simple and light as a feather, Trussell’s translation as heavy as lead, as monumental marble. “Il ne me reste plus / rien de toi” – none of you is left to me – becomes, in his rendering, “there remains for me / nothing more of you.”

Desnos thought he was just a guy writing a love poem to a girl. He had no way of knowing that he’d be turned into stone, transformed into a symbolic victim of oppression. I doubt he would have welcomed the discovery. His verses do, however, take on a strange, uncanny resonance when read in this way, written in red on the walls of the Mémorial des Déportations, on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. The literalism of Trussell’s translation somehow highlights this, allows us the experience of reading on various levels at the same time. It works. It’s a beautifully simple way of expressing the central point of his poem: what it means to a colonial outsider to go home, to re-encounter a live tradition from the outside.

It is indeed a multitudinous experience: finding out that one is an outsider to Western culture: the culture many of us, as émigré Europeans, grew up in; learning (in the process) vastly more about the potentialities of our own New World. Trussell’s book faces the challenge of expressing that dichotomy with dignity and restraint.

Denys Trussell was born in Christchurch in 1946 (the year after Robert Desnos’ death in the little fortress at Terezín). His primary training was as a classical pianist, under the tutelage of his father, William Trussell (who himself studied in France, at the Paris Conservatoire). It’s perhaps fair to say that Trussell’s perspective is still principally that of a musician. He has been a pioneer in the interpretation of local composers such as Lilburn, and continues to give concerts and teach piano students. As well as being his main source of income, the piano is also important to his philosophy of composition. His longest poem, Archipelago, was written deliberately in symphonic movements, and he is a firm believer in the importance of melopoeia, word-music, in poetry.

Trussell began to write poetry around 1970, with the encouragement of Stephen Chan, then editor of the Auckland University student magazine Craccum. The first poem he wrote was, in fact, about music, and his first published book, Dance of the Origin (1980 – reissued in 2004 with illustrations by Nigel Brown) was the text for a dance performance.

His other books of poetry are, in order:

  • Words for the Rock Antipodes (Auckland: Hudson / Cresset, 1986) [short poems]
  • The Man of Paradise (Auckland: Hudson / Cresset, 1991) [short poems]
  • Archipelago: The Ocean Soliloquies (Auckland: Hudson / Cresset, 1991 – reissued 1999) [long poem]
  • Walking into the Millennium & Shorter Poems, 1991-1998 (Auckland: Brick Row, 1998) [shortlisted for the Montana Book Awards]
  • Islands of Intimacy: Love Poems 1970-2000 (Auckland: Addenda, 2000)
  • Speaking to the Isle of the Ancestors: Four Long Poems and Commentaries (Auckland: Brick Row, 2005)

He has also written two biographies, Fairburn (Auckland: AUP / OUP, 1984), and Alan Pearson, His Life and Art (Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1991).

It’s fair to say, I think, that the biography of A. R. D. Fairburn is a particularly crucial text in this discussion of Trussell’s own poetic work over the past three decades. It was a pioneering book, the first in a string of biographies and studies gradually illuminating the history of the formation of modern literary aesthetics in New Zealand. Books such as Rachel Barrowman’s Mason (2003), Gordon Ogilvie’s Denis Glover: His Life (1999), and – perhaps most importantly – Lawrence Jones’s Picking up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945 (2003) have each given their particular slant on the period, but it’s worth remembering that Trussell was there first. (The Doctorate he earned for his work on the Fairburn biography was recently confirmed, after an interval of twenty-three years, by Auckland University. This coincides with a completely revised version of the book, soon to be reissued by AUP).

In retrospect, what is most striking about Trussell’s account of Fairburn is the way in which he is able to use it to formulate some of his own aesthetic dilemmas, half a century on. The passage on the “dual crisis” of the twentieth century artist, for example, could easily serve as an introduction to Archipelago, or his other works of the early nineties:
First, World War I had shown, as nothing of less violence could have, that the traditional values of bourgeois culture were derelict, and that the art forms which had grown up within the culture were no longer adequate to express its new condition. [62]

“Secondly … The New Zealander, a denizen of a landscape that could not be described by the poetic ‘tongue’ of English Romanticism, had to adapt even the stylistic innovations of the avant-garde if he or she were to express the unique qualities of life here.” This leads Trussell into a frontal assault on the poetic conventions of Modernism:
Poetry in the Western World had adapted to crisis by breaking into kaleidoscopic fragments. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was the most symptomatic poem, embodying in its very structure the fragmentation of culture … The danger was that if an artist had to advance so far into this universe of disintegration that it became the formal principle of his art, could art survive? … Even W. B. Yeats, that most musical of poets, felt that the great song of major poetry was coming to an end. What use the poet beating his wings against the iron realities of the time? The coming man was the technologist. [62-63]

A good deal of Trussell’s book is devoted to chronicling Fairburn’s search for an approach and an idiom which did justice to the unique historical situation of the New Zealand artist – from (generally) and yet not strictly of the Western World, the Northern hemisphere; adapting (as much by the introduction of exotic flora and fauna as by the rapacious clearing and exploitation of the land) and yet gradually more and more adapted to an alien environment.

There’s a passage later in the book, ostensibly about Jocelyn, Fairburn’s wife’s failure to see London as her “spiritual home,” where we can again detect Trussell speaking in propria persona:
She felt her roots were in the Pacific, in its lightning-charged waters, its spiky volcanic landscapes, and in the light that could define rocks with the precision of a sculptor’s chisel. … Human life for her was still a coming thing; she felt herself a child of the oceanic world where civilisation had yet to achieve a modern form, and lay latent still on the rim of this vast continent of sea. [99-100]

And there we find an overt statement of the third element of Trussell’s aesthetic. We’ve discussed (albeit somewhat cursorily) the naming of things, the necessity for word music – now we come to ecology. Trussell has been a dedicated ecologist almost as long as he’s been a poet. He was a director of the New Zealand branch of Friends of the Earth for many years, and is still a shareholder in that organisation. He co-edited Edward Goldmsith’s The Way (Tao): An Ecological World View in 1992, and has written numerous pamphlets, articles and broadsides over the years in support of ecological causes. How does that relate to poetry? In an essay on his own work in the collection Towards a Transcultural Future: Literature and Society in a ‘Post’-Colonial World, ASNEL Papers 9.1 (Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2004), he wrote as follows:
Ecology has a meaning that ties it into the arts. It is concerned with relationship of the parts of a living system, be it that of an organism or an entire biota. In considering relationship it considers a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Like the best in other sciences, its structure arises from an ecology of mind, a perception of infinite interrelationship in the physical world, reflected in the consciousness of the beholder. A similar ecology of mind exists in the arts. The oceanic organism of imagination connects the parts into a greater perceptual whole than their sum in an individual artwork and can make a new synthesis of all the symbolic and expressive resources of the cultural organism.
– “Poetry as Translation of History and Nature: The Poem Archipelago and the Ecopoetic Paradigm in the Pacific.” 135-56 [137].

Trussell’s plainly-stated desire, throughout all of his work, but particularly in the longer poems, is to achieve just such a synthesis, to compose a paradiso which might stand worthily beside Dante’s:
The hunger for paradise is saturated into Western consciousness: it is the lost, the yet-to-be-attained … Almost never, though, is it apprehended in all the richness and beauty that Dante attained at the end of The Divine Comedy. [145]

Just when one begins to fear that this plan is a little too ambitious, almost megalomaniac in its scope, Trussell retreats a little: “Its use [the word paradiso] in Archipelago is inevitably ironic.” Why? Because “as a dream driving history it must clash with nature.”

It’s no accident, then, that one of Trussell’s early books is called The Man of Paradise. Finding a way to live in nature and culture simultaneously, in the “intricate gardens, / the beautiful / conjunctions of lovers”:
and I walking
the blindest streets
of their love.
Archipelago, 73.

is, for him, the whole point of the exercise. It’s an all-or-nothing project, a breathtaking act of legerdemain.

A critic once famously accused post-war British writers of “biting off less than they can chew.” Denys Trussell’s work is certainly the antithesis of that. Whether he is really up to the task is less easy to say. When does ambition become hubris? Comparing oneself (if only implicitly) with Dante, Neruda, and Coleridge creates an awe-inspiring set of precedents …

Trussell’s quarrel with Kendrick Smithyman, a New Zealand poet of the previous generation, with an oeuvre built equally on the grand scale, is as good a way as any of interrogating the basis of his poetic.

In the notes to Walking into the Millennium, Trussell takes issue with Smithyman’s lines (from “An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia”):
If we live, we stand in language.
You must change your words.
– Smithyman, Selected Poems, 92.

“Smithyman’s lines grant to human language a totality, in regards to ourselves, and a limitation, in regard to non-verbal and non-human languages against which I argue.” [101]

But is this really what Smithyman is saying?
I write in her dust
on the bonnet of our station wagon
M A T E. That will do, for a time.

These are the lines immediately preceding the assertion quoted above. “Her” dust, the dust of death, of “Hine-nui-te-Po, She who is darkness,” negates our proudest strivings. “You cannot put by.” There is no future for us beyond dissolution: no future, that is, except that of friendship, community. M A T E doubles as an injunction to stand by your mates, to mate (i.e. to reproduce) – even, perhaps, to mate (checkmate: the endgame in chess).

Living, for Smithyman, is a perpetual negotiation with language. Changing your idiom thus becomes shorthand for changing your life. Trussell ripostes that “the dialogue of mind and nature is of many dimensions, and not just carried out through words,” citing the example of “instrumental music … a language that has no semantic content whatsoever, yet is still an intelligible form of communication.”

The problem here lies in the definition of the word “language.” Smithyman, I assume, is using it to mean any intelligible semiotic system: a set of signs understood to convey meaning. Music is (at least arguably) such a system – like the four scratched letters M A T E on his station wagon’s bonnet which denote the word “mate.” Trussell, on the other hand, sees Smithyman as excluding all non-verbal communication from his paradigm. What is more, he accuses Smithyman of being in the grip of a twentieth-century movement in linguistic philosophy which rejects the very existence of a world outside language: “Rien de hors-texte,” as Derrida famously punned: “Nothing outside the text” or “There is no context”:
Whatever the substance of communication: musical, sculptural, verbal, mathematic, we are authors only of a secondary self. In our primary selves, which includes the self of our basic emotional structure, we are the outcome of nature and evolution. [101]

It’s a fascinating debate. I would argue that Trussell oversimplifies Smithyman’s statement by failing to read it in context. “That will do, for a time”, the elder poet characteristically observes at the end of his musings. More to the point, though, the lines Trussell himself writes in riposte to Smithyman’s:
Language is within you.

Language is outside you.
Walking into the Millennium, 79.

are notably less resonant. Trussell’s besetting sin, in fact, is a failure to exploit the “negative capability” of poetry, defined by Keats as the Shakespearean of gift of remaining “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Trussell might be said to adhere rather to the school of Coleridge, who “would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.” The mere fact of providing such copious quantities of notes shows a fear on Trussell’s part that his audience will not understand him without help. He doesn’t expect us to be astute. Nor, apparently, does he trust his lines to speak for themselves.

To return to our starting point in that shop in Hobson Street, Trussell, I think, too often lets the husband predominate over the lover. At his best, in the delightful simplicity of poems such as “In the Shop of Wah Lee,” or the very moving “Letter for a Friend Dead in Auckland” from The Man of Paradise, he does us a very real service, reminding us of (at least) the possibility of fusing these three qualities: the variety of the “ten thousand things,” the music of the symphony, and – above all – the need to live in harmony rather than competition with the natural world:
Well, that’s
about it for now
Paul. I guess
that from the wreck
of its symphony
the sea will fling up
some new notes
of islands, or those
big sostenuto chords
of continents.
The Man of Paradise, 62.

I look forward to many such notes from Trussell’s eco-muse to come.


Poetry NZ 32 (2006): 85-94.

[3257 wds]

Poetry NZ 32 (2006)

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