28 January 2009

Jane Mander part 3: The poem

Readers of My Iron Spine (or of Takahe, where the poem first appeared) may recall my poem 'Jane Mander'.

Now it is time for me to confess that when I wrote it I knew pretty much nothing about Jane Mander, except that she'd written The Story of a New Zealand River (which I hadn't yet read). I just had this idea of the river - influenced obviously by the title of her novel - and the whole casting off Victorian repression thing, which was probably influenced by The Piano.

Once I wrote it, I did check up on the bare facts of Jane Mander's life, just to make sure it wasn't wildly contradictory, and decided that she did sound like someone who had worked to cast off Victorianism, though perhaps not in such a suggestive way.

Anyway, here's the poem:

Jane Mander

Time is a river
I am not the first to say this
I will not be the last

As I walk out the front door
down the stairs, over the grass
I am already unbuttoning

I leave my blouse
on the box edging
my petticoat floats on the pebble path

I kick my shoes into
the rushes, unclamp
my corset from myself

I crouch as the chill water
surrounds me, laps at me
I launch out, start to swim upstream

It is easier to dream downstream
but I am swimming back
into the past

Memories trickle over my skin
evaporating as the breeze
breathes over my shoulders

I push with my arms
bobbing against the current
finding my way back towards the source

26 January 2009

Jane Mander part 2: Story of a New Zealand Writer

Once I'd finished The Story of a New Zealand River, it didn't take long to also polish off The Story of a New Zealand Writer – a biography of Jane Mander by Rae McGregor. I found it interesting and inspiring, but kind of in a cautionary-tale kind of way.

She's someone who was quite thwarted in her life. She was born in 1877 and grew up in the Far North, where her father cut down Kauri trees for timber. She was a teacher for a time, and later, when her father's political aspirations led him to buy The Northern Advocate newspaper, she became a journalist and worked for his paper. Probably not the first time, and certainly not the last, that she was to be useful to him.

She was already 35 when set off overseas to do a journalism degree in New York. She didn't finish the four-year course, but in the 20 years she spent overseas she wrote and published six novels, of which The Story of a New Zealand River was her first (and, according to her and others, her best).

During this time money was a constant struggle, and it was lack of money that finally drew her home at age 55. While she was away – and in fact, before and after – she is not known to have had any romantic entanglements with either men or women (some have assumed that because she returned to NZ with a short severe haircut, that she was a lesbian, but apparently there's no evidence for this).

Her family were keen for her to return, and said she would have peace and quiet to keep writing. Her father promised her enough money to live on. The reality turned out rather differently. Like many unmarried women of the time, she ended up as an unpaid housekeeper for her elderly and miserly father, and her mentally ill sister. To get a bit of money, she wrote a book review page for a newspaper and did occasional radio broadcasts. But she never published another novel.

As well as Mander's life, The Story of a New Zealand Writer also had a final chapter about the aforementioned controversy over The Piano's similarity to The Story of a New Zealand River. The plot thickens, because Jane Campion had at one point been asked to direct the adaptation of the book, which had been written by friends of hers. She decided against it, but not long after The Piano was underway. There was talk of legal action, but none eventuated. No one will or can talk about what actually went on, so we might never know.

To be honest, I don't think I would have tried to adapt The Story of a New Zealand River for film – or at least not with a lot of changes. As it stands, the hero in particular would have been too much of a lecturing git.

24 January 2009

Save our national pride: does New Zealand have no good orators?

It's not exactly related to literature, but in my day-job blog I've written a post, Not as good as Obama: New Zealand political speeches about political oratory in New Zealand - obviously in response to all the goings on in the US. I've been asking people to leave comments about good New Zealand speeches or speech makers, or really even just about the topic. There's been some interesting responses so far, and feel free to join the discussion.

19 January 2009

Jane Mander part 1: The Story of a New Zealand River

So fiction and avoidance of spoilers won out and I finished reading The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander, before finishing The Story of a New Zealand Writer about Jane Mander.

Have any of you read it? It's an interesting book, first published in 1920. It's one of those books I'd heard and heard about as a classic New Zealand novel, but had just never gotten around to reading it before.

The first thing that struck me was that it begins with very old-fashioned attitudes - such as English=good, colonial=bad. But it actually ended with what seemed to be some fairly radical attitudes for a book of it's time - or at least a New Zealand book of it's time.

I'd heard that there was some connection of the story of The Piano - the film by Jane Campion - that there were similarities with The Story of a New Zealand River, and that there was some talk of legal action against her by the people who had the rights to the novel.

So I was reading it looking for similarities, and there certainly are some: a British woman (English in the book, Scottish in the film) with a name beginning with A (book=Alice, film=Ada) travels to an isolated part of the north of New Zealand with her piano and her spirited daughter (book=Asia, film=Flora - and in the book she also has infants Mabel and Betty) to live with her new-ish husband who she doesn't love. But she does grow to love another man of lower social status.

So far, so much sexual repression. But really that's about where the similarities end. The film takes place over a fairly short time, while the book is over more than a decade. The characters are fairly different, and in the book they're generally more likeable and more restrained.

There's also a lot more lecturing in the book - mainly of Alice (who isn't mute, unlike Ada) - and there's a lot about 'free thinking'. I was interested to read that Jane Mander has been very influenced by The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (as reflected in the similar titles) which is also very concerned with radical free-thinking ideas and non-traditional morality. But The Story of a New Zealand River is written in a more standard narrative form than its predecessor, which is more modern, disjointed and, at times, downright mystical.

18 January 2009

Review of JAAM 26 in Southern Ocean Review

There's a review of JAAM 26, edited by Tim Jones, in the latest issue of Southern Ocean Review.

Reviewer Trevor Reeves is very positive about the work selected: 'Tim Jones knows his stuff and chose well. Beginning middle and end, all well crafted and with surprises.' And he has nice things to say about JAAM in general: 'Definitely one of the more prestigious literary magazines around these days.' As co-managing editor (with Clare Needham), that's very gratifying.

Unfortunately latest issue, the fiftieth, is the last ever of Southern Ocean Review. It will be sad to see it go.

15 January 2009

One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds: disappointment to delight

So after very specifically requesting this book for Christmas, I wasn't very surprised to find it turn up in my Santa sack (though that would more correctly be a 'Sean sack', as I certainly don't believed in Santa, and even if he does exist he doesn't give me any presents).

I've written about Sharon Olds before – I'm a big fan of her collection The Wellspring, which was – or at least appears to be, one doesn't want to be too presumptuous – very autobiographical, and very real. So I was particularly interested in One Secret Thing, because the back cover says it 'completes her cycle of family poems', and I assumed it would be in the same vein as The Wellspring.

I started reading it in snatches late last week. It began with a series of poems about war. Not particularly autobiographical, I thought, but oh well. There were some nice moving bits, and nice images. (For example, from 'The body' this description of a corpse: the lovely one is gone, the one who/rode it, rider on a mount, the one who had/a name and spoke.') But I was a bit unsure what to make of this section. Later, on reading the back cover more thoroughly, I learned that 'This vision of strife between nations is followed by indelible new poems of conflict within a family', and it did make a bit more sense in a thematic sort of way.

I confess, as I read on, I was feeling a bit disappointed. These poems about the narrator's (/author's) unsatisfactory childhood just weren't working for me, and the language often seemed clumsy and over-cooked.

Things picked up at the beginning of part three, when she started writing of herself as a mother (this is very much a book of mothers and daughters – the narrator playing both roles in her different relationships), and I thought I might recommend 'Umbilicus' and 'When Our Firstborn Slept In' to my friends who are mothers of babies:
—while she slept, it was as if
my pierced ankles loosed themselves
and I walked like a hunter in the horror-joy
of the unattached. Girl of a mother,
mother of a girl, I paced, listening
Unfortunately, my disappointment came back as I plodded through the rest of part three.

But then I reached part four, 'Cassiopeia', and everything changed.

We've already met the narrator's difficult strict mother and her dreadful second husband in previous sections, but 'Cassiopeia' is about her mother after his death. The first poem (or rather, section of a long poem) '1. He is Taken Away', caught my attention – it seemed clearer, sharper and tighter, like the poems I remember from The Wellspring.

But '2. The Music' was the clincher. In it the narrator talks to her mother on the phone: 'she has been sorting/her late darling's clothes', 'her voice through her tears like the low singing/of a watered plant long not watered'. And I'm going to quote a large bit here, because this what really got me:
Now my mother sounds like me,
the way I sound to myself—one
who doesn't know, who fails and hopes.
And I feel, now, that I had wanted to never stop blaming her,
like eating hard-shelled animals
at mid-molt. But now my mother
is like a tiny, shucked crier
in a tide pool beside my hand. I think
I had thought I would falter if I forgave my mother,
as if, then, I would lose her—and I do
feel lonely, now, to sense her beside me,
as if she is only a sister.
Wow! Perfect.

This section continues through her mother's mourning, through rebuilding their relationship during her mother's decline.

Part five, 'One Secret Thing', continues the story with her mother's death, and the narrator's mourning. It's totally heartbreaking, but also restrained and quiet.

The poems that really, really worked for me more than make up for the ones that didn't. Amazing and inspiring writing.

09 January 2009

Review of My Iron Spine in Takahe

I was delighted to discover this morning, when I finally sorted through a bunch of mail for JAAM, which had been forwarded on by Mark Pirie (my publisher and former managing editor of JAAM - when we first started JAAM, we used his dad's place for the address, then we shifted to Mark's address, then we got a PO Box. Mark's dad has moved, but years later JAAM mail is still going to his old address), and I discovered a copy of Takahe 65, containing a review of My Iron Spine!

The review, by Patricia Prime, takes My Iron Spine along with Tributary by Rae Varcoe and The Museum of Lost Days by Raewyn Alexander, and looks at them as all transforming 'personal observations into universal truth'.

About the first (autobiographical) section of my book, she says '[t]his is not the indulgence of a self-obsessed woman ruminating on mundane moments heightened by its references to the cold war, God and art, to which we can all relate, rather it is the exultation in presenting these very movments in the tight metre which illuminatates both the language and the experience'.

And of all three books she gushes:
These are poems which will make you gasp - with wonder, delighted, laughter and amazement. Their power to do all this resides in more than their subject matter. Every word, line, verse and stanza in these three collections has been weighted against the highest measure of truth and lucidity. Their work is distinguised by its virtuosity, control of language and feeling. The poems are imbued with a combination of intelligence and compassion.
Can't complain about that!

Also in Takahe 65 are poems by such writers as Emma Neale, John O'Connor, Mark Pirie and Helen Lendorf, stories by Owen Marshall and others, and essays including one on the artwork of Seraphine Pick. I also discovered that my dear friend Vana came second in the Takahe Poetry Competition (judged by Michael Harlow), and that the lovely Siobhan Harvey is taking over from James Norcliffe as poetry editor for Takahe. I guess this means that editing JAAM 25 hasn't put Siobhan off editing literary journals, which will be to our literary benefit I'm sure!

In other news, it is my last day of proper holiday - though I do have the weekend to go. To confirm my holiday-ness, I'm still in my dressing gown. I have been up for ages though, reading.

It has continued to be much more of a reading holiday than a writing one, though I have gotten back to writing in my journal in the last few days. I have been (and still am) in a mood where I want to stuff other people's words into my brain.

Since my last post, I've finished the fabulous book of interviews with David Lynch, Lynch on Lynch. I find his way of working so inspiring. He's very intuitive and refuses to explain his movies, believing logical explanation ruins the magic.

I've started and finished a biography of French writer Colette - about whom I knew very little - she's always been a little confused in my head with George Sand, though I knew she was more recent. Katherine Mansfield mentions Colette in her letters or journals (or possibly both) - she had a dream about her one time. I had thought of Colette as a generation earlier, and though she was born a little before KM, they were both in Paris during the First World War, and had at least one 'friend' in common - Francis Carco, with whom KM had an affair. And Colette went on living long after KM, dying in 1954 at the age of 81.

I'd been meaning to read some of Michael Chabon's books for a while, after hearing that he's really good (though I suppose you'd expect a Pulitzer-winner to be good). So when we were looking for some more holiday reading (as if we need anymore books!) at Archway second-hand bookshop in Pukerua Bay, I picked up a nice looking copy of Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I was irritated to find, when I got home and popped it into the appropriate place of our overstuffed fiction shelves (yes, I alphabeticise my fiction by author - I used to be a pretend-librarian, and it helps me find things and I think it looks impressive) that I already had a copy. 'Time to actually read it', I thought. And, because it is a teeny book, it didn't take very long. This was Chabon's first book, written when he was 23. I admit to making jealous and bitter remarks about this while reading it, because it's very good.

I'm now reading at least three things: The Story of Film, which I started ages ago and have just got back into this morning, and The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander and The Story of a New Zealand Writer about Jane Mander. I can't quite decide whether to read her most famous novel first, or read about her first, so I've been reading a little bit of each. I think I might carry on faster with the novel though - the biography probably has spoilers.

02 January 2009

Happy New Year, and stuff

Hello hello! Happy New Year!

I've just come back from a short and lazy holiday up in Otaki, and have been inspired to write a new post by having two comments waiting for me.

Hope you all had nice Christmases and New Years. We've had a very good friend staying with us, and so headed up the coast to stay in Sean's parents' house for some slouching around and reading and getting sunburnt time. (The sunburn wasn't deliberate, but was hard to avoid). Am back much relaxed, but haven't written a jot. I seem to be in a reading-rather-than-writing time just at the minute, and I'm of a mind to just go with that.

Got several fabulous books for Christmas, but I'm not reading any of them. Things I got include Cosmopolis by Don Delillo (very much enjoyed his White Noise, which I've read several times, but had never gotten around to reading anything else by him. So Sean helped me out by buying the shortest one. I've read it already and really liked it, but not as much as White Noise - mainly because it isn't as funny.), One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds, Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones, the two dreamhunter books in one volume by Elizabeth Knox, and, all the way from Edinburgh, a rather nice edition of The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, signed by Margaret Atwood. I did my masters thesis on Margaret Atwood. My friend was going to tell MA that when she got her to sign it, but there wasn't time. I told her this was probably fortunate because she apparently thinks people who write their theses on her are a bit crazy. (My thesis was called I'm the Plot Babe: Fairy Tale Intertextuality in the Fiction of Margaret Atwood. I took too long to write it, but read lots of novels, fairy tales and feminist theory, and wrote most of the poems in Abstract Internal Furniture, so it wasn't a wasted two-and-a-half years at all.)

What I am actually reading at the moment is The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (of whom I'm becoming a bit fan - not long ago read The End of the Affair - brilliant, and had previously read Brighton Rock - also brilliant), and a book of interviews with David Lynch. I'm a bit fan of David Lynch. I don't care that no-one else except me and Sean and two or three other people in the entire world liked Inland Empire, I think the man is a genius. I'm inspired by his work and how you have to read them emotionally for them to make sense.

A week or so ago I finished reading a biography of Stanley Kubrick, who is another director I really admire. It was really interesting, and was looking back over his whole long career - but I was mortified to discover when I came to the end that not only was it written before he had died, but it was written before Eyes Wide Shut was released! So nothing about the finished film, and nothing about AI. I think I might find another, more recent, Kubrick biography and read the very end, just for the satisfaction.