new zealand electronic poetry centre

 

Murray Edmond


essays
[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, footnotes]

  

THEN IT WAS NOW AGAIN:
NEW ZEALAND POETRIES AND COLONIAL HISTORIES


First published in UTS Review 6.1 (May 2000): 104-29.

The broken faces; all the broken faces
That put together make the mask of knowledge.
- Robin Hyde, "Young Knowledge"
(1)

 

Janet Frame's novel Intensive Care (1970) ends in the future after the sub-normal Milly Galbraith has been executed under the powers of the Human Delineation Act, a law of classification which allows for the elimination of all the weak, unproductive, and damaged members of society (anything labelled 'animal') in a futuristic New Zealand, which has, yet again, been turned into 'a social laboratory of the world'. (2) One of Milly's executioners, the university computer whizz Colin Monk struggles with the fact of what Milly leaves behind - an exercise book, which chronicles her life, and which, in the text, forms a large part of the last third of the novel. A colleague of Monk's dismisses the possibility of the document: 'Obviously Milly Galbraith couldn't have written this'. Trying to explain why he has kept it, Monk says, 'It seemed . . . an historic document to preserve, for posterity', to which his colleague replies, 'I'd forgotten about posterity'.

Monk realises that by preserving Milly's diary he has shown a sign of his own weakness and that he, too, will lose in the same way Milly has already 'lost': 'I began losing the first day, when the news of the Act came to me and I signed the oath of agreement. Why of course, I said, I'll do anything you ask'. As he opens his front door, saying good night to his colleagues, he smells 'the sweet smell of the still-burning fires of the dead', which hang over the city, and, in a feat of imaginative self-defence, Milly's executioner proposes to himself a situation where the past reappears in the present:

What a turmoil my mind was in that night. I came to the point of supposing it had all been a dream, that I had got myself into a fictional city at a fictional time, so strange that the present had split, like the earth beneath me, and the past and its people and seasons surged forth like a fountain, and then it was Now again, a season with pear blossom, and the fires of the dead were burning over Waipori City. (3)

Monk's apocalypse happens backwards, as history catches up from behind and overwhelms the present. Frame's epical novel, which traverses time from the First World War until this future attempt to create 'the perfect society', ends with a satiric account of the outcome of this wiping clean of the slate and beginning again to write the story called history:

I have forgotten to mention the surge of nostalgia for things and experiences animal, how even in spite of the Classification and the Sleep Days the animal in man could not be subdued, and had the Government kept to its original plan the so-called human race might have been exterminated. Such has been the desperate need for survival at any cost that the conditions of the Act have become less restrictive. . . . . And now so deep is the nostalgia for that called miscalled - animal, that the deformed, the insane, the defective, the outcasts, the unhappy have become the new elite. I have known a man, these past few days, break both arms, deliberately, so that he, intelligent, healthy, declared human, may escape sentence of early death. (4)

This image of the constant revision of the narrative of history tends to picture progress as a blundering from delusion to delusion. And if this is the case, then, how can you write about it, since you are always in it, part of it? Such a self-awareness, the sight of yourself in the mirror endlessly refracted as an infinte play of the same repeated sign, has recently, long since Frame wrote Intensive Care, walked around wearing the sandwich board bearing the logo 'post-modernity'.

New Zealand, in one aspect, is just a tiny corner of this historical crisis of history in the 'West,' in which the ex-British colony is an outpost. But, as an ex-colony, New Zealand, or Aotearoa (its post-European settlement Maori name), has been engaged, over the past decade and a half, in a different kind of revision of its historical narrative, one in which the world of the colonised, the Maori world, a world which for nearly a century, since the end of the land wars in the 1870s, remained largely invisible to the European colonisers and their descendants (who have come to be collectively referred to by the Maori word 'Pakeha'), has rushed forward from the past to overwhelm the present. In contrast to Frame's vision of false improvement, this revision has been perceived as progressive, in the sense of replacing wrongs and errors with compensation and correction, rather than the exchange of one delusion for another.

This essay looks at how the story of the creation of a national poetry relates to these scenarios, the circular and the progressive. In doing so, I will also touch on Modernism's progress narrative, the story of 'making it new', which contributed significantly to forging a national literature. I will also look at a third progress narrative, the New Right's attempts to make new the economic and social structure of New Zealand from 1984 till the present, and how these are strangely reminiscent of the early colonial planned settlements in New Zealand, carried out by the New Zealand Company. A persistent question will be how the very gestures that seem to point towards the emergence of a genuine nationalism and a local authenticity can also be read as a continuing colonialism. The essay takes lost or marginalised literary texts and texts that may or may not be considered 'literary' at all, and reads them for the historical knowledge they embody. Since I am a New Zealand poet myself, my method is borrowed from poetry as well as history, proceeding as much by the free-associative leaps of language as by the more sturdy links of concatenation. History is often conceived of in tropes of shape and figure, like a choreography for instance, a circle or a line like an arrow but it is also worth keeping in mind Walter Benjamin's famous image of 'a pile of debris'.

That these two kinds of historical revision, the circulating delusion and the amended past, can exist simultaneously, is a sign of the decolonising and colonising forces at work. In Intensive Care, Janet Frame encapsulated, in the words of Milly Galbraith's diary, this possibility of a world of two worlds:

Do not be deceived you may be living in it and not know, because two times can live together and the one doesn't know the other one is living because if you're in one time whatever would make you want to think there is another there going on through the light of day and the dark of night? (5)

Historians have also raised the question of the existence of two worlds. For instance, Miles Fairburn writes:

Most historians have seen New Zealand's past as a story of progress. Its history does not consist of decline and fall, of cycles, of movement back to a golden age, or even a meaningless sequence of events, but of cumulative improvement. (6)

In contrast, M.P.K.Sorrenson points to a different kind of history altogether: 'The Maaori have a cyclical view of history, expressed by the phrase ngaa waa o mua, the old times which are in front of us'. (7)

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Last updated 02 March 2004