Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Reviews

SUDESH MISHRA, Tandava. Melbourne: Meanjin Press, 1992.

The door towards my feet opened, and a low firm voice said, "Remain silent and do as we tell you to do. Keep your eyes closed."

(Anirudh Singh, Silent Warriors 12)

Images intensify in prison;

Time is a grid through which a turf of sky

Blazes at me. ("Detainee" 12)

It is time for me to write this review. It is a review of Sudesh Mishra's Tandava, a collection of poems centred mainly on Fiji. It is a review which opens onto so many issues, so many sensitivities, and touched by so many friendships and enmities that I cannot in any meaningful sense, hope to "conclude" it. Suffice to say that like Brij Lal in his new history of Fiji, I write with a sense of "critical attachment" rather than any sense of objectivity. This slim volume of verse is one I admire very much, and in very many ways.

Measuring the achievement of tandava entails more than a survey of its genius with words. No, we must begin with the "discourse police" Sudesh is fighting when he rejects clichéd ethnic divisions. We must deal with his audience(s), and only then with aspects of Tandava's achievement.

Who are the ones who perform this "discourse policing" in Fiji? They are many and varied: they include visiting anthropologists and tourists (both of whom equate "authentic Fiji" with a naively reified mythologization of ethnic "Fijian culture"). They include business people, they include members of the Taukei organization claiming ethnic Fijian supremacy, they include "experts" on Fijian customs, and cynical politicians who advocate ethnic solidarities.

The message is always the same: even if I cannot readily articulate it. In a colonial tradition famously indigenized by Ratu Sukuna, people like Sudesh Mishra or Anirudh Singh are seen as over-educated whingers. In fact, anyone who disturbs the balm of the coconut fronds is a nuisance. (Let us not forget that Anirudh and Sudesh were both roughed up by the military [and that Anirudh was actually abducted and tortured] for protesting against the racist 1990 "constitution.")

Are we merely to accept this? Lemming-like, it seems, most expatriates and tourists swallow the pill whole. If we don't, we are said to "not understand." All very well. But Indo-Fijians are called "typical Indians" if they dare say anything, and ethnic Fijians who complain are called exceptions or individualists if they voice dissent.

Discursive policing. It goes beyond the terrain of the mythical paradisal beachscape I have just described. The most insidious aspect of the whole business is that the policing occurs from within these mythic boundaries just as much as it does from without. This, therefore, is the domain of ethnic solidarities, of not mixing any more, of sticking to one's own. The oddly named "part-Europeans" are trained to "stay above" it. The "Indians" are exhorted by the likes of Maan Singh to stick together. The "Fijians" are told that they should actually stick more closely to the reified rules of chiefly-commoner reciprocity, and to identify themselves with Lasaro's version of the Methodist Church.

Sound a bit like apartheid? Not quite; nor is it so simply expressed. In fact, the very complexity of the situation calls for sensitive and detailed analysis. The trouble is that in this Fiji the leading motifs are supplied by tourists, anthropologists, and nineteenth century paternal governors. Most of these people focus on the identification and preservation of a "different" ethnic Fijian other. In consequence, the political dimensions of the situation are utterly obscured.

Fiji is not, therefore, an easy place to discuss critically in prose, let alone in verse. The university-based critical tradition that does exist is dominated by a crude Pan-Pacific Marxist rejection of colonialism, white colonialism. This work has been worthwhile, and is, I feel, Tandava's most basic platform.

But after the coups, many of the dissenting voices were stilled. Tandava is rare first of all because it joins that small group of "creative texts" that have even dared to name a dissenting position: in this sense, it stands alongside Vilsoni Hereniko's Monster, Larry Thomas's Men, Women and Insanity, and Nemani Mati's short story, "Morning Run." But none of these texts combines Sudesh's analytic power with his range of coverage. It bears saying that Tandava, composed after the fashion of a livre composé, is able at once to express a wide range of moods and to modulate these carefully according to the logic of a very sophisticated analysis, an analysis which takes in the coups, but which does so by giving voice to a truly diasporic self, one that is divided within itself in Fiji, and one which the events of 1987 divided again (hence the Australian connection: there's a clear sense in which this text lays its claim to "Australian Literature" and as such, par excellence). Bluntly: Tandava is neither an ethnicity-based call to arms, nor is it an instance of "bitter tears in my beer."

So let us take up this text. After "Irony," a self-conscious comparison of the poet with the court jester, there is the 15-poem "Feejee" sequence. "Feejee" is dotted with biting criticisms of Rabuka, "the usurping lout" (IX), of the Taukei "braggarts" (I), of "chiefs without receipts" (II), of army "boors" who "spit phlegm" (VI), or the (Indo-Fijian?) businessman who "[t]allies the annual spoils from his factory" (X, see also II).

Now even in this sequence, this sharpest of attacks, there are other notes sounded too. There's the opening remarks on the size of the place (for proportion? . . . to remind us of the missionaries disparaging attitudes?) There's sadness (V), there's reflection (IV), even hope that the "penny might drop" (VIII), or the notion that since discourse formations are made of words, words might therefore change them (XI, XIV).

I leap now to the closing sequence, "Sonnets for a Valediction." (Valediction = farewell, but farewell to what? To a best forgotten past? To the coups? To Fiji by the writer?) This sequence is not lighter than the opening sequence, but now analysis has overtaken emotion. Most of these tightly written sonnets place the current situation in Fiji in the context of its colonial history (1,2,5,6,7,8,9). Some, like "3. At The Movies," laugh outright; this particular poem gives us the situation in street language: "I don't think he go read the Holy Book/What wrong with him, he uncivilize or what?"

What has happened between these two sequences? Quite a lot, I assure you! There's the beautiful poem, "Detainee," capturing forever the poignance of a situation in which an Indo-Fijian teacher is jailed only to be served ever so deferentially by one of his ex-students, now his jailer: "Was a pupil of yours, Mr Datt, Grammar '74" (22).

There's Sudesh's speculation on life between Fiji and Australia, as in "Flight," for example, where the persona mistakes one place for the other (25). There's the celebratory humour of "Haunted Lines" (invoking, of course, Sandhya's account of his years in Fiji); there's the flippancy of a joy ride on a glider (44-45), and the wonderfully gentle humour of "Kitchen Philosophy" (in which a mother tells a child that God is inside the onion: after trying to find God in several onions, the teary-eyed child learns the value of human ribs!) So "Tandava" might be the Sanskrit name of Lord Shiva's dance of death, but this is not a dirge.

Another problem then. If its moods, settings and subject matters are as various as I say they are, is it not a dispersed collection? I have answered this in advance by calling it a livre composé. Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. But in Tandava, far more than in Rahu (his first poetry collection), the analysis is focused and centred. From a poetic point of view, Tandava represents a major advance over its predecessor.

Tandava is not set exclusively in Fiji. Nor should it be. After the events of 1987, no Indo-Fijian (no matter how naively patriotic) could ever imagine this to be his or her whole world (if nothing else, there's family overseas). Tandava describes the experience of the "diasporic Indian," of one whose very self-hood is defined by the primary fact of its displacement. It is a rare tribute to poetic skill and Sudesh's own sense of the logics of postcoloniality that the sheer range of moods, subjects, and settings, never once upsets the work's coherence.

This brings me to the question of the work's audience. Here in Fiji, Sudesh has been called obscure. And yes, this is a difficult text. But I believe there are good reasons for this.

First, he has a double audience. The very fact of a divided self guarantees this. He writes to the academy because the academy has weight, political weight. This text is a polemical one.

Second, the points he makes are difficult to articulate. His analysis is not a complicit regurgitation of seashell mythologies. Nor is it even an ethnicist position. Rather, Tandava performs a class analysis of the Fiji situation, condemning the hegemonic chiefs, the complicit business class, and the positions of all mainstream persuasions alike. The irony is that this pan-Fijian appeal defies the easy expression . . . and that is not Sudesh's fault!

Third, "poetry" might be a dying form, but those who still enjoy it will find here the last of its golden rays. Very few lovers of the art of poetry for itself could resist the dazzling virtuosity of these word plays, of the brilliant turning of the colonizer's language and cultural formations on themselves. Postmodernity at its best: the fabulous citation of Ezekiel's "Hinglish" in "Farewell Party for Miss Pushpa" when Sudesh reworks T.S. Eliot in "The Loving Song of R.J. Tangaya."

Unstinting praise then. Are there any reservations (this is a review after all). My only concern lies in the narrator's non-ironization of "his" gender position. Note that I am not criticizing Sudesh's carefully framed "businessman's" view of his secretary in the opening sequence (X). What I am trying to suggest here is that there is insufficient attention paid to the gender specific nature of the critique itself (for example, the "matronly" women peeling dalo in Sabbath--73). I know that another work Sudesh has in the pipeline addresses this issue directly, so I leave this remark as a passing observation.

Conclusions then. Already? I can see dozens of things in this collection that I still haven't touched: the use of Hindi, the use of odd English words, sheer playfulness (say of "Indian-Australian Association: Annual General Meeting"), the influence of W.B. Yeats, of Symbolism (yes, Sudesh has read Mallarmé), the dialogue with Hinduism (What's this Brahmin doing when he pisses in the Ganges?!)

But this is a mere review after all. What can I say, except do go out and buy it! Read it! It's a wonderful collection, well worth the effort! The poetic persona tells us he missed out on things:

. . . A decade or two since

(I understand soundly that a decade or two

Ago) there wasn't a slot in the uppity

throng

For brown lads who horsed on canefences. (Confessional 53)

A nostalgic moment perhaps: but after reading this collection, I've the feeling there's at least a sense in which he didn't miss out on too much!

John O'Carroll

University of the South Pacific


BRUCE BENNETT, AN AUSTRALIAN COMPASS: ESSAYS ON PLACE AND DIRECTION IN AUSTRALIAN FICTION. FREMANTLE: FREMANTLE ARTS CENTRE PRESS, 1991

The title metaphor (and word-play) of Bruce Bennett's collection of essays offers a strong intimation of the diversity of meanings of "place" and "direction" that the reader will encounter. Not only does "compass" operate felicitously in regard to Bennett's preoccupations in regard to theme; the notion also has metatextual value. The book fulfils admirably the author's intention of furnishing (almost all-encompassing) directional markers to a complex and fascinating area of enquiry. Most of the essays are piéces d'occasion (journal essays, conference papers); even the introductory essay is not "new," having been originally published as a monograph in 1985. But Bennett's concern over the past eight years or so to map for himself the territory of his preoccupations has had the effect of ensuring a high degree of consistency and absence of overlap from essay to essay. The material has nevertheless not been simply slapped together; Bennett has gone over everything conscientiously, making countless small revisions and making sure that the joins do not show. Bennett's presentation of his material is orderly, lucid and wide-ranging; though the focus of attention is on matters Australian, Bennett is aware of the artificiality of limiting enquiry to the autochthonous or the purely local, and he also provides rewarding insights into parallel situations in other regional literatures (e.g. North American).

The introductory essay, "Place, Region and Community," pinpoints the central interest of these terms, with regard not only to their geographical implications but also to possible sociological, psychological and historical associations. Regionalism and the once potent but now insufficient contrastive myth of "Sydney or the Bush" are among the topics submitted to concise and critical examination; Bennett here demonstrates his fine awareness of the fields of force that are generated by the tension between historical processes and contemporary relevance.

The compass needle circles for the first two chapters around two lodestones: Bennett approaches questions relating to cultural and epistemological placement via incisive, contrastive discussions of A.A. Phillips and Clive James (the provincial and the metropolitan), Les Murray and Peter Porter (patriot and expatriate). At a time when Murray (as an icon of hard-headed Australian values in polymathic, modernist garb) is coming under fire from "Old World" critics (Helen Vendler and Donald Davie among others), it is refreshing and instructive to have Bennett's clear-eyed and sympathetic stock-taking; Porter, in turn, is placed cogently in perspective and reclaimed for Australia, whereby Bennett's intimate acquaintance with his subject pays high dividends (his critical biography of Porter, Spirit in Exile, appeared in the same year as the present volume).

Bennett makes no bones about his provenance as a Western Australian, and there are few recent critics who have contributed as much to put this region on the cultural map. It therefore comes as no surprise that Bennett now strikes out for W.A. to investigate different aspects of the Literature. Various models of "the West" are exemplified via earlier textual treatments--Jacobean drama, the philosophy of the American frontier, the Canadian prairies. Bennett paints a fresh and authoritative view of the Western Australian landscape in its broadest aspects, and of the society he grew up in. There is some recursion to discussion of the same authors in different essays (Katharine Susannah Prichard, for example), but the angles taken are unfailingly complementary and augmentative, resulting in a richer and more comprehensive picture of a given author and his/her writing in its various and varying contexts.

Most of the essays deal with immanent and implicative aspects of the open landscape of Australia, and seek to relativize or discredit unproductively all past, and now irrelevant, mythologizing or romanticizing tendencies concerning the "eternal verities" of the bush, the hills and the outback. By contrast, Bennett has chosen not to broaden the scope of analysis to encompass place in its urban senses, despite the fact that it is in the cities and townships that most Australians live and writers write.

An essay on Olga Masters and Elizabeth Jolley explores the little-discussed topic of ageing. Similarities of style aside, the two writers differ in their treatment of their characters, which Bennett classifies as the (titular) "home girls" in Masters, and the "away girls" in Jolley. Mr Scobie and Edwin Page from The Sugar Mother are examples for Bennett of how Jolley's characterization is more distanced and intellectualized than that of Masters.

The essay slots into the overall theme of the volume via the concept of "home." This theme is broadened in the next two essays, which deal contrastively with the effects of environment on the human individual, and of the individual's efforts to improve the environment. These essays also deal with women's writing, the first being, rather, on women writing. Focusing on their lives rather than on their works, Bennett explores the links that exist between Catherine Spence and George Eliot, before extrapolating speculatively. What would have happened, muses Bennett, if Eliot and Spence had changed places, especially given Spence's admiration for Eliot and insight into her own incapacity to live and write like her British mentor within the context of her own South Australian society? Other writers seek and find other solutions to their anchorage in place. Judith Wright's ecological approach to the liveable world permeates both her poetry and her life. Bennett shows her as a young woman "whose work may be read as a series of personal pilgrimages to understand herself in relation to the environment in its regional and universal manifestations"; and he shows her in her maturity, as a universal ecologist whose ideas, as expressed in her poetry, may lead the way to a new understanding of (at least) Australia and its inhabitants.

In a more naturalistic application of the compass trope, Bennett devotes one of the closing essays to an exploration of Australia's relationships with Asia or the near North, both at the level of institutional discourse (official, governmental, educational, with their conditioned epistemologies of place and region) and at the level of literary representation. The image of Asian countries in Australian fiction forms the core of the essay. Astute observations are made on a range of works, from Marcus Clarke to more recent writers such as Koch, Drewe and D'Alpuget. The examples discussed reveal clearly how the Australian mental map of Asia has gradually been re-drawn to take on more positive, complex and symbolic hues.

An Australian Compass is an important contribution to the discussion of literary regionalism (despite, or because of, Bennett's disinclination to endorse such categories narrowly), by virtue of the author's sovereign handling of a diversity of skilfully interrelated topics.

Ulla Joussen


MICHEL DE CERTEAU, The Mystic Fable: Volume 1 [trans Michael B. Smith], Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1992.

Michel de Certeau is a well known name whose star is on the rise; in cultural studies he is particularly renowned for his concepts of strategy and tactics; in historical circles he is noted for his incisive critiques of Michel Foucault; but generally, among Anglophones, it is forgotten that his true vocation was as a religious historian. The three other translated works by de Certeau do not bear this out, which is, perhaps, one of the reasons why his work is so often misunderstood. The Mystic Fable should go a long way towards correcting a number of expedient, if not mistaken, readings.

Familiar themes emerge in this work that seem to be present in all of de Certeau's writing, themes which are the keystones to understanding his concepts. Contrary to their standard use, strategy and tactics are not doctrinal ideas. They do not, in the true sense of the word, offer an apparatus that can simply be applied, which is the trap most exponents of de Certeau fall into. Rather they are concepts. As such they should not be used in an analogical sense, nor in a metaphorical one, but as optical instruments: concepts, that perform like microscopes; they amplify a specific substance under investigation, but do not by themselves provide the answers. Strategic practices should not be looked for so that they can be opposed to tactical ones, as though they were two patently different things, as though they were, like "things," discreet objects. What this present work makes clear is that practices are not simply that which we do; they define a mode of being. In short, strategy and tactics are as much ontological concepts as they are epistemological.

De Certeau's history of 17th century mystics, which is essentially what this book purports to be--though it is much more than that--serves as a useful analogy for clarifying this aspect of strategy and tactics.

Although they [mystics] put themselves in a different position from that of the Church instruction ex cathedra, they claim nonetheless to bear witness to the same God. (181)

This point is seminal. Strategy and tactics are not names for opposing forces in a civil war that pits consumers against retailers, which is largely the picture John Fiske presents. Rather, strategy and tactics are movements, one towards the security of a place, the other away to the freedom of space. They are ways of operating.

Fundamentally, these concepts refer to a way of speaking. (De Certeau raises the very important question: "How is speaking or being spoken about constitutive of existence?" (164) They are a modus loquendi: the tactical--a turn of phrase, a slip of the tongue, a new use that transforms the old--encounters the strategic, institutional, conservative, and ultimately, written. Writing for de Certeau is the attempt to reinscribe the Word into religious life. In this regard it is analogous to the literal, that is, a prescribed, stable, referential meaning. Speech, particularly mystic speech, by contrast, is meaning set free, unfettered, transient and mobile. Speech is the means by which the strategic is subverted. The Word is pronounced differently. Deleuze and Guattari in their reading of Kafka outline a similar idea, the minoritarian use of a major language. Postcolonial theory could profit greatly by taking up this idea. Already, unknowingly perhaps, it has been put to use. What Mudrooroo calls "Aboriginal English" is precisely a minoritarian use of a major language. It is the harnassing of the power of metaphor (as Derrida defines it, the ever present possibility of meaning something else). "A tour and a detour, a turn of phrase, a conversion, the trope stands in opposition to proper meaning" (142). It is more than a begrudging acknowledgement of a patois, it is not just an accommodation, it represents a transformation of the major language that cannot be undone. It sends language on walkabout.

Had de Certeau known this term he would have delighted in it. On the last page of the book we find a definition of a mystic, which serves well to describe de Certeau also. "He or she is a mystic who cannot stop walking and, with the certainty of what is lacking, knows of every place and object that it is not that; one cannot stay there nor be content with that" (299). The wanderer, like the mystic, is an ambivalent figure, for he or she feels condemned to travel. They are driven ever onwards. And yet, there can be no doubt that the road is their element; although always in exile wherever they go, they are home when they are going. The nomad exists intermezzo, as Deleuze and Guattari put it in A Thousand Plateaus. The mystic too must journey.

An itinerant intellectual himself, Jesuit, historian, literary theorist and cultural critic, de Certeau embraces walking as a metaphor for getting lost, for losing one's place, for demonstrating the impossibility of being where one has been. As he says of Labadie the Nomad (Chapter Nine), "[h]is writing developed essentially as a way of walking" (290). History, he argues, follows footprints, maps the course, the where of walking, ignoring completely the way of walking.

Like the mystics, de Certeau emphasizes, in his analysis of discourse, how it is written, not so much what is written (14). To be on walkabout is to be without itinerary and without telos, a practice de Certeau would delight in since it defies being read: it is walking for its own sake. In the last instance, the institution cannot incorporate totally its meaning; some aspect always escapes, precisely because it is not a word of the institution's own devising, but comes from and symbolizes an elsewhere. Reading as deciphering, rather than as following, in the manner of Crusoe walking along his beach, fearing and delighting in the footprints he finds there, is relentlessly criticized by de Certeau in all his work; by getting lost he is arguing for a writing that cannot be read, for a speech that cannot be resaid, not even by the author ("appropriation by production"), for a meaning that belongs to no one (200). This is what his concept of heterology (a word not used in this work, though describing it very well) refers to, the question of who owns discourse:

Whatever the issues raised by "mystic" communication, the two verbs speak and hear designate the uncertain and necessary centre around which circles of language are produced. (159)

Mystic Fable is an interesting critique of historiography. It reviews what might be termed "ways of seeing," or rather, "ways of writing," for it is concerned with the way changes in society, in a variety of discourses, from scientific to theological, transform the way the world is seen: "things may have nothing but a semblance of meaning" (52). De Certeau reads history as though it were a painting by Bosch: his reading of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (Chapter Two) is in this sense exemplary. "The aesthetics of The Garden does not consist in generating new lights for intelligibility but in extinguishing it" (72). History for de Certeau is something that is produced as it is written. It can also vanish as it is read. "I 'expected to see'; in reality, by the effect of a slow inversion, I am seen" (71). History reveals the historian to historiography. This is not to say, however, that de Certeau gives license to an utterly subjectivist style of reading. Far from it. Reading is always the product of a place, a mindset, a system of thought. His most useful work for literary theory lies in his analysis of reading--he argues that above all else we need to know how we read. To do that we need to engage with systems of thought: ways of thinking determine ways of reading. By the same token, de Certeau does not argue that texts, especially ludic texts, are unreadable, or can be reduced to one thing ("a night where all cows are black"). But we must have devices for reading. Thus he argues for the production of concepts needed to read and a critique of these concepts in terms of how they shape reading.

Historiography is a strategic discourse, as compared with mystic discourse which is patently tactical. They each diverge on the question of time: "The historian makes time, via a chronology, a way of classifying data" (11). Time is transformed from that which slips away into that which measures, it is the movement toward discipline. The strategic always has an itinerary whereas the tactical is itinerant: "the mystic is seized by time as that which erupts and transforms . . . The endlessness of instants that are beginnings create, therefore, a historicity in which continuities lose their pertinence, just as institutions do" (11). Although it would appear from this example--historian compared to mystic--that the two are antithetical and forever locked in combat, this is not strictly the case.

As this book demonstrates, within each, the strategic as well as the tactical, the historiographical and the mystic, there is always a nostalgia for the other. In space the tactical build places, as though in their newness they can escape the very thing they fled in the first instance: the institution's constriction of their thought. The construction of places, even by the mystics, who in their habits resembled nomads, was not inevitable in the Foucauldian sense, in that the system always recuperates that which escapes, but in the essential sense that to enable speaking and hearing, platforms had to be built. And each broke away in order to disseminate his/her message free from the interference of the very corporation that gave them their voice:

The "mystic" word is always inclined to seek the protection of some "authorities" . . . against the "examiners" who in turn defend their position by reducing the mystic utterance to pretense (98-99).

That is to say, the tactical is always becoming strategic; it is motivated by a desire not only to subvert, but also to replace. Correspondingly, the institution fights tactics with tactics, it retains the power to exercise its influence strategically by remaining one step ahead tactically. As such, tactical manoeuvres by the non-strategic forces, perhaps best typified by "the nomads" as rendered by Deleuze and Guattari, play a direct role in the modification of the strategic. The mystics in their search for an adequate mode of discourse to articulate their experiences drew more heavily on the vernacular than their orthodox predecessors, thus giving rise to the profligate use of local or regional dialects within the church as a whole. Latin lost its hold. This did not lead to an ascendency of the patois, but it did create around the pristine edges of the Word a penumbra of ambiguity that hitherto had not existed. It made visible the fact that the bible, too, like all other texts, was subject to use, forcing the institution to work harder than ever it had before to retain its followers. And yet, all the while, the mystical sought only to renew faith. This point is crucial. Strategy and tactics diverge only on the question of practices. They share the same goals.

For the most part, where de Certeau's work is concerned, attention has been restricted almost exclusively to The Practice of Everyday Life. Practically nothing is known of his other works. The Mystic Fable is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand de Certeau's more famous book. It fills in a number of gaps, and provides a background against which The Practice of Everyday Life should be read. Interestingly, though, French commentators tend rather to focus on his work in the area of mysticism, of which this volume is but one among many he has written. De Certeau completed volume two of The Mystic Fable just prior to his death from cancer in January 1986. The final preparations were carried out by Luce Giard and it is available in French.

Ian Buchanan

Murdoch University

Notes

See for example, Luce Giard (ed) Michel de Certeau (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1987).

I would like to thank Jeremy Ahearne for his help and advice and for the attentive criticisms he made of an earlier draft of this review.


JANET FRAME, The Pocket Mirror, Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, Auckland: Random Century N.Z. Vintage pb. 1992; and

JUDITH DELL PANNY, I Have What I Gave: the fiction of Janet Frame, Wellington, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1992.

The Pocket Mirror is a remarkable book, being the only collection of poetry by New Zealand's foremost writer, and now reissued in an inexpensive compact paperback after twenty-five years and with, unlike the original, a complete page index to its one hundred and sixty-eight poems. No admirer of Frame's work can afford to be without this book.

In an interview with Elizabeth Alley, Frame once said: "I really think poems are the highest form of literature because you can have no dead wood in a poem." This was in reference to a remark by Sargeson, on novels: "a certain amount of dead wood is necessary." Yet Frame's own chosen medium is fiction which, in her hands, becomes such as to make even more interesting a creation like The Pocket Mirror. For this is a "poetry book" not without problems.

The poems don't seem "modernist," nor do they seem "post-" anything, not even just "traditional." And many don't seem to be altogether clear; words are used unfamiliarly, logic seems incomplete or topsy-turvy. As the book proceeds a very few move almost completely into the "portmanteau" language of "Jabberwocky."

Not to worry one little bit! It see to me that, rightly (in my view) regarding "poetry" as nuclear heart of literature, Janet Frame has skilfully avoided direct confrontation by concocting "nonce"-poetry that is almost "run off" for particular occasions, circumstances. It is, thus, informal, conversational, unpretentious, presents no mask or posture, is for the moment alone (but is not Lawrence's "poetry of the instant present"). Its great claim is integrity and, I suppose, a rendering that's simply appropriate for that moment.

And, of course, such writing has to be very personal. Being Janet Frame, she wrings every drop from the language, to perform perhaps for herself alone, to execute in this public domain arabesques, dances with words, that cast to the winds mere dull ratiocination. And indeed, said dear, dull, magnificent Wordsworth: "the grand elementary principle of pleasure" is poetry's one foundation.

There has been, since this book (1967) which presumably covers her writing up to and including State of Siege ('66-8 or 9 vols depending on UK or US count), no book publication of further poetry from Frame. Such publication would surely be welcome.

Inside this present collection the title poem itself is a revealing metaphor both for a central preoccupation of these pages, and for this little book's own possible use to its readers. I quote:

So many thousand times a minute

The light from the street lamps goes out.

I have devised a method by which this may be shown

to those to whom the facts of light are unknown.

Taking this pocket mirror, capture the reflection

of the row of lamps. Steady the mirror. So.

See those black stripes alternating with yellow?

They are bars of actual darkness not perceived by the naked eye.

To undeceive the sight a detached instrument like a mirror is necessary.

The human senses never speak the truth if they can get away with an easy lie. . . .

Frame's picture of this duality of "artificial" light is a brilliantly paradoxical metaphor for that interpretative imagination of our "human" vision, lending depth to our consciousness, rather than merely recording the surfaces of phenomena. Shakespeare spoke of the stage player, from the script, holding "the mirror up to nature"; Blake spoke of man being led "to believe a lie/ When you see with, not thro', the eye." So this kaleidoscopic and multifarious gathering of Frame's poems, here tumbling after one another, short, long, grave, gay, quizzical, rhapsodic, cumulates into a mini-cosmos, like its great original, blending into one Reality all these disparates--for the nonce. And that's your Pocket Mirror of Frame's World.

That is, up to 1967, a quarter of a century ago; and remember, Janet Frame came from deep in the frozen South. A recent novel, The Carpathians (1988), uses Maori metaphysics at its heart (very honestly consonant with those once dominant among European, not to mention other, tribes). Our earlier book is redolent of pakehatanga, of the physical and crowded cultural scenery of that other Hawaiki far side of the globe, and our local scene so arduously manufactured in its image.

English and European ballad, lyric, chant are echoed here, Blake, Rilke, Dylan Thomas, European scenes (travel) and Europeanized gardens and flowers (so many!), trees, weeds, birds, actually giving great warmth to what is, however, a disconcertingly honest, idiosyncratic gaze. Many of these titles should achieve eminence in the heritage we all leave to posterity. Among such might be "Yet Another Poem About a Dying Child," "Sunday Drive," "Dunedin Story," "Some Thoughts on Bereavement," "Letter," "Personal Effects," and, of course, the title poem. The poem "Our Town" (74-5, '67 edn.), is omitted from this edition; it's made entirely of lines from other poets. From among several on poets and language one poem, "These Poets," may be instructive for some readers.

The above is a hopelessly random list but one quite early poem may speak for this author, gourmet of Life, aficionado of Reality:

When the sun shines more years than fear

when birds fly more miles than anger

when sky holds more birds

sails more cloud

shines more sun

than the palm of love carries hate

even then shall I in this weary

seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,

Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,

I have no hunger,

remove my plate.

In 1969, the New York Times listed a New Zealand author as writing one of the ten best children's books of the year. Only now, after a quarter of a century, this children's book has British publication (and still Janet Frame's main publisher, New York's George Braziller, has material that has no British publisher).

That book, of course, is Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, the only children's book, so far, by Janet Frame. I remember it with a Listener size page, red hard-back, yellow jacket with finely detailed drawing, as through the book, by leading English children's illustrator Robin Jaques. This little Vintage paperback is unillustrated and effectively appears as an adult book, and one whose sloppy binding may barely last a year.

It's a simple tale with a sour-sweet kernal, but, to stay with metaphors of food, the surrounding cake is beautifully flavoured, fruited, iced. Mona Minim, a young House Ant, slips through the steps into the world of the Garden Ants. They adopt, befriend her. Then, on Naming Day, comes the disaster that results in Mona's departure, on Swarm Day, for the adventure that ultimately returns her home.

Naming Day, Swarm Day, carry the title, for it is then the new Queen is chosen and on short-lived wings will soar into the blue and an ambivalent future. Quite early in the tale young ants whisper of another aerial life above in the blue of the sky, the wind, the clouds, the birds that fly. "What is the smell of the sun?" And their wingless elders reply: "Unhappy? Maybe. But once you know the smell of the sun what hope is there . . ." Mona becomes a heroine, is decorated, becomes slightly mysterious "Aunt Emma."

There's all the rich, inventive, and gratifying detail of ant life, especially such as appeals to their human cousins: gastronomic ecstasies like spider sandwiches, beetle preserve, fried spider-legs, spider-wing crisps, honey-rolls, fondant. There is real excitement, terror, surprise. There is empathy with the stirring complexity of surrounding life underground, and beautifully lyric response to the changing seasons. There's the drama of Princess Antonia, the horror of the Ant Farm. There are Uncle Pogo's stories, "constantly flippant, exuberant and fantastic." Also his learning: "Such words . . . were ant-words, first among the ants, later borrowed." As in antennae, anticipation, militant, antimacassar, Tale of Enchantment," "Adventures in Antwerp" and so many more.

The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991) makes no mention whatever of this book, either in the chapter "Children's Literature," or in its Bibliography of Janet Frame. On the other hand, and very rightly, the children's stories of Maurice Gee are recorded, and, of course, the best-known of the volumes of children's poetry from Baxter.

Five books have now been written about Janet Frame's fiction. The latest, easily the best, comes (by way of a Massey PhD) from Palmerston North author Judith Dell Panny.

Her volume is superbly titled, I Have What I Gave: the fiction of Janet Frame. This "suggests a philosophy which, I believe, Janet Frame herself could embrace," writes Panny. Janet Frame's rich gift of a life's work is here interpreted for us all in an explanatory introduction, a chapter on each of the eleven novels, one on a novella "Snowman, Snowman," and a lucid conclusion that draws all together.

This book was launched last year by Elizabeth Alley at a New Zealand Literature Association Conference on Janet Frame at Dunedin's Knox College. Janet Frame herself was unable to attend. In her absence Elizabeth Alley read a letter from her. With warmth and enthusiasm this endorsed, praised the book as at last offering to the ordinary reader, briefly and simply, a plain guide to her ways of writing and the proble and meanings of sometimes seemingly strange tales. Few critics indeed earn such remarks from their authors! And the book, though a very serious one and adapted from a PhD thesis, is not dry-as-dust nor for academic eyes only, which is also why it earned Frame's praise.

When she first began her exercise on Frame, Judith Dell Panny began reading--for its humour and perception--Living in the Maniototo (1979). "[R]epeated references to an underworld" led her to look at the most famous underworld of Western literature, the Inferno of Dante's Divine Comedy. Between the two texts similarity upon similarity appeared. It was quickly apparent these were planned, deliberate. Also that all this was done to reinforce the picture of modern life that this, like all her work, is all about.

In this book her imaginary Auckland suburb of "Blenheim" parallels the "Upper Hell" of Dante, America's Baltimore (familiar to Frame) the "Lower Hell," America's Berkeley see "Purgatory." Frame's fiction offers "a deliberate patterning which is not mythical or metaphysical; it is allegorical." Her discovery of so highly intellectual a technique becomes Panny's absolutely successful key to unravelling--within reason!--all the famed "difficulties" of Frame, who now becomes a writer not swept away by the intoxication of language, by emotion, by obsession, but a most scrupulous and extraordinary craftsman. We read fiction where integrity and sophistication of message is matched precisely to that of technique.

"Allegory says one thing and means another . . . " Such double-talk is likely to show-case irony and paradox, both slightly unnerving aspects of appearance/reality oppositions. More importantly allegory is, as in its use for political cartoon, a conscious, controlled intellectual parallel between the entertainment of "art" and a serious message. So, again we return--if we accept Panny's view of allegory as the heart of Frame's creativity--to Janet Frame as a highly rational craftsperson, a view very far from earlier notions of emotional myth-making, a poetry on the verge of excess. "Frame includes no meaningless passages or gratuitous images," writes Panny.

It's not possible here, in this brief review, to indicate the truth of this, but it is borne out on every page of Judith Dell Panny's compact chapters. The Dantesque model holds in general and in bizarre--"surreal!"--detail upon detail through Maniototo; and its identity of spirit energizes the modern tale. Frame's moral intention informing her fantasias of language--"naming" was Adam's task--appears in the part titles of her very first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957). What Panny points to is its rapid fulfillment in her work as allegory--totally by Snowman, Snowman (1962)--and subsequently the substantial grounding of her work in the central tradition of Western moralizing. For Dante's world-view appears as it were, recently, in Maniototo (U.S. 1979 but U.K. 1981), but in Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963), The Adaptable Man (1965), Intensive Care (1970), her grand paradigm is English Milton's Paradise Lost. And now the allegorical mode carries a grim message indeed. "In Milton's epic poem Sin and Death, daughter and son of Satan are sent to earth." The intent of the Satanic (and incestuous) family is utter destruction of the works of God's new creation, earth, and notably of man.

. . . on the Earth

Dominion exercise and in the Air

Chiefly on Man, sole Lord of all declar'd,

Him first make sure your thrall, and lastly kill. (P.L. X399-403)

The first title concludes with nuclear holocaust, the title character of the second commits gratuitous murder and incest, the third includes skilfully suggested child abuse, incest, and in its science-fictional climax a state operation by the name of Human Delineation Day ("I am not a literary man. I just wanted to describe the time of the fires in Waipori City").

But this is not to present Janet Frame as some hell-fire evangelist. It is just that she is uncompromisingly honest, she does not shrink from the horrors, actual and potential, of our unbelievable times, and as artist and as thinking person she finds them foreseen in pakehatanga generations ago.

"But in Frame's work, allegorical identities are hidden within language puzzles." Precisely, and as colour is the medium of the painter, the medium of the writer is words. She, like her contemporary painters, makes the very most of this entertainment, bedazzlement, invitation to reader participation in re-creation, bringing to consciousness, "naming," the content of our times' complexity. And all the "answers," "morals" (never mind the questions!) may seem confusing, for simple responses, "morals," seem to belong only to antique fables, tales, of simpler days.

"The author guides the reader . . . the reader then becomes the producer of meaning. A range of moral or ethical positions will become apparent. But Frame does not ever state her own ethical position, let alone offer a moral." Language's sanctity, debasement, life, and death in many aspects are to be found in Frame. There is also, of course, poetry of several kinds. In Daughter Buffalo (1973) language's contemporary power also to poison and corrupt is expressed thus:

. . . that ruined coast littered with language,

with see-through words, glass words, belching words,

indestructible synthetic words

helping to complete the big fish--and people--kill.

This poem is by Turnlung, elderly writer visiting America (seemingly from New Zealand) whose words are Judith Panny's title.

On the other hand, "words . . . continue the memory through centuries." These words are among the very last of Frame's recent book, The Carpathians (1988). Here Janet Frame invents a Maori legend of the power of "the memory of the land" to nourish its people, echoing--might it be?--Maori thinking that people can confront only the past for the unknown future lies all behind us. For the Greeks Memory was the mother of the Muses. In her legend a young Maori woman tastes the fruit of the memory tree to experience, unlike Eve, not "her and Adam's tomorrow," but "the yesterday within the tomorrow." Here's a Möbius strip of immortality, an agreeable roller-coaster in Time's Fair. Maybe--paradox! irony!--that Apocalypse ain't what it see.

Peter Alcock

Massey University


New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 2 May, 2015