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Some Remarks on Poetry and the Environment in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Reading a nation’s magic mountains.
In this scarred country, this cold threshold land,
The mountains crouch like tigers.
— James K. Baxter

Over the summer of 1949–50, the young poet James K. Baxter was recruited to work on a film project in the Southern Alps. Cinematographer and photographer Brian Brake and composer Douglas Lilburn — both stellar figures in New Zealand cultural history — had chosen the prodigiously gifted twenty-three-year-old to script their nascent “cinematic poem.” In said company, Baxter traversed the rugged foothills beneath Mount Aspiring, with William Blake’s “Great things are done when Men & Mountains meet” vibrating in his inner ear, and a portable typewriter strapped to his back.

Interviewed in 2000, the last surviving member of the creative party, artist John Drawbridge, remembered how, early in the expedition, Baxter and his drastically overweight backpack took a tumble into the Matukituki River. Drawbridge recalled the poet scrambling around in the shallows trying to recover sodden manuscript sheets, which were later laid out to dry among the garments in front of the Aspiring Hut fireplace. During the long, rained-in days that followed, Baxter stared out into the mist, gazing across the top of his typewriter like a motorist peering over the dashboard of his speeding car. He gathered his thoughts:

For us the land is matrix and destroyer,
Resentful, darkly known
By sunset omens, low words heard in branches.
— From Poem in the Matukituki Valley

With no sign of improvement in the weather, Baxter lasted only a week or so; at which point he and Lilburn went sloshing back downriver. They couldn’t get out quick enough. Eventually the film 
project was abandoned on account of the weather and the death of one of the actors in a light aircraft crash. To the good fortune of New Zealand poetry, however, Baxter salvaged a good portion of his now canonical “Poem in the Matukituki Valley” from the first single-spaced page of his soon-to-be-abandoned film script.

Not surprisingly, given the tussle with nature which was central to Māori and then European settlement, New Zealand poetry has evolved in constant dialogue with the natural world — although the terms of engagement have been as various as the lands surveyed. Baxter approached the subject with characteristic verve, even if his direct physical engagement was neither surefooted nor wholehearted. In 1954, a few years after the high country expedition, he delivered a lecture at Otago University in which, with his usual zeal, he unveiled a “simple, though by no means exhaustive” index of local poetry’s defining nature symbols — a marvelously succinct listing for the good people of New Zealand Arts and Letters to fall in behind. It ran as follows:

The Sea:                    as a destructive force, bringing oblivion;     
                                 as a healing force reconciling man to spiritual
                                 Truth.
The Mountains:        as symbols of everlasting purity;
                                 as protective maternal presences;
                                 as menacing and destructive powers.
The Bush                  as a symbol of natural energy, and the dual
                                 processes of growth and decay;
                                 as a haunted and entangling wilderness.
The Island:                as a symbol of isolation from European
                                 tradition, both in place and time.
The Beach:                as a place of arrival and departure;
                                 as a place where revelations occur;
                                 as a place where conscious and unconscious meet,
                                 frequently associated with sexual escapades.
                            
 

While this lexicon of received ideas might have been useful early in his career, Baxter was soon seeking out more resonant metaphoric spaces and arrangements. By the time of his death in 1972, aged forty-six, the high rhetoric and self-assurance of youth had given way to a stripped-down, prayer-like, grounded attitude; grandeur had been replaced with plainness, certainty with doubt, exclamation with 
incantation. Witness a few lines written shortly before his death, by which time he had founded a commune based upon Catholic and Māori principles in the remote village of Jerusalem/Hiruhārama, alongside the Whanganui River:

The circle of the hills contains my house;
The house contains the tribe,

Various, turbulent in their occasions....    

I have to be the sponge that sucks up the disordered
Humours of the tribe. Today the cool wind blows gently.

Without the turbulence of new water
The lake of the soul might well grow stagnant.
— From How to Fly by Standing Still

The year of Baxter’s death also saw the publication of Allen Curnow’s Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects — a collection which marked 
a shift of gear in New Zealand poetry. In the new collection, Curnow — in a manner very different from Baxter — found himself “reading” nature in new and complex ways. Forensically visual in detail and effect, the verse was rigorously intellectual, philosophically probing, and intensely focused on the acts of seeing and saying. Continuing in that vein, “Canto of signs without wonders,” from Curnow’s The Loop in Lone Kauri Road (1986), begins:

I look where I’m going, it’s the way
yesterday’s and the day before’s clouds
depict themselves over and over.

Curnow’s poetry is a process of writing over, annotation, inscription, and an incessant questioning of where and how humanity stands in relation to the natural world. As he wrote, in the aptly titled “A sight for sore eyes,” also from the 1986 collection:

They wrap mountains round my eyes,
they say “look” and it’s all what they say
where the colour, that’s another word is
deepest blue, and that’s the colour of
the wind, blowing this way, warm and dry
coming from the mountains, visibly.

Beyond notions of landscape as a pictorial convention or 
representation, Curnow, with his sore eyes, posits the reader in three-dimensional space rather than presenting a tableau or framed-up 
vista. (When he is offering a postcard, a calendar image, or photograph — as he does on occasion — he is at pains to say so.) A tree grows, a jogger runs past, a shadow moves    ...    keeping a skeptical distance from the exemplary viewpoint of Romanticism and the not- unrelated touristic vista, Curnow’s poems are instances of a more democratic kind of spatial management — tracings or trackings of movement and phenomena in the natural world.

In “Canto of signs without wonders,” he finds himself looking skyward, not toward heaven, but to some imagined or real aerial lettering, “the sky being prime space, anyway // the most public part of this universe.” A much younger poet, Sam Sampson, alluded to Curnow’s conspicuous sky-writing (and also to the concrete poetry movement) when he set words adrift across the visual field of the page in the title sequence of his 2014 collection, Halcyon Ghosts, the form of each poem being a transcription of a flock of birds, 
mid-flight.

Between the poetics of Curnow and Sampson — and bearing in mind much that has come between: the work of C.K. Stead, Ian Wedde, Brian Turner, Hone Tuwhare, Cilla McQueen, and 
others — we find ourselves, having largely forsaken “nation,” “country,” and even “province,” moving toward a notion of “environment” 
or “ecology.” In this continually evolving tradition of “nature 
poetry” — or “eco-poetry” as it is now often called — we find ourselves having to deal with a notion of place/space/“the local” which is in constant flux. Here we have a vision of the natural world as the kind of field of energy and activity in which, as Keri Hulme writes, “you get hints and shadows of the pattern but never / a complete and steady sighting.” Such a viewpoint is not only in keeping with Māori whakaako (traditional teachings) but also with recent ecological thinking on the international stage. The health of nature exists in its variability, as environmental scientists keep reminding us. A steady or stable river is a dead river.

In 1996, while compiling An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English for Oxford University Press, my coeditors and I pondered long and hard over possible cover images for the book. We were criticized at the time for deciding upon a landscape painting by Richard McWhannell on the grounds that it was a conservative and regressive choice: Did we not realize that the vast majority of New Zealanders lived in cities? Were we caught up in some kind of settler-mentality hangover?

From a twenty-first-century perspective, McWhannell’s painting of the Pararaha, on Auckland’s west coast — only an hour’s drive from the city — strikes me as an even stronger, more assertive and appropriate image in relation to New Zealand poetry and cultural life generally. A fundamental and defining narrative through the Oxford anthology is that of changing attitudes to land/place/environment — from the poetry of early settlement, with titles like “Grub Away, Tug Away” by John Barr of Craigilee or William Pember Reeves’s elegiac “The Passing of the Forest,” to the spiritually 
infused floriculture of Mary Ursula Bethell. From there we continue onward to the plethora of contemporary writers. This discontinuous “land”-based narrative might have been dismissed as conservative or outmoded by some critics in the urban-focused seventies, eighties, and nineties, but by the turn of the twenty-first century there was a growing awareness of environmental matters as they affected all New Zealanders, urban as well as rural. Issues such as water purity, pollution, global warming, overfishing of coastal waters, fracking, and other forms of exploitation have been in the forefront of the public mind for some years now. With this has come the realization that nature, in our present-day understanding of the word, encapsulates the traffic-jammed metropolis as much as it does the millpond reflection of Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. Nature, as Lars Gustafsson once noted, is everything we meet.

Richard McWhannell’s painting also takes us closer to a pre-European understanding of place. In Māori custom, a visitor on a marae introduces him or herself by acknowledging their mountain — the distinguishing geological motif of their birthplace or ancestral lands. By stating your mountain you are saying who you are, and how you fit into whakapapa (hereditary structure). Instead of presenting a single mountain, McWhannell offers a range of imposing peaks huddled together. It is as if all the ancestral mountains of the New Zealand poets have come together in one place. Herein we have “ngā maunga hāere” or “traveling mountains,” backlit, the sun rising behind them, surveying the fertile wetlands and estuary in the foreground of the painting. The mountains face out to sea; they face the future; they face us, the viewers/readers, and speak to us.

Such a personification of nature is one of poetry’s oldest ruses and an imaginative device common to all cultures. In Māori custom, as Rangihiroa Panoho has noted in Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory, “land, enhanced through generations of memory and narrative, takes on the form of a living personality.” A succinct and well-known example of such animism in action is “Haiku” by Hone Tuwhare:

Stop
your snivelling
creek-bed:

come rain hail
and flood-water

laugh again.

Later in Panoho’s book, Ngā Rauru leader Niko Tangaroa reminds us that “the river and the land and its people are inseparable. And so if one is affected, the other is affected also.” This kind of holistic, associative thinking is also at the heart of Airini Beautrais’s collection of poems about the Whanganui River, Flow. In her preface she acknowledges that New Zealand achieved a legal first in March 2017 when, after much negotiation with Māori groups, “legal personhood” was accorded to the Whanganui River. The waterway, which now has the right to be represented in a court of law, has long been a notable site in New Zealand poetry; it featured prominently in Baxter’s late poetry both as a body of water and as a river spirit, or taniwha:

The brown river, te taniwha, flows on
Between his banks — he could even be on my side,

I suspect, if there is a side.
— From Jerusalem Sonnets

“Some speak of a return to Nature — I wonder where they could have been,” wrote Jonathan Williams in 1975 (attributing the quote to photographer Frederick Sommer). In the twenty-first century, environmentalism has belatedly moved toward the top of the geopolitical agenda. Central to the revitalized conversation between poetry and environment in New Zealand is the work of Dinah Hawken. After the fashion of Curnow and Baxter, Hawken doesn’t shy away from big questions: “How do we live within / the knowledge of our limits?” “How do you measure time?” Having, in the eighties, spent the early years of her writing life in New York, she absorbed the work of such environmentally aware poets as W.S. Merwin, Charles Wright, Adrienne Rich, and A.R. Ammons. Her seven collections to date are permeated with a lyrical, but seldom apolitical, awareness of the oceanic as well as terrestrial territories of this

skinny country
in the largest ocean on earth
 spellbound, windswept, lashed.
— From The uprising

Later in her sequence “The uprising,” she reimagines nature/nation as an instrument for political change:

The land is like a knife, out
of its sheath and glinting in the sun.
I’d like to hold that pointed knife.

I’d like to speak with that knife.
I’d like to save a home, a tribe
and a heritage with that knife.

Perhaps Hawken has gone further than any other contemporary New Zealand poet toward writing the kind of post-colonial, ocean-inflected poetry extolled by Derek Walcott: “Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight / Cold as the curled wave, ordinary / As a tumbler of island water.” Hawken’s sequence concludes with a plea for urgent 
resistance and political change:

I vote with the hand that holds

this knife. I vote for the fish, the bird,
the ocean and a raised land shaped
by explosion, erosion and wilful life.

Channeling the kind of moral purpose associated with Baxter, Hawken led the way for a younger generation of poets — among them Maria McMillan, whose first collection, Tree Space (2014), was ecologically centered, yet wide-ranging in its sphere of reference and playfully aware of Carl Jung and Susan Sontag as well as Rebecca Solnit. In the collection’s concluding poem, McMillan memorializes that rarity in New Zealand geography, a mountain named after a woman — in this case Fantham’s Peak, a parasitic volcanic cone on the side of Mount Egmont/Taranaki, which — as she notes — got its European name in 1887 “when 19-year-old Fanny Fantham became the first European woman to climb the peak”:

It is a strange sort of misery
climbing mountains in the wind.

No view....
 .................
How startling it is.
No vanishing point. No perspective.

You must make a world of this
snow and rock. A bunch of old sticks.

And you. In your garish coat.
Your wondrous hands.
— From Fantham’s Peak

McMillan’s second collection, The Ski Flier (2017), offers a further reprise of the alpine theme which spans the history of New Zealand’s poetry and goes as far back as the personified mountain-figures of Māori mythology. Beyond their metaphoric function in McMillan’s schema — and every poem in the book features a peak or crag — mountains are upheld as an essential part of the life cycle and a foundational presence in her holistic vision:

How rivers start. Tiny pleats among the snow.
Not a start as in a sudden movement from
surprise, pain, etc., or as in rousing
game from its lair, just things falling as they’re bound
to fall.
— From Eleven

An earlier poem by another South Islander, John Newton, encompasses the mountainscape as both mineral reality and literary creation. “Opening the Book” looks back at least as far as Baxter’s earliest alpine musings, while at the same time clearing the way for McMillan and more recent high-country traffic:

The mountains reach out to embrace you
they fold their blue ankles

they give birth to rivers, they
can even crouch like tigers if that’s the way you
want them:     they are a story you tell

about yourself, a story you are journeying
into, which swallows you.

Into such a bracing and defining reality the nation’s poets insinuate themselves. Like the lovers in Bill Manhire’s “The Next Thousand,”

They search the sky for news of weather:
such wide horizons, such amazing cloud    ...
the two coasts crushing the interior    ... 

Cognizant of another important precondition, Manhire’s poem reminds us that not only is New Zealand a mountainous territory with memorable water features — like Switzerland, only with the rest of Europe whisked away — it is also an island nation at the far end of the world, a “skinny country” with no interior to speak of (the most “inland” point is less that 120 kilometers from the ocean) and a coastline that runs to over 15,000 kilometers.

Accordingly, New Zealanders are residents of Curnow’s “small room with large windows,” facing the sea horizon as well as looking mountainward, moving outward as well as inward. Known in the nineteenth century as “the Britain of the South Seas,” New Zealand remains paradoxical and surprising. It is also remarkably various — in its climate, geology, flora, and fauna — and therein lies its appeal not only to film production companies but also, in necessarily more complex ways, to many of the nation’s poets who continue to recognize a radical imaginative potential in “this / curved sky, this whisper of ice-cloud” and, as Newton’s aforementioned poem concludes, “this magic mountain slamming shut behind you.”

Originally Published: February 1st, 2018

Gregory O’Brien’s newest poetry books are Whale Years (Auckland University Press, 2015) and Citizen of Santiago (Trapeze, 2013).

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