Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NZ literary mag Landfall proves we are the same, but different - an Aussie perspective

120225 review christchurch
The earthquake disaster in Christchurch a year ago is central to this edition of Landfall magazine. Source: Supplied
LANDFALL is a large, well produced literary magazine from Otago University Press, on New Zealand's South Island. First published in 1947 and now releasing two issues a year, it is the oldest arts and literary journal in the country.
The present editor - this is his second issue - is book reviewer, cultural historian, performance poet (The Mad Kiwi Ranter from the 1980s) and film editor David Eggleton. Part Polynesian, he grew up between Fiji and New Zealand.
This latest issue, titled Christchurch and Beyond, has the usual mix of prose, poetry and various kinds of art, but it also has a special focus on New Zealand's recurrent nightmare: earthquakes.
The volume opens with the winner of the magazine's annual essay competition: Philip Armstrong's long and fascinating On Tenuous Grounds, which examines the experiences of earthquakes from a dozen perspectives, accumulating meaning as it goes.
The disaster in Christchurch 12 months ago is central, of course, and in this age of instant television news we have all seen the horrors of such a catastrophe in what is effectively a big country town full of ordinary people like you and me.
Armstrong fills in lots of strange and awful details from daily post-quake life, but casts a much wider net, seeking to understand earthquakes through history and culture, from European history and legend, from Atlantis to today. It's the odd details that stick in the mind, though.
He tells of the destruction in the Lyttleton East cemetery, where he walks his dog. A "restless motility" affects the gravestone and monuments, he notices. Many are simply smashed; others, inexplicably, have rotated: "the subsequent aftershocks have inspired the stones with wanderlust . . . They had swivelled, like spectators at a tennis match or sunflowers in a meadow, all in the same direction and all to the same degree."
Prose pieces, memoirs and poems from other writers fill out the human dimension of this catastrophe well, but it is the philosophical range and the supple style of Armstrong's writing that lingers in the mind.
Another focus of this issue is a 40-page tribute to poet and literary figure Allen Curnow on the centenary of his birth, consisting of poems, essays and memoirs from his erstwhile students and colleagues as well as from writers such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Hulse, Janet Frame, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and others.
Lawrence Jones sketches in Curnow's extraordinary career: 70 years, from student poems in 1931 to his last book in 2001. Peter Simpson talks in detail about how he worked closely with the poet on a comprehensive edition of his critical prose. Jan Kemp recounts with affection and respect being taught by him at the University of Auckland.
Of course a magazine such as Landfall inclines a reader in Australia to think about how similar, and yet how different, the two neighbour countries are. In 1890, on Henry Parkes's initiative, the representatives of seven British colonies (which included New Zealand) met in Melbourne and agreed in principle to establish an Australian federation. But changes in government, the Depression and other factors held back the movement, so that it was 1900 before a final draft constitution was approved, and by that point New Zealand had opted out of the proposed federation. So close, yet so far.
Seven years later my mother was born in Invercargill, New Zealand; a few years later the family moved to Australia - otherwise I would have been born a Kiwi. Like my mother's family, many New Zealanders are of Scottish descent. The name of Dunedin is in fact the Gaelic form of the English word Edinburgh.
The poets of Curnow's generation were very like the poets of the same generation in Australia: well versed in Shakespeare, equally at home in modern American, with a dry academic awareness of the distance to London, Oxford and Cambridge.
Several things make us different, of course. The violence of earthquakes is one, the violent resistance of the indigenous people is another. White New Zealanders were forced to make a treaty with the Maori, one that gave the native inhabitants important cultural and land rights. That has yet to happen in Australia.
As a writer it has often struck me how alike the generation of writers are in the two countries, naturally in our use of post-colonial English, partly in our double allegiance to British and American poetries. When as a jury member of the Berlin International Literary Festival a decade ago I was asked to suggest some writers from the region who might be asked to Berlin, I naturally suggested New Zealanders along with Australians. There have been strong moves to share poems, poets and poetry conferences across the Tasman in recent years. But if we are so alike, why don't we influence each other more?
Because we are so alike. Because we are so different.
Landfall Magazine No 222: Christchurch and Beyond
Otago University Press, 208pp, $NZ29.95

John Tranter has published more than 20 collections of verse and is the founding editor of the free internet magazine Jacket.

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