Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.
In late June 1966, Kendrick Smithyman flew from Auckland to Palmerston North at the invitation of the Palmerston North Coffee Club. This was a women's group interested in the arts and prepared to fund occasional visits by stimulating speakers. The details of the trip were managed by William Broughton, a young lecturer at Massey University's English Department. Broughton had known Smithyman during his own postgraduate days at Auckland University, and he was willing to pursue the then-radical idea of bringing a New Zealand writer to speak in another city. At Palmerston North Smithyman held a seminar for Massey students who were taking Broughton's New Zealand literature course--such a course at university was also a radical innovation--and he gave a poetry reading at the Art Gallery. Then he delivered his promised lecture to the Coffee Club.
Smithyman seemed a safe choice for this new sort of venture, at a time when the loud and Bohemian behaviour of James K. Baxter epitomised the perceived image of poets among the public and literati alike. Smithyman was 43 years old, married with three sons, and prepared to play the 'smiling public man.' He had been a teacher at primary and intermediate schools since 1946 and had become a tutor at Auckland University's English Department in 1963. His book of literary criticism, A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry, had appeared in 1965. He was a widely published poet, with four substantial collections of his own and numerous appearances in anthologies, and his poetry, above all, was academic in style. Smithyman's verse was notorious for its knotty language and allusive obscurity. It was poetry safe for study at a university seminar, rather than for bawdy declamation at some gathering of the counter-culture. Nevertheless, the respectable poet who flew to Palmerston North in 1966 was also struggling to balance the demands of his daily life with his own inner conflicts, was deeply unhappy in his marriage and, despite his claims to literary importance, had written almost no poetry whatsoever since the start of the decade.
The possible reasons for Smithyman's not writing were many: the pressures of teaching, a change of job, and the time and energy spent on A Way of Saying. But it is also likely that Smithyman was weary of the manner he had adopted from the start of his writing career, with its density, irony and self-conscious literariness. There seemed nothing more that he could do with it. Furthermore, Confessional poetry, a technically looser and more open style of verse with an emphasis on personal revelation, had begun to emerge from America after the appearance of Robert Lowell's groundbreaking volume, Life Studies, in 1959. The new style seemed to render the cleverness of earlier academic poetry obsolete.
Smithyman had a facility for writing technically clever lines. In 'Flying to Palmerston', for example, he describes some hanging pot-plants with: 'they flower/ in an air of being suspended.' Characteristically of Smithyman's writing from his career's very start, the language in these lines is packed to hold maximum meaning, with multiple possibilities for 'flower' (blossoming, flourishing), 'air' (space, attitude and even melody) and 'suspended' (hanging, pausing, delaying). All of the dictionary-meanings apply. Even the syntax draws itself out and leaves 'suspended' dangling as the final word. In this sort of writing Smithyman was aiming not for clarity but for resonance. With such an intention paramount, his early poems had tended to emphasise the quidditas, or universality, of things as objects for meditation. The result was almost always a vagueness designed to be as inclusive of meaning as possible, so that any personal feeling could come into the poetry only obliquely.
At its worst, this tendency towards what the critic Elizabeth Caffin called 'rotund generalization' could spoil an otherwise promising poem, as was the case with a piece Smithyman wrote about a most particularly New Zealand activity of the mid-twentieth century, digging for toheroa clams. 'Gathering the Toheroa' refers to a specific occasion at Muriwai beach in August 1956 when the Smithyman family, together with the families of Maurice Duggan, Keith Sinclair and Quentin Thompson, took more toheroa than their legal limit. A local official approached them and they became very worried. But the official turned out to be a forestry man, who disclosed in conversation that he had come across a Maori burial ground in the nearby sandhills. Smithyman found the proximity of this manifestation of memento mori fascinating. These events are scarcely registered in the resulting poem, however, which ends:
Decay is the first most primitive order
Given this beach by its curious hidden creatures
To whom, loaded with diatoms, tides come
Seeding thirty close miles of sand with shells,
Living and dead sustained in one regimen:
Feed, propagate, be fed on; please someone, die.
There is little here to engage the reader's interest--except to wonder whether it is worth checking the dictionary for the obscure word 'daitoms' (microscopic food for toheroa). The poem offers a contemplation on an experience without seeking to recreate the experience itself. A lot of readers of early Smithyman poems saw this type of writing as excessively obscure, including Landfall editor Charles Brasch, who even complained that Smithyman's poetry seemed 'static'. In an interview outlining the background story to 'Gathering the Toheroa,' Smithyman once commented that 'thoughts of mortality were not just dragged in,' but for the reader, robbed of any psychological context to the poet's voice, that is precisely how the poem appears. There is no sufficiently clear connection between shellfish and mortality for the poem to succeed through the collocation of imagery. The somewhat bitter last line seems merely stuck on, in the manner of a lot of academic poetry of the period. Despite some successes with his early work, notably 'Parable of Two Talents,' where the experience of marital misery is simple enough to be perceived easily amid the thatch of the poem's language, Smithyman himself realised that much of his early poetry was 'impersonal in the wrong way.' This was the impasse his poetic methodology had brought him to.
When Smithyman arrived in Palmerston North in 1966, he carried with him the manuscript of a poem he had written about his fears before the flight. Smithyman did not enjoy flying, although he had been an Air Force quartermaster in the Second World War. During the war he had witnessed some bad air crashes at Whenuapai airport, but he still used aeroplanes for occasional travel. Years later, in 1981, he wrote of a long flight he made to Los Angeles in terms suggesting frustration rather than the near-panic of the protagonist in 'Flying to Palmerston':
on that plane
you want to eat/drink,
you do eat/drink
you want to sleep,
you try to sleep/do sleep
you want to
you try to
depending on the queue
shit, there's more to it/no more to it/ must be more to it
Despite the resonance of the language, there is no rotund generalization here. The poet is distressed, in his bemused way, at being reduced by the miracles of technology to the 'plane' of a merely animal existence. But this does not involve a cue for some solemn meditation on the human condition; rather, it involves a 'queue' for the toilet that still manages jauntily, and wholly successfully, to embody the poet's basic conundrum.
Clearly, Smithyman exaggerated his nervousness in 'Flying to Palmerston,' but air travel in New Zealand in 1966 was still a comparatively primitive affair. Auckland International Airport at Mangere had only begun operations in the previous year. The National Airways Corporation (NAC), which handled domestic flights, gathered passengers in a waiting-lounge at the NAC terminal in Queen Street before bussing them out of town to the airport for departure. Domestic flights mostly relied on turboprop Fokker Friendships--small, 36-seat aeroplanes--and Smithyman was prone to claustrophobia. The Friendships did not deal well with turbulence, and the prevailing westerly winds over the country's North Island were bound to test even the strongest of stomachs.
On his arrival Smithyman told William Broughton that he had written 'Flying to Palmerston' in the NAC lounge in Queen Street, while waiting for his bus and flight. There were two versions of the poem, one in pencil and one in ink, each in Smithyman's elegant handwriting. He eventually gave these pages to Broughton as a token of thanks for arranging the trip. The poem was soon published in the July-August issue of the magazine Dispute and then again in the collection Flying to Palmerston in 1968, for which it supplied the title. When this new volume of poetry came out, Broughton mounted the two manuscripts on cards with an explanatory note and these became the centrepiece for a promotional display in the front window of G.H. Bennett's, a Palmerston North bookshop.
Although the collection consisted mostly of unpublished poetry left over from the 1950s, Smithyman's 'Flying to Palmerston' signalled a new start in a new manner. There is critical consensus that between this poem and his next collection, Earthquake Weather, in 1972, Smithyman's mature style emerged. It seems remarkable that a poet, worried about his impending journey, should manage the wherewithal to compose a major poem while waiting for a bus; but Smithyman had the technical skills to do so and, suddenly, a new confidence in himself as subject. For 'Flying to Palmerston' is very much in the manner of Lowell's Life Studies, both formally in its short conversational lines and also in the realist specificity of its content. It was a breakthrough and Smithyman was writing again.
With the poem's Confessional-style influences, it is clearly no coincidence that after the title 'Flying to Palmerston,' which emphasises the ordinariness of the traveller's destination and hence of his experience, should come an epitaph taken from Robert Lowell's Life Studies. The lines 'his air/ of lost connections...' are from the poem 'Memories of West Street and Lepke.' Characteristically, Smithyman employs a verbal link to relate the epitaph to his own work. The word 'connections' is easily associated with flying and seems to suggest here the possibility of a plane being missed (although Smithyman actually flew direct to Palmerston, without a connecting flight). In Lowell's poem, however, these lines do not describe a journey at all but rather a condemned man in prison. When incarcerated in 1943 as a conscientious objector, Lowell was briefly in New York's tough West Street Jail, where he was placed in a cell next to the famous gangster Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter. Lepke was the syndicate chief of Murder Incorporated, and he was waiting to be executed for his crimes. Lowell's record of the mobster closes with:
Flabby, bald, lobotomised,
he drifted into a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections...
Lowell sees the condemned man as feeling crushed by the contemplation of his own death but also welcoming the end as 'an oasis' in the desert of his mental torture. Both views--dread and wanting to get it all over with--are consistent with the anguish of the nervous flyer awaiting his fate.
Lowell's poem is constructed around personal reminiscences, but in contrast 'Flying to Palmerston' anticipates much of Smithyman's later oeuvre by being a narrative work. The critic Peter Simpson has noted how 'more and more of Smithyman's poems give an impression of being told stories.' The 1984 poem 'Mr Nakamura' is all story, a charming comedy--and not in the least obscure--of some wartime sightseeing by a fictional Japanese scout. Mr Nakamura's reconnoitres in his plane are made safe through the inability of the New Zealand defenders to open fire on him. The only smoke he encounters comes not from 'ack-ack batteries' but from an active volcano. He concludes, 'Such a peaceful/ land. Nobody shoots at you.' 'Flying to Palmerston' also begins with the rapid clarity of a good short narrative, establishing place and mood in the first line. The poet is looking onto Queen Street in the heart of Auckland and feeling a 'horror' of which the cause is not immediately clear. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness famously showed horror at a remove, through its narrator listening to Marlow describe Kurtz's despair, but the poet's horror in 'Flying to Palmerston' is not presented at any distance. The poem is located directly within what appears to be the poet's consciousness, on which the reader eavesdrops. Nevertheless, despite being written in Lowell's Confessional manner, 'Flying to Palmerston' is not a completely autobiographical poem. Rather it is--like the story of Mr Nakamura--a fictionalisation from a real event. The figure of the poet is a persona created by Smithyman, albeit a figure very close to himself, in order to explore and even exaggerate aspects of an experience. This was a new development in Smithyman's writing. Like others before him, Smithyman found that the sense of working through a persona, however thin the veil, could liberate the expression of personal feeling.
The break at the end of the first line establishes the fact of the poet's fear, but the syntax then runs on to indicate that, as with Kurtz, the poet's anxiety threatens to overwhelm him. His horror is likely to be intolerable--and there is also the further anxiety of panicking in public--but at the last moment the poet holds himself together. The second line break does the dramatic work, marching towards the hackneyed expression 'altogether unbearable' only to pull itself back under control. At first sight the remainder of this brief and anguished stanza appears confusing. The poet is considering a young woman's face. He even repeats 'that girl's face, that face' as the verse mimics the flow and repetitive emphasis of a mind in action--a mind not engaged in solemn meditation but by obsessive thought. Is the girl the source of the poet's horror, or is he, instead, searching for the familiar? Nothing is explained, and this only heightens the sense of drama. Significantly for what follows, however, the poet's self-questioning about the girl's face here already seems something of an attempt at distraction from his present anxiety.
Further establishing place and time, the first line of the second stanza sets out the source of the poet's troubles in a simple, declarative sentence filled with dehumanising numbers. The poet is waiting for an airline flight at twelve forty-five--or more accurately, for a bus at this time which will take him out to the airport. He then observes the pot-plants in the waiting-lounge and begins to project his own anxious feelings onto them. They 'do not breathe.' They are 'Immobile'. Considered in detail, these expressions only become more curious and revelatory. It is possible to refer to plants' respiration as breathing--in a drought, plants may 'breathe' less to conserve water--but all plants by their nature are immobile. These hanging pot-plants may beautifully flower, but the poet focuses more on how this happens 'in an air of being suspended.' The plants are literally in suspense in the air, just as the poet will be when in flight, but they also have an 'air', or appearance to the poet as he projects his own feelings, of being immobile and suspended in the sense of being kept in abeyance and rendered ineffective. This internalisation of objects--through having them act as indicators of the poet's own feelings during the telling of his story--is also largely new in Smithyman's writing. Objects in 'Flying to Palmerston', however artfully described, become more than mere image-cues for meditation. The haecceity, or particularity, of the poem increases when objects are presented as part of the drama in the poet's mind: clarity is achieved and the personal comes easily to the foreground.
The poet next admits to himself that he will soon need to take a travel-sickness pill. He concentrates on the time for the pill, 'A quarter after one,' or approximately when he will arrive by bus at the airport, but he does so without allowing himself to think directly of the trial that awaits him on the plane. The motion-sickness pill is merely going to 'keep away a certain situation.' The only consideration the poet is prepared to allow himself is an admonition in the third stanza not to be nervous, a personal message which he says: 'I write to myself.' Although the persona in 'Flying to Palmerston' is unnamed--indeed, there is nothing specific in the poem to link its narrative consciousness either directly to Smithyman or to a poet--the expression 'write' helps to lend an autobiographical feel to this piece. But the gap between poet and persona does appear to remain, if only through the ambiguous nature of their relationship. The 'I' of the poem is not as securely identifiable as the unnamed 'I' in Lowell's 'Memories of West Street and Lepke,' where so much specific information is supplied, almost like a diary in verse, that the protagonist could not be anyone else but Robert Lowell. Only a few individuals have ever been put a cell next to Lepke Buchalter, but any number of nervous people may have taken an NAC flight to Palmerston North.
The poet derives the reason why he should not be nervous from his further examination of the pot-plants. They are, apparently, lilies, and the poet reassures himself that however 'pallid' these lilies may be, just as he himself dreads being pale with fear, they have not fallen down from their suspended pots. In the same way, the poet hopes not to fall and faint due to his anxieties, nor to fall and die during his aeroplane flight. But a far more literary allusion is perhaps also occurring here, one that might only occur to a mind as culturally educated as a poet's, or in a poetry as rich in literary associations as Smithyman's. The poet may have in mind the Biblical phrase: 'consider the lilies of the field.' During the Sermon on the Mount Christ reminds his listeners, through the image of flowering lilies, not to be over-concerned about worldly needs and to accept the world as it is for the beauty it naturally contains. The poet would very much like to find such serenity in the here-and-now and thus escape his current fears of a 'certain situation.'
The second section of the poem opens with the poet's observation that the lily has now been 'marked'. It may be marked in the mentally passive sense of being noticed and evaluated, but the word may also refer to the psychologically active sense of something being formed, or made, by being placed as a visible sign onto a background. The poet's choice of language here allows for the crucial way in which he is as much a constructor as an observer of what is going on around him. And what he observes next is a creature displaying another kind of mark: an exotic Indian woman with 'a caste mark' on her forehead. (In 1966 New Zealand's Asian population as a whole was less than 1% of the total population.) For the poet, this unusual woman is the type of person one might expect to see when travelling, and already she is before him, awaiting her own flight. Unlike the poet the woman is calm, 'poised', and in the 'dead centre' of her personal space. Her caste mark even hints that she knows her own place in the scheme of things, and that to her a prospective journey does not appear to be some Icarus-like challenge to the natural order. But still this exotic woman is essentially unknowable. Her calm means that she betrays nothing about herself and so the poet's 'calculated reason' concerning her is rendered useless. Seated in the middle of the lounge, perfectly in balance both physically and mentally, the woman is 'equidistant' from any move towards an inference the poet may make about her--and so she is no help to him. Perhaps, rather, her calm is intimidating.
The poet's reaction to all this is focused on throughout the remainder of the second section. He describes walking through the automatic entrance-doors of the lounge. The mechanism of such doors can be known by 'calculated reason,' and the poet is briefly proud that he understands how 'the trick is worked' of approaching the doors and not reaching out for some non-existent handle. Automatic-opening doors were still relatively new in 1966--although for readers there was, even then, a touch of naivety evident in the poet's pride. The poet imagines what he might say to show off his knowledge and prowess to the Indian woman, and he decides on the jokey cliche: 'Look, Mum, no hands.' He will then accept the woman's praise with the more grown-up, 'Thank you, m'am.' These expressions are both flippant and suggestive of a cover for his nervousness.
But the poet's newfound pride--the sort of pride that goes before a fall--is concentrated on the 'entrance doors' to the airport lounge. Although the poet has already been in the lounge, closely observing the pot-plants and the Indian woman, it seems he is now entering the lounge once again. His pride (and also the break between stanzas) is disguising the fact that he has gone out of the lounge and is now coming back in. Restlessness may have caused him to leave momentarily--or perhaps he has barely suppressed the urge to flee. In any event, the poet's return is an effort. A reappraisal of these lines suggests that, whatever the poet imagined was going to happen, once actually back through the doors he does not manage loudly to announce 'Look, Mum, no hands' but rather settles for the sort of mute, polite re-acknowledgement--perhaps a nod of the head--that might be expressed in his stream of consciousness simply as: 'Thank you, m'am.' His actions have ended in failure. Instead of brashness, he has managed only courtesy. Courtesy, as T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock famously observed, is a case of preparing 'a face to meet the faces that you meet.' The poet notes bitterly that such a keeping up of appearances, beginning with this woman in the lounge, 'anticipates' his own 'burden' of not showing his panicky fear to other people during the flight.
By the poem's third section the remarkable automatic doors have been reduced in the poet's mind to little more than a closed-off avenue of escape: 'the door which no hands open.' Nevertheless, he is still gazing outside through the glass. Instead of the familiar, another exotic creature comes into view. The poet sees a Chinese man, whose face reminds him not of the earth but of the distant moon. In 1966 the moon was frequently in the news, as a still unknown and possibly unreachable destination in the accelerating American-Soviet space race. With his 'calculated reason,' the product of the Western Enlightenment rather than Eastern mysticism, the poet sizes up the Chinese man and ponders the reasons for his being on the street. At first sight this Chinese man may have a 'moonface,' but the poet does not proceed to think of him as an innocent. The beatific Indian woman of section two had a caste mark on her brow, but this new and vaguely sinister-looking character in the narrative has a blue tattoo on his forehead. Exotic Oriental villains were common in films and novels of the time, and the poet, as much a creator as observer of what is around him, seems determined to put the worst possible interpretation on what he sees.
Creating what one sees is an essentially imaginative act at which artists naturally excel. In his poem 'Klynham,' written in 1983, Smithyman considers the special ability of the novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson to refurbish imaginatively his hometown of Hawera as the sensational Klynham of his books, and the first stanza closes with: 'He populated all these parts.' But the poet in 'Flying to Palmerston' is indecisive. To him, the Chinese man's tattoo looks first 'like a star,' but then he quickly considers that it might be a bullet wound from the man's guilty past. Swinging away from thoughts of the Chinese man as perpetrator to his potential as victim, the poet next wonders whether the mark might be an indication of a miraculous past, as martyr-like 'Stigmata' representing the wound from Christ's crown of thorns. In another characteristically verbal link--characteristic for Smithyman and also for the mentality of his poet-protagonist--the poem returns to the earlier phrase 'dead centre' from section two. The mysterious mark is at the centre of the Chinese man's forehead but he is no more dead than the Indian woman at the 'dead centre' of the lounge. He is very much alive, and the poet begins to accept that none of his calculated thoughts on the Chinese man's physiognomy are likely.
But most importantly for the poet, whatever happened to scar the Chinese man in the past--tattoo, bullet wound, miraculous representation of Christ's wounds, or something else--the Chinese man is a survivor of the experience. In the poet's anxious state, where he is inclined to project his concerns onto what he sees around him, the fact of the Chinese man's being not dead is connected to his own fear of imminent death. The poet, too, is: 'Not dead./ Not likely.' In four simple words he tells himself that he does not at all want to die, and also that his death in flight is, rationally considered, most improbable. Furthermore, the poet's simple phrase of reasoned reassurance, 'Not likely,' appears on line 29 of the poem's 57 lines, and is thus at the dead centre of his poem.
However, rationality has little to do with personal risk assessment, and in section four the poet's sense of horror returns. Beginning the second half of the poem, section four is almost an exact repeat of the poem's opening stanza--except that now the reader has a much greater comprehension of the nature of the poet's unhappiness. The repetition of the lines suggests a mind circling and unable to avoid the trap of its own fear. The repetition also embodies the emphasis of increasing anxiety. Indeed, the reader has already grasped something of the intensely introverted quality of this sort of suffering: it is not an anguish one offers to the world. W. H. Auden, in his own poem about falling from the sky, noted the 'human position' of this sort of ordinary, mostly unobserved pain: 'how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.' In 'Flying to Palmerston' the circling structure of Smithyman's poem has in itself encapsulated something of this type of anxiety: the poem has gone nowhere except to fold inwards. It has not communicated except with itself--even the reader's location is merely that of an eavesdropper--so that the most confusing part of the poem's opening stanza, its unexplained question 'where have I seen/ that girl's face, that face, before?', remains every bit as confusing and unexplained when repeated at the poem's mid-point.
In Christopher Marlow's version of antiquity Helen's face famously 'launch'd a thousand ships.' The girl whom the poet means to consider also has a face that appears memorable, but can this girl's face assist the launch of one aeroplane with a nervous poet on board? In section five the poet explains to himself what he means by focusing on the mysterious girl, and he begins to speculate about her. The poet already feels that fear and the burden of courtesy have left him visible and exposed, and like himself the girl is 'on display'--except that display is her very purpose, because she is a mannequin in a store window. The poet considers that she is: 'tranquillized/ perhaps, which is why she can/ sit so long so still.' Such stillness is a desirable condition for the poet; he has already observed the 'Immobile' pot-plants in the waiting-lounge and admired the 'poised' way that the Indian woman sits in the lounge's centre.
But the poet's current line of thought must immediately set off alarm bells for the reader. After all, though the poet himself will soon be tranquillised when he takes his pill to 'keep away a certain situation,' and this is clearly weighing on the poet's mind, it is nevertheless quite impossible for a mannequin to be on tranquillisers. The poet's confusion, rising to a new level after his near-panicky encounter with disorienting exotica, seems to have become an inability to comprehend what is real and what is not. Thus after his initial observations the next question which the poet asks himself directly, in the spirit of inquiry, borders on the irrational: he wonders why the mannequin's throat was cut. The poet is in fact pondering the line which is the join of the mannequin's head and neck. But in the most extreme sense he is once again constructing the world that he sees before him. For those under stress, but perhaps most particularly for creative artists, the products of the imagination can sometimes seem every bit as genuine as objective reality.
Smithyman grew increasingly interested in the contrived nature of reality as his career progressed. He wrote an extended sequence on cartology in 1977, 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise.' Many of his late poems are patient reconstructions around personal memories, and in the previously mentioned 'Klynham,' his poem on Ronald Hugh Morrieson's imaginary town, the closing off of each new stanza progressively raises the stakes in the interrelationship between artifice and reality. ('Now, what he imagined, it is.'; 'Where/ fictions end embarrassed fact starts up.'; 'Truly, I believe.') While pondering Morrieson's town a willing suspension of disbelief is advanced to a complete embrace of Klynham's existence. In contrast, the reader will almost certainly feel surprise at the poet's confusion over the mannequin-girl in 'Flying to Palmerston.' The reader may accept without question the poet's description of the Indian woman in the second section--to which the fifth section is the rough equivalent in the latter half--but is a strangely exotic Indian woman in a poem, after all, any more real than an anthropomorphised mannequin? Such metaphysical, academic issues begin to appear in the poet's self-interrogation at this point in the work, though these complex matters which Smithyman has contrived help disguise a simpler truth in the action: the fact that the poet is close enough to a mannequin in a shop-window to see the join of head and neck suggests he may once more have left the airport lounge and be outside on the street.
The poet's obsession with the mannequin is also a logical extension of his feeling of horror. Mannequins have often featured in horror films. Many people are disturbed by the appearance of mannequins, which can seem both attractively lifelike but also disconcertingly lifeless. Science has found that mannequins are at their most disturbing when, paradoxically, they are perceived as being at their most human. Researchers in 1970--after 'Flying to Palmerston' was written--labelled this curious shift between attraction and repulsion the 'uncanny valley.' The poet professes sympathetic interest in the mannequin, wondering: 'And why/ does she not bleed,' and his words echo the Jew Shylock's claim for recognition of his own common humanity Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' For the poet, the plight of the mannequin-girl in the window seems horrific precisely because he perceives her in human terms.
The poet next interrupts himself to comment on his own state of mind. He notes that it is in contemplating such essentially unanswerable questions as he has asked that horror 'accrues.' It is certainly true that when we contemplate the ineffable questions of life, of which the poet's current near-irrational questions are a parody, we may feel existential forms of horror. In such cases, however, it seems preferable not to ponder life's imponderables and 'to pass by on another side/ calculating our reasons,' as we tell ourselves to think of something more reassuring. The expressions 'horror', 'reason' and 'calculating' now appear in their third variation in 'Flying to Palmerston,' a poem where language and phraseology are frequently repeated, reinforcing the reader's sense of eavesdropping on an increasingly obsessive mind. Similarly, the odd stanza breaks in this section of the poem suggest a mind no longer thinking lucidly or connectedly, and the line breaks emphasise the insistent questioning of: 'But why' and 'And why'.
The phrase 'pass by on another side' may therefore refer psychologically to the poet's desire to escape his obsessive fears, or it may refer physically to the poet's situation on the street as he strives to observe and yet avoid the mannequin, or indeed it may further refer, metaphorically, to his desire to resist the dehumanising aspects of travel. Travel can turn people into flight numbers and departure times, as living packages to be transported, and no doubt the poet wishes to remain on the human side of this divide. Nevertheless, the phrase also echoes the language used in the King James Bible version of the tale of the good Samaritan, where the priest and the Levite ignored a stricken traveller and 'passed by on the other side.' The behaviour of these two men was morally wrong, and there is some indication that moral guilt--a sense of horror at oneself--is beginning to accrue in the mind of the poet. He feels, perhaps, guilty about his behaviour, but in particular he seems to feel a growing sense of unease about his emotional dishonesty. The poet has not really admitted to his unhappiness in his own mind beyond insisting: 'Do not be nervous, I write to myself.' Instead, he has been inclined to project his anxieties onto whatever is nearby: plants, other people and a shop-window mannequin. And in perhaps his most self-mortifying and dishonest action of all, carried out since the very beginning of the poem, the poet has been obsessively focusing on the mannequin-girl's face as a form of distraction. His much-professed interest has been a way of insisting to himself that he is pursuing a line of urgent inquiry which necessitates him leaving the airport waiting-lounge, instead of acknowledging that he really wishes to flee the seemingly irrevocable commitment of boarding the airport bus.
Observing the mannequin further in the first-person plural ('we see') of academic argument, the poet notes that the mannequin's head does not quite join properly to her torso. It is essentially divided from the rest of her body. The structure of 'Flying to Palmerston' has similarly been divided in two, with both halves containing Biblical references, repeated words, the poet's projection of his feelings onto an inanimate object and his close observation of an unusual figure. The poet now begins to feel sorry for this poorly connected 'girl', projecting his own self-pity onto her. Just as the poet can insist in his own mind that an aeroplane crash is 'Not likely' and that he is walking outside to examine a young woman's face from a sense of curiosity, and yet still find such thoughts at total variance with the horrors accruing in his nerves, so too the girl suffers from a clear division of head and body. Moreover, the poet decides that her head 'probably never sat/ very comfortably on her shoulders,' suggesting that this all-to-human sense of a divided self is something the mannequin-girl has felt even prior to her current, debilitating anxiety. She has long lived in a divided condition of self-alienation that has been, nevertheless, 'bearable' and 'tolerated'--except that mannequins are not human and have no emotions of self-alienation, discomfort or endurance. The poet's anthropomorphising tendencies have advanced into the realm of the completely irrational: what he argues at this stage in the pursuit of his pseudo-inquiry makes no sense at all other than in relation to himself. Thus for the poet here it is only a small step, in sympathetically focusing on the badly joined 'gap' under the mannequin-girl's 'jawline', to claim that what he can discern is 'the moral/ thread.'
What is 'the moral/ thread'? The phrase plainly forms the crux of the poem. Indeed, in a rather tenuous manner, it might be argued that the reader is now being invited to look beneath the poet's own plaintive jawing and observe the poem's moral. But as with 'to pass by on another side,' the phrase 'moral/ thread' is a typically compressed expression from Smithyman the academic poet (with 'thread' cleverly separated from 'moral' by a line break in a way that mirrors the 'gap' in the mannequin's neck-join). In fact the poem has now been turned into a meditation on an object, emphasising that object's universal quidditas, and deliberately seeking vagueness and an inclusiveness of meanings. In its simplest sense, 'thread' might refer to the grooves on a screw and the common expression, indicating irrationality: his head is not screwed on properly. It might also denote, for a nervous flier, the notion of one's life hanging by a hair, in reference to the sword which hung over Damocles's head by a single thread in Greek legend. Or it may even be that the activities of this poem's follower of pseudo-inquiries have led to his unconsciously referring to a line by Shakespeare, another poet famous for his compressed phrases with multiple meanings: 'He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.'
For regardless of any vague and generalised groping towards some meditative moral, in 'Flying to Palmerston' the tendencies of the rotund and academic Smithyman have been harnessed effectively to the articulation of something personal and specific in the Smithyman persona. This is possible because, even when the poet-persona is inquiring into his fears by means of their displacement onto the mannequin, vague language that keeps matters at a remove will be better than anything disquietingly straightforward. Such denial is an important part of the poet's coping mechanism. In the mind of the poet, moreover, the 'moral/ thread' which he observes as momentarily 'revealed' most likely refers to the famous thread of life spun and then finally cut--out of sight of human knowledge--by the Three Fates in Greek mythology. It seems to be this line of fate that the poet, musing on the mannequin-girl's stoic forbearance towards her constant sense of divided self, feels he is given some glimpse of. As in the first half of the poem, the poet is acting as a constructor as much as an observer of his environment. For the poet, his own sense of a long 'gap' of self-alienated suffering in life may seem fated to be 'continuous', and therefore it is something in the mannequin-girl's appearance he chooses to concentrate on until it disappears around the other side of her head. Suffering in life extends inevitably for the poet until it stretches even to 'the further side' of any afterlife, somewhere 'Out of sight' and, by implication, out of mind and the mind's power to comprehend.
The start of the poem's sixth section appears at first glance to be a continued observation of the mannequin, not least because each new section of 'Flying to Palmerston' has begun with a clear reference to the close of the prior section. The only break in this pattern was the start of section four. As the opening of the poem's second half, the start of part four referred back instead to the very beginning of 'Flying to Palmerston.' In the sixth section the poet seems to restate his view that there is 'no blood' issuing from the mannequin's dark interior. His description of the mannequin as 'not even dead' is accurate but, as before, this continues to imply that she is in some way alive, even if she maintains 'an air of absence' in her display-window. However, instead of section six consisting solely of the poet's observations of the mannequin-girl, it is equally possible that all of the attributes mentioned in this section may be a description of the poet instead. In this reading, the first sentence of the section, 'Issues from darkness within/ no blood,' can refer to the weak and bloodless poet himself--particularly so if the ambiguous word 'Issues' is read as a noun. In his current state of phobic anxiety, the poet certainly has 'Issues from darkness within.' Like the 'not even dead' Lepke Buchalter, he awaits his fate, feeling miserable and no more alive than the mannequin is.
It follows, then, as the poem gathers up earlier expressions used for the waiting-lounge lilies, that the pallid, somewhat absent, suspended, displayed creature of section six could be the pale poet commenting on the mannequin in the shop-window, though this scene could equally be viewed the other way round, as the anthropomorphised mannequin-girl commenting on what she sees before her on the street, namely, a frightened poet. Both the poet and the mannequin can 'comment/ on Queen Street' and on each other. (It is perhaps no accident that the word 'comment' derives from the Latin commentari: to devise or contrive with the mind.) The poet's bizarre projections of his feelings may have reached their apogee as he repeats once again his obsessive question: 'But where/ have I see before me that face?' Alternatively, however, since it seems that the poet has been out of the waiting-lounge and onto the street more than once, it is thus possible that the mannequin-girl is the creature who asks herself the poem's final question. The specifically possessive word 'girl's' has been stealthily removed to enable such a reading. Moreover, a third reading of the question is also available. It may be that the poet is simply staring at his own face before him, reflected in the window-glass. Perhaps he is registering surprise at how much the stress of this particular occasion has changed his appearance, or at how all this has made his face resemble its appearance on previous occasions of great stress. This third reading of the question may therefore suggest that, far from becoming delusional, the poet has now managed an improved sense of self-awareness--or it may imply that he no longer recognises his own face.
The extreme ambiguity of the writing in section six is finely contrived and beautifully timed, because the poet's moment of decision has arrived. What kind of state is he in to make the decision to fly or not? The reader is no longer sure. Does the poet choose to get on the airport bus or not? The end of the poem is ambiguous about this, too. The last section's clipped sentences seem to deal only with the facts of a brutal reality impeding on the poet's consciousness. The bus has pulled up at the door, ready to depart in a few minutes. It is time to get on board. The poet declares himself 'No longer a person,' either from the impending dehumanisation of travel or from being reduced to utter panic. Clearly, though, any coping by a displacement of these feelings onto the non-human mannequin is no longer a feasible option: she drops from the poet's mind, and she, too, is 'No longer a person.' In his dehumanized condition, the poet talks directly to himself in the second person: 'You are now/ in flight.' Is he walking towards the airport bus or away from it? Has he become 'A flight' in the sense of becoming one of the passengers on 'Flight 523,' or has he become a case-study in panicked escape?
A phobia is a little box of madness that one carries about everywhere, so reasoning will not much help to answer the question of whether the poet flees or gets on the bus. And because the poet-persona is not quite Kendrick Smithyman (just as Palmerston is not quite Palmerston North), the historical knowledge that Kendrick Smithyman flew successfully to Palmerston North in 1966 will not help either. Since everyone's response to the question of exactly what happens at the end of the poem will be different, Smithyman has successfully turned the issue back onto his readers. In effect, the academic poet has set up a topic for tutorial discussion. Indeed, readers will find out something about themselves from the way they construct the ending of the poem. Such are the finely calibrated skills of an academic poet who writes about his personal experience but who also leaves space for his readers to insert their own feelings and reactions. It is this latter sense of open space, of inviting the reader to get involved, which seems new in Smithyman's poetry from this point, and it is crucial to the achievement of 'Flying to Palmerston.'
Incorporating a little of the irrational turned out to be very useful for Smithyman's poetic development, and certainly, after 'Flying to Palmerston,' the tone of Smithyman's poetry becomes more relaxed. Even the intimidating 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise,' with its curiously unregulated space between 'Maps' and 'An' already present in the title, begins as a series of casual stanzas with someone talking. A poem about the interface between recorded knowledge and empirical reality, where knowledge and experience constantly displace each other, it nevertheless begins humorously with the poet missing his companion who has gone to the library, the seat of stored information. The poet then apparently fails to make contact by phone later. Furthermore, whatever the poet 'wanted to say' early in the morning is replaced by an inconsequential musing on the possible eradication of the rats and mice in his university department by the introduction of cats. This comic idea, surely, is a parody of the activity of the early acclimatisation societies. In order to improve control of their surroundings, such societies disastrously rearranged their total environment through the pseudo-scientific introduction of new species. Thus moving casually from the start of the poem, by means neither entirely frivolous nor forced, Smithyman proceeds to track his complex theme.
The value of the relaxation of form and style in Smithyman's poetry can easily be appreciated by noting what an advance the poem 'After Zhivago,' written in 1977, is on an early poem with a similar theme, 'Parable of Two Talents.' Gone from the later poem is the fuss with syntax, the compulsive concern with technical virtuosity and the pursuit of obscurity as a screen over experience. In 'After Zhivago' the academic remains suspended alongside the personal--in fact, the poem succeeds by playing the academic and the personal off against each other. Smithyman alludes to the famous capacity of the Russians to suffer and begins with a popular proverb which is also quoted in Pasternak: 'To live your life is not as simple/ as to cross a field.' This expression of resignation is spoken by the 'casehardened', by people made callous under conditions where they struggle to communicate anything other than their own misery across a vast, snow-bound landscape. Fortunately, in the first stanza the crushing loneliness of this home-made 'Holy Russia'--the expression itself rings like a curse--is somewhere 'over there,' but in the second stanza Smithyman begins jokingly to refer to his own family in Russian terms. He particularly includes his eldest son, Christopher, who was Second Secretary at the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow from 1977 to 1980.
However, just when the poem seems ready in the third stanza to make some personal declaration of feeling, it switches tactics. Instead it begins a general statement about the 'fences and spaces' between all people which form a barrier to true communication, and it addresses an impersonal 'you'. Nevertheless, 'After Zhivago' maintains a curious power to move the reader right up to the hesitant reiteration which forms its last line: 'To cross a field, sometimes that isn't easy.' One key to the effectiveness of the third stanza lies in its deceptively simple metaphoric use of 'fences and spaces' to describe 'some style or other of forbidding or defeat.' There is, in fact, a remarkable disjunction between the tenor and the vehicle as this comparison is extended into a conceit with: 'If I stand at a point where fences meet,/ I can look to another corner.' One can grasp these lines easily on the abstract level of the tenor: if we can find common ground, a place where the barriers we erect between us overlap, we may be able to see over them into the other's point of view and effect some real contact. However, though possible in the abstract, none of this is easily managed in the physical world of the vehicle that is employed as a form of comparison. For if a fence is too high to see or get over, then standing at a place where it meets another high fence will not enable one to see over it--and it is impossible to stand at the exact point of intersection anyway, because that point is occupied by the high fence. It is the unconscious recognition by the reader of this yoking of hope and its frustration, where what should be easy is revealed as impossibly complicated, that sets up all the pathos of the impersonal yearning which follows: 'Is that you/ over there? Honestly, it is you?' Communication with anyone is at best an attempt to identify someone 'over there' in another part of Russia. The repetition of the sad proverb that closes the poem, 'To cross a field, sometimes that isn't easy,' is thus both an academic reference to Russian literature and a personal statement that the poet, too, has become 'casehardened' by experience. Hope lingers only in the word 'sometimes', which has not yet been expanded to 'always'.
The poetic vocation was not easy for Smithyman. His later achievements in poetry suffered from neglect and even misreading as critics continued to react with incomprehension or hostility to the obscurity of his juvenilia. This then affected Smithyman's public image and his reception. By the end of his life he was often perceived as displaying 'a sort of know-all bluster [...] never letting you get on an equal footing with him,' as C.K. Stead unkindly but accurately put it. This complaint did not attach itself to the older Allen Curnow nor to the younger Bill Manhire, although both poets have written highly obscure work. Smithyman's own reply to all this appeared as early as 1970 at the close of 'The Seal in the Dolphin Pool.'
He does not
grasp the why of it, why the fish
people out there do not hear him
(hard enough, he tries) although they move
their mouths distinctly exhaling
as in response, or reaction. Puzzling
hits deeper, than any sound plummeted.
For the performing seal/poet, the human audience is not applauding as it did earlier with the dolphin-performers. The 'fish people' may be laughing or even talking among themselves, but this is something the seal-performer is simply unequipped to comprehend. However, the pain of his resulting puzzled isolation goes too deep to be fathomed by 'any sound' (both listening for noise and measurement by sounding), as the academic Smithyman moves wittily to conclude in a moment of genuine evasion.
Nevertheless, it is Smithyman, not Curnow or Baxter, who is the natural father to the next generation of New Zealand poets, typified by such American-inspired, allusive bricoleurs as Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde. Indeed, Smithyman may have been vilified or ignored not because he is more obscure than his successors but rather because the very best of his poetry is more accessible than theirs. Smithyman wrote a great deal throughout his career--his Collected Poems is a massive work by any standard--but even the greatest and most prolific poets have their oeuvres reduced over time to a half-dozen or so enduring classics. Any initial and even provisional list of Smithyman's classic work has yet to decided on, but when that times comes 'Flying to Palmerston' will no doubt be included. As Smithyman himself noted in 'Reading the Maps,' 'Promise still rides the tides.'
1. The copy of 'Flying to Palmerston' published online in Collected Poems 1943-1995 (ed. Edgcumbe, Margaret and Simpson, Peter, http://www.smithymanonline.auckland.ac.nz/index.php) is dated 30.6.66, a Thursday, and may be the exact day that Smithyman made his flight.
2. Broughton, William. Personal communication, 4 May, 2007.
3. Baxter had, in fact, taken up the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 1966, though his Bohemianism continued unabated.
4. Yeats, W.B.. 'Among School Children.' Selected Poetry: W.B. Yeats. (ed.) A. Norman Jeffares. Macmillan, London, 1962: 127.
5. Simpson, Peter. '"Sinfonia Domestica": Mary Stanley & Kendrick Smithyman' in Between the Lives: Partners in Art (ed. Shepard, Deborah). Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2005: 80.
6. Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989: 16. Simpson confirmed this in a personal communication, 11 April, 2007.
7. Other Confessional poets were also publishing, e.g. John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs published in 1964 and Sylvia Plath's Arielin 1965.
8. Caffin, Elizabeth. 'Poetry' in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 491. Caffin was also an important supporter of Smithyman's writing and was his publisher at Auckland University Press for many years.
9. 'Gathering the Toheroa' (Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published in Flying to Palmerston (1968). The manuscript is dated 20.8.56.
10. Interview with Kendrick Smithyman, 1 Sept. 1992.
11. Quoted in Geraets, John. 'Kendrick Smithyman and Brasch's Landfall.' Landfall160, Dec. 1986: 444.
12. Interview with Kendrick Smithyman, 1 Sept. 1992.
13. Smithyman, Kendrick. Introduction to selection of his work in Recent Poetry in New Zealand, (ed. Doyle, Charles), 1965. Quoted in Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Op. cit.: 16. 'Parable of Two Talents' was written in 1959.
14. Edgcumbe, Margaret. Personal communication, 3 May, 2007.
15. 'Travelling' (Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published as 'Travelling to L.A.' in Are You Going to the Pictures? (1987).
16. Broughton, William. Personal communication, 4 May, 2007.
17. See, for example: Berry, Reginald. 'Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman's Colourless Green Ideas' in Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 388-402; Edmond, Murray. 'Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman's Poetry' in Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 447-56; Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Op. cit : 9-20.
18. Smithyman usually composed directly onto a typewriter, so the existence of written drafts supports the contention that the poem was written in the NAC waiting-lounge.
19. Murray Edmond writes further of Smithyman's use of the word 'connections' in this context and suggests that Smithyman is also making a reference to the epitaph of E.M. Forster's Howard's End. Edmond, Murray. 'Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman's Poetry.' Op. cit.: 447-56.
20. Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. Faber and Faber, London, 1983: 91.
21. Lowell, Robert. 'Memories of West Street and Lepke.' Life Studies. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1959: 85-6.
22. Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Op. cit.: 19. The italics are Simpson's.
23. 'Mr Nakamura'(Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published in Are You Going to the Pictures? (1987).
24. Murray Edmond also discusses Smithyman's development of a persona at around this point in his poetic career. (Edmond, Murray. 'Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman's Poetry.' Op. cit.: 447-56.)
25. Several minor textual differences exist among the published versions of 'Flying to Palmerston.' Wherever possible, I have used the version in the online Collected Poems.
26. Mathew, 6.28.
27. Eliot, T.S.. 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' Collected Poems 1909-1962. Faber and Faber, London, 1963: 14.
28. 'Klynham' (Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985).
29. Auden, W.H.. 'Musee de Beaux Arts.' Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. Faber and Faber, London, 1966: 123-4.
30. Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Act 5, Scene 1, lines 90 [A text], 93 [B text].
31. Mori, Masahiro. (trans. MacDorman, K.F., and Minato, T.) 'The Uncanny Valley' in Energy 7 (1970): 33-35. Mori's work draws heavily on Sigmund Freud's 1919 essay, 'The Uncanny.'
32. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Act 3, Scene 1.
33. Luke, 10.31-2.
34. Shakespeare, William. Love's Labour's Lost. Act 5, Scene 1: 16-17.
35. In Smithyman's Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, 1989), the final sentence of 'Flying to Palmerston' reads: 'A Flight.' The version of 'Flying to Palmerston' in Collected Poems 1943-1995, which Smithyman presumably hoped would be definitive, changes the capitalized 'A Flight' to the lower-case 'a flight', thus increasing the ambiguity of whether the poet flies or flees.
36. 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise' (Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985).
37. 'After Zhivago' (Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published in Dwarf With a Billiard Cue (1978).
38. Edgcumbe, Margaret. Personal communication, 2 July, 2007. Christopher Smithyman died in 1984. Smithyman's other sons were Stephen (who became a teacher) and Gerard (who became a nurse). 'After Zhivago' was read at Smithyman's funeral by Christopher Smithyman's daughter, Alexandra.
39. Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2002: 243.
40. 'The Seal in the Dolphin Pool' (Collected Poems 1943-1995). Also published in The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974).
Copyright Ian Richards, 2008
Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.