Enclosures 2 by Bill Direen.
Dunedin: Percutio (2016).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
Perhaps we haven’t entirely moved beyond the literary nationalism of Curnow and co. In Enclosures 2, a five-part sequel to 2008’s cross-genre ‘novel’ Enclosures, Bill Direen once again tries to come to terms with his status as a citizen of two continents, a man falling between two stools:
An expatriated man hears of events in his own country as a parallel to events happening around him. Sometimes he confuses the two, and each has its influence upon his thinking. When in Europe, he hears of events in Europe while thinking as a New Zealander. He finds it psychologically difficult to separate himself from that point of view, and this puts a distance between him and the people he is moving among. The reverse is true when he returns (p 81).
This is from the excellent “Europe, New Zealand”, a loquaciously aphoristic account of experiences in France, Germany, and Aotearoa that takes up half the book. Much of it is diaristic in the best way; these are the close observations of someone who has been ghosting the streets and apartments of big cities, recording the small but significant stories of their inhabitants like a latter-day Félix Fénéon, who recorded the ‘sundry events’ of Paris life in the newspaper Le Matin. Direen’s prose reminds me of work that has been translated into English by a very good stylist: it has clarity and universality, but some of the strangeness of the unfamiliar, too.
The sight of a mouse disturbs the elephant, because the elephant is afraid of stepping upon a tiny elephant.
A colour descends from the most recent colour seen, a second, a minute, a year ago. So too, emotions, dreams, ideas. It all depends (p 86).
Sometimes he prefers to dodge rather than divulge, as in the riddle ‘Melbourne has the hide, Canberra the heart, New Zealand the articulated skeleton’ (p 86). (The answer is Phar Lap.) But Direen’s digressions in “Europe, New Zealand” are only ever variations on a theme: that only ‘a very, very few know in what way we belong to any place at all’ (p 95).
The book’s four other sections are in different modes, and they don’t all work for me. “Centre” is a free-verse rhapsody on Direen’s time at the Michael King Writers’ Centre on Mount Victoria in Devonport. It is a bit wispy as it juxtaposes pathetic-fallacy description – ‘All day Mount Victoria seems vainglorious, its trees and lilac serene above a succession of time-wasting motorcades’ (p 106) – with meditations on the deaths of friends and his father and explorations of the big themes of mortality and faith.
“Stoat” and “Survey” are more obviously experimental. The former is a loose narrative ostensibly about two characters named Skink and Goat who record an album in Robert Stoat’s basement. This prose piece, which is almost gloopy with detail (‘Album of ibex and reptile, of world and idea reborn from coilings of flesh as a species repulsive, denuded of outer fur’ ), is also an allegory of creation – album is the white of an egg. It surely owes something to Direen’s own work as a musician. “Survey” relocates the story of the death and dismemberment of Captain Cook in Hawaii to the microbial level. The various contending parties are given names like Viri, Splinter, Urns, and Tubers. As a concept this is not too confusing, but I dare anyone to make sense of the specifics.
“Canal City”, on the other hand, is a utopian vision of a post-quake Christchurch completely rebuilt around canals. (Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that 2016 was the year of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.) The ‘Squarist’ grid defined by the four avenues has given way to ‘high-density citylettes, with each village or nest integrating green, work- and creative spaces according to the desires of its members’ (p 172). “Canal City” has no plot (although it outlines both real and imagined history), but its speaker makes serious arguments in favour of the project the citizens of Christchurch have undertaken: ‘We put our trust in nature’ (p 172), ‘We dreamed a new city upon a devastated reality’ (p 173), ‘We have not tried to deny the psychological pain people of this place have endured’ (p 175). There is no ironic twist in the piece, no built-in criticism that shows that the speaker is a fool. This is a fantastical but earnest written future for Direen’s native city, and as such, it is a work that is almost totally unlike other future-oriented poetic fictions being written today. ‘No endeavour for true progress is eternal, but none is futile. We have shown a way from mere possibility’ (p 180), reads the motto on the last page. And maybe here Direen has created for himself a place where he is truly at home.
Erik Kennedy’s first book of poems will be published by Victoria University Press in 2018. He is the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He lives in Christchurch.