Reviewed by Janet Newman.
Auckland poet Richard von Sturmer is also a performer, film-maker and song lyricist. He has had five poetry collections published in New Zealand since 1988 and one in the U.S. by Rochester Zen Centre, a Buddhist community in upstate New York where he lived for ten years until 2003. This Explains Everything is a prose memoir – mostly. Its final section contains song lyrics, prose poems, haiku and tanka.
A helpful introduction orients the reader with clear and brief descriptions of each of its three sections. This slim volume contains a lyrical memoir, indeed memorial, to von Sturmer’s father which poignantly evokes the close relationship between this somewhat idiosyncratic man and his son – without becoming sentimental. It describes the Australian prospecting adventures of von Sturmer’s audacious grandfather alongside the author’s memories of this man and his uncle, who provided source material about the grandfather’s life from an interview he conducted and published. And it contains vignettes and poems providing a window into the life and imaginative self of the author. In three short sections this inventive book traces the lives of three generations of von Sturmers.
Each section has a distinct style and tone. The first, and most engaging, begins with a colour photograph of the author’s father, Paul von Sturmer, wearing a striped shirt and cradling a blue parrot, a red one sitting on his shoulder. Significantly, this is the only colour image in the book. Even the striking cover photo of the author’s grandfather holding hands with his two young sons is sepia. The colour photograph suggests the imaginative life of von Sturmer’s father, which is described in lyrical prose and imagery. “My father is a small dense cloud.” (p 38) begins chapter 12, about illness and recuperation. At the end, the author imagines he sees his father’s hand in the clouds. “I pause,” he writes, “take a deep breath, and place my hand against the sky.” (p 40). Chapter 13 begins with an interest-arousing gambit: “One of his legal partners, Ian Ramsay, remarked that my father had a ‘strange brain’” (p 41). This statement is illuminated at the end, when, after much deliberation, the family home is sold. It is shifting day. The author is packing the kitchen. His father has set up his deckchair and striped beach umbrella in the back garden. He is sitting back with a beer, reading a book, relaxed and content. In front of him is the blue surface of Lake Pupuke, radiating its own calmness. (p 43)
In the same unruffled manner, von Sturmer reports that he and his father have achondroplasia – a form of dwarfism. As a young boy he asks his mother:
“Why is Dad so small?” She answers that it’s just the way things are. I never
comment on his size again. (p 17).
In chapter six he recalls how he and his father always wore eccentric black capes when walking the dog:
We never talked about our shortness; it was a fact of life that nothing could
change. But since we would always be out of the ordinary in the eyes of
strangers, there was a tacit agreement that, on certain occasions, we could
enhance our unusualness. (p 24).
After reading the second section prefaced with a photo of the author’s swashbuckling grandfather, Ernest von Sturmer, aboard a sailing ship clearly headed for adventure, the significance of the cover photo becomes apparent. Ernest is a tall man and one son is tall too. It is easy to assume the smaller son is much younger, although they both wear identical school uniforms. In fact, Paul is two years older.
Elements of reportage make the second section less engaging than the first. Stories recounted by the grandfather lack the perception that von Sturmer brings to the first section. Uncle Caryll features as an unusual though somewhat two-dimensional individual.
The spare writing in the third section contains arresting imagery:
in the back garden
I watch the giant
to a dozen
full moons. (p 121).
This section is personal, surreal and political. In a quirk perhaps redolent of his father and uncle’s eccentricities, von Sturmer has applied constraints to his writing following the French Oulipo method. On each page, the work is in two columns. Each block of writing on the left aligns with its twin on the right and both end in the same word. While these rules may successfully act as prompts and lend the work order – Buddhist composure, perhaps – of more interest to the reader is content. For example, repetition of the word “spotlight” in twin pieces draws a parallel between love across generations. In one, uncle Caryll recalls falling in love with his future wife when a spotlight fell on her while she was dancing. In the other, the author recalls meeting his wife:
Today you are
beside me, and the sun is warm
and moving like a spotlight
through the trees. (p 139)
This is an inventive and moving work.
Janet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.
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