Transit of Venus Venustransit
by Hinemoana Baker, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Glenn Colquhoun,
Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschhinski and Chris Price.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Janet Newman.
Transit of Venus Venustransit, is a collaboration, between six New Zealand and German poets who travelled to Tolaga Bay in June 2012 to view the transit. It includes an interview with the German poets about their experiences here, and translations of poems between English and German undertaken when the New Zealand poets, Hinemoana Baker, Glenn Colquhoun and Chris Price, visited their colleagues in Berlin later that year. Thus, the collection is not only about the Transit of Venus – a significant marker in New Zealand’s colonial history – but also illuminates the differing perspectives of poets from opposite sides of the world.
The German poets, Brigitte Oleschinski, Uwe Kolbe and Ulrike Almut Sandig describe a sense of alienation, perhaps providing a twenty-first century vision of how James Cook and his crew might have perceived New Zealand in 1769 when they voyaged to observe the transit in Tahiti and to search for the ‘Great Unknown Southern Continent.’
Oleschinski conjures an alter ego, ‘my Alien,’ (87) to evoke her estrangement. Her poetry describes ‘the white noise of Kiwi English in my ears’ (87) in ‘this forsaken place’ (85) ‘twenty-thousand kilometres’ (89) away. In interview she remarks, “the most striking upside-down oddity is that the cold always comes from the south” (121). Kolbe says that like Cook, “we encountered Maori from different tribes – among them faces I knew only from Gauguin” (120). In “Kafka in Auckland,” he laments, ‘Already, this first day on the other side/ of the world I longed for you my Europe.’ (71). It is as though coming here really is like travelling to ‘the edge/ of the universe,’ (Bill Manhire from “Milky Way Bar.”) ‘But we must go no further than one solar system, tops./ Promise me, Alien, no further.’ (91) pleads Oleschinski.
Estrangement combined with wonder imbues our familiar with a sense of the unfamiliar. Oleschinski describes gowns decorated with Maori motifs as ‘Embroidered with red blossoms/ I’d seen trembling like small furred creatures on the trees.’ (87). She writes, “New Zealand gives equal recognition to the heritage of Maori and the European setters or Pakeha. Biculturalism is an attempt to create a new postmodern identity from the tragedy of colonialism. It was worth every minute of the ridiculously long journey to see such an ambitious model at work.” (121). Sandig describes a tui as ‘a travel company luring/ you South, as if happiness/ really is buried below the equator.’ (37). Accustomed things seen for the first time serve as a reminder of their strangeness to others.
Conversely, the New Zealand poets find familiarity and connection between past and present, New Zealand and Europe. Hinemoana Baker’s lyrical poems connect the idea of journeying to the unknown with present-day reports of UFO sightings including the 1978 Kaikoura Lights. Venus becomes imbibed with alien energy. “Songs to Venus II: Point of light” begins, ‘The light from the doorway blackened her wings/ Venus reached luminous hands through my skin’. In “I’d rather be crossing the surface of the sun with you” Cook’s Endeavour speaks to Venus, making ‘the sound of/ a tympani, a tattoo/ needle’ (9-10), its ballast ‘like/ a bloodstream.’ (13-14). “What the whale said” evokes the fearfulness of the voyage:
A rabbit in your look as I break
the brine, my flukes a black book
a mast in your mind
cross of the drowned. (7-10)
Glenn Colquhoun writes in memory of German naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach who lived in this country from 1839-1841. In the generous notes about the New Zealanders’ poems (also translated into German) he says his poems “are not really written for the page”, but “exist most fully as sung or chanted poems” (128). It is easy to imagine the verve his gravelly voice gives to lines such as: ‘Sawbones, I am singing to say they are well,/ those limbs you cracked back into place.’ (64) and ‘Dieffenbach, Dieffenbach, Shivers your Creakin’ Arse?’ (50). He says, “For me … the Transit of Venus has always been a motif for interaction between Europe and Polynesia” (128) and describes a personal connection between Dieffenbach, who tended the wounded from the Te Ati Awa tribe at the battle of Kaititanga, and his own medical work. Writing in the voice of tribal descendants, he evokes a venerable bond with Dieffenbach: ‘Whatever soil holds you now,/ you belong to us’ (65).
Chris Price’s spare and elegant poems find the transit a catalyst for reflection on the overlapping of past and present. “Poedua” describes a Society Islands princess painted by John Webber, the ship’s artist on Captain Cook’s third and final expedition during 1776-80. The poem incorporates a bead worn by one of the students from Tolaga Bay Area School in their 2012 play about the first contact between the local people and Cook’s scientists. It begins: ‘If you are a black dot on a white disk/ I am a black dish on a white cloth.’ “Fort Venus” describes the strangeness to the Europeans of Maori, whose ‘tongues are thick with/ unfamiliar jungles.’ (30-1) and ‘When we said trade/ they said exchange.’ (“Parallax,” 23-4). “Antipodean” references Hermann Krone, a photographer who took part in a German expedition to observe the 1874 Transit of Venus from the Auckland Islands. The poem identifies with Oleschinski’s feeling of being “upside-down”, but plays with the idea of being on the wrong side of what is perceived as right way up, suggesting a relaxed familiarity with the notion.
I am the wrong
way round, my north,
your south, my up,
your down, your Krone
my Crown. (1-5)
Transit of Venus Venustransit is a substantial volume with a fine cover photograph showing the black dot of Venus crossing the sun. Its mirror-image title suggests the way it holds this country up for view, both by looking back at ourselves, and looking through the lens of others. It is an uneven conglomeration of accomplished poetry, interviews, an excerpt from a larger work, lengthy notes, biographies and translations. There are photographs of the German poets but not of the New Zealanders. Nor are there notes to the German poet’s work, some of which is not translated into English. In these ways its form seems to parallel the different ways of seeing Aotearoa New Zealand that it describes – an amalgam of past and present, indigenous and exotic, a here and an over there.
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.
First published takahe 87