by Janet Newman
Otago University Press, $28
Pastoral literature focuses upon writing about the countryside and country life. It's an ancient art, dating back to Roman writers such as Virgil and enjoying a renaissance among Victorian poets like Shelley and Matthew Arnold.
Given our cultural and economic connections to the land, it's no surprise that New Zealand had a penchant for pastoral writing, at least up until the 1970s when the majority of our population urbanised. This is illustrated by Airini Woodhouse's extensive anthology, New Zealand Farm and Station Verse, 1850-1950 (1967).
Currently, our ideas of country life appear more problematic than those of our forebears. Agriculture might still be our biggest industry, but issues of ecology and sustainability leave many opposed to its practices.
Enter Horowhenua farmer and author Janet Newman's first collection of poetry, Unseasoned Campaigner. In its exploration of husbandry, it feels like a return to literature of a forgotten time. Yet its tender, nuanced evocations of human struggle, survival and care simultaneously speak to contemporary concerns.
It's a book that is classically structured: three acts; beginning, middle and end. It opens with poems that survey modern farming life. Its second section, "Tender", returns us to the bygone age of agriculture as practiced by the author's parents. We round out the book with "Ruahine", which offers us verses about the perpetuity of nature. Each part introduces and intersects with the other: well wrought, simple.
But within this traditional framework, the poems beat with a deeper, darker heart. Yes, the first act, "How Now?", depicts the workings of a contemporary farm, but from its opening poem, Drenching, through to the powerful Calf sale and Drought, Horowhenua, Newman refuses to romanticise her portrayals. Instead, her poetic terrain and touch is realistic and uncompromising: the veal man and his four-day-old calves; the huntaway slaughtering rabbits; the meat-processing plant; the machinations of navigating climate change.
This clever mining of complexity is also evident in the remaining sections. Newman's father, for instance, is rounded out as a wise, no-nonsense smallholder, World War II soldier, mental health sufferer and widow. While poems like Reading Moby-Dick the week of Peter Bethune's trial and To a daughter in London transform the last part of the book into a meditation upon the farmer as guardian of a taonga, the land, as mother missing her grown-up kids and as imperfect person driven by biological and environmental concerns.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Newman's art lies in carefully crafted poems that affirm the precariousness of life, death lurking at its margins and sometimes taking centre stage. So that Unseasoned Campaigner becomes more than a critique of contemporary farming but rather, in its stirring of a gamut of emotions, an authentic poetic assessment of what it means to be human in an often inhumane world.
- Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey