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Fuck the fucking landscape

Considering the recent success of artists like Lorde and Eleanor Catton doing the exact thing I am about to criticise, – the exact thing I am guilty of myself and will so demonstrate – this could be a controversial post. 

When I was living in Wellington and spending a lot of time reading local poetry, writing it myself, and going to open mic nights and other lit events, some recurrent themes emerged – the most prevalent being New Zealand flora and fauna, and our backyard in general. (The second most prevalent being politics).

I’ve watched the relentless flow of this theme across genres, from poetry to prose, pencil to oil, political satire to sculpture.

This weekend, I went to an outdoor exhibition. 85% of the work was oil on canvas, and 95% of it was landscapes and/or native birds.

I love our native birds. They are an incredibly strong symbol for cultural identity, and they’re beautiful. I love our mountains. They have a deep presence that feels spiritual to me.

But if I see another Tui or Fantail or Ruru, be it in oil, embroidered on a boutique cushion cover, or in the leading stanza for a poem about rivers or waterfalls or lakes, I am going to scream.

I get it, I think. I get why we do it. We’re a tiny country with what I perceive as a strong sense of national identity. That national identity is inseparable from the land we live on. It’s a dramatic landscape that has played a turbulent and vital role in the development of our modern society. It sustains us, and it is no wonder we feel the need to try and capture something of its might, magesty and meaning, something of the bursting open you feel in your chest when you stand at the bottom of a glacial river valley looking up at the endless ranges and in some distant way realise you have forgotten how to breathe.

(Look, I’m doing it now. Son of a bitch!)

Far be it for me to censor anyone. Art is about what the artist wants to create. I just think that… the subjects should be examined, questioned. We’re a small island, we’re insular. If we don’t resist our ethnocentric influences, at least sometimes, we are in danger of being written off as totally parochial. It’s a balance. As Eleanor Catton and Lorde have more than proven, our background can, and on many occasions does, make our art stronger. I think Kiwis can, if they choose, push past the pansies and concrete pathways and rivers running over rounded rocks and reveal something quite raw and real. Something that resonates with people, regardless of what garden they grew up in.

I’ll finish with a couple of poems and a painting.

I didn’t catch the artist’s name, but this was the only painting that caught my eye at last weekend’s exhibit. I do love my country, and this place – Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park – is very special to me. Its choice as a subject for artwork is by no means new, but I feel the artist did it justice.

LakeRotoiti2

Here’s a poem an old friend of mine wrote, in response to the same frustration I’m expressing above. It was written to be read aloud at the one of the very lit events I refer to.

Fuck the landscape

Fuck the landscape, it isn’t alarming.
A postcard from things that barely concern us.
Fuck the landscape, it is in love with itself.
It does not require your weeping attention.

It wouldn’t surprise me to wake in a bustle.
It is more than alarming when grass is a cypher.
A song is a reason to talk about nothing.
You write and you write your weird story of dying.

Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.
Fuck the fucking landscape.

Thanks.

And finally, here’s one I wrote a couple years ago.

The Poet’s Process

Tea. Pensive window. Looking and looking and looking and Oh! Tuis in a tree. Multiple tuis in a Kowhai tree. Heart swelling with the song and maybe I could find it, that prolonged hesitation between words and meaning, the way to express the sound and the pretty pretty pretty picture, maybe I could –

No.

It’s been done, a million times, don’t do it, don’t be that girl, don’t be that-
but it’s just that they’re so pr-
Parochial?
The flora and fauna,
the heritage the history the ancestral inheritance of dirt
(the garden path, my cup of tea)
(Fuck the fucking landscape)

Just look at them, hopping and hanging upside down. They are –
fat? well, yes. drunken? better. Bristling fat gentlemen, their melodic arguments punctuated by drunken choking noises? Well, it’s realistic.

And there! Kereru! Are they not just so-? No, resist. Bu they are also drunken and rolling, their eyes peering wildly from whiplash necks! They do not argue but they lurch into uneven flight like a pair of corpulent inebriated squatters, and I am breathless to-

Resist! Nothing obvious, no clichés. Their white feathers are not handkerchiefs or napkins or gentlemen’s neatly tied cravats. They could be a whore’s heaving breast? That would be controversial. They could be the chest of a 17 year old solider before the scarlet bloom of bullets begins. They could be- birds. Eaten. Perhaps I will find the corpse discarded on the path, that perfect ivory coffer left cavernous by neighbourhood cats, a degustation for ants.

Beyond the rolling hills clothed in creeping Nikau palms the city sleeps in suburban ignorance (oh, god, alliteration? must you? I must). The bush heaves in; the roots push up through the cracks. (What I mean of course is that my roots are showing through my cracks).

The cup of tea is cold and the dawn parade (I mean chorus. No, I mean parade) is over.

The battle in the garden continues. The roots through the path, the Tuis to with their drunken clasp to the growing trees, the Kereru with arrogant white palate, the cat who watches, the ants’ slow procession of flesh.

My heritage
my history
my ancestral inheritance of dirt.

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About writehandedgirl

Sarah is a writer who is passionate about social justice, feminism, politics, and cats. She is a columnist and poet and currently lives in Nelson. You can follow Sarah on Twitter (@writehandedgirl) or read more of her writing at writehanded.org

Discussion

One thought on “Fuck the fucking landscape

  1. Nice piece, I get what you’re saying. Can honestly say that I find that much of the tui, fantail, paua, pounamu, riverstone and harakeke-inspired art works (jewellery, pottery, paintings, sculptors) so kitsch now. Tacky souvenirs to be prized by tourists. However there are many NZ artists – painters in particular – whose works I absolutely revere, because of their ability to view the world with completely different eyes, and express it in such beautiful and creative ways. Unfortunately we don’t have the riotous colour and bustle of sprawling metropolitan jungles to lose ourselves in. But a great challenge for all the writers, musicians and artists out there – to find something else that finspires us.

    Posted by KatPickford | January 13, 2014, 8:32 am

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