Scoop Review of Books

‘Intense Vision of the Facts’

The Big O Revisited by Martin Edmond
Soapbox Press, Auckland, 2008. Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON

Over the last three decades Martin Edmond has worked energetically in a range of literary genres. In the 1970s he was a member of Red Mole, a globetrotting theatrical troupe that mixed avant-garde technique with rock ‘n roll attitude. In the 1980s Edmond won praise for his screenplays, and since the early ‘90s he has published a series of acclaimed books which blend autobiography with thick slices of social and cultural history.

For a long time, though, Edmond thought of himself as a poet first and foremost. Edmond’s mother was one of the best-known poets of her generation, and his heroes included poets like Arthur Rimbaud and his Red Mole comrade Alan Brunton. Edmond was attracted to the visionary, almost transcendental quality that the poems of both Rimbaud and Brunton attain. In his 2004 book Chronicles of the Unsung, Edmond found a similar quality in the paintings of another of his heroes, Vincent van Gogh:

They are candelabra of light, shadowless, blazing, lit from within…They somehow resolve the paradox of now and forever…All the messy contradictions of self and other, reality and representation, consciousness and world, dissolve in plain view.

For all his enthusiasm, the young Edmond struggled to write poetry. He did manage to produce two books of verse: the slender Streets of Music, which appeared in Auckland in 1980, and a larger volume called Houses Skies Days, which was issued a decade later in Sydney, the city where Edmond had settled after leaving Red Mole. The poems in both books are quests for the sort of visionary, timeless moments that Van Gogh and Rimbaud were able to capture. Streets of Music is a sort of travelogue, recording some of Edmond’s wanderings with Red Mole, but its images owe as much to the poet’s imagination as they do to the real world:

The Pacific makes its big bass sound

Lights burn on the breakwater
marking the edge of America
where phantom autos slide in the surf…

Dogs are barking
in a forest of sirens
on 49th Street
They carry the slaver
of infinity in their jowls…

I weep for the unicorn
sitting for hours
over a cup of coffee

Houses Skies Days
is a quieter, more introspective book, but it shows the same striving after poetic effect, as the young voyant struggles to communicate the sublimity of his visions:

I thought of nothing but your eyes,
your eyes, pale blue like the air
in which the gasoline fumes tremble;
your eyes, a door out of the city
into the fabled indigo of dusk.

In Streets of Music and Houses Skies Days, Edmond’s supercharged rhetoric seldom seems justified by his subject matter. Phrases like ‘the slaver/ of infinity’ and ‘the fabled indigo of dusk’ seem bathetic, rather than poetic.

Edmond’s screenwriting was made of sterner stuff. After settling in Australia he had begun to read voraciously about the history and cultures of the South Pacific, and he was soon turning his reading into scripts that excited film producers and directors. A promising biopic of George Grey stalled in pre-production, but Illustrious Energy, the story of a group of Chinese miners in nineteenth century New Zealand, was released in 1988 to widespread acclaim. Other successes would follow. Edmond’s screenplays are notable for their historical verisilimitude: Illustrious Energy, for instance, recreated dignified poverty of the remote and transient Chinese communities of Victorian Otago with such skill that it became a valuable reference work for historians and for the present-day Chinese community in Otago.

In 1992 Edmond published his breakthrough book, The Autobiography of My Father. In this award-winning meditation on his family’s troubled history Edmond combined the lyric intensity his poetry had sought with the multilayered realism that had distinguished his screenplays. It is significant that Edmond prefaced his book by quoting William Carlos Williams’ dictum that ‘The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts’. In The Autobiography of My Father, Edmond had found a subject which enabled him to write with great feeling and great discipline. The lyric impulse which had run out of control in his books of poetry was channeled into a poetic yet meticulous recreation of the lost world of his youth and the lost happiness of his father. Edmond has continued to explore his past and the past of his friends, family and country in the half-dozen books he has published since The Autobiography of My Father.

In the middle of the 1990s, Edmond returned to New Zealand to research a biography of his old friend Philip Clairmont. Edmond travelled from Auckland to Invercargill, tracing down canvases and interviewing old friends and enemies of the legendary neo-Expressionist painter who hung himself in a Mt Eden villa in 1984. The trip was also an opportunity to visit places of personal significance, like the town of Ohakune – ‘the big O’, to its inhabitants – where Edmond grew up.

The Big O Revisited is a sort of loose journal-poem which Edmond jotted down as he travelled the length of his homeland; the text was forgotten for a decade, but has now seen the light of day as a stylish Soapbox Press chapbook. In an afterword written for the publication of The Big O Revisited, Edmond confesses that:

Not long after this sequence was completed, to clear my mind from distractions in the making of the Clairmont book, I decided to stop writing poetry: a decision that has proved irrevocable. And yet increasingly I fail to see a distinction between prose and verse…

In spite of their brevity, the poems in The Big O Revisited have the same blend of realism and lyricism that distinguishes The Autobiography of My Father and Edmond’s subsequent books of prose:

By the Oamaru
railway sheds

in a drain a
paua shell

a round stone
a shocking pink

feather from
Janet Frame’s

feather boa

Other pieces are perhaps less poems than wry, laconic notes. ‘The Mountain Road’ looks like the germ of a fascinating essay or chapter:

My father helped
build this road

pick & shovelling
the lost weekends

of the 1950s
labouring to keep

the town alive
it worked

The Big O Revisited can be read as a complement to the series of remarkable books Martin Edmond has published over the past decade and a half. To read these modest but suggestive pieces is to look over the shoulder of one of our major writers while he thinks and scribbles about places that continue to fascinate him.


Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.