Review: Transit of Venus (Poetry Anthology)

Courtesy of Tyler Wanlass

In 2012, three poets from Germany flew to New Zealand to witness the transit of Venus across the Sun, recreating the 1769 journey of Captain James Cook, who had sailed to Tahiti not only to record the transit but to continue further on to find the fabled hidden land of the Pacific. It was this onwards journey that led to the European discovery of New Zealand, paving the way to the colonialization of the South Pacific.

What these German poets wrote on their travels came to form part of the poetry volume The Transit of Venus. I had come across and purchased the volume at Arty Bee’s bookstore in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, not only because of its relevance in a country coming to grips with the wrongs of colonialization but also because of the cover art. The front cover shows a black dot set adrift among the off-pink orb of the sun—and it is fitting for the poetry within, which drifts and crosses in front of the eyes as if it is on a trajectory to something far more important than to merely live on the pages of this collection. More importantly, however, this artwork reflects the nature of the country that has been my adopted home for over 20 years—a land itself in transit, attracting tourists in droves for its natural beauty, only for them to find a nation with far more to offer than just a breathtaking exterior.

The Transit of Venus is a transnational poetic collaboration spearheaded by the Goethe Institute. Between the covers are the works of three well known New Zealand poets Hinemoana Baker, Chris Pine, and Glenn Colquhoun, in addition to the Germans: Ulrike Almut Sandig, Uwe Kolbe, and Brigitte Oleschinski from the Goethe Institute. Divided into six sections (one for each poet) The Transit of Venus makes for a short but complex read. The collection encompasses the voices of very different artists, which are tethered together by one over-arching theme—the relationship between the terrestrial nature of New Zealand and extra-terrestrial nature of the Venusian solar transition. Each chapter is further heightened by the addition of translations of some of the works into English for the German poets and vice versa for the local authors. This bi-lingual aspect layers an emotional and linguistic intensity onto all the poems, giving them a greater heft in both artistic and cultural dimensions.

With six voices to be heard, the volume is at times a sharply disjointed endeavor. It pinballs between the stylistic differences of the artists, with no apparent mission statement for any symbiosis of the works. This boldly contrasting polarity of poetics is perhaps the desired end result of letting poets loose to convey their honest emotions of what they had each experienced.

I found the New Zealand poets’ works aligned with what I, as a New Zealander, expected from the volume. Theirs were poems that took the ethereal landscape and melded with it the voices of the personalities that have lived and still do live here¾in addition to the celestial event of the transit occurring above them all. Perhaps it was from their connection to the land, or their closeness to the cultures within the observations and celebrations taking place, but the native poets appeared to have captured better what I myself feel so deeply impassioned about as a local.

Baker’s poems resonate with a distilled honesty that marries well with nature-themed poems, into which were woven beautiful particles of everyday humanity. Her poems carry a sense of haunting relatability—the standout work being ‘What the whale said’, a short work drawing on one of the iconic creatures of the Pacific. The poetic lines of the verses move with a gracefulness that belies their heft, and like the ending lines (“I groan with the fathoms. /You glimpse of ray, /I swallow /the volume of a lagoon”) her works make you feel as if you have somehow digested part of the metaphorical ocean of beauty that lies here.

Colquhoun’s works act as those of the time traveler, taking the reader back to see New Zealand through the eyes of the first naturalist to step foot there: Ernst Dieffenbach. His works fuse traditional indigenous music structure and European folk music into a surrealistic first-person/third-person narrative of Dieffenbach’s first discoveries. They carry a greater intensity by encompassing a harsher earlier period voice—the most haunting is ‘In a Haka, Celebrating the First European Ascent of that Mountain, Ernst Deiffenbach Compares the Ritual Consumption of his Heart to a Sunset over Taranaki’. Colquhoun’s lines: “Red the rātā. /Flowering. Blooming. /Red the rimu. /Torn Asunder.” simply but powerfully capture the devastation that would follow this first foray through the land.

Pine’s poems, in contrast, are akin to the works of the German poets, demonstrated by his collaborative poems written with Oleschinki, which at times are almost symbiotic to her themes and storylines.

In comparison, the German poets Sandig and Oleschinski appear to struggle to find the balance of capturing the terrestrial as well as the celestial in their works. The poems they bring to the collection are moving and gorgeously laid to paper, but they are simultaneously distanced and feel more like monologues of loneliness, what with being so far from home. This does not detract so much from the collection, as these thoughts would mirror those of the early European settlers, but it adds to the jarring nature of the volume. Stylistically, Sandig and Oleschinski’s works are journal-like in their quality and consistency, with the latter penning her poems as conversations with an imagined “alien” (this—her connection to the transit).

Of the German poets, Kolbe was most similar in his verse work to the New Zealand poets. In addition, more poems were not translated from German compared to the Māori/English counterparts, making it harder for English readers to fully appreciate them. In spite of this, there are some stand out pieces such as Kolbe’s ‘Kafka in Auckland’, ‘To the Clothing Weavers…’, and ‘I Come from an Arrogant Country’, as well as Oleschinski’s ‘The First Planet’.  

In the end, I came to appreciate what the Goethe Institute strived to accomplish with their vision—the re-telling of a tale of discovery, with both the reason and consequence as part of the whole. As a New Zealander myself, though, I am left wondering whether this merely skates the edges of a well-spring of material that could have made for a much larger poetry volume, and one which ultimately would have better harnessed the abundance of indigenous culture and myth woven both into the land and the cosmic event occurring, and thus would have been more in tune with the modern issues of the land at hand.

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D. Mars Yuvarajan is a Tamil New Zealand poet.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in New Hampshire, when not traveling the world.  He has published six poetry collections to date: Night Owl and Other Poems, Kintsugi, .M.oments (Volume One), Quiet Songs From Yesterday, We Live With the Departed, and In My Dreams I Walk Through Killing Fields.  He owns and runs the independent publishing house Works of Mars Press.

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