Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Joe Bennett's "Land of Two Halves": Metaphors

By “metaphor” I don’t mean just metaphor, but any kind of inventive and striking comparison. Joe Bennett is a prolific manufacturer of metaphors. His writings, including “A Land of Two Halves,” are jumping with them. Most of the time they are good: they are vivid, original, funny, and suiting the rest of his prose in being compact, deft, unlaboured, more witty than eloquent. Even when they are not so good they are worth reading. Here is a selection from “Two Halves.”


Away to the West lie the purple foothills of the Southern Alps, a range of mountains like a dog’s back teeth that form the spine of the island.

..the sky stretches out, as delicately blue as a thrushes’ egg.

…where the land is carpeted in tussock the colour of a lion’s pelt.

Below us in the last of the afternoon sun the lake is crinkled like kitchen foil. A paddle-steamer chugs across it like a toy in a bath. Mountains climb straight out of the water…their jagged tops like the crest on a tuatara’s spine.

Fed further up the valley by waterfalls like straight white pencils, the water gathers here in swirling pools of green translucency, like thick stained glass slowly on the move.

The landscape was green as an ad.

When the whale rose, it rose like an island, a grey-brown hugeness.

I’m standing in shadow but the sky holds tufts of clouds like fading vapour-trails lit pinky-orange from below. The sinking sun has turned the highlands to the north the colour of ginger biscuits, slashed by the deep black shadows of the gulley. Waterfowl of all kinds are swinging across the sky to roost, like packs of slow arrows. The plaintive calling of a pair of paradise ducks carries forever across the stillness. The lake’s a mirror. Ducks tow rippled vee’s across it. And on the far side of the water the lights come on in Te Anau and the town seems dwarfed, puny. Eye-candy comes no sweeter.

A plane offers a view that we probably shouldn’t have, a view we can’t live in. It presents the land like a brochure.

…billiard table bush…

…knitting needle bush…

The spur-winged plover, a sort of lap-wing, with jowls as yellow as lemon-peel…and they take off into the night making a noise like train brakes.

It’s crown is an asymmetric mess, like an inverted root system. I lean against it, give it a slap. It’s like slapping a building.

A pair of ostriches with necks like vacuum cleaner hoses.

…feta, goats cheese in brine, huge waxed bowling balls of Gouda, Parmesan that crumbles like weather-worn sandstone.

I can understand the appeal of a steamtrain rattling along beside a lake…the gleaming beams of steel that link the wheels to the engine and circle like elbows.


The West side of each marquee is concave. The east side balloons like a pregnancy. Any unsecured corner of the canvas slaps like staccato applause. Guy-ropes thrum like the strings on a double bass.

Sudden full-blooded rain sweeps in from the Tasman sea, hitting the roof like flung gravel.


Unmatching Formica tables, unemptied ashtrays, a carpet like a disease, a drunk woman with three kids in need of a slap…

Their stereos thrum with bass, like heartbeats heard through a stethoscope.

His every movement is laboured and deliberate. He chews as if making a series of conscious, disconnected decisions to move his jaws.

They lean like a picket fence, their backs to the bar, their elbows on it, watching a Super 12 game between the Wellington hurricanes and an Australian team.

As he runs the whole pub stands on tiptoes and purses, tenses, clenches fists as if trying to hold back an orgasm.

The crows groans and oohs and cheers as one and surges like a school of fish.

His van looks like he’s deliberately pelted it with rocks.


A lone woman strides the bank in three-quarter leisure-wear, power walking to the next cappuccino, and fiercely swinging her arms as if into the balls of an assailant.

She’s got the arse of a shire horse, a mighty thing ballooning on either side of the chair like two taught bags of cement.


The beach is stark. Waves the colour of dishwater pound the sand, receding to leave a scum of soiled froth that gasps and subsides like a spent fish.

Walking its streets feels like touring a cemetery that is not quite historic enough to be interesting. [Greymouth]

[motel rooms] resembled temporary porn studios, and probably some of them were – though rarely while I was in them.

A ceiling of stippled plaster, each stipple minutely tipped with dirt like a smoker’s tooth. Every guest has left a molecule of self…The air is like gravy.

Clouds weigh down like a press.

Most of the pokie players are over forty. Their faces are the faces of cattle in the rain.


Sleek as bullets, they [pukekos] step high over the wetlands on their huge splayed feet as if studiously avoiding dogshit.

The penguins waddled along, like waiters with piles.

…and a lot more convincing than the concrete moa, which looks at first glance to have been surprised by a proctologist. And at the second glance, it still does.

In fifth-form Physics I learned that if you filled a matchbox with nuclei and then dropped it, it would sink thirty feet into the ground. New Zealand pies are similar.

By far the most vigorous thing on show is a fibreglass salmon, thirty feet tall and sculpted in the act of leaping, perhaps because of the telegaph pole stuck up its arse.

Each mussel is the size of a dighy..and has a frilly fringe of flesh attached to it, like a pensioners gumline.


Pukeko corpses are a common sight on the verge…their sleekness gone, like wrecked umbrellas.

Clouds mass out to sea like grey-black cauliflowers.

The foresters drop me in sunshine that feels brittle, like elderly sellotape.

Queenstown squats beneath the mountains like a whore in a palace. But she’s a rich whore, and a pretty one. The prices in the real-estate windows have strings of zeros in them like the wheels on the Kingston Flier.