Tag Archives: Frank Sargeson

“Stellar Tapers in the Night” — Stanzas 235 to 242

Oil-polluted water, photograph by Joel Sartore. '...that dented drum dispatched / an olive-green and brown placenta / which quickly filled a tidal pool'

Oil-polluted water, photograph by Joel Sartore. '...that dented drum dispatched / an olive-green and brown placenta / which quickly filled a tidal pool'

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Third

235.

My eyes were stunned. My ears heard blister!
Raw-pain! Sun!

                                ‘Was someone there?’

‘Indeed there was! And dying for air!’

As it turned out, a dock-mate’s sister’s
brother-in-law – a friend in greed
had stowed away!

                                ‘Mr. Sayeed!’

‘The same.’

A Kiwi-slash-Turkmenistani,
with thick mustache, and thicker vowels;
a handsome fellow, a courteous man (he’d
squat downwind when relieving his bowels).
Except, of course, when stuck in a drum.
The lid was dented, and had become
impossible for him to open.
Until, at last, I smeared some soap in

236.

(you must admit, I am resourceful!)
and rolled the drum so that its rim
was unobstructed; and shouted to him
– that packed Sayeed – to give a forceful
kick. He did. And he was hatched!
At first that dented drum dispatched
an olive-green and brown placenta
which quickly filled a tidal pool
(one orange-red starfish turned magenta).
Then came the fetus, that grown-up fool,
all limp and soggy, with sludgy beard
and fudgy hair, his clothes all smeared
with slime and so horrifically smelling
I even gag in this retelling.

237.

Half-crazed, he was apologetic
just the same, and crawled, the wretch,
a shivering seal, out toward the stretch
of ice-cold sea. A sympathetic
soul, I wasn’t. I could have seized
a bucket, bathed him, helped him ease
his misery. Instead I headed
sulkily away, traversed
the land wherein cruel fate had wedded
our two lives; and sat and cursed
and didn’t go near him for several days
– or rather, weeks. The world plays
a joke and we sit bitterly grinning
with no idea it’s just a beginning.

Kiwi writer Frank Sargeson's House at 14A Esmonde Road in Takapuna.  'It stands on legs / of cinderblocks – or rather, sags, / much like a creature apprehended / in a net of shadows cast / by trees'

New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson's House at 14A Esmonde Road in Takapuna. 'It stands on legs / of cinderblocks – or rather, sags, / much like a creature apprehended / in a net of shadows cast / by trees'

In which our fugitive narrator pauses his story to invite us, his patient readers, to peer into the affairs of his writing shed . . .

238.

‘And then?’

                   ‘Then what?’

                
                                         ‘Well why this stifling
of your story? What muzzles you?
You’ve served some meat; we want to chew
it – Arcady! This foolish, trifling
rhyme of yours. How dare you set
the scheme my tongue must follow!’

                                                                  ‘And yet
in life, my dear, aren’t we required
to speak a certain way? Our words
are chosen for us. What we desire
to say is rarely what gets heard.
Come here, my love! Just look outside.
It is that time, the eventide,
when gypsy’s belly-dancing twilight
slips her gauze across our eye-sight,

239.

moves in sequined undulations.
Car-lights blaze like embers in
a desert’s sideways-howling wind.
Their wild and festive oscillation,
through the curtain gaps, advance
and stir our shadows into dance.
But do those drivers see the fervent
fun they fling upon our walls?
And is our reader so observant
as to see our bodies sprawl
upon this bed in just our socks,
a blanket on a pinewood box
which wasn’t built for two to mingle?
(Our ghost had friends, but slept a single.)’111

240.

‘And so?’

                         ‘And so, my dear, most stories
must live in constant twilight. To read
them is to nonchalantly speed
through claire-obscurist territories,
our eyes fixed more upon the red
oscelar brake-lights up ahead
than on the angels lighting stellar
tapers in the night. And yet,
unknown to readers, most storytellers
– in rendering that silhouette
through which their readers, eyes ablaze,
so blindly pilot – use those rays,
those passing rays of light, to brighten
up the starless dens they write in.’

Venus with Organist and Cupid (1548), by Titian.  'The more she feels a lover eyes her, / the more she serves up appetizers!’

Venus with Organist and Cupid (1548), by Titian. 'The more she feels a lover eyes her, / the more she serves up appetizers!’

241.

‘Your point?’

                              ‘My point: The reader rarely
disembarks his car to walk
(or if the writer’s rich, to stalk)
around the author’s nest! This barely
visible shack! It stands on legs
of cinderblocks – or rather, sags,
much like a creature apprehended
in a net of shadows cast
by trees (a net both torn and mended
by the car-beams speeding past).
See now, dear reader! See? I turn
my lamp on here and you discern
through golden window what I’m doing.
View the woman I am viewing

242.

as she lifts a hand-knit sweater
’bove her head’

                              – ‘It’s corduroy,
a jersey’ –

‘and lets us all enjoy
those lacy, black and loosely fettered
pups beneath; the way, each yoked
to each, they both in tandem poke
their noses out through thickly rolling
waves of flesh; how each one seeks
a tasty treat, or soft, consoling
master’s stroke. O let us peek
beneath their muzzles! No? Not yet?
A symptom of the female set:
The more she feels a lover eyes her,
the more she serves up appetizers!’



111 Kevin Ireland, a New Zealand writer who often lived with Sargeson, once recalled: ‘In the evenings we would drink lemon wine and people like Janet Frame, Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman and Maurice Duggan would drop in every night of the week. It was a wonderful, stimulating, exciting time; an oasis of common sense and literary excitement in the dull and conventional environment of the 1950s.’

__________
Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
In case it’s not clear already, the “blister, raw-pain, sun” is Mr. Sayeed’s oil drum muffled cry for help: “Mister Robinson!” (Our narrator’s name, you’ll remember, is Arcady Robinson). Sayeed, by the way, becomes the protagonist for most of Res Publica, Book II.

The “ghost,” I remind you, is that of Frank Sargeson (first mentioned in stanza 58); the “pinewood box” his bed, which remains in his house on 14A Esmonde Road in Takapuna for readers who wish to visit the place where Arcady composed much of Res Publica (and where one of New Zealand’s greatest writers lived).

Just one more week to go — the final six stanzas — and the first book of Res Publica is complete.

Once again, I encourage you to visit the Tuesday Poets at tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.

 

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Arrival of the Muse — Stanzas 144 to 149

Frank Sargeson's Home in Takapuna (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

Frank Sargeson's Home in Takapuna (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

144.

I watched Meg sleep – and felt the world
reposeful too: the gurgling tide,
the lips of stratus spreading wide,
a tongue of moist blue sky unfurled.
Deep breath! A nose full of her smell –
a rich yet stagnant-seeming well;
a rock pool’s cup of sea-life teaming
or as the manhole, snorting, steaming,
can smell at once of putrid things
yet be the source where cities spring.
And there I felt, at last, what peace is;
And here time stops, or rather creases –

145.

for O the contrast to this shed!
This public shelter where neither sleep
nor public are welcome! Tears? I weep
at night for all I’ve lost; and dread
the wanton, loud, degenerate crowd
my mind brings home when it’s allowed
to travel with Morpheus through the night.
Despite my keeping the light on! Despite
my corking sleep’s nocturnal lamp
the genie escapes! Together we tramp
back to my isle! My poor lost maiden!
But she’s debauched, polluted, misery-laden!

146.

And then there are my waking fears.
The door is locked. I copied a key
held by the local library.
Ms. Gleesome, a tall grey volunteer
will sometimes come to show the place
to tourists. I flee without a trace.
Behind the lemonwood, in violet
shade I’ve stood, well-hidden, silent,
watching the guests. I do not shower.
I use the side-yard’s loquat bower
as my own private low-squat toilet.
(His chain-pull cistern is old; I’d spoil it.)

147.

Has Ms. Gleesome noticed me?
I’m always careful to replace
the whistling kettle, the little case
of wooden chess pieces, the scree
of books which crumble from the shelves
as if the books were grooming themselves.
A deathly place. I pay no rent.
The previous inhabitant
was fond of literature…and men.
His largest book, a denizen
above the rest, brown and frail:
Sex Life of the Human Male.84

'...above the rest, brown and frail:  / Sex Life of the Human Male.'

'...above the rest, brown and frail: / Sex Life of the Human Male.'

148.

A love of Whitman, Proust and Gide.
The fetid, hollow smell of rotting
Pinex walls; the sunlight clotting
in the curtain’s flimsy tweed.
And there – above the fireplace –
a water stain resembles a vase
of huge hydrangeas; or champagne corks
of sundry size and diverse torque
erupting from some bottled spirits.
And sometimes in that mottled smear, it’s
less defined – an umber phantasm
of mushroom clouds in wondrous spasm.

149.

You hear it? You hear it, reader? That nagging
knock, it comes again! (And will
depart, I hope, if I stay still.)

What’s that? In heavy winds a wagging
tree-limb taps a rap refrain
upon the snare-drum windowpane
– but this…three taps, abrupt and beckoning!
Is it some trick of yours, my friend?
An otherworldly knell? A reckoning
hour? And what might it portend?

A voice!

                ‘Who calls? Hello? That you,
my love? O god! Can it be true?
I’m coming!’

                           The door – unlock it! Unlock it!
Release my keys, you stingy pocket!

— End of Canto the Second —


84 The actual book title is
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Its co-authors (each man healthily endowed with a prominent middle initial) are Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy and Clyde E. Martin. The book, this editor discovered, indeed resides in Sargeson’s bach, as do books by the authors mentioned in the subsequent stanza.

__________

 

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The Writer’s Price — Stanzas 123 to 129

‘An ancient Olivetti on / his modest desktop shakes its keys / like tendrils in a gentle breeze.’

‘An ancient Olivetti on / his modest desktop shakes its keys / like tendrils in a gentle breeze.’

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

123.

I feel death’s firm finality;
my absence from this world; and it
from me. I am, I must admit,
enamored of mortality.
That’s not the case with my poor guest
(whose home I’ve graciously possessed).
From midnight’s stroke that phantom haunts
his writing desk. How much he wants
to write again! He types till dawn.
An ancient Olivetti75 on
his modest desktop shakes its keys
like tendrils in a gentle breeze.

124.

I hear its clatter. But nothing’s typed!
No words produced – and if they are,
the roller shows no battle scars;
nor is a paper ever striped.
Poor unappreciated soul!
Does not my presence here console
your troubled spirit? To know I draw
these same old dusty drapes, and paw
these same chessmen; and yet, like you,
I race across my mind, pursue
unruly words and taunting truth;
as much a hunter as a sleuth.

125.

Like you, I try to lure fast-moving
readers,76 their opaque eyes behind
a tinted glass, unfathomable minds,
which always seem so disapproving.
Like you, my friend, I seek the chance
to wait in queues and hail a glance
at Dymocks, Whitcoulls, Paper Plus.
The writer’s a taxi. The reader’s a bus.
Let’s get that straight. To make a sale
we ask our readers to ride our tale
instead of others’! I know the feeling
when readers find us unappealing.

126.

Yet still we write! And hope for fees
when it is we, who (by the word!)
must pay in days and loves deferred,
in limbs, by god – we amputees
with life itself our severed fare,
our minds confined to wheelchairs;
or rather, more immobilized,
more like a patient paralyzed
and spread across the stars, to hear
the happy banter in the sphere
below – O tantalizing noise! –
and know we miss life’s simplest joys.

127.

I know the times a writer sits
and draws a blank and stares into
the void and hemorrhages life! While all
our readers are flushed, engorged, enthralled
with life; and well-employed, competing
for mates, earning money, eating
fine foods, lifting weights and buying
whatever the ads suggest, complying
to fashions, courting with cars (beating
out the latest dents; cheating
on odometers),77 getting pissed
as hell in bars – O what a list

'To make a sale / we ask our readers to ride our tale / instead of others’!'

'To make a sale / we ask our readers to ride our tale / instead of others’!'

128.

of rituals which you can practice
while we, the authors, just grow fresh boils
on our bums and know our toil’s
dragging us – or no, in fact is
causing all of life to shift
like soil around a man whose swift
descent in marshy earth is only
hastened by his kicks. The lonely
struggle for words! The kicking, the flailing
of thought! Each frantic gasp inhaling
still more thickened mud. Suffice
to say, I know the writer’s price.

129.

So let us seek, my friend, a clarity
of voice, a piper’s song to speed
this country’s past along, and lead
it toward its rightful prosperity.
And you, dear ghost, are part of it!
And don’t you see? I’m far more fit
than you to write? My pen tattoos
each page with words, and will refuse
to let your legacy diminish.
My meter says: Just let me finish!
A little money. A little food.
And I now end this interlude.


75 This Italian-made typewriter was founded by Camillo Olivetti in 1908. Thirty-six years later, his son, Adriano Olivetti, used an Olivetti typewriter to write his book,
L’ordine Politico delle Comunità (The Political Order of Communities) which led to the creation of a political movement called “The Community Movement.’ The Olivetti brand has served many great writers apart from Frank Sargeson — from Sylvia Plath to Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, John Updike, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and T.C. Boyle. Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti sold at auction for US$254,500 in 2009.

76 With this, as well as numerous stanzas up ahead referring to books and publishing, readers can see why it’s hard to believe Zireaux did not envision Res Publica as a published book. Similarly in Kamal – ‘I’ll pen but never read this book!’ says Arcady (p. 130, Kamal); and ‘…you ask what happens in a story / No book can be all-revelatory’ (p. 276); and ‘This book, Kamal’ (p. 302); and ‘My book’ (p. 345); and perhaps most convincing of all, ‘To you, this book,’ from the dedication page of Kamal! Even taking into account that the poet-narrator Arcady is – like most narrators in fiction – a different person than the poetry-composer Zireaux, and that Zireaux may well be imagining himself as a writer named Arcady who intends to publish a book, while Zireaux himself harbours no such designs, these references are difficult to dismiss as mere fictional devices.

77 With the majority of cars in New Zealand purchased second-hand from Japan, many car dealers have been accused of tampering with the odometers, or ‘clocking’ as it’s more commonly known. As my New Zealand source describes it, ‘the dealer winds off kilometres from the speedo to make the car appear more flash.’

__________

Proust's cork-lined bedroom, in the Hotel Carnavalet in Paris.

A reconstruction of Marcel Proust's cork-lined bedroom at the Museé Carnavalet in Paris.

Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
For these Sargeson passages, I spent significant time in his old Takapuna bach, not as part of the Sargeson writer-in-residence fellowship. This was before the house served that ignoble purpose, and I never win awards — although if you happen to know someone who awards money and/or bucolic shelters to deserving but unrecognized artists, let them know that (a) I’m unlikely to refuse them, and (b) I offer in return both immortal acknowledgement and very high interest rates on debts of gratitude.

Rather, a lovely librarian from the Takapuna branch was kind enough to unlock the ramshackle place and wait for me patiently during my lengthy investigations. The Olivetti, the water-stained beaverboard, the chessmen, the lemon wine, the Janet Frame quilt, the Virgil on the desk, Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the top-most shelf — it’s all still neatly arranged in my mind.

Let’s not romanticize such poverty, however. Not in real life. Sargeson’s distressingly shameful shack is no place for a writer, no place for poets; and certainly no place for Auckland’s literary circles to gather with their wine and cheese.

An artist’s pain and penury is serious stuff. The idea that a masterpiece requires an artist’s confinement, a complete inhabitance of the artwork, that the artist must sacrifice everything to the creation, is well and good for collectors and critics. But there’s no formula for suffering to produce inspiration.

Sure, one writer’s shanty is another’s Winter Palace. Proust’s last writing residence, his room at the Hotel Carnavalet in Paris where he died, is often described as a cramped, miserable little cork-lined chamber sadly representative of the writer’s fading health, of death closing in on him. But compared to Sargeson’s chamber (not to mention Zireaux’s), how delightful was Proust’s desk, how plush and inviting that embroidered divan and gold-patterned reading chair, how luxurious that blue-covered bed!

And sure, the artist, surrendering to the work, lives elsewhere, so to speak — in a provincial New Zealand youth, in the rich salons of fin-de-siècle Paris, or on a rocky little island of his dreams. But however rich the imagination, the body stays put, becomes a kind of orphan, discarded, stray, completely dependent on the kindness of others. O what ravishing images, what wondrous little fancies can beautify our thoughts! Yet dip their radiant colors into the thinner of an unheated winter room and how quickly they dissolve.

 

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I Write! I Build! — Stanzas 117 to 122

Keisha Castle-Hughes starring in the movie, Whale Rider.

Keisha Castle-Hughes starring in the movie, Whale Rider.

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

117.

But beauty bejeweled is beauty matured!
Just look at Keisha Castle-Hughes.71
’Twas Oscar’s gild that made her lose
her youth – and made her fame assured.
Or look at Van Gogh. Who noticed his flowers
until they were noticed by wealthier powers?72
For wealth, you see, is not a bad thing.
Why even that communist Deng Xiaoping
proclaimed, ‘It’s glorious to be rich.’
Believe him, country. Subscribe to his pitch.
For O! The treasures I’ve in store
for you in Cantos Three and Four!

118.

(And even Five, if I am still
alive by then, and still possessed
of all my faculties, and blessed,
as now, with my dear Muse’s goodwill.)
But will we reach those golden gates?
My wife once said: What separates
a life from dreams is life has cash
and dreams do not. I see the ash
around my ruined life –

                                               (that hounding
knock continues outside! Confound it!)

– the ash beneath the dreams I skewered.
Can I rise like Martha Stewart,73

119.

a Phoenix afresh? Where was I – oh yes.
Your beauty. My story. Your need of me
and mine of you. Economy
and Art. Debts and dues. Success
and failure. Hunger and the fate
of those who write, as I, of late,
have done. For ever since I learned
about my orphanhood, I’ve yearned
to live unbothered; to not compete
in life, but just to sleep and eat
and let accumulate the past
– until I’m nudged from life at last.

120.

Yet look at this – I write! I write!
I build, construct, design, reshape,
and try as best I can to scrape
the sky! Of stocky modest height,
these simple stanzas, not too wordy,
a quatrain base, austere and sturdy,
then rising up in couplet walls
on all four sides (no need of halls);
a loose iambic tetrameter rhyme
with some beats missed (is it a crime?);
dactyls and trochees thrown in for good measure;
male endings mostly, females for pleasure.

'Can I rise like Martha Stewart, / a Phoenix afresh?'

'Can I rise like Martha Stewart, / a Phoenix afresh?'

121.

I write! I build! (And damn that knock!)
I stack one floor atop the next
and hope my story intersects
with my next 12-line stanza block.
I concentrate, compose, assemble,
test for cracks, the slightest tremble
in a poor transition; repair
my metaphors, each sagging stair
of thought, each broken part or sum.
I make sure that each rhyme is plumb,
each line is laid, each steely rafter
built to last a lifetime – and after.

122.

History is my architect.
The past my trusted masonry.
My inspiration’s nascency
is firmly cast in retrospect.
And yet sometimes I drift ahead.
The ghost74 who occupies this bed
makes room for me. We lie together.
I feel his flesh and wonder whether
he feels mine. I smell his breath –
of lemon wine it reeks. Of death
we never speak; and yet I hear it,
and let my thinking wander near it.


71 A New Zealand child-actor, who, at the age of 14, starred in the movie
Whale Rider, based on the book by New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera. In 2004 she became the youngest actress ever nominated for the Academy Awards’ Oscar in the ‘actress in a leading role’ category.

72 Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ sold for US$53,900,000 in a 1987 Sotheby’s auction. The painting was purportedly bought by a rich Australian, Alan Bond. However, it is also claimed this purchase caused Bond’s bankruptcy and he was forced to forego the painting as he could not repay the money loaned to him by Sotheby’s to purchase it. The painting is now owned by Getty’s museum.

73 Martha Stewart (born 1941) is a popular Polish-American television and magazine personality, lifestyle advisor, and former CEO of the publicly traded company Martha Steward Living Omnimedia. Her reputation was tarnished when she was convicted of lying during an insider trading investigation and was sentenced to prison in 2004. She was, however, released a few months later and met with an even greater popularity – increased sales of her Martha Stewart Living magazine, expanded offerings of her merchandise, a book deal, a revival of her television show, and a special, highly-paid role in the popular TV reality series The Apprentice.

74 That is, the ghost of New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson – see footnote 33.

__________

Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917)

Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917)

Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
In keeping with the theme of the under-appreciated poet — not to mention the spirit of Tuesday Poetry (and I hope my leisured readers will visit some of the other fine Tuesday Poets) — I contribute the following little octave:

Days — like Tennyson’s Shalott —
spent tombed alone in looming thought,
and every minute away from you!
Is it enough? Will it do
to gently draw us from the brink
of darkest, darkest despair, to think
in fifty years the world somehow
will know Zireaux much more than now?

 

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To Loneliness! — Stanzas 103 to 108

Frank Sargeson's home in Takapuna, New Zealand (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

The writer Frank Sargeson's home in Takapuna, New Zealand (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

In which our narrator muses about what it means to be a writer in New Zealand . . .

103.

A brief aside: I’m hungry and tired.
The following lines may have to wait
for me to fill a dinner plate.
For that, however, money’s required.
This place I write, this shameful shed
informs us where good writers are led.
To loneliness! And water-stained walls!
Woe is he whom Literature calls!
Why must our country’s minstrelsy
exist in crippling poverty?
Is it, as Kipling said, some debt
which traps us? Have we not paid it yet?59

104.

Of course we’ve written honorable cheques,
each signed by a distinguished name
– by Katherine, Witi, Hulme, Frame
and others. And some, to be direct,
by cranks and frauds. (One name’s enough
to stain our credit – rhymes with ‘bluff’);60
But though we’re often praised and thanked,
well, are these payments ever banked?
Are writers like Sargeson and Stead61
in Kipling’s homeland ever read?
And even our Peter-the-Great’s new throne
was built on fiction Tolkien loaned.

105.

I sometimes wonder, dear country – perhaps
we’re richer than we know; a kind
of native gold as yet un-mined
and not displayed on any maps
but which, in fact, might dwell below
our very noses. I surely owe
this thought to someone: Two years ago,
while coming back from Mexico
(a meeting with Vicente Fox)62
a series of light-fingered shocks
from potholes picked my taxi’s glove
compartment’s lock; and gave a shove;

Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox

Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox

106.

and out spilled notebooks on my lap.
I’m not a snoop. My eyes, however,
are less mannered; and go wherever
bidden. So in the notebook’s trap
they fell – my full attention snared
by what those scribbled pages bared;
in English and in Hindi, too;
a jumble of words – with some crossed-through
and others circled – but clear and careful
lines of verse composed. Not prayerful
hymns, but brilliant, witty, graphic
ballads penned in Auckland’s traffic!

107.

Some lines I stored in memory.
Heroic couplets, all, like Homer;
and like that bard’s great hero-roamer,
his poems dealt with Odyssey.
I mean – his struggle to return
to where his thoughts and dreams most yearn;
to earn a living, to work, to drive
all day, but never to arrive
at what he called his ‘Destined Nation’.
And now and then in his narration,
his ‘meter’ sang – I mean the one
that tells the fare when it is done.

108.

(A pun, of course. Yet how it quickens
a poet’s heart to think of meters
charging fares to all our readers!
Perhaps we’d be inclined, like Dickens,
to generate more words, and faster;63
to be less poet, more webmaster.
If how I dined depended on
how fast or far my lexicon
propelled you, reader, I’d press
the pedal to the floor, digress
more often, and worry less about
how faithfully I kept my route.)


59 See footnote 2.

60 This editor was able to identify only one New Zealand author whose name rhymes with ‘bluff’. Because of the disparaging context of the reference, however, this editor prefers to let readers reach their own conclusions.

61 C.K. Stead (born 1932), New Zealand writer of talent. When I wrote to him requesting a meeting to discuss the publication of Zireaux’s work, Stead replied that he’d be interested in meeting Zireaux himself: ‘I’m always interested in meeting fellow writers – especially Kiwi writers who’ve achieved some international recognition. I’m not interested in meeting a publisher, thank you.’

62 Vicente Fox Quesada (born 1942), a handsome, slimly mustached man, was elected President of Mexico in 2000.

63 The idea that Charles Dickens was paid by the word – and hence his prolixity – is something of a myth (what publisher would be so foolish?). In truth, Dickens wrote in monthly installments, which forced him to write quickly while generating enough suspense to ensure sales of the next installment.

__________

And now and then in his narration,  his ‘meter’ sang – I mean the one  that tells the fare when it is done.

'And now and then in his narration, / his 'meter' sang – I mean the one / that tells the fare when it is done.'

Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
Although a digression from our story, “The Taxi Driver’s Poem” — which will appear next week — pierces the very island-navel of Res Publica, Book One.

Nobody likes a poem with a message; but then again, nobody likes a poem that nobody dislikes. I utterly abhor any form of writing school or club, political party or religious fanaticism; but at the same time, in real life, there are few membership opportunities I’m able to refuse. Standing in the doorway of our elegant Georgian-styled foyer, the poor Jehovah’s Witnesses seem almost disappointed at the ease of my conversion. Eternal heaven? I’m in. Really? Absolutely.

In New Zealand I joined the National party first, the Maori party second, then the Greens, the United Front, ACT, the Labour party, in precisely that order. I’m a “Labral” in Australia and a proud Tea-Party Republicrat in the USA — and if I’m asked nicely enough to join the “Intelligent Designers” or the “Climate Change Skeptics,” or swear allegiance to the Flat Earth Society, I will do so without hesitation.

And so it is, in Res Publica, that I so willingly shake the hand of Thematic Interpretation. Nice to meet you. Sure I’ll tell you what it all means. I’ve written a poem about the interplay, or interrelationship, between isolation and immigration. The lacunae between culture, so to speak. Yes, my books are about exile and loneliness, and you’re absolutely right, the foreign-born taxi driver symbolizes what it means to be an artist. The taxi, like Res Publica, is a kind of island, really — an island that belongs to you, that you can control, but that is never completely your own.

Of course I’ll say it, why wouldn’t I?

The taxi driver is me.

 

Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book

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A Fearful, Priceless Thing — Stanzas 58 & 59

Frank Sargeson's house in Takapuna, Auckland, NZ.

Frank Sargeson's house in Takapuna, Auckland, NZ.

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the First

58.

For part of me enjoys such places.
And part of me would rather play
the dreamer than the writer – and stay
there in my thoughts . . .

                                             My writing space is
more a shed, whose owner was
a writer, too.33 I think it does
me good to lie upon his beat-up
bed, or put my naked feet up
on his desk and reminisce
about those wondrous times when bliss
and misery stirred together – as on
that solid ground the sea had drawn

59.

out from its depths and offered me
that evening. A fearful, priceless thing.
A monstrous relic – both dazzling
and dark; unknown, yet inwardly
familiar; an unexpected gift
for letting mind and body drift
through sleep and storm-cloud’s furied force
upon a boat designed to tow
another. Some seven years ago.
Some seven years ago! A course
which to this day remains uncharted.

But now, at last, my story’s started.

— End of Canto the First —

33From ensuing details about the narrator’s ‘writing space’ or ‘shed’, most readers familiar with New Zealand literature will recognize that we are now in the former house of the late Frank Sargeson (1903–1982), often considered the father of New Zealand literature. The property, which I visited last year, is located hardly a kilometer from where Zireaux was living, in the sea-side town of Takapuna, on Auckland’s North Shore. In honor of the late writer’s memory this old, country beachside bach, now surrounded by modern homes and busy streets, is remarkably well preserved, with Sargeson’s books on the shelves, his Olivetti typewriter, his chess pieces, reading glasses, bottles of lemon wine, cooking utensils and so forth – exactly as the narrator describes the house in future stanzas.

 

Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book

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“99 Ways” — The A-to-Y of New Zealand Poetry

99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry

99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry
Paula Green, Harry Ricketts
and poets as credited
Vintage, Random House
624 pages, NZ$46.00

 
New Zealand! How much I love you!

And how much more I’d love you all to myself.

But let’s be real: There are over 80 anthologies and collections of poetry with you as a unifying theme. And now, with its 85 poems, 73 featured poets (including the editors), 25 poets talking about their work, 68 poet photos, 60 chapters, 624 pages and a gigaton of words, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry must be the largest and most magnificent collection of them all.

The “99” is actually – so the editors tell us in a rather limp handshake of a preface — “one of those symbolic numbers” (oh, one of those numbers) “which implies plenty while still leaving open the possibility of other options, other approaches.” The book, in other words, is not about some taxonomic accuracy, but rather, the editors ceremoniously conclude, it “aims to celebrate New Zealand writers, to inspire people to read poetry, to kick-start poetry conversations and to open rather than limit the way we approach a poem.”

Emma Neale

Hot: The ravishing Emma Neale. She writes well, too.

Just why a pair of talented poets like Ms. Green and Mr. Ricketts would want to compile – and more, write copious words for — a book with such a cocktail-party aim in mind is beyond me; although I suppose even the most brilliant physicists, when working at their particle accelerators, must order the morning’s doughnuts and color-code the office calendar. Worksheets to fill in. Creative NZ applications to lodge.

The non-committal, all-encompassing approach which 99 Ways takes, however, often reminds me of those national museums, or public libraries, that seek to make their collections more accessible to young people by using the latest audio-visual pyrotechnics (when what they really need is a good Egyptian mummy or a first edition Shakespeare). How vibrant and accessible, after all, is something that must be continually celebrated, inspired, kick-started to life?

Preservation, then. The poet as curator, restorer, not just of another poet, but of an entire national collection, as if poetry, or more specifically English poetry, were a vital organ in the nationhood of any English-speaking country. A flag, a founding father, a national archive, a flower, tree, bird – and yes, a poet laureate. This is fine. This is laudable, keeping the flame alight for New Zealand – but not a soldier’s work. We’re formed within a body first; the land comes later; the nation sometimes never at all, and as with our best generals, the poet’s honour — though nation-born — is battle-achieved. (Tell them Rudyard!). It makes no difference whose side you’re on.

Not that 99 Ways isn’t a celebration worth attending. On the contrary, the writing styles of Green and Ricketts are beautifully descriptive, authoritative, remarkably similar in their curator-like voices, if not occasionally logic-killing and Dancing-with-the-Stars in their praise, with Green the quicker-draw of poetic license (“so full of life,” writes Green of one poet’s work, “that it is magnificently larger than life.”).

Leigh Davis

Not: Hats on to the poet Leigh Davis.

The hallways of 99 Ways are clearly marked yet mindfully mazy. They intersect and interweave and often take us to rooms we thought we’d left behind but are happy to revisit. The historical wings (pages 128-199) are particularly impressive, as we’re carried on a smooth thematic ride from the New Zealand poets of pre-World War II to the practitioners of today. Fact is, our editors are dedicated to their task, they love their jobs, their passion is infectious, they’ve made their museum as large, as educational, as all-encompassing as possible – with special, instructive galleries featuring the greatest of English bards — and they’ve presented some remarkable New Zealand poets and poems, many of which deserve to be mounted beside masters from around the world.

Put simply, a weighty book, a reference book, a book worth owning.

My measure of great art? The degree to which it affects you directly, seizes you, holds you in time, injects its magic potion straight into your veins without a niggling nurse, or tour guide, or audio headphones. Occasionally in 99 Ways, too often no doubt, the editors seem to describe a monument of Kiwi lyrical achievement, only to show us, several pages later – when, with terrific expectation, we finally reach the relevant “boxed poem” at the end of the chapter – that their Mount Rushmore of a poem is really just a bronze of John Plimmer and his dog. Perhaps this is what happens when poets write about poets.

But this is troubling. Celebrations are fine as long as we don’t all end up singing karaoke. The keys to Sargeson’s shack, a place to sit, we don’t need more than that to feel his magnitude. The All Blacks are still “mighty” even when they play in stadiums no bigger than what you’d find in an average American university. But how deflating when the stadium is huge and the rugby is trivial.

As much as the mighty Allen Curnow may have wished otherwise, an original New Zealand voice is largely absent from the vaults of this country’s poetic treasury. Such a unique species of voice, it turns out, doesn’t settle long enough for us to net it with tradition. Green and Ricketts acknowledge this fact, and spend much of the book sourcing the different influences on our poetry – from the English romanticists to American modernists. There’s always a certain orderliness, civility, an excess of safety equipment in borrowed art forms. Like jazz music at Oxford, or rap in Auckland. (“Original artists, they / with music from the USA,” writes my narrator in Res Publica).

Which leaves us with what — a New Zealand school of poetry? A yearbook of sorts? If so, then let me say this: In the hot-or-not profile pics, Emma Neale — who is kept, ironically, yummily, in “The Kitchen” chapter of 99 Ways — receives a piping hot 350-degree oven-baked ballot submission from this blissfully married reviewer. A ravishing Sandy Newton-John she makes for the dashing Danny Travolta-McCormick.

Although, to be fair, the hotties are numerous in this book and the “nots” are disappointingly rare. Baxter’s photo is the most genuine and adorable, and the photo of the so-called “experimentalist poet” (what other kind of artist is there?) Leigh Davis, in a T-shirt and cap, is the most refreshingly unflattering. A measure of great poets: Those whose poetry survives despite — or even without — their mugs.

For all the ways into New Zealand poetry, the paths to becoming a New Zealand poet are (without dying first) conspicuously less numerous and seem to involve (a) courses of some sort, either at Victoria or Auckland University, (b) a formulaic approach to writing, like the “Poetry Tool Kit” on page 557 of 99 Ways, and, (c) most important of all, befriending the right people.

This, too, is troubling. And yet comforting at the same time. The bibliography of 99 Ways lists 233 books of poetry written by New Zealanders – from Fleur Adcock to Merlene Young, an impressive A-to-Y list of New Zealand versifiers. I say no more. However big they make you, darling, you’re never big enough for those who love you most.

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NZ Poetry Day: Lines from Res Publica, Book One

Frank Sargeson's Home in Takapuna (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

The narrator in this scene is hiding out at writer Frank Sargeson’s bach in Takapuna, on Auckland’s North Shore. As he writes his epic story, he takes a moment to contemplate New Zealand’s literature.

Lines from Res Publica, Book One

To loneliness! And water-stained walls!
Woe is he whom literature calls!
This place I write, this shameful shed,
informs us where good writers are led.
Why must our country’s minstrelsy
exist in crippling poverty?
Is it, as Kipling said, some debt
which traps us?1 Have we not paid it yet?

Of course, we’ve written honorable cheques,
each signed by a distinguished name
— by Katherine, Witi, Hulme, Frame
and others. And some, to be direct,
by cranks and frauds. (One name’s enough
to stain our credit — rhymes with “bluff”);
But though we’re often praised and thanked,
well, are these payments ever banked?
Are writers like Sargeson and Stead
in Kipling’s homeland ever read?
And even our Peter-the-Great’s new throne
was built on fiction Tolkien loaned.

I sometimes wonder, dear country — perhaps
we’re richer than we know; a kind
of native gold as yet un-mined
and not displayed on any maps
but which, in fact might dwell below

Pahutakawa Tree, photograph by Steven Pinker

Pahutakawa Tree, photograph by Steven Pinker

our very noses. The planet knows
your thickly oozing golden light,
your sails and whales and sea birds in flight,
your Wearable Arts2 and well-carved boats,
and surely if we took a vote,
why all the trees would love to wear
your bright red bows in their summer hair.

You are…a triple-seeded pod
of land in fruitless, boundless blue.
You don’t do what the others do.
You’re young, and thus, a leader of
our hearts, a spirit that we love
— the way you shrewdly shirk the ships
who lewdly whisper, ‘Apocalypse’
into your pretty ear. You set
the world’s best example — and yet

a side of you (all sheep and farm)
could use a lyric ornament
to earn the long-due compliment
of English patrons. (How fast such charm
transforms the debt extractor
into an instant benefactor).
Despite your beauty, it takes a jewel
to end a creditor’s pursual.
Now here’s my point (for too much drivel
makes narration’s compass swivel):
As unadorned as you appear,
your jewels might exist right here.

Right here, in our own hemisphere,
a Nobel Laureate could in fact be
working in an Auckland taxi.
Right here, a modern day Kabir3
could well be writing you a Wonder
of the World! And what a blunder
— to leave it unappreciated.
For beauty unseen is uncreated.

Keisha Castle-Hughes

Keisha Castle-Hughes performing in the film Whale Rider, based on the book by New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera

But beauty bejeweled is beauty matured!
Just look at Keisha Castle-Hughes.
‘Twas Oscar’s gild that made her lose
her youth — and, too, her fame assured.
Or look at Van Gogh. Who noticed his flowers
until they were noticed by wealthier powers?

We know the times a writer sits
and draws a blank and stares into
the void and hemorrhages life. While all
our readers are flushed, engorged, enthralled
with life; and well-employed, competing
for mates, earning money, eating
fine foods, lifting weights and buying
whatever the ads suggest, complying
to fashions, courting with cars (beating
out the latest dents; cheating
on odometers), getting pissed
as hell in bars — O what a list

of rituals which you can practice
while we, poor poets, grow fresh boils
on our bums and know our toil’s
dragging us — or no, in fact is
causing all of life to shift
like soil around a man whose swift
descent in marshy earth is only
hastened by his kicks. The lonely
struggle for words. The kicking, the flailing
of thought. Each frantic gasp inhaling
still more thickened mud. Suffice
to say, we know the writer’s price.

Yet still we write! And hope for fees
when it is we, who (by the word!)
must pay in days and loves deferred,
in limbs, by god — we amputees
with life itself our severed fare,
our minds confined to wheelchairs;
or rather, more immobilized,
more like a patient paralyzed
and spread across the stars to hear
the happy banter in the sphere
below — O tantalizing noise! —
and know we miss life’s simplest joys.
_________________
Footnotes:
1Kipling’s story, “My Lady of Wairakei,” in which Kipling makes this point, first appeared in the
New Zealand Herald on January 30, 1892.
2Part fashion show, part creative dress-up competition, Wearable Arts began in 1987, in the South Island city of Nelson. Today it’s recognized as an international artistic event.
3Fifteenth century Indian spiritual philosopher and writer, famous for his pithy, poetic epigrams about the beauty of a simple life. Here’s an example of his work (translation by Robert Bly,
Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, Beacon Press):

There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The sacred Books of the east are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something it is not true.

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