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Response from Nowhereisland — Friends or Foes? — and Early Version of Res Publica, from April, 2003

Mount Ngauruhoe: 'I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe'

Mount Ngauruhoe: ‘As far as stories go / I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe’

You’ll recall that on learning the British artist, Alex Hartley, had landed upon the artistic shores to which I have laid claim myself, I did what any native poet would do — I applauded his designs and showed my respect for his achievement by nominating myself Poet Laureate of the territory he calls “Nowhereisland.”

My thanks to those of you who may have supported and seconded my self-nomination. As a result of our actions, yesterday I received a friendly but puzzling response from the director of an organization called Situations, the arts commissioning program behind the Nowhereisland project.

In her email, the director points out — addressing my claim that Alex Hartley’s work mimics my own — that Mr. Hartley “commenced work on Nowhereisland back in 2004.”

Puzzling indeed. If we’re going to bring dates into the matter of artistic discovery (never my intention), then for the record, Res Publica was conceived in 2001, with a completed version of the poem recited before a live audience, in April, 2003 — a good year and half before Mr. Hartley’s “discovery.”

I’ve decided to publish, below, that early version of Res Publica, from April, 2003, for Situations, Alex Hartley, and the Nowhereisland expedition team (they are still awaiting the copy of Res Publica, Book One, which was sent by regular mail).

I will comment further on the email I received from Situations — and its potential significance in terms of artistic integrity, colonialism and territorial rights — over the next couple days.

Res Publica
by
Zireaux

To M.

Prologue

The following is a true account
of seven years and fifty weeks
of my life. The thrifty reader who seeks
some greater truth from such an amount
should stop here. A visiting Kipling once said
our island nation is British fed,
but will one day repay its debt in stories. *
Rudy was known for allegories.
This is not one – it’s factual role
as firm as the streets our Capital stole *
from the sea! As far as stories go,
I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe. *

Canto 1
It Happened on a Practice Day

1.1

It happened on a practice day.
A lull in squalls made failing motors
of the sails. We were trailing-boaters
with nothing to do now but play.
A ray of sun had set alight our skin;
the weary umpire was first to jump in;
and the cool Gulf quickly doused
the judgements which his body housed.
A flagsman leapt, then a meal-hand,
then a sailor for Team New Zealand;
everyone but me – an unsociable seal,
who was busy sleeping at the wheel.

1.2

A knocking of the stern against
some rocks – “Come in! Are we racing
again?” By god t’was night! I was facing
the stars, which floated free, unfenced,
in the celestial sea – like spectator craft! *
I looked around: My boat was unstaffed!
The water – shiny as horse-fur, banded
with white where moonlight spanned it –
was flat as an empty stage, no props
or crops of trees, no mountaintops
piquing the horizon – which truly shocked;
for the knock told me my boat was docked.

1.3

The air was warm, my clothes were wet,
without a trace of salt. To the West
soft thunder answered in anapest
a difficult question. And new ones beget:
My mates? Perished? What absurdity!
On a different boat they must surely be!
Slowly my thoughts (I snoozed through a storm?)
diffused like water from the low landform
which caused me to stand, and from the stern climb,
and question that morning’s rapid “burn-time,”
and whether my brain had sizzled while I slept.
But lo! On ground my feet now stepped!

1.4

The land was as long as a football field
and curved like rising Te Ra across.*
Momently inhabited it was. An albatross
waived and flapped her feathery shield;
then fell forward in flight. Now I
was alone in the night; not high, but dry,
perched on drowned Poseidon’s head
as if the god were standing there dead,
blue face underwater; scalp made of sand.
A moment’s panic bade me search the land
for blow-holes. But Tinirau I wasn’t to be; *
nor is that other Robinson me.

1.5

My GPS guided me swiftly home
the roughly fifty nautical miles;
to my unknotting conjugation, where smiles
were absent as always. It was a syndrome,
this icy fever of married life.
The dawn spoke more than my gab-spent wife,
who rather than assessing her husband’s survival,
was dressing for work upon his arrival.
An affair with her paycheck! Oh how the toil
of marriage can stagnate one’s life and spoil
one’s rhymes! Enough of this despair!
Fill our wings, Muse! To Wellington’s air!

Canto 2
Longitude 175 58’

2.1

To the Land Office on Lambton Quay,
where nary a report of my tiny highland
by passing ship or plane or island
map was produced by the Admiralty.
The flu-sick helicopter pilot
(a woman named Meg) sought my islet
at longitude one-seven-five, fifty-eight,
beyond the swirling Culville straight
and Cuvier isles by roughly eighteen
miles, and snuffly expected a slate-scene
of liquid, with depths of fathoms forty,
but found a landing-pad for our sortie.

2.2

Land! Untrespassed land! Untrammeled
hope! Geographers appraised:
“It was,” they said, “quite recently raised.
Tectonic crusts can shift…” They rambled
on and on, while I recalled
the prior week a tremor had stalled
my wife’s soft typing a millisecond.
“Did you feel that, dear?” I beckoned.
“No” – click-click, her thoughts well-railed,
while mine across great oceans sailed
on maritime bail from marital prison;
not knowing, off shore, my new home had risen.

2.3

My home! No prints of human feet
or vision were stamped upon that ground
before mine! Yes, such spots are found
by children and lovers and other discreet
explorers of secret places daily.
The earth, like skin, impermanent, scaly,
replaces wounds with scars, and erases
others. Imagine the infinite cases
of ownership, were deeds dispersed
for all things traversed or sighted first!
Boundless kingdoms in every town –
but none of that matters to the Crown.

2.4

What is ownership alas? One kind
alone is vital to the poet: the title
of Uniqueness! For each new recital,
a copyright of style is legally assigned,
making tycoons of many a bard
who once found paying creditors hard.
Lord Byron owns the ancient East.
All paradise from Coleridge is leased.
Couldn’t I divine within me some song
to build my empire loud and long – *
Oh foolish bards! Get real! A purse is
worth more in bank notes than verses!

2.5

“Sweetheart, I need some money. It’s urgent!
The emergent country I staked with a flag
(when set aground by ‘Helicopter Meg’)
needs protection from government insurgents
who claim our recently risen stone
lies within their Economic Zone!
Our lawyers, however, tell a different story:
The rock’s outside the territory
of this nation by a distance fixed
at a quarter league. Everything betwixt
that point and Peru is blue free land!
And therein sits our New New Zealand.”

2.6

Notice my choice of “our” and “we.”
My tight-lipped wife’s a shrewd investor;
the issue of “returns” have long obsessed her,
making loans her choice of charity.
Even the way she drafted our prenuptial
was less kind-hearted and more cleanuptial.
I bravely signed her contract then
and — once I produced a schedule when
she’d be five-times repaid or more
(then moved it forward a decade) and swore
to slavery should my promise prove cracked –
she savorily agreed to my contract.

Canto 3
Amends to the Albatross

3.1

I embarked on a life of solitude.
I packed a boat; I farewelled friends.
I brought some herring to make amends
to the albatross (a waste of food.
She had fled when I arrived).
On clams and mussels and seaweed I thrived.
There was plenty of rain. By the time November
came and went, I was a member
of parliament – of parlia-tent
I should say, just me to represent
myself, a population of one,
to protect the liberty and joy I’d won.

3.2

Indeed, it’s hard not to rejoice
in a country which breaks from Johnson’s rule
(that Republics are governed by more than one fool) *
and gives Res Publica a singular voice.
Matters of nationhood could be debated
in sleep’s chamber. On a mattress inflated
I could sign, or veto, then take a swim
and check all imbalances according to whim.
I remember once composing a treaty,
then floating it, bottled, to Tahiti,
and voting all regulations to reject!
And then came my wife, her debt to collect.

3.3

Where were the profits from oil I’d promised?
The fisheries and pearl farms? The rich investors?
The earl from England? Or was he a jester!
“You’re worse than Madam Scary, my palmist,
who predicted our pairing would be marital bliss!
Only” – lifting a paper – “she never signed this!”
I couldn’t argue. The truth was plain.
The same contract; my same bloodstain.
I offered to repay nearly ninety percent
of what remained of the funds she lent.
But she refused, and demanded in one year
I double her investment – or disappear.

3.4

Alone in my air-bed I tossed and raved
and schemed and dreamed of my Xanadu.
An army. A gold-mine. A Sultana, too?
In the end I commissioned the island paved
by a handsome Kiwi-slash-Turkmenistani
with thick mustache, who was such a good man he
offered to work for a negative sum
if I’d let seventeen of his relatives come.
And why not? He arranged the ship and sloop
and life-vests for the entire troop.
By the time his family paddled ashore
he’d imported from Auckland provisions galore.

3.5

He built the first level. There’d be many more
added above – but the first was incredible!
A Byzantine structure with divans that were bed-able;
pink satin cushions littered the corridor,
where children, saddled with Micky Mouse bags,
rode bicycles streaming with Warehouse tags *
through vibrant smoke-filled lands indoors,
with Persian carpets lining the floors,
to a bright-eyed teacher near Entrance Eight
whose Turkic words they’d enunciate.
Indeed — since Cook’s Endeavor arrived
no better breed has ever thrived.

3.6

Such thrift! Such industry! Such zeal to adapt!
How eager they were to perform some labor
which met the demands of our western neighbor:
A swift tapestry. A stuffed seal well-wrapped,
and boxed and shipped to a buyer in the U.K.
with plastic flowers wired in a bouquet.
No enterprise eluded; no wage-law intruded;
no permit was needed or passport disputed!
I recruited an accountant. He was impressed.
We bought a generator for our concrete nest.
From boxing to xeroxing — our work was transformed,
and the saffron pilaus were microwave-warmed.

Canto 4
When Limping Sunlight’s Journey Ceased

4.1

Then came “Island Babes,” the game
on TV where bikini-clad ladies seduce
a castaway sailor, racing to produce
his child. (The show won great acclaim;
Not one of the seventeen infants was hurt!)
The producers saw a chance to convert
the roof of our massive island home
into a kind of open-walled dome
for scenes which called for clean conditions
(and off-screen advice from obstetricians)
with ample sea-views. Three mothers stayed.
The sailor married our first-floor maid.

4.2

My Turkmeni friend’s acuity,
his global sense for timely invention,
his noble bent – not to mention
consent for promiscuity
(he built a bordello on level five) —
brought wealthy fellows to our hive.
Oh unfaithful Muse! How many men
you’ve inspired before me and my pen!
Higher we rose without delay;
no code of compliance, no laws to obey.
Lottery stalls and cyber-cafes!
A maze of walls and malls to amaze!

4.3

Level ten was reserved for the King (of burgers)
and the rest of his estimable court (of food).
Oh the untiring, unfathomable fortitude
of aspiring Punjabis and Beijing-born workers!
An Irish pharmaceutical rented
levels twelve through twenty in which it invented
(in vacuo that ingredient – tax)
a range of aphrodisiacs.
Homes and clubs took a higher view,
and all the people of Waikawau knew *
when limping sunlight’s journey ceased; *
our tower’s orange embers ignited the East.

4.4

With the U.N. we were quick to enlist
our high-rise nation. Our intrepid free will
earned a capitalization of ninety three mil –
but again! These royal thoughts persist!
I say “our” – but was my life enriched
by a roof-top tent (same tent!) now pitched
one hundred and twenty meters higher? *
I am just a versifier,
whose hard-earned highness in life or title
won’t spurn the slyness of a wife’s requital.
To be Queen, she said, our contract had bound her.
While her heart enthroned my mustached co-founder.

4.5

Through the skylight of their royal penthouse,
I observed their polyandric cult.
Despite rain, or Thor’s sky-whitening bolts,
I remained, above all, a loyal tent-spouse.
A great queen she was! On each new graph
our empire scored in the upper half! *
How often I wished to congratulate her,
but her button wouldn’t glow in the elevator
no matter how slowly I depressed it.
Depressed it? I meant “pressed it” – lest it
falsely ascribe a wise introspection,
to scribes with horizons stretched every direction.

4.6

The sails and whales; the magic levity
of cormorants in flight; the pelagic grace
of sea-clouds trailing their silvery lace,
— they stirred illusions of longevity!
And just as the crescent moon is ignored
by sun-bright noon, incessant Time soared
so high and quiescent, no clear terminus
beamed through my azure. I determined thus
never to look down, but to worship infinity
and for years I was true to my timeless divinity;
and for years I considered my peace well-earned,
until the albatross returned.

Canto 5
Quick! Out of Bed!

5.1

It landed on the balustrade
(which helped to keep me safely caged
when nighttime walks were sleep-engaged).
The early morning gulls, afraid
of their giant sibling, grew upset
when I approached the para-pet
and offered it food, which it refused,
its transfixed eyes were well-transfused
with something wicked, reader! I shivered!
And had my voice by cell-phone delivered:
“A head-cold,” she sniffled, but that didn’t stop her.
I was whisked away by Meg and her chopper.

5.2

How great our building appeared from a distance –
only slightly besmeared by national flags
like the pulled-out pockets of a poor man’s rags,
and the soot-black stains from someone’s insistence
on firing crackers for every last sixer
(struck not by our New, New Zealand Elixers,
but by the bat of the Indian team!).
Such flaws would be fixed. The Queen’s regime
would import new migrants to clean below:
the hemorrhage of oil, the waste-paper snow;
hot sewage boiling in a yeasty sand-brew!
“Say Goodbye!” said my pilot, “to East-Sealand Zoo!”

5.3

“How could you fail to notice?” asked Meg,
plucking from her bed-side dresser
the tissue burlesquing its predecessor.
“I don’t know, Megan; to mask some vague
understanding of masses? Money-seeking
betrays the spirit – oh look at me! I’m speaking
in cliches!” “What goes up, they say…” “Perhaps;
but our Queen would never allow such a lapse.”
“Biblical then?” “No, we arrested
Babel’s fate. Our builders were tested *
in typical English.” Bewildered cough,
then a kiss; we continued from where we left off.

5.4

“Did you feel that, Megan? The earth just trembled!”
“Oh yes.” “No, I mean, really shook!
Quick! Out of bed! We need to go look
and see if my nation has come unassembled!”
“Your nation? Why? Its emphasis
is height! Which means its genesis
is written in those stories, right?”
I said nothing. We took a flight
in her thunderous Muse. My nation approached
like a flea-ridden giant, leewardly broached
by waves! The sea rose levels four!
The fifth-floor bordello becoming the shore!

5.5

And the fleas – the fleas were people falling!
“Take me down, Megan! Down, I say!”
— as a waiter leapt from a tenth-floor cafe
and gamblers trapped in casinos were calling
for rescue! Quake-born – but not shake-proof!
“Down,” I demanded, “down on the roof!”
As loyal Megan vainly searched
for level landing, plainly perched
atop the rail like sculpted stone –
just one unruly feather blown
about by our dragon’s approach (a quill
taking notes) – the albatross was still.

5.6

“Didn’t you hear me? Down I insist!”
I made as if to exit my door,
while furious Megan swerved and swore
and reached aside to hold my wrist
— but missed! Now I was bold enough
to jump, so I did, with a landing rough
and just as Megan was coming my way,
the building started to crumble and sway.
Then tumble and crash. I sunk last,
like Melville’s native on Pequod’s mast; *
and only knew I wasn’t dead,
when I saw a white cloud with wings wide-spread.

Epilogue

A thousand worlds are born each day.
(Whoever says the world is shrinking
suffers from a lack of thinking).
Every set of eyes conveys
a country different than our own!
But if my fallen nation be known
to future readers, I thank the nurses
who served as midwives to these verses
by copying a notice every morning
and giving it to my neighbors. Its warning:
“All talking and pop-culture is restricted,
lest from this library you’ll be evicted!”

— Takapuna, April 3, 2003

Notes on the text:

Prologue

1.7 – Kipling’s story, “My Lady of Wairakei,” in which Kipling makes this point, first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on January 30, 1892.
1.10 – Several streets in downtown Wellington are built on land which rose out of the sea during an earthquake in 1885.
1.12 – Ngauruhoe refers to an active volcano in New Zealand’s central North Island.

Canto 1 — It Happened on a Practice Day

1.2.5 – Uncontrolled spectator craft in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf have been known to cause delays for Americas Cup races.
1.4.2 — Te Ra is the Maori sun god.
1.4.11 – According to Maori legend, Tinirau rode on the back of a whale.

Canto 2 — Longitude 175 58’

2. 4.10 – Taken from Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan”: “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and her song / To such a deep delight ‘twould win me / That with music loud and long…”

Canto 3 — Amends to the Albatross

3.2.3 – Samuel Johnson, In his Dictionary of the English Language (London, Walker and Co, new edition, 1853, page 536), defines the word Republick: “state in which the power is lodged in more than one.”
3.5.6 – The Warehouse is a popular discount department store in New Zealand.

Canto 4 — When Limping Sunlight’s Journey Ceased

4.3.10 – Waikawau is located on the Eastern side of the Coromandel ranges, the only town in New Zealand which could have seen New New Zealand.
4.3.11 – The sunlight is most likely “limping” because in Maori legend, Maui slows the sun by injuring it
4.4.7 – Had the builders followed the New Zealand Building Code, 1991, this would make the structure approximately thirty stories tall – but, of course, as the author makes clear, no such code was followed.
4.5.6 – Some literary scholars, such as Alberto Cross, in his book,
Kingdom by the Sea: The World of ______ (Stanton and Gross, 2001), claim the author is satirizing New Zealand’s efforts to rank in the upper half of the OECD countries. In interviews, however, the author has categorically denied such intent.

Canto 5 — Quick! Out of Bed!

5.3.11 New New Zealand followed its neighbor’s example of instituting a mandatory English language test for immigrants.
5.6.10 The three “natives” of
Moby Dick – Tashtego the native American; Queequeg the Maori; and Daggoo the African Negro — ascend the three mast-heads of their ship, the Pequod, as it sinks. Befitting the boat’s native American name (and the author’s nationality), Tashtego, the native American, takes the mainmast and is therefore last to sink.

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Filed under Poetry by Zireaux, Res Publica, Book One

The “Leafy Light” of H.G. Wells and an Exchange with Susan Pearce

From the George Pal film of The Time Machine.

From the George Pal film of The Time Machine.

Thanks to J.G. Hammond, author of H.G Wells and Rebecca West, I’m able to offer another specimen of what I’ve been seeking, casually, over the last year or so — examples of H.G. Wells’s poetry.

The following poem by Wells appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on 13 March, 1894:

Episode

A meeting under the greenwood tree
In a soft, leaf-filtered light;
A meeting or so, and a passion to know
If I read your eyes aright.

A parting under the greenwood tree
A delicate passion of pain
And soberly I return to my
Mature and elegant Jane.

Some comments on these lines in a moment…but first, the subject of Wells’s poetry arose in an on-line exchange with Susan Pearce, author of Acts of Love (University of Victoria Press), over her stimulating blog post, Where do ideas come from?

In the post she discusses some musings about inspiration by the literary slapstick artist, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Cheat, Pray, Love), and the strange disparity between a writer’s personal vision of the world and the vision presented by his or her art. Susan mentions an article by John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, which points to H.G. Wells as just such a case of a bifurcated personality — a man who professed a faith in the world-saving potential of science even as his art (a la The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Zireaux) spoke otherwise.

Here is our exchange:

Zireaux: I appreciate your thoughts here, Susan. This strikes me, however, as a misreading of Wells. He was a very young Herbert when he wrote his great romantic novel, The Time Machine; and a very mature Herbert when he embraced — or I would say, was embraced by — the political snake of Bolshevism. Something tells me this talk of the writing process, of the sub-conscious, of “characters coming alive on the page, telling me what to do etc” (a modern banality, let’s be honest) is something the Bolshevik writers of today would call refreshing. For a comedian like Gilbert, and for her flock, I find myself compelled to buff the gold-plated sign beneath a genius like Wells: “Please do not touch.”

Can I recommend you have a look at my comments on “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“? This is as far as I go on the topic of a “writing process,” and it’s perhaps too pseudo-scientific for my taste (in retrospect); but you may find it relevant to your post.

Susan Pearce: Your insight on Wells is interesting. Not being an expert on the man or his writings, I’ve taken John Gray at his word. Maybe he has conflated Wells’ career to make a point. Neither do I know enough about the details of Bolshevism to be able to grasp exactly why current Bolshevik writers (who are they?) would be keen on ‘talk of the writing process, of the subconscious [etc]‘. Would you enlighten me?

I gather that you don’t like ‘talk of the writing process’: it’s something I like to think about, because it hasn’t been a straightforward path for me, though is becoming more so. I use ‘sub-conscious’ pretty loosely, and mean by it ‘what we don’t know we know’. As far as the modern banality, I’d hoped to make clear in the post that like Nabokov (‘my characters are galley slaves’), I too dislike the notion that the character can take over from the writer like some external spirit.

I’m amused that you recommend I look at comments that you now find beneath you. I enjoyed your discussion of Larkin and Nabokov. ‘Pseudo-science’: the word comes in useful to describe quacks or the over-enthusiastic of any description using mock-science to try to market unproven theories. However, it’s inevitable that those of us who are fascinated by what neurology, quantum physics, cosmology etc tell us (insofar as we understand it) will try to draw some parallels with what we do know. If we’re not to become quacks ourselves, we have to be aware of the biases of the ‘science writers’ we read or listen to, and of when the scientists themselves correct us. Those conditions set in place, I think it’s misleading to call those discussions ‘pseudo-science’.

Mark Twain on his world tour.

Mark Twain on his world tour.

Zireaux: I suppose every era has its Bolsheviks, its philistines, its Oprahs and Chopras, its creative writing schools, Red Books and Facebooks, gurus and Gilrus, Rasputins and RasPalins.

Interesting if we compare three of the English literary sensations of the fin de siècle period — Twain, Kipling, Wells. International luminaries, all three. Sought after world-wide for their views on politics, science, futurism.

Twain, bankrupt Twain, having toured the globe, comes away least scathed by such mundanities, his artistic heart still beating strong (real heart flagging). Kipling grabs politics by the horns — a mistake, no doubt, impaled as he was — but at least in my mind he chose the most honorable fight. I’d let Kipling cast my vote on just about any issue, any day.

Wells, however, Wells is a tragic case. To me the secret to John Gray’s article lies in Wells’s “flash of passion” for Gorky’s partner and Soviet spy, Moura Budberg. Wells lacked the word-love of Twain and Kipling. His verse — the few lines of it I’ve been able to locate (not including the doggerel of Ann Veronica) is badly tuned. His art, it seems to me, relies primarily on the strength of his loins. Gray calls Wells’s works “Scientific Romances.” I call them “Romances,” but anything is better than “Science Fiction,” which, although it might apply to someone like Verne, is a travesty for the genius Wells possessed.

If you enjoy the stark asphalt-and-plastic pathway from Nabokov to neuroscience, you might want to read Brian Boyd’s book — The Origin of Stories. For my part, however, I find little of interest in such works.

Susan Pearce: Zireaux, thank you for that comparison of Twain, Kipling and Wells. The example of some contemporary writers (e.g. McEwan & Amis) would reinforce your point that it is indeed dangerous for writers to venture into commentary on politics, etc: that it does result, as you say, in mundanities.

I do reflect on how to get myself sitting at the desk (no podium here) when there’s the opportunity. And I like to think about how to generate more ideas and get over that block where you just don’t know where the story’s going. Thus my posts on the writing process.

However, although I appreciate your book recommendation, I don’t think I’ll get to it. What keeps me listening to science podcasts etc is not that I want to know the scientific detail of how the ‘creative mind’ works. It’s simply that I love the weird ideas which speak to us about a possible reality we can only begin to imagine. I don’t *think* I want to write science fiction, but it seems to me that even if our narratives describe events as we know them in this mechanical world, our narrative structures must begin to reflect the strain that this new knowledge places on us. Don’t ask me what I mean by that: I’m just beginning to figure it out.

————————-

H.G. Wells in 1907 at the door of his house at Sandgate

H.G. Wells in 1907 at the door of his house at Sandgate

And that was the end of my exchange with Ms. Pearce. Now let’s return to Wells’s leafy little poem, the revealing (yet, alas, badly tuned) “Episodes.”

Try to imagine Newt Gingrich writing (and publishing for all to see) a poem like “Episodes” — a candid, artful ditty to adultery. Unlike Gingrich, Wells, the artist, could perceive the “Lover-Shadow,” as he called it, that part of his consciousness which lived “under the greenwood tree / in a soft, leaf-filtered light.” And Wells wrote honestly, unashamedly, about these shadowy passions, an approach which many readers at the time — be it out of fear, reserve, or simply an overabundance of commonness — found difficult to digest.

Wells was never asked to write about his passions. They leaked unbidden from his aesthetic glands while he busied himself for the Gazette with what were called “single-sitting” tales of science. Perhaps he wrote so little poetry because, in his mind, passion itself — the song of the mermaids — was never subject enough for an audience. Certainly not a paying subject. For Wells there was always a mysterious door between the city and the garden, the career and the caress, the “mature and elegant Jane” (his wife) and the “leaf-filtered light,” the industrial cauldrons of science and the fires raging in his heart.

I’m inclined to think that although Wells could feel the soft light of genius which shone upon him, he couldn’t possibly perceive the unfathomable fusion behind it. The sheer immensity of this genius (and I’m not talking about his visions of the future, which are actually quite trivial) produced artistic decisions in The Time Machine which seem to me far too brilliant for the person Wells was when he wrote it.

How can this be?

One finds this with other artists — Melville, Poe, Keats, Audobon (the ornithological painter) — as if these poor souls were the victims of a parasite, an artistic genius hatched within them, forcing them to act according to its whims. An illusion, I think, but a convincing one. In fact, Wells wrote his Time Machine again and again, draft after draft, and out of the over 100 books he produced in his lifetime, the quality of each corresponds, more or less, to the number of re-writes he ministered to their creation.

The miracle of Wells is not the divergence of his futuristic visions — between a curative science and a corrupting one. Rather it’s the ability to climb so completely into the machinery of his epoch — buttoned-up, in waistcoat and patent-leather shoes — while, at the same time, letting his passions transport him wherever they pleased.

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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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“The Way Through the Woods,” by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

The Way Through the Woods
by
Rudyard Kipling

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.

New York Times article on Rudyard Kipling

From the New York Times, March 7, 1899


Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
Last year, my kindly non-judgmental reader, we visited the works of Poe, Updike, Shakespeare, Nabokov, Wallace Stevens, St. Vincent Millay, P. Gardenne, Melville, Lee O’Neil, Keats, Keats, Keats, more Keats, Stephen Colbert, Notorious B.I.G., Stevens again, Coleridge, Larkin, Bryan Walpert, Mark Twain, Terina Kingi, The Flight of the Conchords, Elizabeth Bishop, and the magnificent Mary McCallum.

But how could a year go by, so many words, without a single mention of Kipling? In fact, it didn’t. It can’t. I searched this blog for “Rudyard” or “Kipling” and there he is — four different posts — not as sitter, not as subject, but ever lurking over my shoulder, an inescapable shade.

So let us turn around. Look the master in the eye. Kipling was somewhere in his 40s when he composed “The Way through the Woods.” He was living in Sussex, England, his copious literary outburst perhaps more a kind of psychological bleeding, or rather an engrossment, an immersion in childhood fantasies that, despite the fullness of their enchantments, could never quite protect him (how could they?) from the creeping ache of despair caused by the death of his six-year-old daughter, whose ghostly skirt, in “The Way Through the Woods,” we seem to hear “swishing in the dew.”

This was no longer the writer of The Jungle Book or of Kim, possibly the best Indian-English novel ever written, and more deservingly belonging to India — if great books can belong to countries (they can’t) — than the works of just about any contemporary writer of Indian-English fiction. Nor is this the same writer of that most popular poem, “If” (1895), often referred to as “hortatory verse,” and which — as art has no obvious utility other than to capture, as precisely as possible, its creator’s passion — can hardly be called a work of art.

Rather, this is the America-touched, America-inspired and introspecting Kipling. The “Seventy years ago” of the second line sets us near the timeframe of the French Revolution of 1848, the California goldrush, our dear New Zealand’s birth, but most important of all, it takes us directly to Ulalume, the requiem of Edgar Allan Poe, the woodland lament to lost love (and first of my Tuesday Poems). It was in America, in that northeastern dark and dolorous climate of Poe, that Kipling spent his time with his daughter; and in the story which accompanies “A Way Through the Woods,” the Marklate Witches, about a free-spirited young girl insouciantly dying of pneumonia (from which Kipling’s daughter died), the heroine’s name is, in fact, Philadelphia.

What Poe achieves with sound and meter, Kipling delivers with rhythm. In each of the two stanzas, the lilting flourish of the first two quatrains — trimeters rising (Poe-tently) to an internally rhyming tetrameter (rain/again, underneath/heath, cools/pools, beat/feet) — vanishes and flattens in the third quatrain. The song, as does all beauty, as does every love, fades into “misty solitudes.” It’s the out-of-place final line, the thirteenth in the second stanza, that delivers the poem’s haunting antipodal blow. There once was, but there is no more. “There is no road through the woods.”

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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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