Michele Leggott did a presentation at the recent Devonport Art’s Festival and has kindly allowed Poetry Shelf to post a transcript and a link to a video stream.
Small Stories from Two Decades
There was a send-off, they gave me flowers and asked where I would go. To open the eyes of the soul, I said. There is a way but this is only the first gate. I give what is left of the light of my eyes, I have fallen out of a clear sky.
It is twenty years since one small incident changed the way I read and think about the world. I thought it might be interesting to trace the progression of blindness from that critical threshold, when something completely other stepped into our lives, to where it has brought us, still negotiating the terms of what makes a life, a socius and a creative practice. The exploration formed itself into seven interlocking stories, each determined to show that poetry is a language to hold onto when other languages start to disappear.
The red light disappears
I grew up knowing my grandfather died at the age of 37, and that my father, turning twelve, was convinced he had killed him. You see your father taken to hospital with pneumonia on your twelfth birthday and four days later he is dead. What could be clearer than that? My mother always said she was relieved when my father turned 38. He was, she said, hell to live with during that year, sure that he would die. That he was stepping along a spiral road whose arms might curl around him as suddenly as the siren of an ambulance. In our family, you look out for trouble at 37.
Or it finds you at an intersection in a provincial city, waiting for the lights to change. The children in the back are seven and four, the talk goes to and fro, the long day of driving is hardly underway. I glance at the red light. It is not there. I look again. It has come back. Then the lights turn green. Shaken, I drive on, to Taranaki and back, to and from work through the months afterwards, wondering why the eye doctor can find nothing wrong. We have known about the mild nightblindness for some time now. I don’t drive at night but otherwise it has not affected us much. But this disappearing of the red light. What is it? What happened to blank it out? why was it back a moment later?
At the end of a terrible year during which I thought I was going crazy, the doctor looked again and saw what had been there all along. The retinitis had found its way into my central vision. I opened a file on the computer and called it Writing Back.
I am 37 and there is a disturbance, a sparkling rip in my vision that signals the onset of pericentral darkness. This is not poetry but ophthalmics. I cannot make out your expression across a room. I read standard print inefficiently because the rip phosphoresces along the line in front of and behind the scanning eye’s point of focus. A permanent circular cursor through which memory and cognition battle for the incoming sensory trace. If I stop to check, the rip parks itself on the desired detail. I am thrown back on first and best glance backed up by what I know, not allowing that to be obliterated by the dystrophies of custom, piety, oh-but-I-haven’t-
But poetry is a language to hold onto when other languages disappear. Watching the fiery shape that circled in front of my eyes in dark places, I knew it was a retinal afterimage. But it was also Dante’s rose, it was Eliot’s knot of fire and Circe’s hello, from an island with a name that sounded like a wind harp. I spent the summer writing back to these and other circles.
moon humour at midday now you have reached the end
of the colonnade with its view of blue waters
risen over white silica that entranced touch
irises pushed aside the house laid open to swiftness
high above the literal
Later I discovered that my grandfather died when he was 36. It was the year of his death, 1937, that stuck with my father and began the spiral walking.
If touch is a torch and the difference still you
She was a Cretan bee person, perhaps a dew person, with composite eyes, tendril hair and a flounced skirt. Her attendants flew over an open flower while she stood on dancing feet nearby. I redrew her. The skirt fell away and its outline became flexible limbs. She sprang from the page, she sprang from the screen. She sprang from the leg of the little Minoan table and off they went together, the bee person, the dew person. I stood in my garden, said one. Dance me to the end of love, said the other. It is an old story, possibly a spiral.
What I liked best about making the movie was artifice. We called it Heaven’s Cloudy Smile, two sequences, one by me the other by poet and performer Alan Brunton. We shot scenes in Auckland and Wellington. Director Sally Rodwell spliced them into a narrative that brought one poet into the other’s domain, call it blindness, call it descent, call it a terrace with a far-reaching view. At the end of the Auckland filming I sat on the front porch watching a new moon and waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport. A van pulled up, out sprang a driver looking like a man who has come home from work to find a film crew in his house. He hands me into the van and we roar up the road into the setting sun. Sally was like that. Anyone could find themselves on camera, caught from a day or a night into the day or the night. In Thistle Hall I watched Alan at work in a room with a single shelf of books, a jug of milk and a white curtain blowing through an open window. He turned over pages of Artaud. The curtain billowed. He drank the milk. Innumerable bees crawled over the book, obliterating Artaud’s face. Two steps away stage lights lit the gauzy curtain and a fan sent it billowing through the window that was a square cut into a theatre flat. An apiarist stood by, waiting to rehouse his drowsy bees. Milk and honey. Body and soul. Light and dark.
But it is the final night of the shoot that stays with me, not for the tricks of light or mise en scene but as soundscape. We were late arriving at the studio in Lyall Bay. The schedule had run out of hours and the voice-overs had yet to be done. Something about tiredness, about living and working closely for so many days. So many arguments, so many compromises. Something about the surf breaking evenly on the dark beach in a rising wind. Sally pushes harder than ever, sure of her direction in this and in every matter concerning voice and visuals. The planes intersect. Fire and dew collect in the corner of an eye. The great oratory of the labyrinth seems for a moment on the tip of your tongue.
If touch is a torch and the difference still you, can it matter so very much if I do not see your face? I hold you, I kiss you. How can I go on without you? The price of the gate is too high, it tears me apart and I am afraid.
There is the thrill of discovery
The conservator reads invisible words from the sheet of paper he is holding under ultraviolet light. As sentences take shape I hear part of a story written by poet Robin Hyde before she left New Zealand for good early in 1938. Typewriter indents, tactile but ghostly, have drawn us to the title page of her most famous sequence of poems. Now the indents show that the page was a backing sheet for the story before Hyde rolled it into her machine again and began typing the poems about beaches from her Wellington childhood.
Not here our sands, those salt-and-pepper sands
Mounding us to the chins: (don’t you remember?
Won’t the lost shake for any cry at all?)
Listen: our sands, so clean you didn’t care
If fine grains hit your teeth, stuck in your hair,
Were moist against the sunburn on your knees.
Everything glowed – old tar-bubble November,
Nothing around us but blue-bubbling air;
We liked being quiet then. To move or call
Crumpled the work of hands, his big red hands:
(It was he, our father, piled the mounds for us)
Don’t you remember? Won’t the lost shake for any cry at all? But her Wellington memories, vivid and sharp-edged, are double lensed. She has been home visiting family before Christmas, and it is the hot weather of December 1937 that has opened the old vistas. As she boards the train for Auckland, a twelve year old boy in the Hutt Valley is about to see his father lowered into the ground at the old Taita Cemetery. The same air. The same heat. The same city. She is leaving. He must stay.
There is the thrill of discovery. The curator comes in. She has found a printing date on the back of the studio portrait of Robin Hyde in her exhibition at the library, a few steps from the conservation workroom. Until this morning I had only a grainy crop of the photo taken from a magazine. Now there is a fine print and the chance of tracing its negative in the nearby collections of the national museum.
A couple of months go by. The staff at the museum cannot find the negative, so we will use the library’s print for the cover image of Hyde’s Collected Poems. The museum makes one more search. Miss I Wilkinson’s handwritten initial has been misfiled under J. The negative is there, and with it four others with the same date. When the files arrive five new photographs of Iris Wilkinson a.k.a. Robin Hyde open one after another on my desktop. There are five sections in the Collected Poems of one who could write, also in 1937:
If you have linen women, raspberry women
Red and thick of the mouth, with dock-leaf women
(Little light foxy spores – mind them, such women,)
If you have green grape women, flour-bin women,
Amber-in-forest, wild-mint-scented women,
Trey-bit in church or drudging kit-bag women,
Little sad bedraggled wind-has-weazened-me women,
White bean women, perhaps anemone women,
And harp-like facing the starlight women,
Young Bronzey Plumage, what will you do with women?
The poem talks to the future
We are standing at the end of a loggia still dripping with wisteria though it is early June. The Meeting of Poets in Coimbra is over. Today we found our way from the ruins at Conímbriga to Luso in the Mondego Valley. Now we have come to the summer palace hotel in the grounds of the park at Buçaco. Afternoon light bathes the fantasy architecture of the palace. An armillary sphere flashes its bracelets from the top of the navigator’s tower. We are in Portugal, talking to the Lusitani. But I was not expecting the flash of copper from the tower. Alan Brunton’s voice in the movie put it differently:
On top of a tower is a crystal sphere,
a crystal sphere on top of a tower
that lends a kind of hauteur to the scene —
below it there is a fountain
which cascades down 144 steps.
At the bottom, magnolias surround a pool.
The words follow us into the forest with its Via Crucis chapels and little hermitages. There are several fountains, all exquisite, but none to match Fonte Fria, the fountain of the Sun’s Gate. We walk up the double flight of 144 steps. We pause for contemplation at each of the ten pools with their black and white mosaic tiles. In the cave at the top we see water pouring from the wide open mouth of a stone dolphin. We walk slowly down, one either side of the cascade, and come to the pool at the bottom. There are no magnolias. White-painted stones bear rough messages in black: No Washing in the Fountain. No Picking of Floras and Ramagens. A black swan and a white swan ripple the surface of the water.
Alan and Sally and their baby daughter Ruby visited Buçaco in the summer of 1987. They travelled on to northern Spain and looked out over the Western Ocean at Finisterre. The Buçaco fountain and its pools were pledged in memory to that itinerant summer and the promises one made to the other that brought them back to New Zealand the following year.
Our journey takes us into the Serra da Estrela and south among the hill towns near the Spanish border. We come to Lisbon, to the Hotel Borges on Rua Garrett. Outside is a larger than life bronze of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s most celebrated modern poet. He sits in the shade of an umbrella near the Cafe Brasileira, a favourite watering hole for writers and artists in the 1910s and 20s. Tourists have their photos taken with Pessoa, sitting in the bronze seat supplied for the purpose. I wonder whether Alan, dead almost two years of a heart attack, would have loved or loathed this commemoration of a national icon. Certainly he would have appreciated the sculptor’s decision to scale up the poet’s dimensions.
My notebook is full of the trip and of Pessoa, fragments scavenged from books and websites before leaving and now interleaved with the data of the lived journey. It is time to go home. We stand where trajectory and notation cross, one into the other, remembering and forgetting detail. I hear Alan’s voice again:
You must assign a correct path to the poem.
It is recognisable only by its date of composition.
Which may not be the same date it writes about.
It is the sound of one person talking.
The other part of the conversation is taken by silence.
The poem talks to the future.
I’m talking to you.
Poésie faite par tous
Bring people together. Make spaces for speech and for listening. Make time for seeing how event is a poem, its speakers people to whom we give attention or who give the gift of their attention to us. When they go from the place they take the poem with them, severally and as a whole, moving out with the new-made thing. By these means it travels on in a heart here, in memory there. By these means it will reappear somewhere else, in another time and another place. Every poem is an event with a horizon. Poetry is made by all in the free invention of each moment and each event: Lautréamont’s poésie faite par tous. The beginning of a revolutionary celebration. A going on.
Bring poets together. Make events that take them from one place to another. Call them festivals, symposiums, meetings. Call them bars, cafes, theatres. Call them marae or community halls. Call them feasts or farewells, a-capella notes for stepping from one island to another. I do not evolve, I TRAVEL, observes Fernando Pessoa. We don’t only read to believe, writes Martin Edmond. Sometimes we do it to travel, to forget, to dream, to change. Or Lisa Robertson: We need dignity and texture and fountains.
Bring dancers with whirling bundles of flax. Bring flutes and drums. Bring the saxophone to lead the white coffin from the deconsecrated chapel. Sally Rodwell, unable to live without Alan and terrified of the psych ward to which she felt she was descending, has ended her own life after four years of widowhood. The saxophonist hears his high C break into a thousand pieces and fall to the stone floor.
touching the ears we go
into and out of our time
trying yes to reconcile
how it was with what has come
and taken us somewhere Else
the moon’s the same
coming in closer than before
as if to say look I am your
consolation though I never knew
how much you cared
and I can’t know how it feels
to lose what I never had do you understand?
I’m not here because
I was your hallucination
it makes me weep to see
you cry and I want to say
please open your eyes
and take your fingers
out of your beautiful ears
I was going my own way
deeper and deeper into space
but now we must talk again
please lift up your beautiful head
I’m waiting for you catechumens
just outside the window
The blog, the book and the crayfish
Posts for my part of the Poet Laureate blog run from January of one year to July of the next. They are snapshots of events connected with the laureateship and with the project that became a book called Mirabile Dictu. A small number of poems were posted to the blog, usually to mark the occasion for which they were written or as staging points in the evolution of the book.
Mirabile Dictu means wonderful to relate, and the book’s poems appear in the order they were written, starting with a poet’s funeral and finishing with a family wedding. They make a whole that traverses time and place. In some ways they are one long poem in many parts, a poem that started not knowing where it would end.
The blog and the poems continued beyond the last poem of the book, a kind of overflow to wrap up the 18 months of the laureateship. There were many highlights in the real world during that year-and-a-half and the blog tries to catch and put visuals to some of them. But it was the work of writing another world into existence, of hearing and seeing it take shape alongside daily reality, that made the laureate time exceptional. As each poem was written, it was sent to those whose words or presence are part of its tissue memory, a network of first readers who made the experience intensely sociable, criss-crossing and overlapping with each other, one leading to the next or back to an earlier meeting point. Expert feedback arrived from these first readers, who were quick to nose out inaccuracies.
I was listening to the radio after getting back from the book launch and handing over the laureateship. I was also composing a thank you for my cousin’s gift of some spectacular seafood after the family gathering in Wellington. In that heady moment the answer to an old question seemed suddenly clear.
poetry is a crayfish or two
packed in wood shavings flying
home in a chillibox with my name on it
dear family it’s been a long time
let’s go hunting the past in order
to find the future you ask me
what poetry is and I tell you about
the whale and her calf tracking in the gulf
the coastguard has been alerted
because boaties might collide with them
the Rimutaka Hill Road is closed
the Rimutaka Hill Road is always closed
a work in progress or a bit character
like the dairy giant Fonterra
or the prime minister John Key
who was on the same flight last night
the survivor of the wreck is wearing
a French naval uniform no lies
at the end of a long week La Glorieuse
for entente cordiale La Glorieuse
the old man bought a couple of Tiger Moths
back in the day top dressed and flew
supplies into the farm four minutes more
daylight since the shortest day dear family
one cray is lost in action the other
will not make it past dinner time tonight
this is poetry you make it happen
wherever there are ears eyes
and mouths wherever we sit down
to add flying hours to the work
in progress wherever dear family we are
and the news comes in thick and fast
It is the middle of June last year
I am trying to complete an editing project. I am trying to write an introduction. I am trying to bring together the book of poems I can still see on my computer screen. It is a race against time. I am using the audio software to listen when I need to read the screen. I am using a magnifier window to bring parts of the screen into close focus. My head hurts. The sentences won’t form. I cannot leap the gap that opens between the end of one huge word in white on my black screen and the beginning of the next huge word. It will not do. I cannot do it.
We have spent several months learning how to write and edit with the audio software. I dream constantly of being five years old and learning to read, learning to write, learning to think. I am often in the dappled shade under the tree at the school gate. I have my book and the crayon which is dark until on paper it releases the colour that is neither blue nor green but somewhere between or both. I know how to write. I know how to draw. I know how to read the world. I am five years old, and it is now.
Then it happens. I turn off the visuals and write using my ears and fingers. The words come easily. They are slow but they do not hurt. The visuals have gone. I take out the last contact lens for the last time and go to sleep terrified. In the morning I will say that this is the moment I stopped beating up my eyes. They have done their work and I am thankful for it. Without them I would not have deep reservoirs of visual memory. Let us go on into the dark and not be afraid. There is a lot to be done. It is June last year. It is now.
let me show you
how she walked into the arms of a tau cross
following the bird’s call it was simple
dark blocks to left and right the hallway
filled with light from the front door the bird
in a bedroom the cat arriving the dog
excited and best shut away the bird
calling from behind the door with the dog
released and now in the other room the front door
open the cat shut away the bird quiet and perhaps
gone wings against light streaming into the house
aerialist in a tight corner cursor
against the light a moment
let me show you the walking the rooms
the bird’s call in the house the open door
the rooms full of sunlight a tau cross
against which the bird rises and falls
a moment in her arms calling
depth and height and exit
a gate a journey a tau cross
fan of tailfeathers quick prayer
in the week of the olive harvest let them be safe
whom she sees in the hallway disappearing
into one or other of the rooms small again
in the house of their growing up
gates and journeys surround her
walking into the arms of a tau cross
where the bird makes its simple call a tau cross
with its arms full of sunlight
There was a send-off Leggott 1999 ‘A woman, a rose’, As far as I can see, Auckland University Press, 36
I am 37 Leggott 1993-94 ‘Writing Back’, unpublished prose
moon humour at midday Leggott 1994 ‘Circle’, Dia, AUP, 45
If touch is a torch Leggott 1999 ‘A woman, a rose’, As far as I can see, 39
Not here our sands Hyde 2003 ‘The Beaches’ Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde, Leggott (ed), AUP, 371
If you have linen women Hyde 2003 ‘If you have linen women’, Young Knowledge, 273
On top of a tower Brunton 1998 unpublished script for Heaven’s Cloudy Smile, Rodwell dir, Wellington: GG Films/Red Mole
You must assign a correct path Brunton 1997 ‘Film’, quoted in Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968-2002, Leggott and Edmond (eds), Auckland: Titus Books, 4 I do not evolve Pessoa 1998 Letter to Adolfo Casais Monteiro, quoted in Poems of Fernando Pessoa, Honig and Brown (eds), San Francisco: City Lights, 150
We don’t only read to believe Edmond 2006 Luca Antara. http://lucaantara.blogspot.com.au/2006_04_01_archive.html 12 April (accessed 10 December 2013)
We need dignity Robertson 2003 ‘Spatial Synthetics: A Theory’, Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture,Astoria: Clear Cut Press, 78
touching the ears we go Leggott 2006 ‘Hello and Goodbye’, unpublished sequence
poetry is a crayfish Leggott 2009 ‘tiger moth‘, New Zealand Poet Laureate http://nzpoetlaureate.natlib.govt.nz/p/michelle-leggott.html 10 August (accessed 10 December 2013)
let me show you Leggott 2013 ‘The Looking Glass’, unpublished sequence
Images for powerpoint presntation, Canberra 25 November 2013
title and intro
Coimbra spiral, 2004. Mark Fryer.
Through a glass darkly, Michele and James 1993. Michele Leggott.
Bee person, dew person. As far as I can see, 1999.
Nunzio’s gate, Heaven’s Cloudy Smile,1998. Sally Rodwell.
Portrait of Robin Hyde #4, , 1936. Spencer Digby.
Hyde portraits #1, #2, #3, #4, #5. 1936. Spencer Digby. .
Buçaco. palace hotel with swan, 2004. Mark Fryer.
Assisi Gate, 2008. Mark Fryer.
Laureate CD design, 2009. James Fryer.
Coimbra spirals down street, 2004. Mark Fryer.
© Michele Leggott