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Shadow Stands Up #12

Last Friday was National Poetry Day and I was invited to take part in the celebration organised by Tony Chad at the Upper Hutt Public Library. I like going to events organised around community centres that are outside or on the edges of larger metropolitan organisations. They’re usually friendly, without the protocol complications of large bureaucracies, and, not least, their hospitality usually knocks the socks off high-end catering consisting of very small things on toothpicks.

Friday night at Upper Hutt was no exception. Tony, a marvellously sociable and at-ease MC and organiser, and himself a poet and musician (he plays in a Celtic band), introduced the mayor of Upper Hutt, Wayne Guppy, who was on a busy round of functions that night but took time to welcome the local poets, and to greet many people he obviously knew by name. In May this year the national news media reported that Mayor Guppy’s Council had rejected a pay rise; its unanimity in response to tough times wasn’t the national norm. I get email news from environmental action groups about the Council’s river restoration programmes; when we lived in Wellington I used to spend a fair amount of time in the hills and rivers around the Hutt catchment.

In the back of my mind is a cultural history that associates Hutt Valley High with the legendary art teacher, artist, and designer James Coe, whose revolutionary art classes from 1945 to 1959 included Bill Culbert as one of several gifted students; Bill is representing New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The high school may also take some responsibility for producing writers including Damien Wilkins, Lloyd Jones, and Nigel Cox, not to mention the Nobel Prize winner Alan McDiarmid. Right now it’s the Hutt Valley alumnus Nick Willis who’s in the news; at this time of writing he’s one of New Zealand’s best Olympic medal prospects.

The National Poetry Day evening included a poetry competition around the theme of Upper Hutt as a gateway to the hills, bush, and rivers that partially encircle the city. Ten poets read poems variously extolling the beauties of this place, fearing for its future, or lamenting the harsh treatment it had received in the past. The poems were judged by an audience ballot; one poet had submitted the first poem she’d ever written – partly in response to an encounter with Persian Sufi poetry and the tradition of colour-coding found there. Her poem won the popular choice award, and her children applauded loudly.

In the breaks between these readings, the presentations, and my own contributions, people drank the plentiful supply of very good wine, helped themselves to a generous spread, and talked a lot. Just beyond the function area, the library’s stacks revealed a magnificent poetry collection. I can’t think of a better place to have been on the night.


Through spring-green leaves on the tree
outside our place I can see
the green Link bus putter past
Cartune Auto, in Albert
Park graduates are blooming
in their extravagant silks,
Cook Island fafafine
bedecked with flowers are singing
outside the student food-court
at the university,
my spring-time cough is yelping
like an excited young pup,
likening, get over it,
I can’t, 1968,
the year I packed up and went
in search of the life I was
just going to go on having
the time of my life with,
and here I am having it
now, just look at those flowers,
the way I remember them.

Shadow Stands Up #11

I’ve just read 296 poems by young poets in New Zealand, for the annual New Zealand High School Poetry Competition. This was an amazing experience, perhaps at the ethnographic margin of reading. The quality of the work was uneven if judged by standard measures of correct writing, and the poems’ default mode was probably personal, anecdotal lyrics addressing a few familiar themes; but what was much more important and interesting was the variety of ways in which these poems were uttered, and at the same time their collective energy, which was overwhelming. It would be silly to claim I encountered some kind of aggregated self here, and equally silly to claim that each poet had a totally distinctive ‘voice’, though there were some marvellous, smart, and original poems in the pile. We speak and write using comprehensive common languages and, within those, in argots and accents that identify us tribally; what distinguishes our individual utterance involves variation rather than uniqueness. The effect of reading so many poems by poets within an age-span of thirteen to seventeen was of being within a dense texture, a layering of variations – a complex social chord; or, as Roland Barthes would have described it half a century ago, reminding us of the etymology of ‘Text’, a woven fabric, a textile. Of course I’m not suggesting that there is a single tribal language for New Zealand high school poets, god forbid: I encountered a great many interlocking variations within the span of English, and even within the span of English as a second language. Rather, what I think I was experiencing was a kind of poetic socio-biology, a situation in which the tensions between diverse tribals and distinct individuals generated extraordinary energy.

I had to choose ten distinct threads from this interweaving of poems, and from that ten a single winner. These are the rules of the competition, which is, after all, a competition; which admirably aims to encourage young poets to write, to enter their poems in the competition, and perhaps to experience the satisfaction and encouragement of making the short list or winning. I think the short listed poems I’ve selected are terrific, and though there could have been other winners chosen, I also think the winning poem is a good one. Pulling these threads out of the collective text does highlight their distinctions, and I hope other readers will enjoy them on that basis; but I was lucky enough to encounter these individuals first-off within a larger, denser, richly textured, highly-strung, sometimes chaotic energy fabric. The ethnographer in me observed this ritualised face-off between cultural loyalty and individual subversion. Then I could look at the best results. That was a special, slightly illicit pleasure, and a privilege.


If I wanted to translate
silence I would have to be
deaf, to remember silence
I would have to recognise
its opposite, for instance
singing, a miracle, not
too much to ask I hope, and
why wouldn’t I hope, why not?

A response

A response from Sam Sampson to "Shadow Stands Up #10".


Just read your 'Shadow Stands Up #10'. What a great read. The Ashbery translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations is up there on my reading list, not just for the translation, but Ashbery's introduction. His Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie is, to my mind, essential reading for the Ashbery take on an array of writers and artists.

I was interested in your views regarding Goldsmith, and additionally, Perloff's support of the appropriation model. I like Goldsmith and think his uncreative model is, if used at the initial compositional stage a way to reinvent (maybe even reinvigorate?) the subjective, rather than shut it down. His poetry is boring (as he himself admits) but his conceptual framework is not, and does a lot to dismantle the overt subjective nature of what many believe is 'personal' poetry. I see Goldsmith as being poetry's equivalent of Richard Dawkins. The logic is sound, the intellect and argumentation hard to fault, but the absolutism can tend toward a form of reductionism. By this, I mean there's a directive toward a categorical imperative, the Goldsmith credo: select all / copy / paste, with his proviso: ‘the secret’... suppression of self-expression is impossible.

For me, as liberating as it sounds, and it is liberating – to devolve the self not just from its poetic centre but cut the reflexive self from the poetic – it still seems a somewhat circular argument. The imagination, and conscious memory, is present, and ever prescient – it's just to what degree you want to remix / repurpose / or reframe the final product. I also can't see how copying a pre-existing text could not be original. The Goldsmith body of works are original, and are sui generis... it’s just the conceptual framework has done most, if not all of the work, and is more tangible than the finished product.


I think the more important point relayed by Goldsmith and Perloff, via the artist Brion Gysin (who in 1959 claimed writing was 50 years behind painting) is the question of whether writing is still catching up to the art world? Their premise, that in the art world, the avant-garde has been mainstream and innovation and risk-taking consistently rewarded. While in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Now, both Goldsmith and Perloff believe the two have unexpectedly (and fantastically) collided through the conditions of a technology-driven digital culture.

Having a foot in both camps, working as much with visual artists as writers, this seems to me an important distinction and also a correct observation. I’m just not convinced, that ultimately, digital culture will reframe the writer-self, or reprogramme the reader-self. The fact is, words are not like paint or musical notation, however language is moved, cut, sampled... etc. it still rubs up against actuality at every point, and as Samuel Beckett would say, is ‘tainted’.

It may be old fashion late-modernism, but the meanderings of Beckett still hold a conundrum for the writer today, as Rimbaud’s did, and still do. Beckett, is closer to the Rimbaud you mention, and Ashbery’s assertion, that for Rimbaud, ‘the self is obsolete’ reminds me of Beckett’s struggle ‘to create a work that is totally autonomous, since it refers to nothing but itself’... he goes on... ‘Is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting?... Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of word surface should not be dissolved...?'


Personally, I’m excited by, and use both Goldsmith’s and Perloff’s mixed model of ‘moving information’... this includes: appropriation, elaborate constraint, visual and sound composition, and a reliance on intertextuality. When asked in 2010 about my own practice, I tended toward this mixed model – trying to find ways out of the ‘plain language loop’.

(here's a selection from the 2010 interview text below):

'Although appropriative writing and list poems intrigue me, I’m more interested in striking up a conversation, taking another writer’s words as departure points, whether that includes breaking them up to create rhythmic tension, or responding to the words in the writer’s mode through a rearrangement of their words.

The way the lines are arranged on the page (I’ve subsequently discovered) have a number of parallels with Mallarmé. Cole Swensen talks of Mallarmé’s preface to 'Un Coup de dés', where he states: “nothing new except a certain distribution of space made within the reading.” Swensen also talks of his inherent move towards a fusion of sequential perception and simultaneous perception, to fully engage the eye and ear, as a result pushing poetry in two directions – toward visual art and toward musical performance. I like this distinction, how the physicality of the language – this chopped nervousness, how the line is broken, the spatial repetitions, cause and effect, conflict and displacement – is essential to how the poem is laid out. I feel some of my longer works allow the reader to access the poem at many different points, but once inside the poem, the sonic components, whether it’s a single word filling a gap, or a vowel or half-rhyme sitting directly below a corresponding sound structure are complete in themselves – the idea of a beginning or end neither here nor there. This is not to say I felt poetry (my poetry especially) should ever purely be of the sound poetry tradition. I felt meaning inherently tied at the initial compositional stage, but this structure could be extended, until in some cases only a shimmer of the original meaning was left behind. I always hoped (if interested) the reader would work to solve conundrums, to supply transitions, to make out of a haphazard assortment of building materials, a habitable dwelling.’


As with your Rimbaud spectre, I recently had a similar experience while reading Keats’s ‘Hyperion’. A sense of how sincerely modern Keats could be. How the Keatsian aestheticism and intellect seemed prescient, and (as you say) ready to jab at the surface of the modern...‘the horizon in noise’. It seems Michael Parekowhai was also inspired by John Keats, and his sonnet – 'On first looking into Chapman’s Homer' – with its intimations of departure and return. Parekowhai borrowing the title for his 2011 show at the Venice Biennale, allegedly to give viewers another entry point into his work, and potentially, a contemporary entry point. One line, ‘He star'd at the Pacific’, seemed especially poignant, how it talked to Parekowhai ‘about the positional relationship, of standing on a peak in Darien (Panama), looking across the Pacific in awe of the possibilities – and if they could see that far, they'd see us looking back at them.’


Rimbaud, Ashbery, Keats, your poem... I agree there is the tidal wash, the back and forth; the present recreating the past, but also realigning the past in the present moment. I also think, the resolute vanguardism of Perloff’s (and Goldsmith’s) neomodernist progressive time (as you call it) cannot, and hasn't come ex nihilo, they are also in the wash; reframing, investing in what they believe to be the future of poetry.

Thanks once again for a thought provoking and interesting read.

p.s. a poem of collective memory?


history in a nearby tree
isolated sightings (aligned by absence):              huia extinct                                

Shadow Stands Up #10

In the Preface to his wonderful 2011 translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, John Ashbery provides a blurb quote that’s already gone viral: ‘If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it's because Rimbaud commanded us to be.’ Many Rimbaud acolytes including Patti Smith long ago adopted a credo rather like Ashbery’s, but more often than not with an exotic, bohemian line back to 1870s Paris and the radical Cercle des poètes Zutiques who met at the aptly named L'Hôtel des Étrangers where Rimbaud had a third-floor room in late 1871.

Discipleship such as Smith’s tends to be inflected by the decadent effrontery of Rimbaud’s seventeen year-old behaviour and appearance – that sticky thatch of hair, the pale, icy eyes, dishevelled dandyism, pallor, bi-sexuality. This emphasis on Rimbaud’s ‘rebellious’ youthful persona between 1869 and 1875, the period in which we can date all the poems we know about – tends to generate a romanticised reading of the poems that stresses their subjectivity: their introspection, their ‘personal voice’, their lyric emotion. But Rimbaud’s training was in strict Latin verse forms (he won prizes at school); as I noted in a previous blog, he proclaimed his loyalty to the classicism of Racine, and his famous pronouncement ‘je est un autre’ (I is somebody else) is enacted through many of the self-abjecting poems leading up to A Season in Hell (1873), most notably perhaps in ‘Drunken Boat’. He wrote to his mentor Georges Izambard, ‘subjective poetry will always be horribly cloying’. The ‘disordering of all the senses’ that he advocated (misrepresented in the hallucinating 1960s) came with the rider ‘reasoned’. The Season in Hell poems seem to renounce this early manifesto – but Rimbaud’s intense struggle to think about the presence or abjection of the self in what he was writing continued into the Illuminations. What we now encounter is a profusion of selves and points-of-view, and a variety of ways of locating (and distancing) them; much of the poetry’s extraordinary energy comes from this rather than from what Frank O’Hara meant when he wrote something like, ‘Subject matter, how I hate it.’

Then, to a modern reader, it’s as though Rimbaud transported his self from an imaginative geography to a physical one – to Ethiopa, for example, whence he wrote not poems but letters, mostly signed straightforwardly ‘Rimbaud’, as if he’d finally got that straight. It’s as though, in writing the poems, he’d produced a mechanism that made the struggle with subjectivity redundant; he stepped through the mirror of the reflexive self and went elsewhere. Job done, he debouched for Djbouti. Thank god he was adventurous (not to mention in need of an income); even, perhaps, thank god the selfhood-ennui he struggled with in his poems wasn’t the banal product of coddled academic tenure.

It’s clear that Ashbery the poet-translator isn’t particularly interested in Rimbaud’s appearance or behaviour, less still in the mythology of romantic rebellion associated with his poetry – its lyric temperature. In his Preface he writes that, for Rimbaud, ‘the self is obsolete’. It’s also clear, however, that Ashbery doesn’t intend this to mean anything as absolute as, for example, the American Kenneth Goldsmith’s dogmatising in Uncreative Writing (2011) of such writing strategies as those used, or played with perhaps, by writers such as the wonderful Georges Perec. Perec, whose ‘story-making machine’ generated Life: A User’s Manual, and whose agonising exploration of traumatised memory produced the recast selves of W, or The Memory of Childhood, wouldn’t make it past Goldsmith’s border control, which turns back any non pre-existing, any ‘original’ text. In many ways, it’s writers such as Perec associated with the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle – workshop of potential literature) who explain what Ashbery means when he says that we are modern because Rimbaud commanded us to be.

The prolific American scholar and polemicist Marjorie Perloff, emerita Professor at Stanford University in New York, has been an influential advocate for a modernist trajectory of poetry whose sources run from Rimbaud and into America through Gertrude Stein, and subsequently poets including Susan Howe and Ron Silliman associated with magazines such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the 1970s. Her latest book, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010) moves her polemic in favour of ‘appropriation, elaborate constraint, visual and sound composition, and reliance on intertextuality’ much closer to Goldsmith’s resolute rejection of original writing – of inventio as Perloff characterises it, by which I assume she means the rhetorical strategies linking personal experience to argument, rather than flights of fancy or ‘inventions’.

It’s about here that I feel the stretch from Rimbaud beginning to tear free of Perloff’s narrative. What Ashbery credits as Rimbaud’s push into the modern certainly incorporates the inventio that Perloff, and more emphatically Goldsmith, now claim to reject. But inventio was there the day I walked along Cox’s Bay creek and sensed some kind of my-self under a murky transparency on which the tidal junk of time washed in and out, and which might be pierced at any moment by – what, memory? Another presence? Arthur Rimbaud? The resolute vanguardism of Perloff’s (and Goldsmith’s) neo-modernist progressive time neglects the tidal, which also washes back out; which washes back and forth, not just onward.

There he was, all right, the seven/seventeen/one-hundred and thirty-one year-old poet, beady-eyed and on the look-out, ready to jab at the surface of the modern.


Kingfisher on a branch
above the Cox’s Bay creek
and a menacing heron
stalking the shallows below –
their shadow stands up over
the small fry in the murky
historical tide that flows
back up the channel to where
storm-water drains disgorge junk,
stains of domesticity,
oily rejectamenta
of home-making, the dreamy
rainbows of effluent hope
swirling in the same spring-time
sunshine that casts the shadows
of twiggy trees on the grass
beside the water, as if
we were all dazzled under
the surface of something we
can’t seem to see past but think
we remember what’s up there,
those shadows, waiting for us?

Shadow Stands Up #9

Writing a poem about memory and then showing (here, in ‘real time’) a section of the poem dealing with one of the memories contained in it that’s a full seasonal cycle (spring then, autumn now) later than when it was written, and seven years later than the remembered occasion (in summer) with the Australian poet Barry Hill and his wife the singer Rose Bygrave at Colabassa in 2005 – what’s ‘going on’ here?

And then, inside these foldings of time, is the memory contained in the song Rosie sang that afternoon after a long, cheerful, nattering lunch, to thank the women in the kitchen who’d loaded our table with food and wine; and the memory contained in the song the women sang back, which had (has) remained current over several centuries.

David Shields describes memory as ‘the past rewritten in the direction of feeling’.


The first day of spring arrives
with the sound of the Link bus
(it’s green) whooshing past the end
of our street, past the early
risers at Cartune Auto
who begin to sing in the
rain as their roller door clangs
open – soon, I pass them as
I cross the parking lot at
the back of the post office
where I tap in secret
code on the keypad, unlock
our box, and lo! A gift for
the first day of spring, two books
sent from the beautiful house
above Swan Bay in Queenscliff,
where Baz and Rosie live in
rooms full of songs. What about
that time we finished lunch at
Collabassa, when Rosie
went back to the kitchen and
brought the women out, and sang
for them, Deep in my heart and
deep in my soul, and then they
sang back with glasses raised, a
song about the utter use-
lessness of men, how they crowed
at dawn but were crestfallen
by the time their lunch was served.

At Matahiwi marae

On Friday March 9 John Newton, Robert Sullivan, my son Jack and I drove down from Auckland to Matahiwi marae near Hastings. Jack had flown in from Melbourne the day before, John had caught the 8 a.m. ferry from Waiheke, and Robert emerged from his house in Arch Hill with a can of cat-food for his neighbour who was keeping an eye on things while he was away. John’s wife Robyn was flying in from Wellington that evening. Donna was flying down from Auckland that night. Michele Leggott, Mark, her guide-dog Olive, and the visiting American poet Rachel Blau duPlessis and her husband Bob were driving down from Auckland. Hinemoana Baker was flying up from Wellington in between sessions at the Writers and Readers Festival. Cilla McQueen was flying up from Bluff. A large contingent from the National Library in Wellington was driving up, in particular the tirelessly courteous and reassuring Peter Ireland and Keith Thorsen. My son Carlos, Sarah, and our grandson Sebo were already up from Wellington, staying with friends in Napier; they turned up at the marae at the appointed hour on Friday. Other sons couldn’t make it: Penn had gone to Melbourne for a friend’s wedding, Conrad was with The Phoenix Foundation at gigs in Wellington, and Mischa, Laura and our grand-daughter Bella were too busy with work in Auckland.

'How can I write about Matahiwi?' I ask Donna, having got this far and ground to a halt with the sense that I’ve written a list.

'Affectionately,' she replies.

She’s right: when I look at what I’ve described, it’s a convergence of good-will around an event that I found moving and humbling in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and find hard to describe.

Robert, John, Jack and I got to the assembly area outside the wharenui Te Matau a Maui in the nick of time at 4pm. I dropped them off and took my leave. Donna and I, and several others including Cilla, would be welcomed on to the marae the following morning. I spent the evening in the lodge above Te Mata, looking across a landscape of vineyards that should be familiar by now but still isn’t. I picked Donna up from the airport at Napier about 11 pm – there were families in pyjamas and dressing-gowns meeting the Auckland flight.

The next morning we were welcomed on to Matahiwi marae, the laureate tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott was presented, and people spoke, recited, and sang. The poet Marty Smith, and the young poet and song-writer Amy Barnard had joined us earlier. After the formalities of the powhiri were complete, John Buck of Te Mata vineyard talked passionately about what the laureate project meant to him, and about the importance of the association between Te Mata, Matahiwi, and the laureate. When Jacob Scott spoke about the tokotoko he’d made, the weeks of preparation and the many flight-paths of those who’d come to Matahiwi seemed to converge and settle.

I’d spent time with Jacob some months earlier, and had given him a couple of pieces of stone from Otanerau Bay on Arapaua Island in Cook Strait. I have a small black and white photograph of an elegant little sloop moored somewhere near Otanerau in 1939, the year my mother and father married, before my father went off to the war. I’m pretty sure the sloop was the boat they honeymooned on. I told Jacob how, some years after my parents’ deaths, I’d dropped my mother’s ivory bracelet and one of my dad’s old Seamaster watches into the sea off Dieffenbach Point by Tory Channel; doing it located them in the place I associated with my childhood sense of belonging somewhere. Jacob knew the names of my sons, and we’d had a yarn session about their ancestors one night on the porch of his house near Havelock North, and another session over lunch earlier on when he visited us in Auckland.

Carlos, Conrad, Mischa, Penn and Jack have their names delicately cut into the top of the tokotoko’s shaft, which is made from the dense, heavy maire timber of the old Te Mata winepress. The two stones from Otanerau (greywacke and obsidian) that I gave Jacob are inlaid adjacent to the boys’ names, together with additions by Jacob: a piece of whale ivory (reminiscent of my mother’s bracelet), a piece of unpolished pounamu, and a piece of granite which he’d brought back from Peru. Together, these represent both the home places and the wandering ways that characterise both my living family and its ancestors. From each inlay a delicate silver chain descends – linked stories – and between the five silver chains are five delicately inscribed panels, each of which recounts a story I told Jacob; so he says.

Only I can’t possibly have told him as much as appears on the tokotoko. It’s hard to describe the extent to which both it and the hospitality of Matahiwi exceed my sense of entitlement. I feel very privileged to have been welcomed into Te Matau a Maui, to have slept, eaten, and celebrated at Matahiwi; to have taken part in the readings with Robert, Cilla, Hinemoana, Marty, John, and Amy at Hastings on Saturday night; to have become part of a special relationship between Matahiwi, Te Mata, and the National Library – a relationship characterised by obvious, deep affection.

My heartfelt, affectionate thanks to Jacob Scott for the tokotoko, Tom Mulligan the kaumatua at Matahiwi marae, Tama Huata for blessing the tokotoko and for his work with the kapa haka group Kahurangi, John Buck of Te Mata, Peter Ireland and Keith Thorsen at the National Library, Marty Smith as poet-mc at the readings and performances, Amy Barnard and her friends Julia and Maude Morris as JAM, and to my friends Cilla McQueen, John Newton, Robert Sullivan, and Hinemoana Baker for their poems.

'This has been hard to write about,' I say to Donna.

'Then just say why.'

It’s hard because the experience was at once extremely personal, and not. I was moved by the kindness and hospitality extended to me; but what matters more isn’t about me at all; what matters is the shape of the event, the kinds of relationships it provides for, the kind of future it anticipates with hope.

Matahiwi marae is associated not only with Maui and his brothers and sister, but also with a time in modern history when Maori seasonal workers came over to the Coast for jobs in the freezing works and orchards. Matahiwi had a policy early on of making these people welcome. My son Carlos remarked that the swallows which were perching on phone and power lines all around the marae resembled people seated at the powhiri. The swallows came here from Australia. Perhaps, before that, they came from North Africa. Now they’re at home here. This nice fact should be left alone and not crammed into a sentimental analogy. But all the same.

Photographs from Matahiwi

At Matahiwi marae

Jacob Scott, Cilla McQueen, Michele Leggott, Olive, Ian Wedde

Powhiri, Matahiwi marae

Hinemoana Baker at Matahiwi marae

Robert, Donna, Ian, Cilla, Michele (hidden), Mark

John Newton in foreground, dinner at Pipi

Jacob Scott, Matahiwi marae

Powhiri, Matahiwi marae

Donna Malane and Robert Sullivan

Amy Barnard

Marty Smith and Hinemoana Baker at the readings, Hastings Art Gallery

Ian Wedde, Jacob Scott, Tom Mulligan, at Matahiwi marae

Hongi how-to

Remembering Leone Hatherly

It’s been a long time between blogs, for both sad and glad reasons. The glad reasons include laureate-related events at Meow in Wellington last month, and at Matahiwi marae last weekend (more on these soon). The sad reason concerns an old friend. On Sunday 12 February Leone (Lee, Leo) Hatherly phoned from Paekakariki to say she was sorry she wouldn’t be able to get to the Words on Edge poetry reading at Meow in Wellington the following Wednesday as she’d fallen and hurt herself – one eye was ‘sticking out like an aubergine’. The aubergine touch was typical of Lee, at once melodramatic and droll. The following Wednesday I was in Meow having a pre-reading lunch with fellow poets Lynn Jenner, Aleksandra Lane, and Amy Brown over from Melbourne, as well as David Weinstein of Wellington’s Klezmer Orchestra, and our friends Peter Ireland and Keith Thorsen from the National Library. It was there that we heard Leo was critically ill in hospital – the fall (and the aubergine) had been the precursors of a stroke.

I went to see her the morning after Words on Edge before flying back to Auckland. This was a familiar routine. Lee had battled cancer twice and won, transforming her periodic returns to hospital into opportunities for wicked anecdotes. A hospital visit to Lee during the cancer years usually resulted in loud laughter, and always drew a good crowd. When I visited this time she was unable to speak, but a flicker of that wonderful laugh moved her lips when I said, lamely, ‘Lee, we can’t go on meeting like this.’

Lee was an actor, comedian, queen of late-night radio, her rich, 'double Drambuie' voice beloved of late-shift taxi-drivers and lonely insomniacs. She’d have adored Lynn Jenner’s performance of her poem about Mata Hari on Wednesday night, with the Klezmer Orchestra backing, ‘a hint of tango and a dash of schmaltz’.

As a performer, Lee was always generous to her audiences, but she was herself the most generous of audiences, always the first to laugh at a joke, appreciate a good story, listen with sympathy and attention. She loved to go to shows as well as give them, and could be counted on to sing along lustily from the best seats when a musical came to town. On the morning before she died, Donna and I together with her daughters Trina and Lindy gathered at her bedside to sing some of her favourite Stevie Wonder numbers, to the astonishment of the hushed ward.

Lee’s writing and acting credits are extraordinary, beginning with a role at the age of sixteen in a cast of including Peter Finch in the film Robbery under Arms. When she died, she had almost completed writing an opera with Gareth Farr about Edmund Hilary’s climb of Mt Everest. Much laughter was generated around the serious challenge of transforming ‘We knocked the bastard off’ into an extended Sprechgesang aria.

For several years, Lee, Trina, and Lindy were our neighbours. Led by Lee, the trio would emerge into the morning and perform their affirmations outside overlooking Evans Bay, chanting ‘I want to live, live, live!’ at the tops of their voices. Later, she was a greatly loved member of the Paekakariki community, where she lived with her devoted mother-and-son dogs Bella and Baxter, ‘in a lovely home overlooking the mortgage’. She died peacefully at 3.15pm 21 February 2012 at Wellington Public Hospital, aged 73.

Her funeral at Old St Paul's in Wellington on Sunday 26th was packed with a huge crowd of her friends and fans. Lots of her best known jokes were told: ‘Inside every fat woman is a thin woman trying to get out, and outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in.’ This could be the only funeral I ever go to which is frequently interrupted by clapping and laughter. It will probably be the only one at which the coffin is carried out to loud applause.

For years, Lee and I had an unofficial arrangement whereby I’d sometimes write a poem for her birthday on condition that she’d refrain from introducing me to her guests as ‘the poet’. Here is one of the poems, reworked in The Commonplace Odes so as to partially conceal the doggerel within – reprinted here in memory of Leone Hatherly. She loved the ‘ghost buffaloes’.

To Leone

I’m sad, Leone, and filled with remorse, because
On your birthday I pump out doggerel
And make you cry. It’s an old arrangement we have.
Moonlight ices my neighbour’s roof. Somewhere
In North Dakota thousands of ghost buffaloes

Are on the hoof, and despite the fact that I’ve just
Written two of them my relationship with lines of poetry gets more
And more aloof. It’s been this way
For years now, a sense of fraudulence, an excess
Of sacred cowness, the shit-detector quivering

Madly every time I step up to the footlights
Of language and take my bow. So it was
With a feeling approaching dread that I entered my sweetheart’s
Fabulously organised writing shed, switched
On the computer she daily overheats

With great stories, and clutched my aching head.
Outside (it was midday not night,
The moonlight-and-ice thing was just me
Trying to get my tone right, and the ghost
Buffaloes were there because I wanted my rhyme

On time) some rows of coloured plastic
Clothespegs pleased my sight, and I remembered
With affection the plain wooden ones our Sunday
School teacher used to explain the nativity,
The Joseph and Mary pegs dressed in paper.

The Joseph and Mary pegs dressed in paper
Stood before an expressive backdrop cut
From a sturdy Weetbix packet, a crèche we pelted
With acorns while making an unholy racket, which I’m sure
God loved because we were innocent then

Though the Presbyterian Sunday school teacher often
Didn’t hack it. The innocence we lose as we accumulate
Adult qualities like irony – that loss
Brings with it an admission that language can be
Completely insincere, and even the writers

We most revere are capable of horrid cynicism,
Self-service, and a kind of nodding compliance
Which is probably what I fear I’ll find in myself
One day, which is why I’ve kept poetry
At bay for a few years now, seeing

Language as a kind of virus which infects whatever
It was I was trying to say. Of course there’s only one
Antidote for this, and it’s love. When push comes
To shove and the glittering bead of water hanging
From the tamarillo or the sense of sap crazily

On the move in the tangle of jasmine on the back fence –
When stuff like this has to have sense made
Of it with words, it will only happen when love
Has cleared a way through the dense thickets of mistrust
And we find ourselves again in the midst of a must-

Happen sense of what’s right, and so we do
Even though we know it’s all dust
In the end, like everything words name, like you,
Like me. And now we’ve come to the nitty-
Gritty, dear Lee, which is where I thank you

For the fabulous birthday present I’ve got from you,
Which is that I’ve been made free again
By love to write a poem for you on your birthday
And to know it’s true and simple and can be trusted,
Like our old friendship, darling, inexhaustible, bountiful,

Memorable, true blue. Whereupon I now
Consign the ghost buffaloes of North Dakota
To a bin reserved entirely for the fraudulent quota
Of words uttered in bad faith, and I ask you
All to raise your brimming glasses to dear

Leone and to salute her. These solemn rites,
This smoke drifting from the sacrificial meats,
These hands that swipe away tears
From world-weary eyes, this sentiment
Hastened by the vine, this recourse to memory,

These familiar faces into which we peer as though
Into mirrors, seeing the shadow of time pouring
Towards the silvered surface like night
Across the festive garden – these portents
Say, Do it now and do it right.

Shadow stands up #8

Those famous, or notorious, ‘seer’ letters that Rimbaud, aged seventeen, wrote in 1871, first to his earliest mentor Georges Izambard and a couple of days later to the young poet Paul Demeny, in which he rehearsed the phrase he had clearly impressed himself with, ‘I is somebody else’ – ‘Je est un autre,’ (to Izambard on May 13, Demeny on May 15) – have become the exhausted levers of critics and theorists wanting to open up the gap between the selves who write (the subjective ‘voice’) and the language that writing employs, that employs writers. Rimbaud himself, in the hyperbolic manifesto tone of the Izambard letter, pronounced that ‘subjective poetry’ would always be ‘horribly dull’. The dérangement or disordering of all the senses that Rimbaud advocated did involve intoxications, but more importantly the ‘reasoned’ (as he described it) abjection of the self. He wanted to observe himself experiencing and perceiving, to be used by language that had the classical precision of Racine – as he wrote to Izambard, ‘It’s false to say: I think; one ought to say: I am thought (on me pense).’ His great metaphor for this is the ‘drunken boat’ of the poem also written in 1871 which, having drifted rudderless out to sea after its crew was killed by ‘yelping redskins’, asks:

Do I long for European waters? Only a sullen pond
Where a small, demoralised boy, crouching
In the musk of a provincial evening
Launches his unsteady boat: a butterfly in May.

I come back to this poem over and over, to the weird sense it gives now of Rimbaud uttered in the language of the doomed boat (itself speaking in the sensational language of the popular fiction the ‘seven-year-old poet’ had earlier immersed himself in), seeming to experience something that hadn’t happened yet (his adult longing – or not – from Ethiopia for ‘European waters’) – what kind of ‘memory’ is that; is it possible to remember the future? – and remembering a child, a ‘seven-year-old poet’ perhaps, launching the toy that would one day become the language-vessel of the seventeen year-old poet’s consciousness anticipating his own exile from ‘home’ twenty years later – what kind of memory is that?

I was half way down the alleyway between the post-office and Paper Plus, having put the book back in my bag and hopped off the green Link bus at Three Lamps with Rimbaud’s drunken boat and his last letter thinking me, when I ‘came to my senses’, as we say. And there was ‘Khartoum Auto’, on a backstreet in Ponsonby, in 2011. Ghosts, shadows, standing up all around it. What kind of memory was that?


Going in search of lost time
I discover a river
that resembles the White Nile
because it flows as much past
Gordon in Khartoum, the mad
Mahdi, the painted Nuba,
Michel Leiris and Leni
Riefenstahl, leggy models
streaked with spit-moistened ochre –
flows as much past these fragments
of memories I don’t have
as it does past the stains of
vomit and bluish wine, fish
traps in the rushes where en-
tire Levianthans fester.
These are not my memories
but I have them, what Rimbaud
wrote, filigrees and fragments,
Mémoire, his shadow standing
LOT: TWO TUSKS. ‘I am helpless
and unhappy, I can find
nothing, the first dog in the
street will tell you that. Send me
therefore the prices of the
services from Aphinar
to Suez ... Tell me what time
I need to be carried on
board.’ Rimbaud’s final letter
composed in delirium
dictated to his sister
Isabelle, 9 November
1891, he died
the following day, and I
read his premonition on
my way down inscrutable
Rivers ... slow deliriums
... archipelagos of stars!

Ian on the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast

Ian takes a brief detour from text-based presentation to talk to Ryan Van Winkle from the Poets House on the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast.

Head on over to Podomatic to have a listen, and get a preview of Ian's plans for the Laureateship. (Audio autoplays, 27 minutes)