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Flying Dreams: Scribing the Infinite  

 

I

Over the summer of 2015 I had a series of flying dreams. Five or six. They were more or less the same—uniformly euphoric, you might say. If euphoria can be uniform. An enduring astonishment. I would be standing on a green slope, looking downhill, when I would take it into my head to leap into the blue air and so ascend. I flew, like Superman, headlong, except with my arms out-stretched on either side, like wings, not clasped before me in a fist; however, as in life, you do not really see yourself in dreams, you only see what you see. I remember park-like landscapes miniaturizing below, the tops of trees, silver lines of streams or sheets of standing water. It was always the green world: I never flew over a city. The  primary sensation was exhilaration. To be able, at a whim, to fly through the air with greatest of ease. To be able to fly!

A constant in this series of dreams was the advice I gave myself, insistently, within the dream, to be remembered when I woke up: that I could fly in real life too. Don’t forget that you can fly like this when you are awake, I would tell myself. Remember you can fly! It was melancholy to realise, when I did awake, that this is not so. Curious, too. Why, while dreaming of flying, did something in me insist upon the belief that I could do so waking too? Or, to put it another way: what was it that made me certain there was something in the dream that had relevance to my activities in waking life? What was it, in real life, that resembled flying in dreams? That’s the question.

 

II

Why was I having this series of dreams anyway? They are not common. I wonder about my activities at the time: nearly three years ago now. What was I writing, what else was I doing? I went back to the files. I had published a book, based upon my doctoral dissertation, the previous October; it was well-made, and well-received, too. I had also, more or less, completed two other works. One was a memoir of childhood and adolescence, the other a collection of occasional prose pieces, unified by their thematics and by the black and white photographs with which they were illustrated; these books would both come out in the year ahead. And I was contemplating a larger project, research-based, that would occupy the bulk of the next two years. I had my birthday, as usual, at Hannibal’s; both my sons were there; a few weeks later, the elder left home for good and went to live in Melbourne. I was re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy; and Inga Clendinnen’s  Aztecs: An Interpretation. There were unexpected synergies between the two.

So far so good. I remember the time better now; remember the freedom I felt then. My writing was going well; past plans coming to fruition, future plans forming. Our boy launched into the world, successfully, we hoped. I still had to work for a living but, within a matter of months, that would cease to be so; and, in fact, I have not worked since the middle of that year. I say ‘worked’: I mean the casual teaching I did in those days. Writing is work as well; but, on the one hand, you do not always get paid for doing it; and on the other, you will do it even if you know you will not be paid.

What are flying dreams, anyway? How old are they? Do they, as some think, constitute a genetic memory of a time when those distant ancestors of ours—dragonflies, pterodactyls, archaeopteryx—did in fact fly? The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles wrote: I have already been / a bush and a bird / a boy and a girl / a mute fish in the sea. Are flying dreams atavistic in that sense? If not, are they derived from a longing our hominid forebears felt when they saw birds in the sky? Even if that longing is admitted as real, as it must be, it still doesn’t explain the visceral sense of flying that comes in dreams, the absolute reality of the feeling of soaring through the air. I don’t think there can be an aetiology of flying dreams; or, if there is one, it’s not available to me. So here is the crux of the matter: those flying dreams were, I believe, actually writing dreams. How so?

When I am writing well, my fingers fly, unthought and unseen, over the keyboard. My eyes, looking at the screen, do not see the screen: they see words appearing as if by magic. Those words—which have in fact gone from a kind of speech in my brain, down my arms and into my fingers, through the mechanical processes of typing, to be further transformed by the digital mysteries of the computer—seem to arrive from nowhere. They are like something dictated from the void, something that had no reality until their present, unprecedented appearance. They are, in the merest sense of the word, miraculous. Any writer, in any medium, will tell you the same: it is sometimes as if we are the instrument upon which a tune is played. The means by which something other than us speaks. We are the singer not the song. The song flies through us.

Nevertheless—and here I dip down from the sky—no-one can accomplish this kind of activity without preparation; just as no-one can fly an aeroplane without long, hard practice of the relevant skills. So I want to change direction and look, not to the heavens, but to the earth. In other words, I want to examine the processes by which inspiration—flights of fancy!—might be encouraged, even learned. I want to consider the processes that might precede flight, and also those which might succeed it. To do that, I am going back to the Greeks again—not to Empedocles but to the Muses: configured not as sources of inspiration but as guides towards technique.

 

III

In the Boeotian version of the Muses—sometimes called the elder muses—they are the children of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth; there are three only; and their names are Mneme, Aoide and Melete; that is, memory, voice and occasion. We all know what memory is—even as it remains the primary mystery of human consciousness. Voice, which can be translated as song, is obvious too. It is the means by which we speak what we know; or, in this case, write. Occasion, too, seems straightforward; nevertheless, the word melete may also mean meditation or practise. Which complicates the matter, though in a good way. You might say that, in order to write, you have to do three things: to remember, to find a voice in which to tell your tale, and to construct an occasion upon which to perform—which will involve both meditation and practise.

It’s worth looking more closely at these three concepts. My view is that there are two original forms of story-telling, both of which involve memory. They go back at least as far as the Palaeolithic; that is, to the time before cities, before agriculture and animal husbandry became the primary economic bases for human societies. The first form is a re-telling of the day’s hunt or collect. You recount to your fellows where you went, what you did, what the results were. Any outstanding episodes, whether funny or dangerous or unusual, are included. We all still use this form, whether or not we think of ourselves as writers. Anyone coming home after a day at work, a day at school, after a journey or a holiday, will tell his or her familiars what happened in the age-old manner of the tale. Memory, based upon observation, is intrinsic to this form of story-telling.

The second form I call the fireside tale. It is, in origin and essence, I believe, a story about the night sky. After the day’s activities are done, after the evening meal perhaps, around the fire, stories are told. These stories will be used for the purposes of entertainment and instruction, and also—a primary function—as lullaby. We still read our children, our loved ones, or ourselves, to sleep at night. The suggestion which I prefer—it is of course unprovable—is that these stories arose from the need to make sense of the sky above us. They were stories about the stars and the planets, the moon and the sun, meteorites and comets, of shooting stars, figured as actors in a human drama.

An example is provided by Aboriginal story-teller Mavis Malbunka, about a crater called, in her Arrernte language, Tnorala; and by Europeans, Gosses Bluff. We now have a coolamon here in the sky. The star women in the Dreaming were dancing and this little child was lost by its mother. The little child fell to this land from the sky. After that, the coolamon fell on top of the child. Then her mother looked for it and now we believe the mother is the evening star. They are both looking for it, mother in the evening and then father from morning till dusk. They are both looking for their little child. Curiously, western scientists also explain Gosses Bluff in terms of something falling from the sky—in their case, not a multi-purpose wooden scoop, a coolamon, but a comet or a large meteorite which impacted in the Jurassic, about 140 million years ago.

In this second form of story-telling, memory operates in a different way: what is remembered is not the mundane events of a day, transformed by re-telling into drama. Instead, memory becomes a resource, a place where any imaginative version—such as Mavis’ tale—is archived so that it may be re-told by others on a later occasion. For a very long time, individual human memory was the only place where such things could be stored and, it is clear, memory in that sense was (and probably still is) a prodigious resource: the entirety of an epic poem like Homer’s The Iliad, 16,000 lines long, might be stored in a single memory, along with its slightly shorter companion, The Odyssey (12,000 lines). In a profound sense, however, this storage is not an individual accomplishment. We hold these things in common.

Note that both of these forms of story-telling—the tale of the day’s events; the explanation of the lives of the gods in the sky—are essentially night-time activities. There is an ancient connection between night-time, story-telling and the fire; which is reprised even when we sit alone before the flickering light of the TV screen in the evening. Note, too, that the two forms might be characterised as proto-non-fiction and proto-fiction, respectively—a point that certainly deserves further consideration, but one which I don’t have time to give now.

Voice, like memory, is a concept we are all familiar with; yet, in this application, it is difficult to pin down. There is a belief, for instance, put forward by American writer Philip Gerard, that All nonfiction is really told in the technical first-person point of view. This is clear enough: when you tell the story of the events of your day, you will do so in your own voice. I did this, I did that; this happened, then that. Even so, in the midst of your re-telling, you might assume the voice of someone else. Your boss, perhaps, or a co-worker; the guard on the train who challenged you because you didn’t have a ticket. Within a first person narration, then, you may adopt the voice of another. When it comes to the writing of fiction, these other voices take on names and characters and stories of their own; even if, as in non-fiction, there is, somewhere, howsoever concealed, still a first person point of view: that of the author.

There are many dimensions to voice: tone, for instance, which may be passive or active; detached or involved; comic or serious; ironically distanced; deeply implicated. A voice may be a lying voice; it may assume a monopoly on truth that we are at liberty to disbelieve; it may be a sole witness, with all the deficits that implies; it may function as a channel, a medium, through which other voices come. There are choices to consider: will you use the first, the second or the third person? I, you, or she? Him and her? We? They? Or the free indirect style, an intricate combination of first and third. And so on. Even if you decide to use the time honoured technique known as the eye of god, isn’t that really just a masking of the ‘I’ as another, to misquote Rimbaud?

But aiode can also be translated as song. This suggests an aesthetic dimension to voice. What this means, I think, is that whichever voice you choose to write in, needs to have a seductive dimension to it. It needs to have something to which people will want to listen. This doesn’t mean everything should be dripping with sentiment; there can be voices that are bracing to listen to because of their anger, perhaps, or their biting wit; or because of the information which they carry; some of us are comforted listening to the distillation of pain that some voices are capable of transmitting. The point about aiode is that writing must be listenable, even when it is not, or cannot be, sweet. Perforce, however, it must be, like song, rhythmic. In silent reading, this rhythm is heard in the inner ear; but is no less powerful for that. It may be the most powerful thing of all.

Melete, occasion or practice, is equally mysterious. The word is cognate with meditation or pondering. It refers, I think, to the process of thought that precedes any utterance and, indeed, any attempt to write. This is not an easy thing to understand. Most of us are familiar with the phrase: I’ll sleep on it. And, experience attests, a problem that seems insoluble the night before often finds a solution in the morning. But the way in which that solution has been arrived at may not be clear. By the same token, the sort of contemplation that precedes any act of writing seems to need to be unspecific, dispersed, even unthinking: as if we might think about something by not thinking about it, even by avoiding thinking about it. There are processes at work that are not only unconscious, but seem to need to remain that way.

That leaves the other two terms: occasion and  practice. How do they fit in with the primary meaning contemplation? I can think of a number of ways. One involves rehearsing another Greek concept, kairos, or timing. It means the right, the critical or the opportune moment, and is associated with archery and with weaving. There is a right time to loose the arrow, just as there is propitious moment to pass the shuttle through the threads on the loom. In the same way, there is a right moment (occasion) to write and it will have been preceded by a period of contemplation which cannot be prescribed. The related term, practice, I associate with discipline; even if that means, in the phrase coined by Australian writer Frank Moorhouse, the discipline of indiscipline.

The other implication of practice is more obvious: anyone who wishes to write, and to write well, needs to practice the craft over a period of time: in just the same way a weaver needs to practice weaving; and an archer, archery. Failures need to be made, and learned from. Successes, too; which, though this is seldom admitted, are always relative and therefore partake of failure too. I am an advocate of keeping regular hours in so far as writing is concerned; regular habits as well; but I know enough to know that this does not work in the same way for everyone. Anyone who wants to write has to evolve a practice of their own, one that works for them. This will be adapted to their living circumstances; if their living circumstances cannot be adapted to the demands of writing; which is the better way.

There is another aspect to melete: it is a quality we use extensively, and again to a degree unconsciously, when editing. And, as we trim here and add there, re-order our words, sentences and paragraphs, those other qualities, and particularly voice, are refined. Memory, too, may be augmented, revised or provoked at the editing stage. Melete as it relates to editing is about form. A first draft of anything will sprawl in some directions and not go far enough in others; these tendencies must be corrected. But form itself is hard to define because, for most people, it is intuitive rather than prescriptive. It doesn’t feel right, we say, and so we adjust until it does. That said, I think in every piece of writing there are parts that don’t feel right; but the revision that will make them so wasn’t found. A poem is never completed, the French writer Paul Valéry said; it is only ever abandoned.

 

IIII

I have talked about the how of writing; not about the what. This is because content, so-called, is personal. What we choose, or feel compelled, to write about, is our own business; no-one else can tell us what to say. Or can they? American novelist Richard Ford, after publishing two commercially unsuccessful novels, gave up literary composition and became a sports-writer instead; then, when the magazine he worked for folded, he lost his job. He went home and said to his wife: I don’t know what to do. And she said: Write a book about a happy man. Hence, Frank Bascombe. So there are external means of generating subject matter. A publisher once told me that books about Australian explorers Burke and Wills sell; that was the provocation for me to write The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition. And it did sell, comparatively, well.

Some people find subject matter through the exploration of form. Members of the OuLiPo movement invent constraints within which to operate: a novel, La Disparition, by French écrivain Georges Perec, that never uses the letter ‘e’, is an example. Poets conjure algorithms which they use to make poems from text sampled from the net. Brisbane writer Brentley Frazer wrote an incendiary memoir by means of English Prime, a constraint in which you may not use any of the tenses of the verb ‘to be’. I have two methods which I find useful for making new works, neither exclusive to me and both generally available to anyone who writes. They are the explorations made available through the practices of psychogeography and hypnogeography. The one is concerned with real locations; the other, the realms revealed to us in dreams.

The Becker book is, for instance, an exercise in psychogeography. He was the artist and scientist on that doomed expedition and, although he did not survive, the works he made during its progress do. I retraced his steps, with a particular focus upon finding the places where he painted. Psychogeography, the activity of mapping human traces in the landscape, more usually refers to the built environment; here too I have found subject matter: by taking random walks through the city and its surrounds. A few years ago I made a series of visits to Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe, Sydney—the largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere—and, although I did not find the grave I was looking for, I found much else besides.

In 1956 French writer, the Situationist Guy Debord, pioneered an exercise he called the dérive (drift), in which the seeker, alone or in company, takes a random walk and records what they encounter along the way. He defined it as a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. A dérive is analogous to a waking dream, in that the observer is required to remain alert to whatever occurs along the way. It is also a simultaneous act of experiencing and recording that experience; the observer / participant must be at all times cognisant of the quotidian and of what is incongruous, unexpected or merely strange.

Dreams, then, are a resource, in the same way that travel is: other places, either dreamed or real, past or future, are a provocation for writing. Less familiar than psychogeography is the term for exploring dream spaces: hypnogeography. Less accessible terrain too. The ability to dream is not like the ability to travel. You cannot buy a ticket and go. The process seems to be, intrinsically, haphazard. Even those who attempt lucid dreaming—that is, to be able, from within the dream, to direct the dream—are subject to random influences. Dreams would not be dreams if we knew how to script them; they would be writing. So the practice of hypnogeography has its serendipitous side; as does, in a different sense, psychogeography. Both demand sustained attention if they are to provide good content.

Here are some materials given me over the last couple of nights. My cat, Monkey, who disappeared, fate unknown, more than twenty years ago, returns in a dream. She is as possessive, as querulous and as ambivalently loving as she ever was in life. Naturally, I think she is real and feel a sorrowful sense of times past when I awake and find it is not so. The sister of a woman I was once infatuated with (she has no such sister) visits me and we make love. When I wake, I feel that whoever came to me was (is) real. I see a drowning world, with strange animals fleeing up a road, as the sea rises through watery meadows and past the lighted windows of a house in a dell. It is beautiful and doomed. I am sent to interview Sean Penn. His manager, a black man chewing on a cigar, asks me to deposit a plastic bag of skinned eggs in a bin. I say it must be difficult finding the right props for a movie. He sighs and repeats the word: eggs. And so on.

I doubt I will use any of these materials in writing—except, of course, that I just have. Dreaming, like travelling, is a process which blends the known and the unknown in unprecedented  ways. Writers are often advised: write what you know. And then: write what you don’t know. But these are really two aspects of the same thing: the known always has an unknown dimension, just as the unknown is in some sense already known—known and unknown are inextricably intertwined, in a double helix, like DNA. In dreams our minds mix memory and speculation, past and future, imagination and reality, in a manner that is instinctively intriguing. That said, it remains a challenge to write a dream in such a way as to engage an audience. We have all had the experience of sitting there, bored, while someone recounts their dreams; just as we have all experienced the tedium of having to look at the dullness of holiday snaps.

The Surrealists were pioneers of both hypno and psycho-geography. Contemporary English writers Iain Sinclair and Geoff Dyer have practised versions of psychogeography; while the German / English writer W G (‘Walker’) Sebald is a special case, blending the psycho and the hypno with the more purely historical in his work. In the United States, poet Robert Kelly has been an eloquent theoretician of hypnogeographic exploration. He emphasises the repetitive nature of dream geographies and their compulsion towards the revelation of the forbidden. The entire body of work of poet Emily Dickinson seems revelatory of unknown countries of the mind.

Going to other places in search of knowledge is an ancient practice. Shamanism, it has been claimed, is the single pan-human belief system, with roots in the Palaeolithic; and the investigations of psycho- and hypno-geographies have clear analogies with the spirit journeys of the shamans. It is a process of plumbing the depths of the unknown for that which may then be figured, not as the known, but in a structure that allows another to experience the unknown: the banality of holiday snaps is really because their unknown dimension has been leached from them. On the other hand, when I write, I am not on a mystical quest and nor do I imagine, when I dream or travel, that I am entering a spirit world. The true mysteries are human consciousness, and the universe it both inhabits and mirrors. Writing is a means of exploring the interface between these two immensities. It is about the future.

 

V

I look again at The Supply Party and see that the opening section of the book recounts a dream I had in Melbourne before the road trip proper had begun. There are a number (nine?) of primitive heads upon a tabletop, which I am trying to count but cannot. It prefigures the journey I was about to take; and exemplifies the value of both hypno and psycho-geographical exploration. To write is to attempt to add something new to the world; and, to quote the aphorist and scientist Georg Lichtenberg, to see something new you must make something new. And that, in turn, seems to imply some kind of adventure or voyage of discovery. It does not matter if the voyage is into inner or outer space; what is important is that it is a journey to somewhere you, as the travelling consciousness, have not been before. Your readers either.

But the other aspect is also primary: I mean the ability to write down what you find in a way that is compelling to others. That is where I feel that the elder muses still have something to offer us: not so much in terms of inspiration as in the ways in which we might conceptualise the writing process and so find ways of making our practice more skilful, more evocative, more demanding, more true. And what of the flying dreams themselves? They were, I think, a kind of bonus, as well as a reminder: when you are writing well, when you are truly fulfilling your potential as a scribe of the infinite, then the experience is one of unalloyed happiness, of a projection of the self beyond all limits, including the limits of egotism. To live is to fly, sings the song by Townes van Zandt; Low and high / So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes.

 

Exercises

Take a walk—a dérive—through an unfamiliar neighbourhood and make mental notes along the way. Afterwards, write up said notes and augment them with whatever you can find out from research. Make sure the result is finished enough to be read by someone else: partner, family member, online audience, friends or strangers.

Leave notepaper beside your bed. Write down any dream that wakes you in the night: at the time of waking—this is important. In the morning, add whatever you feel is lacking from the night-written text. Keep both versions; use them to make a third.

Record, in a private place, walks and dreams (and other things) that you don’t want anyone else to know. Work these up until you understand why you don’t want others to see them; or, if you decide that you do, publish them. Be attentive to feedback, especially silences.

Open an atlas at a page representing a part of the country you do not know well. Take a pin in hand, close your eyes and drive it into the map. Go on a trip to the nearest town to where the pin landed. Stay three days. Write down everything you see, including the conversations you have. Amplify what you have learned with research.

Get lost. Then get found again. Record all you see along the way, and any interactions as well. Once again, amplify.

 

References

Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation; Stanley Lombardo; Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1982;

The Elder Muses: http://www.mythindex.com/greek-mythology/M/Musae.html; accessed 2.11.17;

Mavis Malbunka: https://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/tnorala-baby-falling/clip3/; accessed 3.11.17;

Writing Creative Non-Fiction; edited by Philip Gerard and Carolyn Forche; Story Press, Ohio, 2001;

The Frank Moorhouse quote is a personal communication from, I think, 1988;

The Richard Ford anecdote he told at a talk in Wellington, NZ in March, 2005; Frank Bascombe is the hero of Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986) and three other novels;

The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition; Martin Edmond; East Street Publications, Adelaide, 2009;

Scoundrel Days; Brentley Frazer; UQP, St. Lucia, 2017;

Definitions; Guy Debord; Internationale Situationniste #1; translated by Ken Knabb; Paris, 1958;

Lichtenberg: Aphorisms and Letters; translated by Franz Mautner and Henry Hatfield; Jonathon Cape, London, 1969

To Live is to Fly; from the album High, Low and In Between; Towns van Zandt; WEA Records, Los Angeles, 1971

 

Further Reading

The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International; McKenzie Wark; Verso, New York, 2011;

The Complete Poems; Emily Dickinson; edited by R. W. Franklin; Reading Edition, 2005;

dérives; a taxi driving blog (2005-2010); Martin Edmond: http://fluvial.blogspot.com.au/;

Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s ‘Journey out of Essex’; Iain Sinclair; Hamish Hamilton, London, 2005;

Hypnogeography; Martin Edmond; Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2010;

Nadja; Andre Breton; translated by Richard Howard; Grove Press, New York, 1960

Paris Peasant; Louis Aragon; translated by Simon Watson Taylor; Picador, London, 1971

The Rings of Saturn; W G Sebald; translated by Michael Hulse; Harvill, London, 1998

Robert Kelly: http://www.rk-ology.com/media/hypnogeography_RK_final.pdf

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room; Geoff Dyer; Canongate, London, 2012.

 

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Fugue States

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Fugue state: a psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia of personal identity. The state can last days, months or years. Usually involves unplanned travel or wandering and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity.

The summer I turned twenty-two I went mad. Or should I say, nearly went mad. Approached the borders of madness, perhaps, then retreated. Or crossed over and came out the other side. Yet madness has no borders; once you have gone there, there’s no way back. Or so it seemed to me that summer. Even now, more than forty years later, it’s hard to say exactly what happened: not least because, as the borders of madness approach, memory becomes something other than we generally assume it to be. Less recall than trauma, if that makes sense. So, obviously, does thought. So does everything else. Consciousness alters and with it, reality. All things become questionable, including the questions themselves.

It’s a long time ago but there are still fragments in mind, images of estrangement and engagement, reminders and intuitions, and from these I may be able to make something comprehensible, perhaps even true: though truth might be too exalted an ambition. I’ll settle for narrative coherence. Plausibility, in other words. Truth might thereby be served but only if, like beauty, it lies in the eye of the beholder. So I will try to say what my incipient madness was like. It seems important to do so because, once it passed, I was able, for the very first time, to enter into the life I wished to lead. As if, in fact, madness was a territory I had to traverse in order to get to the place I wanted to be. A stage in learning how to live. It might be like that for other people too.

I have no desire to implicate anyone else. Nevertheless, however much it might have felt that way, I was not alone. There were always others. Even at the precise moment when I realised I might be going mad, someone was there. Her name was Karen. Although we were lovers, I didn’t know her very well. I don’t even remember how we met. She was probably just as inexperienced, uncertain and afraid as I was. Most of us were, then. She was from Dunedin; once, when I told her I had previously been infatuated with a woman from down there, someone she also knew, she cried; why, I never knew. Unless it was because she cared for me more than I thought she did.

Karen was small and dark and good looking and didn’t say much. The moment of truth came when we were in bed in my room at 56 Grafton Road one morning and I said—I remember the exact sentence, although not why I said it—I’ve finally become a complete animal. And, as soon as the words were out of my mouth, and I heard what I had said, the fear descended upon me. A cold, dark, numbing, airless dread. As if I’d pronounced a doom upon myself. As if my increasingly erratic and self-destructive behaviour over the past year or so had been leading inexorably to this point, at which I would understand what I had been doing, articulate it and then feel afraid. It was the coming to consciousness of the results of my willed dissolution. The culmination of my dérèglement de tous les sens.

I don’t know what Karen said. If she said anything. I think my confession frightened her. It was frightening. I wonder now if that was the last time we slept together. Perhaps. I think she might have left that day and not come back. It was December, 1973, and my room at Grafton Road was very beautiful: downstairs, at the back of the house, with glass sliding doors outside of which was a wooden deck that gave onto a wild garden full of weed trees. The Domain, over a hidden creek, began at the back of the section. It was all leafy green shadow and lemon yellow light, where birds sang; but beauty is of no account when you are crossing the borders of madness.

I remember I had two black and white kittens someone had given me. A male and a female. They had been taken too soon from their mother and still needed to suckle. I would wake up in the middle of the night and find one in each of my armpits, sucking industriously away at the hairs that grew there. This might have been after Karen left. I had nothing to do. No job, no work, no project, nothing. I’d dropped out of university that year, in order to become a poet; but it hadn’t happened. There were poems, lots of them, but they were, like me, awkward and strange; and I believed in them as little as I believed in myself. Now they, too, had dried up.

Money? I don’t know. I must have had some because the one thing I reliably did, every afternoon, was go up to the pub and drink until I passed out. I woke up in some strange places. Once I found myself lying on an old mattress in the waste land behind the house next door, #60 (where was #58?) with no idea how I got there. Missed my way stumbling home probably. Mostly, though, I did make it back to #56. Another time I remember meeting an old girlfriend outside the pub and dragging her down there with me. She came, but now I wonder why? That night I was singing, over and over again, the chorus of a Rolling Stones song: Don’t play with me ’cause you’re playing with fire; while she looked incredulously on. How did the sweet boy she knew turn into this sottish oaf? Perhaps she felt sorry for me.

What did I even mean, a complete animal? That I had alienated myself from all finer feelings? All merely human responses? Become a brute? I’m not sure. I might have thought that, if I could get back to operating on a purely instinctual level, I would thereby find my true self. In the same way that many people then wanted to get back to nature, back to the land. As impossible as that sounds. I knew I was in trouble. After Karen, after meeting my ex, after the drunken nights at the Kiwi and the vague stumbles home—I realised I had to do something. But what? And how about the actual animals, the kittens, who depended utterly upon me—the most undependable human alive, you would have thought; but I must have looked after them because they didn’t die. Or not then.

In fact, one of them came with me when I went down to Wellington. Because that’s what I did, although I can’t now recall the processes that lead to my decision, if mine it was. I can’t remember how the kitten came with me either; common sense says that must have happened later, after Christmas, when, using Laurence’s van, I moved my things down. It was the boy kitten, his name was Bill and I gave him to a friend of one of my younger sisters in Upper Hutt, where I like to imagine he lived a long and happy life. Though I think he was run over. I don’t know what happened to the girl kitten. I don’t even remember her name. Maybe Karen took her.

We hitch-hiked to Wellington. Just Dean and me. Dean was my best friend, my drinking partner, my confidante and my support. No matter how weird I got, he would always be there for me. Perhaps, being somewhat self-obsessed, he didn’t really notice what was going on? But I think he did. We had been in some extreme situations together over the past year and took a proportion of insanity, as it were, for granted. I don’t know how mad I would have had to have gone before Dean abandoned me. Perhaps he wouldn’t ever have done so. Anyway, it didn’t happen. He got me to Wellington. For which I am eternally grateful. The painter, Dean Buchanan.

But the trip was a nightmare. By mutual consent, whenever we found a ride, Dean sat in the front and I sat in the back. In those days you were usually picked up by people on their own; and the general rule, when hitching in pairs, was that you alternated: because it was the job of the person in the front to do the talking; which could be onerous. Except I was no longer capable of conversation. Even the most casual remark—How you going, mate?—filled me with anxiety. More complex offerings seemed to disclose depthless ambiguities. The fear, as I tried to work out what the person was saying, what they meant by it, how dangerous they really were, was entirely disabling. In this state of advanced paranoia, people looked as well as sounded terrifying: bloated, bug-eyed, red-faced, snarling, sweating, their teeth shiny with saliva as they licked their chops.

I had lost the monitoring self, the one who says, no, that’s delusional, that’s not really happening. This is just another day, this is a normal person, a farmer perhaps, driving us through Taupō, along the shore of Five Mile Bay, past Waitahanui and on into the hills. That’s the lake out there, a slight chop on the waters, whitecaps, glints of golden light; pumice on the beach where I paddled as a child. The mountains blue against the distant sky. I was clutching a book the whole way. A talisman. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung. It was a paperback and on the cover was Carl himself, avuncular, smiling, pipe in hand, the picture of sanity. Jung wrote: Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. I was looking both ways at once and the only thing I could see was nightmare.

At that time my parents were living in a rather grand house in the leafy, expensive part of Upper Hutt called Heretaunga. An elegant white weatherboard dwelling at the end of a long drive lined with ornamental cherry trees. Whenever I visited, I didn’t write or call or telegram ahead to say I was coming. I would just turn up, unexpectedly; it suited my sense of myself as a maverick, a free spirit. If Dean was still with me—though I don’t think he was—that would have been alright. He was a friend of the family. I think I probably walked up the gravel drive alone on a balmy summer evening, went in the back door, which would have been unlocked, and surprised them all doing whatever it was they were doing.

I have two distinct memories of that visit over Christmas, 1973. Both are disturbing. One is of a family dinner, possibly on the night I arrived. It might have been a Sunday. I recall cold cuts, boiled eggs, a salad, potatoes tossed in butter and mint. Sweet corn. I had taken to wearing around my left wrist a rusty metal chain I dug up in the garden at Puka Puka Road, Puhoi, North Auckland, where Dean and I and some others squatted in an old farm house for much of the past year. It was an undistinguished artefact, of unknown provenance, but certainly not meant to be worn as an item of personal adornment. My youngest sister, who was fourteen, noticed it and asked me what it was? And I recoiled, I clutched my wrist and I snarled: It’s mine!

There was a startled silence around the table, as everyone contemplated the inappropriate response, the aggression, the lack of empathy, let alone manners, I had shown. I realised it too; for me it was a moment not unlike the one in which I proclaimed my animality. But I didn’t do or say anything, I didn’t apologise or explain, I just waited until normal discourse resumed. Curiously, though, as I write, the incident recalls another from earlier that same year. My friends and I were going to a garden party at my eldest sister’s house in Mt Eden and along the way I found, on the road, the dried-out corpse of a pigeon that had been squashed under the wheels of a car. I picked this gruesome object up and attempted, upon arrival at the party, to present it to my sister. I remember the shock, the repugnance and the dismay upon her face as she refused my twisted offering. The silence among the watching guests. The weirdness. What on earth was I doing?

The other episode must have taken place after Christmas; possibly on New Year’s Day. My mother was hosting a party. For her new, her literary friends, because she was on the way to establishing herself as a poet. She had already begun to work on her edition of the letters of A R D Fairburn (1981); she must also have started publishing poems in magazines, ahead of her first book, In Middle Air (1975). And I, her son, the poète manqué, got hold of a bottle of brandy and drank from it until I passed out, on the sofa, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the party. Did I snore, or slobber, as I slept? I don’t know; but I remember my mother’s fury after her guests had departed. I had ruined her party and shamed her in front of her friends. She was beside herself with rage.

Ours was not a happy house. My father had lost his job as a headmaster and had been hospitalised, at least once, for alcoholism and depression. The treatment failed; he wasn’t cured; he spent all day, every day, with his back turned, chain smoking and sipping from a continually re-charged glass of sherry. He loathed my mother’s literary friends yet insisted on being present whenever they came around: a baleful, accusatory presence in the corner of the room. My sister, two years younger than me, survived a suicide attempt the previous August. She took sleeping pills and crawled under a boathouse in Herne Bay, where the owners found her, unconscious but alive. After a period in hospital she had come home to recuperate. Although nobody ever said this, I think we all knew the damage she had done to herself was irrevocable. As, indeed, it was.

In the context of these two unfolding tragedies, my behaviour, though deplorable, was a minor matter. Yet there were affinities with both my father’s and my sister’s predicaments. The habit of drinking myself into oblivion was an imitation of my father’s futile self-medication, for instance. And some of the symptoms of my distressed mental state mimicked those my sister, to a far more serious degree, suffered. In the throes of a schizophrenic attack, she too became paranoid; had difficulty understanding what people were saying to her; was inclined to believe the world was full of threats and violent terrors. But there the parallels end. I did not have, as she did, aural and visual hallucinations. I did not hear voices saying I was worthless and telling me to die. I did not see demonic faces, slavering and grimacing, morphing from the walls. My ‘madness’, though real enough to me was, beside hers, inconsequential.

I have one more incident to relate. It is from later in the summer. I was lying in bed in the room at the end of the hall; a single divan, just inside the door; there were two other beds, both, I think, empty, under the window that gave onto the clothesline and the vegetable garden. This had been my room when I lived at home, four years before. And I was lying there, falling asleep, when I saw loom over me the spectre of my friend Laurence, holding a knife; with which, I knew, he was intending to kill me. I saw Laurence and I saw the knife; but he was not there. He was in Auckland, 400 miles away. And yet I saw him—an apparition so real I cried out and tried to shield myself with my hands from the imminent blow of the knife. And then Laurence disappeared, leaving me there, heart hammering, sweating, gazing into the dark.

Why Laurence? He was a tall fellow who always wore a herring-bone overcoat, even in the heat of summer, and liked to cultivate an air of mystery. His lips smiled faintly beneath his walrus moustache; he rarely spoke. When he did, his remarks were cryptic, knowing, opaque: what did they mean? He was a cartoonist and his cartoons, too, were enigmatic, his characters almost wordless; when there was a speech bubble above their heads, it would most likely be empty. Laurence owned a red Bedford van with a sliding door on the side and, during our rapscallion days at Puka Puka Road, we used to career all over the countryside in it, drinking and carousing. If Cameron was with us, and had his .303, he would shoot feral goats or turkeys which we would then take home to butcher, cook and eat. Laurence had a girlfriend, Philippa, who was tiny, a gamin with an elvish face and bright eyes. She spoke as seldom as he did and I always wondered if it was her who left a note on my desk which read: Today is the day for fucking.

It might have been guilt over Philippa, or it might have been Laurence’s own sinister game-playing—if that’s what it was—which caused me to focus my fears upon his person. Even so I knew, as soon as he disappeared, that the presence I had seen looming above my bed was an hallucination. Oddly enough, knowing that did not lessen its power nor the fear it provoked. If my mind could do that, what else could it do? What might happen next? I would still like to know if this visitation came before or after Laurence, out of the goodness of his heart, trucked my worldly goods down the island in his red Bedford van; but I don’t. The chronology is lost.

I didn’t have much: books, records, a stereo, a few clothes; the tartan blanket that has been on my bed since childhood. No furniture and no kitchen things. Andrew McCartney, another lost soul from those far off days, travelled with us, on one of his increasingly aimless flights from one rural job to another. I think we drove down through Te Kuiti and Taumarunui and Raetihi, parked on the banks of the Whanganui and spent the night above the river. Somehow, probably in consultation with my parents, I had decided to move to Wellington. It was to be a new start. I was going to go back to university to finish my degree.

What about the madness? There are a couple more things to say about it. One is that, over the course of 1973, my friends and I became enamoured of the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Hughes’ Crow (1970), along with Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel (1965), to us were sacred texts. We read and re-read them; in my own verse I imitated Hughes’ work. Which now seems to have been a colossal mistake. I took from him a conception of the natural world defined by violence—nature red in tooth and claw—and attempted to mirror that violence in my poems. No wonder I thought I was turning into an animal: I was trying to inhabit a Ted Hughes poem.

Plath, meanwhile, romanticised death as a lover whom she would embrace; as in time she did. Another poor model for a confused young man to follow. My sister, too, was a Sylvia Plath fan: her own suicide attempts, the third of which was successful, were to some extent imitative of Plath’s appalling example. The only extenuating circumstance I can offer for this calamitous mania is that we reckoned our obsession with violence and death to be, paradoxically, life-affirming; in that our worship of the mortal and the transitory would make our days more intense, more momentous, more real. Needless to say, or perhaps not, I no longer think that way.

The other insight gained from the events of that summer was, perhaps, genuinely life-affirming. It is that those distortions of perception and apprehension characteristic of mental illness, once experienced, do not go away. They are like the sensory alterations consequent upon the use of drugs. Those do not go away either; they become incorporated into your  psyche, your memory, and may thus enrich both your interior landscapes and your view of the external world. Having felt the terror of my own animality, and the fear of what it might do to me, or I with it, I cannot dismiss the testimony of those who have undergone similar things; even when, as in my sister’s case, those experiences are far more powerful, and more deadly, than mine ever were.

Not only do the insights of madness persist: I believe my schizotypal episode increased my potential for empathy. So that, gradually, over the course of the summer, in the undemanding routines of the parental home, even one as afflicted as ours was, those insights sank into my mind, taking their place as potentials, things that may not have been desirable but were certainly possible. To which attention must be paid. They added to my knowledge of what could happen in a life. With the consequence that, when I was ready to move out of home again and resume an independent existence, I found myself ripe for the chances that came crowding thick and fast upon  me.

How peculiar, it seems, looking back: so much of my despair in that last year in Auckland had been focussed upon my inability to write; and the lack of any prospect of publishing the meagre bits and pieces I did manage to complete. In Wellington, without my even trying, publishing opportunities immediately presented themselves; and so, to satisfy them, I had to learn how to write. How serendipitous. One February day I went in to Victoria University and, from the noticeboard outside the student union, copied down the telephone number of a household seeking a flatmate. I don’t know why, from the dozens available, I chose that particular one; it was the only number I rang; and it was where I ended up living. 96 Kelburn Parade, Kelburn.

A member of that household was then music writer, now political journalist, Gordon Campbell. He put me in touch with Roger Steele, editor of Salient, the student newspaper; Roger said he’d consider publishing anything I might like to offer to him. And I decided to try art reviewing. My only qualification was that I had spent a fair amount of time watching Dean paint; and, by following up on his enthusiasms, had begun a rudimentary course of self-education in art history. Kandinsky, Klee, Miro. Otherwise, I had my eyes and my curiosity; and they turned out to be enough. It was 1974 and, unbeknownst to me, in faraway Luang Prabang, in an opium den behind the Shell service station, Red Mole had already begun.

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A Delivery

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I was lying in bed this morning reading an interview with poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald; it was in the Paris Review, dated from 1984 and I haven’t finished it yet. This because there was a sudden, loud knocking on the door. I knew who it was: a small Asian man who seems bashful, if not ashamed, of his job as a delivery person. He will not meet my eyes and is almost impossible to engage in conversation; yet is clearly a gentle and sweet-natured fellow. Perhaps he knocks so loudly because he doesn’t think anyone will answer. Anyway, he had a big parcel of books for me and I did manage to get a couple of sentences – about the weather – out of him. The rain has stopped, he said. I knew what was in it too. My twelve author’s copies of The Expatriates. I put the package down unopened on the sofa and went back to my cup of tea and my reading; but, predictably enough, couldn’t concentrate; and then the I-pad froze. So I had to open it. First impressions are of course indelible and not available for revision: what you think and feel when you first see a book is, in some sense, how you will always feel and think about it. Hence my delay in tearing open the parcel. Well. It is the right size: I was nervous about that, didn’t want it to be too big or too small. It is neither. It is the right weight, too. More than that, and this surprised me, while properly substantial, it has a slightly ethereal air to it, something almost ghostly. The cover is black and white, apart from the pale blue of my name, which is echoed in the end papers. The b & w photos within are neither blurred nor shadowy but they too have something ghostly about them. The book seems like a veil which both discloses and obscures what is behind it. As I say, I did not expect this and I am very happy about it: it is, not ostensibly but actually, a kind of ghost work. After that I read the Note of Sources (because that was the last thing I wrote) and then the Introduction (second last). No mistakes. All the acknowledgements are there and they are all accurate. It smells good too; inky and papery. So that’s that. 

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The Rogue Question Mark

thomasjwiseOver the last twelve months or so I’ve read, or re-read, near the entirety of Joseph Conrad’s fiction and a fair bit of his (much less extensive) non-fiction. I’ve also read half a dozen biographies and several books of criticism, of which Albert J Guerard’s Conrad the Novelist (1958) and Edward Said’s Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966) (both more than fifty years old now) are probably the best. At present I’m halfway through a very short bio (Brief Lives : Joseph Conrad, by Gavin Griffiths) and almost at the end of a very long one (Joseph Conrad : The Three Lives, by Frederick R Karl). The Griffiths book is not just banal and perfunctory, it is full of preposterous errors, like getting the names of Conrad’s ships wrong; the Karl is somehow majestic and empty at the same time. He has a rather small set of guiding ideas which he applies, repetitiously and at great length, to a variety of circumstances; unfortunately, I ceased to believe in the explanatory power of these ideas around about the time his account of Conrad’s sea years ends. Nevertheless, I’m still reading, because you never know what you might find even in the most redundant account. And so it proves. One of the fascinations of Conrad’s life is its always shaky economic basis. He was a sailor for twenty years but sailors were not well paid and, anyway, he spent as much time ashore as at sea; and they weren’t paid at all while ashore. In all of that time, he continued to receive an allowance from his uncle and guardian, his mother’s brother, Tadeusz Bobrowski; whose death, in the mid-1890s, coincided, not just with the end of Conrad’s sea-faring, but with the inception of his literary career too: with the publication, in 1895, of Almayer’s Folly. There was an inheritance which he somehow contrived to lose: Conrad was always extravagant with money and inclined towards speculations which, almost invariably, turned into disasters. For the rest of his life, then, he was dependent upon whatever income he could derive from writing; what he could beg or borrow from friends; or receive as grants from the state. He was in desperate straits for much of the two decades during which he wrote what most people consider his major works; and it was only with the commercial success of Chance (1913) that his situation eased. Through those years he received grants, advances, serialisation rights, royalties and such like, and many private loans, notably from his friend John Galsworthy, whom he met on the ship Torrens sailing from Adelaide in the early 1890s (Conrad was Chief Mate, Galsworthy, not yet a writer, a passenger) and who offered unfailing support. Things stabilised somewhat when James Pinker became his agent; Pinker would pay him cash advances based on the number of words of manuscript Conrad sent him, and then attempt to sell them when, when and whenever he could. Oddly enough, in those days, stories in magazines paid more than published books did; and many of Conrad’s shorter tales were written, quite consciously, for magazines. They had their ups and downs but Pinker basically kept Conrad, his household and his career alive and functioning throughout the difficult years. Most of the sales Pinker negotiated involved serialisation and book publication in both the UK and the US; that is, each work might be sold four separate times; and it was from the US, though not via Pinker, that, in time, a new source of income appeared. John Quinn, the New York based Irish-American lawyer and collector, supporter of Yeats, Pound, Eliot et al, investor in the Abbey Theatre, from 1911 onwards began to purchase Conrad’s manuscripts for what were then quite substantial sums of money. Most of these were holographs, some vast; others were typescripts corrected by hand; still others, the serialised versions, which Conrad usually edited extensively for book publication. There were curiosities: the ms of the story Karain, for instance, shipped on the Titanic, went down with the ship. This lucrative, though obviously finite, trade with Quinn continued during the war years; while no agreement was ever signed, it seems to have been understood by both parties, at least for a while, as an exclusive arrangement. Nevertheless, after the war, Conrad, without telling Quinn, began selling material to another collector, a man by the name of Thomas James Wise. Wise was a distinguished bibliographer and bibliophile, a poet in his youth, a friend of eminent literary men such as Robert Browning and Edmund Gosse; and the owner of one of the best private libraries – the Ashley – ever gathered in England. It is now in the British Museum. He would, in 1921, in a private printing of 170 copies, produce a bibliography of Joseph Conrad’s work which is now itself a collector’s item. He paid bigger money than Quinn did and he was also nearer at hand. For a while, Conrad prevaricated, suggesting to Quinn that he had all the holographs, while Wise was only getting typescripts or corrected typescripts (in his later years Conrad dictated more than he wrote); but the fact is he had, as it were, changed horses. Quinn was miffed; Conrad, even more miffed, when Quinn, making an astounding profit, sold his manuscript collection in 1924. The two never met, apparently because Conrad, on his only visit to the US, in 1923, avoided doing so. He did meet Thomas Wise: he came for lunch at Oswalds, the Conrads’ house in Kent, one day in 1920; but he was never to know that Wise was both a forger and thief. His thefts were mostly leaves from copies of Elizabethan, Jacobean or Restoration era plays; if he came across a defective copy, he would excise the missing sheets from intact copies in the British Museum and re-insert them into his own; which he would then sell, most often to a wealthy Texan collector called John Henry Wrenn. His forgeries were something else. As a young man he became involved in the then fashionable practice literary societies (eg the Shelley Society) followed, of re-printing pamphlets of the works of the writers they admired for circulation amongst themselves. These generally appeared with the original title pages, copyright information etc., included. At some point Wise, with his long time collaborator, Harry Buxton Forman, had the bright idea of printing pamphlets purporting to be originals, not copies. They would be dated before the original work had first appeared and authenticated largely through Wise’s own voluminous and apparently authoritative bibliographical writings. The most famous of these was a version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese allegedly printed in Reading in 1847, three years before their official publication in 1850. Wise and Forman used a reputable printer, Richard Clay and Sons, of London and Bungay, for their forgeries and the supposition is that they must have had an ally within the firm; this person has remained unknown. The means by which Clay and Sons were tracked down are fascinating in themselves, involving as they do an unkerned ‘f ‘, an unkerned ‘j’; and a rogue question mark which had somehow infiltrated the letters of a font, where it had no business to be. Wise wasn’t exposed until 1932, eight years after Conrad’s death in 1924. Of his nearly 300 private printings of English authors, at least a sixth, and maybe as many as a third, are forgeries. In addition, it is estimated that he stole around 200 leaves of plays from the British Musuem. In a nice irony, some of those stolen leaves are now back in the institution from which they were taken, albeit within other covers. In a further irony, Wise’s forgeries, as you might expect, are now collector’s items themselves. But to return briefly to Conrad, and the economics of his production: his sales of manuscripts to Quinn were retrospective and, you might say, authentic: the items represented honest labour accomplished for the purpose of literary publication; but the things that Wise was buying can seem, if not tainted in themselves, then perhaps ephemeral. By about 1919, anything Conrad had written was worthy of sale, even a preface for a schoolbook, say, or the text of a cable sent to the Polish government. Or a scenario for a film which would never be made. Like Picasso later on, he could sell a piece of blank paper with his signature upon it. On the other hand, why not? As his income grew, so did his expenditure; and the dozens of operations his wife Jessie had to have upon a knee injured in a fall on an icy London street twenty years before, were a constant drain on his finances. There were also the fast cars he liked to buy and drive. One of the things I find least sympathetic about Conrad’s biographers (and they all, to a greater or lesser extent, seem to share this fault) is the tendency they have to scold him. He should have been more careful with money. He should have complained less. He should have written better (!) He shouldn’t have . . . I’m not sure where this punitive impulse comes from; I don’t know why biographers feel impelled to shake an admonitory finger at their subject: is there anything more futile than taking the dead to task for things they did or did not do? I sometimes wonder if a degree of humourlessness is a requirement in those who write literary biography. And, perhaps, an inability to tolerate ambiguity. Conrad is magnificently ambiguous; and, in my view, a considerable humorist too—never mind that his humour is generally of the biting, or bitter, kind. So perhaps that rogue question mark should stand beside the biographers’ own efforts, or attitudes; not next to the life they have chosen, under no compulsion whatsoever, to tell. From which, further, and finally, I suspect I may be reaching the end of my Conrad biography reading phase.

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Francis Pound 1948-2017

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I was in a hotel room in Melbourne when I googled Francis Pound—to see if any obituaries for him had turned up online yet. None had; but his death notice from the New Zealand Herald was there. His parents were Kevin and Hilary—I knew that already. He had one sister and six brothers: John, Mary, Brian, Thomas, Patrick, Simon and Nicholas. And his full name was Francis Newport Pound. I didn’t know that. Though he was often referred to as Frank Pound, I always called him Francis; and I’d never heard the Newport before. It set up a reverberation in my mind, so I googled Francis Newport next; and there, on the Wikipedia page devoted to the 1st Earl of Bradford, found this:

You need not tell me there is no God for I know there is one, and that I am in his presence! You need not tell me there is no hell. I feel myself already slipping. Wretches, cease your idle talk about there being hope for me! I know I am lost forever! Oh, that fire! Oh, that I could lie for a thousand years upon the fire that is never quenched, to purchase the favour of God and be united to Him again. But it is a fruitless wish. Millions and millions of years will bring me no nearer the end of my torments than one poor hour. Oh, eternity, eternity forever and forever! Oh, the insufferable pangs of Hell!

There’s quite a lot more in this vein, useful for Christians of all persuasions because Newport was a celebrated atheist and a member of the Infidel’s Club, who (allegedly) gave forth this oration on his deathbed, in 1708, at the ripe old age of 88. But what intrigued me was how much this has the accent of Francis himself, the one I knew, in full flight. The love of over-statement, and the mockery implicit within it; a genuine apprehension of the devouring fires of hell along with an educated doubt that such things could ever be comprehended, let alone represented; the embrace of vehemence and, along with that, the sheer pleasure to be had in articulating an extreme position until the very last—all are characteristic.

I would have loved to have discussed this with Francis: a lapsed Catholic and (I presume) an atheist. I would have loved to have heard him deliver that wonderful, mad speech in full rhetorical splendour: he would have done it magnificently. I can imagine his perverse, delighted commentary upon it as well. I also wonder what he thought his parents’ intent had been in giving him the name of that ancient reprobate, recidivist and (much elapsed) repentant. In other words, now that he is on the other side, I would like to compare notes with him; but I can’t. All I can do is recycle a few memories and one or two observations.

Kevin Pound, like my father, taught at Ruapehu College in Ohakune in the 1950s. I’m not entirely sure but I think he may have been an English teacher; in later years he taught drama at Auckland Teachers College. I remember him only dimly: a portly, emphatic man with his small round wife beside him. She, Hilary, was, I think, or became, an oral historian. They lived up on Old Station Road and their children went to the Convent, as all the local Catholic kids did, so I didn’t know them from Primary School; but sometimes on weekends there were family visits. I remember an abrasive child, with many brothers. My sisters feared those knobbly boys with their rough ways; particularly, they said, Francis, because he was cruel to them: hair pulling, perhaps, or pinching. He was a figure of some repute, even then. But there is also the extreme Catholic-Protestant antagonism of that time and place to factor in. It might be pertinent to recall that Ohakune Maori were mostly (if they had been converted) Catholic. They had been evangelised by the French.

Later the Pounds moved to Hamilton, where Kevin taught at Fairfield College and Francis went to Hamilton Boys High School. There, in 1964, a famous Hamlet was staged. Cinematographer Leon Narbey was the ghost of Hamlet’s father; Derek Gordon was Hamlet; Alan Brunton, the Player King; Chris Thompson, the folksinger from hell, a gravedigger; and Francis played Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. He caused controversy by pinning up on a wall somewhere in the school a cartoon of boys going through their education as through a sausage machine and almost lost his part in the production; until the Director advised the Headmaster that, without Francis’ Gertrude, there could be no play.

Of course I didn’t find out any of this until much later, when I went up to Auckland in 1970 to go to university. Francis, who was four years older than I am, had lived in a famous flat in Parnell with Leon Narbey, and with Philip Dadson downstairs. I knew Phil from the Scratch Orchestra, which I joined in 1971 or 2; I would later write films with Leon. Francis was in those days a painter and he is said to have lived for a time in an entirely black room: walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, fabrics, accoutrements. Black paintings. But when I asked Leon about this, he didn’t remember. It might have been one of those rumours that thrive in an oral culture and are inflated, by degrees, as they are given on from mouth to ear.

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I didn’t get to know Francis until, in mid-1972, I moved into a room in the house at 56 Grafton Road, Grafton, where he lived with his then girlfriend, Sue Reid—and various others. Camilla During, now Camilla Dadson, lived downstairs. So did a fellow called Peter Bradley, who was reclusive and more or less silent and who had, in his room, a wardrobe at the top of which a knot of possums slept curled up together during the day. At night they went out to sport in the trees that ran down the back of the garden towards the Auckland Domain.

There were others who may not have been resident but were often there. Ivan Hurrell, for instance, a poet who claimed to have written The Waste Land of the 21st century and his improbable girlfriend, Betty-Anne, who had cascades a red-gold hair and looked like a country music singer; whereas Ivan was small and dark, with a soul patch and a mean streak. Ivan went to England to present himself there as the saviour of poetry; years later I saw a disparaging mention of him in the literary pages of a London paper.

There was another fellow, Maori Keith, who often showed up at night and slept on the window seat in the main room; he would lie awake with a match in one hand and the match-box in the other, waiting for the mosquitoes to zoom in; if he got it right, and sometimes he did, the flare of the struck match incinerated their wings. If he didn’t, he would curse softly. And take out another match. There was a woman too, whose name I can’t recall, as vagrant as Keith, who could, like him, always find a bed at #56. She and Ivan had some bent thing going on together.

Sue Reid was a sweet-natured, lissom and gentle woman with a fondness for straw hats and cotton print frocks that came down to mid-calf. She held informal Maori classes on a Tuesday night and that was how I first became acquainted with te reo. Her sister, Helen, lived in the country with an Englishman called Colin and they were frequent visitors. As were the painter and print-maker, Stanley Palmer, and his two children, Anna and Matthew. Stanley had lost his wife, to cancer I believe, and still seemed bereft. His children, and especially Anna, the elder, looked after him, making the simple practical decisions he could not seem to resolve—even though they were both pre-adolescent. Stanley was fond of Sue, and worried about her; Francis remained abrasive and unpredictable and had a way of channelling, or perhaps of attracting, violence.

There was, for instance, Harry Davis, a handsome Maori man engaged in the process of ruining himself with alcohol and drugs. He was an habitué of the Kiwi Hotel on Symonds Street where we all drank on a Friday night—and sometimes on other nights too. If Harry was there, and often he was, after a few drinks Francis would go up to him and begin to taunt him. Harry would look at him with relish, in gleeful anticipation of what was to come. I can’t recall the nature of Francis’ insults, only that they would always have the desired result. They would go outside to sort it out and there Francis, who didn’t know how to fight, would get his face smashed in. I remember him weeping on the footpath outside the bottle shop, with his glasses broken in his hands, while a group of men pulled Harry away.

This didn’t happen just once; it happened every time the two of them were in the bar together. I remember one night Sue, having seen that Harry was there, imploring Francis to go home; but he would not. It was a peculiar form of masochism, perhaps; or of courage. There was something in Harry that offended Francis; and something in Francis that Harry despised; and so it went. Francis was in fact enamoured of violence, as his later physical confrontation with rival critic Garth Cartwright showed; but he had no talent for it and thus it seemed his endeavours in that sphere were always surplus to requirements.

His violence showed itself in other ways. Once, for reasons I have forgotten or never knew, he left a dress of Sue’s laid out on their bed with a knife stabbed through the back; I still remember her tears. Another time, when I said I was leaving (to go to live in the country) and had bought a second hand table to write at, Francis chopped it up with an axe. It was an ugly table and I was pleased to see the end of it—especially since Stanley Palmer had, out of the goodness of his heart, already given me another, a very beautiful kauri table at which I wrote for many years. Francis’ violence was somehow, as I have said, masochistic; it was theatrical and hysterical and aimed as much at himself as at others. I was never afraid of him.

It was somehow connected to his art. In the time I knew him well, in 1972 and 3, he was still painting. They were geometric abstractions based upon cloud forms, in blue and white and gold; but they also had to do with Piero della Francesca and in particular with his Baptism of Christ from, probably, 1460. Light falls refulgent from the sky in which clouds appear; the dove above the Christ figure’s head itself resembles a cloud; and Francis’ paintings remembered both clouds and doves and, inter alia, the pure grace which may descend upon us from above. I wouldn’t say he struggled with these paintings; but they never satisfied him. And the violence to which he was prone seemed to have something to do with that dissatisfaction—which is probably too pale a word. It was more like the rage we feel when we cannot make the world go the way we want it to.

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I remember Francis talking about Piero della Francesco better than I remember the paintings he derived from his study of the master. He was the first truly committed intellectual I met—for him ideas were tangible, contestable and of supreme importance. And he was powerfully well-read too. His other enthusiasm at the time was for the American poet, his namesake, Ezra Pound, whom I was also reading. I remember Francis, who was in the habit of walking around the house wearing just a T shirt, with his uncircumcised penis pointing out in front of him as he discoursed upon the beauties of The Pisan Cantos. He was, in that sense, utterly unselfconscious.

He must have stopped painting soon after those years had passed; but his enthusiasm and energy and commitment to ideas remained and he applied them, with rigour and purpose, to the study of New Zealand art history in a way that, as he boasted in the 1980s, would change that history forever. I benefited enormously from the conversations (they were mostly monologues) I had with him. His opinions were startlingly vehement and he could back them up, too. Sometimes I’d feel challenged, even upset, by things he said; and then I’d look at him and see, behind his glasses, his eyes, owlish, with a kindly twinkle in them. He used to say to me: Stern young man! Stern young man! at a time when I was certainly young but unaware of anything so exalted as sternness in my character. It’s funny how these things go; Francis freed me in a number of ways, purely by example, I suppose.

So I did move out in February or March but, near the end of that year, 1973, after a disastrous spell in the country, moved back in again. This time I lived downstairs, in Camilla’s old room—beautiful, with sliding doors out onto a deck which was itself amidst the branches of trees. Alas, I was all messed up, with booze and drugs and a crippling insecurity and I remember very little about the time I spent there then. Before too long I left again, this time for Wellington, where I found, serendipitously, the trajectory I am still on. But that’s another story.

My encounters with Francis in later life were random and infrequent. I remember bumping into him in Cuba Street in Wellington one day in the 1980s, when I was over from Sydney and he down from Auckland. We spent the afternoon drinking beer in one of those sparse and brutal public bars that seem to have disappeared from the world now. You would always end up with strangers at your table; I remember a Maori fellow we met, the master of an arcane martial art, showing me how he could, if he wished, kill me merely by applying pressure to a spot on my neck; while Francis laughed his wheezy laugh across the table. Harry Davis was dead by then.

I think we were both finalists at the Montana Book Awards in Christchurch in 2000. I for The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, he for his Stories We Tell Ourselves : The Paintings of Richard Killeen. Someone afterwards said to me that Francis was gutted that he didn’t win; I felt the same way (we were in different categories); but I don’t recall commiserating with him. I was in Auckland for the best part of a year in 2004 and while there went along to the opening of Walters en abyme, the exhibition Francis curated at the Gus Fisher Gallery. I bought a copy of the elegant hardback which accompanied the show and find that, on the flyleaf, he has written, in his sparse hand: From Francis to Martin.

I have a favourite passage in Walters en abyme: I remember the day I discovered infinity. I was a child, perhaps seven years old, in Ohakune, when I happened to glance up at a billboard for Bycrofts’ biscuits. It showed a giant and maniacally grinning boy holding a tin by Bycrofts, on which tin was pictured the same boy, identical down to each crease in his shirt and shorts, holding a tin of Bycrofts’ biscuits, on which tin . . . I experienced an instant vertigo: I felt, instinctively, that this was a dangerous and hardly bearable sight. Francis would, for the rest of his life, confront the dangerous and the hardly bearable, mainly in the visual arts and in the world of ideas.

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Francis was a fine writer, erudite, witty, zealous and surprising. He had a way of discovering, and emphasising, points of view no-one else had thought to articulate before. He was fearless and one who went into things in alarming depth, finding more and more to say about subjects others might pass over in silence or with a cursory sentence or two. This is probably why his magnum opus, also on Gordon Walters, has not yet appeared. Let us hope it is in a form that may yet be edited for publication.

I visited him, in the company of a mutual friend, one day in 2004 at his house in Picton Street. Francis wasn’t well. He was sitting in the sunroom with a rug around his knees; the formerly degenerate, now gentrified, streets and houses of Freemans Bay fell away towards the sea below us. Despite his illness (was it his liver?) the energy and fierceness of his intellect, the vehemence of his conversation, the range and depth of his reference, were undiminished. I remember telling him I had had a falling out with Julian Dashper—an artist whose work he admired—and Francis declining to comment. We mostly talk to each other about our wives, he said. There was a kindness in him that grew with the years, and that’s what I remember best about him.

I learned that Francis had gone from an oblique post by David Eggleton on his Facebook page. I think it is worth quoting at length. It’s Francis writing about Ralph Hotere in the Listener in 2013:

When I think of Hotere, I think first of his voice, to my mind the most beautiful of all speaking voices. It has always seemed to me more beautiful even than the Irish voice of Patrick Magee uttering Samuel Beckett’s late texts—his sparest, bleakest and most liable to induce in the reader a sudden flood of unexpected tears—and more beautiful even than the well-schooled, perfectly modulated instruments of the great actors of the English stage. I do not mean Hotere’s voice was in any way ‘posh’. It seemed to me it was the New Zealand voice brought—quite unconsciously—to perfection. I will not attempt to describe it, but certainly the Maori rhythm and vowels of its English enriched it, and many years of inhaling the smoke of roll-your-owns, and exhaling that smoke as spectral sculptures in the turning air. It was this long-held feeling for Hotere’s voice that made me suggest he should be asked if he would sing the waiata Te Tangi o te Pipiwhararua (Song of the Shining Cuckoo) for the documentary film on Colin McCahon, Victory Over Death. Hotere had learned that lament from his father, and had given its words to McCahon to inscribe on a fine painting of the same name. The lament tells of the soul of one recently dead, which, in the form of a shining cuckoo, is in arduous flight along Ninety Mile Beach towards the place of the leap of the dead from the cliffs of Te Reinga. Hotere kindly accepted this task. He intones his lament as the camera floats along the emptiness of Ninety Mile Beach in ineffable light. The affect is almost unbearably moving. This has always been my favourite moment in the film, perhaps in any film.

This is from some kind of obituary for Ralph; it is appropriate that it appears here, in some kind of obituary for Francis. I think you may hear in those words Francis’ generosity, his insight, his understanding, particularly his visual understanding, his extreme emotional reactivity and, yes, his kindness, too; which was based, in the end, upon his own experiences of suffering and joy; out of which, in exemplary fashion, he was able to empathise with the joys and the sufferings of others.

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Weekend at Maroochydore

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for Margaret and John Kilpatrick

As the plane flew north up the western coast of Bribie Island I saw beneath us a lake shaped like a raptor. A velociraptor, to be precise. It seemed improbable, yet uncannily exact, and I gave myself a crick in the neck watching it recede way down below. More sand islands loomed up, one so fantastically blue and green, as if whipped out of whirls of cloud cream, that I could not rightly say what was land, what sea and what something else, birthed out a J G Ballard novel: The Drowned World perhaps. The black dot of a motor boat left a tiny arrow of white in its wake as it made its way up one of the aqua channels bisecting the next island, probably Thooloora, north of Donnybrook. I remembered my friend who, as an adolescent, happened to stray into Ian Fairweather’s camp on Bribie Island and was chased away when the painter came, brushes in hand, roaring out of his studio. We are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, Ballard wrote, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. And it was over that great sea, or rather a tributary of it, that our plane glided down until, at the very last moment, the tarmac at Maroochydore Airport rose up bumpily to meet us. I had not been to the Sunshine Coast, so-called, before: there was a storm swirling clockwise to the east, forty knot winds blowing in across the land, grey mists of rain over Coolum Beach as we drove through on our way inland to Yandina for lunch at the pub. It was a family reunion. But not my family. They were Irish and Scots who came here from Belfast or from the Low or High lands to get timber—cedar, beech and bunya pine—and then to grow sugar cane or arrowroot, ginger or macadamia nuts, run beef or dairy cattle on the cleared land. There’s a cheese factory. When gold was found at Gympie, to the north, the Cobb & Co. stage coach route ran through here too. My remote connection is with the Irish end of this Irish-Scots match; and there they were in the Yandina Hotel, with their bulbous noses and canny eyes, their talk of horses and of luck, their kindliness and their scepticism, their love of a drink and a yarn. Lock up your daughters, one of them said, was a literal instruction issued, and observed, when the Hall boys came to town. After the session we went up to the local graveyard and there, shading the last resting spot of a scion of the Campbell clan, was a hundred year old gardenia, twiggy and gaunt and yet still putting out the ruffled white flowers with their sweet nostalgic scent lying upon the rainy afternoon air. On the hill behind the graveyard is the ancestral family home of the Lows, Koongalba, a big old wooden house with an iron roof, spacious verandas, lovely gardens, rope swings hanging from the trees and kids running about everywhere. It was jacaranda time so the mazy purple flowers drifted down and carpeted the ground. The local historian’s name is Audienne Blyth and she greeted us bright-eyed at the door and said Come in, come in! Koongalba, place of clean waters, is the original name of Yandina; it’s in Wharf Road, so-called because in the early days timber was floated down the Maroochy River to the sea. I was amazed to learn, talking out on the veranda to one of the daughters, who was gathering up her kids to drive them back to Toowoomba before the rain really started to come down, that these are the same Blyths who helped settle my own home town of Ohakune away across the sea. Joe Blyth was (1908-1940) headmaster at Ruapehu District High School, later Ruapehu College, where my Dad taught in the 1950s; Joe ascended the mountain, it was said, 147 times before his demise. Audienne’s husband is Jim Blyth, son of Jack, son of Joe. He had large teeth and a shy manner. Proud, though, too. We stood in the darkened hallway of the house, surrounded by colonial ghosts, contemplating this mystery. The Blyth family held a reunion, over 150 of them, in ‘Kune last year, around about the same time as I attended the inaugural, perhaps unique, Ruapehu Writers Festival there. Then it was back down to the flatlands, driving through low swampy fields surrounding, like moats, isolate bush-covered volcanic cones called collectively (by James Cook) the Glasshouse Mountains. Occasionally I saw a remnant pine, Araucaria bidwillii, of which more later. At Coluum we checked into the hotel and then went round the road for dinner in the Bowlo, where another Ian told me that a/ Koongalba stands on the site of an ancient bora ground; and b/ that he is a tribal King, and owns a breastplate, which he inherited from his grandmother, Christina, after she had done an unspecified someone an undescribed act of kindness. It’s worth about $200,000, he said, touching his chest, as if he might have had it on under his blue nylon shirt. The Aborigines know I’ve got it. I have to decide what to do with it after I die. Ian is 77 years old, unmarried, childless, reputedly wealthy, garrulous and unregenerate, kindly, roguish, essentially unknowable. He was never without a drink in his hand. Every step of the way, Audienne said, the treatment of Aborigines was a mistakeWe should have known better. We knew how this worked in other places. The bunya trees were chopped down—Maleny (south west of Yandina) was where the original bunya festival was—and so many caught white people’s diseases. She doesn’t say this, but there were also mass poisonings, when offerings of food laced with arsenic were left out as gifts. Later we pass a turn-off to a place called Murdering Creek. When the cones on the Araucaria ripened, at anything from an eighteen month to a three year interval, local Waka Waka sent out messages of invitation to people hundreds of miles away. It was indigenous Australia’s largest event. Thousands came and stayed for months, feasting on the bunya nut. The gatherings, which were also an armistice, included ceremonies, dispute settlements, marriages and the trading of goods. Some tribes would not camp amongst the trees; some said a bunya was never to be cut down. An early missionary attempt at an interdiction upon their felling, and the establishment of a native kingdom, failed around 1860. That’s when the clearances, the poisonings and the sequestering of survivors upon reserves, began in earnest. Coastal people were the Gubbi Gubbi, their inland neighbours, the Waka Waka. The basic distinction between the two language groups was the word they used to say ‘no’. Waka Waka were the No No people. They had the bunya. Next morning, early, a friend rang from Sydney to say that Legend Press has finally returned copyright in Albert Namatjira’s paintings to his family, where it belongs. More than half a century too late, but still. Better late than never. I did not have time to contemplate the tiny part my own efforts might have played towards the attaining of this goal. I had to read the final proofs of The Expatriates. The publishers were going to print on Monday. They were awaiting the last outstanding permission, from a librarian on Rhode Island, the great-grand-daughter of a Russian aristocrat who had written a biography of her husband, a New Zealander with astonishing linguistic abilities. It bucketed down, on and off, all day long as I read. 100,000 words or more. I found sixteen (16) errors. The roar of the rain mixed in with the roar of history. There were two Norfolk pines framed in the window, denuded of a plentiful growth of foliage by the incessant sea spray. Bony as a bunya. Next morning I went down early to the beach for a swim. The wind was still blowing from the south-east but it wasn’t raining yet. An endless ochre strand, a warm and choppy sea, a rip it wouldn’t do to ignore. A uniformed surf life saver was slowly rocking, with his foot, the iron spike of a flag pole down into the muscular sand. Four girls in bikinis giggled past me as I came out of the water. One was as comprehensively freckled as the heroine of Eucalyptus, the Murray Bail book. Even her eyelids had freckles upon them. From the boardwalk I could see pandanus and boronia, sheoak and bright yellow daisies. The pandanus fruit as full and fecund as I imagine bunya pine cones to have been; but nobody eats the almond-flavoured pandanus nuts anymore; they’re too hard to get at. The aerial roots clustered round their trunks like fat straws. I have always loved beaches in the rain. The culmination of the weekend, that day, Sunday, was a barbecue at Ken’s place in Noosaville; but before we went out there we visited Keith’s to see the Boer War and Great War medals of the progenitor of the line, J D: there are four and some mystery attends them. I think we solved it but forget the details now; yet I recall the severe profiles of the monarchs on their backs: Victoria, Edward VII, George V. Those Australians who served in the mounted regiments took their own horses with them to war but none of them ever came back. Except one, belonging to a commanding officer. They shoot horses, don’t they, I thought, irrelevantly. Or not. At Noosaville a couple of dozen people gathered under an architectural canopy next to a magnificent stand of paperbark trees. The rain continued to sigh down, to sigh and to roar. A contingent of Fijians joined the Scots-Irish or Irish-Scots or Celtic Australian or Aboriginal or whatever they are to be called. Queenslanders. In the laughter of beautiful children it seemed we might indeed be able to begin again, somehow, after the drowned world has finished with its drowning. Or not. On the way to the airport, later on that afternoon, in the pelting rain I saw, before a bank of green-grey mangroves, black swans in a lagoon, dipping their bright bills into the silvery water. Maroochydore, I  learned, comes from the Yuggera word Muru-kutchi, meaning red-bill; such as the swan does have. They are common around here. The black swan of trespass on alienated waters. Robber of dead men’s dreams. It took ages for the incoming plane to land and then, cowled in slumberous heavy air, we boarded through the dense warm slanting rain. Arriving in Sydney I felt I had indeed been plunged back into the archaeopsychic past. Something I did not suspect a weekend in south-east Queensland might do for you. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom. It is still raining up there as I write, floods inundating the land, drowning it beneath a fresh or salty deluge. And yet I know that once the storm is over it will emerge again pristine, newly washed, paradisial, with a rainbow arching from Coolum Mountain to the coast. Or not. And our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. Yes.

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