Commentaries - May 2012
Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman, “Memorial Day” (26:33): MP3
Today at PennSound we’re marking the Memorial Day holiday in a distinctly poetic way, by unveiling a long lost recording of Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman’s “Memorial Day” from a May 5, 1971 reading at the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project.
This new addition to the PennSound archives is notable not only because “Memorial Day” is a landmark collaboration between two of the New York School’s finest poets, but also due to the rarity of the recording. Berrigan and Waldman only read the poem together and in its entirety once — in fact, “Memorial Day” was composed specifically for their joint reading in the spring of 1971 — and while the event was recorded, it would seem that the tape had been missing for several decades, presumably lost forever.
Everyone seems to agree that Berrigan had obtained a recording of the reading from the Poetry Project, with most believing that that he’d stolen the sole master copy from the archives. Alice Notley observes, in the notes to The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, that he “listened to it obsessively … continu[ing] to learn from this collaboration for many years.” Ron Padgett picks up the story in his 1993 book, Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan:
Ted built up quite a personal collection of audiocassettes of poetry readings by himself and by poets he liked. He kept them in a typewriter case in the living room at 101 Saint Mark’s Place, the same room he wrote in. One morning not long before his death, someone came in through the fire escape window, picked up the case, and walked past the sleeping Ted and Alice and out the door. My heart curls up every time I imagine the thief dumping all those cassettes in a trash basket somewhere.
Were there other tapes? Ostensibly yes, but they’ve never emerged. In correspondence over the years, I’ve learned that neither Notley nor Padgett had copies and that the recording was missing from the Poetry Project archives. Anne Waldman reports that she once had “a recording of a recording of a recording” made by Clark Coolidge but that it’s either in her archives at the University of Michigan or otherwise lost. A five-minute excerpt from the reading (half of which is the authors’ very entertaining opening banter) appeared on her 2001 CD Alchemical Energy — Selected Songs and Writings and was a very early addition to PennSound’s archives (uploaded in March 2004), and its clipped voices and relatively poor quality attest to the effects of multiple generations of reproductions. In spite of its incompleteness and low fidelity, the recording is a touchstone for fans of the two poets — I see, for example that Jed Birmingham and Kyle Schlesinger have linked to the recording on the Mimeo Mimeo blog today — and it’s exactly for these reasons that this new, complete and much cleaner tape is worthy of celebration.
We have Robert Creeley to thank for the version we’re releasing today, as it was discovered among his massive collection of reel-to-reel tapes that Pen and Will Creeley were kind enough to donate to PennSound for digitization. Over the past few years, we’ve shared many incredible and often one-of-a-kind recordings from Creeley’s archives, the size and breadth of which attest to his tireless love of poetry, and within this body of more than one hundred tapes, “Memorial Day” opted to remain mysterious and hidden until the very end. Somewhere along the line the reel had gotten separated from its proper case, and it was only uncovered in the final batch of sundry tapes we processed. Knowing full well about this recording’s somewhat mythical status (I wrote about Berrigan’s stolen tapes in a 2009 essay on his 1979 collaboration with Harris Schiff, Yo-Yo’s with Money) I will own up to both teary eyes and a jittery burst of adrenaline when I recognized the familiar voices while listening through the otherwise unmarked file. Today, thanks to the gracious permission of both Alice Notley and Anne Waldman, I have the great pleasure of sharing that experience with you.
. . .
Questions of rarity notwithstanding, “Memorial Day” is a breathtaking poem that shows both Berrigan and Waldman at the very height of their early, New York School-inspired styles, which were ripe for evolution. The poem’s community focus, collaborative nature and performative aims are all quite evident here — at least a dozen of their friends and compatriots are mentioned and older pieces from both Berrigan (The Sonnets’“XXXVII” and lines from “Things to Do in Providence”) and Notley (sonnet “22” from 165 Meeting House Lane) are folded into the composition — and according to Notley, one of the poets’ key goals in writing “Memorial Day” was “to include other voices” (685). We also see this in the appropriation of rock lyrics from a variety of sources including the Byrds’ “Draft Morning,” the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Talking Casey” among others (Waldman’s refrain of “let it down / let it down on me,” for example, might originate in George Harrison’s “Let it Down” or the McCoy’s “Hang on Sloopy”) and these pop culture citations are very nicely complemented here by the poets each singing one section of “Memorial Day” (a pre-arranged constraint), with Waldman joining Berrigan in heartbreaking harmony on the repeated entreaty, “Oh Lord, / have mercy.”
Fittingly enough, “Memorial Day” is largely a meditation on death: its inevitability, its effects on those who survive, and the need to carry on with the weight of this knowledge. “The angels that surround me / die // they kiss death / & they die // they always die,” Berrigan observes in the poem’s opening lines, and Waldman counters, “they speak to us / with sealed lips / information operating / at the speed of light … we speak all the time / in the present tense at the speed of Life” (289). Five years after his tragic Fire Island accident, Frank O’Hara’s absence still looms large in the New York scene and it’s he who most actively haunts “Memorial Day” — Berrigan recalls first meeting him at the Met and visiting his grave, while Waldman mourns the recent death of her cat, a direct descendant of O’Hara’s. Other deaths and near-deaths serve as emotional anchors within the poem as well, most notably the war wounds and eventual passing of Guillaume Apollinaire (whose grave Berrigan also visits), along with the tale of Tuli Kupferberg’s unsuccessful suicide attempt made famous in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
As is the case in readings of Ginsberg’s masterpiece, Berrigan’s retelling of Kupferberg’s non-plussed reaction to his non-death is one of the poem’s best laugh lines, and throughout “Memorial Day,” we see the gravid inescapability of death tempered with humor. When asked for his thoughts on death, Joe Brainard observes with Warholian aplomb that “Well, / you always get / lots of flowers / when you die” (302). Bernadette Mayer, who “had to arrange her mother’s funeral age 15,” and whose subsequent loss of her father and other family members in her earliest years led her to believe that “that’s what people do” offers Waldman a tongue-tripping list of dozens of causes of death for inclusion in the poem: “tuberculosis, syphilis, dysentery, scarlet fever and streptococcal sore throat, diptheria, whooping cough, meningococcal infections, acute poliomyelitis, measles, malignant neoplasms . . .” (301-302). Of course, it’s Berrigan who provides the most memorable line when, thinking of O’Hara’s epitaph, “grace to be born and live as variously as possible,” tells us:
I told Ron Padgett that I’d like to have
nice to see you
engraved on my tombstone.
Ron said he thought he’d like to have
out to lunch
on his (299).
More than forty years later, the poignancy of “Memorial Day” is greatly amplified by all those celebrated in the poem who are now gone, including Kupferberg, Brainard, Joe LeSueur, Edwin Denby, Jim Brodey, William Saroyan, Ray Bremser, and even Bette Davis. Of course, no absence is more acutely felt than that of Berrigan himself, who succumbed to complications of cirrhosis on another uniquely American holiday, July 4, 1983, and was (due to his service in Korea) given a military burial in Long Island’s Calverton National Cemetery. Immediately preceding “Memorial Day”’s stunning final litany of closures, there’s a wonderful exchange between the poets that seems even more fitting in retrospect. Berrigan confesses:
I am the man who couldn’t kiss his mother
But I could leave.
& so I left.
& now, on visits, we kiss
& I have no other thoughts about it, Memorial Day (310).
to which Waldman offers a benediction:
O you who are dead, we rant at the sky
but pain in the heart
& a head that don’t understand
the meaning of “heart” or “have heart”
She is walking away with herself
away from despair
she’s that lucky girl!
Who’s keeping me alive
I praise the lord for every day you & you & you & you & you
& you & you & you
Brothers & Sisters
You are with me on Sweet Remembrance Day (310-311).
Those of us alive to relish this new recording have the privilege of joining Waldman in a new “Sweet Remembrance Day,” connected to all of those we’ve loved and lost, as well as those who survive to carry on their memories.
4. It bears mentioning that despite Ginsberg and Berrigan’s perpetuation of this poetic urban myth, Kupferberg was seriously injured by his jump off the Manhattan Bridge and took great pains to ensure that other wouldn’t follow in his steps.
A counter-economy of publishing in the era of budget-cuts
A few years ago I was teaching a class on poetry and politics when my students got angry with me. I had just laughed at their stated ambition to make money writing poetry. My laughter, they informed me — in no uncertain terms — meant that I did not take them or their work seriously. That day’s lesson plan fell aside as I told them about the (im)balance sheet of Tinfish Press, about doing one’s life’s work while losing buckets of money at it. And, hardest of all to fathom, why such a thing might be worthwhile.
One summer I talked my way onto a panel at the Hawai`i Book and Music Festival in Honolulu. I was under a tent, up on stage with some other publishers, one of whom began talking about how he’d done a print run of 60,000 books. I heard myself responding that at Tinfish we do print runs of 100 to 300 chapbooks and consider that what we’re doing is pretty important.
The new president of the University of Missouri, Timothy Wolfe, is a businessman by trade (though his parents were college professors, which surely qualifies him for something). Recently, he made one of his first decisions. He is closing the University of Missouri Press. On firing ten employees, who had heard nothing of it beforehand, President Wolfe was quoted as saying that administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.” Look at the university’s website, and you’ll find a clear statement: “Our distinct mission, as Missouri’s only state-supported member of the Association of American Universities, is to provide all Missourians the benefits of a world-class research university. We are stewards and builders of a priceless state resource, a unique physical infrastructure and scholarly environment in which our tightly interlocked missions of teaching, research, service and economic development work together on behalf of all citizens. Students work side by side with some of the world’s best faculty to advance the arts and humanities, the sciences, and the professions. Scholarship and teaching are daily driven by a sense of public service — the obligation to produce and disseminate knowledge that will improve the quality of life in the state, the nation and the world."
So the “stewards and builders of a priceless state resource” seem to think that a university press is not so much priceless as pricey. The state of Missouri, whose statewide university budget amounts to $2.5 billion a year, has funded the press to the tune of $400,000 each year or, as one commentator writes, at the cost of two of the system’s eight vice presidents. There’s no talk of cutting the athletic department, which costs the school just as much to fund, let alone the administrative upper-crust. What are academic and general readers losing in this erasure of a press that was founded in 1958? The press’s mission statement begins with a list of areas in which they have published widely: “The University of Missouri Press was founded in 1958 by William Peden, writer and dedicated member of Missouri’s English Department faculty. The press publishes in many areas including, American and World History; Intellectual History; Biography; Journalism; African American Studies; Women’s Studies; American, British, and Latin American Literary Criticism; Journalism; Political Science, particularly Philosophy and Ethics; Regional Studies of the American Heartland; and Creative Nonfiction.” A more succinct statement of the press’s importance came on my facebook page from Kathy Lou Schultz, who noted that the University of Missouri Press was the only press to take Melvin Tolson seriously for many years. They also published Langston Hughes’s collected works. To say nothing of a significant biography of Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals’ great, in the context of the racial and economic history of his time.
Small poetry presses such as Tinfish, and university presses such as the late one in Missouri, or the still-respirating University of Hawai`i Press, fulfill different needs, of course. But neither makes money. When Tom Apple was named the new Chancellor of the University of Hawai`i-Manoa, the head of the Board of Regents, Eric Martinson, explained the significance of his hire in these terms: “The University of Hawai’i at Mānoa is our flagship campus and home to our important research enterprises, which will continue to grow in the coming years. An institution with such a critical role to play in Hawai’i’s economy must have its own leader dedicated to charting progress for the school itself while contributing to the overall strength of the entire system. We are confident Dr. Apple will be that leader.” For “progress” read “profit” (or at least “revenue"), and for “Hawai`i’s economy” read . . . well . . . “Hawai`i’s economy.” This is not cultural capital we’re talking about; it’s financial capital. I’ve heard only good hearsay about Chancellor Apple, but what I’m pointing to has very little to do with him; it has to do with the environment within which university faculties and their ever more significant (and numerous) administrative personnel operate. Marc Bosquet has written a valuable book on the subject, as has Benjamin Ginsberg.
How do we argue against these losses? Aye, there’s the rub. If the lexicons of “progress” and even of “research” are increasingly composed in the language of finance, how to un-define these terms in ways that ordinary taxpayers can grasp? How do we intervene in the notion that, because communication is moving so quickly from books to digital technology, that somehow we don’t need presses? (The very word sounds more like “typewriter” than like “iPad.") Here, I refer to the Provost of the University of Missouri, who said: “Technological changes have turned media up on their head, and that’s turning scholarly communication on its head. It’s more than publishing a book; it’s a much broader change.” He’s skipping an enormous step between old style publishing and new-fangled communication. Why doesn’t the university then offer more funding to make such transitions successful, rather than putting the whole kit and kaboodle on the chopping block?
Let’s have a look at what the University of Hawai`i Press has to offer its readers by publishing and distributing books. As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I can attest to the significance of the University of Missouri Press’s biography of Stan Musial, but I’m on surer footing when I talk about the relevance of UH Press to the state I’ve lived in for over two decades. The 2011-2012 catalogue, which you can access here, includes no fewer than three books on Guam, two histories and a bibliography; several volumes on Buddhism, including one on the history of Buddhism in Cambodia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries; a book on literacies in Hmong communities in the United States; another on Percy Kipapa, whose short life took him from rural O`ahu to Japan, where he became a sumo wrestler, then back to O`ahu, where he was murdered. There is a history of the bombing of Bikini Atoll, a book on eating well, and another on art and authenticity in Hawai`i. Amid the riches much is left out, including most of the fiction and poetry being written in Hawai`i these days; those texts are left to presses like Bamboo Ridge, `oiwi, and others to publish. At first glance, the catalogue — like that of any university press — seems random, full of the very local and the very general, the nearly popular and the unconsumable.
But in sum (metaphor intended) the wide-ranging selection of work helps provide a backbone to classes taught at UHM and elsewhere. That’s where the University of Missouri’s deliberate disconnect between the university’s mission and that of the press seems so destructive. I publish books through Tinfish Press because I want to teach them, see a need for them. University presses do the same. Their books are used in classrooms. I can’t imagine teaching most of the poetry books I teach without using university press books as the backbone to my thinking about them. And the content of those books help us to read and to make more books — of poetry, of fiction, of fact. Of course, the lessons passed along are sometimes dangerous ones, about dangers to the environment, about colonial histories, about the drug wars. That may be an unstated purpose for closing presses down. But a lot of knowledge about Asia and the Pacific is new knowledge — at least for American readers — and that very newness makes it especially significant, especially fragile. Such new knowledge is crucial to understanding the new (or newly revived) literatures and oratures of Asia-Pacific, including nearly every book Tinfish has ever published.
Kenneth Goldsmith's seminar on writing about contemporary art
A 2008 publication, Cover without a Record, was created by students and faculty who were part of an experimental year-long seminar co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (CPCW) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) here at Penn. Cover without a Record works with — plays off, as it were — the then-current Christian Marclay exhibit at the ICA. In Marclay’s work, the artworks are based on the idea of and artifacts of sound, LPs, album covers, the shape of records, the material of cassette tape, etc. The students, many of them writers, and their teacher, Kenneth Goldsmith, created a catalogue-length response in this publication that transfers or extracts sound and/or sound-based art into language of some kind. So in Cover without a Record, whose jacket is white yet somewhat faintly embossed with concentric ridges in the shape and size of a 45 rpm single, includes the following, among others:
 a piece of writing that consists of descriptions of sounds in twenty-seven books extracted from their sources;
 sounds from various books extracted from their sources and rendered into concentric circles of text, mimicking a 45 rpm record -- thus a series of concrete poems;
 the titles of every track from The White Album removed from their corresponding song lyrics;
 a piece called Mobius Thunderclaps which is described by its creator, Steve McLaughlin, as follows: "When cut out, twisted, and joined at the ends, the shapes on the following pages form small Mobius strips. Each bears a looped version of one of James Joyce's thunderclaps: ten 100-letter words scattered through the novel Finnegan's Wake."
 sound effects extracted from a series of comic books, placed on top of musical staves;
 gunshot scenes from various films, transcribed and collaged into a unified screenplay;
The whole work can be found at writing.upenn.edu/ica/2008/.
Here is certainly the place (one of several) to thank the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, Rebecca Bushnell, and Penn’s provost at the time, Ron Daniels, for providing grants to enable this innovative year-long seminar to happen.
NOTE. The following offers a first look at what will be the fourth volume of Poems for the Millennium, the experimental anthology that Pierre Joris and I initiated in the mid-1990s as an attempt to lay out & map what I've more recently come to describe as a global or omnipoetics. With volume 4, Joris & Habib Tengour move the focus to a particular demographic & cultural area, exploring it over a 2000-year span & with a sense of the often unacknowledged diversities (both formal & cultural) that such a region & history contain. Their workings will otherwise speak for themselves. (J.R.)
Our working title for the anthology that will be published as The University of California Book of North African Literature, namely Diwan Ifrikiya, combined the well-known Arabic word for “a gathering, a collection or anthology” of poems, diwan, with one of the earliest names of (at least part of) the region covered, Ifrikiya, which is an Arabization of the Latin word “Africa” — & which the Romans took from the Egyptians who spoke of the land of the ifri,” referring to the original inhabitants of North Africa, the people the Romans called the Berbers, but who call themselves the Amazigh, & in whose language, Tamazight, the word “ifri” is found even today in tribal names such as the Beni Ifren.
The book is thus an anthology of the various & varied written & oral literatures of North Africa, the geographic region known as the Maghreb, and traditionally described as situated between the Siwa oasis to the East (in fact, inside the borders of Egypt) & the Atlantic ocean to the West, essentially spanning the modern nation states of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – as well as the desert space of the Sahara & Mauritania, to the great desert’s southwest. This reflects in effect the cultural area of the various Amazigh peoples, &, interestingly enough, also maps the area in terms of their basic food, namely the breadth & limits of the use of rolled barley & wheat flour, or couscous. More essentially, in terms of the quantity & importance of literary work, we further include the extremely rich & influential Arabo-Berber & Jewish literary culture of Al-Andalus, which flourished in Spain between the 9th & 15th centuries. This culture is intimately linked to North Africa throughout its historical existence, & even after its final disappearance as a cultural entity following the Spanish Reconquista, given that a great part of the Muslim & Jewish population fled towards the south, seeking refuge in North Africa.
The time span for Diwan Ifrikiya reaches from the earliest inscriptions found in the region – prehistoric rock drawings from the Tassili & Hoggar regions in the southern Sahara, & early Berber pictograms – to the work of the current generation of post-independence and diasporic writers. Such a time span takes in a range of diverse cultures including Amazigh, Phoenician, Jewish, Roman, Vandal, Arab, Ottoman & French constituents. The texts brought together belong to various literary genres: although concentrating on oral & written poetry & narratives, especially those which invent new or renew preexisting literary traditions, our gathering also draws on historical & geographical treatises, philosophical & esoteric traditions & genres, song lyrics, current prose experiments in the novel & short story, etc.
These texts are organized into five diwans in which the authors appear in chronological order, ranging from the early poetic inventions in al-Andalus in the 10th century to the first decade of our own century with work of young & emergent poets from the various Maghrebi countries. Reading through the Diwans, one can get a sense of temporal progression & thus of the changes brought by history. The first Diwan, subtitled “A Book of Inbetween,” starts with an early anonymous Muwashshaha — that lyrical poetic form invented in al-Andalus & moving Arabic poetry away from the imitation of classical qaçida models going back to pre-Islamic forms. In this invention of al-Andalus culture, by the way, lie also the roots of the European lyric poem we have historically often but wrongly situated in an autonomously created troubadour tradition.
As a foretaste of the anthology (which will be published in November 2012 by University of California Press as volume 4 of the Poems for the Millennium series), here is an extract by one of the early al-Andalus poets, Yusuf Ibn Harun al-Ramadi, and the commentary on his work:
HUGGING LETTERS & BEAUTY SPOTS
when you look at letters tracing a line
some are linked, others stand far apart
see how the former seem to be hugging
and the latter look like gap teeth in a mouth
— yet both are pearls extracted
by thought diving into a pulsing mind
black ink spots on the whiteness of the page:
beauty spots on the lover’s lustrous face
Many nights I spent with a glass of wine in my right hand
while my left kept squeezing a young budding breast
like an apple made from silver that was melted down
and then cooled in a perfectly round mould.
She put her palm on her cheek
and kept brooding though not upset
as if her fingers were hiding
a red rose with a lily
or as if her silver fingers
were encrusted with gold nails.
A swallow praised the Lord
in a gibberish that was well understood
with piercing shrieks that quickly resumed
just when you thought they’d come to an end
like a Qur’an reader who will lengthen a pause
to clearly mark it before he goes on.
O rose veiled with a natural blush of shyness
like the cheeks of a black-eyed beauty
we’re both strangers here –
you from Pechina, and me from Cordoba
we’ve met in the home of friends
known for their generous gifts
kissing you in front of them
is not a strange thing
as a stranger would kiss another stranger
when they meet far from home
Translated by Abdelfetah Chenni & P.J.
(1) One of the early great al-Andalus poets, al-Ramadi was a native of Cordoba the city where he spent most of his life, except for a short period of exile in Saragossa. Different sources set his death date at either 1013 or at 1022. There is no complete Diwan or collected poems, and of his other major work, The Book on Birds, written in prison, there only survives a section on falcon hunting. Though trained in the mashreqi (Eastern) tradition of writing, he worked in the contemporary andalusian Muwashshaha mode, into which he introduced several innovations.
(2) Writes his translator Abdelfetah Chenni: “Zooming in on calligraphic/poetic processes — cf. first poem above — or on subtly erotic physical features, or simply on the natural Andalusian landscape around him with its flowers, trees & birds, al-Ramadi, using all the artistic & linguistic resources of the al-Andalus tradition, captures (‘in short poems very much like Japanese haikus’) those superb instantaneous moments of pure beauty. Maybe most famous for the poems concerning the young girl Khalwa he saw only once & loved for the rest of his life (love at first sight immortalized by Ibn Hazm in The Neck-Ring of the Dove), he would later also immortalize his passion for a young Mozarab boy he calls Yahia — which makes his passionate/platonic love for Khalwa quite different from the Christianized platonic love of Dante for Beatrice. The last poem in our selection remembers an occasion when Al-Ramadi was the guest of his friend Bani al-Arqam in Wadi Ash, the Guadix of today. It was winter time yet he was offered roses brought from Bejana, the Pechina of today. But beyond these lyrical matters, Al-Ramadi was also the poet exiled & jailed for his political stance against the Umayyad caliph, & who died in utter poverty.”
In all of this, then, al-Ramadi is unquestionably the Andalusian poet par excellence!
A Conversation with Hone Tuwhare
“Could you let the cat in?”
I turned. The cat (large, handsome, grey and white), was standing stretched against the glass of the French door, meowing in protest at the cold grey rain bucketing down outside.
The year was 1998. Gregory O’Brien’s exhibition Black Windows: Ralph Hotere’s Work with New Zealand Poets was touring the country, so there were quite a few out-of-towners up in Auckland. Somehow I’d wangled the job of interviewing iconic Maori poet Hone Tuwhare for the Sunday Star-Times, and I was pretty nervous about it.
He was staying with his friend (and biographer) Janet Hunt in Grey Lynn, one of the posher Auckland suburbs. There’d been a bit of a contretemps when I arrived, as they took me for a photographer rather than the interviewer, but we soon sorted that out.
The first thing I’d noticed was that he wouldn’t really answer questions. I tried to ask him about the various paintings Hotere had based on his poems. ““Every time he’s used something of mine the poems were written first,” Hone replied. “What Ralph has done with them is up to him. I can’t explain it for you.”
He was also quite deaf, and seemed to use this as a shield against foolish inquisitiveness. I worked out pretty quickly that one had to follow where he wanted the conversation to go, and that could be anywhere. “He’s one of our most political painters. I’ve always respected him for that.” That’s about as much as he would say on the subject of Hotere.
As the soaking wet cat came bustling in, he bent to give it a brief cuddle in passing.
“Do you have a cat of your own?” I asked.
“No,” he observed regretfully. “I’m away too much. From Kaka Point. It’s on the coast, as far south as you can get and still be in Otago. I feed the neighbour’s cats and dogs, though.”
“You must be like an uncle to them.”
This appeared to tickle his fancy. “Yes,” he chuckled, “double rations all around when Uncle Hone gets back.”
After a bit, I took out some books to show him, and that seemed to work rather better. He signed my copy of Mihi, his selected poems (with Hotere illustrations), and talked and read out some of the poems: the one on fellow poet – and fellow communist – R. A. K. Mason, for instance. He was interested to hear that I lived in the same place, Mairangi Bay, where he’d so often gone to visit Mason.
When he heard about the pollution problems we’d been having there, though, he was shocked. “You have to do something about it,” he said. “You can’t allow that to go on.” He showed a touching faith in my ability to effect change. Or perhaps it was that he wasn’t prepared to allow any slackness when it came to such assaults on the integrity of the land. The title poem of his first collection, No Ordinary Sun (1964) is, after all, about a palm tree poisoned by Atomic testing.
He seemed happy to talk on and on, and I tried to tape it all with my little dictaphone. It wasn’t till after I got home that I realised that it had stopped working about five minutes into out conversation, so all of that priceless detail was lost. Never mind. I do sometimes regret some of the readings he did for me that afternoon, though. He seemed to love sounding out the words.
Hone, who died in 2008, was definitely a political poet – one of the most radical in our history, in fact. It’s hard to know how he got away with it at times. He did have a kind of cuddly teddy-bear persona as loveable Uncle Hone which certainly fooled many people. I suppose as time went on it became less of an act and more a genuine part of his personality.
As a lone Maori poet among so many Europeans, as the one genuine leftist among so many conservatives, he certainly had a complex and difficult path to tread. The traces of it are all through his poems, which operate almost like linguistic cross-sections from hieratic to colloquial. He moved like a master through all the registers of English, from local NZld to the cadences of the King James Bible.
He can’t really be fitted neatly into my schema of “State-of-the-Nation poems.” To be honest, I think he would have thought the whole notion a little bit suss. I would like to quote from one of his poems, though: the elegy he wrote for that true original and good friend, Ron Mason:
Time has pulled up a chair, dashed
a stinging litre from a jug of wine.
My memory is a sluggard.
I reject your death, but can’t dismiss it.
For it was never an occasion for woman
sobs and keenings: your stoic-heart
would not permit it. And that calcium-covered
pump had become a sudden roadblock bringing
heavy traffic to a tearing halt.
Your granite-words remain.
I guess one might apply the same phrases to Hone’s own legacy: his poems, which are perhaps slightly less “austere fare” than Mason’s, “but nonetheless adequate for the / honest sustenance they give.”
Ad Dorotheum: She and I together found the poem
you’d left for her behind a photograph.
Lest you be a dead man’s
Place a branch upon the
Nor allow your term of
To pass the fall of its
‘Bloody Ron, making up to me,’ she said, quickly.
Mason was a great Latinist, a profoundly learned man, who nevertheless worked most of his life as a labourer and landscape gardener – oh, and a radical unionist. Hone, too, was trained as a boiler-maker, and lived latterly between grants and residencies and jobs here and there up and down the country.
But Time impatient, creaks a chair. And from the
jug I pour sour wine to wash away the only land
I own, and that between the toes.
A red libation to your good memory, friend. There’s
work yet, for the living.
That “red libation” is exactly what it sounds. Mason visited China in the late 50s, and came back very impressed with what he’d seen. Hone, too, had pictures of Mao and Marx among the gallery of heroes on the wall of his little crib (South Island for “seaside cottage” – what we North Islanders would call a “bach”) at Kaka Point.
I think the real resonance of the poem lies in that last line and a half, though. I can’t say that I’ve done much to improve the pollution levels on Mairangi Bay beach (though it has got a bit better in the last ten years, I’m pleased to say). I still think about Hone every time I walk down there, though. “There’s work yet, for the living.”
As I left him that day, at the end of our long conversation, he pressed a bottle of wine on me. “For aroha,” he said. “A koha.”
The Maori word aroha translates as love, or amity; a koha is a gift, or an offering. He ended by asking me about my own writing, and told me I should send him my own first book of poems when it came out. I didn’t dare to, but wish now that I had.
I did send him my own gift a few weeks later, though, a copy of Mary Barnard’s version of Sappho, as he’d said he lacked a good translation of her poems. I met him in passing a couple of times after that (once when he was in Auckland for the launch of the CD of musical recordings of his poems), but we didn’t really have the chance to speak at any length.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that rainy morning in Grey Lynn, though, the cosy kitchen table piled with magazines and books, Hone reading us out our horoscopes, Janet making us cups of tea, the cat meowing to be picked up, and that wonderful rich voice. A koha, for aroha.