these are my eyes: Michele Leggott's poetry
With 'A Vida Portugeusa,' a new poem by Michele Leggott
The volume MIRABILE DICTU (2009) celebrates Michele Leggott’s tenure as inaugural Aotearoa-New Zealand poet laureate (2007–9) and marks an inflection point in her poetic career. In brief, the volume presents a world of adaptation: coming and going, joining and severing, isolation and community. While the poetic remake is remarkable — a major achievement — it also involves an intriguing, at times tricky, endeavor to reconcile the poet’s experience of being pulled in two directions: on the one hand toward deepening everyday personal intimacies and on the other toward the realization of a cherished creative communitarianism. This essay’s focus is the call to synchronicity in the face of these pulls.
such an engagement
We begin at Leggott’s return from Vancouver in 1985 with a PhD (the dissertation of which was subsequently published as Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers by John Hopkins University Press, 1989); the near onset of a debilitating eyesight condition; and a plan to renovate the Aotearoan literary dwelling house, especially for women’s poetry. Some twenty years later, the laureate’s tokotoko (“talking stick,” pictured) provides further support, conferring mana and the authority to speak in fronting an ongoing journey, something that no doubt continues following the poet’s recent retirement as professor of English at Auckland University.
Her ascent begins immediately. Leggott features in the anthology Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women (1988), with her poetic front room already aesthetically charged with snapshot flowers, carefully named and brightly colored:
bright clean particular
but nothing hard about it
just the way things go
wine-dark (there it is)
in a blue
prune plums bloom
blue in the leaves
plum under the blue
The formative period’s verse is visually precise, rhapsodic, and derivative enough stylistically to serve as due homage to modernists Zukofsky and Williams. By this time, Antic, the country’s first feminist literary theory magazine, and its immediate uber-male predecessors, the radical Parallax, And,and Splash, have largely run their course, and Leggott’s significant first appearances are in Dudding’s mainstream Islands, followed by Yellow Pencils and, also in 1988, her first book publication, Like This!
The next volume, Swimmers, dancers (1991), consolidates her early rise. Her poem “Oldest and Most Loyal American Friend” asks: “why are the roses (which aren’t / even here) suddenly twisting // into circles? Why are we drawn / to these figures.” Another poem reprises the title of her 456-page tome Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers:
in the style of leaves growing
towards the question just where do the roses swing
are they pink and blown and warm as sleep
at the gate where lavender works the bees all year round
or red and sweet as tea grown cool because everyone went to check
some story about the wind roses you already knew were lining the nest
with scent and bloom and two quarter-view profiles
flickering out of the frame
Another, “Merylyn or Tile Slide or Melete,” pleasingly stretches its page margins to the left and right. Before going on to consider the poet’s development of imaginatively vaster constellations, from the volume MIRABLE DICTU onward, we note that the formative work resonates with discrete sensuous details in which flowers and circles predominate (“rose” associations pervade the oeuvre).
find home / … dark / within daylight
the immaculate shape of things to come
a mystical etymology
the daughters of light, what are their qualities? […]
the unsapphirine unsilvered mirror of where I am
Through the 1990s, formal experimentation continues, including pictographs that take the shape of circles (see “Tigers” in swimmers, dancers) and pursed lips (DIA). as far as I can see includes an early instance of Leggott’s use of Steinian paragraphing in the sequence titled “a woman, a rose, and what has it to do with her or they with one another?” From this volume onward, the poet proclaims failing eyesight as the adopted poetic condition. Henceforth, a more deeply integrated inquiry evolves. The poetic gaze becomes fervently “Angelike,” and the scope of work extends into a celebration of a creative community in the form of an imaginal elect.
Mezzaluna: selected poems (2020) jumps us forward two decades and allows a retrospective tracking of the entire poetic trajectory. Initially published by Wesleyan University Press, then again locally, its dedication is to “those who travel light and lift darkness.” The experience represented encompasses acts of memory, and the former pithy versification gives way to protracted lyrical ruminations, frequently arranged in sequences that utilize longer lines or paragraph formats, akin to the admired Stein’s practice.
On the way through, there is much to encounter: historical associations serve as a means for glass-of-divination insights into what really matters. Leggott retraces the footsteps of family members past and present, introduces us to personal and artistic friends and associates, to literary tourism art history geography anthropology botany meteorology biography local landmarks flora and fauna, as well as conducting occasional forays into literary modernism. It’s an expansive, precisely delineated world. But beyond recalled familial and historical attributes (and of more particular interest to this essay) is the extent to which there is a fundamental realignment in personal and poetic identity — until the two merge. The facticity of the past, respected without compromise of verisimilitudinal rigor, serves as a springboard to transform facts into living relationships.
While movement toward the sought horizon of light is unswerving, an inflexion occurs whereby an increasingly restricted range of physical visibility necessitates — and spurs — a developing inner transformation, away from image-making based on visual quanta and toward image-making as constellational, rejuvenating. Visionary repossession, as reimagining, loosens the constraints of time and distance and promotes human renovation. For Leggott, memory empowers repeated incursions into the bleak but unavoidable desolation of Hades, recasting moments of despair into portals of light. This constitutes her mythos, a luminous rhapsody.
latus rectum: trajectories
MIRABILE DICTU heralds this act of ongoing retrieval. Commemorative, it subdues the previous inclination toward outright libidinal sensuousness while expanding the poetry’s geographical and thematic range. The miracle is that the loss of sight should lead not so much to a sustained introspective seeing (overt spirituality has little truck for Leggott) as in an enriched sight beyond a mere visual capacity. MIRABILE DICTU urges us to partake in associations rerealized, intimacies restored: “one thing leads to another / though the trail is not always / obvious.” Disparate events superpose in a way that facilitates a tunnel-holing between them (“visible invisible” [“work for the living,” 3]), just as sightlessness is able to drill through to serendipity. Even the fabled rose, brightly ornamental earlier, reappears in “the liberty of parrots” as past’s inshine: “Rosa rubiginosa / the sweet briar a bramble / dug up and replanted by historians” (35). The senses — now increased from five to six — are reified in a sensualized mindscape, whereby earthly existence is reclaimed in a kind of aesthetic synesthesia:
why are these details
compelling if not because
the gift [wild rose] moves between its preservers
who are also vulnerable
and parts of the same story (“the Darwin lecture,” 40)
In “teatro della limonaia,” world and art coincide as “parts of the same story” to form “the great work / of recombination” (42–43), whereby “the circle is not a zero,” as posited in the poem “il mantello / the cloak” (44). The equal sign presses both ways, with the result that “magic and tragedy / took the stage together” (“teatro della limonaia,” 43); where, more tellingly, personal heartbreak (the poetry hints at many instances) is greeted with the same graciousness as are everyday pleasantries. Nothingself-avails. The trick is transformation: ultimate configurative power resides in imaginal creativity, whether on an individual level or in confraternity with the like-minded.
Prior to the retinitis diagnosis, the eyes’ seeing held sway. One outcome — also a painful irony — is that the loss of sight is compensated for by the capacity to reconstruct seeing as reimagination. Literally, like unsighted Milton or Borges, or figuratively, like banished Ovid or Dante, being outcast provides a pretext for reconciling altered latitudes of vision. Leggott’s journeyings (up and down her own country, in Australia, North America, Italy, Portugal) are secular pilgrimages, accompanied by fellow-adherents, to visit blessed destinations, observing shared rituals. Obeisance as a feeling of palpable joy (the poet’s middle name) irrupts everywhere:
The library at Alexandria burns
but my heart is a pool where the white birds step
among incipient papyri.
To this point, my approach has been broadly explicatory. Now I wish to examine more closely the workings of what I have termed Leggott’s imaginal by focusing on Vanishing Points (2017), her most recent single volume — and to my mind her finest to date. The eight sections comprise distinct yet structurally interrelated poetic-biographical vignettes. For example, the second section, “Self-portrait: Still Life. A Family Story,” cites Elizabeth Eastmond’s essay on artworks by Francis Hodgkins, as well as an account written by Martin Edmond that tracks artist Colin McCahon’s conjectured movements across Sydney, as “starting points”: these two unrelated sources are actually used to explore “the conditions of family creativity” that include Leggott’s artist father and mother (the latter’s 1960s artworks are analyzed in substantial detail). The eighth and final section, “Figures in the Distance,” does something similar in another time-tunneling scene that incorporates prestigious modernists including Stein, Pound, and Williams as the poet’s extended family. As always, the research in evidence is meticulous, and the material world, and the language in which it is represented, are things regarded as wholly dependable, sacrosanct. As dark and topsy-turvy as the world remains, shared imaginal endeavor retains a capacity to keep righting it.
The opening sequence, “The Looking Glass,” set in the small Northland coastal township of Matapouri, makes this clear. Michele is visiting the property of close friends Susan and Leigh Davis, the latter suffering from advanced aphasia. “Radiance” is the distinguishing feature, resolutely grounded while seeping through the words:
in every part of the sky except the radiant
music in my heart
Leigh appears as “L” in (imagined) dialogue with “M,” or alternatively as his doppelganger “Macoute,” the name imprinted on the impressive flag that decorates the homestead (and an interesting variation on the “Willis coyote” self-characterization in his celebrated first book of poems, Willy’s Gazette, 1983). In contrast, the “Figures in the Distance” sequence sees Michele share a dance with a sprawling modernist crowd (this time in paragraph format):
Who are these like stars appearing? They are my cliffs and I am going home. Who are these of dazzling brightness? They are my people and I bring them with me.
One touching vignette in “Figures in the Distance” has Leggott’s beloved guide-dog Olive interrupt everybody in the middle of “the Modern Poetry class” when she starts to lap water from her bowl. In this consilient world, a spontaneous connection occurs with another famous writer, the priestess of modernist poetry Gertrude Stein, whose own dog Basket proved time and again a treasured companion:
This is as good as listening to her one-two-three one-two-three lapping at the water bowl, threes and fives, fives and threes, before I remember Gertrude Stein’s little dog and what listening to the rhythm of his water drinking taught her about the difference between sentences and paragraphs. That paragraphs are emotional and that sentences are not.
The lapping sound and vocal rhythm of the prose are synchronous with the sentiment articulated. In the following paragraph, we find corroborated what by now is well recognized as Leggott’s abiding vision:
Transforming consciousness, transforming art, transforming the image. The apparition of these faces in the crowd. Transforming language, transforming the self, transforming the city. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. Transforming myth
As I have emphasized, language serves for Leggott as a crucial instrument of reinstatement, providing a means to achieve relational depth and steadfastness of virtue. “The Looking Glass” — a surprising exclusion from Mezzaluna — is my personal favorite in its playful allusions. Employing wit, non sequitur, irresolution, gnomic utterance, the leader of the dance “starts around the ecliptic as they chant / in a ring”:
M: What was it teaching us?
M: Are you sure about that?
L: It could have been 2.30.
when the holes in the card line up
with constellations drawn by an unnamed lady
starlight falls precisely on human eyes
looking into Urania’s mirror.
As a way of seeing, the sequence gives fulsome tribute to a close friend and fellow poet. We observe moments of plain-spoken intimacy — surfacing, resubmerging — among other cryptic exchanges (reflecting Leigh’s aphasic condition). Simplicity and complexity merge in wairua, the Māori term for abiding spiritual accord:
raining in my heart ever since we’ve been
apart the parabola of his hands above his
open mouth and the shout of something that could be
joy or another outburst of pain.
This is Leggott at her finest: nuanced, warm, incisive. It also takes us, and Leggott herself, to the outer reach of her language use. Strangely, it reveals an element of jeopardy, in that it highlights an implacable allegiance to language as a trustworthy storehouse of meaningfulness. It is the modernist’s dilemma: how is such meaningfulness to be retained in the face of Leigh’s changed speech patterns? Is he saying something different in the very ambiguity of his words? How does language operate outside the norms of established convention?
Perhaps unwittingly, “The Looking Glass” reveals what’s at stake in Leggott’s valorizing poetics. Elsewhere, especially when there is less immediate interaction between persona and subject, the felt insistence on intrinsic value in the material can become wearying. This occurs in Heartland (2014), in the retracing of Lola Ridge’s footsteps through downtown Sydney, and in the recounted incidents involving family ancestors and World War I Europe. Similarly, the vivacious travelogues in journey to portugal (2007) and through MIRABILE DICTU’s Italy instill a feeling that something more is being asked of the contents than is actually present. Even in Vanishing Points, “The Fascicles” and “Emily and Her Sisters,” while beautifully constructed in their conflating of hereditary with artistic virtues, leave the reader wondering whether they are unwittingly being sewn into the same idealized family fabric.
The pulling in two directions I mentioned in opening relates to this valorizing strain. The lure of the light means that certain poetic and experiential elements are either relegated or entirely bypassed, within an enduring brightness. Despite life trauma bravely faced, both the poet’s and others’, the true-to-life persona deliberates nowhere long on gruesome details or human negativity, whether disillusion, disappointment, irritation, understandable exhaustion, or plain fury. Commendable in itself and something there is no wish to gainsay, the aligning of virtuosity with virtue does introduce some nonnegligible aesthetic risks. Deliberateness in composition tends to minimize or suppress nuances that are either unintended or may appear trivial, whimsical, or simply funny — anything, in the end, falling short of the elevated recommendation of best living to which the poetry bears witness. The downside is that tonal range and variousness in personae are inhibited. Perhaps this is why I like “The Looking Glass” so much — because there’s a captivating lack of resolution in the questioning and answering back.
“Figures in the Distance” provides, in this respect, an interesting blend of the pull between direct sympathetic encounter and idealized community. The Notes to Mezzaluna list twenty-seven modernist luminaries, “and anyone else I might have missed inadvertently.” Together, they form a visionary troupe that walks “towards a blackout that seems perpetually delayed.” Shifts in attention are navigated via use of the poet’s long-preferred direction-finding apparatus, “the compass rose with its thirty two points … going round in circles” — a beautiful structural conceit. Thirty-two well-contoured paragraphs, in contrast to the dissonance recorded in “The Looking Glass,” play to Leggott’s strength of pellucid woven configuration. The ostensible guide is Stein, although here, as elsewhere, it is really Pound with his lifelong campaign to secure poetry’s perpetual newsworthiness (“What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage”) who is the prevailing mentor. In fealty, we have Leggott’s “Rise up and play every day for the oral and intangible masterpieces of humanity” — and, again — “Transforming history, transforming America, transforming modernism.”
Stein is emulated or, in this instance, too closely echoed — but what shines through and matters more is Leggott’s limpidity of style:
A white rose. See. A white rose stencil. There. A white rose stencilled on asphalt. Marking. A white rose stencilled on the footpath. Dividing. A white rose stencilled on the footpath to show juncture. Or continuation.
Juncture. Or continuation? The latter is obliged to absorb the former, eliding the full stop that stands between them. The light shines through or encircles obstacles, eventually engulfing them. This is not to depreciate the light or Leggott’s sharing of it; rather, it concerns the legitimate purposes to which poetry is directed. We hover somewhere between Stein’s deathbed “What is the question?” and Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
The truest moments are those of unfettered affection — for family and relatives, for Olive, for Leigh, for the pantheon of creative high-achievers, a preponderance of whom are women. With this consideration in mind, and in closing the circle on the misgivings I do mention, we might well leave a last word to Michele, looking forward to receiving the next turn in the story, wherever it may lead (or join):
When [the dog of tears] reaches her she will bring her eyes down to look at the ruined city and become blind. Everyone else will have their eyes back. She will have the dog of tears. The dog of tears will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. There they are, the dog of tears and the woman who wept. His nails click on the rough stones. She who can no longer see begins to tell a story.
Addendum: new poem by Michele Leggott
A Vida Portuguesa
is it Lucy Jordan or Graceland
tumbling like a National guitar
through the warm streets of Paris
we are rolling our bags from the station
to find a place on the third floor
in Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière
for a moment I am unsure
or cradle of the civil war
and my ears will be deceived
by the roar of that precinct
where the laughter grows too loud
wedding dresses in every other window
closed in the heat of Sunday afternoon
we find our way to the apartment
then to a place in the backstreets
under a shade tree and order
a feast of Indian and Lebanese on the advice
of our host whose family is banging pots in the kitchen
and bringing out delectable evidence on platters
the size and shape of water lilies from the Blue Nile
we eat and drink and make plans
to exit in the morning down the precipitous flights
a burst pipe under the sink
drenches the home of the dweller below
Maria makes explanations in three languages
heat and sweat and dirt
we flag a ride with a crazy driver
and set out across the city to Gare Montparnasse
for a price that includes roadworks gridlock
shortcuts near misses and impressive swearing
sad Notre-Dame under its tarpaulins
we make the Train à Grande Vitesse
with moments to spare and speed all afternoon towards the Spanish border
keyboard variations à grande vitesse
sure of the song now and looking out for the delta
a mama cooing and singing to her bébé for almost five hours
nobody about on the platform at Hendaye
when the train from Madrid pulls in
a French bulldog wants to ride to Lisboa
tears reproaches gesticulations
a shrug and the dog rides with his jeune maîtresse
Irun on the Spanish side
Hemingway fishing in a nearby stream
later a sign pointing to Pamplona in the mountains
red cliffs in late sun
we adjust the seashells on our hats and go
to the dining car at 8 pm cash only
we scrape our pockets for Euros
here’s luck and three glasses on the bar
we wait for the transformation
of our pink plastic compartments of dusty rose
turned inside out by Senhor
for sleeping and showering and climbing to the top bunk
an analogue train pure and simple
whistles voices and knocks on the door
no PA no tings or dings
mamas and papas going south to the border
in a comfortable spillage of kids and aunties
on call to quell riots in the corridor
some of us were on edge and couldn’t sleep
worried by sparking contacts overhead
but I was rocking rocking the mezzaluna
rocking into the darkness
my travelling companion says we passed through Salamanca
and here in the pearly light of dawn
shining like that guitar
is the delta of the Tejo
rice fields as far as the eye can see
Ponte Vasco da Gama humming nearby
the little dog gets off at Oriente
as eager to be gone as he was to be on board
we pull into Santa Apolónia stow the bags and wait
for the Queen of the Sea to wake up
visit a sleepy market try an early morning café
then walk up the hill
at Manteigaria the butter shop we hit
a mother lode and sit in Praça Luís de Camões
with gooey custard tarts to die for
the poet wears a blindfold this morning we don’t know why
and I am given to believe
the city holds us in the palm of one hand
warming our pilgrim hearts against its bronze and marble song
we go to Rua da Cruz in the Santos district
Rita takes us upstairs where the windows are open and builders work across the way
drills jabbing sanders howling voices in the street below
we shake out crumpled maps and make readings
of our situation two notebooks two ceramic fish
a tile with cherub face and wings
a plate the shape and texture of a savoy cabbage leaf
a tin of orange-scented Lisbon tea
the pert geography of cobbles
the slippy smoothness of marble
the poet blindfolded
up and down we go up and down watching the footwork
locals use cheap rides as well as trams
pear cider in a tall glass at Attla
uncomplicated toast to what we’ve been and done
as the sun goes down in Rua Gilberto Rola
back home the night is fragrant with drains
underneath our open bedroom window
the No. 28 goes by until midnight
sirens rattle over cobbles and bounce off walls of stone
the bells quit at eleven
and resume next morning at seven on the dot
builders carry marble pavers up narrow stairs
for the incoming tourist dollar in a revived economy
an Airbnb on every floor Ubers standing by
we go to the Gulbenkian and traverse the founder’s collection
svelte cats from Egyptian tombs
a room full of Korans and Armenian bibles
a room of carpets a room of tapestries
a room of Manets and Monets
an early Turner a late Turner
a room full of Degas and Renoir and one Mary Cassatt
and then we see her it them
Artemis dragonfly and moon
show-off piece of Lalique
in a room of Laliques
hybrid insect woman gold enamel chrysoprase
moonstones and diamonds
lifted when I was seventeen
studying curvilinear design
and transformation geometry
on a ground that could have been the night sky
or the cloudy breast of Sarah Bernhardt
I forget I remember
I see her clearly I do not see her at all
dragonfly woman insect jewel
Artemis of the hunter’s moon
real as the room we stand in now
José transports us across town
his music does the talking
cutting across worlds a different bridge another time
let there be cuckoos
a lark and a dove
he drops us under the castle walls
we move down tributary streets to an elevador with a view
as good as a miradouro
cool water cool water and cool water
we follow the rivulets some more
there are photos of old people
spirits of the neighbourhood
printed on stone walls
in the streets where they lived and walked
but most of all
a view of my feet
the view is my feet
a view of my feet
the view is my feet
visual tyranny is over
feel and taste and take in
scents and stinks along every street
the pert geography of cobbles
the slippy smoothness of marble
polished to a shine
the stars of Urania’s Mirror eluded us
at A Vida Portuguesa the Portuguese life
but there were other notebooks to hand
always to hand
or to mouth
or to nose
and always (always) to ears
oysters under the sea picadinho de carapau
sour cherries in a thimble at Taberna da Rua das Flores
A Vida Portuguesa
the 28 rumbles past
refocusing the data
a nail gun over the way is the typewriter from long ago
the stairs are my nightingale floor
the roofs of the houses will gradually open
to form houses themselves
contiguous on all sides without empty spaces
sour cherry momentum
at Estrela we take the 25 and ride away
from Our Lady of the Flaming Heart
her church of stars and tessellations
and the marble tapestry of flowers underfoot
such complex repeating patterns
over the hills and to the waterfront to find
by divination and a note on a phone
oven-roasted pork on the noontide air
a backstreet where dripping sandes are passed from a kitchen window
and washed down with beers by locals on their lunch break
we come at last to Saramago and his Foundation
Casa dos Bicos house of spikes and stone nozzles
sitting on top of a Roman ruin
a fish factory that fermented Atlantic mackerel in stone tanks
over seven feet tall and shipped the product
in purpose-built amphorae to every part of the empire
upstairs is quiet José
staring out of a photographic enlargement
manuscript novel wired to his chest with a burning fuse
facsimile typescript of Claraboya in a wooden box
available for purchase
the bathrooms bewildering in their hyperbolic
baffling of expectation the plane divided
such complex repeating patterns
an open door a closed door
a not getting out the door again
and what of the skylight open
to the light sky of the open roof
where houses rebuild themselves in the night sky
to form houses with open roofs
whose skylights form infinity pools
contiguous on all sides without empty spaces
but is Saramago comfortable
with the peephole reconstruction of his writing room
one slit for adult eyes
one for children or those confined to wheelchairs
the room is uncannily tidy
its objects authentic if few
reading glasses and a dictionary of the Portuguese language
consulted every day
who does this remind us of
a writer in a box
a boxed writer
boxing the compass
doubling the cape
who is really here
in the Museum of Saramago prestidigitator
and genuine levitator of the soul
back on the street
what is the probability
asks José from behind the wheel
when we step into his cab for the second time
in two days
José José you were waiting outside
your own museum
a step away from the ashes under the olive tree
laughing up your sleeve
in perfect English
a lark and a dove
welcome to the city of mirrors
of boxing the compass and doubling the cape
cool wind in the alleys as the afternoon winds down
and the builders take their leave
only a few drills and sanders now
yes come back tomorrow
a phone that can identify the song playing in the room
if you can’t
one skilsaw going on with its work
of reconstruction or renovation
a noise I never minded and could sleep through
one of us is out wandering the streets
one is working in the other room
tomorrow we will say farewell and make plans for a rendezvous
somewhere on this side of the world
somewhere in the mirror city of two minds
making for the exit
a door that opens
a door that closes
a door a door and a door
but first a table for three at Prado
fish factory converted to meadow and more ruins on show
yes the oysters were there and sweet potato with smoked milk ice-cream and honey
we are that lucky confluence of travellers in the corner of a crowded room
hoisting a glass to the future
a nightingale floor nightingale stairs nightingale hallelujahs
all night long
the party in the street echoes between stone walls
the sanders howl one to the other this morning
Lady Gaga sings to her Star is Born self
along the narrow pavements of Rua da Cruz
stargazer moonclipper virtuoso mama
will there be a monument standing one day in a square
blindfolded by someone with agendas
other than those of the memorialists who reign in this city
of light and mirrors and the approaching sea
we go to Belém for a last look at the ocean and to draw breath
ahead of the long haul around the world
already the lines are making their appearances
as we stroll arm in arm along that historic waterfront
the largest convent the biggest tomb
the great monument to sea-going power in concrete and lifts
the nymphs Galateia Panopeia and Melanto accompany Camões
surfing in their scallop shells as he leaves the Tejo
for the wide Atlantic Belém you are
a lighthouse your fountains my tears as we approach
show me how to walk on without your heat-struck marbles underfoot
sunburn just before the airport run
precursory steps that will join themselves if the summer flights fold over
each other and the claws of forgetfulness make no purchase
on our triple beating hearts
now go grown son and light of my eyes
we will find you again on the other side of pandemic darkness
1. Ten poetry titles (1988–2020), plus a contribution as editor in several other texts, including Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960–1975 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000), which defines literary culture of the period; a couple of books on Robin Hyde; and, more recently, one on New Zealand-raised poet Lola Ridge (2019). Leggott continues to be highly regarded overseas, as evidenced by the Wesleyan University Press imprimatur accorded Mezzaluna (2020), and most recently in the Jack Ross convened retirement tribute, A Birthday Festschrift for Michele Joy Leggott (October 2021). Other achievements include establishing the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc), modeled on similar digital archives founded by Charles Bernstein and others at Buffalo and the University of Pennsylvania (PennSound). Recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award in 2013 and voted Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2017, she continues to reside on the North Shore at Devonport, a cherisher of family stories and her surrounding environment.
2. Retinitis pigmentosa: genetic disorder of the eyes, generally gradual in onset, that causes loss of vision. Symptoms include trouble seeing at night and decreased peripheral vision, with possible tunnel vision.
3. The feminist house trope is pertinent. Ensing’s Private Gardens (1977) provides a rickety foundation. Living space extends in Wevers’s Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand women (Oxford University Press, 1988), a more substantial collection. Bringing us to the present, Paula Green’s Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry (Massey University Press, 2019) bursts with rooms and passageways, through which some two hundred women poets are paraded. Leggott’s assault on the Curnow et al. “androcentric” legacy is announced in DIA (1994) and critically extrapolated in “Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record,” included in Opening the Book, ed. Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995), 266–93. As an aside, there is a counterargument to Leggott’s, percipient as it is, in her own detailing of the strongly male-supported career trajectories of the two women poets discussed. The same applies to other women poets over the years, including Bethell, Rawlinson, Dallas, and Frame. Nowadays, the literary space is arguably dominated by women.
4. The obvious grandee of the previous generation is C. K. Stead. His retirement from the Auckland University English Department in 1986 coincides with the year of Leggott’s employment. Much the same might be observed of Allen Curnow, two generations prior, feminist archnemesis (retired 1976). Revisionism is intrinsic to local narratives detailing literary ascendancy.
5. Incidentally, a first handful of poems was published in Leggott’s departure year, 1980, by Judi Stout, who was Craccum poetry editor when both were working in circulation at the University of Auckland General Library. Michele Leggott, email message to author, May 16, 2022.
6. Michele Leggott, “Yellow Pencil,” in Yellow Pencils, ed. Lydia Wevers (Auckland and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 176–77. Inadvertently, editor Wevers doubles the “l” in Michelle in her introduction, while deliberately multiplying the Leggott poem title to Pencils, as if to suggest all contributors share the newcomer’s unique attribute. For her part, Leggott determinedly avoids unintendedness in what she writes, at times overly so.
7. Leggott, “Rose 7,” in Yellow Pencils, 186.
8. Leggott was in Canada from August 1980 until November 1985. She missed the rise of the new magazines, although she had managed to get a copy of Leigh Davis’s breakthrough Willy’s Gazette (Jack Books, Wellington, 1983).Michele Leggott, email message to author, May 16, 2022.
9. Michele Leggott, Mezzaluna: selected poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 29.
11. Rose is accorded various significances, tropological as well as topological: a plant, family names, an eatery, the name of a seagoing vessel, the heartfelt, romance in general, literary likings, and our own mundane “Rosa rubiginosa”: “Sweet brier (also spelt sweet briar in many places) was originally grown as an ornamental rose, but is now a major scrub weed in the South Island, especially in Central Otago and inland Canterbury. It is also found in the North Island, though generally only as a road-side weed.” As Stein unforgettably says, “A rose is a rose is a rose” (meaning: a rose is never simply a rose). It goes without saying that Leggott’s image palate inclines to the generic rather than to particularizing detail.
12. Leggott, “18,” Mezzaluna, 69.
13. Michele Leggott, “learning,” as far as I can see (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999), 26.
14. Leggott, “lebh,” as far as I can see, 28.
15. Michele Leggott, “hyle,” as far as I can see, 29.
16. Leggott, “MICROMELISMATA,” DIA, 6–7. Tellingly, as far as I can see carries notes on the back cover, proffering an unguarded confidence: “I am losing my eyesight to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. … It is the sound of words in darkness, and the words in light. But eyesight is not vision.” In the preceding volume DIA, the trope remains notional: “Have you seen they ask, the rose in the steel dust? … Femina, femina, that would not be dragged into paradise … O taste and see; chew, swallow, and transform” (Leggott, Notes, DIA, n.p.).
17. Leggott, “dove,” Mezzaluna, 75; see “persica” subsection.
18. Leggott, dedication of Mezzaluna. The title is crafty: the explicit reference is to the crescent-shaped steel blade used to cut cooking ingredients; more suggestively, mezza pertains to time, while luna depicts a moon shape: cutting with the moon?
19. “I am not interested in the one-page poem unless it is a constituent of something bigger.” In the above-mentioned note in DIA (see note 16 above), Leggott self-identifies as a kind of historically investigative ventriloquist lyricist (the sobriquet is mine).
20. In the maturing writing, botanical taxonomy branches out (so to speak), with dollops of juxtaposed post-laureateship Māori/Latin to supplement the usually preferred French and Italian interpolations, spanning as well a wider range of named local trees and shrubs, especially bird life (kingfisher/kōtare, woodpigeon/kererū, fantail/piwakawaka, morepork/ruru). “The wedding party” uses Māori and Latin excerpts taken from The Richmond-Atkinson Papers (1960), Leggott claiming for them “their common ground” in the Taranaki war, 1860 (Leggott, Mezzaluna, 200).
21. For instance, among artistic figures, both local and overseas, mentioned in the “Figures in the Distance” section in Mezzaluna: “Rita Angus, Hugo Ball, Christian Bök, Jorge Luis Borges, Pam Brown, Alan Brunton, T. S. Eliot, James and Robin Fryer, Ida Gaskin, Mary Gauthier, Ernest Hemingway, Lila Hobson and Meadows Rendel, James Joyce, Tessa Laird, David Lees, Federico García Lorca, Ern Malley, Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, José Saramago, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth.” Leggott, Notes, Mezzaluna, 199–200. (“Figures in the Distance” is an instance of the urge toward creative communitarianism mentioned at the outset and will be discussed in more detail later in the essay.)
22. Benightedness — whether in the form of blindness, or banishment, or Aotearoa-New Zealand’s own deserted-by-language poet Leigh Davis — is often considered part and parcel of the poet’s lot. The Borges epigraph to “Self-portrait: still life. A family story” says, “since I have lost my beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” Leggott makes of disability a strength: “‘into the abyss / from which we will emerge shining”’ (Leggott, “listening,” Mezzaluna, 159).
23. Michele Leggott, “the liberty of parrots,” MIRABILE DICTU (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009), 34. Excerpts from MIRABILE DICTU hereafter cited in-text.
24. Leggott, “ladies mile,” Mezzaluna, 62.
25. Michele Leggott, Notes, Vanishing Points (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017), 122.
26. Several poems are based on painstaking research undertaken by a posse of research assistants: “Other key images are six works by [‘the sister of my great-great-grandfather’] Emily Harris in the collection at Puke Ariki (one for each of her sisters). … Thanks to Anna Boswell, Makyla Curtis, Bronwyn Lloyd, and Erena Shingade for their generous contributions to the project.” Historical events include: “Work for the living” (a road trip north to Māori poet Tuwhare’s tangi), “olive” (Pike River mine disaster), “The Fascicles” (Taranaki wars), “Wind and Weather” (Wreck of SS Gairloch), “after the war,” “bombardier” (World War I). Ruminative travelogues take in much of the Western world. Routinely, snippets from other writers are merged into Leggott’s texts, public homage as internal pilgrimage. A prominent example, “Blue Irises” in DIA, includes snippets from local women poets Adcock, Bethell, Duggan, Hall, Hawken, and Hyde. Leggott, Notes, Mezzaluna, 197–99.
27. The sequence was written 2012–13, following Davis’s death in 2009, and he is at once a real and a ghostly presence in the sequence. The intermittent question and answer sections are miniature dramatic scripts.
28. Leggott, “horologium / the clock,” Vanishing Points, 3.
29. The letters are sewn on both sides of the flag, producing mirror-writing on the reverse side.
30. Leggott, “21,” Vanishing Points, 112. The voice in the poem belongs to Ida Gaskin, an English teacher at New Plymouth Girls’ High School where Leggott attended. Gaskin adored Eliot and introduced his work to students. The old hymn lines were previously sampled in “The Fascicles.” Michele Leggott, email message to author, May 16, 2022.
31. Leggott, “12,” Vanishing Points, 106–7.“Olive was deployed each year to lap water and be recorded for the class so that we could test Stein’s assertions about rhythm. It was a great way to start the class on Tender Buttons. Much hilarity.” Michele Leggott, email to author, May 16, 2022. Stein and Toklas had three canine Baskets in succession, perhaps another inadvertent rhythmic link to “one-two-three”?
32. Leggott, “13,” Vanishing Points, 107. The transformations refer to the twelve lectures of English 216: Modernist Transformations, taught by Leggott and Helen Sword 2014–21. While Stein is an important inspirational figure, the immediate guide is Pound, whose imagist poem is alluded to and whose principle of logopoeia, whereby unrelated events resonate deeply within the mind, applies crucially to Leggott. His melopoeia (sound-correlates) and phanopoeia (image-correlates) apply similarly. Affirming universals, his influence is stronger than Stein’s, arch-unraveller that she is. Interestingly, the original version of “In a Station of the Metro” (Poetry, April 1913) utilizes the same blank spaces frequently employed by Leggott as scansion markers.
33. Comments Leggott: “It’s too long to go in whole and I didn’t want to excerpt. The prose pieces were easier to slice up.” Email message to author, May 16, 2022.
34. Leggott, “circinus / the compass,” Vanishing Points, 10.
35. Leggott, “norma / the square,” Vanishing Points, 11.
36. Leggott, “columba / the dove,” Vanishing Points, 4.
37. Leggott, “horologium / the clock,” Vanishing Points, 3. The reference in this poem is to the two buddha figures that reside at the back of the boatshed on the Davis property, the second of which adopts such a posture (Susan Davis, email/spoken exchange with the author, November 20, 2021). However, I associate it also with a personal memory of Leigh: a black and white obituary notice photograph that shows him in a polo-neck reclining in a deckchair, looped arms (“parabola”) cupped behind his head, his mouth slightly agape (ἀγάπη).
38. A case in point is the pivotal role given to the steamerSS Gairloch in Heartland. Featured pictorially on the cover and dominating the end “Note,” sailing logs also feature in italicized subtext in the poem “wind and weather,” a sequence commemorating voyages taken by Leggott’s great grandparents. Serendipitously, as children, she and her siblings would “trek at low tide across acres of boulders to where the rusted iron ribs of a wreck heaved up against the sky” — SS Gairloch! Leggott, Notes, Heartland, 113–14.
39. Leggott, Notes, Mezzaluna, 200.
40. Leggott, “7,” Mezzaluna, 199. The compass recurs as navigational — and imaginal — device. Whether in the form of the tokotoko or other vessels supportive of locomotion, the world traveled is the whole that encircles one. The rose is a kind of circle, and references to circles abound. DIA includes a sequence title that shows the “L” contained within the actual word’s shape. “The Looking Glass” appeals to a children’s circle game, the circle itself, the eye as circle, with pieces headed “Pyxis Nautica” (nautical compass) and “compass rose.”
41. Leggott, “7,” Mezzaluna, 186.
42. Leggott, “13,” Vanishing Points, 107.
43. Leggott, “5,” Mezzaluna, 185.