Ö among the ruins with the Poor
Alan Brunton was someone I knew and worked with on and off, but mostly on, for nearly thirty years. I have been reading his writings for longer than that, he is among those few whose works are constantly by my side and available anyway, either voluntarily or involuntarily, in memory. In the weeks before he died we were just beginning to launch Bumper Books in Australia, but what I had in mind during that period was Living In The Real World, the penultimate poem in his 1991 collection, Slow Passes Ö lines kept coming back from that great resolution of the quest for right living. Why? Because they were a clue to solving a problem in my own life.
Then, coincidentally, and in all ignorance, on the day he had a heart attack in Amsterdam and went into unconsciousness, I found a back issue of Brief mislaid when we shifted house two years ago and looked for many times since. In it is Alanís explication of his poem Donít Shoot The Piano Player from the epochal first Freed. Characteristically, the exegesis is as mysterious as the poem as he plumbs the 77 levels of meaning he once (jokingly?) said were to be found in his work. By then I had begun to resolve my life problem, so it was for pure pleasure that, over the next few days, I read and re-read and wondered over the concatenation of allusion and perception in that piece, which ends by quoting Keatsí epitaph: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
So it was not unusual for me to be reading Alan; why I mention it here is because in those two readings both the man and the poet may be found. The ability to be of genuine help to others in writing and in life is as rare as the capacity to give deep and lasting pleasure in made work, but he could do both and did so, all his life, unstintingly, with an energy and commitment and grace and generosity of spirit which were with him to the end.
When I first met Alan, at a function at Downstage in Wellington in the winter of 1974, I already knew who he was. Iíd been at a delirious performance by the freed poets at the Auckland Technical Institute in 1970, in a packed hall with an audience who behaved more like a crowd at a rock concert. And, later that same year, at a party in Hargreaves Street in Freemans Bay, I watched, incredulous, as ĎBruntoní misbehaved outrageously amongst his peers. After that he went overseas, and when we met at Downstage, courtesy of his partner, Sally Rodwell, whom I knew from staying for a few months at the Living Theatre house in Sentinel Road, Herne Bay, they had just returned from the East.
He was wearing a cloth cap. I was over-awed. He asked who a woman across the crowded room was, I told him, he came straight back with a joke, and instantly I was at ease - and, apart from the odd disquieted moment, we were easy with each other from then on in. I had been writing art reviews for Salient, and Alan, who read everything, thought well enough of them to suggest I might contribute to the paper he was starting with Ian Wedde and Russell Haley. They were going to call it Stool but settled on Spleen instead. It was just what I needed to grow: an enterprise I could devote myself to without having to formulate policy or make executive decisions.
At the same time, my then partner, Jan Preston, was invited to compose the music for the first Red Mole shows; thus I came to participate in the genesis, rehearsal and performance of most of the many shows there were over the next seven years. They were the Cabaret years, at Carmenís Balcony and the Ace of Clubs and the Sweet Factory and the Easter Show, on the road up and down New Zealand and then in New York, London, and cities and towns all over the USA, meeting and working with many different people and playing some wonderful rooms along the way: His Majestyís, the Kimo Theatre in Albuquerque, the State Opera House.
Unusually, Red Mole used to invite groupies, roadies and assorted hangers-on to make a contribution on as well as off stage and so, without ever really wanting to, I briefly came to act in, and later, with more aptitude, light the shows. My real interest was in writing and the enduring gift of those seven years was the opportunity to live and work in the presence of a Master. I learned from Alan what makes good writing, and I also learned, more slowly, what it means to live an ethical life; the two are not distinct from each other I believe. Any accomplishment there is in my own writing owes an immense debt to him; he was my mentor, my experienced and trusted adviser. I know he performed this role, in different ways, for many different people.
Sally and Alan and Deborah Hunt and John Davies went back to New York a year after Red Moleís 1980 return to New Zealand, I moved to Sydney, and I didnít see him again until 1988. I think now I needed those second seven years to absorb the lessons and rearrange myself. When contact resumed, I set up a season for Red Mole at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Surry Hills and a reading for Alan at the Harold Park Hotel in Glebe; I remember particularly his rendition of Their Diet Consists of Carrion and my friend Johnny Bear, soon to die of AIDS, saying to him afterwards that he hoped he would not be buried, as criminals in Tibet were, in the ground. Like Alan, he was cremated.
Sometimes in Red Mole shows, a presence would fill the auditorium and you would remember that the theatre of the Greeks was designed to give voice to the god(s). There were some every night at the Belvoir Street, for instance when puppet boats crossed the stage on their way to Johnston Island with a cargo of nuclear waste. Like the more extravagant illusions Red Mole constructed, this one was created to music: among his many other achievements, Alan found ways to expand theatre to include every kind of music, most of which was played live.
My mind is full now of evanescent memories of theatrical moments, many of them very funny, some tragic, and I wish I had seen more shows after The Book of Life at the Belvoir. Instead, literary collaboration resumed. It was Alan who suggested I give the manuscript of The Autobiography of My Father to Michele Leggott, who forwarded it to AUP, who published it. Later, among much else, Bumper Books published two other books of mine. Working with Alan as editor and publisher was a joy: he was meticulous, inventive, swift and had a way of imagining futures which sustained an often equivocal present. There were plans: a book on the history of the Indian Ocean, republishing Harry Fosterís 1927 A Vagabond in Fiji, various other unwritten and perhaps unwriteable books. Near the end his mind was turning towards the Pacific.
When I heard he had gone I remembered his voice: deep and rich, it always sounded as if it came from the heart of his being. He said some hard things to me over the years, including the intimation, in two cryptic remarks made seven years apart, that I was a prose writer not a poet; but there was never any malice in it, only the hope that what he said would be taken as what he meant Ö which sounds simple but, for Alan, who was frequently misunderstood, wasnít. I canít help thinking that he did it harder than he might have, even though the difficulty was partly self-imposed: he dined with bankers and smoked with tribal leaders and, in New York, got to know a man who had flown over Nagasaki on the Great Artiste, but he really did spend his days among the ruins with the Poor. Even so, as he said, in his mind he lived in luxury. That luxury was in no sense exclusive, it was, rather, his gift, and given equally to us all. I doubt he ever met a person he could not have empathy with, though he did not always choose to.
Not long before he left on his last trip, he fixed the bilge pump on the canoe at the Island Bay Surf Club, which he and Sally and others used as a space to work in. We performed Towards Bethlehem, a Christmas pageant, to seven people there in 1976, and Alan was not one to forget something like that. An ethical sense of community was what he dedicated his life towards and we will, I hope, honour that commitment in the days to come.
Then there are the writings: I do not expect to get to the end of them in my lifetime and believe there will be others of like inclination to follow. What I know of them is an enduring astonishment, and in saying this Iím mindful that Iím not acquainted with most of the theatre work Red Mole did after 1981. The prose is lucid, resonant and crackles with ideas and the poetry books - Messengers in Blackface, Black & White Anthology, Oh, Ravachol, Day for a Daughter, Slow Passes, Romaunt of Glossa: A Saga, Moonshine, Ecstasy - ineffable delights, containing thought that goes into the atoms and beyond the solar system, before time and after the end. A unique cast of characters, amongst whom you are always glimpsing a man, a woman and a child journeying, enact primal dramas in land and city scapes both paradisial and apocalyptic but also, weirdly, recognisable as our world. Not so long ago Alan said to me that the essence of his latest book, Ecstasy, was what James K. Baxter used to say: love, man; Aroha. I also remember him saying that poetry did not have to mean so much as be: the fecundity and recombinant power of his use of language sings before it signs, which is why it is, practically speaking, inexhaustible.
Last night as I wrote this, it was cold and clear outside, with big stars and a wild surf cracking on the beach as some obscure storm from the Tasman played itself out along our shore. This morning I woke from a dream in which I drove the Falcon recklessly out onto the sand and then, thinking better of it, reversing, saw a pride of lions lounging under the paper bark trees in the reserve. As I started back down Coral Crescent, one of the lions put its head through the car window and licked the side of my face with a broad, rough tongue. Though he was a Libran, there always was something leonine about Alan. Already I miss him more than I can say, and yet he is in some way still with us. He will not mind if I use his own words to hail him:
July 3, 2002