new zealand electronic poetry centre


Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley's NZ


Russell Haley

Originally published in Spleen 4 (July 1976)


The title is an exact proposal of what I want to try to do. We were playing Abbey Road on Wednesday afternoon, the first day at our house in Auckland, and we were playing it to give a sense of how we felt after Jean’s near-drowning accident years ago and how, in the weeks after this, we had almost worn the record out. You capture these memories with a sound or a scent and that is the impeccable logic, internal, personal, the only way it can have any meaning.

I’m trying the same thing from a sense of the Judas-country out there whose border we might unwittingly cross. I was asked to write about the three or four days Creeley and I would have together in Hamilton and Auckland and I agreed. But when I met him off the plane from Fiji, a three hour stopover before he flew to Wellington, his first moments in New Zealand, I knew that whatever I’d projected was not possible. I could not be a literary pimp, a cheap Boswell. But it seemed to me that I could write about the effect he had on me, the personal changes which I sensed were coming.

From the moment we met, left the airport to visit Jean’s school, Nga Iwi, ate some peanut brittle which the kids had made for the School Fair, we seemed to be friends. And the way I define who my friends are these days is by an ease of being with them but of a presence which constantly makes me shift my perspective about what I am, what I do, how I do it.

So to talk about Bob Creeley is to say how I have changed, where I’ve moved. And the best way I can present these changes is not in a prose article but in some poems.

I drove down to Hamilton to read with him. Around mid-day we walked down to the Waikato River for a picnic. We’d got a dog with us – a dumb Irish Setter who barked at trains in the distance. We drank a lot of wine. Hamilton felt good. The woman in the wine store opened our bottles and lent us glasses.

Creeley arrived at the reading well in control but I had not been able to keep up. I was wearing my waistcoat upside down and had an obsessive fear that I’d lost my poems.

I ended my reading with the following poem – written about a week before this performance at Waikato University.

The Dogs/The face         [for Suzie]

you are lonely
your husband is tripping
says you are ugly

outside in the yard
I opened the barn doors
one pair to each wall
I have lodged them at right-angles:

we lie down as easily as children
listen to the black dogs
howling in the barn –
they tug against their ropes
strain out
the doors:

I am
this house
this family
dismantling a beam
I smile at men in cassocks –
the dwarf who nurses a swollen hand
is mine: he covers his lap
with green leaves:

we own nothing
rent this space
these open walls –
who has been into my house?
you came
the dogs were loosed
you showed me your face:

you are lovely
drive home at midnight in your white car:
            can be arranged.

In that poem is the heart of the dilemma of writing about someone you know, someone who is known – the intense moment, the disguise, the public statement which is simultaneously a celebration and a betrayal – the hoped-for truth of this article.

He liked the poem, the reading, said so in the car on the way back to Auckland. Creeley also said that I was not a New Zealand poet ‘You’re a poet.’ No elaboration, no ‘good,’ ‘bad.’ A strange flat statement which cut through the tangles of value and of location.

At that point I felt my rotten weatherboard edifice start to tilt, my false front. All that time in England writing about being on a fault line and my evasions which said that because I wasn’t firmly there, I was fully here.

All of this before we heard about the furore we had created in Hamilton which he’s written of and which I quote from memory:

some yuk in Hamilton
is blowing the whistle
on a good evening
we had

Creeley’s objections to an actor reading others’ work, reading in a parody of the speech of another country. My taking off my shirt to read.

Auckland, Thursday, and Bob’s lecture to Roger Horrocks and Wystan Curnow’s American Poetry class. Energy was a key word and also expressive form – a really vital lecture which coiled around Whitman, politics, language, Ginsberg.

Friday we escaped to the West Coast with a key to a bach gracefully lent by Sebastian Black. The muffler kept falling off but we arrived finally above White’s Beach and the cops arrived. They were looking for vandals. I talked to the young policeman, who was four years out from Liverpool, who knew immediately I was from around Leeds. And I knew it too, felt my accent thicken. But I knew I was located here too, looking out into the biggest blue eyes in creation -- Creeley’s notation.

The only vandal around was a dead rat. ‘We’ll keep that for later,’ Bob said.

We sat and had an hour’s peace in the bach – the old Swanson signal-box, transplanted.

He had to write, finish a poem he’d been working on. What I now have to say will probably sound like portentous bullshit but seeing the man writing in a notebook, looking up, reading a line, grinning because it was working, led me to the very simple sense that I could do it too. I’d never been able to work away from this machine. I remembered Bob being turned on by Ginsberg in Vancouver, turned on to writing as it came in the head, not in the study.

So we sat opposite each other, drinking the flagon of white wine and I thought about Jean waking in the night on Thursday, talking of another daughter we do not have. I wrote then and there.

Anawhata       [for Jean]

Sea spread
sea sky
& the waves move
& we are moved
without –
I am without you
you have your own
unfleshed daughter
she did the drawing on your wall
& do you
did you
what she had made for you?
I cannot bear it
your bones that break
too easy
I hear your unvoiced
this night
this morning
& I still love you
The stars mean nothing
inside the space of

Back for the Auckland Festival reading – Dave Mitchell, C.K. Stead, Allen Curnow. Strange pushing rhythmic insistence of that NZ voice where the genes of the poetry don’t seem to have mated, combined, but have agreed to co-exist together: form content.

Then Creeley, hunched, sitting, chain-smoking, informal, American, talking endlessly about teeth, and it caught and gripped. It lived. This was a man talking to us and it was poetry.

Back home to a party imposed on us by Kiwi gossip, a party we did not want, because the man was exhausted, because my rented house, my privacy, is important to me, and the next morning he flew out early for Sydney.

I was dirty, tired, foul-breathed, stunned, and I was, finally, not a New Zealand poet. I’d gained so much and lost nothing except my uneasy anxiety about making it here in this country.

When he went through the gates I missed him, felt the loss. ‘You’ve got to move on.’

I’d moved even though I’d remained stock-still.

We had embraced as friends – a buckle of a bag he carried caught at my face.

The man came to us -- lived with us for three days. I loved him. I have said all I can say in this way.

©Russell Haley

Last updated 01 March, 2002