new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Howard

selected collaborations

Raewyn Hill / David Howard: When Love Comes Calling (2001)


   photos by Greg Semu

David Howard

Raewyn Hill is without doubt New Zealand's most exciting female contemporary dancer. That she is also an impressive choreographer is a bonus and is so rare we must celebrate not only her talent but her decision to remain and share her talents with the New Zealand Arts Community. (Christchurch Press, Dec 2001)

Mine was a minor role in a major success. Late last century (don’t those three words kick?) a bruised Raewyn Hill conceived a dance around Lettres portugaises (1669), the purported letters of one Mariana Alcoforado from a provincial convent to her departed lover, who was an officer in the French army. Watching Raewyn, I recalled Coleridge’s journal: ‘Perhaps, at certain moments a single almost insignificant Sorrow may, by way of association, bring together all the little relicts of pain & discomfort, bodily and mental, that we have endured even from Infancy.’ Already, for me, the multiple meanings of ‘abandonment’ signposted the show to come. By the time of its premiere in December 2001, Raewyn circled six words: Regret, Denial, Trust, Temptation, Desire and Truth.

Projection loomed large. The dirty dancer wanted disembodied (and therefore quasi-authoritative?) words over the backdrop for one scene of ‘When Love Comes Calling’. She would make the word flesh. Before workshopping with dramaturg Jo Randerson, Raewyn posed these questions:

Have there been times when your feelings have been stronger than your rational mind?

Have you ever wished you could switch your feelings off? Have they ever felt like they could overpower you?

H ave you ever had a relationship that regret has been a big part of? If so, what aspects have you personally regretted?

Do you feel that you loved someone who regretted loving you? If so, how did you feel this?

Before answering I revisited Lettres portugaises and, scrambling for clues, hired a video of what turned out to be a sexploitation movie Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun   (1977). Over herbal tea I considered the charge of abasement and found Robert Stoller’s observations crackled:

Perversion, the erotic form of hatred, is a fantasy, usually acted out but occasionally restricted to a daydream (either self-produced or packaged by others, that is, pornography). It is a habitual, preferred aberration necessary for one’s full satisfaction primarily motivated by hostility [. . .] The hostility in perversion takes form in a fantasy of revenge hidden in the actions that make up the perversion and serves to convert childhood trauma to adult triumph. To create the greatest excitement, the perversion must also portray itself as an act of risk-taking. (Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. New York: Pantheon, 1975)

Ah, the dance. Traumatised sexuality leaves the victim unable to distinguish and enforce boundaries. There is a sexualised eternal present where the moment of violation remains, forever, the moment of (self) definition. This is the ground upon which every lover's body comes to rest, regardless of intention. Whether that partner is unwilling or complicit is secondary to the dynamic; in either case it is referred humiliation that activates the revenge motif, causing the hurt child to become the hurtful adult.

If for the victim sexual transfiguration is denied but ardently desired, then could my answers chart this for one part of the dance? I knew most scenes would draw on footage of an interview with an older man (Norman Levido) so I felt emboldened by the smallness of my role. Viewing Raewyn’s body as androgynous, I wanted to remove gender from my phrasing so that her body’s relationship to the projected text would not be read simply – but I couldn’t. And, when they came, my answers echoed those of others: 'I know there is a terrible secret in love (the terrible/desire to destroy the loved/one'   -- Alma Luz Villanueva is looking with eyes similar to those of Antonin Artaud when he wrote: 'There is a form of incipient spitefulness in the flame of life, in love of life, life's irrational impulse. Erotic desire is cruel since it feeds on contingencies.'

If feeling becomes an accessory to chance then one is tyrannised rather than redeemed by detail. However idealised, the sexual lives in detail. Jim Harrison got there ahead; writing ‘New Love’ he might have been describing ‘When Love Comes Calling’ before it came calling:

risque photos of the tender
inside of elbows, tumescent fingers
draw the outlines of lost parts
on the wall; bottom and pubis
Delphic, unapproachable as Jupiter,
a memory worn as the first love
we knew, ourselves a test pattern
become obsession: this love
in the plague years – we used to kiss
a mirror to see if we were dead.
Now we relearn the future as we learned
to walk, as a baby grabs its toes,
tilts backwards, rocking.

I can’t better that so, finally, I answered Raewyn with prosaic grace:

An idea is also an event. I treasure the notion that what is most important between a man and a woman cannot be said when words express incidentals rather than intentions. The moment I say ‘I love you’ I’m aware of the contrary: ‘I don’t love you, just my idea of you.’ Knowing this protects me against the tyranny of feeling, where attraction is felt as an imperative rather than an option to be freely explored or abandoned.  

I remember that desire attaches itself to the past rather than the future; I desire this woman because of the lost one who ghosts around her smile. Love declares itself best in the everyday rather than the exceptional; it is in the gentle pressure of the index finger on the neck rather than the electric kiss.  

So strong is my will that it can produce a simulacrum of patience, prudence and fortitude at those moments when I feel most exposed, fragile and erratic; the stronger my attraction the more extreme my reaction, so the closer I am drawn the further I withdraw. Of course, nature does not acknowledge whatever’s absent – it is prodigal with species, variations, effects – so any withdrawal is artificial, a perverse tearing of the world’s fabric.

I have lived this over and over – humiliation.   One becomes an apparition without arms that can embrace and lips that can kiss. Whoever loves most is most exposed; ecstasy beckons in contempt from the lesser lover, for whom every gesture appears a demand rather than a gift. Then the rift is inevitable, and logic has to instruct the betrayed heart to harden before it can let a scabby anger peel back, revealing forgiveness. I’m not there yet.

I wasn’t there yet, so I appended a coda:


The eye is the light of the body
            - Matthew 6:22


we see only objects, not light

let the light into a room too long
shuttered like an out-house

interior ocular fire: you must burn in order to become

the only one in the red room who knows
how to blush, you know

another: nostalgia for the emotion of the moment

we don’t need to see each other to be
in love, that the idea of cleaving can


transform the scent of the nor’westerly
into sweaty flesh, and that you were

to come: nostalgia for the words ‘I expect you’

moved like the cumulus in my direction
now this house cannot hold our breath

and that is not the half of it (exhale)


blue sky offsets the coming dusk in your eyes
but I’ll recite the spectrum into black

a flag hangs like a widower’s declaration of love

and white my back turned to
you, you’ll fondle my favourite scarf as if

oiling my skin with a smile finer than myrrh

it was borrowed from your drawer
‘How long has this been going on?’

you remember the cicadas last spring shrill as metal

move to the doorway
eyes touching every thing except my  

expectation of rain running along

outstretched arms: lips slightly
parted, startled, leaving the blue sky to sunset’s gull

the surprise of sunshine in tractor-track puddles


you are that heroic nude attended by a feminised youth
who is neither noble nor savage: your desire

mechanistic rather than spiritual light

recedes like an old queen’s hairline –   while hope
withdraws with your Lord from Gethsemane

the sun becomes a lioness in the eastern mountains

where melons burgeon, olives
drop into the mouths of apostles who cannot remember His name

where fires are fed by incense and animal fat

and condemned leaves curl up their noses: you step
into the blue-collar universe: these fruit-trees

in Plato’s world of number, ratio and geometry

overflow flies (those minor gods multiplied
like motes from a single teardrop)

how come the material world is spent light, Son?

your Father sleeps in the bed of a river where countless
tourists hiccup like drunks into eternity, learning

If thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be

water is not holy until it is swallowed
the dawn star is a cartographer’s nightmare

full of darkness.’


                                                (late 2000, Avonside Drive, Christchurch)




Last updated 13 April, 2006