new zealand electronic poetry centre


Michele Leggott


Onset of pericentral darkness


First published in Charles Bernstein (ed.), 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999): 175-78. Special issue of boundary 2 (Spring 1999).

The less sight I have the more interested I am in making visible what is not seen. It’s a matter of time. I find myself committed to finding every version of every poem written by the New Zealand poet Robin Hyde (1906-1939) in order to re-present her textual presence, to date limited to three collections published in her lifetime and one posthumous compilation (1952) which was deemed sufficient to finish off the story, It wasn’t; it isn’t.

If you have linen women, raspberry women
Red and thick of the mouth, with dock-leaf women
(Little light foxy spores – mind them, such women,)
If you have green grape women, flour-bin women,
Amber-in-forest, wild-mint-scented women,
Trey-bit in church or drudging kit-bag women,
Little sad bedraggled wind-has-weazened-one women,
White bean women, perhaps anemone women.
And harp-like facing the starlight women,
Young Bronzey Plumage, what will you do with women?

A fragment, unpublished, 1937. But she also wrote the great “lost” poem of our 1930s, dream and philosophy sixty years unpublished. The Book of Nadath occurs in verses like the Scriptures only better, 69 pages of typescript in 13 sections without conspicuous authorial ordering I will read as I wish beginning

The words of Nadath, the false prophet, written in the year 1937, in a house that stands on a bay of New Zealand:  a house of wood, iron and glass, and with the sea outside.

When a sick man's reason leaves him, his dreams and visions go in and out, mingling with the people who enter his room:  and who shall say which of them has substance?

So with a world that is sick:  it cannot know the face of its truth.

She was living in a one-room shack, sick, broke, barbiturate-dependent, visionary : Writing unsteadily, without hope of a word enduring, / I think how others, the great ones, were in like case. And: a man who travels with his dream travels with a dark torch. She is the pre-war story we have hardly started on.

Post-war what has dropped from sight are the experiments and jeux of that Sixties generation (too hard to teach, too much self-conscious Modernism) which took the New American Poetry to heart with a sense of relief still evident in recollection and in productions of the day. The trace of their work is there in the magazines and pamphlets, places of first publication that compose a zeitgeist the anthologies aren’t interested in. I’m not interested in the anthologies. Dennis List, one of the Young New Zealand Poets, 1973: “I have seen poetry as a medieval walled town, full of people looking for the town hall . . .  There is great danger in reading poetry books. Whenever I have tried it I have felt slightly sick.”  We could have instead a year by year account : works and days. And so the stack of xerox grows and shrinks and grows again as we read and argue the content of a dream run 1959-75. Whole poets arrive, untouched by anthologising hands. Mark Young, from 1969:

In Memoriam: Robert Desnos  

J'ai tant révé de toi
. . . .
was the line I meant to start with.
Instead, I find my mind alive with other thoughts.
I did not intend to expose your mysterious woman. 
Only in your poem do I know her.  Only in your poem
in my mind do I come to realize the mystery of her.

No, Robert Desnos.  Ours are different women.
This woman of yours—you knew her
though you had not met, though your arms
had not been linked in a walk down any street
& your mouths had not passed the closeness of any night
together.  Yet you knew her till your death, & perhaps
met then.  For your death was her death, & you were thus

          My poem was to be
of a woman who I had met, who I had done with
all those things you had not done.  Yet one
who I cannot remember, & who, once forgotten,
becomes mysterious.

Whose body I should remember most,
for her words were confetti
that the wind caught & blew away.                     yet the mouth

& the smile of her eyes                                       i plotted
less than a match struck                                     with my tongue
to be blown out a second later.

Who in walking with me seemed                       & the shudder
no more than the passing of other                 
   of her elbows
people in the same street.                                 the moment
                                                                       beginning orgasm
Only later, together in a
room, the pedestrian became not
passerby but participant.

This the mysterious aspect.  Did I ever
make love to her? I tell you, Robert, I
know I did: but when I try remembering
the course of our carnality, it is non
             (Here I would echo your poem,
but shamed by the beauty of your words, I insert
the beginnings of my own....
                                          Inside the mouth
of my memory, your tongue is mayhem.  Words
you once spoke have become as gibberish
in my attempt to set them right in time.  The rims
of your eyes are as sharp as razors,
but the blue of them is blurred, like sky
behind a seagull's beating wings....

Young left for Sydney at the end of that year and didn’t come back. A decade’s work in magazines and readings seemed to vanish. Two weeks ago he sent a copy of a broadsheet from 1974 called “A Season in Hell”:

Came down by abyssinian camel train
rimbaud riding shotgun & wearing a
sweatshirt emblazoned with the head
of de sade & the enscribed legend:
‘voici le temps des ASSASINS’    

So this is what I’m doing and wondering how to get it all done, and won’t without collaboration.[1] Darkened eyes, filled with the latter darkness . . . Take back the flowers from your dead pupils, and we have a garden for the world. I hope not (dead pupils) I want living eyes in that garden on that road, in that season and for that book. Nothing else will do.

12 April 1998
©Michele Leggott

[1] Co-editors Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond.


Last updated 13 July, 2001