More than pain: Leicester Kyle 1937-2006
When I met Leicester Kyle for the first time he was wearing a leather jacket and a broad-brimmed leather hat and stroking a long white beard. He looked like a cross between a religious prophet and a genteel bikie, and neither religious types nor bikies were common sights at the Dead Poets Bookshop's Friday night poetry readings. Leicester soon became a fixture of the late '90s Auckland literary scene, turning up at readings, book launches and conferences, and invariably drawing respectful but bemused attention from Bohemian hipsters and literary politicians alike.
It's not difficult to appreciate the reason for the attention Leicester attracted. Kiwi writers are, by and large, a dull lot. The days when popular philistinism and government persecution moulded us into interesting shapes are long gone. Nowadays we are encouraged by friendly teachers at primary and secondary school, allowed to study 'creative writing' at university, then provided with safe middle class jobs as academics or publishers' assistants or librarians when we graduate. We marry other writers, settle in safe leafy suburbs like Grey Lynn or Te Aro Valley, write about our cute children and our greying hair, and take yearly holidays in Greece or Thailand. Like I say, we're a boring lot. But Leicester Kyle wasn't dull like us: he was emphatically and effortlessly different. He had come to writing late, by a circuitous and sometimes bizarre path.
After a childhood marked by the Great Depression and by the suicide of both his parents, Leicester trained first as a botanist and then as an Anglican priest. Over several decades he and his wife Miriel ministered to communities as far apart as Banks Peninsula and India. After they retired and moved to Auckland Leicester began to write poetry, and Miriel was stricken with the cancer that would kill her in 1997.
In his fine tribute to Leicester, Jack Ross reveals that it was the old vicar's idea to establish the regular poetry discussion evenings that began at the London Bar in 1997 and continue today in the more sedate surroundings of Galbraith's Alehouse. I don't know whether it was Jack or Leicester who chose the London Bar as a venue back in 1997, but whoever it was may well have been motivated by a desire to forestall the labyrinthine monologues that tend to occur whenever poets are given a captive audience and a regular supply of alcohol. In those heady pre-smokefree days the London Bar was so noisy on Friday nights that even Richard Taylor in full swing after a dozen Lion Reds couldn't avoid interruption, as the wannabe Coltrane in the resident jazz band reached for a higher note, or a girl in a white miniskirt spilt red wine over Hamish Dewe. In the London Bar on a Friday night there was always a surfeit of reasons not to pay close attention to anyone's tabletalk. When Leicester spoke, though, everybody always listened. That quiet and wry yet solemn voice somehow made the jazz and the miniskirted girls disappear.
When Leicester spoke it was usually to tell a story, and the events in most of his stories took place decades ago, in obscure places like Okains Bay or the wilds of Bengal. Despite or because of their settings, I always felt that Leicester's stories were intended as urgent parables, as gestures toward some moral lesson that needed learning. Yet story after story seemed to evade easy interpretation, to frustrate the urge to moralise. Leicester's tales were at once unforgettable and elusive. Nearly a decade later, there are a couple that I still recall almost word for word.
Leicester's Story of the Young Man in the Gutter
This happened when I had only recently been ordained a priest and was full of a desire to serve God and humanity. I was hurrying down a busy Christchurch street through the spring sunshine on my way to an appointment when I almost tripped over a young man in a black trenchcoat who had seated himself in the gutter. His eyes were bloodshot, there was a brown stain around his mouth, and he was shaking feebly. 'Are you alright?' I asked. 'You look like life has dealt you a harsh blow' I added, as I looked at him with what I am sure was an expression of sincere concern. 'I was about to say the same thing to you' he replied, staring back at me calmly.
Leicester's Story of the Corpse on the Roof Rack
A colleague of mine and his new wife were using their honeymoon to drive around a remote and beautiful part of northern Bengal, but the young bride took ill and died before they could find medical help. He decided he would have to return her body to her family, who lived on the other side of India, in a little village south of Bombay, so that they could help him organise a funeral. But his car was very small, too small to spread a body out in, and he was forced to put his wife's body on the roof rack, wrapped in the mattress they had been sleeping on during their trip. For three days he drove across India, stopping only for a few hours' sleep on the side of a dusty road in the centre of the country. When he arrived at his wife's family's home he climbed out of the car with a tired sigh of sad relief. He turned to the roof rack to undo the rope he had tied the mattress around his wife's body with, only to see that the mattress had been stolen.
It seems to me that these stories capture something of the worldview that would assume sharper focus in Leicester's best poems. Leicester Kyle's world is a place where love and horror, order and chaos, life and death are balanced precariously against one another:
as if there were no town
nor warm things in it
just the jungle
on the first day
In Leicester's world, heroic efforts are made by humans to impose order on reality, but the very extent of the schemas that men and women build up - systems of theological argument, or moral justification, or botanical and zoological classificiation - betray the ever-present threat of chaos and death. Ultimately, chaos enters into and undermines attempts to impose order on the world - as Leicester knew only too well, botanical classification and theological explication both succumb to the chaos of subdivision and conjecture, as the human mind wrestles unsuccessfully with the infinite complexity and fluidity of reality:
We walk on a meniscus
under it is silence, darkness
depths we have no means to plumb
But if there is chaos in the order that humanity creates, there may also be order in the chaos of nature. Like Hopkins, a poet he admired, Leicester struggles to read the universe as scripture, to explicate its infinite details into revelation. Leicester's poetry is attentive to the way that chaos of nature can gve way suddenly to a brief mysterious order: he notices the way the symmetry of a fern can rise out of the rubble of the forest floor, and the way that the churning chaos of the ocean can throw up the sudden perfection of a wave.
Leicester's oeuvre is marked by an unresolved tension between the effort to impose order on the world and a yearning to surrender to the world. The equanimity with which Leicester greeted his death from a cancer of the bone marrow does not surprise me. One of the darker themes of his poetry is the role of death as the final solution to the shortcomings of all human attempts to control reality:
Making makes mistakes,
as in making us
who make ruin
Why did Leicester Kyle begin to write poetry in his seventh decade? By the time he retired to Auckland he had enjoyed a memorable career that had seen him intimately involved in the lives of half a dozen different communities. He had been a social worker and a spiritual advisor for hundreds of people. Why would a man with his breadth of experience suddenly start sweating over where he put words on a page, reading to tiny audiences at Bohemian bars, and placing poems in little literary magazines?
We may detect, in the poems Leicester wrote during his years in Auckland, a reaction to the role he had played for so long as a minister. The Auckland poems are frequently full of surreal imagery and situations, and show a fascination with sin, violence and death. In a sense, they are 'anti-sermons': wildly personal poems written to meet the spiritual needs of the priest, not the priest's flock.
'Heteropholis' is the best of the Auckland poems, and it shows the strange territory Leicester was mapping in the second half of the nineties. Written as the interior monologue of an angel which has been turned into a lizard and set down in a glass tank in modern-day Auckland, the fifty-part poem is filled with exact and unsympathetic observations of a minute yet representative piece of the city:
My caregiver has no female. From obser-
vation of his ways (behold they
are so various) I have learned
of pleasures denied my reptilian
He grows amorous as the barometer falls,
which is often at full moon. His
thighs taughten. Sensing from
my wooden perch I see him fes-
tinate as the day goes until at
dark he rings for a Working Girl
It is a small tragedy that 'Heteropholis' has not yet found a professional publisher. With its disgusted, fascinated stare at the city most Kiwis love to hate, the poem reads like a bizarre successor to works like ARD Fairburn's 'Dominion' and James K Baxter's 'Ode to Auckland'.
At the end of the nineties Leicester surprised the many friends he had made in Auckland by moving to Millerton, an old coal mining town on the West Coast of the South Island. Joining the local volunteer fire brigade, publishing poems about local people and issues, conducting botanical expeditions through West Coast forests and swamps, and throwing himself into the campaign to stop the Happy Valley coal mine, Leicester soon became something of a celebrity in the Buller region of the West Coast. In a letter he sent me for a recent issue of brief, Leicester explained the new role he had found for himself amongst the Coasters:
[O]ne does like to write for a known readership...being poet to a defined and dometic community has its attractions, a sense of professional belonging...In Buller there is a great fondness for verse but little for poetry, so I stand alone and unassailed. My observable literary ability, my success in conservation and botany, my involvement in civic affairs, have all pushed me into a certain notoreity in the region which, were I so ambitious, would give me satisfaction...
We can say, then, that Leicester's move to Buller saw him once again assuming some of the roles he had played as a minister. The relative isolation of the Auckland years had been left behind, and not unsurprisingly the tone of Leicester's poetry changed. The best of the West Coast poems bring the alienation of 'Heteropholis' into conflict with a sense of community, and an empathy with the people of that community.
With its storms, wild coastline, industrial ruins and decaying towns and villages, the Buller region offered Leicester a metaphor for the precariousness of life, but the harshness of the region had created a sense of community that was absent in Auckland. In his 2005 book Breakers Leicester wrote about the erosion of Buller's coastline by a violent sea, but also celebrated the efforts of locals to stop the sea and other hostile forces - economic, as well as natural - from destroying their communities.
One of the most memorable of Leicester's late works is 'Death of a Landscape', which is at once an elegy for his daughter, who committed suicide in 2004, and a cry of protest against the Happy Valley coal mine. Handwritten on topographical maps of Happy Valley, 'Death of a Landscape' expresses a collective as well as personal loss:
But it was more than pain.
So much love
polished practiced honed
lost dead buried,
then blown like pollen
from trees in the wind.
I felt the some of the same sense of loss when I learned of Leicester's death yesterday.