Report from the tank
The work I have been doing serves a good cause, and the people who commissioned it are splendid, but I can't help wondering what effects prolonged exposure to the language of lawyers might bring. I've always found the lawyers who rush up and down Waterloo Quadrant and Shortland Street obscurely terrifying: with their bulging folders, bulging eyes, and bulging foreheads they seem to me like lifelong victims of the method of rote learning which was long since abandoned in civilised schools. Even the Victorian schoolchildren who had to learn the names of every English King and Queen and the capital of every province of the empire seem to me to have had it better than the average lawyer: at least the kids were ingesting concrete, comprehensible facts, rather than flurries of abstractions grouped under bewildering titles like 'Burgess vs Burgess'.
I remember reading a critic compare the prose style of Kingsley Amis' late novels to 'an overloaded van with a defective exhaust pipe moving very slowly backwards down a driveway that is too small for it'. Some of the sentences I have been writing over the past two days have all the majesty of the late Amis.
If the elderly Amis had been able to pull himself together and get off the booze and pills, he might have been able to revise and improve the prose of his last books. In certain genres, though, there seems no alternative to writing badly. How can anyone produce a good draft employment contract without including flatulent abstract nouns like 'proficiency', ambiguous adjectives like 'satisfactory' and escape-route qualifying phrases like 'to the best of their ability'? To neglect these hardy perennials is to deny the people one is writing for the tactical advantages that imprecise, underdetermining language can provide.
The murky prose of employment contracts and industrial relations law has given me a heightened appreciation of the extraordinary particularity that the best poetry possesses. After a few hours scanning contracts I have been only too happy to climb out of the murky isolation tank and into the pointillist sunlight of Kendrick Smithyman and Tom Raworth.
I thought I would attempt to apologise for the prose I have been producing over the past few days by posting a poem which I published in hardcopy back in April in the
thirty-seventh issue of the literary journal brief. Some readers of brief have mistaken the poem for a piece of autobiography, or - even worse - for a short story, but it is neither, although it does contain the rudiments of a narrative and it is set on the farm where I grew up.
Shooting the Gods
Last night I saw my father for the first time in twenty years. That’s not so important. What’s important is that, one Saturday in 1987, I woke up early, and went outside to bowl leg-spinners at the carport’s brick wall. By the time my third delivery had been bat-padded through the hands of the grapefruit tree the wall was appealing against the light, and the pitch needed covering. By half-past eight the cattle stop was half-full and Mr Greegan was calling my mother to tell her not to drive me and the other country boys in the Papakura Junior Premiers to McLean Park. I grabbed the phone and invited myself over to Tom Greegan’s rumpus room. The cattle stop was overflowing as I rode out the gate.
Halfway up the hill I was stopped by a phone wire lying over Pa Road. Mr Menzies’ Land Rover was parked on the other side of the wire; Mrs Menzies leaned out its window into the rain and shouted at me to go home. I waved and turned around, but I didn’t go home. I rode back around the bend, lifted my bike over the farm’s boundary fence, and began to ride along the old cattle race. I could see the Greegans’ farmhouse from the top of the first of the two ridges the strip of mud climbed. I was halfway up the second ridge when I remembered the slaughtering shed. It hadn’t been used for many years, but when I was a small child I had watched a cow wander into the red corrugated iron building, and had waited for hours for the creature to stumble out again. When the front door had finally wheezed open my father stepped out alone, and waved me away with a huge red hand.
There was a bit of dirt beside the shed which Dad and the sharemilker had once used to bury a cow. The cow had died of some disease, and couldn’t be slaughtered, so there was nowhere for it to go, Dad said, except into the ground. I remember the sharemilker making a hole with his excavator so that Dad and a couple of farmhands could roll the cow in. One of the farmhands told me later that the sharemilker had started pushing the dirt in too soon, before the whole of the cow was in the ground. The creature was only buried up to its neck. It just sat there staring through the drizzle at us with its big calm eyes. The sharemilker swore at the cow, then got back on his tractor and swung the excavator at its neck. The head came half off, so that one of the farmhands had to do the rest with the slasher we used for thistles. When I ran home, Mum told me never to go near the slaughtering shed again.
I didn’t go near the shed for a long time, but I did tell standard three about the cow during Monday Morning News. Mr Purvis had smiled when I had volunteered for the first time to supply a news item, but he had stopped me before I finished, because Sonia Chiita had started crying into her desk. Mr Purvis explained to me afterwards that Sonia was a curry-muncher, and that curry-munchers believed that cows were Gods. It would have been better not to talk about the cow, even if Sonia had been sick that Monday, Mr Purvis added.
Dad got angry when I told him I’d shared the story of the cow, and even angrier when I told him about curry-munchers and their cow-Gods. After Dad had moved onto the farm he had burned the painting of Mary that Mum had kept over the gas oven, and thrown my sister’s Dad’s rosary beads into our toy box. Back in England Dad had been to Grammar School, and he knew parts of books off by heart. After I told him about Sonia Chiita Dad stopped pouring the gravy, and poured himself a whiskey instead, and said that curry-munchers were even worse than Jews, and nearly as bad as Catholics. There were too many flaming Gods, he said, and they were all dead. Later that evening, when Mum was putting my sister to bed, Dad made me write down some of the words he had learned off by heart. We have interred countless Gods in the mass grave known as mythology, he said, leaning back in his armchair as I crouched beside the coughing fireplace and scribbled in my Maths book. Oswald Spender wrote that, Dad said. Os-wald Spen-der.
That Saturday in 1987 I dropped my bike and walked through the rain towards the shed. I stopped outside for a few seconds, feeling the raindrops trickling like sweat down my brow and chin, then swung the door open and sagged backwards with fright. A huge cow sat staring at me through calm dark eyes. One of the panels in the back wall of the shed wheezed open and closed in the wind, and the rain sounded like hail on the wrinkled roof. I stared back at the cow for a second, then slammed the door shut, ran back to my bike, and pedalled quickly home.
Last night I dreamed I dropped my bike beside the race, and walked toward the shed across a paddock where cowpats floated in shallow pools of rainwater. Before I came close to the red corrugated iron, though, I had to stop and step quickly backwards from a small landslide of red mud. The opening was the length of three or four cricket pitches, and perhaps half as wide; as my eyes traced its edges it seemed to grow. At one end of the pit a row of figures stood with their backs to me. One of them had long silver hair; another wore a crude wooden crown; a third had ears as big as the man in the Mickey Mouse costume who handed out lollies at our school Calf Club Day. There was a sound like a tractor backfiring and the figures fell backwards, slowly and rather heavily, like actors performing a stunt that will be replayed at a higher speed. The deformed man rolled in my direction, until I could see the trunk that grew out of his face like the tube of a gas mask.
I looked up, and saw Dad and the farmhands assembling another row of victims, and reloading their hunting rifles. Dad gave a tight little smile before beginning another countdown. The pit, which had seemed bare when I first examined it, was filled with hundreds of corpses. On either side of Ganesh, the Elephant God, I noticed Zeus, with his huge beard of decaying watercress, and Maui, who had a half-finished grin on his handsome face. There were others I could see clearly, but could not recognise.
How many deities have I created and slaughtered? How many Gods and Goddesses have all of us interred, in the mass grave called mythology? Those are my questions, this morning. I did not think them in the dream. In the dream I continued to scan the pit, seeking out the huge calm eyes of the first God my father buried.