Remembering Leicester Kyle - and thinking about Roger Lambert
This week sees the fourth anniversary of the death of Leicester Kyle, the biologist, Anglican vicar, environmental activist, coalfields historian, and late-blooming but prolific poet. In the obituary I wrote back in 2006, I tried to explain the extraordinary effect that Leicester had upon the many literary friends he made in the last decade of his life, after he gave up ministering and began counting syllables.
My tribute to Leicester describes his complex and often tragic life, and lists the attributes of his poetry, but I'm not sure if it communicates the peculiar wisdom that was an essential part of the man, and remains an essential part of the man's poems. Leicester had an unflagging interest in the world - his obsession with detail made walks with him slow-paced affairs, and his poems are relentlessly concrete, even when they consider allegedly abstract philosophical or theological questions - but he seldom allowed himself to become outwardly excited by the places and events he observed so closely. When he commented on the affairs of humans - and he was seldom short of an opinion - he did so in a dry, analytical manner, as if he were discussing the behaviour of beetles or snails (and Leicester knew a great deal about beetles and snails: near the end of his life he even discovered a new sub-species of snail, during one of his forays into the forests of his beloved Buller).
Leicester was not a cold, let alone cruel, man: on the contrary, he was generous and good-humoured. His distinctive way of engaging with the world seemed to me to come not from any sort of self-centredness, but rather from a profound equanimity. He had seen and experienced his share of human suffering, and the existential facts that trouble many of us - the shortness of life and the threat of death, our lack of control over many aspects of our lives, the limited amounts of time we have in which to make difficult choices - did not seem to hold any terror for him. In his last decade, at least, Leicester had a clear-eyed view of life because he did not feel entirely implicated in life.
The authenticity of Leicester's life was shown by the way he dealt with his own final illness and death. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer on the anniversary of the death of his wife Miriel from the same disease, Leicester refused chemotherapy, and calmly put his affairs in order. Auckland friends who travelled to the South Island to say goodbye to Leicester were profoundly impressed by the way he had accepted death, and yet maintained a keen interest in life. Looking through my e mail, I find a message Leicester sent me in the last weeks of his life:
My heartfelt apologies for my general lack of recent communication. Unfortunately it is not something I can easily rectify,as I am at present so overwhelmed by illness that my personal and business affairs have grown quite out of hand. An immense pile of unanswered correspondence awaits my attention, and I doubt if it will get much; I lack the energy and the self-control to attend to it.
In the meantime, until my health improves (which is not forecast as likely) please accept my thanks for your kind wishes, and, if I cannot keep you informed about myself, please at least give me your own news.
Leicester's equanimity had varying effects on his poetry. The poems he wrote about family and friends could sometimes seem patronising, because of the way he categorised and dissected his subjects. At other times, though, Leicester's distance from the conventional ways we think and feel could give his poems a visionary, almost Blakean quality. In Leicester's long poem Heteropholis, which Jack Ross hailed as a work of genius, an angel is turned into a lizard and dumped in a tank in a snazzy inner-city Auckland apartment, from where it composes a series of strange meditations on the mores of its owner and his fellow humans:
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
Leicester's religious beliefs remain something of a mystery. Although he had enjoyed a long career as a vicar, first in South Island parishes like Okains Bay and later in the Air Force, he gave little indication that he held conventional Anglican doctrine in high regard. Some of his friends wondered whether he had lost his faith, or whether he had perhaps become a vicar because he believed that religion served a useful social purpose, even if it were not literally true. Last year I got around to reading John Updike's novel Roger's Version, which tells the story of an ex-priest who has become a professor of theology in Boston. Roger Lambert left the ministry under a cloud of scandal, and has grown steadily less enamoured with the certainties of his church's doctrine. He has become an expert on the Nestorians and other exotic heretical sects, and an enthusiast for the ideas of Karl Barth, the depressed Swiss theologian who described faith as 'a cave in which God hears the echo of his own voice'. Lambert mocks his earnest students, who want to use Aquinas and computers to 'prove' the existence of God, by telling them that God is defined by his indefinability. To describe the divine, then, is to blaspheme. Lambert often fails to obey some of the ten commandments, but he argues, with wonderful irreverent zeal, that sinning is a form of homage to God, because it allows God to prove his sublimity by showing us his forgiveness.
Although Roger Lambert is in some respects a darker character than Leicester Kyle, his mischievious attitude to theology, his distance from petty-minded morality, and his knowledge of both the pleasures and miseries of life all remind me of the author of Heteropholis. When I tried to write a poem for Leicester recently, I found myself combining some of the details of his life with the story of Roger Lambert.* I hope I won't get in trouble by posting the poem here, as a sort of tribute to Leicester's unique contribution to New Zealand literature.
But life is just,
Reverend Lambert. We die.
The road into your parish
intercedes between poplars
as upright and as bare
as the cross of our Lord,
or the cane you walked daily
from the manse to the pub.
You went about this kingdom
laying hands, distinguishing the evil
from the tolerable.
A split infinitive on the back page
of The Press, the empty belly
of a Hornby schoolboy -
these were evil.
The tan lines of widows
Locals offer different reasons
for the lack of custom in your chapel.
Some say the manner of your leaving
made it tapu; others say the tapu came
after decay, to keep the kids away
from a fire trap.
Either way, I'm told, it's too dangerous
to visit. This totara beam might fall
and smite me as suddenly
as your cane. The weather might enter
through these arches,
blowing Paul and Samson
back to atoms of glass.
You would approve.
Dereliction is the world's duty,
you said, the gift God gives us
instead of grace.
A rat rummages under the pulpit
in homage to you.
*I should emphasise that the poem isn't supposed to be a piece of biography. Unlike Roger Lambert, Leicester Kyle certainly did not leave any of his parishes under a cloud of scandal. He was far too well-mannered ever to be the cause of scandal!