I thought I'd post one of the poems that I've been considering putting into Private Bestiary here, along with some notes I've made on it.
‘Phases of absence, I explore...’
Phases of absence, I explore.
I go out from the city where men are
always saying, "The heart is here
dying", meaning "Bring back
business, into Queen Street."
They talk hard about arteries of commerce.
I go out, where radios tell:
Northland and Coromandel are exposed
to hostile forces; later, attack will be
mounted upon the city. Comes two or three
o'clock, rain or winds arrive
as predicted. You close the kitchen
door of an almost empty house.
Some body artlessly moans in her bedroom.
A vein left in her foot throbs
under burnt skin. 'It's my nerves', she claims.
'Let me sleep. I must go on sleeping.'
If I stand, because I shall stand
at a window not altogether shut,
I may look into a fig tree
where the figs ripen and split,
ravished by delicate white-eyed birds.
Gutted, the spoiled fruits wave
as branches move. New summaries report
troubles in New York, Pennsylvania
bankrupt, Michigan no longer can afford
expense of justice or learning.
This is a repeat broadcast.
I met a class for the first time.
Finishing with them I asked,
'Any questions?' Yes,
from a boy with a purple sweater.
'What is your name?'
there'd been something I'd forgotten.
Smithyman married his fellow poet Mary Stanley in 1946. As Peter Simpson explains in 'Sinfonia Domestica', the fine essay he contributed to Between the Lives, the collection of studies of Kiwi 'artistic couples' published by Auckland University Press in 2005, the marriage was troubled by the memory of Mary's first husband, who had died in Italy during the Second World War, by Mary's chronic health problems, and by the contrast between Smithyman's productivity as a poet and the bad case of writer's block that came to afflict his wife. The last years of the relationship were particularly miserable, as Kendrick struggled to care for an increasingly immobile Mary.
In a number of poems he wrote in the second half of the 1960s and in the '70s, Smithyman's gloomy reflections on the state of his marriage and on Mary Stanley's health mingled with misgivings about the state of New Zealand and Western society, and fears about an apocalyptic future.
The second half of the sixties saw the gradual end of the 'long boom' that had brought unprecedented levels of prosperity to New Zealand and other Western countries in the aftermath of World War Two. In New Zealand and in many other places, economic troubles coincided with the emergence of new protest movements inspired by causes like opposiiton to war, racism, and cultural repression. In New Zealand, the late sixties saw the rise of a movement against the Vietnam War, the first signs of the re-emergence of Maori nationalism as a political force, and the beginnings of the modern feminist movement. The period also saw the brief flowering of a massive youth counterculture which alarmed many older New Zealanders with its advocacy of drugs and its disdain for 'straight' society. The seventies and early eighties would bring deepening recession, strike waves, Maori land hikoi, and fighting in the streets over New Zealand's links with apartheid South Africa.
In 'Phases of absence, I explore...', Smithyman's attention shifts from his home on the North Shore, where his wife has been driven to bed by a severe attack of arthritis, to the national and international news, which report economic and political turmoil, to his job at the University of Auckland, where he struggles to communicate with a new generation of students. Sensing that all the things that trouble him have some obscure but terrible connection, the poet fantasies about a war or an apocalyptic storm hitting New Zealand. Smithyman's vision of an army arriving from the countryside to menace the cities seems to foreshadow the action of 1970s dystopian novels like CK Stead's Smith's Dream and Craig Harrison's Broken October.
In 1971 Smithyman revised 'Phases of absence, I explore...'removing most of its autobiographical references and giving it the title 'From the City Where Men Are'. Although the revised piece was published in the 2004 Collected Poems, it lacks some of the crucial lines from Smithyman's original draft.