Time for a shave
I shaved off my moustache early this morning, in the aftermath of last night's successful launch of Private Bestiary, my selection of long-lost poems by Kendrick Smithyman. Skyler had tolerated the bristling thing on my upper lip for several long weeks, after I'd assured her that it was an important part of my attempts to 'get in character' while I prepared the eternally mustachioed Smithyman's texts for publication, but there are limits to her patience.
The launch party at Old Government House attracted about seventy punters, whose ages ranged from seven months to eighty-eight years. There were Emeritus Professors, controversialist bloggers, retired politicians, trade union troublemakers, and much-published poets in attendance, but one of the most distinguished guests was an overweight, middle-aged Jack Russell named Pippy. The hound is the near-constant companion of actor and muso Richard Anderton, who took the stage near the end of the launch and added his falsetto to Bill Direen's performance of a specially-written adaption of Smithyman's poem 'Inheritance'.
Pippy may appear perfectly amiable and move about in a slow waddle, but the dog can, at the right moment, be brutal: during the Christchurch leg of Bill Direen's national tour a couple of years ago it took to one of a senior Kiwi politician's prize bantam roosters with a ferocious glee, and only a couple of days ago it apparently disposed of one of the chooks of a neighbour of Vincent Ward while Richard was visiting the film-maker's home. A friend of mine happens to be Ward's personal assistant, and when she turned up at Old Government House and saw Pippy waddling in her direction she felt a rush of fear. 'Hide the roosters!' she urged me. Fortunately roosters were not much in evidence at Old Government House, and Richard was soon visiting the bar of the grand old building to request a large saucer or two of water to help sustain his beloved companion. It's probably fair to say that the bar staff don't often get that sort of request from the academics and senior public servants who are their normal customers...
I got an e mail a couple of days ago from Gerard Smithyman, Kendrick's youngest son, who lives in Britain. Gerard hadn't heard about Private Bestiary until I'd contacted him and asked if I could send over a copy, and he confessed that he 'didn't expect the old Dad to be still publishing'. Still, Gerard mused, 'if anyone was going to be telling stories from beyond the grave, it would be Kendrick!' And it seems that Kendrick is not about to shut up any time soon: after Yvonne Sutherland and Peter Simpson had helped me plug Bestiary last night, a sweaty (check out that photo!) but funny Jack Ross took the mike, and announced, in between a series of self-deprecating jokes, that his collection of the two hundred or so poems Smithyman translated from Italian is about to be reissued in a bilingual edition by a prestigious Italian publishing house. When Jack offered to send a free copy to anyone who promised to review the book, either in the offline world or in the blogopshere, there was an immediate surge in the direction of the literature table, where Titus Books boss Brett Cross found himself taking down names and addresses on his old mate's behalf. The literature table was also the locus for a competition we ran through the evening, as Brett distributed copies of an unpublished poem called 'Randall', which Smithyman had written about one of the more eccentric students he encountered when he worked as a schoolteacher in the 1950s. Brett had removed the last line of 'Randall' and challenged punters to guess it, promising a selection of Titus titles as a reward for the most 'literally correct guess' and the 'most imaginative guess'.
Here's 'Randall' without that final line:
Something about a fire engine
gets at you, it's special. How they come
howling, flashing and such
better than ambulances or cop cars.
Randall was really turned on by them.
That's why he turned in alarms.
Eventually somebody noticed: all those false alarms,
time and again the same kidding hanging around.
He was grabbed. They put the fear of God into him.
No more false alarms, get it?
He got it. Next time was for real,
biggest turnout ever, appliances from all over.
Timber yard, chemical stores depot,
gum trees at the railway siding, a garage and repair
shop, everything going up with a bang,
with sirens and flashing lights.
Psychs muttered about aversion therapy.
They weren't hopeful, "Wait and see".
[ mystery last line ]
Punters tried a variety of gambits in their efforts to guess the final line of 'Randall'. A couple of cool, rational types apparently figured that there was a good chance the final line of the poem would echo, or even repeat, an earlier line or lines. Here are the guesses of one 'Ivan V', Sarah Bogle, and an anonymous punter:
See how they come howling, flashing and such
better than ambulances or cop cars...
Eventually somebody noticed,
all those false alarms.
"Wait and see."
Paul Litterick is noted for his satirical blog posts, and the final line he supplied had a hint of satire:
TITUS WILL PUBLISH HIS COLLECTED FIRES ONE DAY
Richard Taylor, Jack Ross, and 'David M' supplied gothic final lines:
God was whimpering in electric and fiery alarm [Richard]
Randall just smiled. Somewhere inside he burned. [Jack]
Electrodes on the ready, no gel. [David]
Should we be worried that, according to the e mail address he supplied along with his entry, David works for a health board?
Lisa Samuels is often seen as one of the most uncompromisingly avant-garde poets at work in New Zealand, but the series of final lines she supplied for 'Randall' all involved rhyme:
He'll burn the Statue of Liberty...
Plangeant emissary of you, of me...
With their glass-blowing, as another possibility...
The real final line of the poem was 'We waited. Maybe we're still seeing'. Anna Forsyth, who wrote "Yes we will see" muttered Randall, fondling his lighter' and Sarah Bogle are joint winners of the prize for most accurate guess, and Genevieve McClean wins the prize for most imaginative guess after submitting these strange lines:
Frightened, inquisitive, slapdash and blue,
freaking out at the wind, the people's thunder, Mao Tse Tung
watching the mosquito Peter Simpson's erudite and eloquent address to the launch has been reproduced at Beattie's Book Blog, and will surely be used by Titus Books to help promote Private Bestiary. Over at her Timespanner blog local historian Lisa Truttman, who knows Smithyman's long-time home of Point Chevalier better than almost anyone alive, has written a generous response to Bestiary, and has discussed the image on the cover of the book.
My sincere thanks to everyone who came last night, and my special thanks to Margaret Edgcume, Kendrick's widow and marvellously helpful literary executor, and to the wonderful Graham Perkins, Kendrick's lifelong friend and wartime writing partner.