Bacon and eggs in Huntly
there are things that are good for you, and things that are not: One doesn't drive an Integra dude, and one doesn't go any where near Huntly. Try to pull your life together
Richard Taylor, though, went to the defence of the little coal town on the Waikato:
For years I have made a point of stopping at Huntly. I used to stop for sausages tea/and or coffee, tomato and eggs. I like places such as Huntly. I like the broad streets and wide footpaths of those rural towns, the yoked mix of beauty, stupidity and desolation, history (not that History is clear or specific in my mind, more a kind of feeling of time)...
I also loved going on the Limited (the train between Wellington and Auckland - it was steam when I was young, but it changed to diesel-electric) at night and stopping for tea and sandwiches at Mercer. I know that was not liked by others. I loved it. I prefer tea rooms to pubs. There is a greater feeling of isolation sitting and pondering in a tea room or a coffee bar. It is de rigueur for me to eat alone in such simple places...
Richard sent me a copy of his poem 'Lookout', which was first published in 1998 in the fugitive and short-lived literary magazine Salt, was republished a couple of years later in the similarly short-lived political mag Third Eye, and was collected in Richard's 2007 book Conversation with a Stone. 'Lookout' includes a scene set in a Huntly tea room, and has sometimes been referred to as 'the Huntly poem' by Richard's friends and editors.
After 'Lookout' appeared in Third Eye, an irate reader wrote a condemnation of the poem's 'impenetrable' manner, and of Richard's 'bourgeois' and 'elitist' tastes in literature. Richard produced a self-defence, a mixture of autobiography and polemic, in time for the final issue of Third Eye. Denying that he had 'ever had a silver spoon in me mouth', he characterised himself as a 'graduate' of New Zealand's 'working class university', the Otahuhu Railway Workshops. It was from other workers at Otahuhu, Richard explained, that he first learned about many thinkers and writers. Recalling the working class autodidact who handed him a volume by Jean-Paul Sartre one day on the train, Richard asked whether innovative literature was really as inevitably 'impenetrable' as his critic had argued.
Richard went on to explain that he began writing poetry in the late '80s, after encountering a book called Houseboat Days by a writer named John Ashbery. In the hours after he opened the book, Richard remembered, he didn't know 'whether I was insane or whether Ashbery was insane'.
John Ashbery has been one of the great popularisers of what is sometimes called the 'abstract' mode of poetry. Ashbery once explained his poems by saying that they aimed to recreate the experience of sitting in a crowded restaurant and overhearing bits and pieces of conversations from several different tables. An excerpt from "They Dream Only of America", one of Ashbery's most famous poems, gives an idea of the difficulties and pleasures of his style:
They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
"This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat."
And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily –
The lake a lilac cube.
In his entertaining book On the Outside Looking Out: John Ahsbery's Poetry, John Shoptaw argues that Ashbery's style developed in response to the politically and sexually repressive atmopshere of McCarthy-era America. Unable to discuss straightforwardly his lifestyle and worldview, the young Ashbery fragmented his language, substitued associative thinking for conventional argument, and used what Shoptaw called 'crypt words' to hide his secrets. Shoptaw's interpretation of the first stanza of "They Dream Only of America" shows the order hidden behind the poem's apparent absurdities:
The poem was written in Paris in the summer of 1957, probably on his thirtieth birthday. That day Pierre Martory, to whom [Ashbery’s second collection] The Tennis Court Oath is dedicated, made the luminous remark, "This honey is delicious/Though it burns the throat." In the summer of 1957 Ashbery was preparing for, and doubtless dreaming of, revisiting America; he did so from the fall of 1957 to the spring of 1958. Martory himself made a first, unplanned visit to America that spring. Though they traveled separately, the little poem looks forward to a fantastic voyage and an Edenic destination.
The misrepresentations of "‘They Dream Only of America’" are homotextual. The "thirteen million pillars of grass" suggest not only Whitman’s Leaves of Grass but the "pillar of salt" to which Lot’s wife, no pillar of the community, was reduced for looking back on the destruction of Sodom...The dismembered names of the perpetrators, "Ashbery" and "Martory," may be partially reconstructed from the line "And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily – ." The romantic secrecy of the fugitive gay lovers is parallel here to the French Resistance (Martory fought in its ranks) waiting for America’s liberation...The utopian "American dream" here fantasizes a time and a place where gay lovers could come out of their lilac cubes...
When and where is (or was or will be) the liberation? Was it when the American Ashbery arrived in Paris? Will it be when "they" arrive in America? (But Ashbery had left the United States partly for relief from its repressive political climate.) In the barns of Ashbery’s childhood in rural upstate New York? In the dandified countryside of Martory’s prewar France? It is always elsewhere, a state better dreamt-of than reached...
For Richard, who had published a couple of short stories as a young man but had then given up writing for more than a decade, Ashbery's freewheeling, defiantly anti-realist style was not only shocking but liberating. Ashbery's example gave Richard the confidence to spurn the linear narratives and arguments he had once associated with literature, and to instead record the flights and meanderings of his own mind.
I have always regarded the reference to Huntly near the end of 'Lookout' as a little gesture of cultural nationalism, or perhaps of cultural regionalism. Richard's poem visits Oxford and New York City, but descends from the towers and dreaming spires of these self-important 'cultural capitals' to a small and slightly grotty town at the bottom of the world, where the narrator enjoys not a learned philosophical or literary 'dialogue' but 'tea, poached eggs, and bacon'.
Richard was taught to idealise Britain by his Anglophile parents -'my mother said there were no baddies in England, only goodies and scones' he wrote in one poem - and developed, after discovering John Ashbery and other contemporary American poets, a fascination with Ashbery's adopted hometown of New York City. He made a long visit to New York in the '90s, but eventually decided to return to the working class Auckland suburb of Panmure, where he grew up. For all their abstraction, his poems are determinedly part of a local cultural tradition.
He threw up his black boot, and the yellow
instructions, striped by this time, descended the
resurrected mountain slopes into Good Wood and
gathered. Don Quixote was nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, the boot, possessed of a seemingly
endless derring—do and a fucked old poker face,
achieved great success in later life, and finally got
itself retired into a joy drum while it guarded an
ancient enquirer. What say we enter into a dialogue?
It doesn’t need to make sense. Come on. We could talk
to the stars, or write them? Could we not respirate,
or partake of a new cheese, or stop when we stop?
These quibblings thrill me. As only...it’s so like
Brautigan’s library of unread books: something taps
out a message about bullets and an insane
artiste...anyway, all that aside, everything’s so
terrible today I feel like a one-legged ant trying to
surmount the heights of Oxford at Balliol College
trying to impress a beautiful Professoress - as if
people had sexual feelings: it would be good to talk,
but I long ago dissolved into the eyes of your sea
blue wiseness, and forgetting pre-forgathers those
clouds of recollection as the kids kick footballs and
the woman asks jolly questions. I was never at the
right time but remember the intense astonishment of
the dead, and a woman, thirty or so, crying beside
the Empire State. In Huntly I...tea, poached eggs,
and bacon. Colour. Something’s missing, but the sun
burns energetics into the bean leaves, with its
intense, staring, and nuclear joy.