Wednesday, July 05, 2006

More than pain: Leicester Kyle 1937-2006

When I met Leicester Kyle for the first time he was wearing a leather jacket and a broad-brimmed leather hat and stroking a long white beard. He looked like a cross between a religious prophet and a genteel bikie, and neither religious types nor bikies were common sights at the Dead Poets Bookshop's Friday night poetry readings. Leicester soon became a fixture of the late '90s Auckland literary scene, turning up at readings, book launches and conferences, and invariably drawing respectful but bemused attention from Bohemian hipsters and literary politicians alike.

It's not difficult to appreciate the reason for the attention Leicester attracted. Kiwi writers are, by and large, a dull lot. The days when popular philistinism and government persecution moulded us into interesting shapes are long gone. Nowadays we are encouraged by friendly teachers at primary and secondary school, allowed to study 'creative writing' at university, then provided with safe middle class jobs as academics or publishers' assistants or librarians when we graduate. We marry other writers, settle in safe leafy suburbs like Grey Lynn or Te Aro Valley, write about our cute children and our greying hair, and take yearly holidays in Greece or Thailand. Like I say, we're a boring lot. But Leicester Kyle wasn't dull like us: he was emphatically and effortlessly different. He had come to writing late, by a circuitous and sometimes bizarre path.

After a childhood marked by the Great Depression and by the suicide of both his parents, Leicester trained first as a botanist and then as an Anglican priest. Over several decades he and his wife Miriel ministered to communities as far apart as Banks Peninsula and India. After they retired and moved to Auckland Leicester began to write poetry, and Miriel was stricken with the cancer that would kill her in 1997.

In his fine tribute to Leicester, Jack Ross reveals that it was the old vicar's idea to establish the regular poetry discussion evenings that began at the London Bar in 1997 and continue today in the more sedate surroundings of Galbraith's Alehouse. I don't know whether it was Jack or Leicester who chose the London Bar as a venue back in 1997, but whoever it was may well have been motivated by a desire to forestall the labyrinthine monologues that tend to occur whenever poets are given a captive audience and a regular supply of alcohol. In those heady pre-smokefree days the London Bar was so noisy on Friday nights that even Richard Taylor in full swing after a dozen Lion Reds couldn't avoid interruption, as the wannabe Coltrane in the resident jazz band reached for a higher note, or a girl in a white miniskirt spilt red wine over Hamish Dewe. In the London Bar on a Friday night there was always a surfeit of reasons not to pay close attention to anyone's tabletalk. When Leicester spoke, though, everybody always listened. That quiet and wry yet solemn voice somehow made the jazz and the miniskirted girls disappear.

When Leicester spoke it was usually to tell a story, and the events in most of his stories took place decades ago, in obscure places like Okains Bay or the wilds of Bengal. Despite or because of their settings, I always felt that Leicester's stories were intended as urgent parables, as gestures toward some moral lesson that needed learning. Yet story after story seemed to evade easy interpretation, to frustrate the urge to moralise. Leicester's tales were at once unforgettable and elusive. Nearly a decade later, there are a couple that I still recall almost word for word.

Leicester's Story of the Young Man in the Gutter

This happened when I had only recently been ordained a priest and was full of a desire to serve God and humanity. I was hurrying down a busy Christchurch street through the spring sunshine on my way to an appointment when I almost tripped over a young man in a black trenchcoat who had seated himself in the gutter. His eyes were bloodshot, there was a brown stain around his mouth, and he was shaking feebly. 'Are you alright?' I asked. 'You look like life has dealt you a harsh blow' I added, as I looked at him with what I am sure was an expression of sincere concern. 'I was about to say the same thing to you' he replied, staring back at me calmly.

Leicester's Story of the Corpse on the Roof Rack

A colleague of mine and his new wife were using their honeymoon to drive around a remote and beautiful part of northern Bengal, but the young bride took ill and died before they could find medical help. He decided he would have to return her body to her family, who lived on the other side of India, in a little village south of Bombay, so that they could help him organise a funeral. But his car was very small, too small to spread a body out in, and he was forced to put his wife's body on the roof rack, wrapped in the mattress they had been sleeping on during their trip. For three days he drove across India, stopping only for a few hours' sleep on the side of a dusty road in the centre of the country. When he arrived at his wife's family's home he climbed out of the car with a tired sigh of sad relief. He turned to the roof rack to undo the rope he had tied the mattress around his wife's body with, only to see that the mattress had been stolen.

It seems to me that these stories capture something of the worldview that would assume sharper focus in Leicester's best poems. Leicester Kyle's world is a place where love and horror, order and chaos, life and death are balanced precariously against one another:

as if there were no town
nor warm things in it

just the jungle
on the first day

In Leicester's world, heroic efforts are made by humans to impose order on reality, but the very extent of the schemas that men and women build up - systems of theological argument, or moral justification, or botanical and zoological classificiation - betray the ever-present threat of chaos and death. Ultimately, chaos enters into and undermines attempts to impose order on the world - as Leicester knew only too well, botanical classification and theological explication both succumb to the chaos of subdivision and conjecture, as the human mind wrestles unsuccessfully with the infinite complexity and fluidity of reality:

We walk on a meniscus
under it is silence, darkness
depths we have no means to plumb

But if there is chaos in the order that humanity creates, there may also be order in the chaos of nature. Like Hopkins, a poet he admired, Leicester struggles to read the universe as scripture, to explicate its infinite details into revelation. Leicester's poetry is attentive to the way that chaos of nature can gve way suddenly to a brief mysterious order: he notices the way the symmetry of a fern can rise out of the rubble of the forest floor, and the way that the churning chaos of the ocean can throw up the sudden perfection of a wave.

Leicester's oeuvre is marked by an unresolved tension between the effort to impose order on the world and a yearning to surrender to the world. The equanimity with which Leicester greeted his death from a cancer of the bone marrow does not surprise me. One of the darker themes of his poetry is the role of death as the final solution to the shortcomings of all human attempts to control reality:

Making makes mistakes,
as in making us
who make ruin

Why did Leicester Kyle begin to write poetry in his seventh decade? By the time he retired to Auckland he had enjoyed a memorable career that had seen him intimately involved in the lives of half a dozen different communities. He had been a social worker and a spiritual advisor for hundreds of people. Why would a man with his breadth of experience suddenly start sweating over where he put words on a page, reading to tiny audiences at Bohemian bars, and placing poems in little literary magazines?

We may detect, in the poems Leicester wrote during his years in Auckland, a reaction to the role he had played for so long as a minister. The Auckland poems are frequently full of surreal imagery and situations, and show a fascination with sin, violence and death. In a sense, they are 'anti-sermons': wildly personal poems written to meet the spiritual needs of the priest, not the priest's flock.

'Heteropholis' is the best of the Auckland poems, and it shows the strange territory Leicester was mapping in the second half of the nineties. Written as the interior monologue of an angel which has been turned into a lizard and set down in a glass tank in modern-day Auckland, the fifty-part poem is filled with exact and unsympathetic observations of a minute yet representative piece of the city:

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

It is a small tragedy that 'Heteropholis' has not yet found a professional publisher. With its disgusted, fascinated stare at the city most Kiwis love to hate, the poem reads like a bizarre successor to works like ARD Fairburn's 'Dominion' and James K Baxter's 'Ode to Auckland'.

At the end of the nineties Leicester surprised the many friends he had made in Auckland by moving to Millerton, an old coal mining town on the West Coast of the South Island. Joining the local volunteer fire brigade, publishing poems about local people and issues, conducting botanical expeditions through West Coast forests and swamps, and throwing himself into the campaign to stop the Happy Valley coal mine, Leicester soon became something of a celebrity in the Buller region of the West Coast. In a letter he sent me for a recent issue of brief, Leicester explained the new role he had found for himself amongst the Coasters:

[O]ne does like to write for a known readership...being poet to a defined and dometic community has its attractions, a sense of professional belonging...In Buller there is a great fondness for verse but little for poetry, so I stand alone and unassailed. My observable literary ability, my success in conservation and botany, my involvement in civic affairs, have all pushed me into a certain notoreity in the region which, were I so ambitious, would give me satisfaction...

We can say, then, that Leicester's move to Buller saw him once again assuming some of the roles he had played as a minister. The relative isolation of the Auckland years had been left behind, and not unsurprisingly the tone of Leicester's poetry changed. The best of the West Coast poems bring the alienation of 'Heteropholis' into conflict with a sense of community, and an empathy with the people of that community.

With its storms, wild coastline, industrial ruins and decaying towns and villages, the Buller region offered Leicester a metaphor for the precariousness of life, but the harshness of the region had created a sense of community that was absent in Auckland. In his 2005 book Breakers Leicester wrote about the erosion of Buller's coastline by a violent sea, but also celebrated the efforts of locals to stop the sea and other hostile forces - economic, as well as natural - from destroying their communities.

One of the most memorable of Leicester's late works is 'Death of a Landscape', which is at once an elegy for his daughter, who committed suicide in 2004, and a cry of protest against the Happy Valley coal mine. Handwritten on topographical maps of Happy Valley, 'Death of a Landscape' expresses a collective as well as personal loss:

But it was more than pain.
So much love
polished practiced honed
lost dead buried,
then blown like pollen
from trees in the wind.

I felt the some of the same sense of loss when I learned of Leicester's death yesterday.


Blogger Richard said...

And this where he learnt from the Langauge poets - that poem is brilliantly placed on a map (so perhaps like Joanna Paul -who he knew very well - the writing and the 'art' are essentially integral) (or the map can be seen as kind of text or part of he text as are maybe Jack Ross's symbols etc) - he shared an interest in maps (and weather maps etc) with (many people of course) but one thinks of Smithyman -hence 'Reading the Maps' - Leicester learnt from everyone he met - including myself - he came to my Panmure Poetry Club in 1994 - I think I got him onto Ashbery (he particularly liked the poem "Laucustrine Cities" and "lacustrine" was a word he used later and other words or phrases that Ashbery used -he acknowledged this mostly) and the so-called Language poets and probably thus to Zukofsky who he utilised (perhaps as a model because of LZ's fascination with words and word origins) - he used phrases from Ashbery -and also probably he learnt from Alan Loney (more about Zukofsky and hence he read "A" completely and "Bottom" by L Z and also the Neidecker-Zukofsky correspondence was also fascinated by "A" but mainly by Neidecker. He also liked Graham Lindsay's work. Of the poets he knew, one was Alan Loney who published Koreneho - so Leicester was the only person outside of Loney's writer's group to get into ABDOTWW (now Brief) he met and had talks with and many others (Stu Bagby) (people at Poetry Live) and Alistair Patterson who helped him with the manuscript of "Koreneho" which I have a copy of - or at least the first "galleys") Leicester wanted my comments - I was enthusiastic about Koreneho but wanted him to fragment it even more than he did - but he changed very little as faras i can recall - it is a brilliant work as he did it - he was alert to a wide range of poets (David Howard eg) without being uncritical -

But Leicester never descended into any aloof intellectualism or elitism. He was a warm man and obviously liked people (many).

Then in Buller these works combined with the deeply personal and the local and the "intellectual" (he always had a strategy) - and often there is satiric or comic aspect but under that is a deeper darker sense of the universe. And a sense of the people in that universe (e.g.the ordinary extraordinary kiwis of his ANZAC book/poem ("Five Anzac Liturgies")). There is chaos struggling with order but there is also joy.

I and others have lost not only a wonderful man of great mana, but major poet in NZ and hence in the world - for he was a New Zealander - a South Islander he asserted - but his work could be read anywhere ultimately.

He could be stubborn and annoyingly so but I feel that he was in all a man of great integrity - no matter what occurred in hs life (he endured some awful tragedy) - The Leicester Kyle I knew was wonderful man. I recall once telling him of my diifculty being at poetry readings and really getting "into" the scene without drinking heavily -and he said "Why can't you just *be*?". He emphasised the BE. But it was not said invasively or preachingly - it was a strong but quiet and a useful comment for me. He was always very positive about my own poetry and wrote good review of my book RED (as did Raewyn Alexander - thanks Raewyn) which he submitted to The Listener but they didn't want to know.

But he was of great help and to me and his humanity and love and strength were always there -he is thus in Baxter's league - he may come to be of a similar legendary status - I used to phone him quite regularly (bitterly I know there is now one less person I can phone and exchange views and feelings) and we would talk of people and poetry and other matters; and we would joke; and he was always interested in what I and others were doing. He was rarely - if ever - negative - but when it came down to crunch, he had strong views.

I am deeply saddened at his passing; but I was gladenned by his life.

10:43 pm  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

This is a splendid piece -- expansive and celebratory and yet with the necessary critical edge. Just one minor correction: Miriel died in 1998, not 1997 -- in March, I think. Leicester wrote to me that his own diagnosis with terminal cancer was on the anniversary of her death ...

11:01 am  
Blogger Asher said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I can honestly say that Leicester's writing has been an inspiration to so many of us involved with the Save Happy Valley campaign, and I regret that I never had the chance to meet him in person.

12:39 pm  
Blogger Asher said...

I had this emailed to me today, with a request to put it on here, from Pete Lusk.

"I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to post something here, because it wasn't possible for our family to get to Leicester's funeral in Christchurch today. As the next best thing we went up to Millerton and walked along some of the historic tracks Leicester helped re-open at the Old Dip and Millerton mines.

When he came to live in Millerton it was as if a tornado had hit the place. Not a violent tornado of course. That would be out of character. Rather it was a methodical and very polite one as Leicester immersed himself in the community (firebrigade, Millerton radio station) and the botanical glories of the coal plateau.

I met him through the local conservation group, but quickly realised we shared another interest - coalfield's history. I have a collection of Marxist books, some bearing the names of long-dead communist miners. Marx's Capital is hard enough to read, but Anti-Duhring by Engels is a shocker. It's all theory and counter-theory, intensely academic, and to most mortals, barely decipherable. I've never got past the first chapter. But Leicester read it cover to cover and enjoyed it.

I went on several walks around the moonscape of Stockton Mine with Leicester and his dog Red. We did it when the mine was on holiday, at New Year and Easter.

The place has an unusual botany, and Leicester's probing revealed several new species of alpine herbs. I could see the pain the opencast mining caused him - it's not just the famous Mt Augustus snail that's headed for extinction.

Leicester became a regular at Buller Conservation Group meetings but one day announced he wouldn't be coming anymore. The conflict between miners and greenies was too much for him. I felt it went back to his vicar days - it's not a vicars job to have enemies.

Despite missing meetings, Leicester kept us up with all the mining gossip and supported the young people of the Save Happy Valley Coalition with their protest occupation. But I know he felt overwhelmed by the Machine that is Solid Energy. His Lament For a Landscape assumes the destruction of Happy Valley.

Leicester loved the Coast - he'd been here often on holiday as a child. And he told me his Coast-born father never fully acclimatised to living in Canterbury.

I went to a couple of Leicester's poetry readings is Westport. I felt he was very happy writing for a small community. Any wider recognition was a bonus.

I loved his stories - told with a glint in his eye and his special economy of language. The one that comes to mind was when he swapped parishes for six months with a vicar from Sheffield in England. The Sheffield parish was very poor - this was brought home to Leicester when he got sick and joined the depressing queue outside a doctors surgery in the winter cold.

His misery wasnt helped when he found he wasnt being paid - the English vicar had retained his old salary while also being paid in New Zealnd and saw no need to change the arrangement.

Pete Lusk"

9:07 am  
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