Nameless/Redux, by Leigh Davis, (Jack Books, 2013), 213pp & 127pp, plus DVD, $120.
Leigh Davis is one of New Zealand’s great post-modern poets. He is our master of the lyric long-poem sequence, our tender eroticist, our poet of the educated intellect, and the composer of some of our most liquid metrical lines. Willy’s Gazette (1983, 1999), The Book of Hours (2001) and Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life (2010) are undeniable bench-marks in New Zealand poetry. Davis continuously pushed the boundaries of the word and his last work, Nameless, was intended to create an environment of poetry that could be walked through.
Davis also had a ‘parallel life’, according to his 2009 National Business Review obituary: ‘In 1985, as the financial world was deregulated, Mr Davis joined Michael Fay and David Richwhite’s burgeoning investment banking operation, becoming a principal in 1993. He took a lead role in major acquisitions such as Telecom, New Zealand Rail (later Tranz Rail), and the freight operations of British Rail and Tasmanian Railways. He was a director of Tranz Rail until 2003, as well as English Welsh & Scottish Railways and the UK Railfreight Company. When Messrs Fay and Richwhite moved their base to Switzerland in 1998, Mr Davis continued to manage their telecommunications and technology interests, before forming his own venture, Jump Capital, a pioneering private equity fund.In 2001, he was one of 10 high-profile figures named in the NBR as: the money men who make the world go around…’
Just how we regard this biographical slant on the poet’s life depends upon our political and social convictions. Whether we see Davis as part of a cabal whose privatisation of New Zealand’s socially-owned assets robbed a nation of its communal heritage to create private fortunes, or whether we see him as one of the visionary capitalists, severely circumscribing governmental function in order to take a country into a free-market global future, is crucial to understanding him.
But Davis has similarly problematic modernist exemplars. There is Ezra Pound in his fascist period, T.S. Eliot in his casual anti-Semitism, and Wallace Stevens — to a lesser extent — as the aesthete sipping Chinese teas while profiting from insurance margins. They are poets who have been variously revalued, post-mortem, with one eye on the works and the other on the life, but it is perhaps too soon to balance Davis’ biography and his poetry in these terms. The information is still too scanty, the social wounds too raw.
It is clear, though, that Davis’ poetic works have been problematic in the context of their reception and influence within New Zealand. They have generated uncomprehending reviews and fiercely opinionated blog-entries. He numbered his real readers on the fingers of his hands. Davis neatly eschewed what he perceived as this delimiting field of New Zealand discourse by publishing himself through his own imprint, Jack Books, frequently in collaboration with artists like John Reynolds and Stephen Bambury. In that process he would stretch what the word ‘book’ meant, as both concept and artefact.
Davis’ first work Willy’s Gazette (1983, and reprinted in 1999) is a young man’s exhilarated launch into poetry. Davis uses the word ‘kenosis’, early on in the book – “kenosis (who were you reading?)” (WG3) — in a typically flip, throw-away reference to the theory of poetic influence outlined by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Miseading.
Kenosis is the third of Bloom’s revisionary ratios of a poet’s relationship with his poetic precursors. ‘Kenosis then is a movement of discontinuity with a precursor,’ Bloom writes, ‘… a breaking device similar to the defence mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions… The later poet, apparently emptying himself of his own afflatus, his imaginative godhood, seems to humble himself as though he were ceasing to be a poet, but this ebbing is so performed… that the precursor is emptied out also, and so the later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems’ (AoI, p14-15)
Willy’s Gazette knowingly and deliberately fits this bill. The poem is a cunning sleight-of-hand, the primal scene of poetry, taking apparently humbly from forerunners while in actuality enveloping and containing them in a vessel of the younger poet’s own making. In Willy’s Gazette the major ostensible precursor is John Berryman and The Dream Songs: this is a sonnet series, with a poet compartmentalised into various personae, and arcane and often private references. It is also a homage to Berryman without the haunting:
no Mr Bones, a
sunnier Antipodean Berryman.
The patois de birds in the tree’s
getting free and loose with their english
off any way, broadcast from green
wattle station and Willy
his toast and eggs and coffee
also conferring plaudits plus dits
too wry eh and the morning is
attractive, non-paginal. All he does
is rise over the Reserve Bank
crying and hanging like a bird
himself silly in the updraft this exercise must
loosen look across you lovely Mount Victoria
houses your flat planes and two
radio masts fire your retro rockets (p.53)
Willy’s Gazette is a poem of triumph. It is complex (assuming what the poet knows, the reader too should know), but Davis’ splendid lyricism and the rush and roll of his metre contains these references in a field whose velocity is Davis’ own unique finger-print.
In the mid-1980s, Davis was editing (with Alex Calder) the four issues of AND, the avant-garde critical magazine mass-produced on the University of Auckland’s English Department’s photocopier. AND brought a new level of critical discourse to New Zealand literature, re-evaluating old verities and introducing Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan into the mix. In effect, Davis was providing a way of reading himself as well as an overdue cultural revaluation.
Davis also gave a feisty and combative interview with Landfall 155 in 1985: ‘LD: I like texts which are dyslexic. If I find a text which has no resistance, it’s like pushing on an open door and I don’t find it rich and significant. And if you don’t find it significant it leaves this strange aversion reaction almost physiological. A lot of NZ texts are very confessive and they carry the underlying claim that they’re significant because they’re dealing with significant emotions. But if you don’t find those emotions significant you feel like you’ve been dumped on.’
But after Willy’s Gazette and his writings in AND, Davis would be silent for fifteen years, until the exhibition of Station of the Earthbound Ghosts, a series of 29 large flags, with text and images, which was unveiled at the Old Auckland Central Railway Station in 1998. It was a work that straddled poetry and art-object, inspired in part by Judith Binney’s Redemption Songs with its illustrations of Te Kooti’s flags.
Fig 1: Macoute. 1500 x 3000 mm. Dyed woven polyester bunting, with appliquéed dyed polyester knit, canvas head, sisal halyard and brass slip clips
Station of the Earthbound Ghosts was both an opening-up of the field and a challenge.
Davis’ next published work came in 2001. General Motors, a long poem, was based around a Cinquecento painting, the predella of a Carofalo’s altarpiece, titled Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving the Birds. It is a stark poem, stripped down to near non-poetics in terms of language, literal rather than figurative, declarative and somehow as programmed as the responses of mass.
Like the painting it is based upon, it is a work to be seen in still time, frozen, incantatory. Marjorie Perloff, the American academic and writer, saw it as a compound of Stevens, and Berryman and the later Language writers like Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman. She also saw a poem on the boundary between analog and digital poetics. General Motors had been released by Jack Books in both a digital and luxurious hard-copy. Perloff commented on the near-impossibility of reading the physical boxed book: ‘You can’t hold the box on your lap because it is too heavy, and if you place it on a large table or desk, you will still have trouble lifting the thin gauzy veils and turning the oversize pages. If you take all the materials out of the box, it is almost impossible to put them back in and close the cover, especially since the veils curl up.’ It was a beautiful object, though not necessarily an entirely utile one. The two versions, digital and hard-copy, were the first of Davis’ real forays into post-Gutenberg publishing; it would not be the last. It was also a poem written as a way-mark, a statement of ground, en-route.
The Book of Hours (also published in 2001) is another work which exists in various and different formats. There is a complex boxed print edition in 16 books, which include graphic pages with tide-variations and colour spectrums, created in collaboration with artist John Reynolds. The three parts (in their download form) consist of two graphic volumes ‘Tidal Wave’, ‘Burst’, and a long poem, ‘The Office of the Dead’. It is a poem of seas and tides, the patterns of movements of yachts, and a triangulation of position.
‘Poets tend to incarnate by the side of the Ocean,’ Bloom writes in A Map of Misreading, ‘at least in vision’ (p. 13), and The Book of Hours amply announces this incarnation. It is a full flowering of Davis’ lyric talent, loosely fettered by form. The poem, an ostensible account of the Labour Friday Coastal Classic, the annual Auckland to Russell yacht-race, ventures further out from the traditional beach location of New Zealand poetry into the great poetic sea than any other New Zealand poem.
‘The Office of the Dead’ makes a claim for a revalued New Zealand tradition, in a new open world of reference and human consciousness, swung on the currents, loose, and racing:
… Bourne in procession on a monstrance
Spruced in the presence of gale’s inscription
All over sails continuously with good space among them
Distant to the Cape now shrunken and clustered
Charred and heeling
Are there not 365 degrees?
Mitred perforations watery roads
Horizon intensified among them
Halogen bright through blue-black vessels
There at the flickering of blackish ones
At the flickering of whitening and reddishness
At those listing
The burning of us all and our undifferentiated colours
Past flourish freighted still
With westerly’s pressured signs and consequences
Dished to the origin forced forward and forced sideways
White white white white standing out … (p 207)
It is plausible to suggest that this long work has not yet been given its true placing in New Zealand poetic tradition by the mode of its production. The value of the limited edition (currently retailing through the Jack Books website at $250) and the comparative valuelessness (freely distributed from Jack Books as a download), plus its surrounding artwork, have conspired, at this stage of its reception, to render the book’s written text almost culturally invisible.
Davis also continues his engagement with national themes. For the first time, Colin McCahon is taken on board as the ultimate literary precursor, the painter who writes/the writer who paints. Echoes of McCahon’s inscribed words and titles (‘In Dulux density/ Heavy with lines’ coding and with lines’ misconstruction/ in housepaint white and housepaint blue’) underline the text like maritime signals. Davis proves himself one of McCahon’s great readers.
Stunning Debut of a Repairing of a Life was published in 2011. The book was a consequence of Davis’ recovery from brain-surgery which attempted to remove a tumour. Davis died in October 2009. Stunning Debut would win the Kathleen Grattan Award in November 2009.
The first part of the of Stunning Debut, ‘Know God (Soft Structure)’ begins by reproducing the handwritten pages of the poet’s notebook written after the surgery which had involved those sections of the brain precisely concerned with language. It is a humbling record of human will and the necessary endurance to reacquire a reformed tongue. The later sections of the book, printing Davis’ last poems, are the height of his poetic career. They are full-voiced marvels, returning to the 14-line sonnet-form of Willy’s Gazette, deceptively casual, and vastly elegiac. They tease out being and perception with apparent artlessness. They collapse into love and death.
This late work also continues Davis’ engagement with McCahon’s writing, both through the various texts used for his painting and through McCahon’s published words (the great and under-esteemed biographical commentary to the 1972 Auckland Art Gallery catalogue, and ‘Beginnings’ published in Landfall 80). This is poetry shucked of irrelevant content, stripped to the bone, like those images McCahon so valued in C. A Cotton’s various editions of Geomorphology, where the shape of the land is laid bare.
There are also the cadences of the Bible, in the King James version, which underlies English speech and writing as some great bedrock, and the more recent New English Bible, McCahon’s preferred edition. Davis’ late metre and poetic owe much to these translations, just as the same works founded McCahon’s written voice. Davis however removes its unnecessary ornamental struts. Just as his thought is a vivid series of perceptions, plain and sharp in a blink of light, so too is this new poetic.
In 2012, Jack Books would publish Nameless, the poet’s final work. The text is a great truncated masterpiece. It remains unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable in terms that Davis envisaged. Nameless, the book, is a bare script for a ‘rich media’ environment. It was to be walk-in poetry – immersive, floating, open to construction and variance. In 2006 the poet and his collaborators had exhibited Anarchy at Auckland’s Starkwhite gallery. Using all the devices of theatre — projections, music, sets, recorded voices — Anarchy, spread over several rooms, was a first viewing of Davis’ later thought on just what poetry could be and do.
Nameless and its companion book, Redux, contain a development upon the texts of this original Anarchy exhibition, plus a book of associated images, a DVD of a ‘fly-through’ visualisation of the exhibition by Bruce Ferguson, a reading of the ‘The Wedding’ section by actors Michael Hurst and Jennifer Ward-Lealand, and music by Alaistair Galbraith.
Nameless presents words towards a theatre of poetry. What remains is a scripting of something larger. Along with works like Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony, envisaged as being performed by multiple orchestras amid various landscapes, or the remaining notes that form the printed version of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, where Nineteenth Century Paris was explored through its various ‘involutes’ and ‘convolutes’ from rag-pickers to Baudelaire, Nameless remains a sketch towards a total art-work.
The text of Nameless ranges widely, from a ‘translation’ of St Augustine, to David Lange recounting Christmas in New York’s Union Square, and Colin McCahon’s visual record of a hairdresser’s and tobacconist’s windows. Its ‘cast’ includes philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, prison escaper George Wilder, Maori prophet Rua Kenana, and Duccio’s Madonna. The Nameless text that exists, as words on a page, could be read purely as poetry. ‘The Wedding’, for example, continues Davis’ long reference to S or Susan, his wife, more often simply ‘she’. Set simply in a bathroom, it is a recording of searching, finding, of bodily love, and concord:
Gong tones on the wetted floor
And I would have called out You there,
Where? but call and hear did not apply… (pp 49)
Davis proves himself to be New Zealand’s ultimate poetic recorder of a life-time relationship with a partner, from the young joyous summery flashes of Willy’s Gazette to the great ocean of a mature and tested love in Stunning Debut. It is a region of human experience seldom regarded by New Zealand poets with such intimacy, at such temporal and textual length.
Davis’ rendering of St Augustine translates the canonical author into a New Zealand vernacular. Davis’ ‘Weather Plays’ interrupt and frame the flow like panels of a pre-Renaissance painting. Characters come and go. It is a crowded summa, filled with visions and directions:
You are presented with these things in a place;
Broken cars, houses on piles, rock cairns marking
Past events; cattle that stare
And move slowly; a child on a horse, a church on a hill.
In meaning-blindness you touch these,
And incline your head, down and up in a matter of course… (pp 35–37)
Redux, issued with the Nameless volume, is an image-bank with a long biographical essay by Roger Horrocks summarising and re-presenting Davis’ career. The images are a rendering of the work as imagined by the poet and his collaborators, including artist Stephen Bambury, and designer Christine Hanson, who is indissolubly linked to Davis for it is her graphic visualisation of all his major works that we encounter. As an adjunct to the basic text, Redux, it offers some insight into the imagined work itself, a slippage across media, an album of ‘what might have been’. The ‘walk-through’ visualisation by Bruce Ferguson on the enclosed DVD is the greatest hint of what has been lost.
And there, for us Nameless must remain, a vision, a sketch, a plan. It is ‘Notes Towards a Work’. It is a rendering of a poet’s mind-theatre in point form. It’s a grand, possibly grandiose, culmination of a poetic career which aimed large.
It is a broken masterpiece, too cruelly closed, too early, by death.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland writer and television director.