The Lifeguard #7

Finally the poems in The Lifeguard (including the ‘Shadow Stands Up’ sequence) have left their uncertain drafts behind and entered the world for better or worse in the book published by Auckland University Press and launched on a drizzly Thursday evening last week at Alleluja Cafe on K Road in Auckland. Now what you will read below isn’t provisional any more.

At such moments I get postpartum blues. I don’t believe the book’s any good. I suspect that people who say they like it are being kind. Worse, I can’t work up the nerve to write something new. I tidy up my workplace. I go shopping but realise when I get home with it that my new shirt is wrong, wrong, wrong. I cook over-elaborate dinners for six when there are two of us at the table. I open another bottle of wine.

Fortunately, Alleluja Cafe has ways of making you get over it. Most Thursday evenings at about 5pm there’s a happily voluble conversation club that meets for coffee and snacks at tables pushed together down the street end. So the book launches take place in a comfortingly immersive babble of talk. Last year, Anne Kennedy’s wonderful book The Darling North was launched there without microphones for the speakers, who were inaudible to all but those craning forward in the front row. This year there were mikes, so the speakers could be heard, but within the cheerful ambient sound-scape of the conversation club and its clattering cups and plates. This enhanced the occasion’s sense of fun, even if only as the result of something like canned laughter at a stand-up comedy routine.

Then, there’s the grove of potted palms in the middle of the cafe. The book-launch snacks were on a table on one side of the palms, with most of the guests and access to the drinks. By accident, I ended up on the other side of the palms, with some members of my family and a couple of friends. Thus, I had no reason to suspect that people were being nice to me, since for the most part I couldn’t see or hear them.

However, I could see and hear the people who spoke at the launch: Sam Elworthy, Director at Auckland University Press; Chris Szekely, the Chief Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library; and Anne Kennedy. Not far from Sam’s ebullient nexus are the press’s editor, Anna Hodge, its designer Katrina Duncan, its publicist Christine O’Brien, and its assistant editor Poppy Haynes. Close, too, is the book’s cover designer (and photographer) Philip Kelly. These people aren’t just nice, they ask hard questions, which is good for those blues. Chris Szekely represents the extraordinary institutional support provided by the National Library through its poet laureate programme and therefore to this book; within this span of support are two very special people: Peter Ireland, who is the always patient and courteous contact in Wellington; and Reuben Schrader, who looks after this blog. They’re not just being nice, either – they care. I am very lucky indeed to have worked with them all.

Then there’s Anne Kennedy, whose work I greatly admire and who agreed to say a few words about The Lifeguard. Anne’s writing is at once lucid and elusive – what she perceives with great clarity is likely to be a detail most of us will miss. Thus it was that she noticed there are quite a lot of bees in ‘The Lifeguard’ sequence of the book. I hadn’t noticed this, and (prompted by Anne) I’d like to be able to claim it connects somehow with Virgil’s Georgics IV and the story of the dying bees of Aristaeus... but I can claim no such thing. What happened, though, was that I later opened the book again for a quick look at the bees, and found I already felt better about the poems because there was stuff in them I didn’t know about – the stuff that comes from readers, not from me.

From ‘The Lifeguard’


A buzzing in the ears as if bees
were swarming in my thoughts

or as if my head had become
a clearing in the forest

filled with the never-too-late serenades
of cicadas at summer’s end

makes me long for the gritty obscurity
of the west’s waves

or the suave silence of eastern lagoons
through which pouting fish

mutely swim. On the other hand,
if I listen carefully enough

to the sound of my own listening,
I might eventually hear something.

The hum of longing seems to fade at last
into a kind of aural impasto,

thick and bland, without apparent surface
but also without depth.

Neither meniscus nor void, without perspective,
not flat and not profound,

without extent or distance, not able to be touched
and incapable of penetration,

not flattened so as to stack up the shoreline,
the sea, the salty spume, the sky,

but not tricked out as a mirrored infinity
or a beach-walk into the never-never,

neither free nor necessary,
not imaginary and not a law of nature,

not spirit, not matter, without colour
but not the whiteness of all colour,

not abstract, not phenomenal,
not even the kind of paradox

that would let me end this
hapless catalogue, not ‘a jar’

both round and empty that might make
the wilderness gather itself

around a hollow core of form – nothing like that,
nothing like ‘a long-legged fly’

walking lightly on water
as a metaphor for the mind

moving across the surface of silence,
nothing like that –

so what am I saying? That this may be
the sound of consciousness?

But how, then, to imagine the silence
of oblivion, a kind of oxymoron,

since there can be no silence
where its opposite doesn’t equally prevail,

the waterlogged yells of those
whose upraised arms

mark places where the frothing rip
drags forests of kelp

the direction of shipwrecks
whose phosphorescent ribs

flicker above their beds of black iron-sand,
or the hilarious shrieks

of revellers impacting
on the dawn-flushed harbour?

Yes, this could be the no-sound no-silence
of oblivion, but what

would I know? It’s the busy world
that sits outside my window

as if across a table
with wine and food on it.

Indifferent to the buzzing in my ears,
asking only that I listen and respond,

the world tells me stories:
That car whose windscreen glints across the bay

has a sad man in it. That yacht whose bow
pecks the wrinkled harbour

will still be tethered when
the next tide turns. The squawky sound

of talkback radio seems to come
from a patch of sunlight

or from the cat that basks there.
I want to call out to my lifeguards,

the one who watches my hope
flailing at the rip, the other

incurious as I loll in dismay:
Over here, guys. Find a seat. Fill a glass. Help

yourselves. Does anyone ever tell you how
lost we are without you?

It’s never too late, though
you’re not going to believe that.

Dave Kent

Dave Kent, one of the founding members of the Wellington Media Collective (WMC) which was active between 1978 and 1998, died on Saturday 27th April after a long illness that left his body paralysed but never his mind. I visited him at his home in Wellington a week before his death. He was no longer able to type on the iPad that had become his mode of conversation, but his wife Kathy used the iPad to make sentences from Dave’s minimal thumbs-up responses to spelling questions: vowel or consonant; a?e?i?o?u? – b?c?d?f?g? It was thus that Dave commented on his own appearance, which he compared to a wooden-faced Picasso figure. Given time, such conversations could have been the equivalent of slow-cooked dialogue, seasoned with humour. Sadly I didn’t have enough time for slow-cooking that day. Dave’s description of himself as ‘wooden-faced’ was pretty accurate, but didn’t tell the whole truth. A vestige of his lovely, self-deprecating smile was there, and many will remember it well.

My diary tells me that Saturday 27th April was Resistance Day in Slovenia and Freedom Day in Zambia. These anniversaries have only coincidental connections to the two decades of work by the Collective – and yet it would be hard to find a calendar of such dates that didn’t seem to spell out a slow-cooked statement about the kind of work and commitment WMC is known for; though its focus was local, its comprehension of the politics of engagement was international. When the exhibition of Collective work opened at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington in October last year (Dave drove his wheelchair up the hill) one of the most striking items on display was a two-storey high banner list of WMC clients and causes; pretty much any cause worth fighting for over the 20 years of the Collective’s life was on that list. The book recording the Collective’s work, We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998, published by Victoria University Press in February 2013, was launched when the exhibition closed. Dave was there – he couldn’t drive his wheelchair up the hill this time, but he did sign many copies of the book, which was dedicated to him.

In the book a common theme emerges: the importance of Dave Kent not just as a gifted designer but as a mentor and conscience within the Collective. Though he never asserted or claimed a leadership role, he clearly had a leading influence, even if he preferred to lead ‘from behind’. I wasn’t a member of the Collective, nor one of its clients, but its presence encouraged and challenged me and a great many others, and I was lucky to have known Dave Kent as a friend whose modesty and conviction I admired.

Dave was also a poet, though his modesty meant this has remained a more or less secret activity. With the permission of Kathy, and their two children Kirstie and Eli, here is one of Dave’s poems. Dave was a golfer, and here he’s walking along a beach belting a golf-ball ahead of him with a seven iron. And those commas at the end of each line – each one reads like a whack. As with the driving range set up below the urupa at Ralph Hotere’s tangi, it seems appropriate to remember Dave this way. I’ve never had the golf bug, but there’s something about the flight of the ball, at once chancy and planned; and the combination of mindfulness or Buddhist sati, and its companion state, when the mind empties and rests.

A walk spoiled

Seven ironing along,
The firm sand strand,
I scan the surf circus,
For a ray’s flag,
A beaching whale.
Treading the air,
Beak full,
A black-backed gull,
Cockles a casual eye at the ball,
Drops the pipi,
Follows it down.
Working the sand,
With their scarlet probes,
The oyster-catcher couples,
Gimlet eyed,
Watch the ball roll past,
And variously stalk away,
Shrill with disdain.
A successful strike,
High and straight.
A flowering puff,
Where it pockmarks the sand.
Another and another and,
I’ve driven over miles.
Punctuating the tracery,
Sharp and subtle,
Of lopers and interlopers,
Indigenous and invasive,
Recreationers and miscreants,
Walking talkers and debaucherers
Prey and predators,
Katipo and red-backs.
Between the firm,
Tide rummaged foreshore,
And the sparrow clouded,
Marram built dunes,
Lies a soft desert,
Densely littered with,
A bleached tangle,
Earth’s wrack,
Swept up by storm surges,
A chaotic and seductive decking,
Netting the coastline,
In a sand anchoring matrix,
As it idles westwards,
Narrowing the Ditch,
By centimetres a year,
Or quakes upward,
By metres rarely,
When our chief architect blinks.
Striking my way back,
Over the toes of the land,
A dark and green island,
Humps into view,
Swathed in vaporous trails,
Of death and retribution,
Shrill with songs,
Of waste and restoration.
Following a line of flight,
I see storm ghosts tramping,
Above the Tararua treeline,
Two friends holed in one,
By a wayward slice of winter.
The strand weaves,
Dark and shining,
Light and patterned,
With a shuffling mosaic,
Of foaming sheets.
As they draw back,
Into the spouting maw,
Black iron blossoms and rains,
A two dimensional cloud chamber,
Of sparkling grains.
Spoiling a walk,
With an iron and ball,
Over the earth’s wild(e) floor,
I see so much more.