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’7
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.