Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A compendium for & of Dave Mitchell

who passed away last night.

Every couple of years

the photo below seems to make its way onto somebody's blog or site.

So I've added a poster below for the 1969 reading for which the mugshots were taken

& pulled out from the dreaming pelican some poems posted when noting the last time the photo surfaced.

High Country Weather

Alone we are born
And die alone
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

James K. Baxter (1945)

from: Night Through the Orange Window

I remember her as a fifth season
who came unheralded
into those lean months
shaming the precise blue evenings
with the proud eternity of her flesh

David Mitchell (1963)

For Dave Mitchell
"th prfct wrdslngr"

Seeing your poems, your picture on the
blue middle pages of the NEW ARGOT
I wish I could be with you once more in
"th cafe lebanon". It is summer, & the
spare tables will have been unstacked
& set outside; & we could sit there
in our perfect white tropical suits,
sipping pernod, smoking panatellas
waiting for something GREAT to happen.

Mark Young (1973)



Why / I am / thinking about ambivalence

I have just been invited to contribute to the obituary of someone who isn't dead yet.



He pauses, remembering having read somewhere that using "actually" as a prefix to a declaration often indicates a lie will follow.

He pauses, wondering if what he is about to say is truth or fiction. Not so much one or the other, perhaps a mix, perhaps a selective reading of the past.

He restarts. Actually, ambivalence is not what is disturbing him; it is just a cloak, thrown rapidly over the budding, the bubbling up of something that he would prefer to remain hidden, not to be thought about. Saying he is ambivalent gives him time to take the deep breaths necessary before starting the sifting process, the archaeological dig.

The obituary part of it does not disturb him, for the significant reality is that this writer has been dead to him for a long time, killed by separation, the act of not-seeing. What contact there has been in nearly forty years has been the gathering of memento mori—that first book of poems, signed, numbered, bought four or so years ago in a secondhand store in Auckland, thirty years after its publication—or the literary equivalent of laying flowers on a grave, writing a poem dedicated to & named for the writer.

& not just dead to him, but to many others. A decades-long wake, not talking of the dead but asking after him. "Have you heard anything of.....?" Now, it appears, it is time to exhume the corpse, even though it is not yet a corpse, since by the time the autopsy is performed & the obituary is written it may well be so.

He recalls that at times in the past, if a high-born lady fell ill, diagnosis would be carried out on a handmaiden or a servant for it was considered improper for the lady to be inspected deshabillé. Here, too, the first stroke of the knife will fall elsewhere; before writing the obituary of the other, he has to begin by writing his own.



Sidebar #1

The poet, in his early twenties, in the mid-sixties, makes the pilgrimage to Europe, travelling by sea. In England, he meets a folksinger of a similar age from Minnesota called Bob Dylan. He goes to Spain, & the scent of the orange groves permeates his notebooks for years to come. He meets & marries a beautiful blonde Swedish model who returns to New Zealand with him.

They live with the poet's mother & brother in Aro St., Wellington. They have a daughter. (This the narrator knows not through memory but because he met her forty years later.) The beautiful blonde Swede does not like New Zealand. The country is beautiful but the people are nekulturny, barbaric. (This the narrator does not know for certain; it is an assumption he makes based on the fact that the poet starts drinking again. Though maybe it's the whole gestalt, living with mother, having a child, having a wife who doesn't like the place & who reminds the poet that he, too, doesn't really like living there.)

Five characters then. More precisely, four characters & a narrator. (Though not this narrator; he is merely the recipient of an oral history which he has chosen to pass on.) Even more precisely, four characters & a raconteur who will tell the story later, who is the one from whom the narrator heard it.

It is too distant to be precise in the living arrangements. Logic—no, not logic, rather the kernel of the story—dictates that there are three bedrooms in the house. The brother has one, the poet & his wife another, & the poet's mother shares the other with her granddaughter. It may be that the poet's mother is visiting; & the baby normally has a room to herself.

Except on this night the baby gets sick & the poet's wife moves into the baby's room to be with her, & the poet's mother moves into the master bedroom. The poet knows nothing of this; he is out drinking, has to be a party since at the time this took place, bars in New Zealand closed their doors at 6 p.m.

The poet returns home round midnight, drunk. Staggers into the bedroom, takes his clothes off in the dark & jumps onto the shape in the bed shouting "I'm going to fuck you." His mother screams, jumps out of the bed & runs from the room.

(The narrator is aware that it is probably in poor taste to retell this story; but he excuses himself on the grounds that if he is to partake in the obituary writing, to perform part of the autopsy, then it makes sense to begin the cutting at a soft point in what will inevitably be a painful history.)



The Gallery Readings

The evening takes place in a gallery where the best contemporary New Zealand painting is on show. It's a dealer gallery; the exhibitions change every fortnight. Perhaps it's Ralph Hotere whose paintings are on the walls, or Colin McCahon, or Milan Mrkusich. In those days worth thousands of dollars; these days probably millions.

The narrator is comfortable in these surroundings. He writes about art—reviews, essays, even a book—so to him the paintings are the perfect backdrop, the perfect stage design. He likes the space; hessian walls, good acoustics. Intimate. Add to that an audience that enjoys—perhaps even delights in—being there.

It's near the end of the evening. Now the narrator is where he has always wanted to be, out in front of a rock band.

The poet & the narrator have taken it in turns to read. Then a break so the audience can buy a coffee next door, or some wine further down the road. The poet reads first when they start up again, followed by the narrator whose set this time is four blues written especially for this performance & backed by the band. They're simple lyrics; rhymed, one piece in ¾ time, another working over & around the famous Booker T. Green Onions riff. "Yr poems & yr songs will never right the wrongs that you have done to me/ & yet yr wrongs will never cloud the songs that you have sung to me....."

Then the narrator segues into Route 66. Driving rock, the Stones in everybody's mind, getting into everybody's blood. People get up & start to dance. The gallery owner is in the middle of them, then he suddenly rushes across to the switchbox shouting "the paintings, the paintings" & turns the power off. The room is plunged into silent darkness. A minute later the power is back on & everybody is dancing again. The narrator leaves the band to carry on on its own & joins the throng. The poet prowls the room looking for someone to take home & bed. Eventually everybody goes home happy.

The joint gallery readings are why the narrator & the poet are forever paired in the collective memory:
"...In the Barry Lett Art Gallery
I heard Mark Young and David Mitchell lay down their lines."
Bob Orr: Jerusalem

"My memories of Mark in Auckland are of poetry readings at Barry Lett Galleries and at the Wynyard Tavern. Dave Mitchell was part of a double act that combined the rhapsodic, the laconic and the hip. Wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, through which I still see art works by Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon, as though smoky nicotine were one of the cultural pigmentations of the ’60s; with lots of flagon red wine from the Henderson valley, drugs that were subculture rather than mainstream entertainment, and the jazz of Thelonious Monk (‘Round Midnight’), these occasions set my youthful benchmarks and probably gave me much of the life I’ve had. For which I am most grateful. "
Ian Wedde: Antipodean Hipster (A review of The right foot of the giant)
but they were never friends though something / more than acquaintances. They had gone to the same secondary school; for four years they shared the same turf; but the poet was a year ahead of the narrator, & in the hierarchy of schools, that meant their paths never crossed. The narrator was something of a jock—rugby, cricket, basketball—who later played in the school orchestra, had one of the leads in a rare school play, a Shakespeare suite directed by Richard Campion, the father of filmmaker Jane, who was teaching there at the time. He never came across the poet in any of these activities.

They probably met sometime after the poet went to university, in that overlap between uni & the teachers' training college of shared parties, shared pubs, shared acquaintances. The narrator has no idea of when. But Wellington in those days was, though small, a very active city; & because it was small, anybody who was into anything soon got to know everybody else who was also into something. The musicians knew the painters knew the poets knew the actors knew the gays knew the dopesmokers knew the dancers.

The first firm date that can be put on anything was 1963, when the narrator, having taken over as editor of a little magazine, included some of the poet's pieces in it. This does not mean that the narrator discovered the poet; far from it. But he did discover a kindred spirit in that both of them were influenced by the new American poets. It might be said that they walked the same street, though on different sides of it, but it was a far distant street from the main road of New Zealand poetry.

The narrator moved to Auckland, the poet went overseas, came back, also moved to Auckland. The narrator had the knack of turning out quasi-SoQ poems which he placed in the leading N.Z. literary magazines, & some of which were subsequently included in a number of overseas anthologies. He began to develop a reputation which he used to parlay publication of the poems that meant much more to him, but generally two or so years after he'd written them. The poet remained much more true to his craft, which meant he didn't publish much. The problem for both of them was that there were only a very small number of literary magazines in N.Z., & they were all running behind the times.

The next bit is guesswork, an interpretation of a number of invitations that are posted in a gallery on the narrator's page at the new zealand electronic poetry centre. The first is a mainstream reading, the narrator appearing as one of ten readers. The poet does not appear, though there is a note in Big Smoke that credits him with arranging it though the narrator believes (a) that if he'd organized it he'd be reading & (b) that the poet would never have allowed the wanky name that appears on the poster as presenting the evening. What is important is that it was the first reading in a newly opened gallery. The second invitation is the shape of things to come, a combined reading by the poet & the narrator, with a rock band in the mix.

There were at least another four readings over the next three years. The poet believes that there was another one at the usual gallery, & knows of one more held in a different gallery in town. Some of the readings had music, a couple had another poet included, Hone Tuwhare in one, James K. Baxter in another. But however many there were & what format they took, they had one thing in common—the poet & the narrator working as a tag team. Different styles, different approaches, but each was the perfect foil for the other.

These days, with so many places to publish & such ease to do so, one sometimes forgets just how hard it could be to disseminate one's work, especially for those working outside the traditional & isolate mainstream of a nation's poetry & who did not see any importance or necessity in being "nationalistic" in their subject matter when the world was becoming more & more international. Add to that a felt need to show that there were other, equally valid—in the eyes of the poet & the narrator, even more valid—traditions that one could draw from, other paths to follow. The gallery readings did all that.



day To

It is after midnight.

My toes are bloodied from broken blisters.

I take my shoes off.

I arrive home.

Korean dinner with friends.

Five books in my bag, gifts, swaps. Jill Jones’ Dark Bright Doors, Michael Farrell’s a raiders guide, their exceptional combined anthology Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay & Lesbian Poets. Both of them are over here. Read with both of them tonight, a great pleasure. Jill’s book was also launched tonight. The other two books I’m also delighted to have: Wystan Curnow’s modern colours, & the book nobody thought would ever see the light of day, Steal Away Boy, the selected poems of Dave Mitchell, now desperately ill in Sydney, but my partner in a series of poetry readings in the late 1960s in Auckland. “Mark played intellectual Baudelaire to Dave’s anarchic Rimbaud”, an Ian Wedde quote in the introduction by the editors, Nigel Roberts & Martin Edmond.



Otoliths issue #21 is now live

Once again it's a wide-ranging compendium, containing text & visual work from . . . David Mitchell . . .



Steal Away, Boy.


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