Prophet without Honour
Are you the kind of reader who goes for the fattest, glossiest, most shameless paperback on the bestseller shelves? Or are you the sort who snoops through ratty old second-hand bookshops looking for the esoteric and elusive: the promise of the unknown masterpiece?
Ezra Pound chanced upon Andreas Divus’ Latin translation of the Odyssey on an bookstall in Paris; D. G. Rossetti found Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in a remainder bin in Charing Cross Road. If we wait long enough, eventually someone may pick up a copy of Leicester Kyle’s Heteropholis in the stacks of one of our larger public libraries (defenders of the obscure, God bless them), and be similarly transfixed by this strange work of the modern sensibility. Why wait, though?
Heteropholis is a complex, multi-faceted narrative poem, not predominantly lyric in inspiration – which at once condemns it in the eyes of most readers of contemporary poetry (the only sin more heinous being what Milton calls “the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing”). It concerns a fallen angel, who has descended to earth in the form of a small green native gecko (species: Heteropholis gemmeus). This gecko has been caught by an apartment-dwelling Aucklander, and makes observations on his habits, on the weather (a subject of particular concern to angels, who are used to looking down), and on sundry other matters. Some of the matter is lewd, some liturgical. It is, nevertheless, a profoundly serious and, indeed, partially autobiographical work. No commercial New Zealand publisher will touch it with a barge-pole.
Leicester Kyle, like his lizard protagonist, has been caught. Poetry snared him late, after a long and successful career as an Anglican pastor. He had written short stories before that (notably for the Listener and the London Magazine), but his poems began to appear in New Zealand magazines midway through the nineties, and have now become almost inevitable features of any local publication. Like other late-flowering converts to poetry (Thomas Hardy, say, or Herman Melville), he is prolific, and could undoubtedly present us with a collection or two of lyrics which would take their place with the others so routinely reviewed in these pages.
Instead, he perversely insists on writing erudite, book-length works in an experimental mode (Zukovsky and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are acknowledged influences). His shorter poems have tended to be wry, ironic reflections on modern New Zealand life, which explains their ready assimilation into the bland modernism-without-tears of our present literary milieu. The longer works, though, defy ready characterisation. They display a darker, more rebellious gift.
In order, we have Koroneho: Joyful News out of the New Found World (which has been appearing serially in Alan Loney’s journal A Brief Description of the Whole World from issue 6 onwards). A series of descriptions of – misidentified – native orchids compiled by the missionary and botanist William Colenso are here versified and complicated by Leicester into a work combining the scientific and literary vocabularies (a continuing preoccupation in his writing). This is perhaps the most austere and “difficult” of his works to date.
Next comes Options (1996-1997), available only through Leicester’s own Heteropholis Press (now removed from its former location in Mt. Eden to the wilds of Buller). This set of four poems examines, with a wickedly satirical eye, a series of religious and mystical vocations. We have Evagrius, the fourth century ascetic; Jeremy Taylor, the seventeenth-century Anglo-Catholic Jeremiah:
Always look for death.
Every day knock at the gate of the grave.
… Consider the tomb
At your triumph; the skeleton
At the revel; the bones
At the banquet …
(Leicester comments, perhaps tongue in cheek: “It was my intention to make better use of Taylor’s humour, but I found this oddly difficult to do. It is here, but unexpectedly dark”); Fran, a thirteenth-century Franciscan mendicant transported to contemporary Northland; and finally Maria, the celebrated nineteenth-century dancing prophetess of Kaikohe. The disjunction of cultures and epochs might seem extreme, but that’s how its author likes it.
As a whole, Options is a delightful and witty work which deserves a wider audience, and which might have great value as a corrective to the mouthings of the New Age prophets who surround us in these last days of the millennium.
State Houses (1997) is more personal, interweaving tragic family history with the history of the first state houses in the Christchurch suburb of Riccarton. Leicester explains that his “dream-like recollection” of childhood “is set against the ideology of which the state houses were part” (hence the Bauhaus epigraph, and the various diagrams and maps), but that “progress is provided by a ritual house-blessing, an alternative ideology, which moves the family group from room to room, part to part, of reality.” This is an intense and moving poem, whose total effect can perhaps be best summarised by repeating the quotation (from Lorine Niedecker’s correspondence with Louis Zukovsky) on the dedication page:
“Yes I know you’re moving – in a circle, backward with boxes –”
The “moving” pun is intentional.
Finally we come to A Voyge to New Zealand: the Log of Joseph Sowry, Translated and Made Better (1997). “Made better” is a description cribbed from Talmudic commentaries, but this is more ludic, a bit of fun. The author has taken a real nineteenth-century journal, and teased it into strange shapes on the page and in the imagination. It reads as an affectionate tribute to the spirit of our pioneers, a fin-de-siècle version of Curnow’s “Landfall in Unknown Seas.”
As I mentioned earlier, Leicester Kyle has moved from Auckland to the West Coast of the South Island, where he can scribble, observe, explore and botanise to his heart’s content. The samples I have seen of recent work (including sections of The Machinery of Pain: a new sequence on pain management, prompted by close personal experience) promise some extraordinary new directions. My own hope is to see, eventually, a single volume, a little like the Black Sparrow Press collection of Jack Spicer’s poetry books, which will showcase his work for a larger public.
Jack will have his heroes, you may say. Regular Pander readers have already observed me constructing “hagiographies” (Danny Butt’s word, Pander 3:6) of Kendrick Smithyman (1: 10-13) and Kathy Acker (5: 26-27). But saluting the unorthodox is a principal reason for this magazine to exist, it seems to me.
There is nothing inaccessible about Leicester’s mad, funny, eccentric verses, seen in their proper context, but perhaps they do sound like a barbaric yawp next to the anaemic pipings of our other bards.
Now pursuing truth
I make new moves
and am more business-like …
I must learn more
I’ll take to interstices
I’ll live in the wall that divides
I’ll watch with my bespectacled unblinking eye
I’ll see all sides
It’s a strange thought, but I’m uneasily aware that in this strange flowering of Leicester Kyle we may be seeing genius.
[Pander 6/7 (1999) 21 & 23].
 For an example of the former, see Pander 3: 19.