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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

1984 Ian Wedde

page 30

1984 Ian Wedde

page 31

My Victorian Year

The record shows that in 1984 when I had the writing fellowship at Victoria, I completed a big historical novel, a short comic novel, a book of selected poems, an anthology of New Zealand poetry, and a new book of poems called Tendering. An output of such heroic proportions needs to be treated with kindly scepticism.

Nineteen-eighty-four was indeed a good year for me: a year whose garrulous tides went in and out. It allowed me to complete much that was not, and to commit much that would not otherwise have got past the warm-up. Symmes Hole, a big 'hysterical' novel, was published in 1986: what happened to it in 1984 was the application of bromides. Survival Arts, described as a 'comic novel', was published in 1988: the crippled weka that limps out the tragic rhythm of the book's heart was one I'd seen when, self-marooned in the Sounds, I was finishing the first draft of Symmes Hole. It's hard for me to find the place of my Victorian year within these continuities. I guess, and could check, but do not remember, that the Survival Arts story that continued where Symmes Hole stopped, began to be written in 1984.

The note at the front of Driving into the Storm: selected poems says, 'Much of the work was done while I had the writing fellowship at Victoria University, and would have been difficult without that time.' The book was published in 1987, which suggests delays. It went through a hesitant development that was steadied at the editorial end by Michele Leggott who gave me the nerve to select and probably did most of it. At the production end, a set of brilliant cover designs by Gavin Chilcott, now in the collection of the Hocken Library in Dunedin, and not viewed by me until 1998, annotate a difficult birth. It was not during my Victorian year that these lovely designs were made. I saw smudged photocopies of a couple of them, which were not used. I never bonded with the hideous factory production that eventuated. I also, now, rediscover another phrase from the introduction: 'This selection stops at a point where I'd begun to reconsider what I was doing in writing.'

A mild sense of the ominous enters at this 'point', shepherded by a book that gave way to production what it owed to integrity—a 'point' which is also the point at which the end of one novel became the beginning of another. This flow-on I cannot find in my memory of the Victorian year. What I do remember very clearly, is the final stage of the co-editing of the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, published in 1985. What this involved for me, at the most personal level, was the discovery of a scepticism about what I was doing with writing, which would evolve into dislike, and subsequently into a decision to step away from the burbling storm-drain of narrative out of which books came by means of a process more like bucketing than thinking.

The work of editing a large anthology is profoundly humbling. You encounter not only the few, piercing moments of great writing, highly individual and remembered as absolutely specific, but also the immense emotional force of the collective minor. There is nothing wrong with the page 32 innate elitism of all writing with pretensions to individuality. But what I began to encounter in myself, as I looked into the mirror of the anthology, was more like snobbery: the critically endorsed belief that much of the value of what I wrote consisted in its individuality, in stylistic skiting.

This beginning of disenchantment; this first stirring of a sense of fraudulence; this desire to 'collect' the poems I'd written mostly in order to be able to start again—what was happening, was that my Victorian year with its surging tides of production was also the year in which I began, not yet deliberately, to stop writing.

What I remember most clearly of all about the year, with immense nostalgic anticipation (and apart from the dreamlike, fabulous, infantile, corrupting fantasy of earning money without any sense of transaction), is the writing of most of the poems in Tendering, presumably at the 'point where I'd begun to reconsider what I was doing in writing'. The writing of much of this book came out of the evolutionary crisis of my Victorian year. It happened on the evolved side of my doubts, over the fence of Driving into the Storm. The key poem in it was 'The Relocation of Railway Hut 49', in which the tale of my writing shed at home was interwoven with the tale of my great-grandfather, Heinrich Augustus Wedde, and with The Tempest. I still enjoy the way the language of this poem, and of the others in the book, stirs up 'the dutiful oil of narrative' (a grizzling phrase from the introduction to Driving into the Storm). There's a reference in 'The Relocation' to 'contenders' who are 'shooting up katipo venom'—they would crop up again in Survival Arts as one of that novel's insane variations on nationalism, which I do remember writing a lot of in the '49' shed, after my Victorian year. I particularly remember enjoying sitting in the scruffily bucolic haven of the shed, reading up about tank warfare in Vietnam (not in the University library) and the bizarre history of tarantula cults (deep in the cobwebby parts of the University library, which I visited with a mild sense of post-Victorian trespass). The mercilessly mechanical narrative structure of this 'comic novel', together with its manifest loathing of exposition, and its relish of mundane melodrama (I love the book)—these character traits also give notice of advancing scepticism and even boredom, and indeed the large novel about Chinese Opera that followed is, to this day, on hold pending my return to the writing I began to stop doing in 1984.

This is not to say my Victorian year was the one that stopped me writing. On the contrary, it was the one that made it possible for me to start again, which, fifteen years later, I eagerly look forward to doing. This is a paradox that will be recognised by other writers whose shit-detectors have been given the time to assist them grow out of their own needy relationship with writing. And let's be a little more frank—I didn't really 'stop', with all the chaste melodrama that implies. I relocated the effort, much as I'd relocated the Railways shed. My Victorian year helped me to start that process. It was a life-saver. 'The Relocation' is my testimonial.

The Relocation of Railway Hut 49

Yet why shouldn't I aim with 'tender'
the best stories begin
'you're not going to believe this but'
I'm still just a taut sailor
on shore leave in life
(time to get back in the tender)
like my tempest tossed great-grandfather before me
'Tend to th' master's whistle'
two white doves flirt by the water
Heinrich Augustus and Maria Van Reepen
Barnacle Bill and the Scandinavian Princess
I couldn't either live away from
how light stirs in the surface
(time to attend to the water)
sounds bound once in the braids and weeds of seas
or how the waves wash my spring head in sun
fishscales glittering on my dead father's arms
through how may lives' gentle propulsion
his sea man ship escorted me here
(pit ease sake against sea men)
and you can see
how the pitted concrete face of the city
begins to show the short history
of an early disenchantment
(certain material securities have not stood up)
drown the books
let purpose buckle against something of no substance
the rainbows that fall into our open mouths
our legal tender of breath
(here's just a pet food kingdom)
and the kids in Fun City
aren't going to walk in one day and say
'Enough Space Invaders, it's the revolution'
(it's just a dog food factory)
page 34 it's the first few ships
Cooked Breakfast, Bad Karma and Gaga in Toto
stirring light into the water
whatever acids history serves us to fling
that I can't live away from
(imaginary mountains won't budge either)
just heave to live ear
listen see man pen meander
the moon drips light through my roof
wind croons in my ear
wherever I am there's no where to go
(chance is just another iron butterfly)

And you easy mark for the sick
vertigo of underemployed responsibility
better look out!
Know where to go!
Is the light fading
will the Cruise Ship ram the atoll
how do you read your musical watch in the dark
and what happens next?
Way out west among the black iron dunes
contenders are shooting up katipo venom—
now there's nationalism for you!
Heinrich Augustus sailed through
the Dangerous Archipelago
beneath unfamiliar stars—
hanged if he was born to drown
on an acre of barren ground.
No vertigo.
Mid ocean reek of reef
mermaid's braids uncharted smell of weed
stellar sound of grief's wreck
passion's gentle helm
'Must our mouths be cold?'

page 35

Nose to tail in the pool
the swimmers turning and turning
I enter the tainted bowl of my affections
my chemical chalice
eyes grape pulped by chlorine
Through how many lives' genital propulsion
his sea man's tender helm engendered
to end here to prosper
This line I heave to Heinrich Augustus
This mouth I warm for him

As ship-rig pilot to this harbour
that the craft not founder
as reef and bar tender I sköl him
founder of my line
disenchantment and an end of meandering
here he found her
by sea man's nurture to tend her
his delicate dove by the wind's waves
shoving moonlight up the bay
outside the door of 49
the fast clouds roar
their shadow steers the sea
I tendered for the relocation of hut 49
single men's quarters
Thorndon Quay Railway Yards
you're not going to believe this but
$50 and got it.

Outside the door of 49
will be a slender almond tree
pohutukawas will scratch the panes
Past all realism the pet food kingdoms
green ache of barren drowned
page 36 broken knowledge of disenchanter's art
grave few whirled
The nearby smokehouse leaking mists:
eels, trout, chicken
49 dim in smoke and autumn dusk
the delicate almond whirling its leaves
Ships tended for weather tides turn
keeping tides to leeward of their pick
and 49's the bower I line on
while everything under the moon swings
Heart's vanity to prosper
brave new pastoral acre
in tended 49 my praise
pilots the smoky light through pain.

6 der Fischer
Hanging today the glass door in 49
Heinrich Augustus born in 1840
balance and an easy swing out
spliced his own tackle with a sewing needle
light casting its lures in
fouled the line and plunged in after it
sound of rain squall on the pane
double pneumonia in Blenheim in 1916
jammed any door I ever tried to hang
appropriate death for an old sea man
balance and illumination I can't do it
only thing missing was salt in the water
tomorrow, windows

Disenchanted city of few lights and less music
stand by pilot for ship rig
these clear stars of an Indian summer
one border your breath won't passport
harbour night watch man later
here in the dark no man's land
you draw breath like credit
how long can that last?
page 37 Steered clear of the army
ran to sea at fourteen and never been home
tending the tension right on pension night
schnapps intoning enlightenment
how much equity left in your barren domes
or hope in your heart pumping its orders?
My glittering dead father now
watch man pilot on his own death ship
remembered Heinrich's lone order and schnapps
'above all I respect his memory'
and all unnoticed by those armies
camped among their dazzling constellations.
Unnoticed Heinrich intoning Goethe
light entertainment
between their watch towers
the wasteful panting of your lover's breath
Hello goodbye I'm here I'm gone hello.

By the brave sail to prosper
on the strange sixth hour down under
drinking the new autumn air before me
amazing kitchenettes all sun set kissed
discover the world lovers at play
past all real ache men trod.
Spitting seeds from hut 49
orange's sweet cold cramps
sun kissed and tempest tossed
my little residence my making sense
the only conclusions ever reached
just heave to live there.

Ian Wedde (b. 1946) is a poet, fiction writer, critic, art critic and arts administrator. His major publications include Made Over (1974), Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos (1975), Spells for Coming Out (1977), Driving into the Storm: Selected Poems (1987), Tendering (1988), the novel Symmes Hole(1986), the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (ed., with Harvey McQueen, 1985), How to be Nowhere (1995) an d Fomison:what shall we tell them? (1994). He is a curator at Te Papa Tongarewa The Museum of New Zealand.