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Memoir—three short pieces

& then went out into the wilderness

My wanderings in the countryside go further. 30 kilometres, 50 kilometres out, & then cut cross-country in that wider arc so the whole journey ends up being between 100 & 200 ks. Placenames become places. I reach the hills & edge across the lower parts of them. Some of the streambeds have pools of water. The vegetation changes. Very few trees. Now bushy shrubs & grass. There is a different variety of cattle. Few birds, the ubiquitous crows, & quail that scuttle along the road. In the high places I look down & do not recognise the landscape.

The movie titles are also different. Here there is no two-lane blacktop, or risk of white line fever. Basically a single lane, unsealed road, the gravel ridged between tyre tracks. Very few cars, one or two only, no-one ahead or behind, always from the other direction, the driver waving their thanks as you pull over to let them pass by. I discover I have traveled on one of the roads before, coming from the other direction, giving up & turning around because I thought it was going nowhere.

The farms have entrance ways taken straight from Ponderosa. But the names are still those derived from dreams of England. Too far out for a regular weekly rubbish collection. There are dumpsters instead of wheelie bins beside the gate.

If the highways are arteries & the minor roads veins, then these are capillaries. There are locations rather than pockets of residence.

Public phone.

A hundred metres of sealed road on either side, to keep the parents happy.

Only when you reach the highway is there a shop, ostensibly a service station but getting most of its trade from the ancillary trinity of offerings ⁠— food, a place to park, somewhere to piss. A place to graze rather than a place for serious shopping.

Now I know why my local supermarket is full of stetson hats.

A response to an email from Richard Lopez

"Define the influences."

No poetry.

Science fiction (my brother) & crime novels (my parents). Some intuitive sense of discernment. The writers I liked most were those I later realised were the best. Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Blish, Leiber, Bester; Hammett & Chandler. In them the seeds of my later socialism. The writers I didn't like were right wing (realised later) even fascist — Heinlein. Think about the movie of Starship Troopers.

My mother wrote light poetry (typewriter). My father was a freemason & gave talks on aspects of the Craft (exquisite penmanship). Came down on the side of the typewriter. Something about touching the keys, approaching them, pushing the air away. A separatedness not found when I held a pen. Not yet realised. To come later.

Jazz. From age 12 or 13. Shortwave radio. The Voice of America (the beginning of one part of the duality; the other part started with the Vietnam war). Willis Conover at 11 p.m. local time. Ellington's A Train. Clunked Chords. Deelyeeda. Deelyeeda. You……..must take the A Train. & busstops. Never underestimate their importance in the way you grow up. People you meet. But mainly the shops near by.

So one busstop had a record shop. With a salesman who also liked jazz. Where I started buying. The boppers. Post-bebop. Charlie Parker dying. Tadd Dameron dead. Fats Navarro dead. But Miles very much alive. & the Modern Jazz Quartet. & Dizzy. & Monk. & Gerry Mulligan. & Rollins & Coltrane coming through. & also King Pleasure who put words to jazz solos.

& somewhere in there, from somewhere before, Bach. I remember playing Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring on a harmonica. Aged 8.

Hit parades. Nat King Cole & Frank Sinatra. Billy May & Nelson Riddle backing.

Movies. Lassie Come Home at age five or six. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator at age twelve, the night before we moved to Wellington. & in between the biblical epics, the westerns, & film noir. I loved Bogart. & Gary Cooper. Do not forget me oh my darling.

Then the overlapping that / shapes us all. 14, 15, 16. Blackboard Jungle & Rebel Without a Cause. Poitier, James Dean, Sal Mineo. Juvenile delinquent; but at the same time learning to play the contrabass, arco, classical. College orchestra. Joyriding at night; & coming across in one of the escapades the beginnings of the university jazz club. The bohemians of the Uttar Pradesh. Digging them. Angelheaded hipsters, but the words barely writ yet across the Pacific. & at the same time, somehow, on the nights not joyriding or kept at home, joined the local film society, 16mm prints, Satayjit Ray, Renoir, Cocteau, Kurosawa, Bergman, Bunuel.

The melting pot. Add rock n roll & then black r&b. Start playing jazz. Add reading the writers you came to through film, Cocteau, Jacques Prévert. Discover the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico & Magritte. Move on to the Surrealist writers. Kerouac falls into your lap, On the Road recommended by a drummer you thought hadn't read a book in his life. Hear an album called Poetry & Jazz that has pieces by Whalen & Ferlinghetti on it, plus Hoagy Carmichael reading WCW, the master. Discover Ginsberg in the daily papers. Write your first word piece, The Pied Bopper of Harlem, about a Charlie Parker character who comes along & knocks down all the oldtime jazz musos. Write your own music for your own group.

Get brought down by young man's angst. Decide you have to work it out & words seem a sensible way to go. Write your first poem. & another. & another. Colloquial words. Broken lines. A natural way of writing. Uninfluenced. Your mother says send them off to The Listener, a national weekly. You do. They are accepted.

So poetry.

As a Poet you are expected to write, to mix with other writers, to be influenced. So I did, & wrote shit. Angry young man shit, surrealist shit, school of quietude shit, imitative shit. But whilst doing it started discovering people whose writing I liked. Through Evergreen Review mainly. No local poets, never any local poets. & serendipity. Discovering a paperback in the stuff left over by previous tenants of a house which some friends of mine were moving into. Thinking the Miller on the cover was Arthur Miller, husband of Marilyn Monroe, author of Death of a Salesman. Halfway through realised it was Henry M. Had never heard of him before.

Which is where the other busstop comes in. The busstop opposite which was a secondhand bookshop. Where over the next few years I found more Miller, & through him Rimbaud, & Baudelaire, & 1930’s surrealist journals, & Paul Eluard & J.P. Donleavy & Borges & Apollinaire &&&.

But the book that changed everything for me was NEW. The Book. Probably brought in through the Japanese Embassy where I started working in 1961, & out of where because of (a) no currency restrictions & (b) no inspection by Customs, I managed to buy more (banned) Miller followed by the rest of the Olympia Press catalogue — Genet, Trocchi, Durrell, Burroughs, Nabokov, Southern; took out a subscription to Evergreen Review followed up by the rest of the Grove Press list; a lot of New Directions books; all the City Lights list, plus Totem/Corinth & the other small presses that were springing up in the U.S. (& which is why I have only ever read minimal amounts of Zukovsky).

The Book. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen. Sadly passed away. It is probably impossible to over-estimate the influence the poets, individually or collectively, in this book had on the writers of my time, my age. (Though not in New Zealand where it was the end of the decade before things started to change.) It is one of only three books I have managed to keep with me for most of my adult life. (The others: The Ascent of Man, Jakob Bronowski's book from his TV series of the same name, & The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas M. Kuhn's redefinition of paradigms.)

For me five poets in the book — Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Charles Olson & Frank O'Hara — became my major influences. Many of the poems I wrote between 1962 & 1967, as I was developing my own voice, carry the influences of at least one of them. & other poets in TNAP, like Kenneth Koch, showed me that poetry could be / should be humourous.

From outside, add William Carlos Williams. I never got over Tract. & slightly later Paterson & Pictures from Brueghel. & there are other poets that I like, or at least poems by them — Eluard, Apollinaire, Rexroth, Whitman, Yeats, Celan – which helped keep me on the curved & wide. But it is the five + one that I owe most too.

They provided the diction. The voice comes from the other influences I've mentioned above. Include things physical or geographic — mountains, sea, trains; getting places by walking to them for most of my early adult years. & don't overlook such things as the music professor at university who would grab me in the corridor & say 'come here jazz man' & sit me down & play Bach for two hours at a time on the harpsichord he kept in his office. A double-feature continuous movie house that changed its bill every two days & where I was exposed to the complete American International canon of Roger Corman & others during those years I was supposed to be obtaining an academic education from an English Department that hadn't read a novel written since 1900.

Why does it not
surprise me that

when I am alone
it is music that I

seek out?

La Dolce Vita

I was born during the Second World War, a few weeks before Pearl Harbour was bombed. The war had been going on for more than two years, but for the few weeks just before my birth, reports of the European conflict were secondary, were carried on the inside pages of the local paper. The small town of Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand — with a population of about 5000 people, & isolated by its geographical location — was more concerned with the activities & the pursuit of Stanley Graham.

Graham, for whom there is still some sympathy, killed seven people in two days, beginning with several policeman who had been called out to investigate threats by Graham against his next door neighbours. The pursuit lasted almost a fortnight, with a few more deaths, before Graham was shot & fatally injured by a police sniper from Auckland who had been seconded to the search party. His funeral was conducted by the local vicar, the same vicar who, not all that much time after, would baptise me.

I obviously have no memory of the events of those twelve days, nor of the war going on in Europe. So distant, & only my uncles there. But I do have memories of the ration coupons that were issued during & for the few years after the war so that limited purchases of imported foodstuffs such as tea & oil & sugar could be made. A treat for me in those days was drinking a cup of Bushell's Coffee & Chicory Essence, though as my taste buds developed & I was exposed to unadulterated — not too much anyway — coffee, I gradually realised what a foul brew it was. But still available on the local supermarket shelves, though Christ knows who would want to drink it in this day & age.

Sugar, although refined in N.Z., was imported from plantations in Fiji, worked by the descendants of indentured labour brought in from India & whose presence & eventual ownership of much of the commerical wealth of the Islands has been the root cause of the ethnic tensions that have lead to several coups & uprisings.

We didn't use much sugar, mainly for cooking, never in coffee & tea, though whether this was because of the rationing or my parents' upbringing I have no knowledge. But I had two memorable experiences connected with Sugar during my time in N.Z.

The first was when I worked on the wharves in Wellington during my school holidays. Changing my birthdate on some documentation meant that I could get an identity card to work as casual non-Union labour, seagulling as it was known after the manner of the distribution of work, everybody clustering around in a hiring hall & hoping that some scrap of employment would be thrown their way. It was well-paid work; the basic rate was good, but on top of that were the penalty rates that the Union had negotiated — dirt money, danger money, freezer money, scrap metal money, & probably a few others that I have forgotten about.

Handling scrap metal sounds both dirty & dangerous: it was neither. The wharf crane would bring up a skipful of scrap, attached by a hook at each corner. The hold gang had twelve people in it, six pairs. In turn, each pair would unhook two of the corners, the hatchman would wave at the crane-driver, & then the crane would draw the skip up again, but hooked only at the one end, so that all the metal would come sliding out & into the hold. Six pairs, six skips an hour. Do the maths.

On top of the basic rate & the penalty rates, you'd also get bonuses for turning a ship you worked on around in quick time. Sometimes these bonuses were as high as three times the basic hourly rate. Well-paid. Easy work.

Most days anyway. The two bad days I had in what probably amounted to six months cumulative work both involved 140lb sacks. Both were cargoes that the permanent workforce stayed away from ⁠— nothing to pilfer, & continuous & hard. The first day was coal, packed manually into the holds of a coaster. No such thing as pallets, or safe-working weights in those days. Grab the sack out with your fingers, drag it to a rope sling, stack it with maybe 20 sacks & then whistle for the crane to lower its hook. Coal dust everywhere, broken fingernails, shithouse work.

But not as bad as sugar which was shipped the same way. Bags would burst & grains of sugar would rain down on you, mix with the sweat, get in your hair, your eyes. An hour or so, & if heat had been applied, you'd turn into a toffee apple.

My second dealing with Sugar came in Auckland in 1969, my last year in New Zealand. To add to the many bits & pieces I was doing to support myself, I decided to bring out some small / thin books of poetry under the imprint of The Poets' Co-operative.

The first two, one by Dave Mitchell & one by myself, came out without hassle, sold well enough at a $1 a pop. Fairly rare now. The third was to be a poem by James K. Baxter, probably the best-known N.Z. poet of the time & still revered. It was called Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Factory, was a none-too-complimentary account of JKB's days working there, & had a cover done by one of the local painters — possibly Pat Hanly — with the title & author replacing the normal text of the 1 kg bag of sugar produced by the monopoly sugar refinery.

I got a proof copy in the morning, read it through at the printers ⁠— yes, they were thin books ⁠— told them to go ahead & do the run & went off, taking the proof copy with me. I went back in the afternoon & discovered that they'd pulped the entire run. Apparently the owner had come back, seen the book, recognised the usurped design on the cover, read the poem, freaked out, contacted his lawyer who in turn contacted the lawyers for the sugar company — now known as CSR, then known as Colonial Sugar Refineries which says it all — who threatened to sue the printer if the book came out. I was told never to darken his doorstep again, a pity, because he was a good printer, & who knows what other books might have followed.

I went off with my copy to see my lawyer who read it & told me there was not much he could do because even though there was little to the claim, there was an awful lot of money & power behind it. Fool that I was, I left that single copy with him when I left to consider my options.

The Ballad came out some months later, not through me, but published anonymously as a broadside without any cover. I left the country about the same time. Occasionally I wonder where that single copy, which would truly be a collector's item, ended up.

Almost 50 years later I have ended up in a small town in North Queensland with a population about the same that Hokitika has now, whose primary reason for existence is the growing & crushing of sugar. Come evening in the season, the cane fires start up & smoke fills the sky. On the radar maps of the website of the Bureau of Meteorology, the fires show up as rain clouds. Known locally as Burdekin Snow, cane thrash — the burnt leaves of the cane stalks — drift through the air, end up covering the driveway, the lawn, the house.

& on another website, that of a second hand bookseller, those two thin volumes from The Poets' Co-operative can be had for $128.50 — mine — & $188.50 — Dave's. But the thin roneoed 'zine I brought out at the same time, Love/Juice, with its individually silk-screened cover, outdoes us both, is a bargain at a sweet $488.50.

Mark Young lives in a small town in North Queensland, & has been publishing poetry since 1959. He is the author of around fifty books, primarily text poetry but also including speculative fiction, vispo, & art history. His work has been widely anthologized, & his essays & poetry translated into a number of languages. His most recent books are The Perfume of The Abyss from Moria Books; A Vicarious Life — the backing tracks from otata; taxonomic drift from Luna Bisonte Prods; & Residual sonnets from Ma Press of Finland.