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‘The Something Startled Rise of Birds’: A Tribute to Leigh Davis, 1955-2009


forthcoming, Spring 2010, in the Journal of New Zealand Literature

‘What is great avidity in reading? What is reading when it behaves greedily, when it moves over the face of the page in an uncommonly eager and desirous way? … One does not picture Te Kooti going about his research calmed and confined by the pages before him. His is a different relationship with the books that he has sent for and gathered urgently. There is a disproportion, once more. We say the reader is gripped. He reads with a peculiar temper, with an intensity and gathering in of all there is, but impatiently, immoderately. Time may be confused. There is a hurrying, and something thoughtful and thoughtless happens. It is as though the texts including the ‘imprecatory passages of the Psalters’ are asynchronous and display themselves as layers, over-read texts, hypertexts, such that the reader’s gaze is filled with re- and de-contextualised words and phrases that clamour. Sentences cannot calm this property and cannot do their normal work of ushering the compliant reader across the page, cannot impose their normal marshalling. They cannot flatten and smooth an attention that is here sped, there arrested, everywhere distracted. The text is not read but watched. This avidity: it is a magnifying glass held in some motion and distance over the page that tears the text and lifts the font size under it. It is the fixing effect of subtle seizures. The reader is on the verge of a powerful meaning, it is almost there, where incomprehension is speeding towards release but some key yet remains missing. There is a crossing of pictures about it. Something other than what lies on the page appears to one side of what lies on the page. And what this other something is, as in the example above, is unknown. And the two together can gain the mind-altering complexity that one associates at the crossover of entertainment and metaphysics’.

This from a book length 2004 essay called ‘Back Operation in Mr Cotton’s Pictures’, a section entitled ‘Great Avidity’, dealing with Te Kooti’s ‘rebirth’ as a Maori prophet during his incarceration on the Chathams, a transformation Mr. Davis describes as ‘an interpretive seizure presenting as a manner of reading’ [Te Kooti’s] of scripture, his ‘research’. The section begins with an extended quotation on the subject from Judith Binney’s ‘book of greatness’ Redemption Songs, 1995. We know the avidity with which Leigh read her book as it is evident in those interpretive seizures his flag-poems of Station of Earth-bound Ghosts, which signaled in 1998, his return to literary writing after a 15 year absence, and then in the miscellany devoted to them and to Te Kooti’s legacy, Te Tangi a te Matuhi, not to mention the essay ‘Maori Bay Quarry’ of 1999 where ‘Te Kooti’s strategy is’ he writes, ‘a remarkable analogue of McCahon’s strategy of connecting the biblical with the local’—and so forth.

So it caught my eye as a remarkably apt description of Leigh’s own reading. Reading in the fullest sense of the word. The reading he did as ‘research’ for his own ‘art knowledge’ that is for his literary and his critical writing. Such a good description also of the language of the interpretive ‘readings’ he gave of others’ poetry and art. And, again, and crucially, of the recuperative slant of his own mature poetry, of how that multi-volume The Book of Hours, 2001, re-reads the medieval devotional book as an account of the annual Auckland Coastal Classic yacht race. It’s a crossover of sport and metaphysics. And, finally it describes so well the reader behaviour his poetry past and recent is written to elicit and reward. Attention: this is a poetry advisory: if you are not out of patience with the normal marshalling of meaning, not drawn to the clamour of line upon line, if you aren’t thrilled by the sensation of incomprehension picking up speed, then I think you better leave now.

So Leigh himself had this great avidity in his reading and, let it be said, in his person as well. I’ve known no one possessed of a quite such a sense of elation at his own being: getting on with his life was just a joy to him. It was a physical thing, as well as emotional, and intellectual; it was a groundswell in him, and not something splashy. We’d meet for breakfast in the Chancery; like as not I’d find he’d kayaked round Rangitoto before I’d got out of bed. It was a family thing, a business thing. He was a venture capitalist whose company name was an imperative: Jump Capital, from a series of McCahon paintings; here was a crossing of business and metaphysics. Life as he led it, formed itself into a string of ventures, adventures: he was going to hire the Gisborne Army Hall for an exhibition inspired by a notorious Maori ‘resistance fighter’, he was off to the beach for a few days to read Wittgenstein, he was taking daughters India and Betty to New York or painter John Reynolds to Texas to see Donald Judd’s sculptures, he was bringing the Dalai Lama to Auckland. He did all these, and they weren’t the half of it. Over the last 18 months, as the brain tumour slowly took away (or temporarily returned) his reading, his writing, even much of his spoken language (not the thinking), the desire to write and the understanding of what now had to be written intensified, became more central to his daily life and that of his family and close friends. Leigh completed two book length poems before the tumour finished him; Nameless and Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life will be published later this year.

Well before then he had this to say: ‘It seems increasingly clear that the old world—medieval, or more strictly post-Classical, thought—supplies major aspects of visual art’s contemporary meaning’. Not just visual art either. If there was one idea that separated the later writings from the earlier, that was it. And please to remember when I say ‘later’ I mean a man in his 40s, barely into his own putative middle age. The young Leigh Davis—he was still in his twenties when he founded Jack Books and it published his first book Willy’s Gazette. He was preoccupied with the contemporary and the leverage a precise understanding of it might supply you with. He was a reader of Pound and Joyce, of course, and Williams, but more urgently, avidly, of Clark Coolidge, the American Language poets and those post-structuralists: Barthes, Lacan, Derrida. With Alex Calder he founded AND, the four-issue avant-garde magazine mass-produced on the University of Auckland’s English Department’s photocopy machine—AND, that famous conjunction which brought pesky ‘theory’ to New Zealand and its literature and created some genuine consternation.  The older Leigh Davis, the grown up, on the other hand is a reader of Abelard, Dante, of St Augustine, a viewer of Giotto, Duccio and Fra Angelico. This idea we might call ‘tradition’, or the history of ‘art knowledge’ (his phrase). The General Motors, in the title of that book /poem, are not cars, but the engines of thought of such post-Classicals as Erasmus, Galileo and Pico de Mirandola, read alongside Benvenuto Tisi de Garofalo’s 1530 altarpiece predella, St Nicolas of Torentino’s Reviving of the Birds. Not any old idea of tradition, however; one whose ‘back operation’ you can relate to those in the novels of Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), the poetry of Susan Howe (Articulation of Sound Forms in Time), or Bruce Andrews (Lip Service), of Stephen Bambury’s (his Siena series) and John Reynolds’s paintings (his Office of the Dead ) or Julia Morison’s installations (Amalgame).

Those billowing sheets pegged on the line with which Willy’s Gazette opens, which are also Willy’s shirts, or Leigh’s, S’s  or Susan’s blouses and skirts, as well as the sheets of his Gazette (even, in their turn, the pages of AND magazine) become the poem-flags of Station of Earth-bound Ghosts, of Leigh’s comeback work, in which post-colonial thought meets the post-Classical, and European art knowledge meets Maori. Not to mention the billowing Genoas of the yachts in The Book of Hours’ Coastal Classic: ‘Bellied Genoa on bellied Genoa/ Crosstrees on crosstrees/ Rag of a dome on rag of a dome/ The listing of the domes/ in the middle of the Ocean/ The roll of the domes’.This large shift brings forward the then and now of Leigh’s language, of his poetics. Willy’s only medieval moment is Poundian: ‘Hey Pierrot!/ Well, come on in’. His is a boyish joy—in love as he is with S and all the world—swanning around with his Talking Heads’ shirttails hanging out, assuming a debon-‘Air, Cardin, and the well-painted door’, surf-casting his line into print. He’s frenchified. But with the later Leigh, an older and more diverse canon has been synapsed into his poetics, his language has acquired a gravitas it had not previously needed, and a new eloquence. His isolate phrases now network wider horizons, far and near. More of them accelerate towards abstraction. The rock and roll of his syntax has become more insistently incantatory, verging at times on the liturgical, the rhapsodic.

‘We are at a point in history, give or take 100 years’, Leigh informed a Wellington audience not so many months back, a point ‘exactly analogous, to that found in the 14th century in Tuscany which saw the invention of a medium, out of a new superstructural specialization of writing and thought (and trading, church capital, inter-city rivalry, religious organization and ecstatic technique: concentrations in a powerful city); an irruption of plastic wealth we came to know as Western painting. … We are at another such point of major mediumistic invention’. And went on, ‘I try to think, and ontologically, and here are some of the questions that take up my attention: … What can be made of these presentation devices, with their electronic and digital value, to create presence and expansion; these low costs of production and mass publication, new tools to ravish and astonish’. (‘Ricochet’ is the name of the text). Increasingly Leigh saw the history and the technology of the visual as constitutive of the knowledge proper to poetry today.

This explains a peculiar and sometimes misinterpreted feature of Leigh’s achievement: almost everything he wrote was self-published. Jack Books is what they used to call a ‘vanity press’, because acceptance of a manuscript for publication and distribution by a trade publisher has been the bottom-line measure of its value. But if we are at a point of ‘major mediumistic invention’, if we are indeed witnessing a major shift in what Jacques Rancière calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’, then the publishing industry as it now stands may now be obscuring rather than revealing what is becoming thinkable and sayable in the present.

Leigh’s alignment of his poetry with  insurgent visual media may be counted a response to poetry’s serious loss of prestige over his lifetime. (Such shifts will often register more dramatically in small, less complex cultures like New Zealand). At the same time he took an active interest in the rapid growth of new digital technologies—Jump Capital favoured telecommunications projects—and what poetry could make of them. Leigh considered poetry publishing in New Zealand had given the medium a bad name, and from Station of Earth-Bound Ghosts on made it clear that he was going it alone: ‘A bad poetry book is one that is instantly recognized as a poetry book. … These books have been banalised, like white bread, with most particularity and character removed. They are cheapened all round as publishers trade down the market in the belief that it is a social duty for these books to carry their precious content cargo despite sad economics’. He objected in particular to the ‘common view that poems come grouped together in small books, like boxes of chocolates that one scans for favourite flavours’. He wanted books that ‘use the physics of poetry not to make various kinds of statement but to make states of reading which are boundaryless in a way at least attributable  to their consumption of time’. Longer book length poems have been Leigh’s stock in trade from the outset. This is more than a matter of packaging and design. ‘There must’, he wrote’, be a cogency and mutual reinforcement between a poetry work and its vehicle behaving as an idea. (my italics) … A book is many things besides a bland codex. It is a household object. It is a meter of sequence and therefore time. It is a control device with respect to serial narrative, either accelerating or impeding the flow of sense. It has weight and measure. It is a fan; a turbine, a layering device or series of veils; an onion. It is an environment and a metaphor for culture’.

Each of Leigh Davis’s books is a singular adventure in book conception, production and distribution, and a proposal as to poetry’s future as a medium. Each leads a double existence, one as a material ‘precious object’ and or staged event—site specific installation, multiscreen video projection, limited edition box set/ art object/ book carrying the Jack Books imprint, the other as a virtual object freely available to read or download online from the Jack Books website. Each makes abundantly apparent the costs of the sad economics of the book trade. ‘Going it alone’ meant devising new systems of production and distribution, and new collaborations.

The credits for General Motors read: Writing: Leigh Davis. Physical Book Concept: Leigh Davis with Stephen Bambury. Book Design and realization: Christine Hansen. Virtual Book Design: Canning and Rood V8. Wall Object: Stephen Bambury. The book is a box of loose sheets, printed rice papers and tissues separated by leaves of transparent coloured silk. Each copy comes with its own copper-sheathed book ‘case’ attached to the wall at one edge. This ‘housing’ relates it to Bambury’s open series of house-like sculptural objects, and to the architectural interior depicted in the Garofalo painting. Again, sheets appear in the poem; those on St. Nicholas’s sick bed, and then the wings of the partridges that he miraculously revives from the dead by making the sign of the cross over their roasted bodies: ‘My book is opening with the flight of small birds / I feel the irregular sweeping of their pages / … The something startled rise of birds / If only I could touch them they could revive me’. St. Nicholas of Torentino was known for his great devotion to the recently dead, and now turning the pages of this book, I recollect the stillness of  Lake Pupuke and the waking birds nearby Leigh and Susan listened to the morning that he died.