from The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2013
No technology of connection is working at my office or the rental house. A New Zealander would understand the cosmic message—it is summer, get off the computer, take a walk. Instead, with an acute sense of duty inspired by a large grant payment, I make an appointment, on a borrowed phone, to meet Bill Manhire, the country's first poet laureate, in his office in Glenn Schaeffer House at Victoria University, from which he directs the International Institute for Modern Letters (IIML). "This is my job for five months," I will tell people. "To have coffee with poets, go to their readings and workshops, pore over their books." My description produces envious snorts.
Doomed from the outset, I arrive without my notebook and have to scramble for pen and paper. Later I lose my untethered notes. I remember the glitter of the harbor beyond the window, wanting to sit on the floor and read the unlikely spines of Bill's books—including tomes in Old Norse—sipping sugared Earl Grey from a glass mug, and, dimly, Bill stroking the air like Obi Wan to erase the conversation from my mind.
Several days later, in the middle of the Fulbright orientation program, I come home from Waiwhetu Marae to actual Internet access. One of the first notes I read is from my mother, explaining that my father has been spending down their savings to conduct affairs. She has kicked him out of the house. Would I please not tell anyone.
The working title of my project is Poetry, Conversation, Community in the Twenty-First Century, despite the fact that my own poetic conversations and communities are often virtual or downright imaginary. During my research in the Southern Hemisphere, I tune into academic literary networks, with the IIML as a case study. This involves more talking to live strangers than I have ever done in a single season. For an introvert—Americans, at least, often say how reserved I am—I am on the socially curious side. People are interesting, even more so when there are so many new codes to crack. Even in a low-stress season, though, I am acutely self-conscious, prone to rehearse each day's interactions late into the night, worried that I might miss a cue, offend someone, appear idiotic.
I know Mary Cresswell from an online poetry discussion list, but I meet her for the first time at the public library in Wellington's Civic Square. It takes us a while to find each other. She is at the front, and I am at the back thinking it is the front. I will commit this kind of mirror-world mistake over and over, here where summer is winter and Orion is upside down. Mary and I back-channeled many times as I prepared for this trip, discussing poetry, schools, neighborhoods, and how to interpret e-mail messages from New Zealanders. Their reserve, or polite way of speaking around important details, is hard for me to penetrate in the absence of tone and gesture. I should understand circumlocution better, having an ex-British mother, but different countries produce different silences. Mary grew up in California and is a good translator.
When we settle down in the café with one flat white and one soy chai, I hand her my new collection, and she answers, ''Aha, I thought you might," and gives me Millionaire's Shortbread, a book that puts the work of four poets, including Mary, into conversation. It springs from yet another kind of poetic community: a long-term writing group that emerged from an academic workshop.
Mary's voice still possesses a Californian inflection. She carries a biography of Lincoln. Obeying my mother, I don't tell Mary what I am brooding about.
I rendezvous with Alice Te Punga Somerville at the University Bookstore café. This is an actual bookstore containing actual books, in shocking contrast to the university-branded sweatshirt stores that are the US counterpart. Alice lectures on Māori, Pacific, and indigenous writing in English. I had attended her poetry reading the day before and have tricky questions about her graduate study at Cornell, her time in the English Department at Victoria, and her recent office move to the Māori and Pacific Studies Department. Everyone inhabits several worlds, communities, identities at once; she is standing at the intersection of her own with the poise of a surfer. Even from this apparently precarious vantage, though, she is kind to me, willing to answer impertinent queries, even game for a new friendship. It is mysterious how people signal this—shutter braced open, shutter closed—in ostensibly similar conversations.
About now, cross-drafts blow from a hundred metaphorical open windows: so much to learn, so much coffee to drink. Tea, actually, although Wellington is all about coffee. Pay at the counter, and the barista will deliver steaming darkness, an offering cradled in both hands.
This is a frank conversation that will keep flowering for months, yet I feel false. It remains logistically difficult to call home, but waves of Facebook messages shock me repeatedly. My father has shacked up with an elder-care worker forty years his junior.
Kerry Hines is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at the IIML, so she and I arrange lunch before she departs for a three-month sojourn in Europe. She recommends Ti Kouka, across from Unity Books. I print out walking directions from Google Maps but still end up going the stupid way. When you study Wellington in two dimensions, certain places seem practically adjacent, but those parallel streets will be divided by a precipitous hill sprouting sharp rocks and grass tufts. Eventually you find pedestrian paths, steep zigzags or flights of a hundred concrete steps with, if you are lucky, a metal railing along one side.
My messy, juicy burger slides out of its Turkish roll on a slick of aioli, and I try not to lick my fingers. I devour information, but what I remember most vividly is paying the bill. "Did you hear about Christchurch?" the cashier asks as I swipe my debit card and eye the dessert case. "It was a big one."
Internet is down, but we have basic TV connected, so, at 8:00 PM, I am sitting on the couch watching coverage of the latest Christchurch earthquake: 6.3, lower on the Richter scale than the September quake, but the damage is more intense. The quake was shallower, only five kilometers down. The news cycles the same clips again and again.
When I turned the TV on a few hours ago, there was little information and not too much video—a young woman reporter on an urban street, rescue vehicles behind her, describing the chaos, and another in Wellington reporting on the central government's reactions. Gradually they obtained interviews with important people: the well-spoken mayor, the less-well-spoken prime minister. Figures cropped up: sixty-five confirmed dead, mostly people on the street at lunch time; two hundred trapped in buildings; death toll expected to rise. Certain clips keep playing over the talking heads. Iconic structures and facades falling, especially the cathedral spire; amateur video of a boulder crushing a building; liquefaction in the central business district. People are sitting dazed in Hadley Park. They keep showing one blank-eyed, blood-splattered guy with a large bandage. The image that distresses me most is of a pretty woman with red covering her face and a flap of skin hanging loose. She has a friend on either side, and when she sees the camera, she cringes, trying to hide behind their bodies.
By six or seven o'clock, the editors create collages of these videos with dramatic voice-overs: Stay calm and stay home, they say. Call your loved ones or the helpline but leave the roads, which are badly damaged, free for emergency vehicles. Search and rescue is the government's focus right now; Australian teams are on their way over to help, and we have offers from Japan and the US. (Nobody mentions the UK or the Queen.) The Hadley Park refugee center is closed, the raceway center is closed, but we have others here and here and here, blankets and food and shelter from the cold rain we expect tonight. People of Christchurch, check on your elderly neighbors, help each other, and stay calm.
The streets are full of smoke and rubble. People tell stories of being on the fourth floor when their building pancaked, walking out at street level. One tall, handsome guy with a tattoo on his neck, clutched by his mother, describes being in a doctor's office and hearing cries and banging. The receptionist was with him, he says, and a woman with a baby. "What were they yelling?" the reporter asks. "Help," he says, hanging his head low. "How do you feel?" she prods. ''Alive.''
The French door next to the TV is streaked with rain, and the sky is deep, dark blue. The footage still shows daylight scenes. Clearly we won't have a good picture of what happened until tomorrow. Maybe days.
The minister of finance is giving a press conference now, in a dark suit and lime green tie. We have been called by the EU, Israel, Singapore, the UN. We have set up these emergency centers. We are releasing money. All schools will be closed until further notice. By chance we have one thousand Singaporean engineers in town, four hundred doctors at a conference. Don't use the phones, only text; the lines are overwhelmed. Now reporter questions—you can't hear them, but his answer is always some version of "I wouldn't want to speculate." He does say that the force of the quake was greater than even modern buildings are designed to tolerate. Fire is a big threat tonight. The CBD is being evacuated.
All the depressed-sounding and depressing geologists have American accents. The anchors seem to expect consolation, but scientists will only say that everything is unpredictable, and yes, shallow quakes like this happen all the time, and yes, sometimes one fault shifts the load on other areas and additional disturbances are triggered, and of course, we expected this in Wellington.
I have lunch with Harry Ricketts in the old staff club, about to be closed for good. On the walk over, he points out a glass enclosure in the lobby and stops to look for reptiles among the ferns. This daily count is a writing superstition. Today's augury: a two tuatara day.
I eat salad—beets and chickpeas, vegetarian penance after the Burger of Decadence—and try to convey my admiration for How to Live Elsewhere, his book about emigrating from Britain; his formal verse bristling with sharp edges; and the new book coauthored with Paula Green, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry. He is erudite about New Zealand verse, though it must have been nearly invisible to him growing up. There is a spark of like-mindedness across gaps of gender, nationality, age, and experience. I imagine the liking is mutual. Maybe our modes of reticence match.
That evening I plan to attend a multi-poet reading at City Gallery, and I ask how he thinks they will respond to Christchurch. I am researching poetry and community, after all; what poetry does Wellington need tonight? Harry had described New Zealand poetry readings years ago in his essay "Reading Between the Lines":
I'm starting to realise that New Zealand poets go about a reading very differently than British poets. British poets (and audiences) expect some chat between poems; ... New Zealand poets seem to favour the opposite extreme—no chat at all.
We speculate about what Bill Manhire will read.
Bill does not read "Hotel Emergencies," the poem I bet on, and does not address the earthquake explicitly. His poems, though, are about loss, gaps, absence: "the wind is blowing the year away"; the elegy "Kevin"; a retake of the fragmentary Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruer," in which Bill inserts the word "missing" wherever the original fails.
In late February and early March, when I have a coffee or lunch date, I get dressed and hike down Wellington's sloping roads to campus. During sessions in my temporary office, I start a blog, read what I am supposed to, draft scraps of poetry and prose. Other days, though, I walk my son uphill to school and return to the house, a chilly space until noon sun strikes the skylight. I huddle under blankets, boil the electric kettle, e-mail my friends one by one with the story of my parents' split. After each day playing hooky, I think, "Okay, enough, done being upset now, back to work, carpe the Aotearoan diem." They never made each other happy; my father and I haven't been on good terms for decades; now that she is speaking about it, my mother is surrounded by a community of loyal, helpful friends. Still, I can't concentrate, and I can't stay warm.
I lunch at the Astoria with former Auckland University Press editor Elizabeth McCaffin. In the States, no one with this much literary power would dine with me. Elizabeth draws invisible lines in the air—who married or mentored whom, who gave so-and-so a bad review, the chains of collaboration and funding. All the occult histories. I do this for new people at my home institution, when they ask.
My daughter's fourteenth birthday. My lying datebook again says "coffee" with Bernadette, her office, 10:30. This means Bernadette Hall, a South Island writer teaching a master's course at the IIML this year. I have been reading her most recent book, The Lustre Jug. Some poetry collections by Wellingtonians are talky, easy to get a handle on quickly, but this is more resistant, more lyric. She tells me about starting to write in her midforties; with three children, a degree in Latin, and a part-time teaching gig, she took a course with John Dixon that opened up the territory of US poetry. She mentions Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, and then as many New Zealand women do, Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds—poets who turn anger into power.
Bernadette tells me more about poetry in Christchurch than I will learn anywhere else, and she is insightful about why the IIML succeeds. She credits the sociability of the program, its strong connection to Victoria University Press, the good location, the international networks of its staff, the dedication of its teachers and the genuine excitement they feel about other people's writing. That is what I wrote down.
I see her everywhere, at the little readings and the big important ones, at lectures. I admire Bernadette, and her poems of dislocation and shifting registers, more and more as my fellowship continues. This is how an introverted woman can navigate letters and relationships with grace. In person and in poetry, she notices and addresses stupidity, yet/therefore she is widely liked. (Is that what worries me, being liked even when I am angry?)
This is also the date of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A friend posts video of the rising water on his Facebook page, and I watch it repeatedly.
No beverages in the IIML reading room, where Lynn Jenner rolls out charts evaluating the mission and accomplishments of the master's program. With a reckless feeling of explosive relief, I tell Lynn about my parents. "When you're younger," she muses, "you think that all change halts when you get old." As if the meeting is done, and you can file away the minutes. But cataclysms keep happening, and you have to keep inventing stories to tell about them.
Now I can't be stopped. I discuss the mayhem in my family with Rob Hack, poet and current MA student at the IIML, amid the library's Maori and Pacific collection. He tells me about his more dramatic family dramas, leaning into the wind of them from his seat on the ottoman and often laughing at himself. He has had thirty-three jobs before this one. Lots of opportunities to rack up crises.
This is when New Zealanders start to call me refreshing, and I realize that in this context, far from the confessional US, I might be surprisingly candid.
Stephanie de Montalk has e-mailed me about a line on my curriculum vitae, a forthcoming essay on illness and poetic language; her doctoral thesis for the IIML concerns the same subject. I send her the essay, and she invites me over for tea. After accident and illness compounded by malpractice, Stephanie has difficulty walking and sitting, so I find my way to her house on the edge of campus.
I have done therapy, and it never involved couches, but still that is what sofas in hushed rooms make me think of—the Vienna study H.D. conjures in Tribute to Freud. No symbolic knickknacks here, just throw pillows, shining wooden boards, shelves full of poetry and pain. Recline on crimson sofas in a clean, quiet house and it becomes possible to discuss anything in a clean, quiet voice. She asks me, carefully, what had inspired me to write about poetry and illness? I sifted among a few stories and chose one for her, almost at random. Now what I think about is having gallstones at twenty-two. The diagnosis took months, and I would walk through Princeton in terrible, invisible pain. It was the first time I realized that everyone around me could also be in anguish and I would never know; some suffering is obvious, but so much is hidden. I have looked for it in strangers' eyes ever since.
Lunch at the chic new staff club with departing poet Alan Felsenthal. Chicken, bacon, and avocado sandwich and a soy chai; cinnamon dusts just half the foam crown, inviting spoon-swirling and yin-yang-pattern attempts. An Iowa Writers Workshop alumnus, Alan has just taught a summer class for the institute and is about to leave for the States again. We discuss our love for Marianne Moore, whose tricorne hat casts a cool shadow over us. She would never lead strangers on tours of the family zoo.
Alice cites Craig Womack, who imagines US literature as a branch of the Native American literary tree, inverting the usual diagram. I say, well, if you apply that metaphor here, what is the status of contemporary New Zealand writing by Pākehā? If it is growing out from a Māori trunk, are Bill Manhire's poems Māori poems? Is the IIML a Māori institution? She cocks her head with a glint and says, "It's a graft, drinking from the same sap."
The same day, I meet Harry again. He points out a big sign in front of the staff club, an airy space of dramatic views and polished concrete right in the heart of campus, that warns off undergraduates. Ah, the university as community. He also tells me about meeting Allen Ginsberg long ago. Harry was surprised to notice, as he put it in a poem later, the poet's "right eye permanently half-closed, / left eye bright, protuberant." Secrets, brilliant exposure. Ginsberg's beardlessness disappointed Harry.
During an Auckland festival, I set out for tapas with a trio of former laureates, but their music breaks up, two major instrumental sections dispersing into the crowds. The rest of us arrive at a small table in a noisy, candlelit room. Michele Leggott's guide dog, Olive, slots herself into a corner in a shining heap. I buy a shining heap of olives. Sangria, something with shrimp, tomatoes strewn with basil, lamb skewers. Add to the list of ordinary activities that become serious adventures when your vision deteriorates: sharing food from little plates. Poet-professor Robert Sullivan, who will be a laureate one day, wanders in looking confused and ends up squeezing into our corner. Helen Sword, Robert, and I have teenage children, and Michele's are not so much older, so we discuss their guitars, friendships, and ambitions. The olives are salty, the sangria bright.
A rest from soy chai and telling everyone about my parents. I order a pot of Earl Grey to drink with Hinemoana Baker in the café of the James Cook Hotel. (Proper names in the previous sentence: one Māori word in a colonial jumble.) Hinemoana is wrapped up as if for winter, but the day is mildly chilly, like Virginia in a damp October. It is the beginning of June, when bad weather stalks Wellington, but almost summer in that other universe, when students clear out, and my home town of Lexington, Virginia, is empty and hot: a pristine, unused, high-end US oven.
Hinemoana drinks hot cocoa dotted with pink-and-white marshmallows and tells me about her stints in Iowa, studying at the IIML, and teaching creative writing at a New Zealand polytechnic. She is tactful but quite clear about these institutions: how wonderful they can be, and how they can fail people.
This isn't the moment for ranting or being refreshingly American, but stories I hear from her and others fill me with frustration—of smart, generous people behaving with bias or blindness. Sometimes any unkindness one could cite is just a small omission piled onto a midden of other apparently trivial mistakes. Friendships, identities, and poems are built, seemingly haphazardly, of tiny choices, shells and fish bones tossed in a growing heap. I am angry at my smart, stupid father, but I can remember him saying when I was a girl, "If I had a choice between hiring a male or a female engineer with the same qualifications, I would always hire the woman because she had to wade through much more crap to get to the same place."
My essay is finally coming along, though other deadlines lean heavily in—proofs, revisions, and similarly exacting tasks always descend when you are on a productive streak. I am reconceiving the book project. I like scholarly writing, participating in a learned conversation that began before you entered and will continue after you have paid your tab and wandered home. I just want to integrate the pieces, harmonize registers and references the way you do in cafés, classrooms, offices, and all the other places where good talk about poetry happens. I am not the only one whose intellectual life is blended with the clatter of construction, envy of my interlocutor's haircut, perfume of bergamot and cloves, dread of the world shaking itself to pieces. Those convergences shape what you write and what you don't.
My mother e-mails: "Your father signed the papers. When he walked away I realized: forty-six years and I may never see him again." In the absence of tone and gesture, I can only guess what she is feeling.
* * *
About the Author
Lesley Wheeler teaches poetry at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, a town her children, after half a year in New Zealand, find deficient in cafés. Her poetry collections include The Receptionist and Other Tales (2012) and Heterotopia (2010), winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize. Her poems appear in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Subtropics, and other magazines, and she blogs at The Cave, the Hive (lesleywheeler.org).
The Gettysburg Review
Editor: Peter Stitt
Assistant Editor: Mark Drew
Managing Editor: Ellen Hathaway