May 12, 2022

Portrait: Michèle Leggott, by Martin Edmond

Reading room

An appreciation from a retired professor

After my father died in October 1990, I didn’t know what to do. I flew to New Zealand for his funeral; with my then partner i took a three day walk along the six foot trail through the Blue Mountains to the Jenolan Caves. We went to his brother’s wedding in Dunedin and then visited Rakiura; but I still didn’t know what to do. Back in Darlinghurst, Sydney, one day, feeling more like a sleepwalker than ever, I walked a few hundred yards down Womerah Lane to my writing room, a laundry converted under a painter’s kitchen, I started Amstrad and started drawing. a prose story that has become The autobiography of my father. It was like automatic writing; it only took about six weeks; and, by the time I was done, I had overcome much of my grief and some of my anger. But what was I going to do with the manuscript?

I contacted Alan Brunton, told him what I wrote and asked him what he thought I should do next. He said, “Why don’t you send it to Michele Leggott?” And gave me his address. I did not recognize the name and I was not quite sure why the putative book should be given to him; but I still took Alan’s advice, made contact and then, once Michele said yes, she would read it, post it to him. It was during the summer but what summer? It must have been in 1990-91. I remember his news at the end of January or the beginning of February; she thanked me for sending her the ms so quickly and told me that she had read it just as quickly; and then forwarded it to Elizabeth Caffin of Auckland University Press, who became the next person to read it.

Alan in his letter remarked: “Michele is a very good poet, I think” not the sort of thing he said lightly or, in fact, often; but in the days before the internet i had no way to read her work online and was not sure if she had any books. In fact, his first collection of poems, Like that? had been published by Caxton Press in 1988; and his second, Swimmers, Dancers, by AUP in 1991; but it took a while before i caught up with them and i still don’t have a copy of the first one. She participated, I believe, in the publication of Alan Brunton’s book Slow passes (AUP, 1991), just as she contributed to the publication of The autobiography of my father by the same publisher in 1992. It was a selfless act, based, as far as I know, solely on his appreciation of the work. I didn’t just feel grateful, I felt honored.

Cesare Pavese said: “We don’t remember the days, we remember the moments.” I don’t remember when I first met Michele in person, but I do remember a moment from that meeting. We had lunch together at a cafe in Auckland, on the High Street maybe, or Lorne Street. When ordering I ordered the Cajun chicken and was slightly surprised when Michele asked for the same; it only occurred to me later that her sight must already be gone, maybe she hadn’t been able to read the menu and she hadn’t wanted to ask me, a relative stranger , to read it to him; like I would later when we ate together. Or maybe she just wanted Cajun chicken. I don’t remember our conversation that day either, but I remember thinking it was one of those encounters that might lead to a lasting friendship; like he did.

The remainder of that decade, the 1990s, was for me occupied by the painter Philip Clairmont: first in an attempt to write a monograph on his work; and then when copyright issues prevented me from illustrating it, I wrote a second book which incorporated elements of the monograph into a biographical / autobiographical account which also described how and why I had failed to finish the first. Meanwhile, Michele had released two other books of poetry, DIA (1994) and As far as I can see (1999); an edition of Robin Hyde’s Nadath’s book (1999); and with, Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond as co-editors, Big Smoke New Zealand Poems 1960-1975 (2000). She also collaborated with Alan on a video, directed by her partner Sally Rodwell, titled The cloudy smile of the sky (1998). In this way, at least in my opinion, we became parents, as family members of the distant and varied collective known internationally as the Red Mole.

So when Alan died suddenly of a heart attack in Amsterdam in June 2002, as families do, we approached each other and Sally for comfort and also to commemorate his passing. appropriately. There were two concerts, Red Mole with Alan inexplicably absent, one in Wellington, the other in Auckland. I can’t remember when we became Alan’s literary co-executors, but it must have been after Sally died, by her own hand, in 2006, leaving their daughter Ruby orphaned and the Red Mole legacy in the dismay. There was another concert in Wellington, really a vigil for Sally, and then Michele, who is tireless, set to work to keep what could be. She had help from Caterina de Nave, Sally’s brothers, Tim Page, Brian Flaherty at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Center [nzepc], which Michele herself founded, and many others. About a hundred unique and irreplaceable masks have been restored, photographed and stored.

When, a few years later, we had the opportunity to edit and publish selected Alan’s poems, some of the mask photographs were used as illustrations. Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968-2002 came out of Titus Books in 2013 and was launched at another gig in Auckland, which some have called Red Mole’s Last Show. Hello Sailor has played.

Michele and I continued to work together whenever the opportunity or the need arose. Every now and then we’ll catch up on the phone. Sometimes she will send me drafts of work in progress; sometimes I will do the same. We don’t criticize each other so much as we interpret, amplify and affirm. It’s another way to stay in touch. More recently, we attempted to locate an image of an oil painting his father, Jock Leggott, made on a family vacation to Fletcher Bay in Coromandel, which won the joint first prize in a competition. at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui in 1971; successfully, as it turns out. Perhaps the fact that we grew up, with idealistic parents, in small towns on the North Island, is another reason why we get along well; a shared understanding from idyllic childhoods, inexplicably cut short.

I think the address I posted the ms from Tmy father’s autobiography Maybe 30 years ago it was the house in Devonport where Michele and Mark still live. I have been there several times since, both to visit and to stay, and it is a happy house full of love and laughter. I love the way they left the facade unrenovated, so that it looks anonymous, even a little faded, from the street; but opens onto a large bright room at the rear, overlooking a lush and beautiful garden. I very much appreciate Michèle’s friendship; I admire his grace, his kindness, his generosity; his prodigious memory, his intelligence, his courage in the face of adversity. His strong commitment to ethical, literary and personal values. His teaching, in every sense of the word. She remains, as Alan said all these years ago, and as Mezzaluna demonstrates, a very beautiful poet indeed. Not all good writers are good people; but Michele is, undoubtedly, both.

An abridged version taken from A birthday party, a celebration of poet, scholar and editor Michele Leggott on her retirement from the University of Auckland, where she has taught since 1986, most recently as a full professor. Contributors include Ruby Brunton, Chris Price, Tracey Slaughter, and Cilla McQueen.

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