Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stunning debut of the repairing of a life

It was the title of the book that caught my eye. The poetic work of Leigh Davis, treasury analyst turned poet who wrote this collection during the 15 months between diagnosis and death.  The Auckland native was largely self published and his work is as much poetry as it is visual feast. "Anarchy" and General Motors" are wonderful examples of the layering of word and image:  

In 2008 Leigh was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.  He confided in a close friend his worry that during surgery his voice would be taken from him and he would not be able to find coherence, creativity and life in what was to come . The effects of surgery were so sever that he temporarily lost the power of language altogether.  During this time a friend brought him a notebook and pen and encouraged him to write, "Just write, anything, everything, just write".  

The very struggle to regain and find "his voice" became a central theme of his poems for Stunning Debut.  The first 20 pages of this book are filled with hack marks, indecipherable scratches, letters coupled in combinations that form a private language that is incomprehensible.  The reader is given page after page of this notebook, the working from a seemingly endless dark night of the soul.  And then in this awkward and irregular sea Stunning Debut goes through a transformation.  Words appear and are circled as if discovering a treasure, lost objects of invaluable worth.  These discoveries begin to be coupled with other words that take on meaning, content, coherence, beauty.  Some where in this unfolding Leigh writes on the front of his notebook in a hand yet settled "simple, broken, beautiful".

Leigh's work is not something you drink but something you have to swim in - it simmers along gently but there is a wildness to it as well.  Here is how it opens:

I don’t know what I am doing here: I do not that-
I like to read things in the world in time and distance out of disparate connection

Poetry is writing with space in it, but I need more now than before.
‘Space’ is a property of interpretive liberty; the right amount of disjunction,

of content you can ponder and are drawn toward,
of unfinished and unfinishable reflections of variations in texture

everyday, common, exalted, abstract of enigma and its obvious vehicles;
writing that is just – tolerant, its machinery often showing.

Offers bright beautiful surfaces but withholds is meaning, philosophy
and the intransitive manipulation of thought.

I want contemporary forms, that is, to do something new.
I don’t want novelty but archaic ingenuity.

I know what classical is and want to associate myself with it.
I don’t want wit, or argument, pompous thought, but warmth,

speed, trances, voices, celebration, mystery, consolation.
I want expansive, everlasting, continuous vehicles

that are elusive and that command a lifetime of love,
and aren’t mere episodes or observations.

I want writing continuous, surprising, and not production well made things.
I realize at 50 that what I want, what I am ALWAYS tuned for, my revelry,

the gain of my mind, my regulations, my heartbeat,
breathing, motions and balance, how I compose and the source

of the nonstop commitment that I have to do it,
my sense of beauty and meaning, my source of emotion and my peace,

causes the name of anarchy, the balance and the eternity of complex, sly,
disruptive, self-regulated insurgent weather patterns of composition and rules.

Anarchy is the smile in the Mona Lisa, and the fountain of youth.
Another name for it is poetry.

Once the superset of art. It has the tensile strength of great stability,
it prompts but assimilates, contains chaos; it is the source of prophesy,

Of rejuvenation, and the absolute constancy of history.
I want to reflect what I live with, to extract representation’s

subtle body in even the most intimate moments.  It is something
you dive in the middle of with no sense of time having passed

As a writer I am a dog chasing that bus.
It is immensely forceful but with the rich unpredictability of chaos.

Never correct but always accurate.
We are so used to text being straightforward but I am so used

to seeing this as profoundly bent, a much grater gap
between what is obvious and what is mysterious. A place you can love

and in which you are welcome, and where you have never been before. 
My flow is going with time.

Two months after Stunning Debut was published Leigh Davis died, and a month later his work was awarded the Kathleen Grattan Award, New Zealand's biggest poetry prize.


  1. Welcome, mi amigo. Looking forward to another way to see your heart and mind. I want to repeat to you the words of Leigh Davis' friend, "Just write, anything, everything, just write."

  2. Thanks for the invitation. I am always awed by the dignity and strength and beauty that some people are able to face devastating circumstances. I am then quickly humbled by the manner I react when my wife or kids commit a meaningless infraction against my perceived world order. Beautiful stuff Matt