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Quardling around Glover

This essay is based on my 25 February 2021 review, on Newsroom, of Letters of Denis Glover, selected and edited by Sarah Shieff (Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2020).

I have only to close my eyes for a moment when someone says the name Denis Glover, to hear that unmistakeable concrete mixer voice, laced with English vowels, and to be back in his presence.

A while ago, I was invited to review a collection of Glover’s letters, edited by Sarah Shieff. It was a vanity, perhaps, to begin with personal recollection, but it was also irresistible, given that a friendship of sorts spanned the last decade of the poet’s life, and that those years included producing several voice recordings for radio that have survived as part of his legacy. If I qualify our friendship it is because I knew him during a time when, as Shieff puts it, he had become to many ‘little more than a tiresome anachronism, a misogynistic old fart, a court jester, a drunken laughing stock – a quardler’ (referencing his beloved poem, ‘The Magpies’).

Did he fit that description in my lexicon? Yes, and more. And yet I had also had the privilege of seeing the other man, that one who had been, and had not quite gone by the time I met him: legendary founder of the Caxton Press, brave and decorated naval officer, fine poet who identified with the land and its people, publisher and mentor to many writers, typographer par excellence. That man appeared when he sat down to record his poems and numerous interviews, the latter part of a series we called Looking Back, consisting of conversations with significant writers. The ones I produced, between Denis and broadcaster Elizabeth Alley, took place in the studios at Radio New Zealand. No matter that I had to get permission from the director-general of broadcasting to allow vodka in the studio in order to keep him talking, the other Denis came to the fore – thoughtful, reflective and in beautiful voice. But the conversations had to be recorded before lunch while he still had a semblance of sobriety.

It was up to Denis’s wife Lyn, Pixie as he called her, to get him to the studio. Lyn was his second wife, a late marriage for both of them. She was older than him, a tiny bird-like woman who had wealth and an apparently relentless devotion to Denis. She managed his drinking by rationing it.

Lyn used to say that the whole point of her life was to look after her husband, which in a way seemed quite sad. She didn’t appear to have much life of her own, although she had tried her hand at writing poetry, which Denis would promote. He did seem genuinely grateful to her, although occasionally she would voice a certain despair. But he somehow got people to do things for him, even when he was behaving badly.

Shieff’s book contains some 500 letters, culled from around 3000, a wise and judicious selection, revealing the story of a life. That story had been told before by Gordon Ogilvie, in his biography, but this was different because the letters tell us what Denis himself thought of his life, and his friends and, God help them, his enemies. They reflect, too, a brilliant mind’s descent into the shadowy darkness of alcoholism and the sense of loss he experienced as coherence began slipping away. The early letters reveal stylish prose that records Canterbury and other landscape, delighted accounts of occasions and interactions, a stunning eye for detail, all illuminated by genuine wit. The love letters to various women – and there are many, letters, that is, but also women – are tender and sensual. Those written to his first wife Mary, and the mother of his only child, are lyrical, philosophical, often profound. After that marriage ended, the wooing of women by mail continued, but his relationships never lasted, or not until he met Lyn. (It did become clear, nonetheless, that he was in his heart, if not his body, unfaithful to her from time to time.)

Writing to his erstwhile lover, Janet Paul, towards the end of his life, he said: ‘Frenzied in not knowing what I wanted, I found it in you. I steered a bad course, but still navigate by your fixed star.’ It was to Janet that Lyn, sometime after her marriage, blurted out during a chance encounter: ‘I don’t know what I did in my past life to deserve this.’

If Denis’s love letters glimmered and shone, much of his later correspondence was riddled with almost childish banter, forced humour and invented names for people, as if real language were escaping him. Inevitably, I turned to the index in order to see whether I rated a mention, and what Denis had thought of me. Pride always comes before a fall. He wrote, in a letter to Allen and Jeny Curnow, ‘Any minute now in this forenoon watch of the 10th, I expect Fiona Kidman, one of the few cowgirls, surely, who can milk by hand, as can Lyn and myself, so quaintly old-fashioned. She is doing poesy over at the Concert programme, where she works as some sort of editor. She got me to read some of my own stuff, and they were so pleased that I am now immured in the archives.’ Not bad, but a couple of lines earlier he had written: ‘Islands [the literary journal] stinks with academics, and when it breaks away we get the worst effluvia of young fellas and the ovary elegists who may perhaps have attained SC.’ I flinched, knowing full well that the cross-referencing with me was no accident.

Perhaps this naked latter-day misogyny arose from the disappointment of the failed love affairs, but it could be unpleasant to be around. Shieff wrote, ‘I have included quotations from inward letters from Glover’s partners. Unconventional as this might be in a volume of this sort, I felt that the voices of these women should be heard … These intelligent, attractive women were clearly able to look past the grog-blossom complexion, terrible teeth and cauliflower ear.’ I could not; I found him bordering on physically repulsive. No doubt he sensed this and so my status remained that of a literary handmaiden. Lauris Edmond, my great friend of those years, was closer to him. They had collaborated on her selection of A. R. D. Fairburn’s Letters. In one letter to her, he describes her as ‘jam to his wasp’. When she and I launched our first collections of poems at a joint event at the old University Club in 1975, Denis spoke for her book, In Middle Air (Sam Hunt launched mine, Honey & Bitters). In his speech, Denis rambled into a sour attack on ‘the menstrual school of poets’. His friendship with Lauris did not entirely recover. And yet, this was the same man who had discovered, published and supported Janet Frame. In a letter to John Money, dated 16 May 1947, he said: ‘I wrote to Miss Frame, and received a shy letter … I can’t help making the Mansfield comparison all the time; and do you know, I think Miss Frame has her licked in lots of ways.’

While serving with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, he was based in Britain. At first, in his letters, he appeared to soon become culturally acclimatised, writing with delight about all he was seeing and learning. But his old feelings about the ‘Mother Country’, most famously expressed in his 1936 poem, ‘Home Thoughts’ – ‘I do not dream of Sussex downs/or quaint old England’s quaint old towns’ – asserted themselves. In 1942 he told Curnow: ‘Of England & the English I can’t possibly write here and now. The place is what I thought it would be, only worse … They are simply appalling in many ways, but full of dogged virtues in others.’

That letter delivered me a sharp image of another evening spent with Denis. It was an occasion arranged with the British High Commission to mark the arrival of Michael Frayn on a visit to New Zealand, which I had helped organise.. I had also agreed to get Denis along for the evening as a mutual guest of honour. But Denis was paralytically drunk and began to tell our hosts what he thought of the British. They retreated, finally, to the far end of the room and turned on a transistor radio in order to listen to a cricket match. What else could they do? Frayn, urbane, watchful and charming, stayed with the New Zealand ‘team’. As it all became unbearable, Denis turned to my husband and said, ‘Deaaah boy, time to take me home.’ That was Ian’s permanent role in Denis’s life, to take him home and carry him up the steps to his and Lyn’s apartment in Strathmore Park. Frayn graciously offered to help. And so it was. Neither got a mention in Shieff’s Letters, but perhaps they appear in the other 2500.

Glover would waver in his loyalties over the years. He continued to write fulsomely to Allen Curnow, although it was clear to many that the latter was moving on. Only now and then does the reader sense Glover’s disappointment that Curnow’s reputation had overtaken his.

But it was on full show at the national book awards ceremony in 1980, held in the old Alexander Turnbull Library in Bowen Street. Curnow had produced a book of poems called An Incorrigible Music; Pegasus Press had published Denis’s collection, Towards Banks Peninsula, a work he had been creating over several years, about an old seaman called Mick Stimpson with whom he had had a close friendship. I recorded both poets reading from their books. Whatever the difficulties in recording Denis, they were small by comparison with Curnow, who insisted on keeping his distance and called me Mrs Kidman, a more circumspect reminder that I should properly be at home in the kitchen. The whole atmosphere suggested that he was doing me a favour, but I was aware that Denis had been in touch with him and presumably had persuaded him that an interview was a good idea. As I discovered in the Letters, he had told him that he should not do a phone interview but ‘leave it to be de face en face with Elizabeth Alley; not only personable but knowing exactly what to ask. For this dream-series Fiona [Kidman] had to go as high as the Director-General himself. Do it when you are down, if at all.’ It amused me to read that; it was the vodka, of course, not the Looking Back series that had required permission, but perhaps it was as well Denis never knew. And I had become Fiona by then.

Denis had made it quite clear to people in conversation that he believed he would, and should, win the poetry award, but it went to Curnow, and Denis was distraught. He sat in the doorway, as Lauris would later recall, a ‘big, fat, whiskery creature’. The anguish in the room was palpable, as Denis called out ‘impostor’ and ‘fraud’. He wasn’t crying but near enough. I don’t know whether he knew he was dying, or how fit he thought he was, but we all saw that he was failing and sick. Maybe, in writing Towards Banks Peninsula, he thought his life’s work was done. That was almost the last time he was seen in the city. He continued writing to Curnow with no mention of the awards, his style chatty and newsy as ever, although in what proved to be his last letter, he addressed him as ‘Noble My Stuffed Trout’, a reference to a poem he had sent Curnow about exactly that, a stuffed trout. Still, it sat well with what I always perceived as Curnow’s pomposity.

And, in a last letter to Olive Johnson, a librarian at Auckland University he had befriended years earlier, he wrote:

What I have wrote I have writ. If out of print, in libraries for the curious to see. To fix MacBeth, ‘I have supp’d full with honours.’ Remotely I prefer to sit on Olympus, not garlanded nor placarded. Oh that I had stayed in the Royal Navy. But in between times there is too much ceremony and little chance of action.

A wildly squandered life, Olive dear – squandered but not altogether squalid. Those I love are many, those I hate are few.

On 9 August 1980, Denis died during a move to what was to have been a new house at Breaker Bay on Wellington’s wild southern coast. I was phoned with the news around eight, just as I was leaving for work. I knew how the day would unfold. I wrote a script for a tribute to go to air that night. I called in Elizabeth to narrate the excerpts of poems and interviews I had chosen. We made the hour-long tribute with minutes to spare. There is no record of this, but I have a distant memory that we played Denis reading the opening to Towards Banks Peninsula, ‘In Memoriam H. C. Stimpson [Mick] Port Levy’:

You were these hills and the sea.

In calm, or the winter wave and snow.

Lie then peaceful among them,

The hills iron, the quiet tides below.

If we didn’t we should have.

Over the years, I’ve been called on to speak of Denis often. As I told Gordon Ogilvie,

He was such an intelligent man and he was aware of his drinking problem, and he used to bluster to cover it up. But I think underneath there was a desperate person; he was aware of changes in the world, like the women’s movement, which were leaving him behind … And he became more and more aggressive about those kinds of things … I think that some of Denis’s grief at the end of his life was that he was willing to change his views but he didn’t know how to – it was too late.

I still think that. And of course I recognise, with the long slant of hindsight, that in spite of bad days and nights spent in his company, he did become a friend. Shieff’s selection of Glover’s letters seemed like the record of a literary era of which I had accidentally caught the tail wind. It told the real story of a significant life, as gossipy as a neighbour’s Christmas drinks party, in the end, profoundly sad.

Some years ago, I was part of a group that supported the installation of concrete text sculptures, created by the designer Catherine Griffiths, honouring local writers. It fell to me to choose the text for Denis's. It’s from his poem, ‘The Harbour is a Laundry’:

The harbour is an ironing board

Flat iron tugs dash smoothing toward

Any shirt of a ship, any pillow slip

Of a freighter they decree

Must be ironed flat as washing from the sea.

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