Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life
Otago University Press, $39.95,
In 2008, Leigh Davis (1955-2009) underwent radio-therapy treatment following surgery for a brain tumour which directly affected his ability to express himself in words. The “death” of the voice which had seen Davis renowned as a poet and visual artist drove his desire to discover the new voice that might replace it, and the new poet it might make him: “It was a loss. I change.”
Charted and nurtured through the keeping of a journal, that voice is, at first, “simple, broken and beautiful”. Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life traces the movement from that early, broken voice to that of strong, controlled and confident poet, moving from notes to a polished epic, from fragments to formal couplets.
The work which is created in this process is twofold; it is the poem, and it is also the poet in his new form. For this study in the creative process reveals the close relationship between the creation of a work of art and the creation of an artistic identity, “the repair of a life” which the book’s title refers to.
Part I of the poem, subtitled “Soft Structure”, begins with the reproduction of the notebook which the larger poem developed out of. Often indecipherable, the handwriting betrays the physical and emotional effort of the author who wrestles with the mechanics of writing, as well as with his (in)ability to express himself: the words are fragmented, the text is tormented with questions and confusion, crossings out, repetition, erratic pressure of the pen, and words which move off the lines of the page in uncontrolled directions. Yet the speaker is adamant that he remains a poet: “Numbers are not/ fundamentaentol to matheratics;/and a poem is more that it language.” It is intensely personal and intensely painful.
Otago University Press has produced a beautiful book – its generous spaces and its immediacy in foregrounding the hand of the author – making the book’s physical form a sympathetic extension of its content. For the reader’s struggle to comprehend and decipher the pages must mimic the writer’s own struggle to re-decipher the words which were once familiar to him and to comprehend the loss of his voice, represented in this part of the poem by recurring images of speechlessness, ghosts and phantoms, of absence and insubstantiality.
The gradual increase in control, legibility and structure throughout the notebook continues in the next section of the poem, tracking a chronological process of development. When the notebook ends, formal couplets appear, a marshalling of form as well as content. Images coalesce, ideas crystallise and are reworked, arising directly from the preceding notes: “You see it they are/made. You see them made.” The movement is from “re-sounding” to “resounding”. Now the imagery focuses on what might be possible, though as yet unknown: the eyes, ears and voice are receivers and transmitters which merely require tuning to the right frequencies.
Part II, “Odysseus”,represents and demonstrates the triumph of the new poetic voice, all in formal couplets, and ordered according to a literary narrative logic (though, fascinatingly, its parts are still dated). While it continues many of the ideas and phrases from the earlier parts of the poem, it is now increasingly dominated by classical images which represent the stretch of history and the things that last. The speaker is Odysseus, his lady the beloved Penelope, and his absence – the death of his voice – precedes the return and resurrection which is the new voice, the new poet, the new self: “So Odysseus finally came home,/a voice came into being with such surprise.” That return also sees Odysseus much changed – once in vigorous motion, now “cold, old, lost” – and the tone of the poem becomes nostalgic, elegiac, and occasionally fearful.
It’s very difficult to approach the book critically, such is its poignancy. Sometimes a text is overwhelmed by its context. Sometimes, the circumstances and conditions which surround the creation and reception of a work determine and over-determine its meaning. For such a text, in such a context, literary critique or judgment can seem to be beside the point – though Davis’s work has been judged, and very favourably, the manuscript winning the 2009 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry.
Ultimately, though, the death of this author has fixed the work’s meaning, rather than setting it free. Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life is a very fine work of art and artistic expression, but it’s hard not to read it as an epitaph and be overwhelmed by its pervasive sadness; it’s not literary craft but immense emotional power which is the poem’s dominant legacy.
Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.