Obituary – Gordon Challis (1932-2018)

Gordon Challis (1932-2018)

Cliff Fell

Like other poets before him, Gordon Challis, who died in March 2018, had written his own epitaph, or an epitaph of sorts. In “Hard to Get at”, from his 2003 comeback collection, The Other Side of the Brain, published after a notable 40-year silence, he imagines his final resting place as beneath a cattle-stop, his mortal remains relinquished in occasional “bursts of compressed phosphorus / straight from the brain”. It’s an image in which Challis’s poetic concerns are telescoped, his elaboration and realisation of the subconscious refracted through his deadpan ironic humour – in this case, because these chemical transmissions are brought on by the passage of trucks laden with boulders for some sub-division’s landscaped gardens. Challis was ever alert to nuances of social change, here in a gentle mocking of the gentrification of Nelson and Golden Bay, where he lived for the last years of his life. If no longer an “asbestos-suited man in hell”, as the title of one of his most anthologised poems has it, the poet now sees himself as a thought laid bare, deep beneath some little piece of what is not-quite-paradise. 

His journey to that imagined cattle-stop began in England, where he was born in Birmingham. His father was a radio technician in the early days of broadcasting. Challis sometimes attributed his wonder at the world’s mysteries to an early memory of visiting his father’s workplace at the BBC’s White City studios and watching an incandescent electrical charge arcing between the terminals of a piezo-crystal generator. Poetry itself came to him from a more distant source. Before he joined his family in New Zealand, where they’d moved in the early 1950s, he worked in Barcelona as a shipping clerk. Lodging with a family above the city, he spent his evenings studying and translating Spanish poems, drawn in particular to Latin-American poets including Leopoldo Marechal, Cesar Vallejo and Alfonsina Storni. These translations – which were later commended by Robert Bly – put him in touch with his own voice. 

These poets provided an influence that lent his poems a distinctive edge when they first appeared in the early 1960s. His 1963 collection Building won the Jessie Mackay Prize, garnering from Charles Brasch the prediction that Challis was one of the younger contemporary poets most likely to achieve fame, a forbidding accolade for anyone to live up to. Perhaps the fame eluded him. More likely, Challis had little interest in such things, but reading his poems 60 years on is to be struck by how fresh and playful they are, despite their moments of 1960s existential angst. Apart from that and (perhaps) his formidable use of rhyme and half-rhyme, they remain utterly undated. The primary mode in these – as in all his poems – is discursive. If, as Paul Klee once suggested, the artist’s job is to take a line for a walk, Challis is capable of taking an idea on a three-day tramp through the unexplored country of quirky, sometimes surreal images and homespun thinking that map out his poem’s neural pathways, connecting them with an affable rationale. Challis would later speak directly to Klee’s idea in his poem “Walking an Imaginary Dog”.

No one ever plans a silence, certainly not of 40 years, but when Building came out Challis was embarking on a career in mental health care, working in various hospitals and psychiatric units. Whether he abandoned poetry, or the poetry abandoned him, is not clear, but either way the writing stopped. The pressures of work and raising a family, the early death of his first wife, Magda, whom he’d met in Barcelona – clearly these things took a toll, sometimes so devastating that writing could offer neither answers nor consolation. 

When the poems began to return, it was slow at first and greatly to his surprise. In the mid-1980s he had married Penny Hall, a colleague in the Porirua health service, and pursuing what they called their “great idea” – of escaping their profession – they shifted to Nelson where Challis worked at the Beneficiaries Union and they hosted refugees from Myanmar and Cambodia. They also hosted legendary midwinter parties, their Dodson Valley garden bedecked with lights.  

They had time to travel, returning to Barcelona, and lived for a while in Australia, in a caravan park. It was there that many of the poems in his second collection were written. Its title says so much about the silence and where it had taken him. He had come through to the other side of the brain, to where language could make some sense of life. A third collection, Luck of the Bounce, came out in 2008, rich with wry humour, and a new and selected in 2016. He had prepared some of his translations for publication (by Dry Crust in Nelson) shortly before he died. 

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