Leicester Kyle: The Millerton Sequences (2014)
An Introduction to The Millerton Sequences:
Leicester Kyle. The Millerton Sequences. Ed. Jack Ross. Poem by David Howard. ISBN 978-1-927242-28-5. Pokeno: Atuanui Press, 2014.
Leicester Kyle’s latest book covers the final period of his life, after leaving Auckland to live in Millerton. In the context of these poems, this seems like a denial of the overly-human urban world in favour of the more mediated world of the human-in-nature, a rejection of the human as master in favour of the human whose mastery is conditional upon his place within the larger context of the natural world.
The five central sequences of the book are presented in chronological order, bookended by two standalone pieces, “One Hundred Steps to Millerton Mine”, and “Red Dog/Brown”. “One Hundred Steps to Millerton Mine” serves as a great introduction to the core sequences, introducing most of the main themes. “Red Dog/Brown” is almost tacked on at the end. Although it fits into the arc of Kyle’s growing discursiveness over time, it doesn’t fit thematically, and functions more as a structural counterweight to the introductory poem.
It’s hard to read this book without being reminded of Kyle’s background in the Anglican church. Liturgical phrasing pops up occasionally, as do a couple of biblical references and parallels. While religion certainly isn’t an obvious theme, it certainly forms part of the framework of thought.
One Hundred Steps to Millerton MineStarting from this poem, the sequences, with the exception of “The Catheter Club”, have a remarkable consistency of reference. Parallel phrases and constructions crop up regularly. The hundred steps are an ascent, to “the paradise prepared”, the made world of the original mine, now in the final phase of reclamation by the bush. It’s the book’s first example of human endeavour on a human scale, a scale on which any damage wrought can be redeemed by natural processes within the span of a couple of generations. We ascend the steps through the teeming bush and ascend to our own realm of activity and commerce, without transcendence. Paradise is immanent in this life and does not need to be searched for anywhere else. Our acceptance of our place in a world which is larger than ourselves and has no concern for our well-being (see “Rain” and “Rain Poems”) leads to small epiphanic moments of grace. Notable by its absence is any attempt to paint this mine as “the Pit” [“Death of a Landscape”]. Kyle’s paradise is a fragile balance between human activity and that of the rest of the natural world of which he is part.
Five Flowers at Millerton MineKyle’s botanical knowledge comes to the fore here, with some close descriptions of local flowers, without overwhelming the reader with botanical technicalities as he has in other places. Hs close attention to the particularities of each flower, and the environment in which it live, keeps the attention focussed, intimate - the precondition of grace. In ‘Pterostylis montana var. ruricaulis’, the bush is imbued with the menace that later slips over into his descriptions of West Coast rain, whose descriptions are similarly detailed. The bush “takes life”, playing on the ambiguity in the phrase, is “staunch” and gathers in the militaristic phrase “Troop for space” where it overwhelms the fragile human environment of the original Millerton mine.
Picnic in the MangatiniAnother foray into the ‘wild’, full of the awareness of the contingency of the human experience. It is a being-in-the-world, in the overlap where the self meets the world, and where neither is lost. Like the cloistering of later poems, silence and stillness here are not an abdication - they are active, creating the space where grace may be found, like the weka’s visit: “grace in such things abounds”. Yet this moment of grace is soon over, contingent upon the weather, like all activities in Millerton. The arrival of “The clouds that came in from the sea” foreshadows the next sequence.
RainIn each of these poems, the rain conditions the possibilities of the day’s actions and its mood. This is also where Miriel makes her first appearance. She returns throughout the book, often guiding the poems from behind the scenes, forming the unseen seabed that determines the shape of the waves above.There’s a soft presence seepingThe rain also takes on a sort of Old Testament awesomeness: “the torrent [..] that I must wait out / and cower before” [Rain 4]; “soon there will be the comfortable sound / impartial upon us like justice”. The latter phrase echoing the sentiment of “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” [Matthew 5:45].
a damp unannounced and of unstated stay
Days like these are days for memory--
You’re already on my mind
Death of a LandscapeThis is the collection’s central poem in every sense. It’s in the structural middle of the sequence, has the most gravitas and sheer bulk of pages. Some of this is due to the editor’s decision to include two versions on the poem. The first version includes the text handwritten on pages from the proposal to create a new open-cast mine on the Millerton plateau. The second is just the text. The decision to include both versions is based on the fact that there are slight textual differences and, given that this is a posthumous collection, it is impossible to assign primacy to either text.
It’s hard to see that the handwritten version uses the background of geological tables and bureaucratic evasion as much more than context, but it is a context that goes right to the heart of one of the sequence’s themes – the use of technocratic language as a hedge against responsibility, an evasion of morality, an apologia for destruction on an inhuman scale. The editor describes this as a kind of ecological protest poem, which it is. That description glosses over the much more interesting and contradictory things that the poem is also. It’s an uneasy, and finally flawed, melding of the grief Kyle feels over the death of Miriel and the approaching destruction of the Millerton plateau.
Although the destruction of the landscape can be remediated, its being cannot be returned. The essence of both a person and a landscape resides in its natural progression through continuity of experience and memory:it’s the idea and the idealCall that a soul, if you will, but the landscape manufactured to replace the one destroyed can never recapture the essence. Those that plan the rape of the land hide behind the blandness of their language and scientificity of the tables and other bureaucratic apparatus:
that over a life
has made its own formthe receiving landscapeThis replacement echoes Kyle’s ‘replacement’ of Miriel. “Death of a Landscape” was first published around a year and a half before he married his second wife and he uses parallel constructions for the replacement of both a wife and the landscape. You can replicate the features, the lifeless ‘laminate’, but not the essence. In Miriel’s case, he says
the outcome for the area
the best landscape fit
the final landform--
to make death no matterwhen you lookand in that of the landscape
you don’t see the real,
you see what you’ve made
in your mindthough it might beOne final description of death might apply equally to Miriel’s melanoma or the mechanical and chemical destruction of the landscape: “Must there be this wrack, rape and scouring?” Both kinds of destruction require some kind of recognition, and the second and third sections show the differing human and inhuman reactions:
‘a receiving form’
‘the final form’
has been designed,
all else is inferiordo the best you can,The unspoken comparison is that the church, and family, offer both promise and consolation.
involve the family
and turn to your friends
[Death of a Landscape 2]
there’s an answer,
not of fact or consolation
nor even a promise,
but of obstacle,
some sort of it-has-to-be
[Death of a Landscape 3]
At first sight, there seems to be a contradiction between the generally positive depiction of the first mine in “One Hundred Steps to Millerton Mine” and the proposed new mine. In this case, a difference in quantity really is a difference in quality. The original mine was built to a human scale. It can be reclaimed through natural processes in a human timeframe, that of living memory. The new mine, though, cannot be reclaimed in the same way: “Destruction on this scale / Is quite new” [Death of a Landscape 5]. Given a long enough timeframe, of course, it will revert to a natural state, regain its identity through natural growth, but that process would take much longer than the frame of human memory. On a human scale, the destruction is permanent.
Death is not purely destruction, though. It is also transformation, although that transformation leaves a bitter taste for those who must witness it, as in Kyle’s sarcasticdrink this,at the end of this section makes a suitable pivot into the next poem’s
the black water
that runs in the creek
it’s good for you
The equally dour
love the machines
with blades and buckets
as big as the mouth of a mine
and the explosives
Destruction on this scale Is quite new;The manufactured return of the landscape is an empty facing upon the voided memory. The lamina has no content in or of itself, no memory, no meaning. When discussing the geology of it, the idea is relatively straight-forward – each layer of laminate is placed and not naturally or spontaneously grown upon the next, but such human creation does not grant it any sort of life force or memory. True, its inhabitants might return in the distant future, but that does nothing to make the situation any better on the scale of a human lifetime. However, the conceit becomes much more confused once applied to the passing of his wife. On her death, we still have a soul to contend with. Does it go to the promised land (Beulah) or the Pit? If it were to return to the body, Lazarus-like, would it be a fully-functioning human again, or would it merely be an inhabited shell, “l[ying] there laminate?”.
we haven’t done it much,
it grows on you
“[T]his pit” (the original mine) is a human-scale version of “the Pit”. What makes “Death of the Landscape” so interesting is the confusion that seems to be in the writer’s mind, the failure to make it all fit into a satisfyingly unitary statement. He wants nature as the creative force, but with god waiting in the wings. The death of his wife is transformative, and you sense there’s a grudging acknowledgement of its redemptive qualities for her, while the widower must deal with his grief.
Kyle again mixes the death of his wife with the death of the landscape in the final poem of the sequence, “Aubade”. Here, the parting of the lovers is overlaid with the passing of the landscape. The scouring of the land by chemicals merges with the widower’s regret as “as acid in the gut / corroding”.
Rain PoemsIndividually, there’s little to say about the individual poems here that hasn’t already been covered by “Rain”. As a group, they are a little reminiscent of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets in their pared back, discursive language and wilful focus on the materiality of everyday existence. The most interesting of the poems is the final piece, once again showing the generative aspect of violence and destruction. I’ll quote the poem’s first and final lines:Of Earth and Sky
and prophetic rain
that has from the first few drops
a sense of purpose
until all is beaten down
impregnated and subdued
in this cold copulation
of earth and sky.
Hamish Dewe, the reviewer, edited brief 43 in 2011. He was, back in the day, an editor of Salt (the Auckland one).
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 1 [Issue #49]. ISSN 0114-5770 (2014): 217-23.
Poetry NZ Yearbook 1 (2014)