Jeremy Roberts is a resident of Napier, NZ, where he MC’s at Napier Live Poets and interviews poets on Radio Kidnappers. His work has been published widely – including NZ Listener, Landfall, takahē, JAAM, Poetry NZ, & Phantom Billstickers. Jeremy has performed and recorded poems with musicians in NZ, Texas, Saigon, and Jakarta. His first poetry collection was Idiot Dawn’ (poems 1981-87). ‘Cards on the Table’ was published by IP Australia, in 2015.
REMEMBERING AN AUCKLAND SUN
’twas just as a bloody migraine was kicking in – watching the dear old Jefferson Airplane play ‘morning maniac music’ on the Woodstock stage, me troffing Wheetbix, guzzling coffee. I suddenly thought: ‘Where on earth are you now, my friend?’ I lay flat on my back, beneath a flickering aura bright as burning magnesium strips – a vision I know you’d completely understand & know how it felt.
You always had the knack of showing up when I needed to see you, but not anymore. Not for a long time.
We met age 13, at school. We really met each other – age 22, walking down Remuera Rd, fresh from the thinking factories – comparing notes on peer-group combat & our bummed-out pasts. A meeting of two minds which didn’t know how to fit into the world or ‘take stock of our lives’, get ourselves a ‘trade’. Why couldn’t we fit in? Why did we have to fit in? Was that what the whole thing was about? The consensus was that you were weird, a little dangerous. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with you.
It’s easy to remember your physicality: ‘Ging-er’ with a soft ‘g’ never really suited you. It was red – your hair. Eyelashes, too. A ‘nuggety’ little bastard. The way you could soak a room with unease. The way your body broke in half when something cracked you up. The way your ears caught someone’s words & then spun them back like a top. The way you’d say things to people you’d only just met: ‘Did you know that you have a forehead like an elephant?’ The time you dialed 111 & yelled: We need a fuck!
You were wingman to my sadman. Yeah – I’d famously lost ‘the ultimate girl & the ultimate car’ – your words. I couldn’t accept that my first experience of Big Love was always doomed – the welded & bolted religion of denial. You were there – that miserable New Year’s Eve, as I out-cried the Erebus Disaster families, which was probably overdoing it, but, Jesus, man! – it hurt. You stood around, watching me, called family members. It was the kick up the ass I needed for a personal metamorphosis: death to the spectator & vicarious living. I’d written a few small things in the last year or two, but now my pen found a new gear – moving automatically across the page of a little blue notebook. I wanted your approval & you gave it to me. You know – become a writer, open to shameless, daring episodes! My best moment was probably lying in the middle of the road one night, waiting for a car to kill me. You were impressed.
The setting: Dorkland circa ’82 – the start of the last era before souls were siphoned & polluted by the Internet & smart-ass phones. An empty city – maybe a dozen caretakers & pub managers living in the CBD. A city that was really a big country town – with two TV channels & still only AM radio. Those streets were ours! – for acting-out, letting rip with a little bit of delinquency – e.g. our milk bottle game: Who’s put the empties & milk tokens out – ready for the milkman? OK – up into the air they go: 1-2-3 hoist! Time to run! The sound of smashing glass truly was divine.
It’s tempting to open ‘one of the greatest achievements in the English language’ – Roget’s Thesaurus, but I’m just going to use a word which was embedded in the vernacular of the times. The communal goal was always to have a ‘nice’ time & to be a ‘nice’ guy or ‘nice’ girl. Well, it was so nice to rip apart those straitjackets & barriers of social conformity & expectation, & push a few buttons, wasn’t it? You were a natural at that game. I finally didn’t give a Clark Gable damn about what people thought & it was so nice to be free of that! It allowed spontaneity to exist, imagination to catch fire – a kind of riding of the senses like a jockey. Patterns of behaviour were to be avoided. You were a master of all of this & it scared the hell out of people. ‘Ostracize the weirdo!’ they all shouted together.
So – the image of a loner – isolated in a fucking city!
Was that you or me? – weaving like a b-grade actor on a permanent bad hair day, hunting for happy hour, guided by some secret melody & leaving a psychic vapour-trail of disconnection thru the visual-spatial construction…
The beastliness of the universe swirls in coffee & cigarettes! When you make a list of the things you are best at, the sun burns a hole in the paper. The pale green day slowly becomes an emerald nightmare. The answer is to get smashed at 5pm, dive into watercolour faces & play ironic social-ability games. The stain on the mind-wall cannot be removed, but you can pick up the knocked-over chairs. The streets are designed for the fast movement of people.
Your drove your parents nuttier than a couple of fruit cakes. You had a WW2 / Japanese P.O.W. survivor-dad who didn’t stand for any nonsense, who did the family laundry ‘prison-camp style’. Did he ever tell you about his experiences? – or he was one of those men who wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about it? He couldn’t possibly understand you. He didn’t like me – just a piss-head trouble-maker, thanks to your reports. I wanted to say – Hey, hang on a minute! I was always surprised how you told your folks what we did. Like, why?
Of course, you fled. ‘I’m going to Europe!’ you blurted suddenly.
We had a good send-off – drinking Champagne at Club Mirage on his AMEX card. Cheeky little shits, eh? The trip – a glorious shambles! Not everyone can say that they have been arrested for vagrancy on Corfu.
And suddenly there you were, back – standing in the doorway of the Parnell Village boutique where I collected cash from affluent fashion victims, with a lavender flower jammed up your nose, asking: ‘Do you know where I was a week ago?’
Heat rises from the lung of life. Sometimes you run from the downpour. I didn’t always think of you. If not, I was probably standing there – studying the colour of urine, thinking of girls with dark hair – wild as whirling palm trees in white, lonely deserts. Well – we both knew what we wanted. It was our own little ‘Torment of Tantalus’. You wrote down your version: Big tits / less lips / is there any more to be bad? / God, I would love to be her / and be loved
Sometimes you’d pull the plug & bugger off – leaving me to improvise kicks on my own. If the technique of talking a load of complete nonsense to strangers failed, maybe I’d try a philosophical conversation at a massage parlour, maybe a bottle of politically incorrect ‘South African bubbly’, maybe a second-hand copy of Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon LP under my arm. Whatever, I’d soon be flying – scribbling my latest stream of consciousness in blue fountain pen ink – ready for you to read & tell me to go & show Graham Brazier. I was sure there was a decent-sized crack in the firmament. I felt as if I was on the other side of a gate which had simply closed out the past – now a creative individual among the ‘collectivists.’ Everybody else seemed to be walking in slow-motion, stuck in ‘the horse latitudes.’
And, oh – what a lovely line in the Nicholas Roeg / Mick Jagger movie Performance: ‘The only performance which makes it, really makes it, makes it all the way – is one that achieves madness.’ William Blake was surely proof of that.
I gladly shared my secret obsession with a certain little 19th century Frenchman with you. He must have been crazy to write that stuff! I was trying to write my own version of ‘A Season in Hell’ & was thrilled when you took me to the play – Christopher Hampton’s ‘Total Eclipse’ – with young Michael Hurst in the key role of young Arthur. Of course, we stumbled in at the last minute – almost locked out but got seats in the first row! I roared with laughter & elbowed the giggling you, ticking off various acts of social transgression. Apart from the fact that you & I were not a generation apart, not French, not gay, not arrested for sodomy – there was a lot going on we related to. The spirit of the whole thing, man!
We were graffiti grand masters! Our piss-take attack on our Secondary school – long overdue. I can see you now – standing in the moonlight, calmly splashing on the big letters with the white paint, not giving a fuck that any moment you could be caught. It was our little bit of sweet revenge: FUCK SCHOOL, THIS SCHOOL ZONE WANKS, SID, SCUM, THE PRINCIPAL SUCKS HIS WIFE’S PUSSY, THE DEPUTY PRINCIPAL IS A PSYCHO…
I’m surprised we never attacked a church, but our actions were nothing to do with God. We were too damn young to care about the spirit world. We could hardly make our way through the material world.
You showed me your old family home in Herne Bay. Under a sun that was decidedly queer, you told me you thought you were going to kill yourself. I said that you didn’t have the guts to do it. You chuckled, smiling back weakly: ‘I know.’ They were good times.
Hanging out at the Mission Bay fountain – a regular location for broken-hearted screaming, drunken hilarity & the heaving of rubbish bins into the tide. It wasn’t supposed to be about my pain this night, but yours.
‘Suicide or drugs – that’s what my parents seem to think …’
‘Uh huh …’
‘Do you know what it’s like having your own family & a jerk doctor imply that you are mentally ill? They want to put me on medication. Do you know what those drugs do to you?’
I didn’t. All I could do was pop open another can & declare ‘I’m getting pissed!’
‘Yeah, well, drink always fucked you up.’
‘I’m your friend! I’m not telling you that you are mentally ill!’
‘I realise that it was a mistake coming to see you.’
‘Shall we attack the sea?’
‘Let’s just leave it for a while.’
No – we didn’t always get along did we? You walked off on more than one occasion – measured, pedagogic – leaving me thirsty, gasping in the air, doing my splay-footed dance. Lost in a stutter of tangential exchange.
A better day was driving across the Newmarket Viaduct in your old Vauxhall. You took my empty beer bottle, wound down the driver’s window & juggled it for a moment or two in the breeze.
‘Where’s that going?’ I asked.
‘Ah, it’s going on the factory’
And so it did.
I believed in that go-to M.O. of ‘reaching the mental through the physical’. There was nothing like pounding a few empties into the pavement. You hovered like a caring psychologist, as I punched the wall of Victoria Street’s Elephant Bar & yelled obscenities. ‘That’s blue velvet violence’ a strange woman said – looking at my bruised hand & kissing me on the cheek. The Lynch movie hadn’t even been invented yet! You broke confidentiality by explaining it all to her, but that was OK.
How to deal with people? One evening – hanging out at the twin-figured bronze Greer-Twiss-of-fate sculpture. Those dudes looked like elongated versions of us & the location was as good a crossroads as any. You could walk west, along infamous Karangahape Rd. You wander the graveyards & then head a few steps north into the Parrot Bar & get drunk. You could flee east, onto the famous suicide leap – Grafton Bridge. You could call it a night & go south, back towards the suburbs & everything that word implied. We weren’t making any grand choices, though. We were just bitching. Our living situations were tenuous.
‘My flatmates have all turned on me’, I said – feeling down, seeking sympathy.
‘They’ll take an arm or a leg if you let them!’ you screamed back.
Well, you know those days when it feels like God is playing Hitler – being a nasty little prick. Call it a Tuesday – you’re ready to clap, dance, splash out with positive displays of phatic communion & even go beyond that! – when the sea change suddenly rolls in. A few denaturalizing seconds later & you’re feeling like your karma must have mutated into some spastic, devious lucky dip. They say normal transmission will be resumed shortly – but first there’s a bit of work to do.
The trouble is – it’s not easy to dance like a little toy fresh off the production line, in the game of expectations. Sometimes, you catch yourself gasping for air in a small, tight net. Sometimes, nothing comes together. You hear the echo: It’s the far queue for you, Lou!
What was that nonsense about picking things you wanted straight off the tree? The words coming out of peoples’ mouths might as well be static on a little transistor radio barely receiving the signal. Life – the great surpriser, has delivered a round of one-hand face-slapping. That mirror you are supposed to walk through on-a-daily-basis tells you to suck & lick the dirty silver surface clean – with everybody watching. Sometimes the smallest thing sticks a shit-stick in the heart. Yet – something as little as a curve on the right pair of lips can reverse it.
Of course, we loved playing hide & seek in the Auckland Domain – the vast, empty park as our own private backyard. We spied a couple blow-jobbing in a car near the Anzac memorial & snuck up like two little Viet Cong guerrillas – leaping up onto the car bonnet out of nowhere & letting loose with horrible, terrifying noises. They were instantly freaked out of their horny skulls. We ran away into the bushes with ANZAC ghosts in hot pursuit, telling us to piss off.
On dull mornings when something was urgently needed to stab the air – because the tired, oh-so familiar landscape completely lacked inspiration, the structure of mental space was always a critical issue. As a way of avoiding this unwanted self, default visions of dead artistic heroes often hovered on eyeball stalks …
‘Look over there’ I gesticulated, one time – ‘The body of Jim Morrison lying across the landscape!’
‘Have you been drinking?’ – your reply.
‘Can’t you see it?’ I replied, disappointed.
‘Those are the Waitakere Ranges’ you replied – sick of ‘the poetry of the moment’ & sounding like somebody from the straight world. The black dog had come calling.
Eventually, it was my turn to run away. I went to Canada, with a new notebook to fill. Your farewell gift: a broken Polaroid camera you’d dropped on the ground, which produced gloriously munted images. I waited for you to write & you didn’t let me down:
‘I’m bored tonight, so don’t expect anything brilliant. You are a disappointment. (A) No letter (B) No marriage impending to Anne Murray (C) No homosexuality charges (D) No spunk (E) No fucking – maybe, if you pull your cock out from the rubberised Stones posters you keep between your legs…slip & suck your way up the mountain…love & vengeance, Mark’
I was too busy guzzling Labatt Blue beer & chasing several Canadian muses, to get very far up the slope – but I did find two young whippersnappers to help raise the middle finger. To what though? – conformity? You knew I was crapping out. Immigration officials had little sympathy & I high-tailed it to London. Your lawyer brother was still somewhat traumatised from your visit. You should have been with me at Rimbaud’s grave in Charleville, France, but I made do with tears & gentle rain for company. The Western European landscape rattled past & there was nothing from you at Poste Restante. Soon I was opening your letter to me in Adelaide, Australia:
‘I am looking down the mirror & I see your face of gold…I must tell you where I am at: Just Freedom & Pain. Family, loneliness, & the powerful image of depressed Mark came flooding back in. The anti-depressant drugs are also a big factor…’
How could I answer that? Our brief meeting in Auckland faltered around your sentence: ‘I saw you walking towards me with your head down’. Well, I was down. The drifter’s game had nailed me upside down to the money wheel & after a few threatening letters from the bank, I was off, cash-seeking – gone to chip Pacific oysters off asbestos sticks in Russell, Northland. And there I was – standing in big waders at Orongo Bay, after taking a barge out to the oyster rows at dusk, watching the orange light fade to pitch black in complete silence – thinking that oblivion probably wasn’t too different.
You soon wrote:
‘What the fuck are you doing up there? It’s not friendship between us – it’s a mutual respect for the other’s position. I’m fond of you, but I was always more fond of my lost dog, Pip. You left me pretty much on my own, when you could have helped a lot more than you did…’
Shit. I found an old notebook from sometime in ’83: ‘After a bit of a physical scuffle, Mark left…am I Mark’s friend, wet-nurse, ear, or the jerk who humours him?’
We were having silly little arguments. You wanted me to look after an ‘Abstract Expressionist’ pastel drawing you’d bashed out – but I said ‘No, I’m not going to.’
In fact, I was saying no to a few things.
‘You’re smarter than you used to be’ was your observation.
We had a road trip where the old simpatico was still taking effect. The ancient Vauxhall ran out of petrol right outside a gas station & magically rolled right up to the pump. We visited some of your relatives, presented ourselves well, & cheered for the All Blacks on TV. As you drove away, you said ‘They think we are two nice young Kiwi guys with good prospects!’ Was I too far down the road to turn back? Well – I soon got engaged. You should have been at the wedding. All the likely suspects were relieved when you weren’t.
Circa ’85 was a strange time: the world announcement of AIDS – which sounded like something straight out of a William Burroughs novel, & having to get used to the idea of Van Halen without David Lee Roth!
My fingers were busy – twirling tubes of glass over a gas ribbon-burner – shaping them into words, filling syringes with mercury, electrifying neon & argon gas …
I was helping to turn the Auckland night-scape into Las Vegas!
You came in to the neon shop one day & all hell broke loose. Shit, you were only there for five minutes – excitedly blurting out news of a career as a tennis professional.
‘He can’t come back in here again!’ the boss told me.
‘He upset my wife!’
You just laughed – ‘Oh, the woman whose lips don’t move when she talks?’
I couldn’t join in anymore. I’d become part of the straight world.
Either – your creativity is nailed to a rambling, shambolic life where you believe you’re too far gone to turn back, so you try to keep those spontaneous ‘elephant in the room’- type kicks going, because this is how the muse works for you – the ‘streets’ being where it all comes together: a place of sensory experience which of course ‘feeds’ the muse. A kind of improvised drama, yet also a secret society of one – running a fever of words under a full moon. It’s a hell of a thing, because artistic merit aside, the words will very likely be condemned to obscurity – possibly even viewed as a document of social failure, or an explanation for the avoidance of conventional goal-setting. But, the idea of planning for a bright future is simply abhorrent, not an option.
Or – you find a way to be creatively expressive from within a conventional life with all its social rules & expectations, while pursuing a career & friendships – an experience necessarily devoid of mutiny, subversion.
Or – you just give up. You only get one chance to do it ‘pure.’ Poetry is a strange disease, whichever way you look at it.
There’s a photo of us eating fish ‘n’ chips together at Mission bay ’89.
‘My hair’s getting a bit thin’, I said, feeling old at thirty.
‘No! It’s not’ you reassured me – ‘Hair…changes, OK?’
As if you still didn’t want anything to happen to me.
We had the knack for crossing paths though, did we not? I remember that time at your mother’s place – you were waking up very late now, because of the medication.
For a long time, I’ve been fixated on the last time I saw you – circa ’10. You wanted to meet at your favourite coffee shop – only thirty minutes late, not bad, I suppose – along you came with your big round face, big round body, what looked like a permanent five o’clock shadow, red hair (a little less) sitting flat against your head, scoop of excited snot hanging out of one nostril – your loud head-turning voice telling me you’re sorry, you can’t stay – you’re off to a funeral of some favourite radio host…
How was that funeral?
Perhaps I’ll never see you again, but I’ve decided to put off that evil thought forever. Remember that day the trees were upside down & purple mountains were dropping into the sky? Was it you or me who said –
It’s all a bright white dream, begging to be slashed & stained …? Thanks for fighting back that time they wanted to lock you away – you just took a room at the YMCA. Thanks for bringing me a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses & telling me ‘It’s got rain on it’. Thanks for snapping the instamatic camera button as I rolled all over the bonnet of my Mazda RX3. Thanks for helping me to transform the blueness of it all into the thrill of it all. Thanks for being so heavy on your feet, in a neatly arranged world of expected conformity.
I’m not sure what I gave you …
‘Love is a word’ you once declared in a letter – ‘It has stuck to us. Think first before you write back.’