Friday, August 9, 2013

Tony Beyer

Tony Beyer was born in Auckland in 1948 and has spent most of his life in the North Island of New Zealand. His national and international publications have included poems in significant journals and anthologies, and fourteen individual collections, principally emanating from independent presses. As an editor, anthologist and teacher he has specifically encouraged beginning writers of all ages, and young writers.

I probably started publishing too early, with two small books during the 1970s (my 20s) from Trevor Reeves’s Caveman Press in Dunedin. There are still people who maintain that this is my best work, with the suggestion that I have since gone astray. On the other hand, the experience began my lifelong preference for independent presses and magazines, fugitive imprints and individual associations with my editors and printers.
Of course, you can’t start writing too early. ‘Cut Lilac’, dating from 1980 – one of several surge-years – was my first widely anthologised piece and the product of a lot of experimentation. I still like it because it seems to have remained true to the situation it was made in. Its dependence on unfashionable adverbs also pleases me.
A later poem, ‘River’ was part of my growing understanding of poetry as a kinetic, even cinematic process. By now, most usual punctuation had disappeared; line breaks and stanza breaks offered in each case the exhilaration of an optional end-stop or run-on. The stanzas had become the equivalent of frames through which the poem moves, enacting rather than recording. Much later (of which more later) the tanka sequence offered a main means of developing this technique.
Sang aus dem Exil’ – the title recalls Karl Wolfskehl, the German-language poet, who ended his life as a refugee in Auckland in the 1940s – pursues the stand-alone yet linked stanza further. I was also starting to be interested here in the particulars of a New Zealand content: this isolated end-of-the-world simultaneously so much of a cultural disadvantage and advantage, the freedom of the largely ignored. I’ve never been able to work up much enthusiasm for the internationalist fantasy, preferring the curiosity of making do at one of the most far-flung outposts of the English language. 
Written around the turn of the century, ‘Bread and Stones’ is one of several desert poems of the period, to do with sterility and uncreative complacency. Given the events of 2001, my prediction that nothing much was about to happen was way off the mark!

The new century seems somehow to have liberated my writing, or simply my perception of it. Electric Yachts, my first true 21st Century book, from the title poem of which my fifth poem here is an extract, was longer, more comfortable with itself, allowing in more of my customary humour. Its German speakers are obviously more willing to find themselves at the ends of the earth.
There is, though, always a place for the local voice and its traditions, and readers have appreciated this in ‘The South Island’. It’s also a useful reminder of how new concepts of identity don’t always eclipse those of the past, often in fact strengthening them. This place and the ways we find to voice our belonging in it are at the core of valuing environmental existence. We also honour other cultures by having a culture of our own, however flawed or patchy.
‘Easter Motets’ takes its place here as something different but not entirely alien to the others. The fixed-form implications of rhyme have always been part of my practice, but you have to be careful not to use them all the time. Sound is important and I always recite before I write. A rather pagan, small-“c” christianity is also inseparably a part of me and my knowledge of existence.
As a New Zealander, I have to acknowledge that English-language literature in this part of the world is only a very few generations old. Its distinct flavour is the achievement of close but significant ancestors, one of whom, Ruth Dallas (another South Islander!), I celebrate in ‘The Pine Hut’.
Two love poems follow, derived from various sequences currently on the go. My scope of being is immediate: the household and its concerns; those around me who are also representative of a wider humanity; the persistent elation and exasperation of being alive.
In ‘Human Voices’ we are back in the primordial New Zealand of river-crossings, boasts and come-uppances, where drowning is still one of the more popular ways of dying. The close association between humans and nature is the one national characteristic we ignore at our peril and, of course, we continue to do it daily.
Also at the turn of the century, I stopped being sceptical about the use of Japanese short forms as a genre in English-language poetry. I decided to accept the challenge this type of writing affords on its own terms and see if I could do it well. For better or worse, many haiku and tanka followed and never had line breaks seemed so urgent. ‘Tidelines’ is my chosen example of a tanka sequence. I like the flexibility of this form, encompassing Japanese linkage by association and European-style permutation of a more-or-less given stanza shape.
Considering the number required, I gave great thought to the meaning of thirteen. A Baker’s Dozen is certainly a tradition on the positive and fortunate side. Then the poem ‘Thirteen’ came along. I was intrigued by what I found under the stone with this number on it.
Reading over my “Baker’s Dozen” I’m aware that it is a fairly stringent selection in formal terms and that another thirteen poems might have presented me as another, entirely different writer. This is as it should be. That these thirteen poems, written over thirty-odd years, all look like parts of the same poem foreshadows my current preoccupation with longer poems. But it also points to what a lifetime commitment can look like: air and water; birds and plants; a grounding in the Classics, English and French literature, and American modernism. What else do you need? Reader, the poems are no longer mine; they’re yours. 

Cut Lilac

the dead smell the rain gives
to bunches of cut lilac
in bay windowed living rooms

is another version of the skull
your mouth feels when you kiss
a lover’s or a child’s clear forehead

but these are impetuous blue
upon the stems that throng
the vase’s throat and splay from it

half captive or as free
as wands of light the recent sun
by peering wetly forth outside

has interspersed among them
divining paths like ours in time
that sprawl and gather haltingly

towards the next blind cervix
of the grave the best of us
will shoulder through with joy


the river
brings down stones

that mumble
and scrape over

each other’s
averted backs

as a poem
brings words

brings something
to tap against

the teeth or
weigh in the hand

or spin
to skip flat water

while you remember
that the poem

is the river
not the stones

Sang aus dem Exil


sleeping through daytime rain
and the dreams it summons
is one of the great earthen passages

sound temperature and light
infinitesimally modulated
in the palm of one huge hand

then pierced by bird song
relaying some distant intelligence
into distance out of hearing


I need not wander further
than the street address of my birth
to be challenge as a stranger

one season only in this city
one flavour of rain
the locals praise immoderately

I’m going to give you my images
flat sleep without dreams
with an egg-blue tablet


tell me the light still moves
finger by finger breadth
over the salt whitened table

cane creak of conservatory chairs
gone in one breath of fire
indestructible in memory

ripe smoke calligraphy
so many thoughts like words
yet to enter language


I hang my shorts on a chair
for the night like a boy
and lie outside the covers

sometimes the stars
in their eternal formations
watch me watching them

on the edge of sleep
who can be sure
of the intentions of moonlight


setting of the plum tree
green roofed shed
and brick paved ant tenement

a young man in a T shirt
leans forward pursing his lips
to drink from the hose

persistent discourse
with those for one
or another reason absent


what is the message
each bird cry calls to the next
without understanding

prayer rhythms
of the tails of summer cattle
swinging at flies

master I am waiting
the mad man in his cage eating flies
as the world awaits its prince

Bread and Stones

this time the doctrine
from the desert
is considered and dismissed
without prejudice or violence
and the prophet advised
to get a shave and a job

there is an acceptance
of dreams
in their refined form
as stories in the marketplace
worth a seat at least
and a bowl of food

no one’s head is turned
no one’s life
changed irrevocably
by the startled glance
of the speaker’s grey
mendicant eye

with reasons
for power and war
other than greed suspended
it will be difficult
to recruit martyrs
or shed righteous blood

but simple stew
over a thorn fire
the devil’s recipe
never fails to produce
visions of a better world
getting in the way of this one

the watchmen
on the city walls
with nothing but night
between them and the stars
can only call out the hours
resignedly and wait

from Electric Yachts


that first hostel
where we stayed
was mainly let to
singles teams and pairs
of German backpackers

girls in tartan shirts
who could each
miraculously produce
a little black number
for a night at the pub

or solo frauen
more advanced in years
who took the slightest
cloud break as occasion
to sprawl nude on the lawn

the boys were freckled
voluble and active
dawn till dusk
but turned in early
snoring in relays

older men outside
greeted us after dark
with Dracula accents
pleased to be
nuclear-free and green

some of the words we heard
for the international
beauty of the moon
riding over ponga tops
have remained with me

The South Island

compressed by sleep
into dream fragments

memories of salt works
on the coast

roads that followed ridge lines
through spectral hollows of clouds

a gate
and a river of pebbles

a church left to settle for a century
like angels’ new-marbled wings

landscape as dry and firm
as a good man’s handshake

Easter Motets


cicadas recall
among the trees
all of nature’s

egg to nymph
to doomed adult
messianic cult


what we call
the dead of night
is more than
interrupted light

darkness in the
human mind
is of a
metaphysical kind


the sun comes out
and dries the dew
reminding me
reminding you

of earth as
paradise before
the application
of the law

The Pine Hut

(remembering Ruth Dallas)


founding a literature
we think less
of founding fathers

than grandmothers
older sisters

cradling the flame
rather than
blowing it up and out

in isolation
the bird at the window
flutters against the pane

where the sky
is the same blue
as possibility


to make poetry
easy as breathing
so the words disappear

and the blue bowl
containing paper clips
on the table disappears

and its contents
neatly folded wires
invisible as always

to their blind makers
hang in the air like one
repeated pictogram

from Some Wellington Poems

in a park
in that city

at the other
end of the island
I remember

the excitement
of walking
to meet you here

and copy
your habit or
gesture in passing

of lightly pressing
from a leaf

then raising
my fingers
to my face


we prune big
splashy heads

of fresh blossom
off the hydrangeas

in wild weather
so they can bloom

out of the wind
in vases in the house

Shiki says
of flowers like these

to stand their stems in
strong wine when they wilt

and they will flush
with colour again

Human Voices

those who drowned
in this river
still speak
with its voice

I was a child
on a raft we’d made
when it turned
leaving me under
and my brother
struggling weeping to the bank

my raincoat flared up
in the wind
causing my horse to shy
and throw me
into the torrent

I was drunk
for the last time
and decided to swim
all the way home

something about an axle
and baling wire

farm kids
with a drizzle of freckles
over the nose bridge
and under the eyes

the river’s own voice
is like the conversation
in a crowded lunch room
the day before a holiday

murmur hubbub
and rodomontade
come to mind
but the river has many voices

by the time it reaches
the shingle flats
near the sea
its silence is the silence
of old men
whose eyes twinkle
without explicit pleasure
among the skin creases
long passage over earth
has given them


among shoreline trees’
imitative shadows
the sand holds
signs of repose
and movement well


here tea was poured
and here
a wasp crushed
with the flat base
of a picnic cup

bird song
in the high branches
for colour and light


a kingfisher
turns bright side out
at speed
down the face
of the cliff


from the water’s edge
I watch you
in hat and dark glasses
basking over the pages
of a trite magazine


waves lift
the lace skirt
of the shore
a little higher
each time


constant small
fallings of sand
will by evening
have erased
our presence here


in an upper room
she sets the table

then becomes
historically invisible

the work of her hands
her remembrance

thirteen places
earthenware cups and bowls

the coarse but excellent
flat bread of the region

dry wine in flasks
cut with water as is the custom

nor should it be thought
the bread is without garnish

slivers of aromatic fish
dates figs

the company is as subdued
as the décor

some despondent
at least one eager to be away

but in their midst a loaf is torn
into twelfths and distributed

a draught is raised
to the light

then passed around
for each of them to taste

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