D'Arcy Cresswell in Castor Bay
Your poems were the last things the world wanted. You went without. Hungering for the time when last things would be first again. To Ottoline you wrote, quote: Please don't keep saying you prefer my prose to my verse. But when I see what you Londoners swallow from Eliot, and Auden and Lewis and Coy, I'm not so offended, unquote. The year in 1936. Not just those Londoners, D'Arcy. Three years later, in Christchurch, I was born, christened Wystan. Not just those Londoners. D'Arcy, lunchtime today, walking across Albert Park, Auckland, flipping through Frank O'Hara, I came across To Dick,
The Holy Ghost appears
To Wystan in Schrafft's
To me in the San Remo
Wearing a yellow sweater.
New York, 1952
In 1979. All you boys dead. And, I'll bet, eating your hearts out for my long beef on rye. Ha!
* * *
"This little Bay, called Castor Bay, took my fancy at once, indeed, there was an inviting air about it that seemed more than was natural, as if my steps had been guided thither…" Let's stop right there. Who guided D'Arcy Cresswell's steps thither ? Come on now. And why were they thence guided? Who, come to that, beside ourselves, has heard of Castor Bay? Who, come to that, has heard of D'Arcy Cresswell? He's not taught in universities here and abroad, he is not taught in the schools, he has never been mentioned in THE NORTH SHORE TIMES ADVERTISER. But, for all that he is Castor Bay's first poet. He continues " … and as I climbed up the pathway from the beach, where the poplars and willows strewed the ground with their yellow leaves among the unchanging dark tree-ferns and native shrubs, I felt this was where I must come, and where I should find a home of some kind if I looked for it." He will be glad to know the poplars by the path are in leaf again and tower now over Mrs Heard's bach and our own. They teem with strident cicadas. The willows weep at the foot of Mr. Ross's , the road-marker's, garden. Cabbage trees scent the air, and violets crack up the concrete in our yard.
* * *
AT THE BACH
A table, worm-eaten, fetched across the water from John Harris's place, did for a desk.
On it was the THESIS, Fourth Draft, in progress, never published, and a preserving jar with flowers, fresh-picked from the Stronach garden. A copy of an Admiralty report on 'unnatural practices' in the British Navy.
Over it, one of two small bookcases containing Yeats' WINDING STAIR, R.A.K. Mason's NO NEW THING (with pages with poems which might cause offence to Elsie lightly glued together), Lawrence's LETTERS, LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER (unabridged) fro Lady Ottoline Morrell, Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL, Hassall's DEVIL'S DYKE, from Eddie Marsh, A PASSAGE TO INDIA, from E. M. Forster and VERSE ALIVE from Denis Glover. The other, which was on the wall above the bed, held his classics in translation and Shakespeare, as well as a small vase of flowers and his tobacco tin.
Next to it: an old coal range, and a small wooden bin, full now winter was coming on.
Actually, there was an easterly blowing and because the place was open to the elements above the eaves, it was already bloody cold and damp. He'd lit the range early. On it was a tin kettle and ons of those round brown teapots with the yellow stripe. Rain rattled on the iron roof, shivered the building paper that did for the ceiling. He was thinking about how it would be cosier at Gleason's.
Behind it: a large woven flax mat (on h.p., Farmers' Trading Co.) tacked to the wall and tacked to that galleys of LYTTLETON HARBOUR and EENA DEENA DYNAMO. From a nail above this mat hung his shopping bag.
Level with the top of the range, and adjacent to it: the foot of the bed. Simply a mattress with blankets supplied by Sir William Goodfellow's good sister, Elaine, it rested on a wooden platform supported on ironbound sea trunks. Another doubled as both head and bedside table; on it a candlestick, ashtray and Jane Mander's brass oil lamp.
On the wall behind it, a framed colour print, NICOLO SPINELLI by Botticelli. During the day the bed made shift as a couch. Four ample cushions, two at the foot, two at the head, and the bed neatly made. The whole place, in fact, was neat and tidy. As it was, more often than not, in the colder weather. Not like summertime, like last Xmas, for instance, when those four coal miners motored over after closing time with three dozen in the boot. God what a mess! And next morning, the shock the holiday crowd got when the five of them hared down to the beach decked out in D'Arcy's Y-fronts and singlets and he showed them his water-cure for hangovers.
On the Persian rug was a cane chair wit upholstered back and seat. Here’s where he sat for this portrait. Cushion at his back, coat collar turned up, slacks, leather slippers. Pipe in one hand, pen in the other poised over some pages of the THESIS on his knee. He was reading:
Be it known then, my ear in the matter is neither faulty nor misinformed; but it begs leave, knowing well what it does, to adhere to a different taste from that wherein the last hundred years of English criticism have instructed us. It is not all for music nor satiety. It welcomes the rustic furrow of Emerson's verse. It delights in the first green shoots of Whitman, though these are yet without indolent fruits, and so few of so many that fell on stony ground. It prefers these Spring trials to an autumn prolonged now to the pitch of rottenness …
* * *
What am I to make of this D'Arcy Cresswell? I'd a friend once who wrote a thesis on him, but I paid no attention to him before coming here. He comes with the place. Also, we were about the same age, coming back from the centre to the same eccentricity.
No use talking about his poetry. It is no use. Nothing to be done with it. Talk about his nerve, I reckon. How he came here, how he sighted the Gulf, and knew, straight off, the coast was clear: " … the gateway to the boundless expanse of the southern Pacific, stretching across almost half the modern world." How, "… stimulated by the sea waters and that memorable outlook I was soon ranging the globe at enmity with all modern discovery and concealment …". How here there are " … greater risks and profounder issues than ever London had given me." He has a nerve, and yes sir, Castor Bay was a place from which to launch it.
D'Arcy was a flat-earther. Rejected telescopes. Believed in the innate depravity of the internal combustion engine. A male-chauvinist homosexual poet who bludged off old ladies, fellow writers, dogs. Right through the Depression. That is disreputable. But good though. I mean the time'll come when we relish the romance of it; how our literature was raised by queers, juvenile delinquents, crazy ladies. Yes, and philandering Social Crediters, Marxists, drunkards (remember LEMORA?). The point is D'Arcy have ambition. And though he knew too many titled types, too many successful old farts for my liking, he knew too something about the odds he's stacked against himself. The rank outsider--he's the one with the real ambition. The outsider outdoors. Because there was no underground here. Never was. Never has been. The outsider outdoors, in a bach by the sea. Or, cruising the docks, eh, D'Arcy?
D'Arcy could entertain an idea. He said: " … for a ship to sail away to the West and return again from the East proves only how fond men are of their home." That is (nod of the head) good. Had to discredit Copernicus to say it, but what does that matter? Ideas are neither here nor there. Didn't Keats think poets the least intellectual of men?
UNMUZZLED OX asks Allen Ginsberg if there are certain aspects of Eastern religion he doesn't believe and he says: " I don't particularly believe in re-incarnation." Nor does our cat. Ginsberg adds that he wouldn't put re-incarnation out, though. That it is just not his concern. That's good. There's no reason why you should particularly believe in ideas which are not your concern.
D'Arcy didn't think. He had no ideas. Ideas had him, pretty much for the asking. He had, for instance, a thing about metamorphosis. There were, you see, these beings in the world: Gods, poets but and heroes, men, women, animals, vegetables. And in that order. One sort could, he thought, change into another but only lower sort. These beings would fall in love with one another: poets with Gods, men with poets, women with men, animals with women, and so on. And since it’s nice to be loved, poets would return the love of men, and men would return the love of women and women, presumably would return the love of animals. So if your Tom’s on heat in the flower-bed--don’t sweat, it’s in the order of things. And metamorphosis explains why some poets lower themselves to having it off with women, and some women with zucchini, and so on. At which point D'Arcy claims he doesn't propose to measure "the depth of love and bring its ways to order." "This," he says, "I never sought to do, but to show the cause of one thing only, why poets love men above women." Oh, well, then… we say. Or, so that was his concern. And as for queers who are neither heroes, poets, men or metamorphs of same, we guess they can invent their own explanations. And that's not so good. Keith, Keith Sinclair, hero and poet, reviewed THE FOREST reckoning Cresswell retreated "from the ills of the modern world into an intellectual junkshop." An end, he reckoned "symptomatic of almost all writing in New Zealand and indeed of the recent literature of the western world." We are led, I suppose irresistibly, to the conclusion that the disorder of modern art reflects the disorder of modern life. Jesus! The world's mental! Well, modern poetry, abstract art, "non-tonality", Surrealism, were aberrations in D'Arcy's book too. Deepening the divisions, as he put it. And so. And so. What I wanted to say here was that Keith missed the point. That the intellect's done for. It's your junk against mine. What you want it for and whether you need the stuff at all.
There's reason to believe in ideas which are your concern. And these rocks, the self-same, waves breaking on them, D'Arcy sat on, forty years ago, writing sonnets. LYTTLETON HARBOUR. Watching the waves, thinking of Christchurch's harbour, dormant volcano, inundated crater. And this book: THE POET'S PROGRESS, Faber and Faber, 1930. My father's copy, his name in it. Ursula Bethel's bookplate in it. And Mudie's Library, est. 1842, 95 Southwark St., S.E. 1--their sticker in it. Thinking of that father, in Christchurch, thirty years ago, choosing from these sonnets for his anthology, thinking of his own Lyttleton youth, of how he took me there once or twice. Fishing and a shandy at the pub. Thinking, no use talking about THE POET'S PROGRESS, that here's this D'Arcy, this self-styled cowboy poet from Christ's, busting to metamorphose himself into some gentleman-amateur man-of-letters. That that was his concern. No use.
* * *
TALKING WITH DON STRONACH THE OTHER DAY
Don: Castor Bay is my life. It's been my life, and probably it shouldn't have been. I should've got out of it. I came back here when I was four. We camped out there--we came back from Aussie, and we camped out there. I can remember that distinctly but I won’t tell you why. And next year they built, or within two years they built. And I lived with my grandpeople, oh I suppose half my life, or up till I was about eighteen.
D'Arcy used to come up, you know--I always thought he was a lazy bugger, because I was a kid and all he did was lay out the fire for grandmother and Elsie, chop the kindling wood and lay it out.
Wystan: He talked about helping because the maid left or died …
Don: Well, we never had a maid, we used to have a help come in occasionally, and do the ironing, or something like that.
Wystan: He said that he often helped around the house.
Don: Yeah. Yeah? I always thought he was a lazy bugger, but still that's only my opinion and … He sort of ---he was good to them because they were interested. I was out boating, messing around, swimming, all that sort of thing. They were very interested and he used to read to them a lot, which was --- well, Elsie was quite keen on literature and that was why. Well, she and Jane Mander--all of them, you know.
But the most refreshing change to me here was to find myself almost a part of my friend's household, and yet with the same freedom and solitude, when I required it, as I enjoyed before. Their house was only a few yards above me, with a fine view of the sea and overlooking my roof; and often of an evening I would go up to dine with old Mrs Stronach and her daughter Elsie (indeed this became an arrangement) or to read aloud to them from the poets or from Greek mythology, or to play chess. As the old lady lost her maid, without finding another, I somewhat repaid them for my quarters by giving them what help I could, Elsie Stronach being away at business all day and the old lady now alone, which I was happy to do as a neighbour in any event, and soon a friendly routine of light labours and pleasant evenings reading PARADISE LOST or Greek Tragedy aloud to them (as I needed to do for my broadcasts) took all the time I could spare from my private affairs.
PRESENT WITHOUT LEAVE, 224
Don: She took them under her wing in that bach there.
Wystan: That would 've been after D'Arcy used it?
Don: Yep, yep. But it was during D'Arcy's reign, shall we say, that Elsie got interested, got to know Jane Mander, the circle they sort of worked in. They used to sit in the little lounge--living room--over there and the fire going, they used to talk about this and that, and Jane Mander, or Robin Hyde--she used to get stuck into her. They'd all get stuck into D'Arcy, and D'Arcy'd get stuck into them, you know--they'd sort of argue the toss about the rights and wrongs, you know, which was above my head.
Since my coming to live in my new quarters a lively circle of artists and writers, Jane Mander, Robin Hyde, Frank Sargeson, Roderick Finlayson, Lindsay Fraser, and Allan Barnes Graham and his wife gathered about the Stronachs, and on more than one occasion I read aloud to them round the old lady's fireside as much as I had done of THE FOREST, and many times we discussed Mrs Salter and in what manner the play must conclude. All my friends thought it by far the best of my writings, and all urged me to conclude it,…
PRESENT WITHOUT LEAVE, 25O
Wystan: They actually occupied the bach from time to time?
Don: Yeah. There was D'Arcy Cresswell: D'Arcy. There was Robin Hyde, R. A. K. Mason, and the idea, well, the family used to go down to Taihape to my aunt's place "Lone Hand", for Xmas and the holidays and she'd sort of let people into the house or into the bach . But the bach, it wasn't rented but it was available to them. And prior to that they used to rent the bach to Jim Burrell down the road. His people used to move in there and rent out their house. In those days there was only forty or fifty families here, well, there wouldn’t be that. The social centre really was in that house next door. Which was the Church--they used to have services, they used to have WEA readings, plays and all that sort of stuff.
"At the time of our meeting Cresswell was also living in a bach, and one that I no sooner saw than I envied him as it was roomier and more convenient than my own; also by strange chance it was located a few miles further up the coast at the attractive little bay where I had spent my childhood Christmas holidays; and to cap it all was pleasingly tucked into a hollow on a hillside of trees and scrub. I made my decision to visit the man without any accurate knowledge of his present circumstances except that he lived in a bach. ….It was summer and I arrived late in the afternoon after walking barefoot along the beach and over the rocks. And Cresswell was polite and stiff: and although I felt more at ease after noting his own bare feet and makeshift clothing, he seemed not to relax…"
Frank Sargeson, MORE THAN ENOUGH, 79
Wystan: Our landlady, Mrs. Denny …
Don: Oh, Mrs. Denny, yeah.
Wystan: …says, when she was a girl her family rented your house for the summer holidays. That would've been in the twenties.
Don: 1923 they built the house.
Wystan: Ah, ha. The Dennys subsequently built a little house that was next to the Quintals down on the beach. She remembers the Stronach house as the one with all the books. She also remember Frank and May Stronach.
Don: Yeah? They were my uncle and aunt. And they lived near Dennys.
Wystan: But the bach--this house isn't on the site of it?
Don: No, it was down there, just out there. You can't see. See that white spouting?
That gable? Well,that is just about where the bach was. And it was made out of car cases. Originally. Then they got the veranda extended and that made for more sleeping accommodation.
* * *
I lived in Castor Bay for eighteen months, whereas D'Arcy was there for four years--those between 1934 and 1938. For a lone man for whom all jobs were odd beside that of writing, he never did much. But half the Cresswell there is got written here. LYTTLETON HARBOUR, MODERN POETRY AND THE IDEAL, EENA DEENA DYNAMO, and most of PRESENT WITHOUT LEAVE and THE FOREST. Add to that a 70 pages MSS, the ill-fated THESIS, and some amazing letters. It had been the idea. His patron, Edward Marsh, said D'Arcy'd been partying too much, he'd better go back to New Zealand and get some peace and quiet. And get stuck in, you hear? Eddie did get impatient some times. D'Arcy got pissed off. High-horsed it, but came back anyway. And here wrote out his fate. His failure. Which, as we all know, was awful. More so in view of the promises he made. Then he took himself at his word back to London, where he finished up a nightwatchman and would not comb his hair.
* * *
As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck'd,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.
I perceive I have not really understood anything, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.
AS I EBB'D WITH THE EBB OF THE OCEAN OF LIFE.
The wind blew. The dog Bess slept. D'Arcy sat in his bach typing out favourite Whitman poems on his borrowed typewriter. Gave copies to friends. And I'm at home with him again. Whitman! Who'd have thought it? On New Year's Eve, 1933, he'd spoken of him on the wireless--calling his listeners, my dears, warning them:
If poets are shown out the front door of public life,
They merely come in at the back. And public life can't
Be in two places at once, anymore than my landlady
Can. While it's watching the front-door of the mind,
Where the Great Organisation business goes on, it can't
Be watching the back-door of the body; and that's where
Whitman and D. H. Lawrence have caught them bending.
Well, I'll be buggered … Good though. The trouble is D'Arcy was always in two places at once.
The night was warm, still. Apart from dance music wafted round from the Pirate Shippe. D'Arcy was by himself and didn't know what to think of. Gleason's? The Queen's Ferry? London. Oh, London. D'Arcy sat in his bach working on the bloody THESIS. Now, he said, "no less than an attempted synthesis of Paganism and Christendom, as the two great stabilised or poetic systems." Knocking at the front-door. But you can't come in. A huffin and a puffin. What he'd do with peace and quiet, roam the globe at enmity, and so forth. Ideas had him and he'd stop at nothing. And I can't take him seriously anymore.
Or, crossing the water from another night's boozing and balling, he couldn't wait to dunk his heated body in the bay. All giddy with freishas and seaweed, disturbing the dog, early morning water cooling, cleaning, washing away …There was the need, as he put it, to harmonize the higher and lower affections. He was living "to the full stretch of [his] desires and feelings in two worlds at once." After-hours, back-door man. "My passions do with me what they will." Thinking of Whitman, writing to Ottoline, Lady Morrell, this:
I am surrendered to Nature. My passions do with me what they will. They scatter away my writing and efforts like straw. Then the sea and the wind sound in my very ears. My whole body is like an echoing reverberant shell to the air and the water and the earth. New writings spring up. Green and new. I realise now that nothing I ever will write, nothing that matters will be written by me. Where to hide from this whirlwind? (But I feel strong, not weak). And what's the use? I and this are as one.
Or, to Roderick Finlayson, this:
I have been a good deal in town. Where 'I oughtn't to be.' It's no good, I can't write with just a pen. I must write with people's bodies and language and looks, and with Ferry-boats, labourers, with shovels, and dark and later hours and all kinds of things.
The actual writing is the least of the business really.
So the gas cocks are open! I'm thinking of Miller now and--what would D'Arcy've made of him? It looks like bad taste was what did D'Arcy in, but there is Whitman, there is Lawrence. What not Miller? These the 1930s. This Paris--"The world's capital of artifice and chicanery," D'Arcy called it. And these his forties. No book to his name, but revising CANCER, reading Lawrence as a matter of fact, working on BLACK SPRING, and writing to Anais Nin: "The gas cocks are open." Baby. City words, what's on hand. Energy underground. No turning it off; light it now or there'll be an explosion, Anais. Crissakes. "Something snapped in me last night." "With the arrival of your note I've thrown everything on the floor. What I once thought was the material of a book lies about me, not in fragments, but in shreds. It would take a wizard to put it together--and I am that wizard!" He was, too. Because when the myth the writing will make blows up in your face, it’s the life that's laid the charges, pressed the plunger. And you are strong with it, not weak. The coast is clear. So D'Arcy did have his chance. To be a wizard. To write with people's bodies, language and looks. To be at last a going concern. But he never took it. D'Arcy was found several days dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his London cottage in February of 1960; both gas cocks open, one alight, one not.
"We're in the Gobi at last. Only the chorus is left. And the elements: helium, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, et cetera. Time rolls away. Space folds up. What is left of man is pure MAN. As the old fades away, Station WJNZ of Auckland can be heard playing, 'It's a long way to Tipperary!' Varese sneezes. 'Allez-oop,' he says, and on we go …"
Henry Miller, THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE, 1945.
* * *
The distance between me and London is coming to have a kind of strength to me, a kind of nipping winter, but growth underground. … when daily and hourly I hear and look on the sea, watch those fortuitous ships slipping in and out and from Europe and America, and think what a little time such things have to continue their ways, before this great distance of waters rises again in its might and mystery and divinity, and the hills shake free, and the forests beseige the walls of the cities once more and happy men again hear the wolf and the lion in the night …You in England with your Tennysons, Swinburnes, Bridges and Eliots, have lost sight of this spirit (of Nature).
You think it's something gentle, forgiving and humane and a part of the book trade. You can't see real and living Nature for Man and the remains of Man. But there's nothing but Nature here, a fearful and terrible Pantheon of divinities, now shining their armour and sharpening their spears.
To Lady Ottoline Morrell, December, 1934.
And Sam Thompson getting the morning milk from Puckey's store, and Len Quintal sanding down his dinghy and D'Arcy Cresswell teaching himself to Hawaiian crawl.
With nary a wolf in sight and a few desultory lions sweating it out at Western Springs Zoo across the harbour. Doubtless London's winter is nippy, but it’s summer in Castor Bay and in any case growth here is open and above ground all year round. A state of seige it surely is. The mint strangling the pansies, nasturtiums amok on the lawn and morning glories storming up the poplars. And the whole Gulf coming in at the speed of light. And in between times--elsewhere Spring and Fall, here squalls and rainbows, rainbows and squalls. When you get to be quick on the uptake, get to tack, to reach, to go about without hesitation in a quotidian always out of the blue.
* * *
MORE DOGGERAL FOR D'ARCY
H. G. Wells and
W. D. Cresswell
On Lady Ottoline
Lawn. Or was it
* * *
Paddy Gleeson's, bottom of Hobson Street. Rough pub. My Dad never drank there; there were fights, he said, brawls. But D'Arcy was a regular. He drank heavily, so's to be I guess at his ease--with these what he called "frank and animal" types. Fishermen and sailors mostly. Sometimes miners up from Huntly. Drank on account, and after hours, which was quite something in the Depression, and he a penniless poet and bludger by profession. D'Arcy did have his nerve, however. Settled his bill once with a letters from the famous George Bernard Shaw. Then D'Arcy and his mates bombed out of their minds, would roll across town to the studios in Shortland Street and D'Arcy'd turn on his ponciest Southern British and wow the masses with his intros to Bach, Strauss or Haydn. Words like ice water in the mouth.
There were nights at Glesson’s, or down on the docks, it was as if, like Whitman, he was taking a headlong dive into himself, his passions doing with him what they would. He'd miss the last ferry and the Stronach ladies' kindling'd go uncut for days on end. Bob Lowry said that one of D'Arcy's drinking cobbers who'd got a launch he lived on down St. Mary's Bay offered D'Arcy the use of a bottom bunk. Trouble was this guy kept bringing his doxies back to the launch in the middle of the night and humping them like it was going out of style. On the top bunk. That was repulsive enough. But one night one of these Crazy Janes, she opened her great legs and this stream of steaming female piss came arching down onto the floor passing inches from D'Arcy's nose. He didn't man no pumps, he'd had enough. He headed home to Castor Bay. To cool his cock in the Gulf and dream of reverberant arseholes.
Written 1976-1979. First published, SPLASH 1, 1984.