Leicester Kyle: The Millerton Sequences (2014)
Introducing Leicester Kyle
Philip Trusttum: Cover image
[Leicester Kyle: Five Anzac Liturgies (2003)]
I spent Labour Weekend in Ch.Ch. with my oldest daughter, who wanted to revisit family sites of the past. I was able to catch up with a few of the poets, and in particular with David Howard, who was as pleasant as ever, though I fear I may have irritated him by declining an invitation to record some poems for some sort of posterity; it seemed a poor way to spend a precious evening. I went to Antigone instead, which turned out to be almost as poor – a student production given to portentous trivialities.– Leicester Kyle: unpublished letter to Jack Ross (22.11.02)
In retrospect, it seems a shame that Leicester didn't go into the studio that day with David Howard to “record some poems for some sort of posterity.” This was part of the nationwide recording effort which led to the creation of the 171-poet-strong Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive [http://aonzpsa.blogspot.co.nz/], eventually collected on a set of 42 CDs, and now housed in Auckland University Library's Special Collections (with a backup copy in the Alexander Turnbull library in Wellington). David Howard and I were both involved in the project: he as collector, I as editor. Characteristically, though, Leicester saw it simply as a waste of time, a “poor way to spend a precious evening.”
I'd like very much to put on one of those CDs now and listen to some of his poems again, in that dry, clipped, educated-Antipodean voice of his.
Mind you, I'm sure it wasn't because Leicester was ashamed of his own work, or doubtful of its value (though he was certainly a severe critic of the merits of particular pieces). On the contrary, he'd had a mid-life conversion to Poetry, a kind of St. Paul-like vision on the road to Damascus which had come, by the mid-nineties, to challenge his earlier allegiance to the Anglican church.
Perhaps not “challenge” so much as “supplement.” Leicester began as a scientist: a botanist, in fact. As a teenage school-leaver he'd worked as an apprentice in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. He left there to train as a priest, then to dabble in writing (short stories, mainly) in his forties. Some of the latter got published in the Listener and the London Magazine, so he was certainly successful at it, but they still weren't quite right – not quite what he was looking for.
Then (as he told me the story, at any rate) one day in 1994 he was asked to write something for a parish newsletter up north, and decided to versify the story of a local shipwreck he'd heard about. The result was “The Voyage of the Venus.” It's not a particularly good poem, but he said that it was while writing it that he suddenly understood that this was what he wanted to do.
We first met a couple of years after that, in 1996, at a Christmas party in Devonport held by the “Bookshop Poets,” a small group of writers who used to gather at Lee Dowrick's house in St Leonards Road. Leicester was there with his wife Miriel, Stu Bagby with his wife Sheila. For me, at any rate, this was a very significant meeting – with poets who were publishing regularly in a number of magazines, active on the scene (Leicester was at that point a regular at Poetry Live on K. Road).
I wouldn't say that we formed any kind of Three Musketeers alliance, but it's true that Stu's skill at editing a poem down and down and down to its essence, together with Leicester's lively and well-informed intelligence were instrumental in getting me out of the solipsistic poetry ghetto I'd been living in up till then. Through them I met other poets, too: Raewyn Alexander, Olwyn Stewart, Alice Hooton, Jackie Ottaway, Wensley Willcox – eventually even Alistair Paterson and David Howard.
I knew Leicester well enough to witness his pain as he was forced to watch Miriel's slow death from melanoma: an event which overshadowed his last months in Auckland, and which surfaces again and again in his writing from that period (and later).
And while I was sorry to see him leave – I knew we'd all miss him – I could understand why he felt the need to put Auckland and its malign associations behind him. It did seem odd to me when he told me he'd bought his house in Millerton sight unseen, would in fact be seeing it for the first time as he was moving in. But of course I could understand the attractions of an unpeopled verdant wilderness. Who wouldn't? It nagged at me a little, though.
Millerton is a small town in the hills above Granity, on the West Coast of the South Island, a few miles up from Westport. It's an old mining village which has been almost swallowed up by second-growth bush (when you see old photographs of it, the landscape around it looks like a blasted heath: duckboards laid over fields of mud). Now, however, it looks more like the forest primeval.
I went down to visit Leicester there shortly after he'd moved in. I had been worried about him, about his state of mind, until I heard that he'd got himself a kitten (called “Cursor” because of his habit of following Leicester's finger along the lines in the book he was reading). That sounded distinctly reassuring. I did still want to check up on him, though, so invited myself for a week-long stay.
He acquiesced with this plan (in retrospect, I don't know how enthusiastically), so I flew down to Greymouth and was picked up in his newly bought Land Rover, a huge red beast of a thing which was quite necessary for the wilderness roads in that part of the world. And so began my acquaintance with the bizarre world of Millerton.
I can’t go into any detail about that now, except to say that I visited him there on three separate occasions, and each time learnt more about the curious history and contemporary mores of this strangely self-sufficient green enclave of environmentalists and alternative-lifestyle enthusiasts.
Perhaps this passage from that same 2002 letter I quoted above will give you some sense of his slightly detached view of the local community:
On Sunday I have a small book-launch: Things to do with Kerosene has been printed, and turns out well. I'll send you a copy in December. The launch is here in my new garage, and is also a garagewetting to declare the garage a garage, and is also a belated acknowledgement of my sixty-fifth birthday. It will be a typical Millerton piss-up, with some invited not coming and some not-invited turning up anyway, and going on and on and on until it runs out of basic supplies. Some of the Buller Community Arts Council are coming, and some of the Buller Conservation Society, which is action-packed radical greenie. The two groups crossover, which is odd, and the members tend to look as if they live in Millerton, especially the Arts ones, who also have dangerous houses.
He was both an insider and an outsider there: an insider because of his family associations with the Coast, and his long history of botanical exploration of the region; an outsider because he wasn’t dependent on any of the local cash crops for basic subsistence.
2. Dilemmas of a Literary Executor 
When Leicester fell terminally ill with cancer in 2006, he asked, from his death-bed, for David Howard and me to act as his literary executors. It's not easy to refuse such an arrangement for an old friend, especially when you're not really anticipating having to do all that much work.
In Leicester's case, a great deal of his later writing had already appeared in the form of self-printed and photocopied pamphlets and booklets, so I suppose I was anticipating that some small sum of money would come to us with which we could finance the printing of a posthumous selection of poems, somewhat like his friend Joanna Margaret Paul's Like Love Poems, which had recently been published by Victoria University Press (edited by one of her two literary executors, Bernadette Hall).
That's not quite what happened, though. As it turned out, none of the estate had been set aside specifically to pay for future literary projects. Leicester had a large family, and had recently remarried, so a complicated set of arrangements had had to be devised to provide for each of them.
David, who was on the spot in the South Island, retrieved a large cache of papers from Leicester’s house – including the two large boxfiles marked “Collected Poems” 1 & 2, which Leicester had used as a chronologically ordered archive for any poems he thought worth preserving. He also, crucially, managed to download the contents of Leicester's hard-drive onto two CDs.
Next time he was in Auckland, David passed the two boxfiles on to me, as well as the two computer discs (he'd already emailed me a large number of computer files of various ages and provenances). This was to be the starting-point of our discussion on “what to do about Leicester.”
The difficulties were obvious from the beginning. Leicester had little visibility in New Zealand poetry (though we were already, at the time of his death, seeing the beginnings of a fertile sub-genre called “Visits to Millerton,” examples of which might include Jim Norcliffe's Villon in Millerton (2007), some of my own pieces from Chantal's Book (2002), poems by Tony Chad, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, David Howard ... the list goes on).
We didn't have any money to pay for the reprinting of any of his longer works, which were (in my opinion) by far the most interesting. Nobody came forward with any intriguing Leicester-related projects. The few approaches I made to publishers, large or small, drained off into the sand. All in all, the whole question of his literary legacy ended up in the too-hard basket.
And yet, those two big boxfiles continued to sit in my study, glaring at me, somehow daring me to ignore the challenge they presented. They remain there to this day, though their contents have now been carefully indexed and sorted.
The years flew by. Leicester was almost five years dead. On Tuesday, 15 February, 2011, David Howard emailed me to the following effect:
So, with Leicester well buried, we need to honour our responsibilities to his work and his memory. I spent four months examining and cross-checking his papers. You have the two box files that I extracted from the four large cartons I packed then freighted down from the Christchurch flat that was his final domestic address. Clearly, nothing outside of these two box files has Leicester's blessing to be republished. But no one is likely to want the lot. It seems to me that we have these options:
- Use your blog and library website skills to put the lot on-line (Peter Simpson's Smithyman is a glorious model).
- Use the approach of (1) but jointly select from the two box files so that 100 odd pages are available to all and sundry.
- Approach Titus Books as Leicester's executors with the proposal of a Selected Poems.
Let's get one of the above underway.
To which I replied the next day:
Well, I agree, David - it's just a question of when and who.
Perhaps the best thing would be to set up a website initially with scans of some of his work up on it, and then consider whether a selected poems is really needed. How much of an audience is there for his work?
I have the two boxfiles at present, but am quite happy to surrender them to you if you want to get underway with the project.
I guess what occurs to me is to annex some free space online at blogspot or some such address, and put up some jpg. scans of the individual pages of (say) Heteropholis together with transcripts of the text. If we were both joint site editors, we could both work on building up the site gradually. Do you have a scanner? Maybe we don't need scans of all the pages, but just the ones with illustrations?
It'd take quite some while to do, though, and I fear I'm a little snowed-under at present at work - not to mention aspiring to get some of my own work done at some stage ...
David replied enthusiastically, and so I set to work.
I do have some experience building such sites - ever since mid-2006, in fact, when I first got the bug, I've been running a series of experiments in just how many permutations you can run on the free web-space of a standardised blogging site.
I've used them to index literary magazines (a brief index) and poetry archives (The Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive); I've used them to put up entire novels (Nights with Giordano Bruno) and poetry collections (Papyri); I maintain one for each of the courses I teach; I have one for my Masters thesis and one for my Doctoral dissertation. Let's say that they hold few fears for me.
But I think if I'd known just how complicated and time-consuming it would be to put up an entire critical edition of a fairly prolific poet's collected works online, I might have hesitated before agreeing to David's proposition.
Let's start with a few statistics. In his lifetime, Leicester self-published 19 poetry books or pamphlets, with lengths varying from 117 pages to 10 pages (12 in A4 format and 7 as A5-sized chapbooks). This was in addition to two commercially produced books, A Safe House for a Man (2000) and Five Anzac Liturgies (2003), both published by Polygraphia Ltd. If you add together the contents of those 19 books, that makes 913 pages of material to scan and transcribe.
Besides that, one of the more exciting parts of our whole Leicester project has been the discovery, among his papers, of four hitherto-unpublished works: Koroneho, the God Poems, the Galapagos Tracts, and Message from a Lightboard. Extracts from the first and third of these appeared in brief magazine during his lifetime, but the God Poems – a long, tragic family saga – was entirely unknown to me. So was Message from a Lightboard, a selection of his short poems to date compiled and submitted to publishers in 1996. Together they come to another 303 pages.
As well as these longer works, there are 746 shorter poems and sequences included in the two boxfiles marked (by Leicester) “Collected Poems.” On top of those, I've discovered another 36 uncollected poems among the computer files left on his hard disc (Leicester had a curious habit of saving each individual poem, and every page of a longer work, as a separate word file: this means that there are literally thousands of files to trawl through before one can hope to reach the end of his oeuvre. I don't think that I've missed anything, but – to be honest – you can never really be sure).
So let's say well over 2,000 pages of poetry, with a few little additions here and there in the form of Christmas letters and miscellaneous pamphlets.
I think it's fairly obvious that, while all that work needs to be indexed and recorded, not all of it actually needs to go up online. What I've done, then, is to put up in full, with facsimiles of each page and transcriptions of the text, the contents of each of the 19 books. Because of their – in my own critical opinion – exceptional literary quality and personal interest, I've done the same with the four posthumous works, though there I've had to be more daring in my editorial choices, given the lack of a single indisputable authorised text for each of them (some are more complex than others in this respect).
By contrast, I’ve put up only what seems to me a representative selection from the rest of the “Collected Poems.” Not all of them (I feel) merit reproduction, and deliberately publishing sub-standard material can hardly be seen to be in the best interests of a writer who's no longer here to edit and select from his own work.
Those 746 poems and sequences comprise 957 pages of text. Of those, I’ve chosen 193 (253 pages) to go online – roughly a quarter of the whole archive. I’ve also put up 24 of the 36 uncollected poems I found among his files. It’s perhaps worth noting here that quite a large number (59, to be exact) of the remaining poems are included in one or other of the books issued during Leicester’s lifetime – not to mention the seven included in this book. This brings up the total online to well over a third, 258, of the total 746.
All of this manuscript material, without exception, will eventually be donated to a permanent library collection, but in the meantime you can rest assured that the website provides a complete online list of everything included in his files.
Which brings me to the precise nature of this once-and-for-all, as-critically-rigorous-as-I-can-reasonably-make-it, online edition of Leicester's works. I decided at any early stage that, while it would be perfectly feasible to reprint each book as a single lengthy computer page, that that would result in a rather unwieldy artefact. I therefore determined to set up two parallel sites:
- Leicester Kyle [http://leicesterkyle.blogspot.com], for indexing, critical apparatus and secondary materials: chronology, bibliography, galleries of images;
- Leicester Kyle Texts [http://leicesterkyle1.blogspot.com], for accurate, readable texts of each work.
That seems to have worked quite well. The distinction between primary and secondary materials – works by and about an author – is a familiar one, and given the hyperlinks which connect every part of each site to every other part, a reader can easily use both sites at the same time without even noticing the different headings.
The two sites went live on July 4th, 2011, the fifth anniversary of Leicester's death. My work on them will remain ongoing, but I'm hoping to have them reasonably complete by the date this book is issued, in early 2014.
As well as that, the Leicester Kyle Literary Estate has so far published one volume of literary remains, an edition of Koroneho, his epic poem about William Colenso, in partnership with Ian St. George of the Colenso Society. Ian has since issued another book of reprints of some of Leicester’s early botanical essays (The Orchids of New Zealand. 1956-1957. Historical Series 19. Wellington: New Zealand Native Orchid Group, 2012).
Mind you, I don't think that I would have bothered with any of this if it hadn't been for my firm conviction that Leicester's work as a poet and crusading ecologist is still timely, and merits a far wider audience than it's hitherto had.
Whether I'm correct about that is, I suppose, for posterity to say.
3. The Millerton Sequences
Turning to the contents of the book you now hold in your hand, I should explain that I believe these six poetry sequences, previously uncollected, represent some of the very best work from the second half of Leicester Kyle’s writing career: the Millerton period, dating roughly from his departure from Auckland in April 1998, after the death of his first wife Miriel, to his own death in Christchurch Hospital in July 2006.
Winnowing them out from the numerous short poems written over the same time-span also seemed the best way to do justice to his wide range of interests and subject-matter. We begin here with a short sequence grounded in Leicester’s expert professional knowledge of Botany (“Five Flowers at Millerton Mine”); move on to “Picnic In The Mangatini,” which is probably as close as Leicester ever got to a straightforward set of “nature” poems; thence to a meditative evocation of place (“Rain”); then to a work of ecological protest against the proposed strip-mining of the Millerton plateau (“Death of a Landscape”); then a searching personal confession, written towards the very end of his life (“The Catheter Club”); and lastly to “Rain Poems,” which, in aggregate, sound like a bittersweet farewell to the West Coast and its weather.
As an entry-point to the collection, I’ve included the poem “One Hundred Steps to Millerton Mine,” written shortly after his return to the Coast. The “Hundred Steps” are a crucial part of the Millerton landscape, leading to the bathhouse used by the Miners after their long shifts underground. There’s also an official list there of those who lost their lives in this endeavour, commemorated by Leicester in another of these early poems from his new home, “An Incomplete List” (dated 3/6/98).
Finally, as a coda, I’ve put in the text of the last of his annual Christmas books, the delightful story of the dog Red, and how he managed to find acceptance in the local community.
The texts have been copied from Leicester’s original computer files, with minimal adjustment and alteration. The fonts, sizing and accidentals are all his. The one exception to this is “Death of a Landscape.” In this case I’ve chosen to present the original handwritten manuscript (dated February 2004) in facsimile form, with the – presumably later – print version (dated March 2004) immediately afterwards. It seemed dangerous to assume that either of these texts was intended to supersede the other entirely, so this seemed the most convenient way for the reader to sample their continuities and divergences.
Thanks to my fellow-executor David Howard, for prompting this project in the first place, and for contributing the beautiful sequence of poems, “Instead Of, In Memory: Reverend Leicester Kyle (1937-2006)” to the book; thanks, too, to my wife Bronwyn Lloyd for her encouragement and advice at all stages of the process – and the Design team at Titus Books, Brett Cross and Ellen Portch, without whom none of this would have been possible.
- 1937 – (30 October) Leicester Hugo Kyle is born in Christchurch.
- 1956 – (August-February 1957) Leicester contributes seven articles on “The Orchids of New Zealand” to the New Zealand Gardener.
- c. 1975 – Leicester self-publishes The Abbot and the Rock, a set of short stories (32 pp.); I Got Me Flowers: Letters to a Psychiatrist, a novella (54 pp.); Deosa Bay: A Pastoral, another novella (47 pp.); and The Visitation: An Account of the Last Diocesan Visitation of John Mowbray, Bishop of Calcutta; Largely Compiled from His Journal and His Letters, the last in this series of early novellas (68 pp.)
- 1995 – Leicester takes early retirement from the Anglican church, and moves with his wife Miriel into Flat 8/1 Ruapehu St., Mt. Eden.
- 1997 – (July) Koroneho, Leicester's long Zukofskyan poem about William Colenso, begins to appear in Alan Loney's journal A Brief Description of the Whole World.
- 1997 – (November) Leicester edits Spin 29.
- 1998 – (29 March) Death of Miriel Kyle from melanoma.
- 1998 – (June) Leicester, now managing editor of Spin, leaves Auckland for the upper West Coast of the South Island, having bought a house (sight unseen) at No. 404 Calliope Rd., Millerton – in the hills above Granity.
- 2000 – (21 July) Jack Ross launches A Safe House for a Man, published by Calum Gilmour of Polygraphia Press (which includes the poetic sequence “Threnos”, a moving account of Miriel's last days), at Takapuna Public Library.
- 2000 – (November) Leicester resigns as managing editor of Spin, after editing issue 38.
- 2001 – (July) The Millerton and Plateaux Protection Society [MAPPS] publishes The Great Buller Coal Plateaux: A Sequence of Poems – an ecological manifesto in poetic form.
- 2003 – Calum Gilmour of Polygraphia Press publishes Five Anzac Liturgies, with drawings by Philip Trusttum.
- 2004 – Leicester finalises the text of Miller Creek, with coloured sketches by Joel Bolton.
- 2005 – (May) Leicester publishes "Peninsula Days: A Memoir of Joanna Paul," in brief 32 (2005): 61-64 (edited by Jack Ross).
- 2005 – (23 October) Leicester marries his second wife Carol at their home in Millerton.
- 2006 – (March) Leicester publishes "A Letter from Buller," in brief 33 (2006): 44-45 (edited by Scott Hamilton).
- 2006 – (4 July) Leicester dies of cancer in Christchurch hospital.
- 2011 – (4 July) Launch of Leicester Kyle website.
- 2011 – (3 November) First posthumous book publication: Koroneho: Joyful News Out Of The New Found World, edited with a Introduction by Jack Ross and a preface by Ian St George.
- 2012 – (12 December) Second posthumous book publication: The Orchids of New Zealand, compiled by Ian St George, with a chronology by Jack Ross.
Poetry Books & Pamphlets:
- Koroneho: Joyful News out of the New Found World (1996-2001). In A Brief Description of the Whole World 6 (July 1997): 10-19 / 7 (September 1997): 35-40 / 8 (December 1997): 62-67 / 9 (April 1998): 49-54.
- Koroneho. 1st book publication. ISBN 978-0-9876604-0-4. Auckland: The Leicester Kyle Literary Estate / Wellington: The Colenso Society, November 2011.
- Options. Drawings by Jeffrey Harris. ISBN 0-473-04111-1. Mt Eden: Heteropholis Press, November 1996 / July 1997.
- State Houses. Mt Eden: Heteropholis Press, June 1997.
- A Voyge to New Zealand: the Log of Joseph Sowry, Translated and Made Better. Mt Eden: Heteropholis Press, 1997.
- Heteropholis. Mt Eden: Heteropholis Press, 1998.
- A Machinery for Pain. ISBN 0-473-05734-4. Millerton: Heteropholis Press, January 1999.
- A Safe House for a Man. Millerton: Heteropholis Press, 2000.
- A Safe House for a Man. 2nd ed. ISBN 0-9582121-5-5. Auckland: Polygraphia Press, July 2000.
- Five Anzac Liturgies. Millerton, Buller, 2000.
- Five Anzac Liturgies. 2nd ed. Drawings by Philip Trusttum. ISBN 1-877332-08-9. Auckland: Polygraphia Press, 2003.
- A Christmas Book. Millerton, Buller, December 2000.
- The Great Buller Coal Plateaux: A Sequence of Poems. ISBN 0-473-07746-9. P.O. Box 367, Westport: MAPPS [The Millerton and Plateaux Protection Society], July 2001.
- King of Bliss. Millerton, Buller, May 2002.
- A Wedding in Tintown. Millerton, Buller, July 2002.
- Things to Do with Kerosene. ISBN 0-473-08963-7. Westport: Heteropholis Press, October 2002.
- Dun Huang Aesthetic Dance. Millerton, Buller, November 2002.
- 8 Great O’s. Millerton, Buller, 2003.
- Panic Poems. ISBN 0-476-00084-X. Westport: Heteropholis Press, December 2003.
- Living at a Bad Address. Millerton, December 2004.
- Miller Creek. Sketches by Joel Bolton. Westport: Heteropholis Press, 2004.
- Anogramma. ISBN 0-476-01604-5. Millerton: Heteropholis Press, August 2005.
- Breaker: A Progress of the Sea. Illustrations by John Crawford. ISBN 0-473-10237-4. Westport: Heteropholis Press, September 2005.
- Red Dog / Brown. Cover Illustrations by Jim Conolly & Jocelyn Maughan. Millerton, Buller, Christmas 2005.
Prose Books & Pamphlets:
- The Orchids of New Zealand. 1956-1957. Compiled by Ian St George. ISSN 0114-5568. Historical Series, No. 19. Wellington: New Zealand Native Orchid Group, 2012.
- The Abbot and the Rock (c.1975)
- I Got Me Flowers: Letters to a Psychiatrist (c. 1975)
- Deosa Bay: A Pastoral (c.1975)
- The Visitation: An Account of the Last Diocesan Visitation of John Mowbray, Bishop of Calcutta; Largely Compiled from His Journal and His Letters (c.1975)
- Spin 29 (Summer 1997), ed. Leicester Kyle (Auckland).
- Spin 32 (November 1998), ed. Leicester Kyle (Millerton, Buller).
- Spin 35 (November 1999), ed. Leicester Kyle (Millerton, Buller).
- Spin 38 (November 2000), ed. Leicester Kyle (Millerton, Buller).
- Leicester Kyle:
An Index to the Collected Poetry Books of Leicester Hugo Kyle (1937-2006)
- Leicester Kyle Texts:
The Collected Poetry Books of Leicester Hugo Kyle (1937-2006)
1. The substance of this introduction was given as a paper “Digitising Leicester Kyle: the Dilemmas of a Literary Executor” at Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium at the University of Auckland (29-30 March 2012). The original text can be read at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/short-takes/symposium-ross.asp.
2. For a comprehensive list, go to http://mairangibay.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/leicester-kyle-selected-shorter-poems.html.
3. A complete transcript of the handwritten version of the poem is available on the Leicester Kyle Texts website at: http://leicesterkyle1.blogspot.co.nz/2012/01/five-millerton-sequences.html.
Leicester Kyle. The Millerton Sequences. Ed. Jack Ross. Poem by David Howard. ISBN 978-0-473-18880-1. 140 pp. (Pokeno, Auckland: Atuanui Press, 2014): 8-29.
[Available at: Atuanui Press (30/4/15)].
The Millerton Sequences (2014)