Journal: Percutio

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Percutio is dedicated primarily to reflections upon the creative process, particularly in relation to work that bridges cultures.

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Innings and Outings. Essay touching on the erotic in New Zealand poetry. Bill Direen. First published in Planet Magazine (ed. Russell Brown, Auckland) 1994. (2005)


Innings and Outings

Wellington poet and musician Bill Direen takes us on a trip through his own NZ poetry collection, considering the erotic in N.Z. poetry as it is revealed in such matters as gardening and sport...

Georges Bataille reckons our sense of the erotic is inseparable from a sense that we are going to die. If he and others are right, erotic play is a dalliance informed by fascination and fear of death. Erotic play can be forceful, voyeuristic, dominating, submissive and above all playful. It can take place in costume, through food, in the realm of the spiritual, through exotic or earthy adventures. It need not be consummated in the physical act, but it is consummated somewhere, in the imagination, in our dreams, or in the body.

Paul Verlaine's erotic poems to his partners of either sex span the erotic spectrum, from earthy rhymes to spiritual fantasies of the flesh. Do we New Zealanders, the 'passionless people', do we yet have such poets? This article suggests that we do. The erotic is clearly discernible in our literature. Let's start with fantails.

My own reference to 'fanny tails singing' in The Builders' underground pop tune The Alligator Song had its precedents, as in these lines by Johannes Anderson, in Christchurch, 1903:

. . . the gay fantail chatters;
Death is around it -- what matters?
A flirt of its fan and it flits
And over the foaming sits
And flirts, twits and chatters.

Other writers of old showed signs of an awareness of the conflicting demands of sexuality. Maud Peacock wrote at the start of the century:

My heart must throb with each throbbing string
And yearn till it break --
. . . must thrill with a pain that is ecstasy.

James K. Baxter was aware of the stereotypes people had of him,

Some people think
I keep a harem. No; my back's not strong enough.
I keep a chook pen for birds of paradise.
Te Whiore o te Kuri 5

while remaining alive to awakening Eros in this Rimbaudian poem about a confused first communicant:

. . . Christ hides a nude and human body
She is yearning, yearning towards the core of the furnace
Gripping the pillow tight to smother her cries
Struggling in the net of a self-made paradise,
Mouth wet . . .
The First Communions

The girl feels 'a vague wish like the wind', and we shouldn't forget that the wind was used to describe the onset of spiritual occupation when the Holy Spirit descended on waiting apostles after the death of Christ.

New Zealanders love gardening, it is the perfect activity for channelling our erotic drives. Consider this poem by Helen Jacobs, Mayor of Eastbourne:

. . . I can tell you
that the small hole
I put the seedling cineraria in
was black and wet and smelt of worm-soil
where soon the head of warm petals will glow. . .
and in the wind rush
that poured through me as I moved from stooping
a tug of our days that were creviced by small things.

The erotic and spiritual again combine in this poem by Anne Donovan, which is ostensibly about the past-time of hunting:

the sheeting covers and extracts
a blessing,
a balance between rot and germination
Leaving decay
the raw hole gaping
and far off, the guffaw of night animals
this is my body and this is my blood.
Open Season

Male violence and the past-time of stock cars are combined in my only anthologised poem, one many people know because the anthology Dangerous Landscapes was a text popular with secondary school teachers for more than twenty years:

through an open window
the wind blows their roars to him
and occasionally
the unmistakeable whiff of their masculine pride
Accidental Death of a Cat

A lot of kiwi satirical poetry makes use of sexual imagery for impact. Sometimes however, the truly erotic triumphs. In Fiona Kidman's Bulls Provide Semen for Breeding Programmes the poet is watching men who are watching bulls ejaculate, and all but hides her fascination with the process behind her satire, were it not that her language is too highly charged, betraying a deeper imaginative impulse:

you'd think wouldn't you`
that the semen would come gushing out
as if the creature were
an All Black champion
. . . but it comes soundlessly

More kiwi eroticism surfaces in spite of our famous self-apologetics. The passionless covering, the puritanical veneer, the need to legitimise any inexplicable desire or impulsive fascination has resulted win some shadowy deals with the muse, as in this strange combination of revulsion and appetite of Ian Wedde:

Where I went for watercress stank of cattle
but I wanted it (metaphor)
From One Centre

Jane Bowron proves to be impatient with the bestial nature of alcoholic mating behaviour, but is there not another impatience underlying her words:

What does spunky mean? I ask
There's a nice awkward silence
I volunteer, do you mean one who oozes seminal fluid?
Another drink arrives
I'm beginning to enjoy myself.
He Leans Over

Compare this with these lines by Linda Earle, whose speaker is lucky to have found stereotypical sexual display combining with her own less explicable attraction:

When I met D
it was many brawls later
to a tune
to that same tattoo
striped across her clit
-- she was so spunky
I fell in love with her
unstraight away --
she was so spunky
I wanted to become
a lesbian prostitute

The erotic arises out of something crazy, something internal, something sensual, something cooking, something flourishing, something deathly. Michael Harlow:

When she
Closes my hand into the fist it was,
Running the tip of my tongue
Along the inside of my wrist,
I begin to imagine where it is
We may be arriving, one heart-
Stopping prediction from now.
Necromantic Interlude

Religion, the earth, death, beasts, the mythological. . . these are the areas that poets refer to when describing erotic experiences. it is necessary for them to reach into those undefined places where story, the senses and memory provoke and evoke the strongest desire of all -- to live so intensely that we obey the erotic drive even to the point of abnegation:

I see two beasts
meeting at night
one with your arms.
She burns for him all day,
but in the black trees
her tongue is cool.
Their drink their pool of one another, until her wings are fluttering against him.
His hooves leave the ground then,
flashing past her
into the night.
I See Two Beasts (Mary Anne Bourke)

Performance poet Neena light-heartedly worships 'at the altar of oral sex':

. . . speaking in tongues
listening as you spoke of weaving
fingers through the velvet of my underground.

But all pleasure is stripped from sex in Anne Donovan's poem about a sex worker:

On the game hunting strange meat
burntout faces of the street
Take her home
Take her home where the money lies winking
with durex and paper towels on the bed
Unhooking with the Other

If sex and work don't mix, eroticism and sport are inseparable. Michael O'Leary's recipe of comic chaos knows this well:

The sickly inswinger
By glimmering through the low-browed misty defences
Furled round with thy spittle and ropey slime
The ball a supermammary horror
And serves only to make my night more irksome.
. . . the dripping carcass of Hadlee impaled on the wickets of my brain which stand the top of Gothic Calgary -- he lusts after the Bleeding Nun who dances seductively around his writhing body. . .  He closes his eyes, trying to shut out the beautiful visage, but she moves closer, her perfume filling his head and all his sense maddened by her touch, his agony and ecstasy complete as he becomes the more ensnared in this trap, this spider web of human passion, she the black widow smiling all the while. . .
Out Of It


Even in Dunedin, where the puritanical cult of Calvinism found its Southern Hemispheric home, Eros is alive and well, albeit in a rather self-analytical way:

By worshipping in the temple of the body
during love-making,
all desires are fulfilled
Here in this body are the sacred rivers;
here are the sun and the moon,
as well as all the pilgrimage places,
I have not encountered another temple as
blissful as my own body.
Brother Set (from Alien Child 3)

Wellington poet Raoul Sensual is influenced by the erotic sculptures and tantric practices of India, so it is not surprising that in New Zealand he is aware of the opposition of guilt-based Puritanism and eastern sexual openness. In this one an American couple visit a Hindu temple:

The amorous celestial
was taking a woman from behind.
The stone woman's breasts were more sensual
than my wife's, the American thought,
. . . She was conscious of a little golden cross
that hung
between her breasts and it was stained
by sweat.
The Amorous Celestial

Sometimes he is more direct, and becomes merely funny:

. . . before you know it she's on top
her unbelievably large breasts pummelling your face
Succubus a Violent Sex Demon

But this brings us to the sadder side of eroticism, the masochistic and the sadistic. Kim Eggleston:

Five days of booze and dope
and all I wanted
was to lay down with him
Feel the beating heart
Instead I'm lying here on the bed
with a black eye, spinning

Sex and murder have been catalogued by the terribly under-rated Alan Brunton:

In Tulsa
the cops entreated him to stop
A single shot rang out with the full authority of the State
-- 'He dropped like a stone'
They found the Beautiful Lady in bus stations
in seven non-contiguous states.
Slow Passes

The sex murderer is also found in this suffrage centennial-year poem by Linda Earle where the murder is play-acted or fantasised (at least I think that is the case):

So he took her even though the moon
fell like a brick shithouse
And her eyes rolled back till the whites
showed as clear as day
He took her even though he was
adonis and her distended belly
carvd holes out of the Dark Ages
He took her with her broken teeth
Lining specimen boxes like signposts
to the ancient
He took her and went down on her
and put parts of her in small plastic bags
He was careful to name each dry bone
When the job was complete she rolled over
tossed the condom on the couch
lit up her telly and Winfield Red.

So it wasn't as bad as a real murder (or was it happening on the telly?), and perhaps the erotic gives us an outlet for our terror as well as for our love. Caroline Avery captures the way Eros seems able to carry out the impossible:

I moved the South Pole north for you.

Antipodean erotic poetry could also be moved north for the readers of the world:

. . . if there's a magic in my wish, I would turn you into a mountain and never let you out of sight,
make words chase upon your heels like spinning tops. I would wake you with a thought.
. . . the lamp lowered like a white breast
and that is the moon, anytime. Light, submerged
in tears descended to the corners of his eyes.

Variations (Stephen Oliver).


Some Refs: The Tears of Eros Georges Battaille, Songs of the Happy Isles Maud Peacock, Songs Unsung Johannes Anderson, Collected Poems James K. Baxter, Islands 25 and 35, Poetry NZ 1990 Number 2, Scene Away from the Crime Jane Bowron, Giotto's Elephant Michael Harlow, Writings 10 (Mary Anne Bourke), From the Face to the Bin Kim Eggleston, Slow Passes Alan Brunton, Sevensome—new poems by NZ women (Linda Earle), Guardians Not Angels Stephen Oliver.

©Bill Direen, 1994.