An appreciation of a retiring professor
After my father died in October 1990 I did not know what to do. I flew to New Zealand for his funeral; with my then partner, I took a three day walk along the Six Foot Track through the Blue Mountains to Jenolan Caves. We went to her brother’s wedding in Dunedin and afterwards visited Rakiura; but I still didn’t know what to do. Back in Darlinghurst, Sydney, one day, feeling more than ever like a somnambulist, I walked the couple of hundred metres down Womerah Lane to my writing room, a re-purposed laundry under a painter’s kitchen, booted up the Amstrad and began to draft a prose narrative which became The Autobiography of my Father. It felt like automatic writing; it only took about six weeks; and, by the time I had finished, I had worked through much of my grief and some of my anger. But what was I to do with the manuscript?
I got in touch with Alan Brunton, told him what I had written, and asked him what he thought I should do next. He said: “Why don’t you send it to Michele Leggott?” And gave me her address. I didn’t recognise the name and wasn’t entirely sure why the putative book should go to her; but I took Alan’s advice anyway, made contact and then, once Michele said yes, she would read it, posted it off to her. That was over the summer but which summer? It must have been 1990-91. I remember hearing back from her in late January or early February; she thanked me for getting the ms to her so swiftly and said she had given it an equally swift reading; and had then passed it on to Elizabeth Caffin at Auckland University Press, who became the next person to read it.
Alan in his letter remarked: “Michele is a very fine poet I think” ― not the kind of thing he said lightly or, indeed, often; but in those pre-internet days there wasn’t a way I could read her work online and I didn’t know if she had any books out. In fact, her first book of poems, Like This? had been published by the Caxton Press in 1988; and her second, Swimmers, Dancers, by AUP in 1991; but it was some time before I caught up with either of them and I still don’t have a copy of the first one. She assisted, I believe, with the publication of Alan Brunton’s Slow Passes (AUP, 1991), just as she assisted with the publication of The Autobiography of my Father by the same publisher in 1992. This was a selfless act, based, so far as I know, solely upon her appreciation of the work. I didn’t just feel grateful, I felt honoured.
Cesare Pavese said: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” I no longer recall when I first met Michele in person but do remember a moment from that meeting. We had lunch together in a café in Auckland, in High Street perhaps, or Lorne Street. When it was time to order I asked for the Cajun chicken and was mildly surprised when Michele asked for the same thing; it only occurred to me later that her sight must already have been going, that she may not have been able to read the menu and didn’t want to ask me, a relative stranger, to read it to her; as I would on later occasions when we ate together. Or maybe she just wanted Cajun chicken. I don’t recall our conversation that day either but do remember thinking this was one of those encounters which might lead to a long lasting friendship; as it has.
The rest of that decade, the 1990s, was for me taken up with the painter Philip Clairmont: initially in an attempt to write a monograph upon his work; and then, when copyright issues prevented me from illustrating it, writing a second book which incorporated material from the monograph in a biographical / autobiographical narrative which also described how and why I had failed to complete the first one. Meanwhile Michele had put out two more books of poetry, DIA (1994) and As Far As I Can See (1999); an edition of Robin Hyde’s The Book of Nadath (1999); and with, Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond as co-editors, Big Smoke ― New Zealand Poems 1960–1975 (2000). She also collaborated with Alan on a video, directed by his partner Sally Rodwell, called Heaven’s Cloudy Smile (1998). In this way, at least to my mind, we became kin, as family members in the far-flung and various collective known internationally as Red Mole.
So that, when Alan died, suddenly, of a heart attack in Amsterdam in June, 2002, as family do, we reached out to each other, and to Sally, for solace and also in order to commemorate his passing in a fitting manner. There were two concerts, Red Mole shows with Alan unaccountably absent, one in Wellington, the other in Auckland. I can’t now remember when we became Alan’s joint literary executors but it must have been after Sally died, by her own hand, in 2006, leaving their daughter Ruby orphaned and the Red Mole legacy in disarray. There was another concert in Wellington, really a wake for Sally, and then Michele, who is indefatigable, set to work to conserve what could be conserved. She had help from Caterina de Nave, from Sally’s brothers, from Tim Page, from Brian Flaherty at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre [nzepc], which Michele herself founded, and from many others. One hundred unique and irreplaceable masks were restored, photographed and placed into storage.
When, a few years later, we had the opportunity to edit and publish Alan’s selected poems, some of the photographs of masks were used as illustrations therein. Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968-2002 came out from Titus Books in 2013 and was launched at another concert in Auckland, which some people have called the last Red Mole show. Hello Sailor played.
Michele and I have continued to work together whenever the opportunity or the need has arisen. Every now and then we’ll have a catch up on the telephone. Sometimes she’ll send me drafts of work in progress; sometimes I will do the same. We don’t so much critique each other’s work as construe, amplify and affirm. It’s another way of keeping in touch. Most recently we have been trying to track down an image of an oil painting her father, Jock Leggott, made on a family holiday at Fletcher Bay in Coromandel, which won joint first prize in a competition held at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui in 1971; successfully, as it turns out. Perhaps the fact that we each grew up, with idealistic parents, in small towns in the North Island, is another reason why we get on; a shared understanding derived from idyllic childhoods, inexplicably cut short.
I think the address to which I posted the ms of The Autobiography of my Father 30 years ago might have been the one of the house in Devonport where Michele and Mark still live. I’ve been there many times since, both to visit and to stay, and it is a happy house, full of love and laughter. I like the way they’ve left the front unrenovated, so that it looks anonymous, even a bit scruffy, from the street; but opens out into a large, light-filled room at the back, looking over a lush and beautiful garden. I greatly value Michele’s friendship; I admire her grace, her kindness, her generosity; her prodigious memory, her intelligence, her courage in adversity. Her solid commitment to ethical, literary and personal values. Her teaching, in all of the many senses of that word. She remains, as Alan said all those years ago, and as Mezzaluna demonstrates, a very fine poet indeed. Not all good writers are good people; but Michele is, indubitably, both.
An abridged version taken from A Birthday Festschrift, a celebration of poet, scholar, and editor Michele Leggott on the occasion of her retirement from the University of Auckland, where she’s been teaching since 1986, latterly as a full Professor. Contributors include Ruby Brunton, Chris Price, Tracey Slaughter and Cilla McQueen.