A portrait of the artist by the artist’s wife
Kevin Ireland has been my husband of just over a decade, though a presence in my life for longer than that. As he edges towards 90 he continues to surprise his fans and friends – including me – about his ability to keep creative.
No one could have been more surprised than me when his new memoir first saw the light of day. I had little hint of what Kevin was working at when my brother said in passing he could hear Kevin pounding the keys every morning in his study. I took little notice: it could have been poetry or emails and it was not till this year that I realised what he’d been up to.
The writer as author in his memoir is both tangible and elusive. He’s there on the front cover in an arresting self-portrait, with his bright yellow hat and its radiant gleam. But his eyes are masked, while reflected light glances off his glasses and profile. He offers yet another pose in his book, showing himself as both visible and oblique, accessible yet guarded.
From within the domestic sphere of our house in Devonport I see him now as thinking more than reading as his eyesight dims, staring through the ranch-slider doors to “out there” – the bird bath on the lawn, further afield to Rangitoto or the night sky; but also continuing with activities like watering the garden, planning the evening meal, and engaged in what might be seen as enforced idleness: mind games like playing chess or cards against himself on the computer. I am always astonished at what comprises his writing activity, what I’d call in academic terms ‘critical practice’ but what he or psychologists would describe as play or time out. It may be his practical knowledge of how to fix things, or in negotiating his domestic and social territory. Or it may be like the snake about to spring or the angler to hook a fish, the dormant period needed, in his case, to catch the perfect, fleeting thought. Whatever the reason, lazing about seems to provide the fertile territory from which the writing springs. In other ways Kevin’s slower pace these days demands patience as it just takes longer to do things, or go places with the aid of a walking stick, and this requires more planning. In his responses to everyday predicaments, to people and their problems, slowing down brings greater deliberation and tact.
Kevin’s external world might be shrinking as his memory becomes more patchy, and phases of arthritis and insomnia become bugbears, but the weather, birds, the garden – growing flowers, tomatoes, and lettuces – remain sources of curiosity and delight. These forces of life are now making their way into his poems, as his friend Peter Bland has pointed out, as well as appearing in his conversation. The weather in particular almost becomes a form of self-orientation providing certain geophysical and emotional bearings: rains and storms from Australia, frosts in the South Island, the changing colour of the skies and shape of the clouds, often read alongside the internet weathermap as signs of what the day or the week will hold.
His kindness and generosity of spirit, his empathy and wisdom… Such innate qualities never seem to age
Except for writing, his constant companion which provides a feedback loop to his humour and zest for life, Kevin’s other enthusiasms are being realigned: trout fishing in the Mataura River in the South Island is now a past pastime as air travel is no longer possible, but wine sampling remains close to the top of the list; movies, especially Hollywood features of the 1930s, entertain and attract his keen eye for cinematic technique; New Zealand art remains a shared interest, and best of all, literary conversation – about books, prizes, review and writers – conducted over lunch once a week in the Shakespeare Hotel with an inner circle of Bernard Brown, Graeme Lay and Peter Bland.
Ours has been a marriage of intimacy and distance which has worked brilliantly till now. But taking into account all the signs of ageing makes me think it is time to come home for longer, to last the distance with Kevin. Over time he has loomed large in my life, and the basic attraction remains: I have always loved his conversation, his funny yet serious sides, his sense of outrage that also loves the outrageous, his awareness of contradiction – the whole package. Having retired during the Covid years which were spent in New Zealand, I can now return to the UK where I have lived for over 20 years with fewer constraints; but my recent trip was full of ghostly reminders of Kevin’s presence, his last visit to Oxford being more than two years ago. It made me realise that the meaning of home diminishes when there is only one of you.
He continues to hold a place in my heart not just for his sense of humour, his resonant, explosive laugh, but also his kindness and generosity of spirit, his capacity to articulate complex matters, his empathy and wisdom. Such innate qualities never seem to age, even though other parts of us begin to wear out. In his case they remain powerfully present in his writing making us aware that the surface poise of his art conceals many depths. It is no accident that I came across his little poem “Paradox” when searching for words for my mother’s funeral service last week. It captured her and fitted the occasion perfectly.
by Kevin Ireland
Your part has come to an end,
Yet other life goes on.
This is what the world shall sing.
It is an old, old song.
No more shall you catch the sheen
Of the sun-struck dew.
Our flesh must fade to oblivion.
The words say nothing new.
Yet your being belongs within us,
And evermore shall stay.
You become the breath of eternity
And each fresh day.
A Month At the Back of My Brain: A Third Memoir by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom is devoting all week to Ireland’s book. Tomorrow: in an excerpt from the memoir, the author tells a tale of two very strange funerals.