Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968–2002, by Alan Brunton, edited and introduced by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond (Titus Books, 2014), 316 pp., $38
Alan Brunton was a poet, a Sixties millennial prophet and a theatrical instigator who flamed out at the beginning of the new millennium, dying of a heart attack while on the road with Red Mole in Amsterdam in 2002. Mutant offspring of the McLuhanite Sixties zeitgeist, the Red Mole theatre troupe – which Alan Brunton founded – was perhaps conceived of, and certainly grew into, a cultural omnivore, a world-eater: an energetically organic enterprise with international ambition, acting out the role of a brilliantly coloured and exotic provocateur in the black-and-white landscape that was New Zealand in the 1970s.
Red Mole’s cabaret performances in an assortment of curious venues were fractured epics, portraying glimpses of surrealistic odysseys in search of ‘Paradise’, or else they were mordant socio-political critiques of the post-colonial world. Its members sought to be brand new cartographers, charting not Mercator’s projection of the old navigators, but psychic maps of the ‘province of Novoi Zelandi’ and its place in the scheme of things, accompanied by bells, whistles, flutes.
A Red Mole for Beginners would refer to the myth that the ensemble had its roots in a chance meeting in Luang Prabang in 1973, when South East Asia was reeling from the knock-on effects of the Vietnam War. It would describe the genesis of the White Rabbit Puppet Theatre, it would mention off-shoots such as Vargo’s Circus, Wellington’s Cabaret Capital Strut, the guerrilla theatre years in New York City, and the time spent pursuing visions in the cactus deserts of New Mexico. It would note the contributions of musicians Jan Preston and Red Alert, of Midge Marsden and the Country Fliers, of Rick Bryant and the Neighbours, of MC Arthur Baysting, of actors Martin Edmond and John Davies, of contortionist, fire-eater and escapologist Deborah Hunt. But above all, it would be an account of the lives of the two principals, Alan Brunton and his partner Sally Rodwell.
More than a decade after Brunton’s sudden demise, editors Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond have revisited Alan Brunton’s legacy as a poet – which is entwined with his contributions to Red Mole as main script-writer – in Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968–2002. They offer what is in effect a sampling of his prodigious output, unearthed from a basement midden containing personal papers, notebooks, masks, props and costumes, as well as the twelve collections of poetry, some published by Red Mole Enterprises, others by university presses and small independent presses. The new book has ended up as a collection of personal choices, from which some of Brunton’s best poems – such as the 1969 remembrance ‘transformed Urbs / The days of’ (one of his own favourites) – are missing, while the excerpts from his long, book-length poems, deprived of their narrative arc, may seem mystifying to the non-initiated. For Brunton requires readers who, if not initiates, are at least aware of the context in which he lived and operated.
Brunton had an imposing physical presence and was the possessor of a rich baritone voice. Well spoken, well read, nimble and allusive, he made literature a performance. He was also working-class, one of the baby-boomer generation that poured into the open-access, well-funded universities of the 1960s. He was someone who combined Marxist alienation with a belief in the cathartic powers of the theatre of the absurd.
At university, during the Sixties Youthquake, he rapidly emerged as a renegade orientalist at a time when many were facing East, towards the Buddha, towards Enlightenment, towards the Hindu Wheel of Life, in the wake of the occult enthusiasms of the Sixties – it was the Age of Aquarius, but also the age when the death of God was announced on the cover of Time magazine.
Like James K. Baxter, Brunton saw signs and portents everywhere, waiting to be turned into poetry. Like Baxter, he was a mythographer of the first order. The first part of Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, prefaced with a useful and comprehensive introduction by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond, contains specimens from Brunton’s experimental poetry laboratory of the late Sixties. Here, in these playful notations – ludic marginalia that critiques the Kiwi way of life, Dadaist graffiti scrawled on the Curnovian literary pantheon – he takes on the big topics – eros and civilisation, the bomb culture, the society of the spectacle – in the way that many young writers at that time did. But Brunton’s ambition was to go further, to push on through the Doors of Perception, employing Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses, rather than turn back towards acceptable norms: ‘The professors said I lacked / Academic Respectability.’
The late Sixties, as celebrated by Brunton’s verse, was an era where political protest rallies, rock festivals and poetry jamborees morphed from one to the other and back again. ‘I wanted to write slogans, chants to yell out,’ he wrote later. He had an apocalyptic cast of mind, in keeping with times of crisis, and he learnt from the emergence of one Liberation Front after another on the international stage. In 1969, remembering the graffito ‘La parole est libre’, which appeared on a wall in Paris during the ‘Days of Rage’, the May 1968 student insurrection which nearly brought down the French government, Brunton created The Word is Freed – the poetry manifesto as literary magazine, where he could publish untrammeled, and which ran to four issues, helping to make his name as a iconoclastic force in New Zealand poetry. He was the exemplary avant-gardist, tuned into dream imagery, drug trances and hashish inspirations, while also being fully conversant with the conventions of traditional English literature. Following post-graduate study, he was barred as a ‘dangerous subversive’ from enrolling for a doctorate in English at two New Zealand universities.
In an essay available on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre website, his contemporary, writer and poet Stephen Chan, speaks of Alan Brunton’s contribution to New Zealand poetry in the way that Robert Browning wrote of William Wordsworth in the poem ‘The Lost Leader’ – that is, as the revolutionary bard who failed. Stephen Chan writes: ‘I … walked away from [Brunton, after meeting him by chance on a London street, years later] with tears in my eyes, because I thought that he alone had been true [to the spirit of the Sixties student revolution].’ Yet, as the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai said when asked about the success of the French Revolution, two hundred years on: it’s still too early to say – what Brunton’s final legacy might be, on the strength of Beyond the Ohlala Mountains and his other verses.
Nor can Brunton be confined to a ghetto of dated political commentary. Like one of P.B. Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators, his trajectory, Adonais-like, ‘beacons from the abode where the Eternal are’. The Leggott–Edmond anthology is good on Brunton as the poet of the open road, as the poet of a commune on the move. He was someone who idealised the itinerant life, ever in pursuit of ‘exciting places / over the horizon’. In the early 1970s, journeying by plane and boat and train towards the Silk Road, towards the Spice Trail, towards ‘ultima thule’, in a way Brunton’s footsteps were pacing out traces of the literature of Empire – as references to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (‘a thousand thousand slimy things live on’), to Rudyard Kipling, to James Elroy Flecker (‘the Golden Journey to Samarkand’), to Joseph Conrad, and so on, indicate. In those days, he was a version of Matthew Arnold’s ‘gypsy scholar’.
‘What’s become of Waring since he gave us all the slip?’ wrote Robert Browning: ‘In Vishnu-land what Avatar?’ Brunton went to India in early 1970, to where, as he put it, ‘the green corpse / of the world // ends by the Ganges’. Then, late in 1970, he went to London:
I have arrived from India
in a state of satori
carrying nothing except
my passport and the chillum
given to me by my guru
on the banks of the Ganges,
I am refused admission
I climb out of a window
& walk into the city …
(‘Denmark Notebook’, 2001)
Like Red Mole playscripts, Brunton’s poems are rickety constructions, elusive as well as allusive, subject to change: fugitive and shifting in their meaning, much like the location of the ‘ohlala mountains’. His poems are gestalts; fields the size of a sheet of paper are ploughed with a ballpoint pen. There’s a sense of quick connections gathered on the hoof, on the wing, and jotted down, ready to be reshuffled, repurposed – to be disguised and hidden from pursuers and prohibitionists, real and imagined; he was forever falling foul of authority: ‘I filled notebooks with poems / for fantastic policemen.’
To read a Brunton poem is to fall in step with him for a time, with his ragged army of phrases, pullulating, stroppy, esoteric, yearning, showing their teeth – or their unruly origins in B-movies or cartoons. He wrote using a series of personas, a sequence of quick-change masks, so that he was by turns a priest, a gravedigger, a charlatan, a method actor, a soothsayer, a superfly, a goblin bee. His syncretic mind, employing a fertile crisscrossing of argots and belief systems, crafted humourous collisions and paradoxical juxtapositions.
‘Language is my neighbourhood,’ he wrote, ‘I live in Alphabet City.’ Connoisseur of a baroque encyclopedic style, he used language found and repossessed, so that he was by turns Prufrockian, Erewhonian, Joycean. His ‘scribbledehobble’ veered from a homage to Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD (in which ‘Apocalypse Joe’ rides a pale horse ‘… up the mountains of the moon’) to a suddenly inserted Split Enz lyric reprise: ‘… I hope I never / I hope I never / see that part of Auckland again.’
Brunton based himself with his family in Wellington in 1988. His long poem ‘Ephphatha’, which first appeared as a booklet in collaboration with the artist Richard Killeen in 1994, is a meditation on shape-shifting, art and globe-trotting. Excerpts from ‘Ephphatha’ included in Beyond the Ohlala Mountains describe living in Island Bay, but reworked from the first publication, a standard ploy: ‘thin lights go on in kitchens / with their tinny wattage beaming tiny miracles / into an icy universe’. In the ‘Ephphatha’ of 1994, this read: ‘kitchens / on the tinny wattage of their tiny ice universes’.
When Alan Brunton took up the Ursula Bethell Residency at Canterbury University in 1998, he arrived in his new office to find a message from the previous writer-in-residence, Brian Turner. It said: ‘150 poems …’ The challenge was accepted: Brunton would write more than 150 poems during his tenure. The result was the epic sprawling book-length poem Fq, published posthumously six years later. The excerpts from Fq that Leggott and Edmond include indicate it’s a quest poem and a romance poem, partly modelled on Spenser’s The Fairy Queene, and unified through its variety of different verse forms and its juggled ventriloquisms by Brunton’s insouciant tone, which is mesmerising in its agility as it tracks the passing days – ‘The cool clarinet of winter scats yellow leaves down from the trees’ – and the journeying of the main character, an alter-ego named ‘Shoe’, who is ‘doomed to slip through Eternity in a footnote’.
In Brunton’s dramatic monologue ‘Where There’s Hope’, written on the road somewhere between Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the early 1980s, he quotes from The Book of Job: ‘my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’, echoing Robert Browning, who wrote in the same sardonic, mock-pious vein: ‘swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years’. Brunton’s poems are a weave of many threads which combine into a single, if discontinuous, poem. An autobiography by other means. The quote from the Book of Job harks back to Brunton’s narrow sectarian upbringing deep in the bosom of the Presbyterian Church. ‘At ten years old,’ he writes in a ‘Notebook’ poem, ‘I prayed to God’; at fourteen, he tells a girl at ‘the church bazaar’, ‘Old Sod was dead’, beginning his life-long career as heretic, apostate, challenger of orthodoxies.
Brunton grew up in Hamilton where, in the 1950s, ‘nothing was original’. He grew up as an only child, raised by his very religious grandmother. In the poem ‘Selected Alchemical Letters’ he writes of ‘sniffing honey-glue as I stuck together what used to be my / father and the remains of World War II’. In those Cold War years, Hamilton was ‘a southern white frontier town’ on the ‘far edge of the finite’, still ‘a military post’ … ‘the railway used to run right across town … we read the timetables & planned one day to get to another place …’ At high school he won prizes in history, played rugby and drilled, rebelliously, with the school’s cadet corps; at the same time he formed a school Marxist study group, a small cell of fledgling insurrection. Notions of ‘the exotic’ derived from going to ‘the flicks’ – the local cinema – and the occasional visiting performer or drama group. In a 1968 ‘Notebook’ poem he writes of ‘Uncle Ken’, who was ‘killed’ by ‘wives and debts and bad companions’; later, in the poem ‘Nana Going Home’ he speaks of the last years of his grandmother: ‘she had a faith in angels now / she saw them through her own eyes.’ This poem sardonically echoes William Blake of course, but it’s also a telling and poignant poem about his sense of difference. At seventeen, he finally escaped from Hamilton, enrolling at Auckland University and rapidly moving to the radical epicentre and a life of poetry activism, founder of the Cultural Liberation Front; but, as he writes in the last sequence in the book: ‘it’s never finished, the life I thought I’d leave but never did / because I was already at my destination.’
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online.