Summer 2009

Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 2


Poetry    Essays    Translations    Fiction   

Danny Birchall


Len’s Basement


He sits halfway up Mount Victoria, looking over the bay to the shore beyond. A brave few boats wobble uncertainly on the waves: fluffy little whitecaps spell danger, and an ill wind is whipping them up. The ferry stays safely moored. There won’t be any crossings to Hutt today.
The wind doesn’t stir only the water. The sky above is in motion, fat wads of cotton wool lolloping from left to right, over the land and out to sea. They move unevenly, jerkily, some bunches flying more rapidly than others then slowing to a gentle drift before picking up speed again. It’s like watching music in the sky, he thinks. As if an entire orchestra were playing. Bass clouds, lumpish and sullen; alto clouds, light and flighty. Staccato full stops of cloud, punctuation, marking a rhythm. Motion, composed.
He feels it as well as hearing it, the music of the near-heavens, the melody of weather. It stirs him, as if he were playing it himself. One day, he would like to conduct the weather, to write songs for the sky and bay and clouds, create music to make the whole world dance. He crouches halfway to standing and starts to move with the clouds, to the time of the puffy beats. He feels the energy within him. It goes zizz.
No one can see him. He drops his trousers. He’s still dancing, still feeling the seductive rhythm of the universe, somewhere much deeper than his mind, in all our minds, in the memory of ancient dances and campfires. He holds himself, he’s so full he might burst. The music carries him and he carries the music, he leads it with his wand and the clouds go this way and that, building to a crescendo. He flies from himself: scud-scud-scud. In perfect time with the weather, the world.


What am I doing here?
This town is smalltown. It’s Saturday night, and I’m sitting outside the Matinee, drinking a bottle of – look at the label – Speight’s. A local brew: golden, cold, tasteless. What may well be the town’s entire smart set are sitting next to me, drinking suspiciously spritzerish looking cocktails and chatting about… it must be sport. Everyone here talks about sport, even the intellectuals. Is it rugby they play, or Australian rules? Union or League? I can’t bring myself to care.
Nightlife on a Saturday for anyone under the age of twenty one on Devon Street (both East and West) is a simple ritual. Get in your car. Get in someone else’s car. Get in the boot of someone else’s car if there are no seats left. Then drive around and around in an elongated loop that brings you past my table approximately every ten minutes. Stop your car occasionally to bang your hands flat on the hood of someone else’s car. At about two in the morning, when I’m asleep in my lumpy hostel bed, have a fight. A loud, shouting, bloodless fight. Repeat weekly.
What am I doing here? Research would be the simple answer, yes, research. I’m researching documentary film material. A sculptor and filmmaker who lived in Christchurch, Wellington, London and New York. He never lived here, in this town, there’s no personal connection, but he left his archive, all the bits and pieces, to the art gallery here, and I am researching them.
It’s possible that this work could be done remotely, on the internet, through requests or loans. Oxford is a powerful institution: people would listen to a request from Oxford, they would say, yes, it’s safe to lend things to Oxford, they would send me what I need.
It probably isn’t strictly necessary to be here at all.


‘Individuality! Happiness! Now!’
The country lane is cut deep, sinking between the fields and hedgerows alongside. Centuries of feet and carts have pressed it down, making a rut, a channel for people, hops and corn. You can barely see over the top of the hedges; it’s like being in a maze.
Only his little bald head is visible at first as he rides his boneshaker along the lane to the house, like a potato escaped from the fields; and then you catch glimpses of his figure, wiry and athletic, a pointy beard dipping from his chin, drawing ticks as he rolls over the bumps and potholes, conducting the landscape. Though nothing and nobody else seems urgent on this hot and lazy day, something faster than any of this is carrying him, like a little rocket along the road.
He’s got it! He’s got the idea, the idea that makes sense of it all. Free from the confines of his modern-wired brain, the brain that thinks of technique, of pounds shillings and pence, of the constraints of everyday living, his old lizard brain has broken through and made sense of it. DNA, the stuff that we are all made of, our timeless heritage, DNA is the Happiness Acid, the zizz in our very selves.
‘Individuality! Happiness! Now!’ he yells.


It’s a short walk from the hostel to the gallery, up the hill. To my left, in the clear sky I can see Taranaki. A truncated cone, rivulets of snow still clinging to the wrinkles of its top, it’s the perfect image of a volcano. It dominates the view from every part of this peninsula, it gives its name to the region. To my right is the Tasman Sea, and over the tops of the flat-roofed houses I can see the tip of his wand, a twenty-seven metre fibreglass reed that bends gently to the wind. A posthumous realisation of his dream, made possible with technology unknown in his lifetime. Though he was never its son, this town pays homage to him.
The archive is housed in the basement of the gallery, in a corner of the prep room, where huge postmodern artworks made of foam and plastic ketchup are being unpacked from their wooden safety crates ready for a new exhibition. Like all archives, it is in a middling sort of disarray. Packing cases hold components of sculptures he never built. One case, half-open, contains an orrery held together at the centre by his wife’s wedding ring: less a gesture of romance than of immediate exigency. Glass cases hold slides and photographs. Sketches and philosophical ramblings are still roughly filed in his own shoeboxes.
They supervised me when I arrived, unsure what I was really here for, anxious that I might make the archive yield scandalous family secrets. A few conversations later they were as convinced as I am of the dullness of my task. During the war, before he departed for New York, he participated in the British war effort and made propaganda films, films about newspaper trains, and metal recycling. Quite a few notable artists and filmmakers put their shoulder to the wheel of the propaganda machine, made these quirky little war films, and this is what the book I am writing will be about.
I’m making my way through the shoeboxes, methodically, to look for any traces of influence or inspiration. I scan through some of the larger files, too. In one, I find sketches for a giant sculpture, fit in scale only for a Nevadan desert valley. A rising walkway takes the viewer past spinning ribbons of sprung stainless steel that thunder and echo off the walls of the valley. At the head of the sculpture, you pass through a giant loop of the same steel to face the head of a snake. It spits a million volts of electricity.


Even if you had the money, it’s not so simple to build something as big as you want. Sometimes, the inherent properties of the material you’re working with just won’t scale. It’s hard to understand why a two hundred metre loop of steel won’t behave in the same way as a twenty metre loop of steel, why it won’t twang rather than buckle and collapse upon itself, but it’s something to do with the same resonant frequencies that make it so springy in the first place.
Looking out across these cluttered Manhattan rooftops, clustered with television aerials and rocket-like watertanks poised to launch into space, he imagines acres of impossible wands like grass or marsh reeds, swaying even with the low and sullen breeze that is all the city can summon today. Growing out of derelict lots on the lower east side like mechanical gardens, bud-topped stalks that with each dip and nod will talk to you of what mood the world is in today.
Even without the grass, he feels the city in his not-so-young bones, feels its dirty restlessness, its hunger made of hungers. He wonders if he should take a walk back down to the workshop and see how the scaled versions are coming along, but the thought of their tininess and meanness, of the expense even of the models, disheartens him. Maybe he should stay at his desk and write: perhaps another breakthrough will come, the old lizard brain might have something left to say.
Instead, he stays at the window and looks out across the city, his eyes skipping across the panorama, from skyscraper to skyscraper, like notes written on the clef of the island itself.


At the bottom of a shoebox I find a single piece of card. It looks as if it has been torn from a larger piece, and unlike all the other pieces of card which are full of restless little sprites and squiggles, this one bears only words. It says:

Individuality! Happiness! Now!

This will be the last Saturday night I spend drinking Speight’s in the Matinee on Devon Street West, the last Saturday night I spend half-overhearing conversations about farming and taxes, the last Sunday morning on which I’m woken by the screams of illiterate hoodlums.
On Monday, instead of going to the gallery I drive my hired car inland, towards the volcano. Most of the way there, the farmland is so flat that it barely ripples with haystacks, rusting machinery and occasional clumps of volcanic rock thrown clear of the mountain’s peak centuries ago. Eventually, I reach the conservation zone where the original kiwi bush has been maintained: on my walking map, this national park forms a perfect circle around the volcano. Suddenly tall dark-green podocarps reach for the sky; the road becomes overshadowed, a conduit snaking upwards through the forest. At the uppermost carpark I lock the vehicle. A small information hut and shop is open and I buy a bag of nuts and raisins before striking out on the trail. It’s nearly noon.
Two hours later I breach the treeline and burst out into violent sunlight. The clouds are already below me, a solid white blanket reaching as far as I can see in any direction. The town, the gallery, the peninsula, everything is gone. It’s just me and the mountain, me and the perfect volcano. I can see the first pockets of snow stuck in shadow behind boulders. My legs work like pistons, shuff-shuff, conquering the mountain. The thin air fills my lungs and with each breath it’s as if I’m renewing myself. I’ve never felt so alive, so present in my life.
Above me, the cone reaches up and away. If I climb quickly, I can reach the top before dark.


© Danny Birchall



Poetry    Essays    Translations    Fiction   

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