I sit on the parched front porch;
around me the house is falling down,
soon my rocking chair may fall through the verandah.
The lizard under the shadow of the rock looks at me
as though I am its new tenant.
My skin is dried and crinkled like my landlady lizard.
I may shed it soon.
Perhaps human skin is the latest lizard fashion —
Lazy Lizard, poke your tongue back in.
Old Elijah in the pawnshop looked at me between rows of watches,
'Latest crocodile skin bags, Sir.'
I wondered if his wife had died.
E.Levy's Emporium; goods bought, sold and exchanged.
Amongst broken guitars, pictures of flowers and chipped vases
amongst his rocks, in their dusty shadow.
'Lijah Lizard, put your Woolworth glasses back on.
The sun beats down on my little verandah.
Here I am sitting like a guard watching my own Sahara.
Join the French Foreign Legion.
See the sands.
Allons enfants de la patrie.
French generals, German captains
dwelling in the shadow of Moroccan rocks,
Legion Lizards, put your képis back on.
It is near the end for me now.
Perhaps it is best to rest
instead of cramming in all those little things
I would like to have done.
I wanted to see the big city.
Still, there is an even bigger one
waiting for me now,
waiting for me in the shadow of the rock of ages.
Leaving Lizard, put your halo on.
A note on 'Lizard'
'Lizard' was the first poem I ever wrote. I was seventeen, suffering teenaged angst & concerned about my mortality which, for some reason, seemed particularly fragile at the time. I don't know why but I decided to write about it, perhaps write it out of me or clarify my feelings. It ended up being a poem; & in the course of writing it my attitude towards death turned around. I was quite happy by the time I'd finished. I cannot remember if there was much revision. I have a feeling that there was little if any. & even then I wrote at a typewriter. Something about the separation between writer & instrument – you have to hold a pen; there is a distance between your fingers & a keyboard. It's like the start of a relationship. Those tentative touches to test the waters.
I knew no writers, though my mother wrote verse for the women's magazines of the time, knew poetry only through college & that part of my first year at University when I attended lectures. I think we did Eliot & Yeats at Uni, but everybody else I studied had been dead for at least a century. I was unenthusiastic about it. I was a musician, a classically-trained contrabassist. The cello would have been my preferred instrument – it still is the one whose sound I love the most if I put aside the personal sound of Miles Davis - but I was a lover of jazz, & the bass was an instrument for jazz.
But here I was writing. & sufficiently impressed by what I'd done to write some more. Three poems altogether, in the space of a couple of weeks. I showed them to my mother who suggested I send them off to the N.Z. Listener, a colonial imitation of the English Listener, the back with the radio programs, the front with articles & reviews & one or two poems in each issue. It was one of the few serious outlets for poetry at that time available in N.Z. I didn't know what literary journals were, or little magazines. Unsurprising, because I think there was only one of each in the country then.
They were accepted. 'Lizard' was the second poem published, just after my eighteenth birthday.
I still played & wrote jazz. But when I returned to university the next year I had the cachet of being a Published Poet. Yes, definitely capital letters. I didn't consider myself a writer but others did. I was asked to edit the University Literary Society's annual publication. I became involved with other writers. I discovered Poetry, got influenced by people who wrote it, felt I had to write, wrote crap for the next three years. There was nobody I knew who wrote like I did when I started out so I started to write like other people who I really had nothing in common with.
Somewhere during this time I gave up playing music. If I'd played flute or piano I might have continued, but playing bass in those days was a dangerous undertaking. Wellington isn't known as windy Wellington for nothing, & there weren't many yank-tanks around, & none owned by anyone I knew. The taxis were still relatively small, English-made but not English taxicabs. Most of them I couldn't fit my bass into. I had to carry it, my shoulder fitting into its waist, whenever I had to play anywhere. Ultimately the visions of me getting caught in an uplift & blown down a hillside or off the bridge between home & the university became too much.
What saved me from becoming a pallid poet in the English tradition was Don Allen's 1960 anthology The New American Poetry which probably made it to N.Z. the year after its publication. I found in it poets whom I felt at home with, who wrote in a similar manner to how I had done when I first started writing, whose influences I didn't mind. Who I quite shamelessly stole from. Gary Snyder's 'Riprap' — "Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks;" MY's 'The Quarrel' — "Put down those words / rocks picked hastily from the beach of mind." Charles Olson's 'The Lordly & Isolate Satyrs' — MY's 'Oriental Bay' — "The motorcyclists of Cocteau / were Death's / angels." Frank O’Hara's 'In Memory of my Feelings' — "My quietness has a man in it;" MY's 'The Tigers' — "Within the tiger / reels a turmoil of desires." Poems to Denise Levertov, to LeRoi Jones. They went through my blender, came out sometimes smooth, sometimes chunky. But within a couple of years I was writing as myself, still referring to those who'd influenced me but from a different stand- & viewpoint. Openly acknowledging my influences is something I have always done. From 'Mirror/Images:' "There is / an A-Z of those whose images I have pursued / perused & used."
& it all started with 'Lizard.' It makes use of stereotypes but I knew no better then. It has the last vestiges of my belief in Christianity although I think that had gone out the window a year or so before, but not that long ago to make me hesitate to use facets of it. 'Lizard' is, in all senses, a pure poem. Colloquial, uninhibited by influences, its form shaped by the poem rather than the reverse. Because I always lumped my earliest poems in a basket labeled "crap, not to be opened" it took me forty years & the prompting of others to recognise it for what it was, a poem that still works, & something to be proud of.
"When one is seventeen, one isn't serious" wrote Rimbaud. But he was fifteen when he wrote those words, & I think he probably changed his mind in those intervening couple of years.