Essay

Reading Geoff Cochrane

WHEN I WAS a child I had two dolls in a box. Each night I placed the dolls on the floor of the box and covered them with a sheet of black paper. Sometimes the dolls required reassurance. I told them that the day was finished in their country, that it was no longer time for speaking and that all of the world was asleep.

I meet these two New Zealanders. They are brainy and handsome; they live in an old workers’ cottage on the edge of Melbourne. There is a pāua shell ashtray. There are postcards of Colin McCahon. Kia ora, they murmur, when they pick up the telephone. I’m there one day when a relative arrives off the plane from Wellington. An old cardboard suitcase is snapped open; cake from a teashop on Lambton Quay, jars of bubbled honey, custard powder in an orange packet. The soft comforts of home… I score a slim volume of Geoff Cochrane. It’s 2001 and this is how it begins.

It doesn’t happen instantly. The Irish hold the ground. You duke it out, those first few years, with the American poet Donald Hall. But Hypnic Jerks (2005) seals it for me. I think of you each time I’m hooked back from sleep. I think of you in your crummy pad – the few forks and knives shivering in their drawer when the bus stops outside. I think of the view from your flat; pines, drainage ditches, rugby posts like gallows, wooded hills, a soft drink plant, red leaves that bounce like crisps, rain that inks the road.

I read your lines and I make you up. I foist you on to the few Australian poets and readers of poetry that I know. I take you out to dinner. I take you to London. I do a number on you in an interview for the women’s hour on the BBC. The doughy host looks over her glasses at me. She pronounces New Zealand so archly the face powder on her soft English cheeks lifts and talcs the air. I take you to Calgary, Mildura, Ubud, Leeds, Port Hedland. I take you to Auckland where I mention you to a bookish crowd in a hotel bar. One of the drinkers is your publisher. I leave.

I read your lines and I follow them like tracks. There you are walking down the long hill towards Antarctica, watching the shunted clouds, taking in the smell of gorse fires, the sky is the colour of wet salt. I learn not to clarify. The waxy eye of the Kōwhai? She is not a bird; she is a tree with a yellow flower hanging limply penile. The poem is dead to me; the bird of my imagination forever tangled in its rhythms.

Your life is hectic, lonely, full of innocence and sin. Your books sit a-slant on the table next to my bed. The white covers are not weathering well. The dentist’s chair tilts and sinks, I think of you. The extractions, the full clearance, the needle’s spiteful sting. There is your knowledge of household paint, cigarette lighters, pencils, addiction.

You write and you walk. You walk to resist the abyss. You walk to the supermarket at the foot of Tinakori Hill. You walk Wellington’s ribboned pavements; you walk its harboured curve. You were walking before Sebald reached the Pacific and we sat in cafés discussing the flâneur. I sense you in my ankles at St Kilda as I hesitate on the kerb.

News comes. You have been seen in a shop. You are thin. I hear there are stacks of your manuscripts waiting for attention on your publisher’s floor. The thought of all those poems spooling out in front of you – hovering voluptuously on the brink of being read. In Vanilla Wine (2003) you say you have a readership of perhaps twenty-three people. I make them up too.

The world is full of people we will never know, sitting at home, coughing quietly in their countries. It can be hard to bear the thought of these people who will always be remote, never in relation. When the day is finished in my country and I pull the black sheet over my face you are already in deep night. If I can’t sleep I’ll reach for you. Your poems have travelled across the sea from your island to mine in a kind of double movement – a silent athletics of writing and reading. I don’t believe the poems you make are a symptom of estrangement, but of over-feeling. Although, who am I to say? I made you up. But you started it, Geoff Cochrane; you started it all those years ago when you sat down in your country and began to write.

Griffith Review