Tony Beyer


1 A Broken Song

the saddest story
I’ve ever heard
or not

a poet who spoke
himself into

blank pages
spaces between

the voiceless language
in all poems

it wasn’t me
it wasn’t

an olive grove
exhaling scent
at dusk

the moiety of sun
inside an

lord ocean
in his seaweed

2 A Generation Back

hand me that magazine
to fold in half
to swat a fly

and opening the pages
youthful names
stand forth like satyrs

tumultuously erect
in stanza after stanza
black as ink

enjoining not to mourn
lost love
lost eloquence

or firm and veiny
ducts of spring
in leaf and limb

flung chair
and glass that shattered on the floor
echoing for decades

excrescences and
afloat like smoke


The bloke Mitchell threw the chair at was Roger Nutsford, who ran a sort of head shop in Karangahape Road. The Vietnam poem he was reading was Robert Bly’s ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last’. Mitchell's principal objection seems to have been to someone wasting his time (and everyone else's) by reading aloud verse not his own.

A closer look at Bly’s text indicates some similarities with Mitchell's My Lai poems, about which he might have been sensitive. I’m sure there’s no question of plagiarism in either direction. A version of ‘Teeth Mother’ was first published by City Lights in San Francisco in 1970. My introduction to Mitchell’s work was ‘kingseat/my song’ in the 1970 NZUSA Arts Festival Yearbook. Even a casual reading of that poem suggests why he took these matters personally.

Mitchell needn’t have worried. The didactic plod of Bly’s lines

                               Artillery shells explode. Napalm canisters roll end over end.
                               800 steel pellets fly through the vegetable walls.
                               The six-hour infant puts his fists instinctively to his eyes to keep
                                             out the light.
                               But the room explodes,
                               the children explode.
                               Blood leaps on the vegetable walls.

offers nothing like Mitchell's intuitive poetic intensity

                               holds a hand over each dark eye
                               in turn

                               children burn.

Succinct and distinctive, this expresses what many poets were trying to say then but were hindered by the indignation Mitchell was able to use so skilfully to fuel his fire. The pity of it is that children still burn.

Tony Beyer is a New Zealander whose poetry and prose have appeared in local and international magazines for several decades. His next book is Great South Road & South Side, two long poems, due from Puriri Press, Auckland, in 2013. He has recently become an inhabitant of West Auckland.

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