By Lindsay Rabbitt
The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press), 64pp., $25.
We’re smoking and drinking coffee at a table outside Victoria Street Café. Geoff Cochrane’s light blue eyes project a resigned, smiley, serious sort of look, and he cocks his beaky head and recites:
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
Cochrane had previously recited the lines by A. E. Housman at Gerry Melling’s memorial service. Gerry, an architect and poet, was Geoff’s ‘smoking buddy’ and his Thumbprint Press published Cochrane’s short story collections, Brindle Embers (2002) and White Nights (2004). Gerry died after a short battle with cancer in December, 2012. Now, as Gerry’s literary executor, Geoff is waiting on the proofs for Gerry’s posthumous book of poems, and his short story Movie, originally published in Sport 31, has been adapted by film-maker Dan Kircher for a short film.
And life, with its joy and grief, goes on. Geoff and myself, single men of a certain age, walk down Bond Street, across Willis to the supermarket, our parting point – Geoff is going to buy some provisions, then catching the bus to his flat in Miramar to take his afternoon insulin injection, and I’m catching
the train back to my home-place on the Kapiti Coast. I go to give him a hug, and hesitate; realising Geoff is a handshake-kind-of-guy.
‘What do you want to do?’ he asks.
That day we also talked about Cochrane’s early books published in the 70’s and 80’s during his drinking days. We were booze buddies, although different alcoholics; I was a bender drinker, Cochrane a plateau drinker, who constantly needed topping up. In 1980 we occupied adjoining flats in Karori. On the occasional dismal pub-closed Sunday we’d traipse the hilly suburbs, broke, seeking out a moderate-drinking acquaintance with, hopefully, a healthy liquor cabinet, and such was our intent, our fraudulent quest, more often than not, would end in success. It was a long time ago, and not all desperation and guilt; we also shared the bliss of being pissed.
In The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow, Cochrane’s 13th poetry collection, there’s a piece called ‘Mirrory Sunglasses’ in which he reimagines a conversation he had with Stephen Murphy, the publisher of his first book: Murphy’s wearing shades, but his face needs no adornment . . . Murphy has it all of course. The complexion of some swart Renaissance angel. Absent parents, a house, a little money. And Murphy drinks whisky and wins at poker. And Murphy swims and combs his wet black hair and lies in the sun reading Henry James.
Images of Midnight City was published in 1976; Cochrane was 25. The book was printed by a couple of Scots working out of a print shop at the top of Plimmer Steps, and designed by Gordon Esam, whom Geoff describes as ‘a bibulous Zen genius loosely associated with big advertising in London, but back here in New Zealand he was famous for having been a Crown witness at the Bassett Road Machine-Gun Murders trial,’ which, Geoff says, made Mr Esam very nervous in certain pubs.
Maybe I first met Cochrane (in 1977?) in the then notorious Wellington criminal hangout, the Forrester’s Arms, now a ghost within a ghost on Ghuznee Street; it’s a real probability, but more likely a device to keep this narrative’s motor running. I recall the hard men, junkies and intellectual refugees from the skittled Duke of Edinburgh, but the first handshake and ensuing conversation I had with the poet who was to become a good friend has vanished. Images of Midnight City, Geoff’s book of those years, before those years, has not. It sees the poet as a young drunk and a contrite lover, a maker of poems lamenting the deaths of junkie friends:
When the hit has thumped the gulping heart
like a sudden fist of warmth
the user sleeps. Black and bright
a leech of glass
hangs at his vein, and more eats
glowingly through his mind than enzyme.
In dream he is that fleck of snow
which falls toward limpid water
to kiss its shivering
image and dissolve, snap, without whisper.
Compared to the books that followed, Cochrane’s early private press chapbooks – Images of Midnight City (Hauraki Press, 1976), The Sea The Landsman Knows (Voice Press, 1980), Taming The Smoke (Grape Press, 1983) and Kandinsky’s Mirror (Rat Island Press, 1989) – are a meagre lot, but none-the-less accomplished, and drew attention from poets, such as
the late Alistair Campbell, who wrote: Cochrane is a droll observer with a taste for language that is both hard and dry.
I published The Sea The Landsman Knows, which is dedicated to Bridie Lonie (Lover and Patron), and the title poem written for Rod Hall, a fisherman turned taxi driver who’d ferry us to the pubs: Shipping life we founder,// But liquor makes us buoyant . . . I typeset the text in hot metal on a linotype at the now defunct Wellington Typesetters on Haining Street, and had it printed at a small letterpress outfit on Ghuznee Street. We launched the book in Star Chambers on Lambton Quay where, for a short time, I shared an office with John Metekingi and Deborah Tait, who published and edited the short-lived inner-city newspaper Notus.
Photographer Brian Davis took pictures that night, and he gave Geoff the contact sheets, which years later he sold to an interested party for the price of a flagon of sherry. ‘I was amazed by the number and variety of people featured,’ he says, ‘a veritable who’s who of Wellington’s demi-monde.’ Geoff had intended to be sober for the book launch, and he didn’t drink until he arrived at the gig, but mixing a couple of drinks with a pill dispensed by agent provocateur Brian Bell undid his good intentions. A paternal Ian Wedde (who wrote in a review that Cochrane’s language may shine with pain, but it’s still alive, and to that extent it’s independent of him) put him to bed in an adjoining room, and I farewelled his parents, who were travelling back to their home in Levin.
Around this time we were drinking in pubs such as the Carlton, which once existed a few doors down from The Dominion-Post building; also the Abel Tasman on the corner of Willis and Dixon Streets where, on Friday nights, the very likeable lexicographer Harry Orsman and gentlemen of letters Vincent O’Sullivan and Alistair Campbell held court. We hung on their every word, but they rarely talked about literary matters. The engaging lyric poet Bob Orr was one of our drinking mates; he was boarding with Ian Wedde in Roseneath, and working as a steward on the overnight train to Auckland.
In the same pub a few years on I recall Dunedin-based poet Peter Olds sticking squares of printed adhesive paper on to the covers of Taming The Smoke to obliterate a failed original. The ‘somewhat emaciated volume’ was published by Carl Collins and printed in Ashburton,
Our hepatic prince has few more words,
is his own best mimic.
A year gone, then. Of bottles
and toll calls and severances botched.
Who were here have gone, half,–
Things, things have scarcened.
Six years on Kandinsky’s Mirror was published. (The events feature in Cochrane’s short story, ‘Movie’). Photographer and man-about-town Max Rees made the publishing offer to Geoff at the bar of the Brunswick. Max and graphic designer Garry Connor did the pre-press work on the first edition of John Dix’s New Zealand music history Stranded in Paradise, and operated out of the four-storey monolith on the corner of Vivian and Cuba Streets where, on street level, Midnight Expresso still percolates. They shared the top floor with the printers L. T. Watkins Ltd. Geoff says ‘events moved swiftly; Max took my picture in a very professional manner and arranged for Jane Bowron to interview me and write a little puff-piece, and with Garry on board, the whole thing went off very smoothly and pleasantly.’
How old, how very ancient
is the sleet tonight.
Near here, Canaletto’s
bright, wrought geometries
hang in precision in rainless halls.
Near the steamy coffee machine
a skinhead and his dog, (a
little dog with eager ears
and yellow eyes
like glazed, yellow tin),
wait on probability.
Kandinsky’s Mirror, with its Jackson Pollock meets Garry Connor cover, is the best-looking chapbook. It was launched with much fanfare in what is now Dransfield House at the top of Willis Street. (A junior diplomat, an African drummer and a man dressed up as a chicken were among those present.) During the evening Max kept stuffing notes into Geoff’s pockets and he went home ‘fucking loaded! I was drinking meths by that stage [of my life],’ he says, ‘or trying to, and I think Max was keen to get me back on the sherry.’
This was the last full book Cochrane wrote as a practicing alcoholic; the years of drinking had taken a toll – the death-threatening asthma attacks, a massive neuropathy of the legs and pancreatitis. (‘Pancreatitis,’ said the physician. ‘Has it ever struck you that drinking is a low-level search for God?’). In a matter of months he was in The Bridge doing the Sallies’ alcohol recovery programme, during which time he gave himself the goals of publishing a book of verse with a ‘proper publishing house’, then to publish a novel.
Aztec Noon (VUP) was launched at Unity Books in 1992 when it was housed on Perret’s Corner; the celebration was congenial, with an air of collective pride, especially amongst those who had a hand in the book’s production. My then partner Jane Pountney and myself designed it, which was perhaps a perk from Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman for me introducing him to Geoff and his 27-poem manuscript, to which Bill Manhire selected some of the chapbook poems to beef up the book that was dedicated to Stephen Murphy.
Geoff sent me his first novel, Tim Nimbus (VUP, 1995), when I was working as a volunteer at an after-care facility in the Rangtikei town of Marton, where I had previously done a treatment for my alcoholism. Set in 1979, and partly located high in the Southern Alps at a rehabilitation centre cheekily called Whisky Brae, Tin Nimbus (dedicated to his parents) was a 1996 Commonwealth Best First Book Prize regional finalist. Cochrane was as good as his goals and his sobriety was reaping some rewards.
Two years on, parked up in my car on the Island Bay foreshore, he presented me with his second novel, Blood (VUP, 1997), its artful sexy cover featuring a photograph (by Fleur Wickes) of a naked male and female pictured against an erotic red background, entwined so as to suggest coital connection. Geoff signed the fly-leaf: ‘To Lindsay, a good old mate: sitting in a car, this day 19/8/97 – with love from Geoff’. Further in, much to my surprise and delight, printed in italics, For Lindsay Rabbitt.
The novel begins with our narrator Abel Blood in a convent where the cassocks and surplices hung on hooks. The cassocks were red. We are introduced to a priest reading his breviary. His soutane gave him the appearance of having a long back and a slender waist and to Mother Clementine [who] had a face dark and ancient. She was wistful and gentle, unlike other nuns. The silver rims of her spectacles seemed to match the slight sibilance of her speech. Abel is an altar boy. The Mass took place in a chapel of white marble. Abel could hear the girls of the convent behind him, saying their responses or turning the pages of their missals in unison. They sang parts of the liturgy with a ringing sweetness. Could voices be white? They seemed so to Abel. Soon he must take the cruets of wine and water to the priest. Then came the consecration, that radiant core at the centre of the engine, the heart of the machine of ritual.
The story goes on to relate complications around drugs and sex and loss and heart-breaking unrequited love, the writer reluctantly looking back to 1976 to a series of events that would change the directions of a group of 20-something’s lives: I write with a pen on pads I buy from Deka: even as you read, I’m writing this. And I’ve charged myself with the task of changing the subject, of turning an impetuous clock backward to where I have no wish to be, to where the least reproachful shadow inspires regret.
From then on Cochrane’s poetry books (all published by VUP) arrived in the post, each one signed below a wee inscription. Into India (1999); Acetylene (2001), which includes the moving sequence reporting on his father’s last days; Vanilla Wine (2003); Hypnic Jerks (2005), which features the sad/funny surreal ‘Little Bits of Harry’; 84-484 (2007), which was his grandparents’ telephone number; Pocket Edition (2009), which is dedicated to Gerry; The Worm in the Tequila (2010) and The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow in which he posits with a tot of hyperbole that he hasn’t touched a drop in decades, centuries. Not a drop in swooping swooning galactic aeons. And the cells and tissues forget. The bones and the lobular brain, its quilted meats. Or is it that they remember, secretly? Or is it that even the bones continue to thirst, continue to dream and thirst, quite wonderfully?
The poems in part were more inventive with the introduction of ‘worksheets’ containing two and three-line poems linked with quotes from whatever he was reading or thinking about at the time. And some of the short stories read like short film scripts devised in a parallel universe by an alienated intelligence inhabiting this one. The poetry collections also include short stories, indicating that Cochrane doesn’t distinguish between genres; that good writing is good writing, whether laid out like a film treatment, or like poetry, or paragraph-driven prose. ‘I wrote because I craved respect from the world,’ Geoff says. ‘A measure of respect in and from the world. And I like to think I got it, in the end.’
In my letterbox is a letter from Geoff, that includes a piece reporting on Gerry’s last days; it’s to be published in Sport, along with a suite of Gerry’s poems. Gerry called the rays from his radiotherapy treatments ‘Blue Lightning’. Here the friends are sitting outside Victoria Street Café with Cochrane taking a closer look at him, and it’s clear that the treatments have reduced him. He’s been whittled at, diminished, robbed of stuffing. He’s looser, lumpier; the rays have somehow stretched and loosened him, and he’s slacker, baggier than formerly.
There’s an unlit cigarette between his lips. He’s feeling cold, he’s audibly short of breath, and in just four days he’s developed a double-chin (albeit an inauthentic-looking thing). ‘You need a bronchodilator,’ I tell him. ‘I’m surprised they haven’t given you a Ventolin inhaler.’
‘So use it, mate.’
‘I should. I will. At the moment, though, I’m more interested in using your yellow lighter.’