Mark Young: from ‘Lizard’ to Pelican Dreaming

Mark Young’s first serious poem ‘Lizard’, written when he was 17 years old, appeared in NZ Listener in 1959. Before leaving for what turned out to be permanent residence in Australia a decade later,[1] he had appeared in several local magazines, a couple of which he edited,[2] and was included in Charles Brasch’s ‘Poems of the Mid-Sixties’ in Landfall73 (March 1965), a considerable honour for one still so young. It was as if a fresh incarnation had been found to match that of James K. Baxter in the mid-1940s.[3] The validity of that career parallel is both matched and unmatched by history, because subsequently both struggled with physical addiction (Baxter with alcohol, Young with heroin) that is related to a falling off in their considerable poetic powers, and both saw an exuberant resurgence of such powers, culminating for Baxter in the work of the final three years of his life at Jerusalem and for Young around the time of his inclusion in Big Smoke: NZ Poems 1960-75 (2000), continuing strongly since.

Baxter, Mitchell, Young: Barry Lett Gallery, 1969

As a literary figure, Mark Young is something of an enigma. A decade of youthful prominence in Wellington and Auckland was followed by three decades of virtual invisibility in Australia, where he wrote and published next to nothing and struggled with drug dependency, eventually reinventing much of his life.[4] An approach by co-editor Michele Leggott to have him included in Big Smoke changed everything, as they say. Several things concurred: after a long incognito existence here was sudden re-acknowledgement, spurring him to seriously and prodigiously recommence writing. In effect, Big Smoke saw him written back into the story of Nizlit. Interest and encouragement restored, broader publication and recognition followed.[5] Through this process, which has produced new turnings in Young’s oeuvre, we are able to trace some of the strange and unpredictable ways that poetry, its evolution over time, actually takes place.

It begins with ‘Lizard’, a fully-arrived poem, which remains impressively immediate and oddly characterises the journey ahead:


                    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 […]

                    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.

The elderly gentleman persona, reminiscing on times past and opportunities lost, may as well be a preternaturally-aged Young. Several elements coexist: age infuses youth, the lure towards escape and the exotic (faraway, unreachable) proves utterly irresistible, as do Rimbaud and the entire French connection, itineracy and modernity are adopted as forms of life (‘the big city’ locates endless possibility elsewhere). And then there is the concern with loss and making amends (‘put your halo on’, displaced onto the lizard): poetry enacts a redemptive rite, even should it enervate an actual life.

The curious thing about Young’s ‘disappearance’ is that poetic time, as it were, has been allowed to warp. In the case of apparently ‘unbroken’ careers, say Curnow or Baxter or Wedde or Manhire, we readers provide the necessary narratives of poetic continuity, even where significant disruptions (or hiatuses or breakthroughs) have occurred, as they did for Curnow from Poems: 1949-1957 through Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972), and for Baxter from Howrah Bridge (1961) through to Jerusalem Sonnets (1970): the holes are stepped over, almost irrespectively, without any real sense of a crisis in poetry’s contesting claims. Young’s absence indicates a deeper before and after chasm: the counter-culture Modernist of the 1960s[6] – drugs and bohemianism (‘the big city’, jazz, a young marriage, protest, rebellion, a spell in jail, absconding resurfaces at the century’s turn as the instinctive L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writer.[7]

I want to acknowledge both the continuities and discontinuities without seeking necessarily to resolve them (the usual tendency is to converge past practice with our present preoccupations). Up there among the continuities is Young’s lack of tawdriness, his knack of composition, his lightness of touch, his conceptual insouciance. ‘Lizard’ arrived, he tells us, with ‘its form shaped by the poem rather than the reverse’ (18); and the feeling throughout Pelican Dreaming is of the rightness of poetic construction and a masterly exercise of voice. This quality of rightness in execution, regardless of hiatus or particular poetic affinity (several are exercised), occurs because the poetic mode adapts to the voice rather than the voice having to reach out to ‘poetry’. What is meant by this? It has to do with a naturalness of meeting place between the statement that is being made and the voice with which it is mouthed. There is a lack of strain, an avoidance of over-purposing, unnecessary excitement or hurriedness. Here are a couple of examples, one from the early years and a more recent one:

     The distances						      from Mirror / Images
   			     & I am a believer		      & in another room MacArthur Park is once more
     in the miracle of shortwave. Quito,		      playing, although where once was vinyl & Richard
     Ecuador or Radio Peking. The NHK		      Harris is now Jimmy Webb on CD. Technological
     or the VOA. Pop or propaganda –		      advances & a return to the song’s source – we
     you have your choice amongst the	              move in both directions simultaneously. For every
     electronic music of the night ether.	              Action…Newton’s third law, classical not quantum
     Caught in its web, I am a Columbus	              physics. It’s simple really, & all to do with mirrors. &
     searching for new countries, turning	              smoke. This is no big bang theory of the universe
     the dial slowly, hoping to hear		              but rather big bang prestidigitation. Go out on a
     station identification through the static	      high & leave the audience clamouring for more
     & distortion.   					              whilst you reappear in a different city learning
							                      how to do the simple street tricks that were once
							                      beneath you. [8]

Cheekiness, punning word play (‘the Monkees’ is a kitsch pop group, named in the preceding stanza, that released ‘I’m a believer’ in 1966), the self-effacing persona (always the dillydallying is Young’s), the recourse to pools of scientific knowledge (in the former shortwave co-ordinates, electronic music and E.S.T. and in the latter quantum physics and the big bang theory), comfortably co-reside. In fact, it is the ease with which Young incorporates an extensive range of technical knowledge, artistic and historical allusions, musical references (Richard Harris, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Richie Valens, Procul Harum, the Beach Boys, Bach, Aretha Franklin, the Japanese samisen and a number of other instruments), poets and artists (among his favourites, the chatterbox O’Hara and the decontextualising Magritte, an unexpected co-occupancy).[9] Altogether, this panoply of voices, personalisms, the tapestry of artistic and scientific allusions, point to another pervasive feature of the poetry: the element of reverie, or rendering historical facts into a kind of flux, a curious de-anchorage.

                From the 2000 rebirth onward the poems retain several of the earlier qualities, while stretching them even further in terms of transposing time and distance, in folding together what we like to term prospect and retrospect. It is as if Mark Young is a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writer almost serendipitously, that his earlier poems were composed half in mind of what he was to learn from his later writing. Opacity trumps conventionality of reference; poetic logic becomes increasingly contrapuntal, associative and hypothetical; and intention becomes interlocutory rather than merely serving as a delivery system of finalities or anything definitive (meaningfulness doesn’t necessarily condense to demonstrable ‘meanings’). The poems’ affirmative stance faces elsewhere as reasoned consecutive thought becomes abidingly conceptual and displaced; ‘wholeness’ surrenders the prospect of arriving at any encompassing singularity. Let me take this cluster of qualities and illustrate how they function in a poem as multiplex of artistry and activism. ‘Caught on tape’ is an incisive, quite brilliant later poem:

                    Certain words are flagged
                    for recognition. The surrounding
                    passages on the endless 
                    monitoring tapes are
                    isolated and extracted, sent past
                    voice recognition software,
                    digitalised for immediate
                    interpretation of combination
                    & association. Names, times,
                    places. More words to add. This
                    is no brief history of the world
                    but a paranoic infinite
                    dictionary. By themselves
                    the words are meaningless.
                    Meaning is added later. “I am
                    going to the shops” is sufficient
                    reason for assassination.

Young can be aligned with the Borges of simulacra and an endlessly mirroring reality. It is the biddable nature of the image (here recorded utterance) that seems especially intriguing. ‘Monitoring tapes’ and ‘voice recognition software’ suggest governmental (or covert) operations, whereby suspicious or threatening operatives are identified and the level of threat determined. The closing innocuous phrase ”going to the shops” is construed as ‘sufficient / reason for assassination’. And right here sits the rub for Young. Certainly, several poems during the early 2000s address the war in Iraq and the dubious actions of the US government and, not least, the inept leadership (and language) of President George W Bush. On this level, ‘Caught on tape’ is a protest poem, illuminating the anarchic dysphoria of covert surveillance. That level of reading is authentic, indeed. However, for me, the more intriguing way of reading Young’s poems is to make ample provision for their scalability, their ‘paranoic infinite / dictionary’. It is this that language poetry (and contemporary science) teaches us. What is compelling in this poem is it shows that sameness differs depending on the point of apprehension and the conditionality of context in which capture occurs. According to this lexicon,

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 01011002-2-1.jpg
Mark Young, Pelican Dreaming, back cover

articulation becomes a chance event, representation always includes an element of performance. As the poem suggests, speaking becomes something recorded for a different (present unknown) purpose, re-examined and reconstrued in order to extract evidence of malicious intent, in this case likely linked to terrorism (the poem belongs to a family of episodes (2006) that includes a number of anti-war poems). I’m not sure whether it’s fairer to suggest that Young re-emerges as a language poet or that such attention is implicit in all poetic peregrination. Poetry exemplifies how language attention works and the mental ramifications of that (not to be confused with the attribution of social utility). Increasingly, this focus comes to the fore. Let me demonstrate through another poem that showcases Young’s nimble cerebral weaving:

                    Not to be Reproduced

                    Shown from the back the
                    subject is androgynous – think
                    k.d.lang in her man’s suit
                    phase. It is a portrait of the artist
                    as a young (wo)man. It is not
                    a portrait of the artist. Magritte says
                    it is not to be reproduced
                    though he reproduces it
                    anyway. We do not see
                    the face. Magritte does not
                    produce it. Or reproduce it.
                    Is not reflected in the mirror
                    for what comes back from there
                    is not mirror-image
                    but reproduction. Almost as if
                    we were peering over a shoulder 
                    only to see the shoulder that we
                    were peering over. 

An immediate irony is that the forbidden word ‘reproduce’ is amply reproduced. Another is that identity (or lack thereof) is the production of conditions that have nothing to do with a particular outcome: they just cause it. What the poem shows is that it is the activity of giving attention that constitutes what we know as assigning identity. Young’s usage of ‘produce’ and ‘reproduce’ is not entirely precise or consistent: the artist’s edict could be read as a prohibition on others or on himself, or on life generally, in its expectation that every creative event is an act of self-autonomy. Or it could be pointing to the tendency to co-opt or presuppose meaning. Or, as Young latches onto, it could point the conundrum that the inner self is never fully known or recapturable. Or even there in the first place. In this way, even as the viewer extrapolates a painted canvas into profound meaning, that meaning is in disarray. In the end a seemingly non-essential detail – the shoulder looked over – interposes as an unavoidable pivot, a reminder of the precarious dynamics of meaning-generation. The poem immediately shifts attention to ‘a book about an imaginary / journey’ – Edgar Allan Poe’s Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym – shown on the ‘mantlepiece’ [sic] between the figure and the mirror. Beguilingly, this object is properly reversed in its reflection. ‘It’, the poem continues,

               is a book about an imaginary
               journey. Magritte’s painting
               is a journey of imagination about
               what happens between two points
               that are the same point
               though there is a distance
               between them. He says it is not to be
               reproduced. It is reproduced here.

                                     Réné Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937

How can two points be ‘the same point / though there is a distance / between them’? Perhaps the point is that mathematical notation used to indicate an unoccupiable specific location is simultaneously real and unreal. Meaning (representation) is something groundless that utilises a spacio-temporal reference system that is ultimately unstable. This is the case in the painting: the subject (presumed to be the painter’s patron Edward James) is self-identical across a distance, rather than an optically correct representation. Although self-identical only in the sense of duplication rather than a fullness, such that identity is at an unnerving displacement from themself.

Young constantly experiments with conventions of presentation (some poems take the form of a checker board, there are prose poems (including the savvy ’After Kevin Koch’), pictorial and typographical poems, dip- and triptychs, titled and untitled, standalone serial or sequenced, with line lengths varying from a single to some 15 words. Like another favourite of his, William Carlos Williams, Young is an astute constructor of line and stanza breaks and is deft in utilising everyday happenstance. Here’s a couple of poems from the Falsely Goethe sequence:

                Day seventy two					               Day seventy four

                He started with the				                       Today the
                basics, palliative					               postman brought
                end-of-life care					               me John Cage’s
                for children, how					               X, writings
                marriage is the union				               ’79-’82. I went
                of one man & his					               to sign my
                motor oil. All those					               name. “Already
                things that create					               done,” he said. “Seen
                a thematic whole					               one X, seen them
                L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E model for		               all.” I watched
                the final frontier. Later				               the postman until
                he learnt how to					               he went around
                improvise using FBI 				               the corner. Took	
                witness statements. His				               him four minutes		
                weekends took flight.  				               & thirty-three
								                               seconds. I stood
								                               silent. He kept

This is Young in company of postmodernists, from Cage the musical revolutionary to the New York School (O’Hara and Koch are referenced, although the uncanny likeness I detect is to the master Ashbery: the same aerial overpass, the same deadly noticing of an unconcerned affability), through to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E bunch; and one observes Young’s penchant for dedications and his collaborations with contemporary conceptual artists.[10]

In writing this brief essay, it occurs to me that these are poems that one may well wish to have written. They are affirmative, bright, witty. Another thought I come away with is that Young, as with Baxter’s ‘cell of good living’ aspiration a generation earlier, is irrepressibly idealistic. Another immediately follows: the shambolic predicament of literary history, ever at risk of breach here or anywhere. Who knows how percipient we are in allocating the laurels, especially in a tiny self-preoccupied literary community like New Zealand? The interesting claim I make in response is that Mark Young is indeed one of this community’s finer treasures, beyond the adolescent with potential in the early 1960s who almost destroyed himself, the survived hiatus of destitution, beyond the language afficionado increasingly resurgent since 2000. And then another. As I wind up the essay at the 3000-word mark there is a knock at the door. The courier delivery I unpack contains a set of six recent books kindly forwarded by the poet. The Shipment Summary reads: les échiquiers effrontés, The Codicils, Residual sonnets, the allegrezza ficcione, some more strange meteorites and turpentine. Publication dates are mainly 2017-2020; places Australia, USA and Finland; book lengths 32-600 pages. It strikes me that it is my good fortune to receive these and that what I have managed to write above has quickly become only an opening gambit in a game whose further moves remain wide open.


[1] Young proclaims himself a ‘poet who is a New Zealander’, despite having resided in Australia for over five decades. It was particularly painful to learn of his exclusion from the Wedde/McQueen Penguin Book of NZ Verse (1985) because he was ‘abandoned to the Australians’. See ‘Questions & Answers’, Mark Young and Martin Edmond, brief#31, ed. Jack Ross, 24-36.

[2] Experiment (VUW Lit Soc, 1960); Argot 10-12(1964).

[3] Curiously, Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975, eds Brunton, Edmond, Leggott (AUP: Auckland, 2000) includes a photograph of the three dishevelled bards Baxter, Young and Mitchell at a reading at Barry Lett Galleries in Auckland in August 1969. Young looks to be in his element, bearing in mind that this element includes drug-use, which was to prove the reason for his brief imprisonment at Mt Eden Prison, precipitating an abrupt departure to Australia.

[4] In the 1980s ‘smack’ got left behind, he and Lauren were married in 1986 (‘one of the great days in my life’) and he ‘went to TAFE to see if my brain could still learn things, discovered it could & then did an applied science degree in Operations Research’ (brief#31). Nowadays, in addition to publishing a plethora of books, he maintains a blog and edits the online quarterly Otoliths.

[5] The right foot of the giant appeared in 1999. Several subsequent volumes are represented in Pelican Dreaming: Poems 1959-2008, selected and introduced by Thomas Fink (Meritage Press: USA, 2008); and several others have appeared since. Pelican Dreaming is the focus of this essay.

[6] Thus, at least, it is characterised in Big Smoke, where ‘Lizard’ and the 1975 ‘A Season in Hell’, not included in Pelican Dreaming,  are extolled as quintessential poems marking the start and end of the period. Young features prominently in both Introductions – in terms of ‘wandering was the site of liberty’ (Brunton 12) and ‘the dream of escape to the wild badlands’ (Edmond 24) – and even third editor Leggott’s initial approach in 1997 pivots on the outsider myth and ‘the thoroughness of your disappearance’ (see ‘Mirror / Images’). The requisitioning of Young and others to the Big Smoke cause is something I will explore further on another occasion.

[7] Fink’s erudite Introduction to Pelican Dreaming refers to the ‘intricate meta-representational poetic discourse’ found in ‘Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, David Shapiro, John Yau, Charles Bernstein and Eileen R. Tabios [sic]’ (23). Young himself references a ‘whole / L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E model’ (342), as well as relishing a remodelling of his own in the title: ‘There are words of which I am enamoured but shall never get to use, save all together, in one poem’ (79). In the brief interview, Young tries to tie both ends together: ‘I think what I’ve done, & what I’m still doing, is use the past not so much as a bridge but as a reference library which I occasionally return to’.

[8] Do we remember the days of CDs—let alone vinyl—let alone shortwave radio? Later poems continue the technological and scientific enquiry with references to quantum mechanics and chaos theory.

[9] Series Magritte (2006) is named after the artist who, with O’Hara, brought to mind in Lunch Poems (2008), are seminal figures in Young’s mental landscape. Emphatically, Young is a prodigious dropper-of-names, as evident in this list taken from the contents pages: ‘Lorca, Desnos, Borges, Verlaine, van Gogh, Jimi & Janis, de Chirico, Crazy Horse, O’Hara, Nijinski, Rexroth, Pythagoras, Schwarzvogel, George W, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen (2), Michael Farrell, Mao, Yeats, Tu Fu, Martin Edmond, Trotsky, Marx, Engels, Rimbaud, Magritte (2), El Culo de Bettie, Velázquez, Tom Beckett (2), Ernesto Priego, Brueghel, Kirsten Kaschock, Prévert, Promethea, Escher, Stendahl, Jean Vengua, Sophia Kokosalaki, Capablanca, Bernstein, Goethe, Przhevalsky, Koch, Kline, Foucault, Neruda’.

[10] In Pelican Dreaming, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen is twice acknowledged as collaborator, plus of his blog participation Young comments: ‘These [drawbacks] are far outweighed by the joys of a sense of community. People I would never have known if it hadn’t been for my participation in As/Is are now close friends because our blogs bring us into daily contact with one another’ (brief#31, 35-6). On the book’s back cover, Eileen Tabios writes: ‘the allegrezza ficcione is historic and will come to be considered a 21st century classic’.