Remembering Leone Hatherly

It’s been a long time between blogs, for both sad and glad reasons. The glad reasons include laureate-related events at Meow in Wellington last month, and at Matahiwi marae last weekend (more on these soon). The sad reason concerns an old friend. On Sunday 12 February Leone (Lee, Leo) Hatherly phoned from Paekakariki to say she was sorry she wouldn’t be able to get to the Words on Edge poetry reading at Meow in Wellington the following Wednesday as she’d fallen and hurt herself – one eye was ‘sticking out like an aubergine’. The aubergine touch was typical of Lee, at once melodramatic and droll. The following Wednesday I was in Meow having a pre-reading lunch with fellow poets Lynn Jenner, Aleksandra Lane, and Amy Brown over from Melbourne, as well as David Weinstein of Wellington’s Klezmer Orchestra, and our friends Peter Ireland and Keith Thorsen from the National Library. It was there that we heard Leo was critically ill in hospital – the fall (and the aubergine) had been the precursors of a stroke.

I went to see her the morning after Words on Edge before flying back to Auckland. This was a familiar routine. Lee had battled cancer twice and won, transforming her periodic returns to hospital into opportunities for wicked anecdotes. A hospital visit to Lee during the cancer years usually resulted in loud laughter, and always drew a good crowd. When I visited this time she was unable to speak, but a flicker of that wonderful laugh moved her lips when I said, lamely, ‘Lee, we can’t go on meeting like this.’

Lee was an actor, comedian, queen of late-night radio, her rich, 'double Drambuie' voice beloved of late-shift taxi-drivers and lonely insomniacs. She’d have adored Lynn Jenner’s performance of her poem about Mata Hari on Wednesday night, with the Klezmer Orchestra backing, ‘a hint of tango and a dash of schmaltz’.

As a performer, Lee was always generous to her audiences, but she was herself the most generous of audiences, always the first to laugh at a joke, appreciate a good story, listen with sympathy and attention. She loved to go to shows as well as give them, and could be counted on to sing along lustily from the best seats when a musical came to town. On the morning before she died, Donna and I together with her daughters Trina and Lindy gathered at her bedside to sing some of her favourite Stevie Wonder numbers, to the astonishment of the hushed ward.

Lee’s writing and acting credits are extraordinary, beginning with a role at the age of sixteen in a cast of including Peter Finch in the film Robbery under Arms. When she died, she had almost completed writing an opera with Gareth Farr about Edmund Hilary’s climb of Mt Everest. Much laughter was generated around the serious challenge of transforming ‘We knocked the bastard off’ into an extended Sprechgesang aria.

For several years, Lee, Trina, and Lindy were our neighbours. Led by Lee, the trio would emerge into the morning and perform their affirmations outside overlooking Evans Bay, chanting ‘I want to live, live, live!’ at the tops of their voices. Later, she was a greatly loved member of the Paekakariki community, where she lived with her devoted mother-and-son dogs Bella and Baxter, ‘in a lovely home overlooking the mortgage’. She died peacefully at 3.15pm 21 February 2012 at Wellington Public Hospital, aged 73.

Her funeral at Old St Paul's in Wellington on Sunday 26th was packed with a huge crowd of her friends and fans. Lots of her best known jokes were told: ‘Inside every fat woman is a thin woman trying to get out, and outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in.’ This could be the only funeral I ever go to which is frequently interrupted by clapping and laughter. It will probably be the only one at which the coffin is carried out to loud applause.

For years, Lee and I had an unofficial arrangement whereby I’d sometimes write a poem for her birthday on condition that she’d refrain from introducing me to her guests as ‘the poet’. Here is one of the poems, reworked in The Commonplace Odes so as to partially conceal the doggerel within – reprinted here in memory of Leone Hatherly. She loved the ‘ghost buffaloes’.


To Leone

I’m sad, Leone, and filled with remorse, because
On your birthday I pump out doggerel
And make you cry. It’s an old arrangement we have.
Moonlight ices my neighbour’s roof. Somewhere
In North Dakota thousands of ghost buffaloes

Are on the hoof, and despite the fact that I’ve just
Written two of them my relationship with lines of poetry gets more
And more aloof. It’s been this way
For years now, a sense of fraudulence, an excess
Of sacred cowness, the shit-detector quivering

Madly every time I step up to the footlights
Of language and take my bow. So it was
With a feeling approaching dread that I entered my sweetheart’s
Fabulously organised writing shed, switched
On the computer she daily overheats

With great stories, and clutched my aching head.
Outside (it was midday not night,
The moonlight-and-ice thing was just me
Trying to get my tone right, and the ghost
Buffaloes were there because I wanted my rhyme

On time) some rows of coloured plastic
Clothespegs pleased my sight, and I remembered
With affection the plain wooden ones our Sunday
School teacher used to explain the nativity,
The Joseph and Mary pegs dressed in paper.

The Joseph and Mary pegs dressed in paper
Stood before an expressive backdrop cut
From a sturdy Weetbix packet, a crèche we pelted
With acorns while making an unholy racket, which I’m sure
God loved because we were innocent then

Though the Presbyterian Sunday school teacher often
Didn’t hack it. The innocence we lose as we accumulate
Adult qualities like irony – that loss
Brings with it an admission that language can be
Completely insincere, and even the writers

We most revere are capable of horrid cynicism,
Self-service, and a kind of nodding compliance
Which is probably what I fear I’ll find in myself
One day, which is why I’ve kept poetry
At bay for a few years now, seeing

Language as a kind of virus which infects whatever
It was I was trying to say. Of course there’s only one
Antidote for this, and it’s love. When push comes
To shove and the glittering bead of water hanging
From the tamarillo or the sense of sap crazily

On the move in the tangle of jasmine on the back fence –
When stuff like this has to have sense made
Of it with words, it will only happen when love
Has cleared a way through the dense thickets of mistrust
And we find ourselves again in the midst of a must-

Happen sense of what’s right, and so we do
Even though we know it’s all dust
In the end, like everything words name, like you,
Like me. And now we’ve come to the nitty-
Gritty, dear Lee, which is where I thank you

For the fabulous birthday present I’ve got from you,
Which is that I’ve been made free again
By love to write a poem for you on your birthday
And to know it’s true and simple and can be trusted,
Like our old friendship, darling, inexhaustible, bountiful,

Memorable, true blue. Whereupon I now
Consign the ghost buffaloes of North Dakota
To a bin reserved entirely for the fraudulent quota
Of words uttered in bad faith, and I ask you
All to raise your brimming glasses to dear

Leone and to salute her. These solemn rites,
This smoke drifting from the sacrificial meats,
These hands that swipe away tears
From world-weary eyes, this sentiment
Hastened by the vine, this recourse to memory,

These familiar faces into which we peer as though
Into mirrors, seeing the shadow of time pouring
Towards the silvered surface like night
Across the festive garden – these portents
Say, Do it now and do it right.

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