Last night I had the very difficult privilege of helping to co-compere, with Jacob Edmond, a memorial poetry reading for the writer Rhys Brookbanks. Rhys was a victim of the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch: a young poet and cultural commentator at the very start of his career. A 2008 English and History graduate of the University of Otago, and, after this, of the Canterbury University journalism course, he was in his first weeks as a CTV reporter when the quake struck. As a rookie journalist, he had already begun to publish articles and reviews on a wide number of topics – from book clubs to whale watching; from historical fiction to Pasifika poetry and contemporary theatre. He had published only a handful of poems: but he already had the focus and enthusiasm that suggested the vital role poetry would have had in his future.
Last night, the Dunedin poetry and academic communities pulled together and showed up in robust numbers. Rhys’s parents, Alan and Fran, flew down from Auckland to attend, and Circadian Rhythm cafe hosted, also offering refreshments at no cost. The line-up of poets either reading, or sending messages of support, was rich and diverse. (Sue Wootton, Carolyn McCurdie, Cy Mathews, Jenny Powell, Cilla McQueen, David Eggleton, Tusiata Avia, Poppy Haynes, David Howard, Diane Brown, among others.) All of this is a clear measure of what a vivid impression Rhys made in his short time here in Dunedin. As Rhys’s father, Alan, said: the night was bittersweet. That one word carries such a large freight.
Jacob Edmond reminded us all of how intensely active Rhys was in mounting readings, interviewing writers, and inviting them to speak on campus; Poppy Haynes spoke about their friendship and their ‘double act’ as editors, LitSoc organisers, and first readers of each other’s work. Jacob, Poppy and I all read poems by Rhys himself: these ranged from elegy to literary parody, found poems/satirical squibs, and political broadsides inspired by the likes of Gil Scott Herons’s ‘The Revolution will Not Be Televised’.
I want to reproduce here some of a note written for the online poetry journal, Ka Mate Ka Ora, part of which has also appeared in the Otago Daily Times.
I first met Rhys in 2006, when he was my student on the second-year creative writing paper offered at the University of Otago. He was a quiet yet noticeably dedicated student, whose gently-framed yet perceptive feedback helped other course participants considerably, and whose portfolio submissions strengthened over the course of the one semester paper. Rhys’s enthusiasm for poetry carried him on to the shared role of poetry editor at Critic (which he held alongside Poppy Haynes) and into active organisational roles in the Otago Literary Society, as well as for the free public readings at Circadian Rhythm. He took part in readings for Montana Poetry Day; he also had work published in Deep South (of which he was also editor in 2008), the Otago Daily Times, and in Takahe.
One of Rhys’s last messages to me was an out-of-the blue, ebullient recollection, along with a declaration about the song ‘Trapeze Swinger’, by singer-songwriter Samuel Bean:
Just for fun – I would like to take back all the poems and songs I brought in when you asked us to bring in one of our favourite poems (I think I brought along about six because I couldn’t decide) and replace them all with this one by my favourite singer/songwriter. His band is called Iron & Wine. I like to think of him as what Robert Frost would sound like if he picked up a guitar […] the music has the same simplicity of structure but with a deeper overall impact [as Frost’s poetry].
Witnessing a student’s joy in his or her work is one of a teacher’s greatest prizes. In this sense, Rhys was one of the most rewarding students I’ve ever taught. In an unpublished poem, ‘The Space Between’, written for his fiancee, Esther Jones, and which he asked me to critque in November 2009, Rhys quotes Rainer Maria Rilke:
But granted the consciousness that even between the closest people there persist infinite distances, a wonderful living side by side can arise for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of seeing one another in whole shape and before a great sky!
The intimate love lyric that grows from that quotation reveals a thoughtfulness, openness and tenderness that seem to be the fingerprint of his personality, as well as much of his writing. Rhys leaves all of us who knew him feeling the ache of that infinite distance.