A Shrine To Lata Mangeshkar Puncher and Wattman, 2007 (Shortlisted for both the 2009 NSW Premiers Prize and Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize)
Water Roars, Illusions Burn Vagabond Press, 2002
Territorial AnT Studios, 1996
Green, Poems 1971-78 Sea Cruise Books, 1978
It is with great sadness that we commemorate the death of Kerry Leves, poet, reviewer, man of great heart, spirit and intellect, and long-term friend and contributor to Overland.
In keeping with his open-hearted generosity, we have invited a few of Kerry’s closest friends to write here with their fondest personal memories and recollections. John Stephenson has kindly contributed an intimate and thoughtful obituary.
For me personally, I will never forget the cheeky intelligence of Kerry’s eyes and laughter, and the sweet warmth of his hug. I will miss him dearly.
We invite you to share your own memories of Kerry below.
I first met Kerry at the poetry workshops at Sydney University in ’69/70. They were initiated by Jim Tulip, David Malouf and Phil Roberts who were lecturing in the English department there. I think the idea was to facilitate the development of younger Australian poets. Jim Tulip had given an introductory lecture on the ‘New American Poetry’ and was very enthusiastic about it.
Kerry had escorted Vicki Viidikas to the workshop. As he told me later, her husband had refused permission for her to go to the workshop, which would have involved crossing from Balmain to Broadway at night, unless she had an escort. Kerry had volunteered as he was keen to go and happy to escort Vicki.
My last memory of him was in the dusk of the evening before the day he died. Trish Dearborne had brought a poetry anthology into the hospice and had been reading to him some poems by Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. He read a little himself, aloud.
He was very weak as food and water had been withdrawn – he was well into the dying process by that time.
After Trish left it was too dark to read so I recited a poem I’d been working on, it was the only thing I knew by heart that seemed as if it might have been appropriate.
He smiled as I got towards the end. His whole face relaxed as if he was imagining from the lines.
He smiled the sweetest smile, murmured ‘nice’ very softly, lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes.
It was the last time I heard him speak.
This is the poem.
In a Dry, Dreaming Wheat farmers in their season, lands sowed waiting, all their money banked, if o n l y they could draw it d o w n net black, in the balanced ledger : no longer in the red: that thin white line still high in the sky: cloud, their future bread.
It was fitting that poets attended round him in his last days. Kerry Dallas Leves, a fine poet himself and supporter always of Australian poetry, a literary reviewer of long-standing, particularly with Overland, whose work was unique in its succinct, appreciative constructivity alongside a pinpoint deftness in the occasional necessary critical dispatch, died on May 5th at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney, of lung cancer.
Leves hadn’t become a Catholic; his bedside encompassed a Buddha and a Hindu goddess picture as well as a crucifix; but he loved the caring treatment he received there and was loved by the staff in return. They came individually to farewell him.
He was sixty-three, born in Balmain to parents of contrary temperament though of intelligence and sensibility, not well-off; he was an only child, with his father a First War veteran. Leves grew up in Sydney through the baby-boom years, an alert, truly amiable, open-minded man, enriching that mind from all reaches of culture. To say his intellect was well-furnished falls as short as announcing that Versailles has varied décor.
He graduated originally in Italian and Fine Arts, and made an early mark in art reviewing. He spent substantial periods of time in the UK and in India, this last country having a deep influence on his poetry and spirituality. After returning to Australia he taught English superbly to foreign students, to migrants and to prisoners, and the art of instructing to work certificate instructors. His professional colleagues recognized him as a teacher’s teacher.
Yet literature remained his muse and even on his deathbed – inspirationally to all who witnessed it – he was close to concluding a magnificent doctoral thesis on the Australian novelist Randolph Stow. Four selections of Leves’ own poetry were published and his work included in many other collections. He had been listed to read new work at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May but his death intervened.
Leves was a man with a great gift for friendship, connecting immediately with those around him from all areas of life. The chaplain at his Hospice was moved to say that Kerry Leves was in a small band of palliative patients he had observed across the years: those who gave more than they received.
Leves spent many years in the Blue Mountains. The local shopkeepers, the tradespeople, even the professionals that he consulted may not have realized the occupations of this friendly, affable, hospitable man. To encourage the region’s poets he organized reading events and collectives with enjoyment and humour. He reviewed and assessed voluminously, and knew the perils of this as well as the pleasures. Once, he liked to recount ruefully, he wrote a private negative comment inadvertently on a magazine submission piece rather than on his own sidenotes. He learned of his error when the offending phrase was shouted irately at him across a Katoomba street, and then repeatedly for another block.
In his last weeks, with his hair that was still auburn combed back from his gaunt brow, his red-grey beard and piercing blue eyes that were beginning to look to another country, his final resolved sweetness, he continued to delight in any amusing intelligence brought to him by his close friends. In his last hours he was supported by his closest friend, herself one of Australia’s most eminent poets, and a small group of other poets and writers.
I became aware of Kerry Leves in the mid 1970s when I read Green, a large format collection of his poems published by Sea Cruise Books (Ken Bolton and Anna Couani’s press).
Later, when I met Kerry he became an ‘instant friend’ such was his gregariousness, his intense interest in poetry and talking about poetry, and his magnaminous spirit.
During my time as poetry editor for Overland (1997–2002) we needed someone with an open-minded attitude to all kinds of poetries to write short reviews as a kind of regular survey of current Australian poetry. I thought Kerry Leves was the obvious person for this task. He willingly undertook it. He had a generous approach and was able to suspend his own preferences and tastes in order to canvass the poetry before him. His reviews were intelligent and original. Kerry was, as anyone who ever met him can attest, an afficionado and a great talker.
Recently, I lived for a few years in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. Kerry Leves had moved to Katoomba, a town about 10 kilometres to the south, in the 1980s. I came to know him better in that period. If he joined my carriage on the train to Sydney our conversation would make the often- arduous two hour long trip zip by in what seemed like a few moments.
Kerry was a bisexual man, unafraid to identify as gay, reading poetry annually for a time for the Sydney Mardi Gras and other events. He was an incredibly engaging and warm person. He knew many local people in Katoomba and, once, I went to a Xmas afternoon at his house and met the neighbourhood as well as poets from Sydney and the Mountains. His eclectic mind integrated, besides poetry, a knowledge of cinema, Indian spirituality and religion, and French and other literary theory. My partner, Jane Zemiro assisted Kerry with French translation and they talked together about structural theory when he was writing his PhD thesis.
Both Jane and I will miss Kerry Leves.
I met Kerry through Vicki Viidikas in 1976 when I rented a spare room in Arthur Street, Darlinghurst, before they travelled ‘festooned with typewriters’ to India. He worked for the School Magazine and changed my life forever. He encouraged and inspired me, passionate about poetry and people, music, movies, he was enthusiastic, critical, informed about everything and wouldn’t tolerate racism, sexism or petty bureaucracy. At St Vincent’s Hospice the staff chastised Kerry for his untidy bed filled with books as he sketched, took copious journal notes, worked on his thesis and read poems aloud, entertaining visitors. Some say he was in a global village and knew everyone. Not long before he died, we rehearsed at the Hospice for the Harbour City Poets reading at the Sydney Writers Festival. He was in a wheelchair, leaning forward, pages in hand, a strong voice dramatising his words in Constant Companion. We hoped he’d be well enough to attend. I remember him the year before rushing from event to event with glee, his lanyard ID and charm gaining entrance into even closed events. Maybe that’s why I didn’t hurry in to see him one more time; he was so ‘alive’ on the phone, or at the Hospice filled with curiosity and pleasure despite the pain.
Extract from a tribute to Kerry Leves at his funeral, 12 May 2011
I have a vivid and enduring visual memory of Kerry from the time I met up with him in India in late April 1981. For me this image is very Kerry – a part of his spirit and essence.
At the time he and Vicki [Viidikas] were staying at Gopalpur-on-Sea on the coast of Orissa state, just below West Bengal – during a time when Kerry was earning a few rupees reading palms on the beach. I was to travel by train from Madras some thousand kilometres away, to meet up with him. I’d sent him my travel details by mail. There was no telephone contact assurance to rely on. It was a long, long train trip. Hot and dusty. The train was due to arrive at my destination, Berampur, eighteen ks from Gopalpur, some time after midnight. Towards the end of the journey I started to get a little anxious that he might not be there. The train was running a little late.
As the train pulled into the station the platform was swarming with people. And then suddenly there he was coming into the foreground: glowing and radiant with his blonde curls and beaming smile, bearing an aura of gold, and swathed in an aqua blue and gold threaded scarf. An image of Kerry I’ll always treasure.
Colleen Z Burke
Friendship and conversations – in memory of Kerry Leves
I first met Kerry Leves in 1970 when I’d sent some poems to a workshop run by New Poetry. As temporary workshop convenor he was enthusiastic about one of my poems. We met up and became lifelong friends. I admired his erudition, without pretension, his enthusiasm for poetry, literature, for life, for teaching. He recently described our friendship as ‘an ongoing conversation continued, as though there had been no interruption, whenever we met up.’ Our friendship deepened during his time in the Sacred Heart Hospice. Despite his terminal illness he continued to be interested in everything around him. During visits, topics of conversation were wide ranging – we discussed my children, grandchildren, books, his thesis, my memoir, ideas, even workshopped poems. We sparked off each other even if he was in severe pain and I was tired. There was always a tumble of books around his bed. As well as being a practicing Buddhist, and interested in Hinduism, he also became intrigued by Catholicism, regularly attending Sunday Mass. Brought up as a Catholic I had ceased to believe, but respected his curiosity, his ongoing spiritual quest. And now as I type these words, my computer’s on a small wooden table that he gave me many years ago, I miss him, miss our inspirational conversations. My world is a less vivid place without Kerry in it, but I cherish the time we spent together, the rich kaleidoscope of memories.
I’ve known Kerry since the early 1980s, bumping into him at poetry readings and book launches, exchanging information and news. He reviewed two of my poetry collections for Overland. However, it wasn’t until 2006, when I first convened Harbour City Poets (known earlier as Poems in Conversation), that I began to know Kerry closely, working with him in a group of six poets, creating and rehearsing programs for public readings. One such was at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, another at an ASAL mini-conference at Sydney University. The group has performed three times at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, including 2011. During that time I found Kerry to be a very fine poet and critic, a good team-player, and a riveting performer who always reached his audience. Throughout this year I visited him regularly in St Vincent’s Hospital and then the Sacred Heart Hospice (as did many others), and the friendship deepened as we discussed all aspects of poetry and began to prepare for this year’s Festival reading, ‘Sydney: Endless City’. Kerry wrote two excellent poems while in the hospital, and we had one group meeting/practice session there. All along, he’d hoped to be with us at the reading on 20th May, albeit in a wheelchair, but it wasn’t to be. He was deeply touched that we’d be reading his poems for him. Amongst his many talents, I admired Kerry for his courage and fortitude, his capacity for friendship, and his great sense of humour.
All photos courtesy of Jenni Nixon