God Poems (c.2005)

Leicester Kyle

'It's vanity and not verity that makes a deity'
St. Augustine of Hippo

  1. The structure of this work was suggested to me by Dante’s La Vita Nuova. I have appropriated some of its elements, such as the supporting framework of the autobiographical story.

  2. At a public performance the work is best read by two voices, with the accompanying photographs projected onto a backing screen.


Into Words

Easter 1
Low Sunday
no-one else is up

It’s Zephania
the walk to Emmaeus
and a conclusion
from 1 John

Life to light
nothing disagreeable
but I wonder
at myself

I would like to stand alone
the heroics tempt me

but my dealings with God
are old long and wordy

I would miss
The vocabulary


The conference was an unhappy one, so at mid-day I went into town for lunch and didn’t go back. Instead, I went to “Q” Books, where there was still some stock cast out from the general assembly Library. A year or two ago that library had lightened its load.

In the poetry section I found ‘Look Stranger’, by Auden, a second impression dated Dec. 1936. It had been accessed by the library in May 1937.

I knew that this was rare so took it to purchase, and while waiting at the counter discovered, inside the back cover, its old library card. On it was my father’s signature.

This so affected me that, on returning to my motel, I wrote this poem ‘God Watches Over’. I wanted to find comfort, and understanding.


God watches over

Ensures that
some die
some live
some linger
and gives comfort of continuance

In this way
the norm prevails
and those who can


His was the third signature. On 27th.May W. Gabites had borrowed it; on 17th. Sept. Prof. I.A. Gordon had his turn, and on Nov. 4th. Cecil Kyle.

This was in Wellington.

On Oct. 30th. I had been born in Ch.Ch., and some days before that my sister Elaine had died. John my brother was staying with an Aunt.

A voice from the past. I wonder at its quietness, which is so full of question that it’s almost incoherent.


There are voices

They tell one to do things
and talk of it

I don’t know
what they say

I want to know
what they sound like —
the tone
as if God spoke —
intent injunction or
the intimate

Each word would be significant
of course
but what would be conveyed —
comfort of origin
prophecy or threat

Would there be an interior warmth
syllables thin like ancient dust
or noise great noise
to connect
with this world?


Elaine had been put in the charge of her grandparents. My grandfather had recently sold his business in Greymouth, and had come to live in Dormer St., Papanui, in a pale yellow art deco house built to order. Aunty Mavis lived with them.

West Coast friends came to live nearby, and another of the family, my Aunt Jessie, lived next door with her husband Bob.

Mavis largely attended to Elaine, who caught what seemed to be a cold. The doctor wasn’t called until too late, and she died of meningitis.

Sitting here in my study chair and thinking of Elaine’s death, reflecting on that situation and imagining myself there, I wrote this poem. It’s in two parts — the first is growing old, the second is a remonstrance.


When it comes to understanding
it’s best to start with you
though some of your imagery
isn’t much help

These days monarchs
are dodging bullets
or cameras

and power
is not as useful
as influence

It’s your being
that we question—
you can’t be found in nature
for we manage all that now
and though we killed you again
you’d still say you’re untouchable
and limitless

To put you on the orchid’s lip
in the smoke that snakes along my stream
a peripatus’s place
is no use

You’re the man who stole
my frozen goods
the hacker in my file
you’re my parent sibling child
police and judge and medical
my banner
my fear delight
everything that’s out of hand
you’re all


The grandparents had moved to Christchurch to be near their four children—Mavis Jessie Cecil and John, who now lived and worked in the city. The depression was coming to an end, jobs were available for the young, and the West Coast was losing to the east.

In Greymouth the family had standing; they had lived in affluent Shakespeare St., had a profitable business, and were descendants of first settlers.

There the four children, as they grew to adulthood, had formed a prominent social clique. Photographs show a bright young coterie in beautiful clothes, with fashionable vices and an automobile.

When I look at these images, and put them against the courses of their lives, I search them for answers.


You shelter
and uphold us

even grandmothers
who kept their reputations
to the death
and were righteous

who locked out the world
when it knocked
forgave no sin
and let their wrath run riot
for age after age
after death
over ocean city and farm
and never forgot

Judge not
You say
though their deeds live

They did
as their parents to them
they to us
and we to ours

You must stop it


They had other pretensions besides life-style. They liked to be with the times in every way, as young adults do. Once begun this was hard to stop as they might have assumed it would at adulthood, like the tree that loses its juvenile foliage.

John married Hazel, worked in an office, lived at New Brighton, and drank himself into alcoholism. Jessie married Bob, who was in Real Estate; she became addicted to sedatives.

These two poems grew from meditation on the family album. I couldn’t decide which to choose so have included both. The first — “You God Sit Enthroned” is about our understanding of God; the second — “Once we had a Big God” tells of a diminishment of grace.


sit enthroned
in a cloud of adjectives
and approximate qualifications

which billows
at every rite
and obscures vision

incense at the altar
the crisis-talk
of creatures

So much reverence
and inveterate praise
it clouds our judgement

we know only
what you ought to be


Once we had a big God
whom we adored
who kept watch over us
peering through the palings
of the fence

He had a son
and an emissary soul
who led us out of trouble
and gave comfort

Now our gods are small
a family
whom we would like to obey

they’ve not much majesty
tatterdemalions all

their virtue is in vision
which they give until they tire

sometimes we long for
a greatness to serve


Cecil left his job on the Grey River Argus to take a position on the Ch.Ch.Press, and married Helga.They lived on Murrayaynsley Hill, where they entertained the Arts. Cecil saw his future in the Arts, which would give him security in an aristocracy of merit. He had faith in his genius, and kept company with the Pascoes, Glover, Benseman, Brooks, and Allen Curnow, who also worked at the Press. As a journalist he was potentially useful to them.

He kept a mistress and a celebratory life style, yet he found his life increasingly burdensome; he began to shun his duties and to long for the careless west.

East and West, as two opposing goals, became ever more evident in our house, and in thinking of this I wrote this poem “Comfort, you say’.


you say
o comfort my people

and you give —
an overarching benevolence

warmth in the west
at the end of uncertain day

Why so westerly
and not a brightening east?

perhaps it depends
where you live


He also took an increasing amount of alcohol, and lost confidence in his profession after his involvement in a court case he was not allowed to report. Elaine’s death aroused a troubling depression, and four years later he was sacked, declared bankrupt, and in 1941, in profound poverty, we moved to a rented house at 103 the Esplanade, Sumner.

This precipitate collapse of the family’s affluence is striking, even at this distance, and in the poem ‘God of Ages ’I question such misfortune.


‘God of Ages’
we sang
on the pavement
at your feet

where cracks are showing
and no surprise —

nothing’s everlasting
but you
whom wisdom clothes
befitting one who makes/

O Arbiter!
Does all grow old with you?

or do you ordain separate rates
like here?


For a time there was joy. Cecil was The Man, the settler in the wilderness. He carved out of the turf a garden of paths and beds, a precise and trellised beauty and a sure success. Everything he grew was on time and succulent. Helga did the flowers. I found a friend at school and we visited some new neighbours.

There was a huge horizon and I liked the weather on it.

But from this perspective, many decades later, when I recall that brief spell of creative order, I wonder that none of us noted the warnings.


Even if you can’t be seen
the culture clothes
and makes you visible

O Emperor
of Eternity
Some serve you for that
others the ideal
a few for an obscure love
of nothing

Is there need to study you
to plead and please and pray?

The effort
and beautiful theology!

but is it worth it,
could we not coast along
with play
and an easy love

your children?


Now and then our parents fought, even violently, but there was love enough for security. Before the house was the length and breadth of the beach, and all the sea had to offer—it was a happy mystery and brought a glittering treasure. At one end was Cave Rock, and at the other Scarborough Hill, with its houses that grew out of cliffs.

I began to learn of nature’s creativity and the city’s art.


Then there’s sex
which is something of yours
we don’t get right

every time it’s a new land
then the weather changes
and we’re lost
with no guide

you’ve made it
so we can’t do without

it’s our ID — no sex
and we’re no body

Like at this dance
next week in the hall —
it’s so each man can get
a one-night stand

but no-one says

You’ve put the word around
that we’re better off without

that I’m only a good man
if I’m chaste

That’s not human
Nor humane

Did you say it
or someone else?


When in the mood Cecil would take us walking: to the Seagar houses on Clifton Hill and Glover’s on the zig-zag; past Ellworthy’s, and on to the tops and the concrete bunkers from the war; to Pat’s Bush where the Rangiora grew; the cliffs that looked down to Lyttleton; Gollan’s Bush where the green geckos lived, and the Titoki Tree; the scented Earina the Hebe and the big-leaved Senecios; and when the weather was really fit all the way to Taylor’s Mistake, to the Cave Houses there and the old news on the walls and the lavatory flushed by the tide.

Here was the marvellous and evidence for it.

This next poem asks if God might allow a similar approach to his nature.


There must be more
than the sense of your presence

To feel you’re near pleases
and can be done
by words
a view
or magic
but we need a founded certainty

Evidence helps
so does coincidence presented
in a marvellous line

who created sound
could use it
and light
to show yourself

To be discreet as you are
hints of coyness
and doesn’t convince
of one who’s
and judge over all


On wet days Cecil would wind up the gramophone and play Wagner. He would tell us what was happening as it sang.

We would take the books out from under the stairs and rummage until we found the one to read. They were his, and out of sight because there was no room for them elsewhere.

He had Dickens Scott and Buchan, old issues of Punch, the Transactions of the Institute, H. G. Wells and Kipling.

He gave us what we needed for life, but now I know it was Helga who saved us through her self in the way that women do, and as men do for a cause but not for a child.

Might heaven not be so naturally too, I ask in this next poem --


For love
some sing the Evangelist

For glory
the trumpet’s played

but is this true —
that the trombone
is the voice of God
as the Bishop in Norway said?

if so
allied instruments blaspheme
and all who play them
are imposters

Your voice, Lord
is called from the other side
and too uncertain

like Gabrieli’s
at St. Marks


Then Mavis dies. She and Cecil were the brightest of the four, and most inclined to the arts. Both played the violin (she quite well) and liked Schubert and Chopin.

Mavis had an affair with a violinist, and fell pregnant to him. When the time came for her to give birth her parents kept her at home and she died. The cause of death was given as appendicitis.

This second death at our grandparents’ house indicates that all was not well there. The poem ‘you say this is’ urges God to make himself more available accessible and immanent.


You say “This Is”
and “I am”
and are positive
like the Americans

I don’t mind in the least

When you get right down to it
faith is a good and pure thing

let it be necessary

creative as you are
and given to metaphor
you have science
and therefore hold evidence

it would be a help
a very big help to us
if there were less of you to admire
and more to touch


The child lived and was named Jill. Jessie and Bob adopted her — they had no other. This was not kept secret except from Jill, who did not discover the fact of her adoption until she was in her fifties and living overseas. Her birth father had never been given access to her.

I’ve written this next poem ‘The Fifth Sunday’ to suggest that the idea of God is in itself a hopeful thing — the ways of humankind being so profoundly entangled.

The poem is in two parts — the first is a question, the second is the point.


The Fifth Sunday After Easter ---
It’s the sacrifice of the Lamb
a prescriptive rite
with reading and prayers

Does this matter now?

And what of the ‘Thou Shalts’?

They’ve written many books
and there are times
when we think of them
and of heaven and hell
the beginning and the end
and ethics

but what we really want to know
is you —
do you have a home
In this later age
when we have tried
and are tired
nothing but you
holds interest


It’s one of the Sundays in Pentecost
I’ve forgotten which —
I read them
one after the other
to keep myself in the running
so to speak

and to remind me that
though you’ve helped me
to no great goal
and though I think
you could do much more
and a good deal better
I’m thankful

first that I’m human
next that I can think

I enjoy both attributes

Thank you for them

If I misuse them
forgive me

As I forgive your failings which
by your nature
are inevitable
and infinite


Mavis’s death overwhelmed the whole family, but the war prevented any real dealing with it. The Japanese were about to land at Sumner. Cecil and Uncle John were finally conscripted, and the old ones at Dormer St. shut themselves in and wouldn’t open the door when we called.

We at Sumner (Helga John me and Sonia) entered a small homely peace that we didn’t understand.

The poem ‘The Last Unknown’, which is a continuation of its predecessor, suggests that a knowledge of God can be gained from self-understanding, we being in that image.


You’ll be the last unknown

When all else is opened
and we’re overwhelmed with fact
when we’re done with golden galaxies
and summed the farthest worlds
we’ll still be buzzing at you
like wasps at a pot
clamouring for
the purpose
the point
and sense of our place
in your great scheme
of creation and ---
which are
I think
foolish quests

Like us
You wonder at things
And keep on doing them


There came a universal peace and ours ended; Cecil came home. He tried to return to his former trade, and sold some articles to the Weekly News. He gave a talk on the radio — ‘The History of Coal Mining on the West Coast’, which we all listened to at home, but the work didn’t pay well enough and he took a job in a factory. This humiliated him and he drank more heavily.

Home became tense again, but to us the sea and the beach brought relief, and if I went up Scarborough Hill I could see to the mountains, the edge of the west, which sent its scents ahead when the wind came from that way.

This poem is about that wind.


Does the Dove hover
when the Spirit comes
with a flame and light and music?

There are paintings of this

and rumours
of some favoured ones
who felt the flame
heard the soporinos
and would no more eat

they died for that love

Your heaven, Lord
is a perfect place
and your Spirit its ambassador
to stir me
with westerly airs

All my life
I’ve craved that wind

It’s brought reward
And the promise of indulgence

but no rest


Then Cecil found brief influence. The union leaders he had known on the Coast were now in the government. Some one remembered him, and we were allocated a State House In the spring of 1947 we moved to 25 Auburn Ave, Upper Riccarton. It was a new house and we were the first to occupy a house in the street. Sonia and I went to Upper Riccarton Primary School, and John to Ch.Ch.Boys’ High.Helga rejoiced in a house that worked, and in its newness. Cecil found a job at the Carpet Factory.

To write this I sit in the sun in my study, old and not very well, and I wonder why God-talk must so usually be one-way; then I wonder if it is.


If you are

You forget
If you don’t behave
we must

and even forgive

The consequence of your inaction

But we don’t talk about it
and it’s pointless to blame

Perhaps if you explained yourself
it would be worse
and unworthy

In your sort of world
silence is often the best
and a hidden countenance


And then we heard them talking at the Church Corner Shops, of how he’d spent the union funds. He didn’t go to court, but paid it back in a couple of years, which made us poorer still. Sometimes we couldn’t pay the rent.

People talked, and we lost some friends.

Cecil took another job, in the city.

We shifted to a bigger house in Hanson’s Lane.

I was an adolescent now, and began to look for comfort. It seemed possible to find some in God.


There are techniques
to bring us into your presence
modes and methods
from other times
and some new
that have brief vogue
and pretend to a forgotten way

There never was a flood of saints
upon the world
and never is

No matter what claim to miracle
or an immanence of rapture
it seems forever the same,
Lord —
that you stay at remove

but then a catastrophe shocks
and some think you’re on your way

We panic ourselves with our wit
and under our fear we long
for you to assume the machinery


But Helga fell ill, very ill, from the worry, and when she came back there was nothing left. He had spent it on his weaknesses, and even sold the very few family things left us.

He had no thoughts now of his genius, and none of the old friends came, but he began to dream of the West — the bush the sea and innocence.

Our house was taken from us, and we moved further back to Dryden St., to a house that leaked. We boys slept in a garden hut. Our poverty was notorious in the village, though we didn’t know of that.


She’s worn out
with the hardness
the keeping going
with the children too

Couldn’t you help?

or is there
underneath it all
a scripted plan
that we’ve not cottoned on to yet
but shall do
when we’re wiser?

Some think
that you should give
a greater attention to justice
As things are
you don’t look good

There’s too much happening
that has to be excused


He grew moodier, and sometimes violent in an adolescent way and depressed. He stole from Helga’s purse and began to threaten suicide. We took him to the Doctor who had him put in Sunnyside — it was only down the road.

The psychiatrist was impressed, for Cecil talked well and was learned; he could easily give the impression that his gifts were ignored and oppressed by society. My friends thought so too, and I could never talk to them of the facts.

I discovered the church — it was the windows, then the hymns, and then the vicar’s library. God as well, though I’ve always known your presence.

It’s only now, at this much later time, that I’ve come to see you need to be as concrete as the church.


If I
talked in angel tongues
sang a yodel prayer
chanted Dravidian
did a Sufi swirl
summoned you by goat horn

would we be bonded?

I know
is a bond with the Almighty
but would we communicate?

You are close
for my comfort
and would be closer

but I want to indulge
in intelligible talk

you to explain
the life you give

I to balk
at the death


Cecil came home in a couple of months. They said he was better, but he soon got worse, and didn’t like being alone.

I married and went away; Sonia did too.

There was nothing we could do — we just hoped they would manage. Cecil wasn’t violent any more, just helpless, sometimes tearful, and hiding his alcohol in the compost heap.


Bit by bit
it can slip
like a stream in a drought

day by day
a little less flow
a little more bed
left dry
the life’s a line
of stagnant pools
an arid bed
and shrivelled banks
or usefulness

Why do you make us die?
is it because we grow sour?

like copulation
is an experience you don’t have
O Lord
unless vicariously

To tire takes practice
and tuition

perhaps you learn from us


From time to time we visited. We would take the tram to Bexley and see our cousins, or we would cycle over to Dormer St. We were part of the post-war push to propriety and we felt safer now — some steps back from the abyss. Uncle John still looked as if he drank a lot, but Cecil was different. He worked in the garden until it was dark and the neighbours admired him. Our garden was the best. There were asters and heliotrope out the front, asparagus and spinach round the back.

Some thought our greens pretentious.

Then the slide began. The poem ‘I can’t see’ is a retrospective protestation — at the un-necessary circumstance that now began, and at the helplessness of those involved.


I can’t see
That you’re inviolate

As God
You need to be challenged

It’s right
to be courteous
to an eminence
and so we are

but you gave us free will
which includes to reply

and you’re love

we pray you to accept
your creatures’ protestations


Great-uncle Jim died. He left his land to the city, and some money to us. We bought furniture, but most of the money — enough to buy a house — disappeared. Helga did well at her job, and Cecil, thinking himself not necessary, gave up at the garden.

John married and went away.

Cecil couldn’t rest; he was looking for what he couldn’t do without, so he drank to imagined needs. There was never enough.

We were sure he had another woman, but couldn’t see where..

His were the troubles of Everyman, as I write in this poem, and ask the usual question — why can’t something be done about it --


I will empty my head
so the right answers come

For six decades it’s played itself
through death and ruin
and your hand’s been in
every trick and turn
from conception
to affluent age

You could have stopped
you often do
but we with eyes
have had to watch
the opera display
our play to you and
your myriads
in convoluted agonies
interminable deaths —
by count
and many darkened lives

I’m tempted to blame —
you’ve made this
in your grace
that grief’s a natural thing
and it’s much too late
to bargain

A lot of people
will have to use the church

It’s in your gift


Then Helga found he was stealing from work. We knew then that it wouldn’t be long. Cecil’s roads were closed and there wasn’t any help for him, so we put ourselves in readiness.

Helga found him late one day, dead on the bed from the pills the doctor had given him

I still grieve that he and we were so helpless, and I wrote this poem ‘You made us able”, in spite of the failure of God’s power to show, or to stop death following on.


You made us able
with strong legs
and loins to play

good eyes
quick minds
and beauty

a will to build
and a wit for imagery

The unknown’s receded
and we hardly need you now

yet you’re still here
no more a need
but a presence

and who knows what you may do —
the future’s close
and you could change the past

The wit you gave us aches
and urges the ambition
to unveil you

Are all our doings
every moment of every day
for this?

are you inveterate?


Unwise friends, and unkind too, persuaded Helga to marry again for company and security, a quiet man in a square house who would never let her down. She grew as quiet as he,

‘Your father was never dull’, she said to us, and we knew it wouldn’t be long.

He found her when he came back from work, dead on the bed, from the pills the doctor had given her.


where do you find
your ideas?

Are they pre-existent
floating on a nacreous sea
or banked
on a planetary body
kept for the use of deities?

or do you crib them
from creation
and use them repeatedly?

Perhaps that’s our use
our reason for existence —
to stimulate you
in the boredom of omnipotence

for you’ve so made us that
while we play the man
we’re never quite to pattern

there’s always something new
in our humanity
something variant
for your eternity

even you
might wonder at us
and be grateful


In death
there’s need of you —
the only hold we have
on the unknown

{which you are
in spite of scripture
& philosophy}
Your presence there
is the assurance
that you
the Maker
know our working
in all parts

and in the wisdom
of that knowledge
will refit us to the form

© Leicester Kyle Literary Estate, 2012


  1. Something is wrong with the chronology here. Cecil died at the Hanson's Lane house and, as usual, didn't expect to but Helga was around one and a half hours later home from the hat shop she worked in than she said she would be. She came to live with Sonia and me at Arthur's pass and looked determinedly for a husband. Alas, we wanted her to stay with us and infant Andrew! She took her life after breaking her hip in his garden and was in constant pain as it never healed properly. We were on Niue Island at that time and due home in only a few months (early 1971) after two and a half years away. The news was devastating.

  2. I think that parts of this poem must have been fictionalised or shifted around. In any case, the order of the various parts is conjectural, as I didn't receive them as anything other than internet files. Interesting to hear how close it is to the reality, though.