Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk favoured Richard II-' />


He wasn't your average, flannels-and-sportscoat, 1920s writer bloke.

Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk favoured Richard II-type cloaks, gaudy pendants, hip-length hair. He also laid claim to the throne of Poland.

This biography by his second cousin, poet and film-maker Stephanie de Montalk, grew out of her MA thesis for Bill Manhire's Victoria University creative writing class.

How it grew! Her narrative of NZ literature's most spectacular expatriate is one of the most consummate and compelling life stories I've read this ... well, this millennium.

"He does live in a hell of a fairyland, doesn't he?" wrote A.R.D. Fairburn. It's a major understatement. Was Potocki heroic or comic? De Montalk offers an endearingly naive analysis of eccentricity as her answer.

The grandchild of patrician Polish immigrants, Potocki was born in 1903 at the moment Mercury crossed the meridian. He turned it into an emblem, like everything else in his life.

He grew up on a Remuera estate. He tried teaching, law, theology, even a milk run: single focus was never a Potocki trait. He joined Fairburn and R.A.K. Mason's "poetic aristocracy" that met on the top floor of Auckland's Milne & Choyce building.

His first published poems - in purple covers - were refused a review by a local paper because "the author was ... dissolving his marriage".

Another understatement: he blithely abandoned wife and small daughter to follow his artistic destiny to London. There, he set up the first of his private presses; poetry and polemic poured from it.

In 1932, his writing brought him before the court, charged with publishing an obscene work called Here Lies John Penis. The verses are printed here, and their shelf-life is long over. He took his oath in the name of Apollo; he got six months.

It was the first of several confrontations with an amused, bemused English system. He was openly pro-German in the Second World War, mainly because of the Russian massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. Nobody believed him.

Polymath, sun-worshipper, concrete-laying handyman, he attracted women and obloquy wherever he went in Britain or Europe.

After 55 years, he returned to New Zealand, read at Victoria University with Gisborne poet Gary McCormick; alienated much of the literary establishment. Sinking into paranoia, convinced people were poisoning him, he flew back to France to die.

Stephanie de Montalk lucidly outlines the passions that endured through the posturings: fidelity to free speech, Polish integrity, the immanence and permanence of beauty. She quotes judiciously from his verse and pamphlets, and provides some splendid photos. She's quite a presence in the narrative; her reactions and interpretations set up a neat, mainly natural dialogue with her flamboyant relly.

When he died in semi-squalor in 1997, Potocki's funeral was attended by fewer than a dozen mourners. After all his vitality, tragi-comedy seems the sad but apposite label.

Victoria University Press


* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.