Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Penelope the Mythic by Vana Manasiadis

I love this poem - for the Greek at the beginning without translation, for Penelope 'putting the book down' after reading her own story, for the way the poet plays with the word 'myth' and with myth-making (mythopoios) and storytelling (mythologos) in a collection of poems that is all about words and myth and story and history and biography, the way the translation of the text is knitted into the poem,  the way the colloquial is mixed with the mythic is mixed with the Greek.... which only just skims the surface. An understanding of individual poems in the collection Ithaca Island Bay Leaves: a mythistorima (Seraph 2009) is achieved only through reading them all.

Born in 1973, Vana is part-Greek, part-Celt (which is me with a bit more Anglo-Saxon thrown in), has a degree in Classics and English and was part of the same MA class I shared with Airini Beautrais who wrote last Tuesday's Poem. Vana is one of those writers who had clever, insightful and 'intimate' things to say about every piece of writing put before our class. Her own work unfolded in a way that surprised her, but the result is something that feels both sure and tentative in the way of all exploration, and both visionary and intimate in the way of all good stories. Vana explains in an interview on Tim Jones' blog what this collection really is.
"Although mythistorima specifically means ‘novel’ in modern Greek, and also more generally ‘fairytale’ or ‘fantasy’, the etymological meaning (perhaps not surprisingly), is myth and history combined - from the time when people disseminated myths and (his)stories by word of mouth. I really like the fluid and undisciplined nature of speech and so I decided to kind of unfix the form of Ithaca and assume oral language with its tangents, fillers and pauses, as the governing concept. I tried to make sense of all the different forms in the book as transcripts, or fragments, then pieced them together so that they might ‘tell’ a kind of story while still remaining a little elusive."
Like Airini, Vana experimented with the prose poem, but she also produced a range of poetic styles to suit particular 'fragments'. There are alternating lines of dialogue, couplets, long sprawling poems, short compact poems as well as prose poems. Interesting to have another prose poem after Airini's last week - which stirred up a range of responses, among them a view that prose poems are not poems at all. Interesting, too, that Vana is influenced by the inimitable US poet Anne Carson who is well known for disrupting genres. Here Vana explains in the Tim Jones interview why she likes Carson ...
"...for her play with forms, and the unpredictable, magical, moving, powerful combinations of those forms, and times, settings, and voices. And, she knows a lot of stuff. When I read Anne Carson I feel in the presence of both raw heart and razor-sharp mind."
Which is what I feel about Vana's work. 
A NZ poet who teaches, Vana is currently living in Crete working on a collaborative play and hopefully another poetry book. Ithaca is available from Seraph Press (I'm sure her publisher would do an overseas order) or all good independent NZ bookstores using ISBN: 978-0-473-15235-2 and Vana has given permission for Penelope the Mythic to appear on my blog. Thanks to her, and to her publisher Helen Rickerby for organising the jpg of the poem. More from Vana's Tim Jones interview.
And here's more on Carson for those who are interested. It makes me want to go back to read her, especially the magnificent verse novel Autobiography of Red which blew me away in my MA year and which I am pretty sure was recommended by Vana. 
"Carson's works of verse and prose are characterized by several unique formal and stylistic qualities. Most notably, Carson blurs traditional categories of genre, constructing hybrids of the essay, the autobiography, the novel, the verse poem, and the prose poem. Carson's background as a classics scholar colors all of her writings, which feature frequent references to Greek mythology and such ancient poets, philosophers, and historians as Sappho, Plato, and Homer. She routinely renders elements of history and mythology in contemporary terms and modern settings, often conceptually closing the distance between the past and the present. Her verse places references to modern popular culture, such as film and television, side by side with references to ancient Greek culture. Her pastiche approach to genre, form, and subject matter, as well as the strong element of irony that pervades much of her work, have earned her the designation as a postmodern or post-structuralist writer, although the terms metaphysical, surrealist, and magical realist have also been applied to her work."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Film as palindrome - thank goodness

Jonathan Reed won second place in AARP's U@50 video contest launched in 2007. Contestants were asked to create 2-minute video describing their vision of the future; what life would be like by the time they turned 50. Twenty-year-old Reed was inspired by the Argentinian political adverstisement "The Truth". It makes your hair stand on end. Thanks to Bookman Beattie for passing it on.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NZ Post Book Awards don't love us all at all

I am incensed that the all-new NZ Post Book Awards has failed to shortlist Damien Wilkins' tour de force Somebody Loves Us All. He is one of this country's best novelists and this is a bloody good novel - as you'd expect from Damien who has received excellent reviews for his novels in the US as well as here.
“The New Zealand novel of the year and Wilkins' best work so far.” Nicholas Reid, Sunday Star-Times 13/12/09 [this quote has been added late to the post, thanks to 'Glow Little Glowworm' in the comments below.]
I am not passing judgement on the three chosen ones - Fiona Farrell's Limestone, Owen Marshall's Living as a Moon and Alison Wong's As the Earth Turns Silver. I admire and respect these authors and offer my heartfelt congratulations. I also admire and respect the panel of judges led by Stephen Stratford.

But why oh why such a skinny, nay, stingy list? Why not a generous handful of novels to recognise all that is excellent - and to persuade a cautious reading public to get into some of them* - not just Wilkins either, how about Charlotte Grimshaw? Ruth Pettis? Even if Somebody Loves Us All was not a judge's  cup of tea it would have had to have made a shortlist of five or six. Surely. [This paragraph was directed at the judges when I first posted, but it has been pointed out to me that the judges had no leeway, they had to choose only three, so I am redirecting it to those who set up the new awards - Booksellers and the sponsor NZ Post.] 

Here, dear blog reader, is my original review of Damien's novel posted while I was doing my summer reading in a hammock in the Wairarapa. The best thing you can do now to make up for its exclusion from the country's top book awards is to get out and buy this book and read it.

"King of the Hammock so far is the deliciously joyful, perceptive and funny Somebody Loves Us All by Damien Wilkins. This is a tour de force by the Wellington author written while basking in the Menton sun as last year’s Katherine Mansfield fellow. His joy at having time to write and being somewhere else is evident in this book. But like most ‘exiled’ writers, his mind fell back to where he came from and Somebody Loves Us All is set slap bang in apartment-living central Wellington with segues into Lower Hutt and Petone, and a trip through the Desert Road.

It’s about Paddy who’s 50 and a speech therapist with a regular newspaper column and a recalcitrant patient - Sam - who refuses, for some reason, to speak. Paddy's also happily married and the proud new owner of a bicycle. Enter his ageing mother, who moves in next door and starts – with no knowledge of the language – speaking French.

As usual, Wilkins skewers the social stuff – the ways people are when they graze and grapple with each other, especially families. He always gets the mix of wonder and disgust, vulnerability and bullying, knowing and surprise, humour and sadness, vanity and self-loathing that characterise our relationships, but in his latest novel there is more wonder and humour, more surprise and vulnerability. This time, Wilkins nails the emotional stuff, and his novel is more expansive and more satisfying as a result. Definitely up at the top of my 'best of' list for the year.

What I treasure most of all reading Somebody Loves Us All are those laugh-out-loud moments - oh don’t we need those in a book! doesn’t comedy trump tragedy every time? These hover especially around the relationship Paddy has with his old mate, Lant, who is divorced and single and a demon on a bike. Their competitive cycling relationship made me howl – the question of who has the most sophisticated cycling gear and who can make it up the Hataitai hill first without being killed. Fabulous.

And then there's the mother. Her story is on the other end of the scale. Deeply and marvellously moving. The ending a triumph."

The full original review is here. Plus the NZ Book Awards announcement and follow-up releases and heated discussion  can be found on the marvellous Beattie's Bookblog.

* Okay, so being shortlisted doesn't always affect a novel's sales much, but winning always does (and you can only win if you're shortlisted, right?) On the other hand, The Blue hit the bestseller list while it was shortlisted in 2008 and that continued after it won Best First Book and Readers Choice Awards. And for some books the difference between a few unexpected sales after hitting a shortlist and flat-lining in the sales stakes is huge. Sales aren't everything either, remember those intrepid library readers... And remember, too, what maketh a writer's career - being short-listed in a major award often influences his/her future funding and ability to continue writing. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tuesday Poem: A Good Story by Airini Beautrais

My friend likes to find things in skip bins.  I don't have  time
to  list all  the  things  he has found. Put  it  this  way - when
you drive past one, you have to stop.
       The story, as I have  heard  it, is  that he  once found a
 girlfriend in a skip bin. She was  scrabbling  around  looking
for  things,  and  when  he  climbed  in,  they met.  This was
before  she met the  banjo player and the drummer.  But this
is  just  the  story  as  the  drummer  tells  it, and he may not
necessarily be  trusted. He has this way of  smiling when he
talks that suggests he could easily be lying. And he has been
known  to  eat  daffodils. The  truth  doesn't move  people to
do  things  like this.

I was one of the first readers of this poem ever, and for most, if not all, of the poems in the Montana award-winning book Secret Heart from which A Good Story comes. The collection was published in 2006, the year after Airini and I each completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Secret Heart was Airini's thesis and I was lucky enough to be in her tutor group.

Airini listened interestedly to all our feedback but made very few changes - except to play around a little with form and deciding on the prose poem. Later, her marker commented favourably on 'the casual tossed-offness' of the poems, and that is certainly it. They have a cool, wry, downbeat kind of feel to them, as if someone's just at that moment tossing words over a (leather-jacketed) shoulder or, as in one poem, spitting them like toothpaste out of the car window.

There is enchantment in these poems too - whether it be a guy finding a girlfriend in a skip bin or sisters walking through Cuba Mall with a full-length mirror or trees 'turning folktale' as dusk falls. This is Wellington 'off-centre' (and the South Island, too, in a road trip sequence) and it's a nice place to be. The truth is, as Airini read out her poems in class, we all sat there smiling and then scrabbled round for useful things to say. They are what they are. And we loved them.

[Google books insert with more of Airini's poems removed ]

A science teacher, Airini is currently on maternity leave caring for her new baby and working on her second book of poems.  She's given me permission to run this poem on my blog. 
Do try more Tuesday Poems. Bryan Walpert is the editor this week. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Extraordinary Storytelling of Ephraim's Eyes

These stories are extraordinary things. Each one is centred around a single character who grieves for a loss that is usually withheld until the story plays out. Memory and the unravelling of it, and the way people try to make some sense of the apparently senseless by remembering - always a faulty business - is at the core of the book. So too is the questionable power of love to save us.

Author Bryan Walpert is an award-winning US writer who is a NZ citizen and teaches creative writing at Massey University, Palmerston North. As such, that makes him a colleague of mine (I teach at Massey Wellington). His poetry collection Etymology was launched last year and his poem No Metaphor kicked off our Tuesday Poem blog.

As his poetry does so wonderfully, Bryan's stories use language and the prism of science and philosophy to try to rein in and explain the vicissitudes of life and the resulting anguish of the people who suffer at its hands. Bryan has said: 'I think for me, as a writer, the way to the heart is often through the head.' Hence the lack of sentimentality, hence the careful, erudite and skilful writing that gives you deep rivers of emotion but without once leaning in from the important task of rowing the boat to trail its hand in the water.

In discussing No Metaphor on Tuesday Poem, I talked about the interior struggle of the man in the poem to both remember and forget, and the same struggle is to be found in Ephraim's Eyes. The characters' thoughts swirl around philosophy or mushrooms or magic tricks as both a distraction and as a way to explain what has happened to them; and in the same way they also tell stories that they believe to be true and that are sometimes clearly fiction. But Ephraim's Eyes is most emphatically not a bunch of cerebral ramblings. The  muscle of the stories is in the well-wrought complex characters who pitch-perfect voices who live ordinary lives alight with detail (in NZ and the US), and undertake work that is both authentic and fascinating.

Whether it be a man damaged by war who owns a magic shop and finds himself teaching tricks to a needy boy, a man whose job is to check billboards for damage but who is wholly taken up with checking the perceived wreck of his own life, a teenage girl who finds numbers beautiful but is diverted into a destructive sexual relationship, a woman with a secret who needs a new cupboard and gets a mycologist in as a housemate to help pay for it, a girl whose Hawkes Bay olive grower step-father is making her uncomfortable, a man who thinks he's the incarnation of the comic book character Flash.

There is something filmic about the way Bryan evokes the lives of his characters - they are so visual and so intriguing in their visual detail. Driving home last night, I kept looking at billboards thinking of the man who checks them for a job. The end of that particular story literally gave me vertigo. I was up in the air, but suddenly I knew what would happen, and it was like swooping from a great height. Bryan builds the story up to that point so skilfully - with so many interwoven layers of thought and action - that I was both afraid and exultant with the knowledge. Storytelling at its best.

The stories delight, too, with their erudition - this writer's mind is like the beautiful numbers his character in the story 'Word Problems' loves so much, and many times I pondered on the apposite cover of his book: the interlocking Russian dolls which are part of the title story and emblematic of the dense and layered thinking here as well as the stories within stories. Also compelling are the seamless shifts from the deepest darkest recesses of the individual mind to the messy stuff of humanity and then out into the wider universe.

One of the stories, 16 Planets, won the 2007 Royal Society of NZ Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing. A man, unhinged by a grief he doesn't name until the end, ponders on the terrible ways human beings threaten the planet. The story moves in and out of global warming and oil slicks to the mundane facts of the man's life and his relationship with his wife. The end is unbelievably moving. It caught me at the throat.

The stories suggest that the struggle of the individual doesn't need to be made alone and with limited tools. Magic exists - in life in all its wonderment (from gravity to love), in science and thought and language and story and numbers, in magic tricks and the view from a suburban billboard. Bryan keeps coming back to the power of the imagination which lives unfettered in memory (and story of course) and is a form of magic - not least because it can make things disappear (or can it?)

It is magic which saves some of the characters -  allowing them to let go, to linger, to be bigger than they are. Many of Bryan's characters do not recover, although recovery is a possibility. For some, memory wins out over forgetting, self-forgiveness is too hard, and the magic is just not enough. One man (a writer) is left literally in the dark.

My one small criticism of this astonishing collection is its lack of variety - in terms of both structure and theme. The stories all pivot around a withheld secret which is given to the hungry reader in morsels via memory/backstory until it is finally revealed, and many of the stories are about terrible losses (often death) and the power of grief to destroy. While appreciating the power of stories that link together in a collection, I feel Ephraim's Eyes could have benefited from some variation to give the reader time to take a breath, and to show what else this brilliant writer can do.

All good independent bookshops will order Ephraim's Eyes if they don't have it -  Bryan's local bookseller Bruce McKenzie will. Or, if that's really not possible, go to the leading online booksellers like Amazon (if you must.) Ephraim's Eyes in published by Britain's Pewter Rose Press with an extract available here. Bryan's blog is here and he is, lucky us, a Tuesday Poet - and the editor of this week's Tuesday Poem up tomorrow.

Friday, June 18, 2010

the joys of bookselling

* The woman is buying Fiona Kidman's Where your Left Hand Rests. She came to the reading Fiona gave on Saturday night at the bookshop where I work on Fridays (Rona Gallery) and bought a copy for herself. She's back because her son is getting married in Corsica and Fiona's book has a poem about Corsica. The woman is going to mark the poem with the silk bookmark attached to the book and give it to her son for a wedding present.
* The man - all 6'4 of him - is standing beside me. 'You recommended a book for my wife...' he waits and realises it needs more '... it was by a NZer...' pause '....from Dunedin?' It falls into place - it was a Mother's Day gift for his wife - he loved the idea of crime fiction and a woman cop and a South Island setting. He bought Overkill by Vanda Symon. His wife loved it but unfortunately, she lost it before she finished it. I say Overkill is not so widely available now (print on demand I think - we could order it) but we have the other two. I give him our copy of the newspaper article about Vanda so his wife can read it (it's been up a long time). He takes her second book too - The Ringmaster. Tells me again how much she loved the book. I tell him how much I enjoyed Vanda's third one - Containment - the lack of blood and gore, the clever plot... He goes off happy.
*The woman wants a book for her 8-year-old grand-daughter who doesn't read much because she's too busy running around. We trawl through a number of options, but she picks Enid Blyton's A Magic Faraway Tree because I tell her it's Bill Manhire's favourite childhood book. Except when he read it the book had two children called Fanny and Dick, now they're something else less, um, raunchy?
*Sold another copy of The Blue the other day - at the wonderful Open Mike event at the bookshop with Fiona Kidman as the guest author. I didn't read from The Blue, but Fiona gave it a bit of a plug - saying  you can't have too many novels set on Arapawa Island (her Captive Wife is set there too.) Lovely to sell another copy of The Blue and to sign it...

.... speaking of which, I am very sad to see my lovely publisher Geoff Walker is leaving Penguin Books after 25 years. As I said to him, it was crazy of me to think he'd always be there like a rock in a southerly storm, but I did. He was wonderfully encouraging with my first novel and continues to be encouraging with my subsequent work in progress. I'll miss him.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Preparing for Prose

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Nuptials by Bill Manhire

Take back your heart,
that tattooed star. Take back
take back: your this and that, your pale guitar.

                                 Only my harmonica
                                 knows who you are.

Take back the light on the water;
also the body, scar after scar.

There is a list of things -- the words
you might have said, etcetera --

long bridge and sky,
the single car,

each syllable and step, particular,
the near and far --
and oh, take back the traveller.

                                  I have this paper music.
                                  I have what remains.
                                  I have what is muscular.

Light in your eyes, beloved,
like air in a mirror. Take back.
Take back. The bride is leaving America.

                                   Only my harmonica
                                   Knows who you are. 

Bill Manhire was NZ's inaugural Poet Laureate, and has received the Prime Minister's Award for Poetry. He directs the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington - where I completed my novel The Blue - and has produced a number of collections of poetry.

Bill has been regarded for some time as a cool, ironic poet. He confesses to putting up 'lyrical foliage' when he writes - preferring privacy - but it is clear that the past two poetry collections have shifted into a warmer, more personal clearing.  'A man in a boat/rowing across the last half mile of twilight' is a line in one of the most moving poems ever about the death of a friend and being a New Zealander. It's called Opoutere.

Bill likes to take readers to that place where he believes poetry finds its true voice - not in the  places we used to find it amongst lofty language and themes - but rather in the directness of music or casual conversation or a sign on the door of a hotel. Even at the very point where language peters out ...

The word 'etcetera' can make an appearance in Bill's poems and so do words like 'la la la'. He's not averse to rhyme, and there are often echoes of skipping rhymes, drinking songs and lullabies. Some of the poems in his latest collection The Victims of Lightning [VUP], where Nuptials can be found, are collaborations with composer Bill Meehan.

Bill's poetry has been called 'the anti-lyric lyric' and yet the truth is the banal is rendered significant (or at least provocative) - and sometimes moving and beautiful - because Bill hooks it and plays with it as one would a fish on a line: pulling it in, letting it out, pulling it in, until there it is on the deck beside you: brilliant and flapping. Or dead - with a mischievous look in its eye.

There are exquisite images in his poems - look at that 'tattooed star' of a heart, and up against Opoutere there is a ladder that 'longs to be lifted'. And yes, there are hearts in his poems, more than you'd think, and often guitars, and moons and wrists and children ... always have been.

Thirty years ago, Bill was my tutor in one of his early under-grad creative writing classes. I will never forget a poem he published back then called Declining the Naked Horse. It made us laugh, we who  lived in cold Aro St flats and debated oxymorons and knew our Coleridge from our Plath. We repeated Bill's poem in the Student Union cafe over hotdogs and chips. Was this a poem?  Really? Really?

My friends studying law and medicine thought not - dismissed it as fakery: an equine Emperor's new clothes.  Those of us who tapped away on typewriters composing imagistic confessional things in the middle of the night, went off excited and tried to write something like it. We failed of course. Who could beat a naked horse coming into the room?

Nuptials is published here with the permission of Bill Manhire. More of his poems here.

Click on the quill for more Tuesday Poems. Bill is 'double-posted' on the TP hub this week but there are stacks more poems in the live blog roll in the Tuesday Poem sidebar.
 Tuesday Poem

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How to Clean the House and party in a Bookshop at the same time

 1.  Open a new file in  your PC .

           2.  Name it 'Housework.'

           3.  Send it to  the RECYCLE  BIN.

           4.  Empty the RECYCLE  BIN.

           5.  Your PC will  ask you,
            'Are you sure you want to delete  Housework  permanently?'

           6.  Calmly answer, 'Yes' and press mouse button firmly  ...

           7.  Feel better?

Works for me. 

One of those viral email things my mother sent me this morning. Oh if only... Our house can only be described as 'gritty'  - you know, with dust and all the other bits that land on surfaces when you aren't looking. It needs a good clean and all those ridiculous piles of paper and STUFF needing sorting, and this  should have happened yesterday but I was partying at  Rona Gallery - the local bookshop where I work every Friday - celebrating its tenth birthday. 

We had bubbly and an art exhibition opening to kick the day off, Peter Rabbit stories in the afternoon (my daughter dressed up as a giant Peter thanks to Penguin Books, and the children in the audience played all sorts of 'characters' - from sparrows to carrots! - we had a giant Spot the dog, too, played by the bookshop owners' grand-daughter Ariana) and then there was a Writers and Readers Party in the evening.

The Party starred guest poet, Fiona Kidman, reading from the gorgeous Where Your Left Hand Rests (with all the terrific stories she tells that explain and inform the poems), and there was an Open Mike for our local writers to stand up and read some of their own work. It turned out to be the most exhilarating couple of hours as we heard Fiona's poems, children's poetry - some from the school journals, poems set in and around Eastbourne and the bays, poems set elsewhere with stories attached, stories about works in progress, a snippet of prose ... We have nearly 30 local writers who have published, or are about to or really really want to, and half of them stood up to read.

Many of us work alone and hadn't met each other - or only knew each other by name. Last night was a coming together - a time of acknowledgement and recognition - and it was stimulating, insightful, fun... may there be many more of them. And may Rona Gallery, too, go on and on. The owners, Richard and Joanna Ponder, are the tireless owners who battle to keep this sanctuary going here in Eastbourne. I, for one, feel very very lucky to have them. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Secret Garden

"One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in some one's eyes." from The Secret Garden by France Hodgson Burnett. 

I am involved with a secret garden of my own so Burnett's story is very much on my mind. A favourite from my childhood, I delighted in reading it to my daughter about six years back. Seeing the small shoots of just-planted things, the broad back of newly dug earth, the sweep of light where there was none, birds grabbing the insects and worms is such a thrill, and yet I spend little time in my own garden. There is something about a secret garden, a neglected place ... you can hear the earth sighing as you break it open.  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The ride of the melting poem

Terrific quote here from Robert Frost on the making of a poem. How it must 'ride on its own melting' and not be 'worried into being'. Apposite for me given my Tuesday Poem 'Pink T-shirt'  (previous post). Written over 20 years ago it felt to me that, once long-ago melted and fresh, it had 'set' like jelly, and therefore, despite any misgivings I had about it, was no longer able to be stirred and made into something fresh again. Frost assures me the preciousness of a poem is its having run itself once and taken a poet with it. That, he says, is its freshness. Of course he's right. The poem knew that - calling from the pile of the great unread 'pick me' and sliding away when I tried to pin down a word or phrase. To change it would have been, strangely, to change the moment or the way I perceived the moment. To be disloyal, somehow. How astonishing it is, how gratifying, to see the reader comments on 'Pink T-shirt' at the bottom of the post, their immediate loyalty, their fresh regard.

Thanks to poet Saradha Koirala for gleaning the Frost quote. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Pink T-Shirt

he liked to arrive at her door
ring the bell and wait

to see her face above him at the window
the eyes widen, the mouth an oh!

look through the keyhole
to see the joy of her

running down the stairs in a pink t-shirt
cupping each large unruly breast

not enough hands
to stop the smile on her face

                                   Mary McCallum

I wrote this poem over twenty years ago living in London. It is a true story told to me by my best friend's boyfriend. Sandra, my friend, was and remains to this day the personification of that gorgeous thing we call 'joy'.

Looking at the poem now, I see how slight it is and I am tempted to tinker, but to do that twenty years on makes it no longer 'Pink T-Shirt' but something else. It's as if lying in a folder with other unpublished poems all this time has set the words as jelly sets - it is no longer liquid to be stirred. I'm okay with that.

For more Tuesday Poems click on the quill. Tuesday Poem

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why blog

Innovative Canadian Poet Sina Queyras waxes expansively about the business of blogging on the Poetry Foundation blog known as Harriet. Queyras' take on why she blogs - and why she experiments with her poetry so openly there - is interesting  for the Tuesday Poets amongst us as well as those who simply like (are driven to?) blog.  She begins like this....
It begins like this. Where do you find the time? That’s the question most often asked of me when the subject of blogging comes up. Particularly over the past three months of posting on Harriet, keeping up my own blogTwittering, teaching, and so on.  There are several strands of thinking that emerge from this question for me, once one gets past the idea that of course it isn’t enough, one hasn’t done enough, or done it well enough, and there are always a barge of ideas waiting to be done…and done better. Aside from that, the idea of service arises, that to some degree it’s our responsibility to discuss the work we care about, and so there’s little choice. The idea of practice arises too, a kind of daily writerliness that helps build community as much as one’s muscle, a dailiness that has been, in a sense, transferred to the public realm. Finally my belief that no writing is wasted. 
More here . Then look at some of the other Harriet posts. Astonishing stuff. 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Poets on the oil spill and being outraged

Poets are bailing into the ghastly oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico declaring in different ways that we must all take some responsibility for it. Either to make sure it is cleaned up rather than sitting back and watching it get worse, or to prevent this sort of thing happening again.

US poet Mark Doty felt a physical response to what he calls the 'murder' of the gulf that he calls 'A shutdown. A rupture.'
We need to be willing to weep, to be outraged, and to ask every question we can about our endless, characteristically American sense of powerlessness. 
More here. And here's Tim Jones on where the fault lies - not just BP, he says, but all of us and our flagrant use of the not-so-good oil.

There's a useful article on the worst oil spill in US history here and an excellent article on the oil spill by numbers which was published May 3 - so the numbers may have changed since then. But the figures thrown up include this one:
25 million: Number of birds that traverse the Gulf Coast per day, and which are potentially at risk from the oil spill. According to the LA Times Greenspace Blog, "Late spring is the peak time for neo-tropical songbirds moving from the Yucatan Peninsula to make their first landfall in Louisiana," and "more than 70% of the country's waterfowl frequent the gulf's waters."
A final figure... the US government estimates the oil spill has leaked 21-45 million gallons of oil into the gulf over the past six weeks, and it continues to come. All I am is outraged. I wish I had the energy and time to be more. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Sunflower by Andrew Johnston

for Stuart Johnston, 1931–2004

One young bloom in a vase or jar, breath-
takingly yellow. And her
hands, in the morning light, the way
they arrange and rearrange. Death
brings lilies, but someone has sent a sunflower:
this is our penance, staring at the sun,
its blind eye, its ragged halo. The day,
in the end, took to its bed
before the day was over, taking thee
with it. Soon this flower, too, will be dead,
its summer of wondering done
about the sun, petal by petal: loved me;

didn’t know how; did, unsayably so. It leaves me
as he left us, in the dark. From one breath
to the next, he’d deflect a question: in his the-
ology, I, me, mine were just not done.
Because he saw eye to eye with death
we can stare at the sunflower all day
but his heavenly father’s garden was further
than we were prepared to go—its bed
of blood-red roses, its promises, its premises, the way
everything had been arranged; ‘dead’
a manner of speaking, under the sun.
We counted ourselves lucky, hour by hour,

and by the minutes of the sunflower
(he doesn’t, he does, he doesn’t know me),
each in his or her own way worshipping the sun
and coming to other arrangements with death—
that it is the end, in the abstract. And then one day
someone calls, and you take a deep, deep breath.
Sister nor’wester, southerly brother—
into the mind of the man we guess our way,
blind and deaf, senseless, because he is dead.
From the end of the earth I will cry unto thee,
as daughters and sons have always done,
for words unsaid. The riverbed

was dry and I was thirsty. By your bed,
near the end, we could count our
blessings: each day,
for one thing, and though it was winter, the sun.
A sisterly sixth sense, when death
began to bloom, flew me
from the end of the earth. In a week you were dead
but we shadowed one another
through the brittle days before you went away.
You talked and talked, as you’d always done,
of all but you, till you were out of breath.
I would have liked to hear—despite your fear of the-

atre (so foolish was I, and ignorant, before thee)—
about your mother, for instance, who took to bed
when tempers rose; and how the sun
had burned a dead-
ly thirst into your father’s breath;
but the hard facts I craved, my mother
knew, were the same stones, day
after day, that you buried in death-
ly silence, so that in this inscrutable way
you could build—for you, for her, for six including me—
a house, a plain, safe house, with a sunflower
in the garden. ‘That which is done

is that which shall be done’
is all very well in the-
ory, but what if the sun
were black, and the book dead
wrong, and the interval under death
demanded a father
as unlike his father as day
and night? A breath
of wind reaches me
from the rose-bed;
in its vase or jar the sunflower
nods politely. Halfway

across the Channel, halfway
between waking and sleeping, my mind undone,
I had, as luck would have it, something of an inkling. The day
had been long; as I lay in the boat’s narrow bed
a wave of black joy lifted me and left in me
knowledge so dark it shone. I held my breath.
Fear fell away, of death, and other
fears; the end, in the end, was the darkest jewel. I was dead
tired, and fatigue’s mysterious flower
spoke perhaps in tongues. But that black sun
still shines—a talisman, obsidian, a bright antithe-
sis. Its darkness made light of death

at most, however, for me; the death
of someone else is something else. Your way
led over the border; I am a stranger with thee,
and a sojourner, but wherever I am, my place in the sun
you prepared. His earthly power
spent, your god, to us, is dead,
but it was your belief that gave us breath,
the life we take for granted every day.
What sense of your sense will I take with me?
How much of your world will we hand on?
Just before the end, on the wall beside your bed,
Peter pinned Leonardo’s St. Anne. Her

smile, wry, reminds me of you, and her
hand-on-hip benevolence. Wherever death
leads, we can meet here. The power
of light in van Eyck and Vermeer. The breath
of Wallace Stevens, overhearing his way
to work. Every Henry James you read in bed,
destiny and destiny like night and day.
The valedictory music of ‘The Dead’.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee
but when all—or almost all—is said and done
sometimes it seemed you believed no less than me
that when we die we go into the sun.

There is nothing new under the sun
but much of it is mystery: this my mother knows. Her
psychological eye revised your the-
ological line. They’d converge, anyway,
at the library—your rain-cloud, your seed-bed.
You read and read and read. And saved your breath
not to write yourself, but to make each day
bloom and turn. The astonishing flower,
head full of edible seeds, bows down dead:
this is the credible sense of its death,
that here, where its turning is done
other journeys begin. It seems to me

you believed what you believed, but it strikes me,
too, that the seeds you sowed, in the mind’s sun,
mattered most. (Sometimes they grew a bed
of nails: you were often ‘sick to death’
of fads and feuds, the way
they shut out the sun.) Flower
of wonder, flower of might: if I see thee
on the other side, when I am dead,
I’ll know there is an other
side. Till then, while we have breath,
our burgeoning work is not done:
what we have been given is a rich, difficult day

that could go on without us, nevertheless, all day,
whistling a cryptic tune. It comes to me
in the conservatory, where we catch a little sun:
I didn’t know you well, and then you went away
but in the day of my trouble I will call upon thee
because you were a man to get things done.
In its vase or jar, the young sunflower
I imagine has served its purpose. Beneath its bed,
all along, the river was flowing—deep, where death
knows more than we. Sylvia dons her
gardening gloves to gather the dead
roses. Man cannot utter it, but under his breath:

‘Remember me, my loves, when I am dead.’
Rest on memory’s sea-bed: we will swim down to thee.
And in our own blue day, we will gaze at death
the way this one young bloom would gaze at the sun.
In the garden of the living, my mother stops for breath.
Thou thy worldly task hast done. And seeds rain from the sunflower.

Andrew Johnston is a NZ poet and writer who lives in Paris, and this is one of my favourite poems. It uses the form of a double sestina - an intricate, repetitive, interlocking form - which evokes brilliantly the intricate, repetitive, interlocking relationship between grief and memory, between parents and their children, between love and life and death. Here's what I wrote on The Sunflower in one my first ever blog posts.  
The sestina is six 6-line stanzas, each stanza with the same end words but in a different order, the final end word in each stanza being repeated at the end of the first line of the next, and the poem ending with all six end-words inside the body of the last stanza. 
The double sestina is twelve 12-line stanzas each one with the same rearranged end words (and same end sounds, too, so 'sunflower' can become 'hour' and 'her' 'brother'.) The final six-line stanza (ideally) pulls together all 12 end-words. This repetition and subtle shifts in The Sunflower, and the final gathering together of all 12 words at the end, echoes the relentless persistence of grief and it's sister, memory.  
Johnston's mastery of the sestina form fills me with wonder. He has drilled to the core of his relationship with his father, and to the core of grief itself in all its hatefulness, meaninglessness, significance and bizarre beauty, and come up with something that will surely become a classic. 
You can read more of that post hereReading it now, I feel I mixed my metaphors rather clumsily - referring (breathlessly) to the use of repeated/adapted end words as like both blood pulsing through the body and beads in a kaleidescope - (pause for breath) now I think of it as more like jazz improvisation. 

One of my ambitions is to write a sestina. I have a subject in mind, I just have to find the time now. I wonder how long Andrew Johnston spent on this one? 

Andrew Johnston has given me permission to use this poem on my blog. 

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