Saintly Passions

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Saintly Passions

They say she biked in her ballgown
possibly in a brace, and her with just
one kidney and a ciggie dangling from
the corner of her marvellous mouth

The black sheep of the family, we
thought, a scandal for daring to dance
but then it turned out, her quiet older
sister had a baby out of wedlock

The lock on wed is worth scrutiny in
retrospect, possibly related to the
Death do us part people mentioned
when marrying back then

Another sibling, a younger brother
managed to impregnate a married
woman twice, before she died in
childbirth and he married another

Thank God for adoption everyone
thought back then, and the locals
conspired to contain the secrets
known as the fabric of society

We think of weaving, stitching and
the spinning of yarns, and that’s
just what they did, they hid knots
it was all more warp than weft

And we were left to unpick the
pieces, years later when grown
men arrived in the image of once
unknown fathers to surprise us

Including the girl whose family
won the Golden Kiwi and who
grew to look remarkably like
the Parish Priest who relocated

Where documentation fails, we
have our own imaginations, on-line
DNA matching and curiosity to
rewrite our family histories

Saintly mothers with secrets
that speak of wild passions to
inspire their granddaughters

Lockdown Villanelle

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Lockdown Villanelle
(for Emma Aroha)

In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight
Muddling two languages to make a new word for water
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

Bashing back the Spinifex dodging spikey grasses
Chasing seagulls in circles on freshly wet sand
In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight

Nana is my Kiwi name, in Korea I’m Halmoni
We talked to stars together, marvelled at the moon
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

We inspected dying jellyfish followed scuttling crabs
New words emerged, that neither of us understood
In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight

We ate lunches purchased from the local bakery
I discovered strawberries are also called ttalgi
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

Some days we walked and talked to teddies
In the trees, on windowsills, all unexpectedly
I lifted her to wave to them her new-found friends
In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

Footsteps

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Almost five o’clock, the sun dropping

Late winter sun streaming through trees

Bouncing like a disco light on the choppy sea

And then there’s me, climbing the zig zag

Past my old home, its garden now neglected

And I’m tempted to open the gate, but

I don’t, I move on and up to the top road

Where, as I round the last bend, I catch

What might be birdsong so soft against

The evening, this love-song, this mother

And her baby whispering, and she is

Walking the way I remember walking

Each footstep the most grounded ever

Not fast, not slow, but sure-footed

Pushing her new-born, one week old

She tells me, her face and the baby’s face

Brighter than the dropping sun, one

Week and she is sure-footed, and slow

And the road is but a carpet of love below

Her radiant footsteps, she could be flying

And I am crying now for I remember this

And the old house below holds all

Those heartaches that those footsteps

Belied, those footsteps denied, those

Footsteps… Continue reading

May in Maleme

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Today is my Dad’s birthday. He died in 1999. It’s almost 80 years since the invasion of Crete coming up on 20 May. I’m not one to glorify war, but here’s a picture of my Dad taken during the war (his name was Curly in the war)… and I’ve just merged a whole lot of files from one computer to another and found a poem I wrote some time ago… a villanelle of sorts about that early morning, May 20 when the German elite took the Allied soldiers and local Cretans by surprise. So, in memory of my father.

May in Maleme

Gliders came as a horse to Troy on Crete
blind side, spilling their dawn cargo
falling from the sky like Icarus the German elite

Momentarily they were glorious, an impossible feat
how was anyone on that May morning to know
Gliders came as a horse to Troy on Crete

The Deutscher Fallschirmjager fell replete
with guns and ammunition where the olives grow
falling from the sky like Icarus the German elite

Screaming for their mutters they took a final leap
over Maleme, the 5th Field Artillery waiting below
Gliders came as a horse to Troy on Crete

Kiwi lads with only tins of bully beef to eat
roamed the hills and the olive groves
falling from the sky like Icarus the German elite

and you, my father, on that hillside steep
said hee high blow fly, and Oamaru for Timaru
but all of you and even Freyberg knew
that on Crete, retreat meant surrender.

Lockdown Poetry (I was there)

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This poem is not actually about lockdown, but written during lockdown after watching a video by Billy Collins… I am pretentiously channelling Walt Whitman.

 

 

I too sat in Noble’s barber shop

with my siblings for a haircut

high up on the swivel chair

 

although my hair has now turned grey

I recall the shape of my cut to this day

the nape of my neck exposed

 

A cowlick caused the problem

my fringe could not be restrained

but the feel of clippers I do not regret

 

I drank milkshakes in the Tea Kiosk

through many a paper straw

often so quickly, my head was sore

 

I queued at the War Memorial

for the Saturday Matinee on sunny

days but my friends were not allowed

 

I was called out of class

to the Murder House mid lesson

to face the consequences

 

Of too many toffee bars at

half time, the slow sweet decay

that I have paid for to this day

 

I remember Richmond Drapery

cinnamon seamless hosiery

the smell of bolts of cloth

 

Was it you and I who lay on the

hot asphalt by the school pool

peeing our maps of the world?

 

Was it you or me drinking

Cona Coffee, candles dripping

wax from empty wine bottles?

 

Were you there?

 

I climbed those blue hills with my lover

lay in those grasses upon which

the flash new subdivisions grew

 

Valhalla seemed grandiose for a

working class suburb, but the

new mall put paid to that

 

There’s a Mall my mother wrote

to me on a flimsy blue aerogramme

to my flat in Shepherds Bush

 

We all had our school feet measured

at Taylors at one time or another

secretly longing for patent leather

 

Herb was the Chemist who carefully

dispensed the avalanche of post war

Valium and sedatives to everyone

 

And everyone was married at one

time or another at the Church

of the Holy Trinity on the hill

 

Except us Catholics who of course

required a Papal dispensation

If we were wishing to deviate

 

I too was there each Anzac

and many after that too

In the bright light of Autumn

 

Where were you?

  
   

E-bikes and bad days

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We were away for the mid-term holidays. Just a short break, across the hill. Part of the plan was to hire a couple of electric bikes to try them out. The weather permitted, and we had a fun afternoon enjoying the newly found benefits of a bike set on eco, normal, or high, whereby, although you pedal, there’s a little engine kicking in to assist. I climbed my first hill on eco and was still puffing, so from then on, it was high uphill all the way, almost coasting.  We smelled the cow pats, breathed in the pollen, and faced the headwinds with ease.

On our return to base, at a pretty modern cottage, in a reasonably high-end resort (special deal for mid-weekers), we collapsed, each with a glass of wine, to read and relax. I was inside, as the wind had come up and John sat outside to catch the late afternoon rays of light.

Later that evening, he told me what he overheard, while sitting sipping wine in the sun.  Across from us, almost obscured by a beautifully manicured hedge, were other pretty wooden cottages. John heard a man knocking loudly on a neighbouring cottage door. The door was answered by another man who was regaled with loud apologies.  It seemed the man knocking on the door wanted to apologise for having abused his neighbour in their adjoining courtyards just a moment ago. He was speaking loudly and apologetically and trying to explain that he’d just had the ‘worst day of his life’.  John said, he could hear the pleading in the man’s voice and sensed him wanting the other chap to at least ask, what the matter was. But it seemed the man who had been abused, although grateful for the apology, didn’t wish to dally and enquire as to why.  (Understandably probably).

John and I talked about this encounter and whether we should go and ask after this stranger, so distraught that he was abusing other people and then apologetic, saying he’d just had the worst day of his life. We speculated that perhaps his wife or partner had left him, that perhaps someone had died…. We even briefly permitted the idea of murder in the benign cottage across the manicured hedge.

But still, it wasn’t our business, really was it?  And we both agreed, if we’d been closer to the encounter, it would have been okay to at least ask this distraught man if he was okay – but by the time we talked about it, it was too late really and we couldn’t be sure exactly which cottage he had come from.

And then, I looked at the date which was 12 October and that almost 50 years ago, in 1969, my eldest brother took his own life on this exact day – back then, indeed, it was the worst day of my life. I wrote a poem about this which is due out later this year in a new literary magazine Geometry. The idea that people put their heads down when others are in trouble, or when the trouble is too awful to acknowledge. Back in the 60’s suicide held a certain social stigma, and people preferred to pretend it hadn’t happened. We’re both hoping the distraught man who abused his neighbour in the resort over the hill, is okay.

 

 

The author photo

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The author photo

 

Front on, full faced and smiling

at my age, is inadvisable,

I tried it this morning on my phone

alas without an airbrush and

undaunted, I tried again

 

something more serious, more

fitting of a writer perhaps, I

turned sideways, hoping my profile

would be interesting or mysterious

alas the phone has no filter

 

I was certain though, this could be

managed somehow with careful

placement of my head at the right

angle adjacent to books of course

looking authorly my glasses on

 

alas I blame my phone the camera

it’s tricky to get the perfect light

if I wait awhile it might come right

but wrong again, with every click

I’m forced to face the truth of it

 

That look, that sidelong interrogation

the mysterious faraway insightful side-on

almost smile but not so blatant with

chiselled chin and cheekbones eludes

both the phone, and my ambition

 

I’ll have to settle for the loving

Smile at me darling, you look lovely

From my beloved photographer

who doesn’t see my necklines

ignores my crooked mouth

 

and doesn’t understand when

I’m disappointed with the photo

he takes, me thinking there must be

a better version surely, and that

I could look authorly eventually

 

 

 

 

Everything is here except Elvis

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‘Everything is Here’ by Rob Hack

 

I really like the profile on the Escalator Press website that says this about the poet…

Rob has lived in Paekakariki  since 2005, after a third attempt to live across the ditch. He has been an insurance salesman, greenkeeper , builder, personal trainer, gym owner, factory hand, gardener, shop assistant etc and currently works as a handyman, to buy second-hand poetry books, and petrol so he can visit his grandchildren each week.

There’s a nice anarchy here, the poet as an insurance salesman, which grabbed my attention immediately. And then there is the interesting fact that Rob was born in Invercargill but spent his childhood in Niue. It’s hard to imagine such a striking shift in landscape and indeed, the landscape is preeminent in his poems.

 

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Everything is Here’ is the title of his collection, a series of poems. The poetry is freighted with an emotional energy connected to family, milieu, place, and displacement. It speaks to a New Zealand childhood that I recognise. The poem ‘Canons Creek Four Square’ could easily be my home town of Richmond, but then there is disconcerting twist, the poet as an outsider.  The boy from Niue sent by his Mum to buy a tin of peaches. Innocuous, but powerful and nicely underplayed where racism is mollified with a lifesaver lolly.

The collection resonates with a spiritual thread from one sea to another across the Pacific and as far as Europe. It is a poetic memoir traversing connections to the two sides of his family.  They are snapshots into a life, or lifestyle, at times cinematic, but often leaving the reader wanting to know more. An example is a poem ‘High Noon in Avarua’ which feels like a second-hand local myth retold, handed down, and turned into a poem. And yet I wanted more, I felt I’d only glimpsed ‘Te Kope, the adopted son of the late Nui Manu’. At times, I was reminded at times of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’. ‘Blue Laws’ a list poem with fines for misdemeanours including, my favourite ‘If a man cries at the funeral of an unrelated woman $10.00’.

Another poem I really enjoyed with a fabulous long title is ‘James Cook couldn’t land and Elvis never sang on Niue’… which ends with a great three lines

Dad said, Elvis would’ve come to Niue

if he saw your mother dance

but he’d have to leave his hips at the door.

The poems have warmth and humour, they are easy but not light, warm and heart-warming. There is darkness written lightly.  Rob is a true bard. I’ve heard him read now twice (the first time at open mike at the Writers Symposium at the National Library) and then at Litcrawl. He has a strong presence as a performer and these poems lend themselves to the oral tradition. They have an anecdotal conversational air about them.

 

Katherine Mansfield and a bookmark

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Last evening, October 14, we celebrated the birthday of Katherine Mansfield. Nicola Saker, Chair of the local KM Society made a short and pithy toast, pointing out that as poor Katherine had so few birthdays and had the misfortune to be married to a man who often forgot her birthday – it behoved us to raise our glasses on this (if she’d lived) her 127th birthday. This celebration was also a special occasion to raise funds for the prestigious Menton Fellowship.

We were in the new Meridian Energy building – glass from floor to ceiling, looking out at the almost calm and very blue harbour. One of the red tug boats made a cameo appearance, but most of the time our eyes were on the objects being auctioned. My heart was set on a painting of KM by Seraphine Pick. Alas, the auction for this, kicked off beyond my bidding price. It was a real joy to see that it reached $4,000 even if I wasn’t the lucky buyer. I am both a friend and fan of Seraphine who is a most joyful down to earth and hugely talented woman. It was the first time, she told me, that she had been in a room when one of her paintings was being auctioned.

It was interesting to observe the room. These were people with deep pockets. We were drinking French champagne and eating dainty canapés. I love French champagne and I scoffed the stylish canapés to keep pace with my bubbles. When I say deep pockets, I mean people with the discretion to bid recklessly and generously to support the Menton Fellowship. It was a very flash version of the local cake stall in the village – a fundraiser. Kiwis are good at this. And in the arts, we are very good at this and we have to be grateful for people with money who want to support the arts. There were a few writers in the room, but not many.. We talked about this. It’s probably because most writers do not earn enough to bid recklessly at auctions, but are very grateful for the support of the residency.

The highlight for me was queuing at a table where three local poets, Bill Manhire, Greg O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt sat, on demand, and for a donation, creating one-line poem bookmarks. Earlier in the evening Bill made a very warm and witty speech about the personal impact of the Menton residency on his sense of self as a writer. He then read a poem he was commissioned to write for Sir Ed Hilary on the 25th anniversary of the Erebus crash. A most poignant poem and yet such a tricky topic to do well. Manhire paid tribute to his time in Menton giving him the courage to tackle such a poem for such an occasion. As he was reading the poem, spookily, the super-duper air-conditioning unit re-calibrated making the sound similar to a jet’s wings adjusting.

I chose to queue and wait for Greg O’Brien because he was my mentor in the late 90’s when I undertook the Victoria University undergraduate Poetry Course – I think one of the first of the CREW series. It was an amazing time in my life. I was almost 50, my teenagers had left home and I was full of crazy doggerel. Greg managed to find the poetry in my wild scribbles. I’ll always be grateful for this doorway to a writing life.

The poets asked that you give them a hint or theme for the bookmark poem. I mentioned my character Artemis from my new novel due out soon to Greg for his drawing and to Jenny, I said that I will be getting my ‘gold card’ in November.

This is the beautiful bookmark that I received. I will treasure it. And don’t you just love that something so special can be created ‘on the spot’ by true poets and artists.

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Clive James and the humblebrag

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I’ve just listened to Clive James talking to Kim Hill. She mentioned the ‘humblebrag’ when he deferentially said ‘I’m a fairly ordinary story’ in response to questions about someone writing his biography. ‘Don’t’ forget, ‘he said, ‘sometimes reputations just melt away overnight.’ With further modesty he claimed that one of his main talents was his ability to concentrate and that he had a knack for a turn of phrase.

All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.

He’s dying and so this conversation was about death and regret and about a poem too, that went viral when published in the New Yorker. It’s called ‘Japanese Maple’ about a tree his daughter gave him that is destined to outlive him – but he’s already survived longer than his poem about himself and the tree predicted.

I was struck by the difference in Clive James in conversation with Kim, and a time when I saw him at the Wellington Writers and Readers festival a few years ago. My first impression was great, because he was interviewed by Kate Camp who was an obvious devotee and she brought out the best in him. They had what I call a ‘love-fest’, where the interviewer as admirer creates what feels like a true and mutual intimacy in conversation. Alas, at the same festival, on a panel, he behaved boorishly and condescendingly and was embarrassing. It was as if he didn’t know how to share the limelight.

And so, I am interested in the humblebrag. It’s a tricky thing to achieve and I think writers in particular are quite adept at it. There’s the gorgeous stuff that only the very young can pull off whereby they claim not to care about fame, but draw attention to themselves all the same with their foxy protestations. Then too, there are blogs about rejection. It can sound like self-pity, or self-promotion. But it can also be superb. I recommend Paula Morris nominated for the prestigious Sunday Times short story competition, and her blog posting ‘Not Real Life‘ about daring to dream she might win.

I recently read somewhere that at age 20, we worry what other people think of us. And then at 40, we don’t give a damn what they think, and then at 60, we realise (thankfully at last) it wasn’t us they were thinking about after all. I like that very much and it’s such a gem of wisdom that you wish it was a vaccination.

Why am I writing this? Because I have a blog, and excitingly I have a new novel coming out in October. I wanted to draw attention to myself and to my writing. I needed a hook. Shamelessly I’ve used Clive James as my lure. It’s my version of the humble-brag.

And so I’ll end with a Clive James quote from his conversation with Kim Hill ‘Life is not a picnic – it’s not all laid out for you.’ But if it were, then where better than at our local beach to spread your picnic. (photo by John).

Days Bay, Eastbourne sunset