4th Floor Literary Journal

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4th Floor Journal

This week, I had the pleasure of participating in the live launch of 4th Floor journal. It is the first time that I’ve been able to attend the actual launch. It was upstairs on the first floor of the Wellington Whitireia Campus and hubby was nonplussed in the lift, having assumed the 4th Floor, meant the fourth floor!

Lynn Jenner was the guest editor for the journal and it was very nice to finally meet her. She was so enthusiastic about the work of all the contributors. I found myself sitting next to the fabulous Renée Taylor and in the very good company of Adrienne Jansen and Jane Blaikie, who were tutors at Whitiriea when I completed the Advanced Fiction Diploma some years ago.

Adrienne read her terrific series of poems titled ‘Local’ about her observations while catching the bus and developing stories for the characters she saw. It’s a delicious poem kicking off with the opening line

She balances the tray of eggs

on her fingertips, just like a waiter.

I particularly liked these lines from the poem ‘At the Exhibition’ by Jane Blaikie.

It’s as simple as that, although as must be clear

to us all by now that love and simple are unrelated.

Renée read from her poem ‘Outside the Sun is Shining’

I wanted to post an excerpt from Renée’s poetry here, but the blog format won’t let me scan the full line, so instead I will post a link so you can go right on over to the 4th Floor Literary Journal and read it for yourself (which is partly the point of this blog anyway).

I am a big fan of Renée’s writing and will never forget the performance of her play ‘Wednesday to Come’ at Downstage on the 20th anniversary of its first performance.

I love being part of this prestigious journal alongside such esteemed good company. This year the likes of Elizabeth Smither, Lynn Davidson, Pip Adam, Natasha Dennerstein, Vivienne Plumb and Mercedes Webb-Pullman, to name just a few that I know. Mercedes was unable to attend the launch and I had the privilege of reading two of her poems. I’m always enjoy poetry, so it was a pleasure.

Here’s a couple of lines to tempt you from ‘Are all the pilots down’

through dark clouds colder than ice

into the peace of stars

then vanish where all pilots go

finally home to the sky.

I also really like the poetry of Helen Lehndorf and had planned to post an excerpt from her poetry but alas, I seem unable to retain the right line breaks and so instead, I will send you over to the 4th Floor Journal to read ‘So much white noise’. I can’t resist quoting this perfect question from the poem…

and how can you trust a man without a story?

The most affecting moment of the live launch was the reading of the poem ‘Exceeding Expectations’. I urge you to go on over to the 4th Floor and read this evocative, heart-rending poem. It’s a father son kind of poem and written by Brandon Mehertens who is autistic and unable to speak – a friend read the poem for him. As a poem it sure packs a punch.

Lastly, there is my own poem. I’m very happy this year with my contribution. It is my very first sestina. I find that the villanelle and the sestina allow the writer to traverse tricky topics without becoming maudlin or over- sentimental. This poem, titled ‘Ngawhatu’, is about the psychiatric hospital in Nelson and my memories of it during the 50’s and 60’s – prompted by a recent visit to Nelson about which I have already blogged.

Here’s a teaser line or two for you:

if you’re not careful, shit a brick, you’ll end up there

What’s up there? But no one speaks, it’s all unspoken

get off the grass and up your arse with superstition

hoodackie, thingummybob, bite your bum thoughts

These lines were tweeted and a few of my friends made the comment that they couldn’t imagine these words coming out of my mouth – I rather like that – and yes they did!

Finally, it must be said, that the contributors owe a debt of gratitude to the Whitireia publishing team for all their work behind the scenes, tweaking, editing, putting the final touches to line breaks, mistakes and both querying spelling and author intent.

Kate Sheppard and a tinfoil mouse

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I recently read Penelope Lively’s ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish‘, a thoughtful memoir in which she explores the meaning of memory and links moments in her life to precious objects, not valuable artefacts necessarily, but meaningful and even sentimental. Ian Wedde, too in his recent memoir ‘The Grass Catcher’ evokes memory through objects and the odours of his youth. The main object being the grass catcher. (Some of the odours he mentions are best left to be read about.) Although, I guess there’s probably not a Kiwi kid from the 50’s and 60’s who doesn’t remember the smell of freshly cut grass, and a hand mower with a canvas catcher. Or indeed, who doesn’t recall the whiff of two-stroke petrol when the family upgraded from a hand to a motor mower… and in your over-enthusiasm pulling out the choke, the mower flooded.

On reading these memoirs, I realised that my garden whenever I wander in it, evokes important milestones both happy and sad. It was over Labour Weekend, home alone with a broken wrist, somewhat sorry for myself, that I sat reading on our sunny deck and recalled it was my Aunt’s birthday.   That’s my deceased Aunty who would have been 94 this year. What made me recall her, was not just the date, the 25th of October, her birthday but that she would often come to stay with us for Labour Weekend and we would share her birthday. And that the cherry blossom tree that we built the deck around would be in full flower. Since then, we’ve chopped down the cherry tree – as it was taking up so much room on the deck but the memory of the cherry blossoms and my Aunt are intermingled.

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This prompted me to explore my garden and I found another blossom tree that forms an almost canopy on the lower part of our hillside section. The first year we moved into this house, our youngest son was six (he’s now 33) and we have a photograph of him standing under the flowering canopy with a chipped front tooth – memorable, because that very next day he was going to be page boy at the wedding of friends, fully decked out in matching tail-coat with his father who was the Groomsman. I remember being annoyed he’d broken his tooth. The couple who married, now have a daughter off to university next year. Whenever I look out our bedroom window in Spring and see the blossoms, I see our son with his chipped tooth, and then I remember our friends’ wedding anniversary.

Immediately beneath the blossom canopy is a very important memorial to our deceased cat Red who just happened to be a almost twenty year old black and white cat. Our granddaughter who adored Red, has made a pile of stones and shells in the garden as a tribute, and this includes a once shiny tinfoil mouse. The cat’s ashes are inside our house in a box, or are they? That’s another story, told in a poem and here is the link.

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Then there are my roses. They bring me both joy and a stab of grief.   Roses enjoy being hacked it seems. The possums last year were feasting on my roses, and so I cut them back savagely to pervert the possums – it seems the roses enjoyed this and they are looking positively radiantly ready to burst into many buds. This includes Kate Sheppard, named after the feisty Kiwi feminist whom we thank for the vote. My Korean daughter-in-law helped me plant Kate – a treasured gardening memory, all the more poignant as this year, she moves on to a new life, away from our family. No-one warned me that as a mother-in-law I could also have my heart broken.

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Kate Sheppard 2011 005

The Kate Sheppard Rose

The Kate Sheppard Rose

More violent and perhaps funnier, is the silk tree at our gate. One day, some years back now, after a fiery argument with my beloved, in fury and frustration, I attacked the silk tree – it was growing out over the path and obstructing the entrance. I chopped and chopped and snapped and attacked and I’m not sure what my neighbours thought. I felt bad afterwards and imagined the silk tree doomed, but it, like the roses, has thrived – but always to remind me of my tantrum.

Then there are the daisies that were once very fashionable in cottage country gardens. I tried slavishly to cultivate a cottage garden look to no avail. And then when we converted to a more coastal (but let’s keep the roses), suddenly the packet of seed that I sowed decided to grow. And now those daisies are considered weeds, but I allow them their rampancy as it only seems fair that they have tried so hard. They interweave with a beautiful old-fashioned red-leafed creeper with tiny mauve pom-pom flowers. The two fight for supremacy and I keep them both in check.

Too, as you enter out front gate by the almost demolished silk tree, there is a softly delicious smelling jasmine plant that entwines with the wildly fragrant honey-suckle. Both plants are now considered ‘outlaws’ as we live next to a native reserve… but the scent is so delicious of an evening that I cannot bring myself to be rid of them entirely. Inside our front gate are two Daphne bushes bringing their ‘lawful’ luxurious bouquet to our doorstep. Dare I mention my rogue (practically heretical) ginger plants. They look so striking and I’ve tried to strike them out. Alas, they resurge.

The last important memory is about our first day in this house. We inherited a beautiful old-fashioned garden and one of the main attractions were the pink water-lily dahlias. The previous occupant an older couple who had tended the garden for years with love and affection, slyly dug up some of the ‘considered rare’ dahlia bulbs and took them to their new abode. Due to landscaping and renovation, I no longer have any dahlias, but I know where they should be and they remind me of the key to the house, left in a glass bottle under the front veranda by the same elderly couple. And too the note they left us, filled with daily, weekly, monthly chores to be attended to, including the trimming and clearing of the zig-zag down to the road below. There’s a blackbird that comes to sing. We’ve named him after the dear old chap who lived here before us – although we’ve been in the house now for over 25 years, and I’m not sure how long blackbirds live…

Recently I posted a poem inspired by the tuis in our Kohwai tree. This tree was but a wind-blown seedling on the side of a clay bank that I was about to tear out while weeding when we first moved in. Something stopped me. It seemed wrong to not want a Kowhai, even though it was in the wrong place. The Kowhai now is a superstar where in springtime eight or nine tuis can be found feasting. It shades my washing line, something I lament, but the song of the tuis and the sight of the overweight kereru, more than compensates.

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So, my garden is full of birdsong, flowers and my heart’s song, a testimony to loss and new growth.

Wearing a Poem

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Tui 4

I don’t normally rush to publish a poem in progress, but these photographs by John Rainey-Smith are so beautiful that I’ve decided to take a risk – publish the photos and the poem that the tuis inspired, yesterday. I reserve the right to rewrite the poem, extend it or end it. But it does capture the first day of creativity for me in quite a while.

Wearing a Poem

Into this windless blue
cubes of sunlight land askew
on painted indoor walls
accompanied by hammering

as builders repeat their
renovating heartbeat of
another suburban almost
summer in our street

fat and sonsy tuis
gobble kohwai, their
throats awash with song
amid golden profusion

fatter even than last
year, more flowers to
feed upon, thanks
to the endless rain

my silver beet stalks
shine phosphorous red
trapped on the deck
with the mint and thyme

I was reaching for
a grief to nurture
to feed on like
the sonsy tuis

hoping to wear a poem
a somewhat dated outfit
but instead, a poem
wore me.

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We sat together on our deck in the late afternoon sun, sharing a beer, waiting patiently for the birds to return to sip the kohwai nectar. They rewarded us for our silent vigil. I like my poem but I’m even prouder still of John’s beautiful photographs.

Essential New Zealand Poems and doggerel

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Essential New Zealand Poems and doggerel

Essential New Zealand Poems book cover

I had the interesting honour recently of speaking to a group of writers completing a memoir course. It was a thrill for me to be invited and in particular, because they had been given my recent Landfall essay ‘Who is Left’ to read and compare with an article by Rosemary McLeod, one of my absolute favourite journalists.

My essay is a personal interrogation of my motivation for not just attending, but actually liking Anzac Day commemorations. Rosemary McLeod had written about stolen war medals and her distaste for the proposed new and very large local war memorial in the old Buckle Street Museum building.

I did not disagree with Rosemary’s piece. I rarely do. She usually nails it for me. I react privately to something in the news and then find that Rosemary can articulate it eloquently and intelligently and I mostly find myself nodding in agreement. I remember returning from my ‘OE’ in the mid seventies and opening up the Listener to read Rosemary McLeod – it was the first time I had read such smart, funny and insightful local journalism. I became a fan and have remained one.

So, there I was on a wet Saturday, talking to other aspiring writers about my journey as a writer, feeling somewhat amazed (flattered) that these students had read both my essay and Rosemary’s article. I’ve been one of those students many times in my journey as a writer. We hope that by listening to others we will unlock a secret door to our own creativity – a short-cut even, or a road-map.

And so, I told the students about what I now call my epiphany. That I was driven to writing passionate rhyming verse about my teenagers, one with dreadlocks and the other a green Mohawk. The epiphany came as I stood in a local mall with both lads and a letter from the local high school principal demanding that the green Mohawk be modified. We found some hair dye and he went from an emerald-green to Gothic black but I must say green suited him a lot better. Out of this, came the doggerel. And out of that, I gained a place on one of the first under-graduate poetry writing courses (now de rigueur) up at Victoria University in the late 1990’s – one of the 12 disciples with Greg O’Brien (not the Last Supper, but my first).

I had no idea that my rhyming verse, was in fact, doggerel. I had no idea what doggerel was, as I’d not heard the word before. I grew up with my mother reciting lines from ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ by C.J. Dennis, and we always called it poetry. So, here I was in Greg’s class with real poets (people who’d actually been published), and my own rather amateurish doggerel, as I discovered. But too, it can’t have been all bad, as there must have been an essence of something for the university to have taken the chance on me and invited me on to the course.

How proud am I, a decade or so later that one of the poems that I started to write during that course, is included in the newly published anthology ‘Essential New Zealand Poems – facing the empty page’… to be between the superb suede-like orange-flavoured covers with so many poets that I admire – too many to mention, many of them now friends.

Eastbourne – an Anthology

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Eastbourne – an Anthology

It’s time I blogged. I’ve been teaching English in Cambodia for the past three months. It has been a real adventure and I’ve loved it. There have been so many things to absorb, equal amounts of joy to challenges. My Cambodian students fill me with admiration. They work six days a week and sometimes two jobs and still they turn up to learn English.

I will leave a part of my heart here. I will blog about Cambodia, when I return to New Zealand.

And so, my thoughts are now turning towards home. While I was over here teaching English, the Eastbourne Anthology, was launched. I am proudly one of the co-editors of this publication, along with Mary McCallum and Anne Manchester. We worked together on it for two years (not imagining when we started, that it would take that long). I left to take up this volunteer teaching role in Siem Reap for three months, just before the final stages of the editing. And so I must say a big thank you to Mary and Anne for carrying on in the difficult final few weeks, with deadlines and proof reading to be done.

Too, I wish to acknowledge that the inspiration for this anthology was Mary’s. She invited us to join her on this project, knowing that all three of us share a passion for literature and our community. We knew too, that many famous New Zealand authors had featured Eastbourne in their work. But we didn’t know quite how many until we began our research. And nor did we realise how many talented local unpublished authors would submit their work. Constantly, we were surprised and delighted by the variety and the quality and this made our job has editors so much more difficult – and in the end rewarding.

The easy bit, was of course, the ‘Classics’. I’m a devotee of both Katherine Mansfield and Robin Hyde, so I was more than happy to re-read their work and rediscover the references to my own home bay, Days Bay. And then great joy, I was introduced to the work of Molly Falla and had the good fortune to meet her daughter, one of Days Bay’s oldest residents – well, she has lived in the bay perhaps the longest. My next most exciting discovery, with the assistance of Ali Carew of the Eastbourne Historical Society, was the writing of Mary Findlay and her astonishing memoir ‘Tooth and Nail’. I blogged about this a few months ago.

When our family first moved to Eastbourne, over 24 years ago now, we noticed how many second generation families there were in the community. I will confess, at first I had reservations about this. I scoffed a little. We were ‘newcomers’ in the bay and we lived in ‘The Barnett’s House’. Houses were named after the people who had lived there the longest, and not the new kids on the block. I was a working mother (and this wasn’t altogether approved of). It’s taken a while, but I think we’re now part of that same tradition – maybe if we sell our house one day, they’ll say to the new buyer ‘Oh, you’re in the Rainey-Smiths’ house’.

I now have a granddaughter living close by to me here in Eastbourne and I understand community in a different way. The dedication in the anthology from me, is for my granddaughter Sienna. I think it’s good to leave your community to gain a perspective and I’ve been away now for three months. I miss my family and friends. I miss the tuis and the wood pigeons and I miss the sound of the sea.

The Eastbourne anthology is a celebration of all the things that I miss and I’m very proud to be both a co-editor and to have two of my poems in the anthology. A special thank you to Makaro Press, the new publishing house of Mary McCallum. I hear that the anthology is about to go into reprint. It was Mary’s inspired choice to have the anthology ‘bay-themed’ and Anne’s to invite local artists to submit sketch impressions of their bays.

I wasn’t able to be at the launch but courtesy of Viber, I heard the launch speech by Mary and my husband John took these photographs for me. Fittingly, the anthology was launched at the Rona Gallery, home to all literary and artistic soirées in the village of Eastbourne. Joanna and Richard Ponder and their family are staunch supporters of the arts in our community.

Mary McCallum launching the anthology at the Rona Gallery

Mary McCallum launching the anthology at the Rona Gallery

John Horrocks, poet and neighbour, reading

John Horrocks, poet and neighbour, reading

Lloyd Jones (one of the famous faces) reading from his work.

Lloyd Jones (one of the famous faces) reading from his work.

Anne Manchester, co-editor (whose work also appears in the anthology).

Anne Manchester, co-editor (whose work also appears in the anthology).

Sunlight and Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (St Seamus) has died.
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I didn’t meet him, until 1999, when I slipped at the last minute into the undergraduate Poetry Course at Victoria University. My first notification told me that I had ‘missed out’ and they listed the 12 names of the chosen ones. It felt like the Last Supper with Greg O’Brien at the top table and me, with no invitation. And then, one Saturday morning, unexpectedly, a phone call from the poet Greg O’Brien. I was, at the time, working in the recruitment industry and unbeknown to the poet Greg, I was imagining he must be the Greg O’Brien from the recruitment industry.

Greg had phoned me to say he loved one of my poems. It was a warm-up to explain that I was now being invited to the Last Supper. You see, one of the ‘chosen’ twelve had turned out to be a non-starter… I can’t recall exactly, but I think she hadn’t even submitted a portfolio.

It was my good fortune.

And so, in those few life-changing weeks that I attended the Victoria University undergraduate Poetry Course – I think one of the first few… I met Saint Seamus. I also met Eavan Boland. I found my life forever changed. When I was running a book group and writing class at a local women’s prison, I found myself in awe, as a prisoner deconstructed Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’ poem – good poetry crosses all social divides.

One of my favourite Heaney poems (besides of course ‘Digging’) is ‘Mossbawn 1.Sunlight’
This poem speaks to me of my own mother, also Mary, but she was called Molly.

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Instead of an outside pump, I see the woodshed, the kindling, the coal bucket and the roaring fire. I watch my mother apron-less, glide across the linoleum (the new linoleum that my Aunt ruined with her stilettos one Friday night when she turned up for our Catholic Friday night fish dinner). My Mum made her own batter, crisp, light and golden. She had tiny feet, size 3 shoes, and was as slender and light as plum tree branch. Her hair was a charcoal perm, she wore crimplene button-throughs, and her only accessory was a cigarette. Yes, she stood by the window, to look at the blue Richmond hills. The slung bucket was for coal. The tinsmith scoop was an old crockery cup that dipped in the flour bin. Flour dust trailed across the polished floor to the bench where she rolled pastry with a lemonade bottle. She had biceps the size of a downtown gym membership, earned from beating the butter and sugar by hand. I wrote a poem about this http://www.maggieraineysmith.com/cms/node/28

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Yes, I love Seamus Heaney’s poetry. It speaks to me of my Irish ancestry and my own Kiwi childhood. The new apple green half-size fridge throbbing under the Bakelite blue radio. My Dad’s chair in the corner where his hair oil bubbled the paintwork behind him. Scones lighter than Nigella could imagine, sponges dropped on the hearth to prove (no sudden dips in my Mum’s cakes). The back door open with sunlight pouring through in the late afternoon. Doors open and closed to control the oven temperature – a window opened instead. Mid summer in Nelson and the coal range raging, the hot water cylinder rumbling like Ruapehu and then erupting and spilling over old red tiles (no OSH health and safety measures required).

Yes, I love Seamus Heaney – RIP. For Seamus and my Mum, Molly, July 16, 1974.

The Way We Live Now

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The way we live now

I am reading Anthony Trollope’s ‘The way we live now’ a free to download classic on my Kindle and evidently (according to Wikipedia) Trollope’s masterpiece. I can’t comment on that, as I’ve not read any of his work before. It is a fascinating book and feels so contemporary in so many ways in light of the recent demise of so many respected financial institutions, the queries around appointing ex politicians as Directors of commercial enterprise and all the associated pitfalls of modern capitalism.

But too, I am captured by the comedy and pathos of Lady Carbury, her willful blind spots and her shameless literary ambitions, the delightful satire of book reviews… can’t help chuckling. I can’t wait to discuss the book with my book group who are among the smartest women I know and of course, they will have plenty to say, and I shall report back. In the meantime, from my hammock, on Sunday evening, as the sun went down, inspired by Lady Carbury’s efforts at self-promotion…

Reading Trollope from the Hammock

Reading Trollope from the Hammock

From the hammock

Lego from the garden
sits atop
the chopped sleepers
my raspberry Hydrangea
has faded
in the face of summer
Kate Sheppard, the last rose
has buds
there’s not a breath of wind
just birdsong and the faint
traffic
in the distance sound
of the southerly
Lady Carbury
keeps me company
on my Kindle, I worry
for her
for me, for all mothers
their gardens, old Lego
new weeds
our lemon tree losing leaves
although he pees under it
some times
we Skype our family
here and overseas
imagine
that if we stay up all night
but we’ve done that to death
my glass
of Pinot Gris reflects
an upside down tree
a dog
barks half heartedly
and mist rolls in
our pines
went out by helicopter
leaving bleached beech
corpses
there are screams too
from fathers louder than
birdsong
And silent mothers make
school lunches in the dark

Maggie Rainey-Smith copyright 12/03/2013.

Art to Heart with Edvard Munch, Gustav Vigeland, El Greco and Picasso

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All of my art experiences, well the ones that have touched my heart, have been more or less accidental. I think it is this stumbling into art which has had the most impact on my life. I didn’t grow up with a specific artistic or literary education, but one of the biggest influences was of course religious art, iconic images from my Catholic childhood. It was astonishing for me as a young woman travelling through Spain in the seventies to step into a chapel in Toledo and find the original El Greco’s which I knew intimately as a child from the Columban Calendars that hung in all good Catholic homes. I had the very good fortune that day to be travelling in a group that included a young Australian priest in training, on temporary leave from the seminary, who took me on a guided tour of the El Greco’s. And, confession, it was many, many years later, in Kalamata, Greece in 2007 that I finally realised, attending a movie on the life of El Greco, that of course, he was ‘The Greek’, and not a Spanish artist after all.
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It is a very fine thing I do believe to uncover these secrets accidentally, rather than academically.
A friend recently emailed me a link to two beautiful images by the artist Edvard Munch… ‘The Madonna’ and ‘The Voice’ and

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

interestingly, the poems written by Munch about these paintings (from a book by Bente Torjusen – The Words and Images of Edvard Munch which is copyright, or I’d include the poems on this blog). The poems are exquisite – unnecessary you could say, for what is art, but a visual not verbal experience… but beautiful as well, because the lines of the poems are expressed in different colours (the mind of an artist). It reminded me of my first encounter with Edvard Munch, in Oslo, January 1973. I was on my way to taking up a job as a waitress in the Haukeli Mountains and staying in Oslo at a youth hostel. I found Munch and Vigeland. They’re pretty hard to miss in a small city the size of Oslo. It was snowing too, that much I remember. I was in love then with all things Norwegian and still hold huge affection in my heart for that time in my life. It was here I first learned to ski and to haltingly speak snippets of another language.

Gustav Vigeland sculpture

Gustav Vigeland sculpture


In Paris in 1997, with my youngest son who back then was just fifteen, together we literally stumbled upon the Picasso Museum. We had just previously laboured our way through the great halls of the Louvre in search of the Mona Lisa, almost running through a room of Rubens – so overwhelming was the art experience that we couldn’t take it in.

This delightful accident, the Picasso Museum, remains an unforgettable art experience both the intimacy of the setting, the sharing of it with my son and the lack of expectation enabling a true heart to art experience. I purchased this poster advertising an exhibition which now hangs in our bathroom and the other is a print which hangs in our bedroom.Poster from Picasso MuseumPrint Purchased from Picasso Museum

Years ago, when my children were preschoolers, and we didn’t have a lot of money to decorate our humble Edwardian villa in Brooklyn (not New York, but Wellington), I used to drive my olive-green Mini down to the Wellington library and fill the boot with art for hire. It was a lot of fun and a cheap way to dress our house and the great advantage being you never got bored as you just took the picture back and got another one. These were reproductions such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’ but oh the joy racing through the Louvre to see the Vermeer original. I know, I know, they’re practically clichés, but they looked lovely on our wall.

At primary school in the fifties, one of my most humbling experience was being part of a team in class where you had to run to the front of the room and draw something – my task was to draw a hand – all I had to do was place my hand on the blackboard and draw around it to get a fairly reasonable image – but I didn’t have the confidence or imagination for that, and instead I froze at the board mortified, unable to even decide how many fingers a single hand held. It’s one of those frozen moments of life that you never forget. My own version of ‘The Scream’. Nowadays, I teach English as a second language and I find being unable to draw a big advantage – I have no shame and I attempt to draw and the students laugh and through their laughter they name the object that I have so poorly tried to represent – you see my lack of shame unlocks their language.

My friend has reminded me of my introduction to Edward Munch, my astonishment and attraction to ‘The Scream’ before I knew it was a famous painting, and too, of the joy of Frognor Park, my very first up close encounter with stone brought to life. Coming from New Zealand in the early 70’s I was too, a teeny bit startled by so much public nude abandonment (even in stone)… I loved the girl with the flying hair and now I am a grandmother, and I see my granddaughter, her plaits flying as she dances for me in our garden.

From Maleme to Mapua

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I was inspired to think about this seemingly random link after reading a poem. The poem is called “Alive together” and it is by Lisel Mueller. The poem begins thus:
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
The poet goes on to imagine being a woman in a different time, married to different men, the idea of who we are being both random and minutely specific to a multitude of histories. I like this poem and I have recently been reading ‘Crete – The Battle and the Resistance”’ by Anthony Beevor. It is a very good account of a fearsome battle for control of the island in Greece during the Second World War, told from many sides of the story, the Germans, the New Zealanders, the British and the Cretans. My Dad was in the 5th field Regiment, a gunner, in the New Zealand 22nd Battalion defending the airport at Maleme, the point at which strategically the battle was lost, when it should have been won.

The German graveyard at Maleme

The German graveyard at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

If, they say, General Freyberg had not been so hell-bent on the idea of a seaborne invasion… if Colonel Andrew (according to Beevor), “had gone forward before nightfall to observe the coastal trip and the western slopes of Hill 107…” … so many ifs. I imagine too, if they’d all had I phones, perhaps a few texts to and fro with some pictures attached… but then too, it seems Freyberg was very concerned about revealing to the Germans that the Brits had cracked their code, and so I guess I phones can easily be hacked . And too, imagine instead of young men dropping from the sky (like Icarus) in their parachutes, if instead, the Germans had used drones. The account of hand to hand combat between the Germans, local Cretans and the Kiwis is fierce and brutal. It seems that the Geneva convention did not apply as far as the Cretans were concerned. They were civilians defending their own patch. Oddly, the Germans imagined that the Kiwi soldiers would not fire upon them as they descended in their multi-coloured parachutes. But of course they did. And I have it first hand from my Dad, how extraordinary it was, to be firing at such easy targets, but too, how sickening. I read in Beevor’s account, how the gunners were told to aim low at the falling body because of the rapid descent, thus ensuring an accurate hit.

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

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But in spite of this, the battle was won by the Germans, although they suffered extraordinary casualties. The paratroopers were young men (the German elite), some as young as sixteen and thousands were slaughtered in the first two days of the battle. So, what brings me to me Mapua? What is my connection? It is really rather random as I mention at the start (but then you see, don’t you, how random all of our histories really are).

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

I was reading about the Battle of Crete, perched on the seafront at Ruby Bay (a hop skip and a jump from Mapua where I drank my morning coffee and had these thoughts) and I realised that if the 5th Field Regiment had held the airfield, I may not have existed. The defence of Maleme would have required a further battle – my Dad instead of retreating might have died in the ensuing violence – or so I told myself under the hot Tasman sun. That he survived to be taken POW and then shipped on cattle trains to Poland to spend four years as a POW – not to mention the subsequent 600 mile march in snow at the end of the war … well, that is neither here nor there, because this is what happened and so I know he survived all of this. But too, at each step along the way, there are a multitude of ifs to consider.

And as a result of my father’s war experience, I am fascinated with Greece, with the Battle of Crete, and too, I am ‘alive together with you, and you, and you (my family, my friends, my readers)… and there’s something both thrilling and fateful about this very being alive. If the chance came, would you change your life, be an entirely different person? As a child I used to look at people and try to imagine what it might be like to be them and then be terrified that I had wished too hard and what if I did become them and I didn’t like it and then I couldn’t get me back. Whatever befalls us, we may wish it had not, but do we ever really want not to be ourselves? Perhaps some people do (and here one can imagine a child in the slums of Mumbai). I am currently reading ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ by Katherine Boo. Yes, perhaps if I was atop a rubbish dump, scavenging for a living, I may well be happy for my wish to be granted… but thankfully in my own fortunate life … it is enough to be ‘alive and together’ …
the poem ends thus:

alive with our lively children
who — but for endless ifs —
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

Isn’t it just a grand poem? I have Diana Gilliland Wright of Firesteel to thank for her blog which alerted me to this beautiful poem and of course, if you wish to read the entire poem, click this link to Firesteel.

Ursula LeGuin, High Tea and the Menopause

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Ursula K LeGuin, High Tea and the Menopause

Recently, I attended a high tea for a friend’s 70th birthday.   We were all girls and we dined on dainty sandwiches, sipped tea in china cups and ate pretty cakes.

My friend is a writer and she asked if her friends would bring a poem they could read at her birthday.   She especially wanted something that spoke of age and being a woman.   I took my ‘Menopause’ poem and read it.    It seemed to strike a chord.

I’m in that genre now, the one made famous by Ursula Le Guin in her essay on ‘The Space Crone’.  In fact I think I’ve passed through the planet Altair already.  My poem is a response to Ursula’s essay.     It had its debut in New Zealand Books, Volume 17, Number 2, Issue 78 in the Winter of 2007.     I see that New Zealand Books will soon be celebrating the launch of their 100th issue at Unity Books in late November.

Menopause

(Inspired by an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin “The

Space Crone” 1976).

Ursula urges me to

become a Crone

to not bemoan

my declining hormones

to wear grey hair

catch a space ship

somewhere out there

so I can share

my wit, my wisdom

my years of fertility

raising children

(ensuring my humility)

so the fourth planet Altair

can learn about the human race

from a woman (once a virgin)

and now a Crone  (on loan)

But I’m all for my inner space

and I won’t go grey

well, not yet, not today

there’s plenty of time

because I still want to play

to flaunt in the twilight

my age now my highlight

on the cusp of something

almost a Crone – not quite

ready for Ursula’s throne

but not afraid either

thumb out – hitching a ride

not looking back, nor

particularly forward

pausing as they say – oh,

but not for men

for me.

©  Maggie Rainey-Smith