I am 50, with tight hamstrings on the mat at the soccer club squeezing my pelvic floor practising, breathing in and out The outward breath is a rush like the end of sex or perhaps the beginning, who knows, but it is a collective womb-like sigh I’m older than most of the other women, their tight bright bums and their talk of babies, or troubles with the teachers My troublesome two are adults and I’m fascinated, eavesdropping to know just how obsessed these tight bright bums are with mothering I hear of sex as a tradeable commodity a reward, a bribe, a something to feed in dribs and drabs like a treat to eat, if you promise to be a good boy I realise I had it all wrong perhaps the fact I thought sex was recreational essential, mutual and uncomplicated something two people enjoyed I’m relieved I’m not a tight bright bum in fluro who trades sex for income or sex for a South Pacific bure that I can earn my own holidays thanks I hunker down on the mat, continue breathing, glad my pelvic floor is responding, pleased it’s not been wasted as a bargaining chip.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Seamus Heaney (St Seamus) has died.
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.
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
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.
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.
(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
(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
pausing as they say – oh,
but not for men
© Maggie Rainey-Smith
Recently, I wrote a piece of ‘flash fiction’ for National Flash Fiction Competition, inspired by the word limit. I wasn’t placed, but it was great fun and it also inspired another piece which I sent off to the 4th floor journal. I’m delighted to say this piece has been accepted for publication. What I now realise is that neither of my short pieces is fiction. But it doesn’t matter now because the idea, and the containment required by the word limit, freed me up to write. My piece for publication in the 4th floor journal is a heart-piece. It came out in a ‘flash’ and so I’ve lived up to one half of the flash fiction challenge.
I really like shape and form for poetry too. I’m struggling at the moment with a poem that isn’t working and so I’m going to try out various forms like the villanelle (one of my favourite forms) and perhaps the possibly more difficult sestina (which actually I’ve never done before). If I succeed, and my poem is accepted, I’ll post a link to it! The problem with this poem is that I’ve chosen a theme before I’ve begun my poem – not my normal way of writing – and I think therein lies the problem and why the poem isn’t working. I’m going to try and harness that through the strictness of form and hope that the repetition will drive me to the heart of the poem.
I see that in my last blog about the Literary All Blacks (about which now I feel a sense of regret for having not mentioned so many other talented writers who should be in the team) – that I mention our old blue Bakelite radio – and interestingly, the blue radio pops up again in this very short piece of ‘flash’ non-fiction. I hasten to add that perhaps flash in this context means written in a flash rather than the presumptuous idea that it glitters somehow.
She had the whitest teeth of anyone I knew. And milk spots, too. I never knew how white could show on white, but it did. Her hair was Heidi and Rapunzel all in one, two strong yellow plaits. She lived near the showground, close by to the blue gums. I sometimes wanted to be her. On weekends she rode her horse in those fields far from my house. I found a photo recently of her, at the local A & P show, riding her horse without a saddle, carrying three apples on a plate. Four jumps, it says, she must clear, without spilling a single apple. I imagine her concentration, her plaits flying outwards from under her little black rider’s cap, knees pressing the horses flank. I hear applause, smell the candy-floss, and taste toffee apple.
I am reminded of the story of ‘Diana and the Golden Apples’ – Sunday mornings beside the blue Bakelite radio. How my heart raced every time I heard this story. Even knowing Melanion would win, I still waited each time Diana stooped to scoop the apple, terrified unless she slowed a little. And too, relief, when at the final drop, the apple cleverly was heavier, and just before she caught him, Melanion crossed the finish line.
I’m much older now and I know that girls with golden plaits and golden apples are the thing of myths. I know that Melanion still lives in the hearts of many an old woman, but he’s been supplanted too, by real men, along with some rotten apples, and a few that never quite ripened. I imagine these old women slowed now with weight of all those apples. I see them smiling, as they watch, Melanion running on ahead, laughing, knowing he’s really running away from them.
There are wives
to consider now
with two sons
and a grand
our lives have
how we thought
at them now
to see the
but you can
© Maggie Rainey-Smith 29/12/2011