Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'No rough verses' from I, Clodia, by Anna Jackson


No rough verses, but like a surf‐tossed sailor
wielding wisely his gaff‐rigged fore‐and‐aft sail,
so shall I keep your favourite of Greek metres
to steer my way free of your storm of curses.
What I owe you – these claims you make are madness –
but to counter them one by one in order:
first, consider, what we owe Aphrodite –
your voyage here, as plunder of my husband,
your change of plans, your brother left unaided,
none of this can be laid as charges on me,
all was fated, and I merely received you.
Oh, I loved you, and being loved by me did
you not take more than you could ever give me?
Your ‘exile’ here – to live in Rome is living,
I don’t see you, in thrall to me no longer,
rushing back to your farmhouse in Verona, or
setting sail to do business in Bithynia.
Had you stayed put, a poet of the provinces,
not one person would know your name – or care to.



'No rough verses' is from Anna Jackson's about-to-be-published sixth collection of poetry, I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (Auckland University Press). More specifically, it's from the first section of that book, a long a sequence of poems - 'I, Clodia' - which takes as its subject and narrator one Clodia Metelli, an ancient Roman woman who was (almost certainly) the lover of the poet Catullus.

I didn't know much about Catullus or his poetry - which doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the sequence as far as I'm concerned (it contains everything you need to know to in the way of facts). But if you know anything much about Catullus, you'll know that he wrote a celebrated series of poems to his lover 'Lesbia' (Clodia), many of which were in reply to her poems. But his poems have survived, while hers (like a lot of women's history) are lost to us. One of the things Anna is doing in this ambitious work is to reconstruct the woman's side of this story, and to breathe life into the vibrant, quick-witted, not always likeable but rather admirable character of Clodia. As the AUP blurb says 'Jackson honours and subverts her source material in lines that are a marvel of ventriloquism.'

It was difficult to decide which poem from this sequence to share, partly because they are written to be read together. I chose this one because I think it can stand alone, but also because I'm really drawn to the strong rhythm, which I especially noticed in the first lines - don't you just feel like you're being tossed about by the waves, 'like a surf-tossed sailor'? Like several poems in this sequence that use tight forms and metre, this one is in hendecasyllables, which Anna tells me was one that the Romans adapted from the Greeks, and which was the form Catullus used most often. In English it isn't a flowing, natural rhythm, like iambic pentametre, which makes it well-suited to this boat lurching, to this proud, hurt narrator spitting out her bitterness at her lover, with whom she has such an up and down (and up and down) relationship.

Anna also let me know that this poem borrows from the play Medea, by Greek playwright Euripides, where Jason (of the golden fleece) tries to justify his abandonment of Medea (his wife, who had helped him nick the golden fleece). While not necessary to know, it adds another layer of richness to the poem. And these are really rich poems, which are just crying out for in-depth study.

I, Clodia fits with my strong interest in both narrative poetry and biographical poetry. The second half of this new collection continues with an interest in portraiture, but with shorter, more 'modern' poems, including some of my favourites of Anna's recent work, such as 'Sabina, and the chain of friendship' and the 'Pretty Photographer' poems. And some poems I haven't read yet, and which I'm rather excited about meeting.

For more Tuesday poems, check out the sidebar on the left.

Anna Jackson teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington. Her sixth collection of poetry, I, Clodia, and Other Portraits, will be launched in November. Two of her previous collections, Thicket (2011) and The Pastoral Kitchen (2001), were shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards. She has also published short fiction and academic books, and is part of the team (along with me) that is organising Truth or Beauty, Poetry and Biography - a conference about biographical poetry - in November.

This week's editor, Helen Rickerby, is a poet and publisher from Wellington. She has published four collections of poetry – her most recent, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press in March. She runs Seraph Press, a boutique publishing company with a growing reputation for publishing high-quality poetry books, and she is co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal. She blogs irregularly at wingedink.blogspot.com and has a day job as a web editor.





Tuesday, October 21, 2014

This is the way the world ends by Helen Rickerby


This story is about remembering
and forgetting

Not knowing where you are
or if it's real

But you can die with a martini in your hand

*

The girl in pink, skating towards you
has an automatic weapon
behind her back

and this drug will take you to Jesus
if Jesus is a chorus-
line of short-skirt nurses

*

There is too much sun in California
for shadows

*

There are other people
in this story:

the bride and groom who laughed themselves to death

the boy who lost hope

the pirate soldier, the man with two souls

the porn stars, the family

the whole city

the whole world

*

This is an apocalypse 

in an ice cream truck

*

Twiddling his fingers
While LA burns

'He's going to die,' says one blonde, sadly
'There's nothing we can do,' says the other

as they dance cheek-to-cheek
hand in manicured hand

There's nothing they can do


from Cinema (2014, Makaro Press Hoopla series). Reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet and the publisher.
Editor: Andrew M. Bell.

One of the benefits of being a Tuesday Poet is that you enter into a family of excellent poets, a family that extends across the world thanks to the wonderful world of the world-wide web.

This is how I came to be introduced to the work of Helen Rickerby. Helen has even read her poetry in Vienna - how cool is that!

The poem above is from Helen's latest collection, Cinema, which (Shameless Plug Alert) is well worth acquiring. I could have posted any of the fine poems in Cinema, but this poem has an enigmatic quality that really appeals to me. I don't know if I'd be so bold as to say I "understand" it, but I do "get it". Sometimes understanding a poem is less important to me than absorbing the poem. And I kept coming back to this poem.

It might be (as Basil Fawlty would say) "stating the bleeding' obvious", but this poem is very cinematic. It moves through a number of arresting images like the frames of a film. The images put the reader in mind of a spy/thriller noir film, but it has a sense of being very modern and up-to-the-minute. And because "There is too much sun in California/ for shadows", we might have to invent a colour version of the noir genre. Perhaps this poem represents a spy/thriller "couleur" film.

What more can I say? I love the boldness, the freshness of this poem and the humour. "This is an apocalypse/in an ice cream truck" makes me smile every time I read it.




Helen Rickerby is a poet and publisher from Wellington. She has published four collections of poetry – her most recent, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press in March. She runs Seraph Press, a boutique publishing company with a growing reputation for publishing high-quality poetry books, and she is co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal. She blogs irregularly at wingedink.blogspot.com and has a day job as a web editor.

This week’s editor, Andrew M. Bell, writes poetry, short fiction, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. His work has been published and broadcast in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, England, Israel and USA. His most recent publications are Aotearoa Sunrise, a short story collection, and Clawed Rains, a poetry collection.

Andrew lives in Christchurch with his wife and two sons and loves to surf.  He is about to “drop” (as they say in the music industry) a new poetry collection soon called Green Gecko Dreaming.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lines excerpted from Bentleyisms: by Nelson Bentley

Quick acts of thievery are essential in this business.

Without poetic vision there is no love.

Everyone should write an outhouse poem.

Poets invent the language. There would be no language if it weren't for us. People would just go around grunting.

One extra word can ruin a whole poem.

Visualize your metaphor!

Avoid self-pity like the plague.

Support onamatopoeia.

There's no such thing as a cliché image — any more than there's a cliché maple tree. You don't walk by a maple tree and say "Oh God, there's another maple tree!"

Being against rhyme or villanelles is about like coming out against symmetrical trees.

Taking a chance is a very important thing. In literary magazines you'll find hundreds of poems that are overly cautious. What you need is reckless abandon balanced by a fine sense of phrasing.

Critics have a terrible fear of laughing.

It's not easy to fit a giraffe into a villanelle.

The bad kinds of pathetic fallacies are the ones where the sun is giggling and chuckling and waving hello and eating ham sandwiches. All amateur poets have a ghastly tendency to anthropomorphize everything It's like Walt Disney everywhere.

You should be an all-out romantic to listen to much Chopin. You should be dying of tuberculosis.

Every time I deliver a long speech against fragmented sentences, I compel fourteen more people to start using them.

What this world needs is fewer important poems.

Roethke's last words to me: Beefeater all right?

-->
©  Sean Bentley, with whose permission this is reproduced.

The "Bentleyisms", "straight from the lips of Nelson", were collected by members of Nelson Bentley's poetry workshop at the University of Washington in Seattle, from 1978-81. Born in Elm, Michigan in 1918, Nelson Bentley was a poet and professor at the University of Washington from 1952 until his death in 1990.
I first encountered Nelson in 1974, at a summer writing seminar at Cornish College of the Arts. At the impressionable age of 17, I had no idea the impact this man would have on my life. As one of the dozen or so high school students in the room, I sat in awe as this gregarious man brought in a different poet every day to read to us from his/her work, and talk about the writer's life. Those two weeks made poetry real for me, began to build the foundation of a life with poetry at the center, something unfeasible to even imagine prior to this.
At college, I went on to study with Nelson, met my husband in one of his classes, and we named a son after him. 
For many of us, these "Bentleyisms" became the mantras we repeated to ourselves in the long solitary hours of writing, when the rejection slips seemed to far outnumber the acceptances, when this business of writing poetry began to feel superfluous. Because of Nelson Bentley, we kept going. We wrote poetry. And we published it.
Sitting in his workshop was at once an entertainment and an illumination. His terrific sense of humor, and his kindness, were foremost. If the only thing he could find that worked in a poem was the placement of a comma, by god, he found that comma, and pointed it out. He impelled us to go out into the world and live everyday lives: get married, go to church, have kids, do good work — whatever it is we needed to do: do it. And keep writing. And keep sending work out to magazines.
Over his 37-year university career (without a single break or sabbatical), 20,000 students came under his tutelage. I recall him telling us that the number of his current and former students who had gone on to publish was something of a record among university professors. To encourage us, every quarter he typed up a lengthy, many-page list of literary magazines, and instructed us in the protocols of submitting work. I can still see the purplish-blue ink of the ditto machine, the single-spaced lines. Nelson was a co-founder of one of those magazines on his list — Poetry Northwest — which exists today (with only a 3 year hiatus in its 55 years) as a leading publisher of contemporary poetry.
Nelson Bentley is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Divertimento, The Lost Works of Nelson Bentley, which I had the honor to publish in 2002 with Floating Bridge Press. He was a recipient of two Hopwood Awards at the University of Michigan, a Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Washington, and a Washington State Governor's Award for Service to the Arts. As well as Poetry Northwest, he co-founded Seattle Review, and was a poetry editor for The Seattle Times. He hosted the long-running Castalia Reading Series at the University of Washington, as well as series on KUOW radio and KCTS television.

Here he is in his office — a welcoming presence always, despite the ever-looming stacks of papers.



















This week's editor, T. Clear, is a founder of Seattle's Floating Bridge Press. She has been writing and publishing for nearly forty years; her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Poetry Northwest, Cascadia Review, Fine Madness, Poetry Atlanta, Cirque Journal, The Moth and Switched-On Gutenberg. She can be found blogging here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Johnny by John O'Connor


               He travelled the length of the country
giving concerts for penguins

tickets were free - or koha.

The trick was to get them early /
"Give me the chick till the age of seven

& I'll give you the bird!!" he'd say.

Arrhh /
most nights the mosh-pit filled quickly

the eggs were incubated by DOC & CNZ.

Naturally
as the events were of national insignificance

the media were ecstatic /

"CONCERTS FOR PENGUINS!"
they shouted / "A W E S O M E !" the penguins agreed

& came in their thousands across

shark-infested seas.
Years later he recalled it with a sigh when

he and John Campbell learned to reminisce.

They could never get past a gig on
the Auckland Islands

where the band had wept openly

as a Prime Minister's Award was given
to a ship-wrecked professor for a life-time's study of synecdoche

               & alliteration in the love poetry of Johnny Devlin.


from Aspects of Reality (HeadworX, 2013). Reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet and the publisher.

Tuesday Poem Hub Editor: Tim Jones.





I've recently finished and enjoyed John O'Connor's Aspects of Reality, and this poem particularly appealed to me. I like the way it accretes the details of Johnny Devlin's brief but remarkable career as the "New Zealand Elvis" with the arcana of the New Zealand conservation estate.

Johnny Devlin may not be widely known now, but in his heyday he did indeed have a similar effect on New Zealand as Elvis did in the United States. As his Wikipedia entry notes:

Graham Dent was an employee of the Kerridge Organisation which operated a string of theatres and cinemas throughout the country. Dent had been responsible for making the Rock Around the Clock movie successful in the cinemas. He was promoted to manage a new cinema in the Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier. On Sunday afternoons he ran concerts for the local youth club and talent quests. Recognising Devlin's potential, he organised a concert there. With its success he approached his boss, Robert Kerridge, about the possibility of using their theatre chain to promote a national tour. After some initial doubt, his boss agreed to a two-week tour with extensions if successful.
Dave Dunningham left the management to Phil Warren, so Phil and Graham put together a schedule. Bob Paris and his band weren't keen on going on the road, so a new backing band had to be put together. Dent asked multi-instrumentalist Claude Papesch if he could put a band together. Claude was a sixteen-year-old blind musician, who was a regular at the Point Chevalier youth club. Papesch recruited guitarist Peter Bazely, bassist Keith Graham and drummer Tony Hopkins. Together they became the Devils, one of New Zealand's first truly rock'n'roll bands.
The tour kicked of at Wellington on 21 November 1958. Over the next two weeks he performed for close to 20,000 ecstatic fans in Wellington, Palmerston North,MastertonNapier, Gisbourne and Tauranga. The press raved and chaos broke out at every performance. The shows exceeded everyone's expectations, with New Zealand having never seen anything remotely like it.

According to Wikipedia, Johnny Devlin is still performing in Australia.

John O'Connor: John O'Connor's poetry has been widely published and is represented in Essential New Zealand Poems (2000) and Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (2014) and other anthologies. His haiku have been internationally anthologized and translated into eight languages. In 1997 he received an Honorary Diploma, "for contribution to world haiku", from the Croatian Haiku Association and in 2001 a Museum of Haiku Literature Award, Tokyo, for "best of issue" in Frogpond International, a special issue of Haiku Society of America's periodical, Frogpond, featuring haiku selected from 52 countries and language communities. In 2000 his fifth book of poems, A Particular Context, was voted one of the best five books of New Zealand poetry of the 1990s by members of the New Zealand Poetry Society. He was co-winner of the Open Section of the NZPS International Poetry Competition in 1998 and outright winner of both the Open and the Haiku sections of the same competition in 2006. (thanks to HeadworX for the bio)

This week's editor is Tim Jones, who in addition to co-editing The Stars Like Sand with P.S. Cottier, is author of books including poetry collection Men Briefly Explained (IP, 2011) and short story collection Transported (Random House, 2008). With Mark Pirie, he co-edited Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand (IP, 2009).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pascale Petit: Fauverie - Emmanuel

In the last days, after all he said
and didn't say, his iron tongue
resting in the open bell of his mouth,
the belfry of his face asleep,
I climbed the spiral steps of the tower -
up the steep steps of the bell cage, to the bourdon
the great bumblebee, Emmanuel.
I stared at that bronze weight, the voice of Paris,
as if it was my father's voice
and I had climbed up his spine,
all thirteen tons of copper and tin,
the clapper half a ton of exorcised iron.
I washed the outside with holy oil for the sick,
the inside with chrism.  Let all badness
be banished when he rings.  Let the powers of the air
tremble - the hail and lightning
that fell from his tongue on our last days together.
I made the sign of the cross.  His note
was F sharp, the hum
deep enough to reverberate through the rest of my life.
I stood upright in him
I placed the myrrh inside his mouth, incense
smoking like a last cigarette.
I praised him.  I assembled the priests.
I mourned his death.
Storm clouds dispersed.  Thunderbolts scattered.
I tolled in Sabbaths.  I raised
my father's life to its hoists and rang him until I was deaf.
I proclaimed peace after bloodshed.

© Pascale Petit

This is one of the poems from Pascale Petit's newly published collection Fauverie, from Seren Books. Emmanuel is the big bell that hangs in the south tower of Notre Dame in Paris and the poem, like others in this collection, concerns the death of a father and the powerful pull of a great city, as well as memories that are going to 'reverberate through a life'.   But things are not exactly as they seem.


The Fauverie is the big cat house in the Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris - a city portrayed in these poems as ‘savage as the Amazon’.  At the centre of the collection is the big Jaguar, Aramis, beautiful, wild and dangerous in every cell of his powerful body. And there is also the poet’s father, now weak and dying, but still able to arouse turbulent emotions and painful memories.  There is ambivalence and ambiguity in everything - ‘ferocity and grace’ exist side by side - the wild can be both savage and seductive. Humans are also animals.

There is a direct reference, in the title of this collection, to Fauve painters who used raw colour straight from the tube and were regarded as 'the wild beasts of art'.  Pascale Petit was also a visual artist and she is fascinated by the idea of ‘wild beast poetry’ that looks at the primitive and the spiritual at the same time.  Fauverie follows, and references, her second collection, The Zoo Father, published 13 years ago.  The poet is now less angry and more compassionate than she was when her father died, but still unflinching and much more complex.

Pascale’s father is also Paris - a city that is, for the poet, both full of pain and full of joy.  This is transformative poetry which comes from what Les Murray called Pascale Petit’s ‘powerful mythic imagination’.  The poems are informed by a deep knowledge of art, mythology and psychology, though you don’t need to understand any of the references in order to understand the poetry. The sub-text is exactly that. But there is a keen sense of danger. Every line is liminal - you walk precariously on the edge between worlds, on the thresholds of different visions. The dictionary defines liminality as: ‘the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.’

Here Liminality is the right word, because the great beauty of these poems is the power that they have to disturb and disorientate the reader.  We feel the destructive strength of Aramis, marvel at his beauty; we are pierced by the poet’s grief for her dying father, revolted by the way human beings kill and consume other animals, by the way they treat each other.  Who is the predator?  Who is the prey? This is poetry that is going to change the way you look at things.

The collection tells a story - beginning with the arrival of a letter,

‘Never before has a letter been so heavy,
growing to two metres in my room,
the address, the phone number, then the numbness,
I know you must be surprised, it says,
but I will die soon and want to make contact.’

And then the meeting between estranged father and daughter, described in 'Kissing a Jaguar'

The first meeting was like I’d had
Virola snuff blown up my nostrils.
Alone with my father
in a room he called ‘la jungle’.

Back in her hotel room the poet ‘retches all night’, but next morning is up and walking the streets of Paris

All paths lead to the Fauverie
and this is where I come to, again and again,

to where Aramis has stars for a coat
and his mouth is a sky-gate
the jaguar shaman climbs through.


There is incredible cruelty in the poems - a darkness that reveals childhood traumas.  For me one of the most horrific poems was Pate de Foie Gras, which describes the conditions where ducks and geese are force-fed, ‘broken beaks/torn throats, maggots in neck wounds’ and spend their lives waiting in fear, but also in hunger, for the moment when the ‘gavage’ will be thrust down their throats.  But the whole is constructed as a metaphor for the childhood memory of being made to eat Pate de Foie ‘part cooked, a whole lobe’; when the farmer clasps the neck of the bird,  it is the small girl who is being force-fed.

Much of the darkness in the poems is expressed in food - a milk fed piglet (cochon de lait) sawn in half and wrapped in cling-film for sale in the market, (Grenelle Market 1).  In another, the child who has been locked in the cellar comes up for air in the food market where ‘The counters smelled of raw light/ of butchering and fiesta.’  One of the most horrific is ‘Ortolan’.  Apparently Francois Mitterand’s last meal was an Ortolan and the poet imagines her father eating one before he dies, the small bird drowned in Armagnac, grilled and eaten whole.  In the poem Blackbird, the poet, locked in the cellar as a punishment as a small child, is personified as a bird.


Pascale Petit was born in Paris, where her mother lived, but partly brought up by her grandmother in Wales.  She has always been very open about her parent’s abusive treatment, which included being locked in a cellar regularly as a punishment. The suffering of animals becomes a metaphor for the suffering of the child.  In Paris the plates are piled high with ‘lambs’ tongues’, but it’s only when the poet, older now, has come to the safety of Wales that she can allow herself to ‘hear their bleats’.

The connections between her childhood traumas and the preoccupation with the animals of the Fauverie, and particularly Aramis, are very clear.  In Self-Portrait with King Vultures (N’Golo and Margot), there is comfort;

. . .  I am the Vulture-Father,
I eat death, N’Golo whispers, I eat grief.

The connection is more explicit in the poem Le Sang des Betes, where the poet is in a train;

My carriage moves on, past the dangerous
work of the mind

as it sorts through memories -
those that must
and must not be remembered

except as flashes from the train-tracks
of history,

or only confronted in animal form.

Pascale admits the ‘element of the supernatural’ in her work, attributing it to her Welsh grandmother’s influence.  This collection is further exploration of the way that childhood trauma can be transformed into art, which was so carefully probed in What the Water Gave Me - Pascale’s collection of poetry around the life and work of Frida Kahlo. Pascale, who studied at the Royal College of Art and was at first a sculptor, clearly identified with Frida’s ability to make great art out of suffering.  But this is definitely not ‘art as therapy’, nor is it about taming savagery or the healing of wounds – it is the transformation of ugliness into beauty and vulnerability into power using words and images.

In a recent interview (available online here)  Pascale talks about her work and in particular ‘writing the personal’. (6.34 minutes in)

‘It is very hard to write personal and painful subjects in poems ... I don’t feel that I have a choice... That’s what I need to write ... I don’t think my work is just about autobiography, what I’m really interested in is investigation’  particularly ‘exploration into what we call good and evil’.  Her ‘difficult’ and abusive parents gave her intense material.  Travelling to the Amazon as an adult artist gave her new ways of looking at it.
‘I want to take my parents into that rainforest place . . . and try to see what there is about them that’s good and what’s bad and why and to try to make them somehow beautiful - the amazon is beautiful as well as ‘a green hell’.   ‘People have an extraordinary mythology ....  Putting my parents in that kind of context ... gives them a new light.’

Fauverie, published by Seren Books, Sept 2014

It's National Poetry Day in the UK this week.  Pascale Petit will be reading at London Zoo Library, Regent’s Park, on October 4th with Fiona Sampson, Ruth Padel and Niall Campbell.  1-2 pm. 

This week's editor is Kathleen Jones, an English poet, novelist and biographer who lives in Italy.  Her first full collection is Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21, published by Templar, and her biographical subjects include Katherine Mansfield, Christina Rossetti and Norman Nicholson. She blogs regularly at 'A Writer's Life' and you can find her books at www.kathleenjones.co.uk 



If you've enjoyed this poem, please take a look at the sidebar and check out what the other Tuesday Poets are posting. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'Poroporoaki to the Lord My God: weaving the Via Dolorosa' by Anahera Gildea


Ekphrasis in response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon

I.      Bro, I noticed the absence of korowai at your tangi

II.     I have made you this kahu-kurī. A taonga
         for the Ngā Mōkai peoples and their descendants.
         I have just now taken it off the line and
         folded it with the sun still fresh on its limbs.

III.    The unsteady warps and welts of this cloak have caused
         the tāniko along the bottom to crack the horizon.
         But Muriwai nurtures the embers of our iwi, and this korowai will
         take on the spirits of every great leader and warrior who walks it.

IV.    The kahu-kurī were the war cloaks of chiefs.

V.     This sackcloth taonga will be your anchor now,
         (let go the weight of humanity on your black cross)
         it will cast threads from the living all the way
         to Manawatawhi – where you’ll take your last look.

VI.    And you will recognise that
         a black line separates the milk of the sky, sheepish and shrouded,
         from the knuckled gravel, where you took your first fall.
         It was expected, bro. No shame in trying to carry that tau alone,

VII.   no shame in taking direction – we are all sinners here.

VIII.  If you follow the next break in the horizon
         You may think it’s an invitation to walk out into the wet cold ocean
         and lose your breath underwater.
         It is not.

IX.    Instead look to where the sky has taken up tone
         long and arid, clouds formed from my fists,
         arguing with our tūpuna in there.
         They don’t want you to know

X.     that we do fall off; into the blackout, where the shade has been drawn.

XI.    Your ancestors and I worked that jute, brother,
         to get it to bleed like that
         with your open shores, your wounds unhealed:
         Te One Rangatira.

XII.   Here we both are, man,
         kneeling at the foot of all this white,
         at the beach broken by Christ already,
         facing the grief;

XIII.  I expect to see your tiny boat out there on the crooked horizon.

XIV.   Sometimes it is enough
         to sit and look out.
         Other times you have to walk
         across bone, stone and shell. 


Walk (Series C) in minature

I came across this poem while typesetting the 32nd issue of JAAM literary magazine, the contents of which have been selected by this issue's guest editor, Dunedin writer Sue Wootton. The loose theme of the issue is ‘Shorelines’, and the poems, stories, creative non-fiction pieces and photographs in the issue deal with that theme in a variety of literal and non-literal ways.

The cover of JAAM 32
Sue has selected many amazing pieces for JAAM 32, but this poem is the one that has struck me the most. When trying to explain to my partner what this poem was, and why I loved it, I got really emotional in ways I didn’t expect. Not only is this a powerful poem, but it is so interconnected with other powerful stories and powerful art by powerful artists. 

Standing on its own, it’s weaving the story of Christ – specifically the Stations of the Cross (also known as Via Dolorosa – the way of sorrows) – into a Māori cultural framework. It feels both contemporary and ancient, and as well as mixing times and places, it mixes between formal and informal language, and between English and Māori, just as it is weaving Western and Māori culture.

But this poem is also enriched by other powerful connections. As the subtitle says, iIt is an ekphrasis (a work of art in response to another work of art) in response to a series of paintings by Colin McCahon: Walk (series C), 1973. Colin McCahon is justly, in my opinion, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated artists. I can understand why people might not like his work – it isn’t ‘pretty’ and it moved further into abstraction throughout his career, but it never strayed from meaning. 

I first remember coming across his work at university. One of his giant ‘I AM’ paintings (Gate III, 1970) used to hang in the foyer to one of the lecture theatre blocks I frequented ( it’s since been moved downtown to Rutherford House). Part of its power is in its size – it’s enormous! I never fail to feel something every time I see it. (As a wee aside, I don’t think I quite appreciated it at the time, but the university art collection, which they hang around the campus, are amazing. You get an education in New Zealand art history just by wandering around, just by living with them.) 

So, for me, a reference to a McCahon painting is going to give a poem a bit of added feeling. Especially this work, Walk (Series C), which I had recently come upon in a piece I was editing about New Zealand painting for Te Ara (my day job). I suggest you go and have a look at a reproduction of this painting over here on Te Papa’s website: http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/657795. Make sure you zoom in on the painting, so you can see each section. On one level, it’s a series of fairly abstract depictions of a beach – Muriwai, on Auckland’s wild west coast (also the setting for Gildea’s poem). Slightly deeper, it’s referencing the Stations of the Cross (as is Gildea’s poem). But yet another layer to Walk (Series C) is that it’s also about poet James K. Baxter, who had died the year befor McCahon painted this work. The two had been friends but had fallen out or become estranged. Both were Pākehā, but they shared an interest in Māori and Māori culture

The Te Papa website describes the painting as follows:

In Walk (Series C) McCahon journeys along Muriwai Beach in dialogue with his friend, perhaps recounting the shared events of their lives, perhaps seeking reconciliation. This walk runs parallel to another: in Maori belief, the spirits of the departed travel up the west coast towards Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga), from where they leap off the land to begin their final journey to the afterlife. As McCahon wrote to Peter McLeavey about the painting, ‘The Christian “walk” and the Maori “walk” have a lot in common.’ Drawing on personal and particular events in his own life, McCahon used them to address big themes in his art — themes of life and death, time and loss, Christian and Maori spirituality, history and place.

This connection with Baxter adds another layer of resonance to Gildea’s poem for me. Baxter’s poems, especially the later, rawer poems, are some of my most-loved poems. I am reminded of Baxter’s religious/political poem ‘The Māori Jesus’ which, like ‘Poroporoaki, brings Christ into the Māori world. And I feel there is something of the plain-speaking of Baxter’s later work. 

I’m by no means an expert in te reo – the Māori language – but for people reading this outside of New Zealand, and even some here, I thought a few translations might be helpful: A poroporoaki is a spoken farewell to the dead at a tangi (which is a funeral, but literally means to cry). A korowai is a cloak, and a kahu-kurī is a cloak made from the skin of a kurī – a Polynesian dog. Taonga means treasure. Nga Mōkai was what James K. Baxter called the people who came to live at his community at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River – he translated it as ‘the fatherless’. Tāniko are decorative woven borders on a cloak. Manawatāwhi is one of the Three Kings Islands, north-west of the tip of New Zealand. Tūpuna are ancestors. Te One Rangatira is another name for Muriwai, but literally means ‘the chiefly beach’, which is appropriate for a beach the Christ is walking on – or James K. Baxter for that matter, who in his own way was a leader for many.

When I sent a draft of this to Anahera, I wanted to her to check my definitions, particularly for tau, which I had translated as anchor – one of its meanings – because that echoed the first line in section V. I was on the right track, but I want to paraphrase and quote some of Anahera’s reply, because I think it gives beautiful insight into all the work that just one little word can do in poetry. All the layers and resonances that just a single three-letter word can have.

She said that in his paintings McCahon's often uses what is known as the Tau cross - that is the cross that looks like a capital T rather than a lower case t (as he does in Walk (Series C) to divide sections I and II). It is thought by some that Christ was crucified on a Tau cross, and it became an especially important symbol for Saint Francis and the Franciscans. You can read more about that here: http://www.thefranciscanfriars.org/taucross. She goes on to say:

The word also has meaning in Māori and I was using it to refer to the weight of an anchor and playing with the notion that it also means 'rest' – as in whakatau – which is a ceremony meaning to 'make calm'. I was taught that it originally specifically referred to the bringing in of the waka – and to make calm the sea – to bring it to rest.

There's so much more I could say about this poem, but I guess what I’ve basically been trying to say is that these layers on layers of things that mean something, especially to me, things which already have their own emotional and intellectual resonances, make Gildea’s already strong poem even stronger. And I’m really glad to have the opportunity, both here and with JAAM, to be involved in sharing it more widely.

Anahera Gildea
Anahera Gildea (Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga) is a writer and mother who lives in Wellington. She is currently enrolled at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University and is working on her first novel.

This week’s Tuesday Poem editor is Helen Rickerby, a poet and publisher from Wellington. She has published four collections of poetry – her most recent, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press in March. She runs Seraph Press, a boutique publishing company with a growing reputation for publishing high-quality poetry books, and she is co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal. She blogs irregularly at wingedink.blogspot.com and has a day job as a web editor.

And, now you're hopefully in the mood for more poetry. Good news! You can find more Tuesday Poems by clicking on the links in the sidebar.