Top: Sam enthralled by Candice Breitz’s video installations at City Gallery; the sea at Makara.
All loss is about imagination,
or did I make that up? That
strands of grief, hung in a room
like streamers, are not so awful
in themselves but awful
because they are always there.
That sunny flat in Palmerston
North with the abundant grapefruit
tree and the men who would smoke
dope and play chess all day.
They were so gentle treading
around each other’s sadness
like it was a bluebottle. It was slow
but I was an urgent sort of person
and found even this thrilling.
I fell in love and from that man’s
bed only remember the sun
coming in at the oblique
angle of early morning. After
a while I didn’t know which
was real the staggering pace
of this place or the rest of my life
where actual things happened.
They taught me chords
and once for a full half hour
I had them before that too got lost.
A month or so ago I stayed at a bach in Raumati with twelve other poets. We brought our favourite poetry books, did exercises, and walked on the beach. We drank wine, ate watermelon, and took turns to read and talk about other people’s poems. The first poem I read to the group was ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’, which even after writing an entire and fraught thesis chapter about the poem, is still my favourite. It appears to be a favourite of others too, and Maria McMillan – a wonderful writer and social justice activist who has published two collections of poetry: The Rope Walk (Seraph Press, 2013) and Tree Space (VUP, 2014) – showed me her poem ‘Meditations’ which she’d written in response to Hass’s. The poem summarised the Raumati weekend for me, and the way writers inspire each other.
For more Tuesday Poems check out the hub.
I fly for thirty hours;
she seems pleased to see me.
Perched in her chair we talk about her new home.
She has made friends with Eva, a long-stayer,
whose lounge is filled with flower arrangements.
I prefer minimalism, she says.
When the sun breaks we relocate to the backyard
where I read her the story of a geisha
taking a young maiko apprentice
whom she teaches to care for silk kimono,
separating each section to wash
then sewing them back together –
of the graceful tea ceremony where a rhythmic bamboo brush
discretely exposes her wrist –
of the art of secrecy.
As we speak I notice her ankles,
a flutter of dark moths on skin.
They’re filled with fluid, she says
of the swollen splits and bruises.
She pops up every five minutes
to snake a hand through net curtains,
observe the retirement village – red brick units circling a fish pond –
and report on any activity.
Lois has made a dash for her car wearing a new parka.
The phone rings, Joss lost his sister last night.
He is the last of nine, and the oldest,
she says, her voice level.
The rain leaks colour from the day.
I scan the sky and follow individual drops
to the ground where they bounce up into pin-heads.
At 6pm she declares, The bar is open
and passes me a glass of sherry.
Grandmother borrows a wheelchair.
I haul it out of the boot
to construct in the Whitley Court carpark.
You might push me in the lake, she jokes.
I park her by an ornamental gazebo.
Are you okay? She waves me away,
walking stick laid like a child in her lap,
her eyes stroll the central avenue.
I explore the blackened ballroom,
the arched conservatory open to the sky –
through the caved roof clouds bunch together.
Wheeling her to the fountain for the water firing,
she tells me the myth of Perseus and Andromeda
as they pose before us – she pale, her hair motionless
on the breeze. One hand gently wards off the serpent.
After the show she fixes her jacket and I give my camera
to a tourist. The photograph reveals my hand cupped
around her shoulder – my smile a head above hers,
her shirt stepped in stripes to her chin.
England needs 11 runs from 24 balls.
My sister Linda was named for Rosalind, she says,
the Shakespearean character.
A sprint between wickets.
She had a baby but he died quite young.
10 runs from 23 balls.
I don’t want people knowing that Dad was a bankrupt.
A statement. He was a good man.
I suggest his troubles were caused by the Depression.
He just didn’t have the head for money.
Someone hits a six.
Owning a bakery sounds nice, I say.
It was a pokey little place. After we lost it we lived
with Dad’s parents and then kept a pub in Wolverhampton –
where I took the University exam.
Someone hits a four and she makes a little fist
in the air.
Did you go?
No. My friend did though. Her father was a chemist.
The wickets are pulled from the pitch.
The Proms are on
so I am taught to make a trifle.
She heaves a crystal bowl onto the bench,
breaks a sponge into large cubes, her hands moving
mechanically as fruit and sherry are secured by jam.
Jam’s the family secret, she says and takes out glazed cherries,
sticky doomsday buttons pressed into custard.
When my Aunt and Uncle arrive they sip sherry
and jump up and down with the audience,
my Uncle singing from his knees like a sailor.
She sits on her cushion, feet tapping
under a blanket, the union jack clasped in one hand.
The engine is running.
At the door my Grandmother hesitates
so I bend down and wrap my arms around her.
I wave as the taxi navigates the car-park.
She waves back, her hand a small pigeon
against a brick-red sky.
‘Grandmother’ was originally published in JAAM 25. For more Tuesday Poems check out the hub.
Anger sang in that house until the scrim walls thrummed.
The clamour rang the window panes, dizzying up chimneys.
Get on, get on, the wide rooms cried, until it seemed our unease
as we passed on the stairs or chewed our meals in dimmed
light were all an attending to that voice. And so we got on,
and to muffle that sound we gibbed and plastered, built
shelves for all our good books. What we sometimes felt
is hard to say. We replaced what we thought was rotten.
I remember the starlings, the pair that returned to that gap
above the purple hydrangeas, between weatherboard and eaves.
The same birds, we thought, not knowing how long a starling lives.
For twenty years they came and went, flit and pause and up
into that hidden place. A dry rustle at night, fidgeting, calling,
a murmuration: bird business. The vastness and splendour
of their piecemeal activity, their lives’ long labour,
we discovered at last; blinking, in the murk of the ceiling,
at that whole cavernous space filled, stuffed like a haybarn.
It was like gold, except it was more like shit and straw,
jumbled with their own young, dead, desiccated, sinew
and bone, fledgling and newborn. Starlings only learn
a little thing, made big from not knowing when to leave off:
gone past all need except need, enough never enough.
Tim Upperton is a writer, reviewer, teacher, and doctoral candidate who lives in Palmerston North, New Zealand. His poems have been published in New Zealand and internationally, and in anthologies such as The Best of Best New Zealand Poems and 150 Essential New Zealand Poems. He won the Bronwyn Tate Memorial International Poetry Competition in 2011, and the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Competition in 2012 and 2013. Upperton has two collections of poetry: A House On Fire (Steele Roberts, 2009) and The Night We Ate the Baby (HauNui Press, 2014).
This is, without a doubt, my favourite poem by a New Zealander. I find it difficult to say why; maybe it’s the vibrating language, or it could be because the poem is insistent, unpretentious, essential, aching, open, and shit-filled. Upperton states of the poem: ‘”The starlings” was originally an informal epithalamion, a poem to commemorate the wedding of my sister, Katrina, and her husband, Steve. That version was, appropriately enough, a lot more celebratory than the final version you see here. The poem includes details my sister would remember, such as the immense starlings’ nest in the ceiling of our family home. I kept revisiting and revising this poem following its first publication in the NZ Poetry Society’s anthology, tiny gaps (2006), and each time it got a little darker than before – notes of elegy seeped in. A last-minute change before my first book of poems, A House on Fire, went to print last year was the addition of the word “murmuration” – a lovely old collective noun for starlings.’ You can listen to him read the poem on Best New Zealand Poems.
For more Tuesday Poems check out the hub.