Tuesday Poem: ‘Shipwrecker’ by Nina Powles

Kaikoura, 1844

She plants daisies in a corner plotted out with bones
pulled from the ribcage of a sperm whale.

Her favourite thing hangs by the front door –
a string of whale’s teeth polished wonderfully bright.
Her father brought them home for her eighth birthday

which was a particularly good day
for whaling. A pod of dolphin-eating whales chased
a humpback calf, breaking its jaw quite rapidly.
They are baby’s teeth, he said, that’s why they are so
white just like yours.

When whales forget their maps they strand. The first time
she thought they were rocks but the funny shapes spat air,
little cloud prints floating just above. By tea-time they had died.
The whole place smelled like sea-monster said her mother.
They had white patches on their skin where big eyes ought to be.

Her father always says a whale’s tail can knock you
right out of your boat. The most dangerous part is just when
the harpoon goes in – you can see the white of the eye,
then blood and whale-groans and big waves. So it’s very
important he says, not to scare the whale suddenly.
She wonders how you kill a whale without
scaring it suddenly, and if down there
on the beach
is the least sudden place to die.

‘Shipwrecker’ is from the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press 2014), which I read over the summer. The book features poems about real and fictional women from New Zealand history and literature, including Katherine Mansfield and some of her creations, the first permanent lighthouse keeper, the daughter of a whaler, poets Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan, and a school ghost. You can read some of Powles’ poems about Mansfield in issue #1 of Starling. She certainly has a gift for creating tension in a poem, and then making that tension turn or transform at the end. I’m often surprised and always hooked.

Nina Powles recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters for which she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems, Salient, Turbine, and Sweet Mammalian.

Tuesday Poem: ‘First loss’ by Joan Fleming

First loss

When we met, all the songs were about loss,
all the television shows contained it,
it was in everything, like sugar. We’d come home
late, after passing through the gates
of the day, its shocks and offerings,
and you’d close your eyes a minute under the river
of my voice.        The spell of loss is heavy.
It is a kind of gift, also a kind of theft.
You can be with someone for months, a year, and not know
whether you’ve lost them. Sometimes,
you keep on losing someone even after they’ve left.

The first time you said         I think I’m losing you
you were inside my mouth. I wondered if that counts.
But I could plainly see how it was filling up your chest,
your eyes gone hurt and biscuity with broken
light and hunger and all of what
you would have, and will now be full of want,
to give me.

From then, we hardly knew what to do
if we couldn’t lose each other. Everything
that looked like you I paid for
and carried on, I sent you messages with loss
as the subject line, I sent you pictures,
two women in an attitude of loss, one face
in a deep and pedagogic pleasure, the other
body lean and strong as a hammock.
You can tell what she knows
by the shadow at her back.

I went away, but I came back. You painted
your room. You tried on all your clothes
for me, and made a heap of all the ones
I would soon come        to know and lose:
the greens, the browns, the animal-skin vest,
the neon running shoes.                      And then,
you split me open, you lost me like I was a key,
a precious book, a scrap of note where you had written down
some shining phrase you couldn’t now remember,
not in the heat of losing me so fiercely, so devotedly,
your face in tender disintegration, and me
calling out for you to lose me faster,
to not stop losing me.

‘First loss’ is from Joan Fleming’s second collection Failed Love Poems (VUP), which was one of my favourites of 2015 (and many other poets had it on their best books list). It’s such a wonderful collection; the poems are tender, erotic, and mysterious, and they somehow evoke the headiness of love and lost love.

Joan Fleming completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University and won the Biggs Family Poetry Prize in 2007. A chapbook, Two Dreams in Which Things Are Taken, was published as part of the duets series in 2010, and her first poetry collection, The Same as Yes, was published in 2011. She mostly lives in Melbourne, and calls New Zealand home.

Sixteen books for 2016

16 books for 2016

1. Radioland by Lesley Wheeler
I read Wheeler’s blog and she’s so damn smart (she’s an American academic, poet, and a previous Fulbright fellow). This is her most recent collection of poetry.

2. The Pale North by Hamish Clayton
The premise of this book about books is irresistible. It couldn’t get more meta unless a Hamish Clayton impersonator came to my house and read it to me.

3. Lost and Gone Away by Lynn Jenner
A four-part hybrid of memoir, essays, prose poems and poetry, proving that Jenner can do anything. I can’t wait to read this book.

4. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
I have a pathological attraction to McEwan’s narcissistic, middle aged, intellectual protagonists. I’ll be falling in love all over again.

16 for 2016

5. Otherwise by John Dennison
This is on everyone’s ‘best poetry collections’ list for 2015. If I don’t read it I can’t participate in book launch trash talk (Greg O’Brien used the word ‘rapture’ to describe the book so my expectations are high). Good on Dennison for also publishing in the UK.

6. The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
I listen to the podcast RadioLab who often featured Oliver Sacks. What a kind and curious man. When he died I thought the least I could do was to read one of his books and this ‘collection of clinical tales from the far borderlands of neurological and human experience’ is a classic.

7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My favourite novel is The Road. I’ve been afraid to read more McCarthy in case it’s not as good, but people keep on assuring me it will be.

8. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje
I remember first encountering Ondaatje in a workshop reading packet. The poem we read was about the circus and it had the most exquisite line break. I am still thinking about it six years later. I found this book in an op shop.

9. Bernadette Hall’s books, all of them, in order
This is a bit of a cheat, but I’ve spent years finding all of her poetry collections and now it’s time to read them. BH forever.

16 books for 2016

10. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Emily Perkins raved about this book on Twitter. Also: women, war, and sex.

11. Sea Change by Jorie Graham
Jorie Graham’s poetry is like a force of nature. This is her 11th collection of poems and while it’s had mixed reviews, I’m still intimidated by this book.

12. An Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Probably one of the most loved and influential collections of contemporary poetry. The other poets will vote me off the island if I don’t read it soon.

13. Information is Beautiful by David McCandless
My mum gave me a book voucher last birthday and this is what I bought. If only all communication were conceived so beautifully.

16 books for 2016

14. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
I’ll admit the cover made me pick it off a friend’s shelf, but I’ve heard it’s astonishing.

15. The Invisible Mile by David Coventry
Shining prose, by everyone’s account. More importantly, it’s about sport in a way that’s not ironic!

16. What Light Can Do by Robert Hass
I read a few essays from this collection during my doctorate, but didn’t have time to read the whole thing. Hass will always be my favourite writer, and his essays break me to bits.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Elegy to R.J.J.’ by Andrew Jardine

Elegy to R.J.J.

A picture of your last ship hangs on my study wall;
the one I inherited from our parents, who have both gone
now too. And that ship sails eternally in sepia-toned
black and white, unable to break free from its frame.

And I struggle to remember you, because I was too young
to recall: your voice, and what you had to say, and how you
might have looked out for me, as older brothers do. But
I do remember your photo, you dressed in your navy uniform;

and Dad, as he told his story of you out hunting, being chased
by a wild pig up a tree; the fur hat that you made from possums
caught in gin traps, that you skinned and tanned; and the smell
of your sweat, stuck in a shirt left tucked in the back of a wardrobe.

You were on shore leave, in some foreign city, perhaps
Portsmouth or Plymouth, or some other naval town,
and alcohol was flowing freely; was it beer? Or maybe
something stronger? And when it came time, perhaps

following the last round, to return to your ship, they say
that you staggered and slipped, and fell from the gangway;
and as you fell, your head cracked against the grey hull,
and I can only imagine the dull sound that might have made

and I wonder, did that sound echo? Like the reverberations
from a thrown stone that makes ripples in a pond; a wave
of sound felt more than heard: an echo trapped, never fading.
And I was told that you were dead before you even entered the sea,

which is where you were buried soon after. And much later,
your ship’s trunk: your last possessions, arrived by sea;
and that trunk always looked like a casket, complete with shiny
brass corners, and your initials imprinted in large black script: R.J.J.

And I don’t remember your funeral, but I often wonder what
you would be doing today, and how many kids you might have,
and your wife’s name, and I don’t even know if you had a girlfriend,
because when you were gone, no one talked about you much,

except sometimes, when a certain song played on the radio,
and our mother would suddenly seem so far away, and if I asked
her what was wrong, she would say, it was a song that you liked
to listen to, just before she got up and changed the station.

I feel this poem in my gut. I think it’s the way the poem moves through time and memory. It bounces and builds to something like the ‘echo trapped, never fading,’ a wave of sound about the loss of possibility for both the speaker and his brother. I think it’s exceptional.

Andrew Jardine is completing a Graduate Diploma in Arts. He moved from New Zealand to Los Angeles in 2004, where he and Jenny now live in the small town of Claremont. He is the father of two wonderful young men, one of whom recently moved back to New Zealand. Andrew would like to dedicate this poem to his brother Robert.

Read ‘Nora’s Funeral’ by Susan Hansen, which I posted last week and is also an elegy written for the Massey 139.229 creative writing paper.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Nora’s Funeral’ by Sue Hansen

Nora’s Funeral
For Ray & Nora Doogue, married 1941-1993

I expect rain, the day we bury my Grandmother.
Yet, as mourners gather on the cobbled yard
we squint into the sun’s light,
and the wool of my jacket itches my neck.

I sit at the end of the pew
next to Grandad’s gaunt form,
strapped upright in the wheelchair.
He cannot genuflect – Parkinson’s.
So I cross the translucent skin
of his forehead,
wipe the rivulets of spit
that traverse down his badly shaven chin,
tissue catching in the stubble.

His blue eyes stare at the pulpit;
would he realise at the hospice
that the person feeding him potato
was a nurse, not his wife?

We sing, ‘Enfold me in your love’.
My voice swells with the congregation
and there we are, Grandma,
on your threadbare orange sofa
where we read together,
tucked under the cashmere rug.
You would ask,
‘Are you warm enough, dear?’

During the final eulogy
Grandad coughs loudly;
I pull his large hand into mine.
The hand that taught me
fishing knots and chess moves
is cold, like the
snapper we would throw
onto the boat floor
in Ohope.

The pallbearers stride up the aisle.
My uncle and some second cousins.
Grandad’s eyes rove over the casket
as though a blind person seeking ballast.
I stand to wheel him out.

While he sits
covered in prisms of pink cast by the lead light
touching his wet, grey stubble –
incarnations of Mary’s hand
reaching down from her assumption.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post poems by students of Massey’s 139.229 creative writing paper. Massey University doesn’t (yet) have an online journal like Turbine or 4th Floor, and these poems should be read beyond my dining room table. During the course students write contemporary elegies, odes, and love poems.

I was moved by Sue’s poem about her grandparents, Ray & Nora Doogue. My own grandfather had Parkinson’s, and I’ve always thought that the mental decline of the disease creates a particular type of heartbreak for the partner who remains. There is a subtle redemption at the end of Sue’s poem; while the image of the grandfather being ‘covered in prisms of pink cast by the lead light’ as though in ‘assumption’ suggests a certain peace for the grandfather, I actually read the ending as the granddaughter being freed from seeing her grandmother care for a man who is lost to both of them.

Sue Hansen lives at Narrowneck beach in Auckland with her husband and two extremely beautiful children. Her paternal grandparents, Ray and Nora Doogue, had a large part to play in Sue’s childhood, as her father died when she was aged two. Sue was always in awe of her Grandparents bond with one another.