Tuesday Poem: ‘Grandmother’ by Sarah Jane Barnett

Grandmother

i

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.

ii

It’s raining.

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.

iii

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.

iv

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.

v

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.

Tuesday Poem: ‘The starlings’ by Tim Upperton

The starlings

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 UppertonTim 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.

To Eleanor, With Love

A lot has been written about Eleanor Catton’s interview on liveMint TV and Sean Plunket’s response to that interview (see The Dim Post, Gordon Campbell, Morgan Godfery). What was overlooked in the kerfuffle were Catton’s comments about New Zealanders’ reluctance to express firm beliefs, in particular the beliefs New Zealand writers hold about writing. Catton said:

But I think it is always a shame when people don’t stand up for what it is that they really believe. And I do think the problem we face in New Zealand is that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything. An example would be, I was teaching in class in Auckland. I made up a statement with manifestos from all over the world, different writers who all thought what writing should do or not do. I was going to give it out to my students and have them write about the one that spoke to them the most. When I was putting this document together, I thought, hang on, I don’t have any New Zealand writers here. And I spent an entire day on the Internet trying to find an aesthetic statement from a New Zealand writer and there was nothing. Hopefully in the future, we will have more people being brave in that way.

It is certainly a debatable point of view, and one that reminded me of how spoken interviews often lend themselves to generalisations. That said, I think Catton’s underlying point deserves more discussion. One writer I emailed cited Allen Curnow’s controversial introduction to A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945) as a form of manifesto, as well as Michele Leggott’s Opening the Archive. A quick browse of Best New Zealand Poems will throw up many a manifestoesque statement, for example Ian Wedde’s belief in the diversity of poetry. On the other hand, New Zealanders are often so agreeable that they do not speak out, and, as Brian Easton points out of Catton, when they do, they are attacked by the media. The dire consequences of such an attack are outlined by Godfery on Overland. 

Whether or not you agree with Catton is not really the point. She is a writer that spurs intellectual debate about the role of writing and writers, and she is also someone who stands up as a public intellectual. This is a valuable thing, and it’s certainly brave. To show my support for her right to speak, I asked a few New Zealand writers to write their own statements or manifestos about writing – a love letter of sorts to Catton’s outspokenness. Thank you to those who responded. If you’re a New Zealand writer, post your own in the comments (or email them to me) and I’ll add them to the post. Please feel free to repost.

I believe writing needs to burn through to something. That’s the reason I do it. To hopefully create a sense in the reader, and also in myself, that some kind of incandescence has occurred, illuminating the world, human beings, power, nature, history, the future, our mothers and fathers, our ancestors. – Hinemoana Baker, writer and musician

The choice or drive to write anything goes beyond speech. It is both more free and more fixed. To write is to attempt to fix something, to find something of which we can be certain, to delay or stretch time, to hold all that is evanescent in words. ‘Should’ or ‘should not’ have no place in this drive or decision. It rests on ‘can’ and ‘must’. For what writing can and must do is provide us with evidence of self and world – evidence being a moment in which something is fixed. Every writer – whether of novel, poem, letter or email – seeks and accomplishes this with greater or lesser truth, greater or lesser technical ability. So all writing is both self-portrait and picture of a world – representation of what we characterise as inner and outer life. And here is the marvel. Writing is both portrait of the writer and mirror for the reader. Every successful portrait is a mirror. It is of us and belongs to us as soon as written, for it is in our language. We may recognise ourselves or not, be flattered or insulted, comprehend the image or be baffled by it. These are our own, individual responses. But the mirror, the written text, does not answer to us. It travels. It is a mirror for individuals unknown to us, unlike us, even unborn, to see, confront, appreciate, understand themselves. For these reasons, we need writers who have no interest in being told what writing should or should not do. Those who are concerned with should and should not are those who would avoid or control the mirror. – Harold Jones, poet

It’s hard to take literary manifestos seriously, and I’ve always liked Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” essay, which is both jokey and useful. When you write a poem, “you just go on your nerve,” he says. “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.” But what does it mean, to “just go on your nerve”? I don’t know, really, but O’Hara did it, and I wish more poets followed his example. – Tim Upperton, poet

Ellie Catton’s comments about firm belief resonate strongly with me. As to what writing should or should not do, it has to be up to the individual writer. Hard-and-fast rules or encompassing statements tend not to be particularly useful to creative practitioners in any field. I think this discussion raises two separate points: firstly, what attitudes should writers express in their work, and secondly what attitudes they should express via other means, such as interviews or public talks. What has angered me most about this media incident is the implied idea that a writer shouldn’t be publicly criticising her country or its government. That is absolutely a totalitarian attitude. – Airini Beautrais, poet

Writing presents a brave act of magic, and an aid to survival. Writing focuses and controls our thinking, while we make our infinite world within into something finite, to work in the world of others. Often writing inspires or provokes dialogue. Buber, the German philosopher, said the only way we progress is through dialogue. Writing may be deliberately set to encourage people to communicate well with each other. Also, writing may expose a unique, talented individual unafraid to display their work, even if knowing it is rare, strange, and at times startling, or controversial. Although various attacks, envious remarks, sabotage, threats, and basic rudeness may result, it’s important to write well, and enjoy it, and learn. Writing has also a honourable purpose in that we may record what we experience, recall, or imagine, because we believe human beings matter, and what we form into language can assist others immeasurably, in ways we can often not imagine. So we need to work hard, trust others, and publish no matter the opposition, for the good of the many. – Raewyn Alexander, writer 

It’s easy to tell stories about New Zealanders as a people who don’t have (or particularly want) full access to the world of ideas; who prefer to traffic in physical expression, via outlets such as sporting prowess and the conspicuous acquisition of material wealth. There are those who mistake these stories for incontrovertible truth, proclaiming them to be “the way things are” or “how the world works” as if it were ever possible to tell such a story. Such absolutist types can often react poorly to storytellers who chip the concrete absolutism from their sustaining narratives, revealing the shifting impermanence beneath. But it’s these second kind of storytellers we need: those who make the world bigger, not smaller, revealing possibilities outside the reductive narratives by which we’re tricked into viewing our lives. Eleanor Catton has reminded us this week that there is no reason on earth why people living in New Zealand should not enjoy access to such storytellers. She doesn’t belong to New Zealand — her work happened in her mind, not in this country or that — but inasmuch as her voice sounds recognisable to us, we are fortunate to have the chance to hear her stories. – Tom Goulter, writer

The art of writing is couched in a shifting constellation of ideas, philosophy, politics and moral vision. It is an inherently political act, whether one acknowledges it or not. Because of that, it comes with a responsibility to continue to learn, to critique and to be mindful of our own thinking and to be curators of our own beliefs. This ongoing process of reflection is the examined life – the only one worth living. – Anna Forsyth, writer and musician

I do believe that writers are more than a ‘brand’ or producers of ‘product.’ We should support the right of writers to question authority and political leaders. In my work, I am striving to reach an honesty. I want my work to be of the highest quality – I am trying to reach my best. Writers should not be expected to be cultural ambassadors or even role models. I support Catton’s statement and her sentiments and admire her courage. – Harvey Molloy, poet  

It is the job and function of artists of all kinds to be political, to be dissenting voices, to challenge the status quo. It is our job to show the truths we perceive and the alternative possibilities we visualise. It is our job to speak clearly and to ensure that debates about how our country (and our world) is governed aren’t held only between the people who do the governing and those who aspire to replace them. Who is better placed to do this than artists? – Joy Green, poet, reviewer, theatre pactitioner & teacher

Writing should be an honest, pioneering inquiry into the aspects of the writer, and the world the writer inhabits, which are concealed or overlooked. Sylvia Plath’s promise to ‘write until I begin to speak my deep self’ is attractive to me. I don’t think this ‘deep self’ is found by solipsistic tunnelling, but via perilous imaginative journeys that send the self into alien circumstances. This sort of writing should startle both the writer and the reader – perhaps by showing what is presumed foreign to be familiar and vice versa. Writing should also be readable. If the writer fears, disrespects or neglects the assumed reader, writing becomes muddy. Instead, writing should accentuate the muddiness of quotidian language and inspire us to demand better. If we only receive politicians’ cliché-muffled meaning, advertisements’ senseless promises, and bureaucracies’ contorted parlance, we might forget how much clearer expression could be and relinquish our own clarity of thought. Writing should ward off such a vulnerable impairment.Amy Brown, poet

It’s true New Zealand writers (with the obvious exception of Allen Curnow and a few others) don’t tend to go in for personal manifestos or literary creeds or dogmatic aesthetic statements. This is partly due to not wanting to seem ‘up yourself’, partly to a distrust of movements and slogans, partly to our culture of politeness (which is definitely a likeable trait, but does inhibit our willingness to review each other’s work). I’ve found that the most useful literary statements are more like tips and are mostly just common sense: “originality is better than repetition”; don’t write something just because it sounds rhetorically or sonorously effective; “They learn in suffering what they teach in song”; develop your own ‘shit-detector’, your own inner reader; with poems, the proof of the pudding is usually in the rhythm. Manifestos (besides propaganda, posturing and self-promotion) are only really useful to writers if these help them with the work itself. Ironically, writers who come up with literary creeds are often at their most interesting when they’re breaking them. – Harry Ricketts, poet, academic, editor, reviewer

For me, it’s important to distinguish between an ‘aesthetic statement[s]’ about ‘what writing should or should not do’ – most often made, I believe, by individual white men and those who help them create/sustain their canon – and a ‘manifesto’ that groups of writers and artists make collectively. And there’s a fine tradition of manifestos/kaupapa in New Zealand. The one closest to my hand – and probably my heart – is this one from the Mothers exhibition catalogue (1980); I laughed when I reached for a heavy book to hold it flattish to photograph and that book was Charles Brasch: Journals 1938-1945. Mothers includes poems from Elizabeth Smither, Fiona Kidman, Joanna Margaret Paul, Juliet Batten, Keri Hulme and Meg Campbell.

women's gallery manifesto

I’m pretty certain that there are similar manifestos from other groups, like the founders of Spiral magazine. Their manifesto may have suggested that women artists and writers benefit from extended periods when they read and look at women’s work only. That’s how I came to know and love that strategy. The Haeata Collective certainly had a kaupapa and may have had a written version, perhaps in its Karanga Karanga catalogue – from artists and writers like Maaka Jones, Patricia Grace, Robyn Kahukiwa, Keri Kaa, Irihapeti Ramsden, Shona Rapira-Davies, Tungia Baker, Roma Potiki.These manifestos/kaupapa – and the actions they inspired – arose from conditions that made it difficult for diverse women to make work and to have it published or exhibited within an appropriate context. Public and private reactions to the manifestos/ kaupapa and the related activity were often intense, intended to silence participants and hurtful to individuals. Those who had a strong publication or exhibition record and contributed to these collectives’ ideas did so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they wanted to take risks that their dealers or publishers would not support. And/or they wanted to ensure that audiences experienced their work within an appropriate collective framework. And/or they wanted to act in solidarity. Of New Zealanders who’ve worked consistently with a personal manifesto I think film editor Annie Collins has been most influential, because her kaupapa’s ethical and aesthetic elements have affected so many New Zealand films and filmmakers. – Marian Evans, writer and maker

Free speech is the non negotiable space writers and writing must inhabit. As part of the Fourth Estate it is every writer’s job – as it is every journalist’s job – to hold governments to account and to speak out against them if/when things go awry. In this, the remits of the Fourth Estate – impartiality, integrity – are those which guide the writer through their free expression of opinion and critique. Writers and writing should never be lambasted, shamed or demeaned for simply ensuring democratic principles such as liberty and open discourse are upheld. – Siobhan Harvey, poet

Poetry should walk the tightrope between the right and the left brain and never fall off. It should create whole worlds that the poet cannot fully understand, and be soul-work, and never lie still. – Joan Fleming, poet 

Writers write for all sorts of different reasons, so I wouldn’t expect each and every one of them to be the critical voice of their generation, or to regard speaking truth to power as a moral imperative. However, these are very legitimate and I would say necessary expectations for a society to place on its intellectual class overall. This is why we must stand by those writers among us who dare to be critical of our society and its institutions when they are under attack. Solidarity with Eleanor Catton. - Giovanni Tiso, writer and translator

The writer must be true to herself. Truthfulness is beautiful although it may be hard to hear and hard to look at. It can be brutal. It can fail. Truthfulness does not speak for the sound of its own voice or step forward for the pose. A character may act falsely, a plot move may be a false lead but the force that through the green fuse drives the flower must also drive the writer’s hand. The writer’s hand is hers alone. – Kirsten McDougall, novelist

I’m a little allergic to the idea of manifestos, I guess because of their insistence and their demands for certainty in a pursuit that, to my mind, better rewards suspension of judgment, and uncertainty. If NZ writers are in fact reluctant to write manifestos, I tend to think it’s not due to a lack of firm belief, but another characteristic in our literature – a determination to stay open, to allow multiple realities into a work, to intentionally puncture the tendency towards easy and firmly held opinion (cf Keats’s negative capability). To my mind this is one of the brilliant offshoots of what is essentially a postcolonial literature, and one of the reasons why there are so many excellent NZ poets. – Anna Smaill, poet and novelist

I think writing should not be afraid to offend, not offense for offense’s sake, but to address issues and subjects that the writer feels strongly about and to which certain sectors might take objection. Satire is an under-used and under-appreciated genre in New Zealand writing. Many New Zealand writers shy away from dealing with political issues in their writing either because politics doesn’t interest them or because they fear the backlash in a small society. In this way, I think it is brave of Eleanor Catton to nail her political colours to the mast. Art addresses the full spectrum of the human condition, but we must not forget that we are citizens as well as writers. As writers, we can use our talents and our vision to effect change. – Andrew M. Bell, poet, fiction writer and playwright

Writing at its most radical is an act of empathy. It makes you, as best you can, inhabit the mind of another person. Even if that person is cruel or hateful or simply different to how you see yourself, it makes you spend time understanding their perspective. - Sarah Jane Barnett, poet and reviewer

Tuesday Poem: ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ by Camille Dungy

Conspiracy (to breathe together)

Last week, a woman smiled at my daughter and I wondered
if she might have been the sort of girl my mother says spat on my aunt
when they were children in Virginia all those acts and laws ago.

Half the time I can’t tell my experiences apart from the ghosts’.

A shirt my mother gave me settles into my chest.

I should say onto my chest, but I am self conscious—
the way the men watch me while I move toward them
makes my heart trip and slide and threaten to bruise
so that, inside my chest, I feel the pressure of her body,
her mother’s breasts, her mother’s mother’s big, loving bounty.

I wear my daughter the way women other places are taught
to wear their young. Sometimes, when people smile,
I wonder if they think I am being quaintly primitive.

The cloth I wrap her in is brightly patterned, African,
and the baby’s hair manes her alert head in such a way
she has often been compared to an animal.

There is a stroller in the garage, but I don’t want to be taken
as my own child’s nanny. (Half the time I know my fears are mine alone.)

At my shower, a Cameroonian woman helped me practice
putting a toy baby on my back. I stood in the middle of a circle
of women, stooped over and fumbling with the cloth. Curious George
was the only doll on hand, so the white women looked away
afraid I would hurt my baby while the black women looked away
and thought about not thinking about monkeys.

There is so much time in the world. How many ways can it be divided?

I walk every day with my daughter and wonder
what is happening in other people’s minds. Half the time
I am filled with terror. Half the time I am full of myself.

The baby is sleeping on my back again. When I stand still,
I can feel her breathing. But when I start to move, I lose her
in the rhythms of my tread.

Photo Credit: Ray BlackI read ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ in The Best American Poetry 2014, although it was originally published in The American Poetry Review. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue (2011), Suck on the Marrow (2010), and the sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). She has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She has also received an impressive number of awards which are listed on her website.

Although I didn’t realise it until researching Dungy, she often writes about the human/nature relationship, which was the central theme of my PhD. On the scarcity of African American poets in anthologies of nature poetry, Dungy states, “I miss seeing writers of color in the conversation. Until we have greater variety in the conversation, it is not a conversation—it is a monologue” (Poetry Foundation). She has been active in addressing the issue, having edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009).

Every time I read this poem something new rises to the surface: the young mother’s fear of failing; the traits we share with other animals; how the wonderful line ‘Half the time I know my fears are mine alone’ captures the way we carry echoes of our parents’ insecurities and the stories we learned about ourselves; Dungy’s subtle comments about race. What I found most profound was the title’s play on the word conspire which comes from the Latin conspirare ‘agree, plot,’ or con- ‘together with’ combined with spirare ‘breathe’: to breathe together. For me it suggests that the women in the poem — ‘Cameroonian,’ ‘black’ and ‘white’– are part of a greater and shared womanhood, while also being divided in different ways.

For more Tuesday poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘malady’ by Hinemoana Baker

malady

As our ancestors did before us we claw
at ourselves and each other, we swell, seize up,
snipe and bitch, hating each other for cytosines

and thickenings, for the errors of general practitioners,
for long nights awake without medicine. You scratch
so hard you bruise yourself. I give away hours of night

to the next yellow day. My mother remembers the rash
that raged across her back and the fleshy heels of her palms.
It vanished the day she said those words, under her breath,

while stacking kindling in the shipping container
we used for a woodshed. We left two weeks later.
My father is all for aloe vera and manuka honey

and us coming up for a break. I pulverise an old
carrot in the screaming juicer. You get a ten-dollar
haircut. The sun comes out like a fucking miracle.

HinemoanaHinemoana Baker is a writer, musician, and producer, and in 2014 she was the writer in residence at the International Institute of Modern Letters. She is descended from Ngāi Tahu in the South Island, and Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa, and Ngāti Ati Awa in the North.

The poem ‘malady’ comes from her third collection waha | mouth, which was published by VUP in 2014. It is such a generous collection; Baker’s poetry is lyrical and intellectual, tough and everyday, surprising and deft. As a poet I had many ‘ah!’ moments when I appreciated the care and craft that went into these poems. Both Paula Green and Booksellers NZ have written, in my opinion, spot on reviews of waha | mouth.

I think ‘malady’ appealed to me because I read the collection just before Christmas, that traditional time of family togetherness. If you’ve read my poetry you’ll know I sometimes write about the difficult relationship I have with my father, which in essence is writing about my relationship with myself as so many of my traits I’ve inherited from him. Baker’s cracking last line made me laugh — some days just walking out onto this green earth feels like fucking miracle.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.