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.

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.

Tuesday Poem: ‘A Story About the Body’ by Robert Hass

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she mused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music–withered quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl–she must have swept the corners of her studio–was full of dead bees.

‘A Story About the Body’ must be one of Hass’s most famous poems. I read it as part of a creative writing reader long before I bought his collections. It comes from Human Wishes (1989), Hass’ third collection, and a collection which has the most apt title for poetry. I think critic Dob Bogen most accurately describes the collection when he says it ‘captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.’ So many of these poems are concerned with loss, transience, and with the process of seeing something disappear; even in this poem the young man’s ‘radiance’ withers from his chest. In Human Wishes Hass really gets into longer lines, and an entire section is dedicated to prose poems. I can’t get enough of them–they so completely inhabit and create a world.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Olive’ by Emily Dobson

Olive

I should have been
a beautiful woman.

*

I was tired of dealing
with the everyday waste
of an ordinary life.

*

The twins stand back to back
in the shower — they
won’t let me wash them.

One says,
‘I don’t want to die.’

The other says,
‘Have I kissed you?
I want to kiss you.’

*

Holes have throats.

*

Norma’s on the deck calling:

Here it is Jude, it’s in the beetroot.
It’s here, it’s in the beetroot!

*

I thought I smelt the sea
but it was only the freshly cut grass
and gathering of seagulls.

*

A house
with four bathrooms.
Four dignified baths
to slowly wash herself in.

*

Olive with her back turned
in a boat.

Only a few collections of poetry make me want to get to know the poet. Emily Dobson’s collection, The Lonely Nude, makes me want to take her out for a drink. I imagine, at the start, that she’d be shy like her poems. I also imagine that once we got talking — and I think that talk would be about poetry as a craft, and the importance of a single word, and how when used as well as you can, you can transfer some of life’s strange melancholy to the page — we’d be fine.

Dobson has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, for which she was awarded the Adam Prize. She was also awarded the 2005 Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States. From her MA came her first collection, A Box of Bees (VUP, 2005), which details growing up in the Hawke’s Bay in a family of apiarists. I did my own MA in 2006, and like all collections published the year before you do your MA, they are a thing of wonder; something to aim for. I’m very glad to see her second collection has made it into the world.

You can find my full review of The Lonely Nude on Landfall Review Online.

For more Tuesday Poems check out the hub.