Tuesday Poem: ‘Settling for Action Man’ by Claire Orchard

Settling for Action Man

That summer, blond Cindy (mine),
and blonder Barbie (borrowed,
belonging to my absent older sister)
spent many a weekend afternoon
on Niamh Guinness’s back lawn, partying hard
with Niamh’s brunette Cindy.
Yes, we keenly felt the lack
of a Ken doll. A Ken would have
brought us closer to a gender balance,
but Kens were in short supply
in our neighbourhood.
A Ken, with his blond hair and permasmile,
would have provided the perfect foil
for any, indeed all, of the female dolls,
despite his squishy head.
Without a Ken, we had to make do
with an Action Man borrowed
from Niamh’s oblivious older brother.
Action Man, although ruggedly handsome,
had visible hinges on his elbows and knees,
and his unwavering expression
of utter disdain made it harder for us
to pretend he fancied any of the girls.
Still, we had him plant long, hot, plastic kisses
upon their small, pink-painted mouths,
all the while pressing his camo-clad body
suggestively against them. Of course
the anatomical deviations of the participants
their obvious shortcomings and exaggerations
meant from the outset any action we choreographed
fell well short of our cherished romantic notions.
We made do. It proved valuable preparation.

‘Settling for Action Man’ is part of Claire Orchard’s debut collection, Cold Water Cure.  The collection will be launched at the Writers Week VUP Launch Party on Thursday 10 March (alongside Dad Art by Damien Wilkins and Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston). It’s an event I don’t want to miss! You can read a Q&A with Claire about her collection and its ‘main character,’ Charles Darwin on These Rough Notes. You can read my review of the collection on The Pantograph Punch.

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.

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.

Tuesday Poem: Two triolets by Janis Freegard


The sound of dropped silverware is, like, really loud.
I think I’ll do that gamelan course
next semester. When there’s no crowd,
the sound of dropped silverware is, like, really loud.
I’ve uploaded all my tunes to the cloud.
Did I tell you my parents are getting divorced?
The sound of dropped silverware is, like, really loud.
I think I’ll do that gamelan course.

The Alpine Zone

We rose up into the alpine zone
taking the path of least resistance.
Gliding where harrier hawks have flown,
we rose up into the alpine zone.
The landscape dwindled, bare as bone.
Perspective always comes with distance.
Rising into the alpine zone,
we took the path of least resistance.

I heard Janis read some of these triolets (a French poetic form with repeated lines) on National Poetry Day. They are from her new collection The Glass Rooster (AUP) and appear at the start of each of the eight sections (or ‘echo-systems’) – The Damp Places, Forest, Cityscape, The Alpine Zone, Space, Home & Garden, Underground and In the Desert. There is so much curiosity in this collection, wielded by Janis’s sharp intellect.

Janis Freegard lives in Wellington, with an historian and a cat, and works in the public service. Her first full-length poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia: The Escapades of Linnaeus, was published by Auckland University Press in 2011. She is also the author of a chapbook, The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider (Anomalous Press, 2013), and co-author of AUP New Poets 3 (AUP, 2008). Her poetry has appeared in a wide range of journals and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas, including Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (Random House, 2014), Best NZ Poems 2012 and Landfall. In 2014 she held the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellowship at New Pacific Studio in the Wairarapa. She also writes fiction, is a past winner of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award. Her first novel was published with Mākaro Press in 2015. She blogs at http://janisfreegard.com.

Tuesday Poem: ‘The fallings’ by Morgan Bach

The fallings

I wake and watch the planes
from my bed — each one an uncalled
number. An unspilled cup of tea,
covers still clean, hands
unscalded and reaching
under the sheets to the cool patch
on the other side where you were,
and you were and you
and you too, though none
of you now. Out my window
the planes take off at different angles,
some keep low and rise slowly
but others are full-tilt
to the heavens
hoping the weather
is better there, with clouds below
to give the illusion of being pillowed
should they find themselves
alone, so suddenly,
in the cool patches.

In 2013 Morgan Bach undertook an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. She was the recipient of the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry, co-editor of Turbine 2013, and has had work published in Sport, Landfall, and Hue & Cry. ‘The fallings’ is from her debut collection Some of Us Eat the Seeds (VUP). There are some photos of the book launch on the Unity Books website.

I heard Morgan read this poem on Radio New Zealand in her calm and self-assured way. During the show, Greg O’Brien called her a ‘good, strong, mature, independant poet’ and stated that her collection is ‘an amazing book.’ He’s right — I couldn’t stop thinking about ‘The fallings,’ especially the lines, ‘on the other side where you were, / and you were and you / and you too, though none / of you now.’ I felt the disappointment that came with each ‘you,’ but also the sadness that is part of the speaker’s quiet acceptance (an experience of many women in their 30s, maybe, myself included), that they’ve again found themselves alone in their bed, watching someone fly away.