I thought why should the overseas poets have all the fun? So for NZ's Poetry Day, have opted to write about Poetry rather than about NZ . (Although I guess in the end, it is about both).
This is a photo I took three years ago of a Viking boat (novelty) that appeared in Dunedin Harbour ... don't know if it's still around or not. There's an odd, out-of-context quality about it that I thought made it an appropriate companion for the poem below.
in my reply
Reading between the lines I infer your email
elicits a reply of some kind.
The one I post off is polite enough.
I’ve used the revised version,
the second draft,
the one that doesn’t mention
how you live in Auckland.
In my reply I give you
my low-brow opinion
on your more loftier thoughts.
In my reply I lied a bit
and said I did not know.
You say you prefer restraint that leans
to the abstract; poetry that’s like gruyere
and allows for gaps. Poetry
that bubbles up
from the subconscious.
If I understand you correctly,
you say that poetry is taking off
in new, post-postmodern
directions and is modelled
not on Aristotle so much
as an axolotl
walking away from me
but an oblique smile
and a funny hat.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
The title of this poem and the words,
‘In my reply I lied a bit
and said I did not know'
are taken from the song ‘In My Reply’ written by Livingston Taylor and sung by Linda Ronstadt.
I wrote this quite a few years ago now, and yes it was in a fit of pique after a rejection. I hate rejections. So much so, I seldom submit anything anywhere … whether that be for residencies, magazines, competitions … whatever. It's a fear of rejection as deep-seated as any childhood fear can be. Hey, it's not so bad – just makes me a people-pleaser, which other people don't seem to mind.
I can read this poem now with some amusement, all rancour removed. When I first read it at a poetry reading years ago, a number of other poets knew exactly who I was talking about … which was interesting, as I thought I was being fairly subtle. I also enjoyed the opportunity of using a line of a Livingston Taylor / Linda Ronstadt song I love.
As children, one of our favourite biscuits were called, of all things, 'Slugs'. (I've yet to meet anyone else from another family that has memories of these biscuits).
6 oz (200g) butter
3 ozs (100g) sugar
1/2 pound (250g) flour
1 tbsp coconut
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 sm tsp baking soda
Beat butter and sugar to a cream, add egg (beaten) and flour mixed with coconut, B. soda & cream of tartar. Take a tbsp of mixture and roll with hands on a board sprinkled with coconut into sm. rolls. place on a greased slide (oven tray) and bake in a slow oven until (just) golden brown. When cooled, join tog. with plain icing.
This recipe is my mother's contribution to an old Orepuki WDFF recipe book. My sister has copied off the whole recipe book so we can enjoy reading the old -fashioned recipes. (I am interested to see that the oven tray, for example, was called a 'slide'. I wonder if that was a Scottish or an English term?
A lot of the sayings and terms we used or heard, long gone now, came from the matriarchal side of my family and were either the Scottish way of saying things, or the English. My father had Irish grandparents, so he'd come out with an Irish term every so often.(For example his way of saying, "greetings" for "hello" was possibly of Irish origin).
My Nana (whose parents were of Scottish and English origin) used to always say she was going to 'do the messages' when she went off with her cane basket to get anything from the shop. And she always called the pictures (movies) 'fil-i-ms.'
To us kids, a sandwich after school was a 'piece' - preferably with golden syrup on it.
When I bake Slugs (a seldom occurrence) I feel I am in some small way, recapturing that long-ago time when rushing home from school meant a raid on the cake tins to find Slugs, or Jumble, or Yo-yos. Or if there was no baking to be had, to make ourselves a 'piece' dripping with golden syrup. (And on particularly cold and wintry days, maybe Mum would have a pot of milky Milo simmering at the back of the coal range).
When we moved to where we went to school and home again on a school bus, if the driver, Mr Fulton from Freshford, saw that the car wasn't in its usual spot in front of the garage (a sign that our mother was away somewhere) he'd shout, "Ooh, look out cake tins, here we come!" And he was right - the minute we got in the door it was time to head for the cake tins. And if Mum was indeed away from the scene, we'd help ourselves to more than one Slug each. Ah, they were such simple times.
Today a fierce four-year old boy with the narrow, freckled look of a feral cat, has on his feet boots his mother bought him from The Warehouse which he uses to kick at the world piece by piece and anyone who stands in his way. It’s up to me to hold him until he calms down and the murmuring chortle of the doves from their cage in the playground can once more be heard. Afterwards, my heart feels as if it has been wrung of blood. I stand in the staff-room with its cold, linoleum floor and drink water from a tall glass. I stare out at a leafless tree where three sparrows hang, and consider eternity.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
This poem started off as a prose poem, then I changed it to a regular poem and posted it here on my blog (about three years ago now). But after reading it again recently, I decided it reads better in its prose-poem form.
(The boy in the poem will now be an eight year old).
PS If my Irish poet friend Barbara calls by, she might be interested to see that I have finally met the challenge she threw out, a month or two ago now, to feature the word 'linoleum' in a poem.
of purple grape froth trickling a ripe roses scent
and beetroot palate into our salad day memories.
Views of the lake in its many moods: sometimes quiescent,
like a windowpane stippled with rain, behind which
cucumber leafage and swollen twigs revolve, and you
can imagine fridgefuls of rare home-brews,
or spiced-plum brandy, tots doled out to travellers;
sometimes waves snapping fierce enough to whip out
all the tent-pegs in Canvastown, with a wind able
to upturn a wedding marquee's trestle tables tomorrow.
Days of wooden coach wheels bumping out of the Ida Valley
on the Old Dunstan Road in journeys of the pioneers.
Days releasing meteorological balloons into a delicate apricot sky
in this landscape we invent, as it invents us —
from rock flake and springwater, from a skiff of froth
tumbling over a weir into the afterglow of the Aurora.
On arecent trip to Robert's hometown, Queenstown, we strolled along the lake frontage stopping to look again at David Eggleton's long, long poem sandblasted by the sculptor Stuart Griffiths into an Oamaru-stone ribbon that drapes and loops along the length of the retainer wall. The poem travels a very long way around the jetties, turning the corner and only ends where the stone wall gives way to wooden steps leading down to the lake's edge.
There since 1994, the sculpture is a striking conveyor and companion for David's poem, which reminds and highlights much that has gone into the history of Queenstown and its environs. The poem names and calls up images of the local landscape, pioneers and pilgrims and the roads and tracks they took to establish towns and settlements in a harsh environment.
Flowing like a river of language, it winds us through the legends and hardships, and then aided by the sculpture, with a flick, a roll, a twist (much like the actions of a river) visits the present-day's brashness and commercialism (the gold) which started it all, and which continue to have their effect, before rushing us on again to images of the greater ethos underlying this southern land and its people.
It is a poem stacked with connections - to the land, to ancestry, to folk-lore and to our own mortality. As you read the chiseled words, you receive a buzz of information overload as fresh, vivid language runs along beside you in a waft of words alluding to the flora, fauna, action, and sensations that together add up to the southern experience. (Impossible to take in in just one draught - to process it all fully, necessitates many re-visits; something we are more than happy to do!)
Maybe not many people read all of the long poem as they walk along, but even if your eyes only manage to touch down on a few phrases they are astonishing enough on their own to trigger a sense of familiarity for those from the south, or a way in for those who aren't. If you are willing to participate, the combination of word and sculpture has the ability to stop you in your tracks and allow a fleeting removal from the more obtrusive coffee culture trappings that threaten to cloud the memory of the origins, and indeed the spirit, of this stunningly beautiful place.
The poem is a free offer of a quiet reminder for any who care to take it on board, that rivers rule and just as fast as we invent the landscape, it is inventing us. It is a well-designed touchstone with both wordsmith and sculptor crafting something Queenstown locals are proud to display. You could say, it's poetry being put in its place. Always a good thing.
Many thanks to David Eggleton for letting me use his poem.
"If forced to choose only one, what would you choose? Reading or writing?" (This was a question I remember being posed by Fiona Farrell ( NZ writer) at a talk she gave here in Dunedin at a long-ago Readers and Writers Week).
At times like now when I have so much writing on my plate, it's limiting any time I have to read. At the moment, to read in my 'off' times feels too much like work. It's a dilemma because in order to write you have to read, and without writers, there'd be no readers and without readers - why write? Hmmm.
Forced, I'd choose writing. I have gone into a bookshop with money to spend on a book and instead have come away not with reading material, but writing material - pens and paper and books that beg to be written in. I can't resist the enticement of a blank page and the instruments with which to de-blank. Or something like that. My granddaughter is an avid reader - as is my mother, her mother and her mother before her ... as was my father's father. As is my sister. As is my daughter. And as I used to be. Until I started writing instead ...
My grandfather, William McKenzie, was apparently one of Orepuki's very, very small library's most frequent users. (I remember the library as a child. The sweeest, tiniest, wooden building with three steps up to the front door and stacked with the smell of books - one of the most wonderful smells in the world). Grandpa used to make a small mark with a piece of blue raddle on the bottom of page 65 of every book he read. It was his check as to whether or not he'd read the book before.
Thankfully there is no need to have to choose, but if there were, which would you choose - reading or writing?
In black and white photos
I see you standing
always alongside others:
in the Dairy Factory photo,
your sleeves rolled up, beside
the rugby players you coached,
with your brothers, Stan and Aubrey,
with the Fours Champs,
and see yes, you really were short.
But strong. A worker.
On the Rabbit Board
- a grafter, with the Ministry of Works
yielding a shovel on the shingle
of Highway 99's pot-holes.
You and your Plymouth
that needed cranking to start
so that you and your family
were always the last to leave
the dances where as m.c.
your roll-your-own voice
made everyone feel good.
That fragrant, tobacco
smell of you, your voice
and crackling laugh
calling to your grandchildren.
Singing to us, 'Found a Peanut'.
And with a push-mower's
clack, making smooth, deep
lawns we could sink into
to smell worm casts and hints
of what could be underneath
firing inside the planet
that turns and turns
you away. Gone now
forty years. After you died
so did our supply of muttonbirds.
You were Reg Lee,
the part-Maori fella,
the good sort,
who always wore a hat,
cut the kindling,
shovelled coal on to the fire.
You were a baby
delivered by your Aunt Bell,
one hundred and five years ago.
She says from the back seat of the car,
“Excuse me, I’m talking.”
“Sorry hon’,” her mother says.
She remains unimpressed.
“Mum when you say sorry,
you say it in an unremarkable voice.”
At the beach her mother and I watch
the waves tirelessly form, undo,
do up again. She teams up
with another little girl
to build channels in the sand.
Her mother and I talk of this and that.
A woman stops, asks
if we have the correct time.
After she’s gone, we both laugh
at how tempting it would be to say,
“No, sorry, just the incorrect.”
on the way back to the car
as she hops in bare feet
along rough asphalt. She shivers
with the cold. Her Mum says,
“Sit in the front seat, hon”.
I turn the heater on full blast
and all the way home she tells us a story
she makes up as she goes along
about a terrible monster and a girl
called Georgia. A monster with
‘great big eyebrows, spaghetti fingers
and sloppy green eyes’.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
This is a poem about my granddaughter when she was quite a bit younger than she is now.
The title has borrowed a line from the song 'Green Grass' by Tom Waits, released 2004, the year in which this poem is set.
The photo is of the esplanade at St Clair, Dunedin.
I am bad - I keep forgetting to post a link to the other poems on Tuesday Poem. Please go here and be wowed by some amazing poetry.