Lunch Poem

It is 10:21 in Wellington a Thursday

last day on Fulbright’s payroll, ticket

to fly out on Saturday the 8:30 to Auckland that is if

Air New Zealand will bully past the ash

plume, volcanoes the only smokers in my poems.

In Moore Wilson’s I buy horopito for Atin and Tinni

and spend my last token in Unity on Jenny Bornholdt’s

The Rocky Shore, deciding that I want to write

about poetic conversations maybe instead of having them.

 

I stroll through a cloud on Kelburn Parade

and get out of the spit and wind into Murphy

where I can count tuatara for the second to last time

as Harry taught me, but red heat-lamps warm

blank rocks, the reptiles are hiding, it’s June

in a southerly for Chrissake. Bad omen.

 

Anna’s Thicket, advance copy’s woven shade,

is light in my pocket, most of it second-person

and italic gesticulation, that’s what I like about it,

that and the bits about sad teenagers and feeling

middle-of-the-wood (we’re older than Frank O’Hara

ever got) and her in-the-know references to evade

Americans though I could level a few guesses—

dedications, that’s another post, because this blog

does have a northern hemisphere future, probably after

two weeks in Hawai’i baking the creases

out of my forehead from packing selling cars and

 

saying goodbye to too many people, who goes

with Fergus now not me, no more flat white with Annemarie,

Bernadette’s in Australia I hear, Lex Luthor alias

Jonathan retreats to his icy lair on Mount Victoria,

no more books to trade with Rob or information

with Alice soon to be shrunk hehe to her cackle on FB,

still breathing, Frank, and listening, but for love

of you and some others, omitting terminal punctuation

Order, disorder

“I love coming to a marae because everything is orderly.” That was Albert Wendt yesterday at Te Herenga Waka, the marae at Victoria University and the site of a conference I’ve been attending, “Reading and Writing in the Pacific.” A first for me: attending an academic meeting in stocking feet, wearing a blue lei, and listening to papers while lounging on cushions. All those details change the conversation, as does the magnificent space of the wharenui, a talking house covered by carved and woven genealogies in red, black, bone-white, gold. I am not well-read yet in Pacific literature, but the current of feeling at this event has very strong, carrying me along with it. Orderly spaces—not only sacred ones but some homes and schools and poems too—have some mysterious power to straighten out the hooks and tangles inside people. These emotional or spiritual chiropractics, or whatever’s happening, are a little painful, especially as dammed-up confusions begin to break loose. The conference presenters keep choking up and I’m right there with them.

                    On order, from my disordered notes:

Thursday morning, Session 1: Teresia Teaiwa discusses problems with gathering and disseminating oral histories. Intimacy becomes reportage, even gossip, amongst us about them. The result for her own work: she has been writing not about Fijian women soldiers or for them but to them, in the second person. She read a segment written under pressure—her interviewee had terminal cancer and wanted to read Teresia’s take on the material before she died. Audience members blow their noses for a good five minutes afterwards.

I am leaning against an ancestor from Kapiti; I don’t catch his name. His wife’s head, tilted like the moon, has my back.

Genealogies: I know a lot about my mother’s family and almost nothing about my father’s. William the engineer, behind him William the lawyer, and the next layer blurred. William the lawyer’s mother was French-Canadian, and when her ship captain husband died, she and her children moved over the border to Syracuse, New York and married a math professor. Was my grandfather named after his professor-father? Or was he Guillaume, adopted, name changed? I asked my father the captain’s name and he said “something like Le Pongenet.” That isn’t a French name, as far as I can find. L’éponge is “sponge.” Éponger means “to wipe up or absorb a loss.”

Friday morning, Session 3: Tina Makereti describes a belated revelation that she had written her own motherlessness into her novel. But wait: she realizes this makes thematic sense, too—she is writing about the Moriori, an effaced mother culture. Conclusion: “It could still be autobiographical. But I wonder: are we bequeathed our personal circumstances so that we can tell the stories that need to be told?”

Tina talks about being led by the story, surrendering control. Order arises, but it may not be the order you would have chosen, imposed. When a character’s voice started waking her up at four in the morning, she resisted listening for a while. I am so thankful to hear another writer say that. In domestic life, professional life, you fight to keep up that appearance of order: it’s hard to let the chaos flow.

Coffee with poets in New Zealand

The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace was very, very cold on Friday morning. It’s small, furnished in dark woods with all the Victorian trappings, and of course unheated. Quotes from Mansfield typed up on the visitor’s guide call it “a little dark piggy house,” or something similar. Chris and I toured it on a sort of birthday outing before going out for an upscale lunch. We huddled by the restaurant heater with hot drinks, watching through a window as rain coursed down Tinakori Road, and talked about work. “You know the essay you should write?” he said. “‘Coffee with Poets in New Zealand.’ Just write up all the stories you’ve been telling me.” He recounted a couple of funny ones, still fizzy with the refreshing American frankness I’m often accused of, and I said, “But I couldn’t write that. Even if I didn’t use names, every poet in New Zealand would know who I was talking about.” He shrugged and answered, “Just draft it however you want to, and worry about it later.”

So, dear reader, I drafted it, half on Friday afternoon and half on Monday afternoon (that’s when the real work always happens for me: mornings, bah). I drew heavily from my notebooks and datebooks and while there are bits that might be touchy, it turns out to be quite autobiographical, really, and not otherwise professionally dangerous (I think). Now I have to let it ferment while we head out on a roadtrip around the North Island, but that’s just as well. Here’s a sip:

Early February: Nothing is working, not my email or phone at work or at my rental home. I don’t yet understand that no sensible New Zealander would be wasting these precious few summery days pestering IT. So I make an appointment to meet Bill Manhire, the country’s first Poet Laureate, in his office in the Glenn Schaeffer House. This is my job for the five months of my grant, I will tell people over and over. To have coffee with poets, go to their readings, pore over their books. When the person I’m talking to clucks enviously I admit, yes, I feel very pleased with myself. But sooner or later I will actually have to write something.

Somehow I arrive at Bill’s office without my notebook and must scramble for pen and paper. Later I lose these untethered notes. What’s left: the glitter of the harbor beyond the window; wanting to sit on the floor and read the spines of his books; sipping sugared Earl Grey from a glass mug; poet Chris Price joining us from her neighboring office… Bill is very friendly but uses Jedi mind-control to erase most particulars of the meeting from my memory.

Several days later, in the middle of the Fulbright orientation program, I come home from Waiwhetu Marae to actual internet access. One of the first messages I read is from my mother, explaining her very recent discovery that my father has been spending down their savings to conduct affairs and she has kicked him out of the house. Would I please not tell anyone yet, she writes. Evening in Wellington means very early morning in Pennsylvania so between my heavily loaded schedule and tech problems, I can’t call for days.

 ***

18 Feb: Anna Jackson and I have agreed to meet at two o’clock for coffee so I delay my caffeine consumption in anticipation. When she puts her head around my office door, she says, “Shall we take a walk instead?” It is another beautiful day and I am still failing to comprehend that there will be few of these. The walk involves many damp steps up to the Botanic Gardens, itself a collection of steep, intimidating paths—the kind I’d turn away from at home with a shrug, remarking, “Well, obviously we can’t walk there.” Anna is much fitter than I am; she can chat nonchalantly while I can barely conceal my pathetic wheezing…

***

22 Feb: Kerry Hines recommends Ti Kouka, across from Unity Books. I print out walking directions from Google Maps but still end up going the stupid way…

            Lunch is particularly delicious. I can’t always order what sounds best because I seem to be allergic to dairy and corn—the former a major liability when you’re living on a cattle-grazed island with fabulous butter, cheese, and ice cream. I order a messy, juicy burger, sliding out of its Turkish roll on a slick of aioli, and try not to lick my fingers.

            I devour information about Kerry’s work and experiences but what I remember most vividly is paying the bill nearly two hours later. “Did you hear about Christchurch?” the cashier asks as I swipe my debit card and eye the dessert case. It was a big one, she says.

Travel dictionaries

     That’s how it goes some days,

     don’t you reckon.

     You wander the streets of a city

     that’s no longer your own.

     You look at a map

     and all the words are in German.

     You ask a stranger

     where the hills have gone

     and he bursts out laughing.

          from “Lost” by Bernadette Hall in The Lustre Jug (Victoria U P, 2009)

Every poetry collection I pick up seems to be about miscommunication and displacement—what happens to language as you barrel through time zones. I don’t know if it’s accident, a New Zealand thing, or a widespread twenty-first century poetic obsession. Probably it’s the way I’m reading, what I’m looking for. The Fulbright Scholar sits down to write reports about how the grant changed her work and disorientation ensues.

The books I’ve been reading keep getting recalled to the library (sad consequence of blogging about them?), and I ought to start bringing them back anyway because I only have three more weeks here, but some of them are hard to part with. Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug is in the latter category. I picked it up early on, when I learned that Hall was convening the poetry-focused MA workshop this year, while Chris Price is on leave. Many of its poems arose from six months Hall spent in Ireland, although there are shards of Australia and New Zealand in there as well. Hall is away from home even while in Wellington. I asked her once if she identified with the label “New Zealand poet” and she answered with hardly any hesitation: “I’m a South Island poet” (the book jacket says she “lives in North Canterbury”). I noticed her omnipresence at Wellington literary events all through this southern fall, but it only recently sank in: she may seem local to a visiting American, but she’s a literary tourist too, soaking it all up while she has a chance.  

When I first read The Lustre Jug I was taken with its southern-hemispheric second half. I had been going to open mics and was intrigued by “The Strenuous Life,” a piece that skewers macho poetry readers:

     See how this one stretches up on his tippy toes,

     cranes forward over the high page,

     crooks one leg behind him as if he’s in the starting blocks,

     rocking himself into the finals of the national hurdles.

The poem goes on to quote a sexist remark by a “famous writer,” to which Hall belatedly responds with a very satisfying four-letter-word. I love how precisely observed, funny, and unsparing this poem is.

Books change, though, as if it’s impossible to step into the same poem twice. I recognize myself more now in those Ireland poems—although Ireland is only an imagined landscape for me, where my grandfather’s parents were born, where some favorite poets live or have lived, but where I’ve never been. What seems familiarly strange is thickness of detail in a new place, accumulating in your brain/notebook like receipts in your pocket; the superimposition of two landscapes, absent home and present alienness; the stickiness of place names and other local words. Ireland and New Zealand in this collection; New Zealand and Virginia for me, with echoes of New York, New Jersey, and England (especially from a January-to-July stint studying abroad twenty-three years ago).

“Lost” is the book’s penultimate poem, and like many others here, it’s epistolary, a poetic note to a friend to whom she gave lousy directions (someday soon I’ll write here about poetic dedications). A turn-left-after-the-zebra crossing poem seems to require a place-based orientation, but the setting is cleverly muddled, involving multiple times and cities. Hall describes herself Yeats-fashion as “all flustered, crazy Jane,/ can’t tell my arse from my elbow.” Her directions refer to streets in Prague, Paris, and a couple of places Google Maps isn’t helping me with. She also remembers a winter night in Fidel’s on Cuba—that’s Wellington, for anybody who hasn’t tasted the coffee. Confused yet? “Lost” translates that predicament into a feeling worth extending, parsing, and remembering. It also zeroes in at the end on hieroglyphs for home:

     n gr8 2 gt yr txt:

     ‘loved LOVED Christchurch’

Heroes in trouble

My baseball-playing-son’s choice of “Casey at the Bat” for school recitation made sense. I noticed in his practice sessions that he read the line “Kill the umpire!” with intense personal feeling; he tossed off “That ain’t my style” a little less confidently, but he clearly aspires to such flair. We had fun looking up the slang in “The former was a lulu and the latter was a cake.” It turns out that he didn’t even have to choose a poem for this three-minute speech: he elected to, he said, “because my mom is a poet.” His next public speaking assignment is to memorize and recite a poem of at least twelve lines. I thought maybe “Invictus,” but he said no, a funny one; he was disappointed that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” wasn’t long enough. Out of the sheaf I presented as possibilities he chose Stevie Smith’s cheerful song about cruel loneliness and death, “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Both Thayer’s poem and Smith’s are about solitary men set against what Sylvia Plath calls “peanut-crunching crowds.” Five thousand fans in Mudville cheer in unison for arrogant Casey; Smith’s drowned man moans about being misunderstood while obtuse beachgoers exclaim, “Poor chap, he always loved larking / And now he’s dead.” Cameron loves brainy, wise-cracking heroes in the movies he watches and he books he devours, but seems to understand that even stars strike out and Holmes doesn’t always find his Watson. The boy is way too clear-eyed, in short, so I hope he keeps that dark, dark sense of humor.

As he mumbles rhymes under his breath, I’m revising essays about poetry and community and once again feeling the perversity of the whole project. In Cameron’s recitation pieces, crowds are either alarming or wilfully stupid. Dickinson’s “admiring bog” isn’t a club you’d want to join, either. Remember how John Stuart Mill described lyric poetry as utterance overheard? Dickinson’s poem, like many others, performs privacy: I sort of really hope somebody might be listening, but I’m over here pretending I’m talking to myself, so don’t bother me. Poetry is a funny way to be sociable, even when there’s a substantial readership or listening audience at hand. It’s a mode of conversation, yes, but incredibly slow and indirect, less like mailing letters than broadcasting greetings to hypothetical space aliens.

Of course, producing scholarship about poems may be even crazier if conversation is something you care about. This is why I’m now plotting a more narrative approach to this poetry and community project—wondering if I can write a book informed by research but driven by reflections about process, and possibly the story of why I’m interested, as much as by argument. What I need to decide before I pick up speed, though, is who would read this imaginary book and what they would want from it. The nature of the crowd, I guess, and what its taste in peanuts might be.