Friday, July 30, 2010

NZ Poetry Day: Southern Man

For Penny

The mouth of the harbour and the mountains are bleached
table linen, starched peaks – I run to keep
our meeting at Heketara Street, to go with you to the mouth
bright with fallen linen, to hold our hands out to the steep
sweep of land and the deep strait between. Your land, the South.
Walk with me, speak

of your blue house built on the hillside here, speak
of the sheets he hung out each Saturday, bleached   
and flapping, of the cabbage trees clapping in the south-
erly the day Rose was born, George who keeps
building with driftwood on the beach – teepees with steep
angles that stand the storms, Elsie with her cook’s mouth

chasing the combination of sweet and sour so the mouth
pinches and smiles all at once. Old Molly’s lagging, you speak
to her gently, tie her lead to the tree and turning, find a steeple,
George’s careful construction – the wood clean, bleached
by the sea, a place of safety, a place to keep
watch. He knows to make it strong, face it south

like the house on the hillside with the south-
facing beech trees crowding the windows, the yellow-mouthed
gorse, the two fat kereru, part tree house, part keep –
its casement windows built to speak
to the linen mountains, to the pressing sky,  to the bleached  
confounding light. And how to describe the steep

of your grief, after four years away, to find steeper
than mountains, sky-blue roofing blocking the south?
Behind the faded curtains, the bleached
window frames, all you left there safe to return to, lost. The mouth
of your grief is sour: you speak of vertigo, pale children, peaks
in sight only up at the clothesline. Back to the sheets -- we keep

coming back -- to Alan hanging them out to dry, needing to keep
a weather eye on the mountains, undeterred by the steep
climb, the clapping cabbage trees. He wouldn’t speak
of it but you knew: how the mountains coming and going to the south
moored him here at this harbour’s rim, his mouth
crammed with pegs, something eating his innards like bleach.

We’re nearly home when you tell me of the last bleached sheet, steeped
in sour and sweet – not a thing to keep – used to wrap this southern
man: his breast bone, eyes, mouth, feet, valleys, constellations, peaks.


by Mary McCallum

My first ever poem using the elaborate sestina form, and as much about the land (its north and south) as it is about the man who straddled both places - so appropriate, I think, for the NZ theme on Tuesday Poem today.

As another poet Tim Upperton said to me just the other day, the sestina is a 'weird' form and he's not sure he'll write another one in his life. Me neither. But it has been interesting seeing what it forces language to do and where it makes a poem go. More on the history and use of the sestina here , the double sestina that inspired me here, and how the form works in my poem below. 

Sestina scheme for Southern Man: a-bleached b-keep, c-mouth, d- steep, e-south, f-speak [and variations of those words, note they do not need to rhyme but mine do... ]

a b c d e f (first stanza) 
f a e b d c (second stanza)
 c f d a b e (third stanza) 
e c b f a d (fourth stanza) 
d e a c f b (fifth stanza) 
b d f e c a (sixth stanza) 
a d (1st line of the 7th stanza, "a" must be in the line, but the line must end with "d")
 b e (2nd line of the 7th stanza, "b" must be in the line, but the line must end with "e") 
c f (3rd line of the 7th stanza, "c" must be in the line, but the line must end with "f"). 


For more poems on National Poetry Day and links to poetry events all over the country, click on the quill.
Tuesday Poem

13 comments:

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I know that blue house and Penny but I didn't know Alan, but this is such a love-ly tribute to the man, and also a beautiful sestina for The Southern Man, Eastbourne, and most of all family and friendship.

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I know that blue house and Penny but I didn't know Alan, but this is such a love-ly tribute to the man, and also a beautiful sestina for The Southern Man, Eastbourne, and most of all family and friendship.

Helen Lowe said...

Fantastic powerful poem, Mary--I feel like I know the man even though I've never met him/don't know who he is.

And the lines,

.. He wouldn’t speak//
of it but you knew: how the mountains coming and going to the south//
moored him here at this harbour’s rim//

definitely resonate recalling that marvellous sweep of mountains to south and north, their names like a litany--Kiakouras (Landward & Seaward), Tararuas, Ruahines, Kawekas, Kaimanawas ...

Claire Beynon said...

Dear Mary - your sestina is a fine accomplishment, the more because one is keenly aware of the structure underpinning the form whilst at the same time so drawn in by the characters and imagery that the structure becomes something like glass - a framework with tensile strength and transparency, both. When they work (as this one does) these highly-disciplined forms behave in the way sacred geometry does in an architectural structure where rigorous adherence to form imbues the space with harmony and balance. One doesn't need to know the formula to appreciate and experience its effect.

Lovely. Thanks -- looking forward to meeting you this evening! L, C x

Harvey McQueen said...

What a superb accomplishment -craft and emotion so well blended. Grief as steepness will linger long as an image. All the best in poetry. Harvey

Belinda said...

I love this, Mary - it's structure is strong and really seems to thrust/develop the meaning forward in just the right way. Thanks for posting it.
Belinda

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you for all the lovely comments. Hugely encouraging. I love the comparison of poetic form with architecture, Claire. Lots to think about there.

Mariana said...

Mary, this reads so naturally! A beautiful gift to Penny too.

Tim Jones said...

I think this is a fine poem, Mary, and I say this as someone whose inclination is more against than towards formal poetry. I often find, with villanelles and sestinas in particular, that the demands of the form detract from the full expression of the content; but here, the two work together perfectly, and I didn't find the form in the least distracting. This poem is well worth all the work I know you put into it!

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Mariana and Tim! I really appreciate the encouragement. Goodness, might even try another one now, a double sestina even.... (I joke)

Stephen Stratford said...

Wow. So good, and so hard.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Stephen. Hard but immensely satisfying.

Elizabeth Welsh said...

Thanks for directing me towards this sestina, Mary! It is a stunning exemplar of all that a sestina should be. Amazing how different our approaches to the task were. Isn't that the beauty of poetry?