Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Rongotai by Jennifer Compton

The salt storm killed everything in my mother's garden.
I hear it late at night against the windowpanes, crash

just like rain in the fist of the wind.
Rain with the secret of salt.

The plane to Sydney would roar and lift above us
at 7 am -- and silence would fall again like fuel

the veil of fuel that smelt of kerosene
that felt like the slow lick of a lazy fire

that fell within its own laws of falling when
I was standing out in my mother's garden.

Another plane and another and another
landing, across the road where the hill

used to be. As the hill and the houses slid
into a chasm of waiting to be something else

I found a stone fish, I imagined it to be a goldfish
left behind to starve and stiffen. I held it in my palm

the puzzling fish, and left it where I found it.
From the sloping garden I could see my roof.

The houses went like snails on the backs of trucks
then the hill, inch by truckload. Dug down to the bone.

My brother came home with the skull of an original.
Which, by a miracle of intervention I never saw until

I was taken to the museum on the hill. Another hill.
And we went on living, under the battering wing.

Dad would rage and shake his fist and shout
that he would mount a machine gun nest

on the roof, next to the chimney. As I flew out
I looked down and saw him, sparing my plane.

This is such a fabulous Wellington poem: the hills, the wind, houses 'like snails on the backs of trucks', Rongotai with its airport. How extraordinary the final two couplets are. The raging father wanting to mount a machine gun nest on his roof to down those bloody planes! And the heartbreaking poignancy of his sparing a daughter flying away over his head to live elsewhere.

I read Rongotai staying with Jen in the flat in Palmerston North where she lived as Massey University's writer in residence this year. We'd been involved with creative writing workshops at the university that day, and after a stroll through humming Palmie, we headed back to the flat. Jen gave me a copy of her latest collection Barefoot (Picaro Press 2010) - with a great photo on the cover of the police helping her down off the roof of the Taj Mahal in Wellington in the 70s - and I took it off to the narrow little bed the poet had filled earlier with two hot water bottles, and read.

I was seriously delighted with Barefoot  and remain so - it's one of my fave collections of the year. Poems about NZ - Otaki, Napier, Rongotai etc - and about Australia (where Jen lives) and places like Italy where she's lived and written and travelled. Poems about family and living on the land and love and anything that grabs her magpie mind. Jen Compton's poetry so often combines the humorous, the quirky, the incisive and the heartfelt without missing a beat.

A playwright and a poet, Jen seems to me to be a fearless writer who flies in any direction she chooses. Appropriate for the daughter of a machine gunner.

Rongotai is used with the permission of Jen Compton. More on Jen here when she was Randell Cottage writer in residence. 


Tim Jones said...

I love that poem too! And I can turn my head to the left and see "Barefoot" in my TBR pile - the epic, the difficult TBR pile. "Barefoot" is making its way upwards! I think it will reach the top during the summer holidays, and I'm looking forwards very much to reading it then.

Helen Lowe said...

Loved this one, Mary--especially the machine gun nest! :-)