Saturday, October 30, 2010


Excuse me if this looks a little cosy - but after writing a post about Kathleen Jones' bewitching biography of Katherine Mansfield, I remembered Kathleen had reviewed The Blue a couple of months back. It's so very lovely to get a review of my book this late on in its life (it is three years old) - and a review by a writer as talented as Kathleen Jones - and a review in the UK.

Kathleen says some interesting and insightful things - although the comment about the book being 'mesmerising' is still buzzing under my skin (as a word like 'mesmerising' does - independent of its meaning.) And I am doubly delighted that she read The Blue while staying in Kaikoura - just south of where The Blue is set and where whales roam the bays.

I went to Kaikoura with my family to research The Blue. It is one of my favourite places in the world and the trip with my family - my youngest only 8 years old at the time - travelling by train and boat with backpacks, is one of my favourite ever. After Kaikoura, we caught the train up to Picton and a boat to Arapawa Island where The Blue is set. There we stayed for a while exploring one of my other favourite places in the world. How lucky am I.

Here's the review.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The bliss of Kathleen's Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield, The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (Penguin NZ) is a triumph - I am still reading it and I am well and truly wound tight in its web. For a start the writing is so immediate, and then there are all those 'mysteries' resolved. I just had to share some of it ...

Here's an Extract at the very beginning

What, think you, causes me truest joy
Down by the sea – the wild mad storm of waves
The fierce rushing swirl of waters together
The cruel salt spray that blows, that beats upon my face . . .
The song of the wind as I stretch out my arms and embrace it
This indeed gives me joy.
 The first thing you notice in Wellington is the wind. A full southerly buster was blowing as I drove in around the bays of the harbour, hurling the waves onto the rocks. At the hotel on Tinakori Road, shutters slapped and banged in a crazy percussion, just as Katherine described in one of her earliest stories, 'The Wind Blows'. I recognised the way it blew the stinging dust 'in waves, in clouds, in big round whirls', heard the 'loud roaring sound' from the tree ferns and the pohutukawa trees in the botanic garden, the clanking of the overhead cables for the trolley buses. Clinging to the car door to steady myself, the street map levitating from my grasp, I experienced the exactness of Katherine's images – 'a newspaper wagged in the air like a lost kite' before spiking itself onto a pine tree; sentences blew away 'like little narrow ribbons'.
Tinakori Road, where Katherine was born and where her father occupied progressively larger houses as his status rose, runs along a steep hillside with spectacular views of the city. Above it, a tree- clad slope climbs upwards towards the ridge and below it, houses stagger downhill towards the brief fringe of level ground that edges the circular bay, enclosed by hills.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Upolu

The fales flicker as dark falls. There is so much
water here
in the falling dark, here on the edge of this water
so much
water in the air, under the feet, in the hair,
in the
pores of  my skin, in the mildew splashed on the boy’s
white shirt,
in the pores of his skin – polished to a sheen like the surface of 
is polished by low flying birds, by a ripe
sun. He


with a papaya – so orange, so roughly cut, threatening
to spill –
and it will spill down the sides of a mouth onto a shirt onto
a lap
to be washed off by the sea as if the sea is a bath filled and
and the beach, a towel waiting.
A mouth
is on the shirt now, pushing up inside, had I seen her? Had she been
She is urgent, muscular. But what of the fruit – ?
Not orange

at all in the sudden darkness, and trodden into the dark sand –
not fruit
at all, and the boy is not a boy at all, dark or light, I mistook him.
He is
evening water, he is red earth, he is wide wet leaf, he is ripe fruit,
he is


                                  Mary McCallum

See my last post for commentary about this one. Upolu is the main island of Samoa where the capital of Apia resides. I stayed there once - not just Apia, but on the east and south coasts too, and then over the water in the Big Island of Savai'i.

Fale - pronounced 'fah-lay' - it is a thatched house. Visit more Tuesday Poems here. 

Note: poem updated at 11.45 am on 26-10-10 -- a slight restructuring (some new line breaks) and removal of the odd infelicitous word. Now the short lines make a condensed version of the poem...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Savai'i


she steps into the garden

on slender feet

under a hat of brimming whiteness

a startling face of teak

and round her skirts

a hundred blue butterflies rise

their wings

snippets of sky 


                                              Mary McCallum

I posted this poem a year ago after the tsunami in Samoa. I have been working on another Samoa poem to put up here but I'm not quite sure its ready so I pulled this one out. The new poem is named after the other main island Upolu. Savai'i is the 'Big Island'. Both places are magnificent. Here's the full post explaining ... 

For more Tuesday Poems click on the quill in the sidebar. The hub poem is an extract from The Time of the Giants by Anne Kennedy - one of my favourite poems ever. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Randell Cottage Open Day on Saturday

I am a Trustee of Randell Cottage and Chair of the Friends Committee. If you live in Wellington, especially in Thorndon, why not pop along to see one of our earliest settler cottages and residency for French and NZ writers? A good idea if you're thinking of applying for the residency...but interesting anyway.

I will be on hand to show people around around 11ish and again 3-4pm. Other writers involved with the cottage including Dame Fiona Kidman will be there over the day. Queries or text me 0276003313.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tuesday Poem: These I have Loved

Not one poem this week from me - a hundred of them. Here:

went to the launch of These I Have Loved on Sunday. Harvey is a Tuesday Poet who blogs rather wonderfully here, but until Sunday I hadn't met him face to face. To be at the Karori launch was such a treat, not just because of the TP connection, but also because of Harvey's role in NZ poetry, which stretches back to the time when I was first properly engaging with NZ poems as a pupil at Wellington Girls College. 

Harvey was a teacher and school inspector back then who co-edited Ten Modern NZ Poets (1974) - I have just found my copy on the bookshelves and, yes, there it is (I knew it was there): Ruth Dallas' Milking Before Dawn which Harvey has chosen to open his latest collection. How many NZ schoolchildren have read the poem which begins like this?

In the drifting rain the cows in the yard are as black   
And wet and shiny as rocks in an ebbing tide 
But they smell of the soil, as leaves lying under trees 
Smell of the soil, damp and steaming, warm. 

                                                   from Milking at Dawn by Ruth Dallas

Harvey tells the story of how, as a teacher in the Waikato, he tried a number of poetry classics on his class of sharemilkers children, to no avail. So then he read them Milking Before Dawn and this is what happened:

I had hardly finished reading it when a little boy jumped up and said ‘That's just like it is, sir. People in the city don’t know what they’re missing.’ I'd hit a gusher. 

He then went on to edit the seminal 'Penguin Book of NZ Verse' (1985) with Ian Wedde, and the 'Penguin Book of Contemporary NZ Verse' (1989). Of the 1985 book, poet Wyston Curnow said in a lecture once: 

Anthologies of New Zealand poetry have over the last 50 years played a defining role in the critical understanding of our literature ..... Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen's 'Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse' proposed a radical revision. One fifth of their material was Maori; they gave us our first bicultural canon. Equally important was their ability to pick out for the 1980s, a range of ambivalences and ambiguities, puzzles and problems, in the understanding of our literature and culture not identified by previous anthologists. 

At the launch - at a church hall where I used to hang out when I was still a schoolgirl -  Vincent O'Sullivan thanked Harvey warmly for his contribution to NZ poetry, and the younger writer Kate Camp did the same.  In her launch speech, Dame Fiona Kidman paid attention to the depth and breadth of Harvey's love for New Zealand poetry and the way he poured it into the book - an eclectic mix. 

There are several recent poems by newly emerging poets, and also many who spring from a group of their time, people who were seriously writing poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, a time where my own modest poetic history began. Vincent O’Sullivan, Lauris Edmond, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson, Sam Hunt, Elizabeth Smither, Rachel McAlpine, Tony Beyer, Bill Manhire, to name just a few. In many ways it’s a meeting of minds amongst friends. 
Vincent O’Sullivan said to me the other day, and I hope he’ll forgive me for quoting him, that this book is significant in the wide range, the broad and generous tone of this selection. I echo that, the selection doesn’t live by any rule book about what’s good and what’s not. Harvey has simply chosen what he wants without fear or favour. 

More of Fiona's speech here. And you know it is a good book this book - to look at (photo by Robert Suistead) and to read - not just the poems but the introductions at the start and before each section. Already I've poured over it thrilled to find old favourites, and captivated and surprised by the poems that are completely new to me. It's like reading one of my mother's well-thumbed anthologies for its comfortableness - Harvey mentioned one of them: 'Other Men's Flowers' by Lord Wavell as an inspiration. 

Suffering from a rare muscular degenerative disease, Harvey McQueen regards each new day as a bonus, and this book as his swan song. His publisher Roger Steele is not so sure about that, and neither were the sixty people gathered to welcome the book. The feeling seemed to be that if there was a blank page, Harvey would find a poem for it.      

I wish I had the time to include some more extracts from Harvey's collection, but maybe later. Except for these two lines for Harvey the poet gardener. 

              .... The great 
orchards of our lives. All those trees. All that fruit.

from Tornado by Jenny Bornholdt

Go here for more on how to buy the book. And click on the quill in my sidebar to take you to the Tuesday Poem hub and more Tuesday Poets. Amongst them will be Tim Jones and Saradha Koirala who were also at Harvey's launch. Another bonus! 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Exquisitely silver - Alison Wong's book

Atets aw
I've finally got around to reading this book - winner of the fiction category of the NZ Post Book Awards. The author Alison Wong - a poet shortlisted for the same awards three years ago - has also won the Janet Frame Award for fiction.

Not long after she won the Frame Award and before she took off to live in Australia, I had the pleasure of sharing a meal with Alison and Janet Frame's niece, Pamela Gordon, at the appropriately named Red Head cocktail bar in Wellington. I vowed then to read her book. I gave it to my sister-in-law for Christmas instead.

Of Chinese/European descent, Angie loved the descriptions of the life of the Chinese family in Wellington just after the turn of the century heading into World War I. She particularly mentioned the food - the same food she remembered her grandmother cooking.

Angie lent me the book back and told me to read it, but life and other more bossy books elbowed their way into my reading space. This week I made the time.

It is a deceptive book. The prose is simple and evocative and tells an age-old tale of love across the barriers of prejudice and hate with intelligence and restraint.

Katherine McKechnie is married to an alcoholic prejudiced against the local Chinese community with their fruit shops and opium dens (not unlike many of the Europeans at the time.) He is a friend of Lionel Terry - an historical figure who was found guilty of murdering a Chinese man on racist grounds in Wellington in 1905. These attitudes influence Katherine's children, especially son Robbie, even after their father drowns and leaves them to manage on their own.

Released from her abusive marriage, Katherine begins a gentle and secret love affair with the local Chinese greengrocer, Yung. Unacceptable to the European community at the time, it goes on for years beneath the radar, or so Katherine thinks. One day, with World War I erupting in Europe, tragedy quietly steps into the lives of Katherine and Yung.

The love between these two people is exquisitely and convincingly drawn. There is little language between them but somehow so much more is said than that. As Katherine speaks of Yung, you can feel the same tingling in the skin, in the bones, of inexplicable but ineluctable love. The scenes in Yung's shop are delicious for their simplicity and completeness and the feelings they evoke.

Has the slicing of an apple or pear or pineapple ever meant so much?

The Wellington setting is drawn in the same way - simple, exact, full to brimming with places and names I see nearly every day: Cuba Street, Buckle Street, Haining Street, Taranaki Street, Adelaide Road. And then there are the wider political themes of women's rights/the vote, racism, xenophobia, the Great War.

A wonderful reading experience in so many ways, I read As the Earth Turns Silver for a couple of hours in the sun yesterday and had that  giddy Alice-out-the-rabbit-hole feeling when I emerged. Literary blogger Dovegrey Reader felt the same about the book especially enjoying its lack of showiness and verbal pyrotechnics (link at the end). It is what it is, and I have a feeling I will keep going back to it in my mind for weeks to come.

However, walking off down the street with the book (such a beautiful book) under my arm, I felt a niggle that grew. I had been absorbed - completely so - to the point where 'time passed' (a number of years from the start of the relationship to the beginning of WWI.) From then on I felt my mind drifting a little. I felt as if Alison had largely avoided the tricky stuff: the developing tensions and misunderstandings of a relationship - especially one like this - in favour of pushing on.

The tale felt too simple, I guess. I wanted more of what was skimming below the surface of the love-prickled skin: yes, the tensions, misunderstandings, but also the daily ins and outs of it. The meetings, what the children observe and know, the anguish Katherine feels choosing between Yung and her children - and how that affects them in the relentless intimacy of family life, how it builds in Robbie to a point of terrible hate (the confusion he must feel with the hate butted up against his mother's love).  Alison touches on all of this, but the touch, at times, feels too gentle, perhaps too polite - at a respectful distance from the murkiness and moral complexity at base of a story like this.

The book's been a hit in so many ways - award-winner, best-seller, much-loved by so many, including the owner of the bookshop where I work: Joanna Ponder (she said it would win the Book Awards months before anyone else did.) My hat is off to Alison. She is a talented writer and I am waiting for her next book. I will buy two copies, one for my sister-in-law.

 Here's the post by Dovegrey Reader whose son was in Wellington while she was reading As the Earth Turned Silver, and sent her photos of the streets in the book! Great stuff.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Paul Henry - such a dag

Tuesday Poet Renée Liang has posted a villanelle about the Paul Henry debacle* on her blog Chinglish. The NZ poet of Kiwi-Asian descent (yes, definitely a New Zealander), Liang says: 'Ironic that one of my first attempts at a villanelle (one of the more intellectual and difficult forms) would be prompted by Paul Henry, but that's what indignant anger will do!'  It begins:  

Paul’s such a dag, he’s such a lark
He’s never serious, never thinks
Why get so mad it’s just a laugh

for more visit her blog.  Great to see poetry out in the NZ political arena!  

*TV host, Paul Henry, urged PM John Key yesterday on live TV to select a Governor-General who "looks and sounds more like a New Zealander". Henry asked Mr Key whether NZ-born Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand - of Indian Fijian descent - was even a New Zealander. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Poet's Wife and the Bee

The poet’s wife stands under the bee tree her head slung back, her face
sweet with the spill of sound, I swear she sways. I fear these bees will be
drawn from the yellow wattle to the glow of this exceptional face, for glow
it surely does like something buttery, or by the dense hair, airy with its own
brightness. She stands absorbed and dangerous. I want to call ‘beware’, but
who am I? Hanging out the washing on my side of the fence, my concerns
trivial. What do I know of bees? Around me: the sussuration of wet sheets,
the creak of a nylon line. All at once she spins on her heels, her face snapped
open, her long feet hard on the hard earth. Crossing the yard. I am relieved.
I am

disappointed. I hang a shirt carefully from its shoulders. Two blue pegs. I see
the fine fray of cotton on the collar.  And then I hear it: the thinnest of bee
sounds crossing the yard like an electrical wire carrying its small load, its
sweet load, its awful load. I suspect the hair, that careless toss of silverishness,
lighter now, fresh with current. But surely she’d hear it, feel it, surely she’d
scream? And I - at the cry - would drop everything, struggle to climb the fence,
run to swat the hair, call ‘calm!’ I would reach into those flaring roots,
and pinch out the treacherous bee, all sticky air and lightness, crush it under
my boots. And the poet's wife, in all her honey, all her majesty, all  her brightness,
would light

upon me. She’s gone inside without incident. I am paused. Listening, but
there is nothing to hear. I imagine her communing with the bee, ‘tea?’ ‘honey?’
I hear it now. I hear it. A single hum from deep within the house. Spilled from the tree
– one long lean note, let loose and carried in the dense of her hair, let loose in there.
I hear it. No. Too long, too deep -- the bee is not a bee at all. The tongue vibrating.
Spit on the piano keys. Her finger running to catch it – which one? this one? this? pressing 
and pressing, until there! The hum in the wet mouth, carried in the wet mouth, is
pressed into ivory. A after middle C, she tells me later, leaning on the fence. It spills
from the lit windows of the poet’s house, from the lit fingers of the poet’s wife. It passes
me by. Gathers in the wattle tree.

                                                                                      Mary McCallum

[*Note - final stanza revised at 8.29 am after first posting.]

Is this a prose poem? It's solid enough to be one - that or a rugby prop. There are a few in Tuesday Poem this week: Sarah Jane Barnett is promising one this week,  and Janis Freegard has posted one by Gertrude Stein ... and there could be more. To go to Tuesday Poem for more poems click on the quill in the sidebar or here. (The quill's more fun.) 

Thanks to Catherine for being the Poet's Wife and telling the story.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog

Reviewed this fabulous book on Radio NZ National yesterday. Am now hooked on this crime series with the 'tender curmudgeon' Jackson Brodie! Have a listen...

Poetry makes nothing happen

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

From In Memory of W. B. Yeats by W.H. Auden 

I haven't read this poem for years, but poured over it at university. Met up with an old 
university friend the other day. Phil. Mentioned poetry (how I'm writing it, reading it). In 
the mail comes a CD with poems on it including Auden reading this astonishing poem. I  
was stopped still for the fullness of the poem. And here, these six lines about poetry! Suchperfection. 

I can't find the Auden recording to link to, but here's a reading on youtube.