Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Happiness Bowls

Pink and blue and lavender, poured glass
no bigger than a hand, not round but
pinched on either side like small boats,
and they seem to be brimming with water
but they’re not. Inside, incised on the thick
glass, there are letters and lines,
a chemical formula, I suppose.
                                I wait for the woman
to finish with the customer who wants
a piece of art small enough to carry in a pocket.
As I wait, I decide the woman doesn’t love
her job. She wears her unhappiness. Hear
the way she snaps off words like new
asparagus, and how she opens the cupboard
which has pots fit for a pocket, and holds
the door as if she wants to shut
it on a hand. The customer looks and looks
and shakes his head. The cupboard door
is closed. He leaves, hand in a pocket. Please,
                                 I say, what is this
written in the happiness bowls? Seratonin,
says the woman,with no love for the word
or the bowls. She’s gone back to the table where
she watches people enter the shop. She stands
like a teapot – one hand ready to what?
It’s the chemical equation, she says. Oh, I say.
I never knew it was like that. I stare
at the hexagon, the pentagon, lines
linking letters, NH2 – HO –HN, inside the pale
poured bowls. He’s done more serious work,
                                 she says, I’ll get it,
and she walks up the stairs and brings
down a larger bowl like the happiness bowls
but this one is in the colours of fire and has no
equation on the glass. Is still angular, still
brimming. It looks heavy, primordial, like
a wedge of something precious cut from a rock
and polished. She places it in the natural light
by the window and the colours lighten and
redden, rise and fall, burn like a brazier. I
am enthralled.
                                 She says the artist
makes a wax shape and, from that, a mould, and
pours the molten glass into it. He fires it, cools
it, uses acid to make the outside opaque.
Against artificial light, the red flares, she says.
The word ‘flare’
sounds like it’s flaring in her mouth. Even
the word ‘light’ has a lightness. The ‘t’ just
the merest tip of something. I imagine her
upstairs on her own under the lights
watching it flare.
                                 Oh! she says,
fingermarks! She picks up the bowl in both
hands and takes it to her table. I go back to
the happiness bowls. They are less serious
now: just pastel, glib. Something to carry
in a pocket, to bring out when conversation
flags. What are they here for? To give
happiness or to hold happiness? Or perhaps,
and I feel this might be it, the bowls are happy.
And what is that when it is so small a thing,
so easily etched? I thank the woman
who is back behind the table again, polishing
the red bowl with a soft blue cloth, her whole
attention on it. I wish her good afternoon.

                                                   Mary McCallum

This is a poem that tells a story which I think is a pretty fine thing for a poem to do. Some people tell me poems shouldn't tell stories like this, but why not? It could easily be a short story, but I love it as a poem. So here it is.

When you've read it, there is a poem on the Tuesday Poem hub by Peter Bland who just won the PM's Award for Poetry, with a wonderful write-up on him by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. I was at the awards, and Peter's speech was a fascinating paean to NZ poetry and what makes it different from English poetry. He was born in the UK and came here in the 50s.

The next night, I went to Peter's book launch for his collection Coming Ashore and was privileged to meet him for the first time.  I have seen his name in poetry books for as long as I can remember, and have a feeling he won a Louis Johnson Award thirty years ago which a poem of mine was runner-up for, but had never met him. His readings were wonderful - as an actor, he delivers them so damn convincingly!

Do go to Tuesday Poem, and then check out the wondrous poems in the sidebar by other Tuesday Poets including a poem about Hurricane Irene by Melissa Green and a video of Sharon Olds ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The coy - and not so coy - mistress, courtesy of damien lewis

I posted the poem itself the other day by Mr Marvell (such a great name for a poet! and such an interesting guy - one of those poets from another time I'd love to meet... ) and then discovered this version online, when I was looking for interiors of lighthouses for 'novel research'.

What youtube offers up eh? There was a more formal version of the poem which sounded nice but then I found this which sounded just right. Even though it ends a little early, sadly. I love the last line about making the sun run....

Other news: I saved a starfish, I'm sure I did.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A White Hyacinth

No there is no white hyacinth in the painting, this is NZ bush painted on a piece of slate by an artist friend Stacey O'Neill who lives 5 minutes away from me. I love her work because of its detailed loving often spiritual evocation of the bush that hugs the hills behind us, the bush I walk in and watch. She is a generous artist, too, whose donated work I have often looked at on the walls of hospitals while going through a family crisis. I can see those murals in my mind's eye now, and am again deeply grateful to her.

And the white hyacinth? Well, my Mum always said to me that if I had two pennies, I'd spend one on bread and the other on white hyacinths to feed the soul - she'd adapted a Persian saying, which due to the joys of google I've found. 

"If, of thy mortal goods, thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves
alone to thee are left,
Sell one & from the dole,
Buy Hyacinths to feed the soul"
- Muslihuddin Sadi,
13th Century Persian Poet

Anyway, I was given a little money for a recent birthday from my parents-in-law, and I've also been earning some good money writing stories for a government agency, and after buying, well, groceries, I found myself in a local shop staring at Stacey's painting: glowing on slate, the size of my hand.  So beautiful, so replenishing. Definitely a white hyacinth. I bought it. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Wind Dog

how the wind howls:
an enormous dog with jowls, heaving
its wet sides around the harbour, salivating
on the shore’s lap, pissing
like a bull, nipping
         with sharp teeth,
to open
the door, snap
back as in it sails – all tongue and air and tail
batting and blowing and licking your face
water all over the place

                                      Mary McCallum

Wildly appropriate for the sort of weather we're having. I wrote this poem a few years back but last night cleaning my teeth I thought - bloody hell, it's like a creature out there. And not just wind, dear reader, not just rain, dear reader, but snow - and we live by the sea! 

Earlier in the day in the Wellington CBD, I stood as soft flakes landed on my shoulders and hair. Everyone was so excited, standing outside like children exclaiming.  

More poems on Tuesday Poem here including a lovely poem on memory by Tim Jones at the hub.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

Had we but world enough, and time

I was rushing this morning from one thing to another and the first line of Marvell's To His Coy Mistress leapt into my head. I had to find the whole thing and read it then and there. How marvellous it is (excuse the pun) - how modern - how funny. Isn't this unbeatable?

The grave's a fine and private place, 
But none, I think, do there embrace

Marvell's message in the poem,  to seize the day and 'sport ... while we may', is not why the first line line popped into my head you understand. I was just thinking how I'd like to hear less of 'time's winged chariot' and have more time to gobble up my own vegetable loves: writing, lying around with a book  ... Oh well, taking a sliver of time to read and think about one excellent poem is a welcome pause in the headlong rush of a Friday morning. I recommend it. Now, better get on...

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell.

HAD we but world enough, and time, 
This coyness, Lady, were no crime 
We would sit down and think which way 
To walk and pass our long love's day. 
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side         5
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide 
Of Humber would complain. I would 
Love you ten years before the Flood, 
And you should, if you please, refuse 
Till the conversion of the Jews.  10
My vegetable love should grow 
Vaster than empires, and more slow; 
An hundred years should go to praise 
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze; 
Two hundred to adore each breast,  15
But thirty thousand to the rest; 
An age at least to every part, 
And the last age should show your heart. 
For, Lady, you deserve this state, 
Nor would I love at lower rate.  20
  But at my back I always hear 
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near; 
And yonder all before us lie 
Deserts of vast eternity. 
Thy beauty shall no more be found,  25
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound 
My echoing song: then worms shall try 
That long preserved virginity, 
And your quaint honour turn to dust, 
And into ashes all my lust:  30
The grave 's a fine and private place, 
But none, I think, do there embrace. 
  Now therefore, while the youthful hue 
Sits on thy skin like morning dew, 
And while thy willing soul transpires  35
At every pore with instant fires, 
Now let us sport us while we may, 
And now, like amorous birds of prey, 
Rather at once our time devour 
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.  40
Let us roll all our strength and all 
Our sweetness up into one ball, 
And tear our pleasures with rough strife 
Thorough the iron gates of life: 
Thus, though we cannot make our sun  45
Stand still, yet we will make him run. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stella Duffy on the UK riots

A thoughtful piece on what's going on there by Duffy who's NZ born ....

Here's an extract:

I hate that the news is reporting “London on fire” – it’s not. Not all of it. Not even most of it. Small pockets. And yes, those pockets are ghastly, terrifying, nonsensical (Croydon? Really – Croydon?! why??), but it’s still not the whole city and it isn’t anarchy and no, we do NOT need troops on the streets, or water cannon, or any of those other extreme far-right tactics that have worked so well in Libya and Syria this year.

UPDATE 1.27 pm: Here's another interesting post on the issue by UK author, Kathleen Jones, who incidentally has family here in Christchurch and wrote the most recent KM biography.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Grandmother by Kate Duignan

When I was five
you taught me how to separate an egg.

I watched you tap it on the rim
of the bowl,
press your thumbs to the spot
and crack it clean in two.

You let me take the speckled shell 
in my own hands
and rock the yolk back and forth,
as it slid from one half to the other,
a tiny yellow sun.

We put the splintered pieces
in the brown bin
for the compost

and the empty carton
in the red bin
for the incinerator.

In the garden,
the light went out of the golden elm.
We stood at the window.
The moon was a white cup.

The birds had gone to their nests, you said
and tomorrow would be a good day.

I spread my fingers on the dark glass.
Our cake, you said, would rise.


I heard Kate read this poem up in Palmerston North last month. We were both tutoring an Honours course in writing fiction at Massey University, and spent the weekend there with the students who were learning extramurally and had come for a 'contact' weekend from all over NZ and overseas. The course 'captain' Thom Conroy (who writes award-winning fiction as Thomas Gough) had us all doing an 'Open Mic' on Saturday evening - with wine flowing and loads of food. 

It was a terrific event - very relaxed (as Thom likes it) -- and Thom, Kate and I all read, as well as the students. Kate's poem was the stand-out for me.

I think it is wonderful the way she builds the love and intimacy in the relationship through the simple task of baking a cake. There's a contemplative beauty in every line, and a lovely evocation of child vs. ageing grandmother shown through the grandmother's teaching, the things the grandmother says, the child spreading her fingers on the dark glass. Throughout there is a feeling of inevitability - of a cake rising, the day turning to night, life passing. 

Kate's grandmother has passed away now and although she thought she'd be okay reading the poem, it was still emotional for Kate. The rest of us felt it. It could be any of our grandmothers or our children's grandmothers. It gives me a lump in my throat reading it now. And the last line - fantastic. 

This poem is posted with Kate's permission, it first appeared in Sport. Kate has published an excellent novel called Breakwater which is set in Wellington, and is a teacher of short fiction at Victoria University and book reviewer. Until we went to Palmerston North together I didn't know she was a poet. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Brining the olives

I'm not a bottler or preserver. I don't make jam or chutney except in tiny batches to keep in the fridge. But every year I brine a batch of olives from our olive grove over the hill. They are kalamata from one of our two kalamata trees, one of which is thriving on our daughter's placenta.

Kalamata olives are Greek olives and I am part-Greek, so naturally I am drawn to them. Last year, my husband, daughter and I hand-picked them, this year my husband did them on his own. The rest of our olives are Italian, Spanish or Israeli and are picked by a machine and crushed for oil.

I can brine the olives without consulting a recipe now. I soak them in fresh water for a few weeks (around 4) changing the water every day (such a chore!), make enough brine to cover them using the measurements of 100g of salt to one litre of boiling water (enough to float an egg), dissolve the salt and cool the brine, wash and sterlise the jars in the oven and let them cool, put a little brine in the jar - pile in the olives - top with brine and a layer of olive oil with a gap at the top, put on the lids (not too tight) and there you have it!

A peasant (sic) and pleasing task. I keep looking at the jars and feeling a woosh of pride. The photo is of Ian and me with one of our first crops. The trees were so small then. They are nearly 15 years old now and tower over us. The grove is my husband's pride and joy and he does all the work there now, but every year I brine the olives - and eat them - and eat the oil of course.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Entymologist

To find it, you need to feel the trunk
with your fingers. It’s soft, a lump, mossy.
It is a door that you open with your tweezers. You
lean out over the gap between the track
and the tree, lean your cheek on the bark,
stare at the lump, insert the tweezers. Tug.

Your face is like a man in love.
Your mouth so soft
as if you are saying ‘bugger, bugger, bugger.’
It doesn’t struggle. Its many legs
hang like hair wet from a child’s mouth.
You slide it into the glass tube
you carry.

It is yours now. It leaves behind the
threads it lays to ambush
the unwary, it leaves behind its
soft lumpish home, it leaves behind
the trapdoor without a hinge
behind which it was wary, but not
wary enough, it leaves behind the remains
of the unwary.  

In the tube,
the spider appears legless. You show us
this -- you show us the trapdoor. It's
your first day out. We applaud you, young man,
fresh sweat on your face and new boots on. 
We applaud you; we
wave you on up the track. 
Then we take turns to lean out over the gully
and touch
the mossy door. 

                                    Mary McCallum

I love the way writing about the work people do brings them alive in poems and fiction. I heard a lovely poem by Kate Duignan read recently (by Kate) about her as a child breaking eggs with her grandmother to bake a cake. It captures so well the intimacy of baking a cake together, the relationship between the two. It's wonderful. 

There's a book at the bookshop that I covet - it is a collection of stories by some great names including Andre Dubus and Alice Munro called blue collar, white collar, no collar - stories of work edited by Richard Ford. I always remember Munro's comment about writing characters - (did I read it or hear her say it at a writers' festival?) 'Give them work to do, we all work in one way or another'. 

Work, surely, is one of those things that animates a character on the page. Gives 'a reason for getting up in the morning'.  

While googling Ford's book, I found this interesting article about how he views the 'work' he does as a novelist. I wouldn't agree it's as easy as he makes out, but the article is interesting nonetheless. 

Do check out another insect poem on the Tuesday Poem  hub - it's called The Wild Bees and it's lush and intricate and by Irish poet, and former Tuesday Poet, John Griffin. The editor is the mysterious Zireaux, who always has something fascinating and controversial to say. This time it's about the need for a wider vocabulary in modern poetry.

After that, look at the sidebar of Tuesday Poets, always interesting stuff there.