Lunch poem

These men are walking slowly.
They have angled their heads so they are not
looking at one another. They are wearing plum-coloured
jerseys with fresh, oxygenated shirts
pointing out their collars.
Their pants are rolling tyres.
They are moving very slowly now.
Their shoes are lead-bearing ores.
The napes of their necks, little flags.
Now their heads are lowered, forcing the men
to stare at the leaf-blowered path.
A rumble is coming. It is the rumble of large
submerged propellers
beginning to churn inside the men.
They are walking very slowly.
They are assembling a conversation.
We shall not pass them. There is no room.
One of us tries and is sucked into their propellers.
Should we call the police to make them walk faster?
‘Walk slower, walk slower,’ says the path they walk over.
‘A bit slower,’ say the windows
the men fill with plums and greys, as they go by.
The men are walking very slowly.
They are walking to the university.

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Exchanges

I met my friend to talk about work. But what we ended up talking about instead was friendship. He said he was thinking of writing a book about friendship. I told him about an essay by Vivian Gornick that I recently read and that maybe he would like. It’s mostly about Gornick’s friendship with a difficult man named Leonard. It’s a sad essay. There is a moment when Gornick has farewelled Leonard and, going up the elevator into her apartment, she starts to ‘feel on my skin the sensory effect of an eveningful of irony and negative judgement. Nothing serious, just surface damage – a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest – but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.’ I told my friend that I had recently had a falling out with another friend and that I wasn’t sure what to do about it. He said that a lot of his friends are starting to die now and he wasn’t sure what to do about that either.

I got a text from my mother to say that my aunt, my dad’s sister, died. I remember very little about her, but I do remember her face well. She had a chin-length greyish bob and drooping eyes and a quick walk. Maybe she wore soft skirts and long cardigans. The last time I saw her I was maybe eight. My father sent me a message on Facebook (that is, he wrote it on my Facebook wall) to say that at the funeral he’d sung a tribute to his sister, and his singing was very off-key, but it went down very well. ‘In fact I was mobbed like a pop star.’

I sent a book of poems to a friend who lives in Nelson. Five days later he emailed me to tell me he had received the book. ‘This morning I had a huge list. So many things undone. I considered resurrecting a Hot Cross Bun recipe for the family influx this Easter,’ he wrote. ‘But then the mailman saved me from corporeal ambitions.’

I woke up feeling angry because somehow, while sleeping, I remembered that a while back I wrote a long, enthusiastic email to answer an acquaintance’s questions to help with a project they were working on, and they never replied to say thank you. I was angry all morning, and I cleaned things furiously. Maybe there were other things feeding into the anger, but that was definitely the main thing, and it seemed to me that the lack of response represented the whole world’s general absent-mindedness in the face of all of my efforts. My many great efforts, I said to myself as I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the cat’s door. Then I remembered that, actually, the person did reply. But briefly, and not for two months after my email. Somehow, this made me angrier.

Sometimes I have a thought: ‘Other people my age have lots of friends. Why don’t I have more friends? Why don’t I have a group of friends who I see all the time?’ At first I’ll decide that it is not because I am shy, but because I am lazy. Then I begin to argue with myself. Am I truly lazy, or am I genuinely shy? Perhaps the shyness has turned into laziness, over the years. It is important to be honest with myself about this.

I decided I would stop putting friends and family into poems anymore, even though I still wanted to. It seemed selfish, in the end. I wasn’t sure whether I could stop putting them into other sorts of writing, though. Whenever I started writing anything, it was as if they all just walked in and made themselves comfortable. Sometimes the entrance was more forceful, as if they abseiled into the room or crashed through a skyscraper. Then stood up and dusted themselves off. Then I had no choice.

A poet came in to my work, the author of the book of poems that I sent to my friend. He said, ‘Now, here’s something I know about you – you’re a swimmer. I saw you standing outside the pool the other day, with a girlfriend. Was that you?’ I do swim, but I don’t stand around outside the pool with a girlfriend. I go to the pool by myself and when I am done I leave immediately. Suddenly this was too complicated to explain, so I said, ‘Yes.’ Then the poet said that he had three unpublished novels and that he would be quite satisfied if they all vanished so that they wouldn’t be unearthed after his death, to retrospectively destroy his career. But, these three novels. Perhaps something could be done.

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On breathing noisily, when puffed

I have decided to begin breathing noisily again when I am puffed, rather than trying to conceal the breathing.

In the past, I must have decided that breathing noisily when puffed was a sign of weakness, and that anyone who noticed the noisy breathing would say to themselves, ‘That woman is unfit.’ I can’t remember how or why I decided this, but it might have been something to do with climbing a mountain while on a school trip, and a boy was lagging up the mountain behind everyone else, breathing noisily, and the person beside me muttered, ‘John is unfit.’ As we waited, John crept very slowly towards us, crablike with his huge pack, and his eyes were lowered as he breathed noisily.

It might have been that, or it might have been something else, such as climbing some steps with my mother, or a combination of things.

For years now I have tried to quiet my breathing, when puffed, by letting the breath out thinly, like a slow leak from a puncture, or even pretending that it was a sigh, as if I had just remembered an important task. So whenever I was riding my bike up one of the many hills that I ride up each day, I tried not to move my mouth too much, because this would betray my noisy breathing. I also tried to maintain an unflustered, slightly bored expression, as if I was making so little effort that I could mentally absent myself from the scene. I didn’t want to attract the attention of any of the people walking up and down alongside the road, especially not anyone who would recognise me, and who might say to themselves, ‘Ashleigh Young is unfit.’ One of my bigger fears, and one that I thought about every day, was that an old boyfriend of mine, who I know goes to the university, would be passing in a bus and would look out the window and see me there at the roadside, breathing noisily. ‘She has got unfit,’ he would think to himself. I suppose this might still happen sometime in the future.

I am slightly puffed after walking the three flights of steps from my flat to the street with my bike over my shoulder. I am averagely puffed when I begin the climb towards the university. I am very puffed when I get to the top of The Terrace, and I am extremely puffed by the time I am creeping through the roundabout at the top of the parade beside the university; I use a last bit of energy to throw my arm sideways to signal the turn. When I am locking up my bike, I am so puffed that it feels like my lungs have turned into a pair of excited dogs and they are jumping up and down, trying to get at the air. My lungs paw and salivate at the air, tearing bits out of it like stuffing. By now I am defeated. Anyone who walks down the path behind me will see a woman untangling a bike lock while breathing not just noisily but extravagantly, on a breathing spree, and the thought will probably come to them, even just for a second before it is gulped up by a stream of other thoughts: ‘That woman is unfit.’

Sometimes I have been stuck behind slower-moving male cyclists who I could tell were breathing noisily, but I still have not been moved to allow myself to do the same.

Once I had a slow crash when a woman in a parked car opened her door into my path. But even that didn’t remind me that there were more important things to worry about than my breathing.

Last week a couple of teenage boys shouted abuse at me when I was just at the steepest, most difficult part of the hill, and I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to shout abuse back, but even that didn’t make me think I should let myself breathe noisily, as required.

Today, nothing in particular happened to make me decide to breathe noisily again when I am puffed. So, just as I am not sure why I decided that I had to breathe quietly, I am now not sure why I have decided that I don’t have to. I pushed my bike through the gate and my cat Jerry immediately came running out from under a tree, screeching at me. He screeched loudly and continuously as he ran down the steps just in front of my feet. I leaned my bike against the fence and put its special bicycle raincoat on, which is always more difficult than I think it will be, like putting a pair of pants on a car. Then I came inside and lay down on the floor and breathed noisily until I was no longer puffed. All this time, Jerry was prancing around me, screeching for food and maybe, I hope, because he was glad to see me. Maybe it just felt like enough time had passed and that I could breathe now.

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Which way Half Moon Bay?

Last year I wrote a short essay called ‘Sea of Trees’ that mentioned a Japanese woman, Keiko Agatsuma, who in the late 1970s came to New Zealand and lived alone on Stewart Island for a short time, in a cave in Doughbay Bay. She was eventually deported back to Japan because she had overstayed the time she was allowed to be in New Zealand, and she became something of a legend: Peter Wells wrote a short story based on her, which in turn provided the inspiration for a film by Niki Caro, and later the playwright Eileen Philipp wrote a Noh play about her. Anyway, the other day I got this little email from writer Matt Vance (author of How to Sail a Boat):

I have just re-read your essay ‘Sea of Trees’ from the Griffith Review.

In one of those short loops that can only happen in a place the size of NZ I recognised Keiko Agastuma.

I was eight years old and on holiday with my family on Stewart Island.

We were walking on the beach somewhere west of Oban when what turned out to be Keiko wandered out onto the beach from the bush.

This was something different in 1978 so my sister and I just stared at her. She smiled and said ‘Which way Half Moon Bay?’

We continued staring and just pointed the way.

Her quote became part of the family vernacular for decades.

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Bad, but not damned: On Tim Upperton

Would you eat your family?

 

Tim Upperton is the kind of poet who tends to have his poems shared without people asking his permission or paying him money. They’re the kind of poems that you want to share with another person immediately. So you do, which I can’t help but feel is a kind of stealing. I have done it often. I tell people they should buy the book, but how can you be sure they’ll follow through? When it comes to poetry, people don’t follow through. I need to repay my debt to Tim Upperton somehow, and rather than giving him money like a decent human being, I am going to write about his book The Night We Ate the Baby, like a writer. His book has been reviewed in only one place, briefly. Why hasn’t it been reviewed elsewhere? Probably because of shrinking arts review coverage on all fronts, or maybe because it was published by a small press, but a more interesting theory is: because it’s too good.

This isn’t a review. If it was, it would be effusive and dull. I actually just wanted to talk about the book. The first time I read these poems I thought of Larry David saying to Jeff Garlin that the Larry of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fantasy – an embodiment of the things the real Larry would like to say. ‘I cannot tell you the pleasure, the pleasure that it gives me to have a moment of honesty in my life, albeit fictional. There is nothing that feels better to me!’ I’ve always thought there’s beauty in the way this honesty is delivered on the show, and watching it feels cathartic at the same time as it feels slightly unbearable. Because outside of that moment of honesty, ‘We’re full of shit all the time! It can’t be helped, you have to get along in this world, that’s the way to do it.’ In the end it’s always Larry against the world, holding his small triumphs close and being swallowed by a mob of Michael J. Fox fans. Anyway, my point is, it sometimes feels a bit like that in a Tim Upperton poem, especially when he’s not going easy.

Fonnet

 

 

 

 

(The poems aren’t all like that. This one, ‘Fonnet’, has the most swearing in it.) Like Larry, the speaker of this book is alone with his convictions, which take some poems to brutal places and others to very poignant places. Even his own body is against him, like the insolent lazy eye that looks at him stonily: ‘Who do you think you’re looking at, who the fuck do you think you are?’ (You can hear Tim read the lazy eye poem here.) The speaker looks back at himself and at others just as stonily. He never shrinks away from seeing. I think the best kind of poetry doesn’t shrink away. Like in ‘Drive’, where each line builds in weird, cold intensity, the kind where you’re asking, ‘Is this funny or is it menacing?’

I’ve got a new car.
It goes better than my old one.

The places it takes me to
aren’t better.

It just gets me to them
in a better way.

The places are the same,
only worse

for being looked at again.

It seems like the narrator of these poems (and I’ll be honest, I can’t help but read the narrator as an idealised version of Tim, just as Curb‘s Larry is an idealised version of non-Curb Larry) is often speaking from inside some awful predicament or entrapment. But because he has nothing left to lose and no sensibilities left to offend, he can speak bluntly. I’ve heard Tim say before that he is interested in the idea of ugliness in poetry – a poetry that resists lyricism, sentimentality, pleasing rhyme and metre, the epiphany easily reached. I think it’s through this resistance that these poems arrive at something else, something that feels real and hard-won, a language that feels new because it never falls back, always reaches. (The obvious irony is that in resisting poetic beauty these poems often arrive at another sort of beauty. Sorry Tim.) It’s not always easy to read a poem that clunks along where we might expect it to hum, that insults where it would usually placate, that speaks of death with relief not regret, that’s harsh where you’d expect kindness.

conditionally

There is no sense of gratuity in these utterances, just directness. I think these hard edges are why I like this book a lot.

At the cemetery the gravestones
are hilarious. This woman died
aged one hundred and two.
We sit on her tomb for an hour.
You kiss me. I kiss you.

The more I read these poems, the less the Larry David analogy is quite right. In Curb, I feel like Larry never realises the futility of his predicaments. He cares so much about being right and his frustration with other people eats him alive. Whereas in many of these poems, many of which are indeed bleakly hilarious, the speaker doesn’t particularly care. He has stopped railing. He exists in a kind of Purgatory, a place that Tim talked about once on a blog post on evil as ‘a kind of waiting room where those who were bad but not damned sat around’. This speaker is bad, but not damned. His acceptance of his lot is not without sadness and sometimes rage, but it is an acceptance that frees him to acknowledge what is true. And sometimes he turns bleakness inside out and shows its sweetness, like the precious items ticked off, one by one, in ‘Valediction':

Valediction

 

 

 

The most alarming poem in this book is probably the prose poem ‘Would you eat your family?’ a brutally reasoned argument on why, in a plane crash, you should eat your family. By the end of the poem, I am seriously considering eating my family.

You are alive now. I want you to live.

My dad is a pilot, so it’s a question I should have really thought about before. Thank you, Tim, for leading me sure-footedly through this decision-making process.

This is an important book because it turns upside down notions of how poetry should behave, and especially the notion that a poet’s voice should be likeable and relatable. After reading it I was questioning my own writing voice and wishing I could be as brave. The patron saint of disagreeable poetry is probably Frederick Seidel, but I would argue that, despite his greatness, Seidel’s poetry sometimes crosses over into being gratuitously, absurdly disagreeable. In poems like The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri, he becomes a caricature of himself. With Tim, and this may not be a compliment, I never feel I’m being wilfully provoked. Each poem begins from somewhere new.

The last thing I will say is that the book contains the most unbearably sad poem that I read last year and will probably read for some time. The poem is ‘Late Valentine’ and it contains the lines:

I don’t cook you breakfast
on Saturday morning,
and this makes me perpetually hungry.

I don’t run out of patience,
or shampoo, and this makes me wait
for you with clean hair.

There are many other sad details in this poem but the saddest of them all is the clean hair. Tim is the master of the detail that shouldn’t be particularly significant but that somehow is: a hardwood floor in rain, a coathook, a speckled hen, an upturned bucket that at first looks like a white cat. But, the clean hair! The purgatory of the clean hair.

Buy The Night We Ate the Baby.

Follow Tim on twitter.

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On the ‘tad’

A couple of people this week have said ‘a tad’ in relation to my person. This is unusually frequent use of the expression ‘a tad’. But more importantly, each time, the context of the ‘tad’ has made me wonder how you would define ‘a tad’. What is a tad, in the world? I have given it some thought, probably too much thought – and I see now that this post means I have taken it too far – and I have come up with some analogies for a tad. One is that a tad is a mosquito-like insect, a type of midge, a very tiny but nevertheless living thing that burrows into a person’s skin and sometimes their eyeballs. A tad might also be a skin tag, like those that sit on my father’s neck, each a tiny bookmark, and also the tiny, tiny ones that are appearing on my own neck; so in essence, a tad is a protrusion that offers you nothing other than a slightly bleak similarity with someone else. A tad might also be a minor-seeming argument with someone, like the argument of being waved across a road by a waiting driver, when you don’t want to cross the road in front of that driver, and then the previously polite driver yells something at you and blasts off. A tad is always pretty small, very small, maybe even invisible, but its hunting territory is wild and various.

I have joined a new gym and as part of joining a new gym I had to meet a personal trainer for one hour. This was so he could measure different things about me and have me step over things and hold a big stick at certain angles. Having been through a few of these sessions at previous gyms, I was prepared for some upbeatness, some asking about my weekend plans, and some cheery undertones of disapproval. For this is the ring of fire we must leap through before being set free to do what we want. After tidying away the big stick and the measuring devices, and solemnly writing down some things, the trainer said, ‘In terms of fat, you could lose a tad.’ So I swept all the things off the trainer’s desk with one arm and then did the fingers and said, ‘Measure this.’

Well, I didn’t. Instead, to the irritation of my future self I nodded and said ‘Yes I know.’ But later I thought about how different ‘a tad’ was to that guy and me. To the trainer, a tad was a flap of the wrist, a couple of digits to write on his form. To me this tad encompassed many, many tads, more than fifteen years of tads: a tad more, a tad less, a tad further, a tad longer; each tad with its own swarm of failures and triumphs. None of these tads would seem significant to anyone else: each was a near-invisible midge, just a speck of life, but at certain times that midge had been eating me alive. Each of those tads was the opposite of how it seemed. Each was truly going somewhere else and meaning more than it appeared to mean. At an Outdoor Pursuits trip I went on as a 13-year-old, my group’s leader, Ron, would say ‘Just around the next corner, folks’ when we asked if we could stop for morning tea yet. Ron was generally annoying, but here he became annoying in a very specific way. Two hours later, hungry and knackered, we would not yet have reached this mythical corner where we would be able to sit down and eat our defrosted Anzac biscuits. Maybe my memory is exaggerating the length of our miserable slog towards the corner, towards the terrible biscuits. That is not the point. All slogs are relative. All tads are relative.

The second instance of ‘a tad’ was more straightforward, perhaps, but it still made me reflect on the gap in meaning between the person’s ‘tad’ and my ‘tad’. I told a friend I was feeling down, and he said to me, ‘Yes you seemed a tad low.’ There was a minimising element to this, as if my lowness were next to nothing, as if I were a bit peckish instead of ravenous, as if I must be a bird instead of a person. It came from kindness, from wishing to dignify. But it made me feel tired, and indeed lower, because it meant I would need to explain that the tad was bigger than a tad. I mean, it was still a tad, I suppose, but the tad was behaving differently for me than it was behaving for onlookers.

I apologise for saying ‘a tad’ so many times in this post. My reason for doing it is so you see what a bad expression it is, and never use it again.

I’m not sure what it would have been better for either of these people to say instead. I like to think that each instance was an attempted kindness, an attempt to dignify something that they saw as a problem or even shameful, and also something that could be quickly stepped over and forgotten. This kind of kindness troubles me because it is only really kind to the person who is saying the words; it means they don’t have to speak openly with you. I like frankness better, a frankness that does not need to measure.

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Memorandum of Understanding

BY BILL NELSON

Understand that we will be working together / and this means / we do not have to
like each other. / Understand that we have common goals / and aspirations, we
have aspirations / most of all. / Understand, that in the end, / the unspoken is
always spoken / and usually by someone not qualified to speak it. Understand, /
the rhythm of this agreement is not always symmetric, / sometimes the drummer
starts to lean / on one thigh, slowly sags to the side, / and as a result the song
can sound like mud and honey. / Understand, that I love you. / Understand, that
this doesn’t necessarily concern you. / Understand, that this is a bridging
agreement, / just a place-holder / until the full programme of individual projects
that need to occur to realise the full potential of the programme which addresses
all the individual and specific concerns and develops a full and proper
understanding of all the aforementioned concerns / is in place. Understand, / that
there are no place-holders. Understand, / that between two place-holders is a
river of uncertain places. / Understand, that the most interesting thing about the
river / are the bridges that cross it. That bridges / always cross something. That
bridges always burn. / That bridges can, and often are, / rebuilt. Understand, the
gravity / of all this / and how I’m waving my arms about / to indicate the All of
This. Understand, / the specific weight of at least / some of it. Understand, / the
specific body is important. / Understand, that no one can really understand
gravity, / it exists only on a piece of paper, / as in, like, an equation, / as in the
things between the things / we can understand. Like a bridge. Or the complex
science / that goes into a bridge. / Understand this. / This is a bridge, quite a long
one. / Understand, that we should be wary of long bridges. / If we find ourselves
seduced / by long bridges, we should strip off, / stand in front of the mirror, /
squeeze all the wobbly bits. / I understand / that’s what you do when I’m not
around. / From now on, let’s do that together, / let’s squeeze our secrets, / but
only with one another. Let’s understand the wobbly bits and squeeze them. /
Let’s be wobbly, let’s be squeezy. / Let’s remember what it felt like to be
memorable. / Let’s stand under this understanding and marvel / at her structure,
the curve of her thought-bearing hips / as she takes our concerns, / one by one,
without complaint.

[NOTE: Bill Nelson read this poem at the Wellington LitCrawl on Saturday. He read it in a strangely expressive monotone – I wish I had a recording of it – and it was my big highlight of the LitCrawl. I was sitting behind Bill and when he returned to his seat I prodded him appreciatively in the shoulder but I don’t think he noticed, so this is my chance to make my appreciation more boldly known. Obviously Bill is a writer of poems (here are three great ones: ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘The Evidence’ and ‘All the love poems’) but he also writes for the brilliant NZ outdoors journal Up Country (which he edits with fellow writers John Summers and Thom Gower). He is also a player of squash, football, hockey and possibly tennis. He is on twitter. Bill’s poems always hit a real nerve with me. They have a tone and a temperature unlike anyone else, and his stuff tends to stick in my head. Like the line: ‘She had legs like a Saturday night movie’. And they’re often dazzlingly uncomfortable. Once, at Te Papa Marae, Bill read a poem that featured masturbation and I have never forgotten it.]

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