Rejection mash-up

What can you do with some failures? Ground them into a fine paste then mash them together. These lines come from five (rightly) rejected poems.

Preservation
I have lost my coat. Like many coats that go on to be lost
it had a falling hem and several missing buttons.
No doubt we will make the same mistake.
Our pockets will tear our hands apart.
If only I could think, but that does not seem
to be the point either.
A woman smiles out of a long black coat,
the street wears a soft coat of fog.
They wear it for they wish others to know
they are here for the great air show.
The light is thinning the room’s hair.
Sorrow has brought them together.
The light coats a man waiting to cross
the road, coats his dog. Each of them recently
woke up from a dream and felt a voice
call from inside him. No one can trust
their own remembering.
A word may save us from saying the other thing.
Why put yourself through that, when you can say
something utterly else
and both of you know what it means? Beans.
I pull me into the long shadows
of my new sleeves.
I think my coat is keeping someone warm.
Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

Long shot dog on tree stump
Long shot wolf
Long shot prairie
Long shot dog runs and exits
Long shot deer
Long shot dog
Medium shot girl
Close-up shot little monkey.
– extract from shot list for The Man from Hell’s River (1922) in ‘The Dog Star’ by Susan Orlean

I found myself with some book vouchers recently, so I went and bought this book for myself as a special treat. It’s a collection of essays, short stories, poems, and cartoons about dogs, all from the New Yorker. It was eighty dollars. Eighty dollars! But look at it. Look at it.

BNYBOD

photo 1

photo 2

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3

There are other things I should be reading. But this is better than any of them. This is better than any other book. Here are the reasons.

1. It’s about the evolution of dogs, police dogs, running dogs, dogs in parks, dogs that chase people, disturbed dogs, bulldogs, loved dogs and unloved dogs, dog language, New York’s poop scoop law, barking dogs, a dog that was found ‘asleep on the job’ and threatened with arrest, obedience training, dogs on film, dog DNA, lost dogs, dog field trials, dogs bequeathed millions of dollars by their owners, and many, many other dog subjects.

2. The hugeness of the book reminds me of reading books as a kid. Those big collections of fairytales, or books with titles like ‘Fantastic Tales for Seven-Year-Olds’. There is something very comforting and satisfying about the sheer heft and variety and beauty of the book. It hits all the good old spots.

3. There are not as many sad stories about dogs dying as you might think.

4. It’s not all dogs. There are people. For example, there is a wonderful story by Callum Wink that opens: ‘Sid was a nude sleeper. Had been even since he was a little kid. To him, wearing clothes to bed seemed strangely redundant, like wearing underwear inside your underwear or something.’

5. Some of the cartoons are really funny.

Hahaha!

6. Delayed gratification: you have to get through Malcolm Gladwell’s foreword before you get to the good stuff. The foreword is not particularly bad; it’s just a bit annoying, in that particular Gladwellian way. It’s the way that everything is so tidily narrativised. Also, when he tells us that when he hears his neighbour’s dog whining,  his ‘heart breaks’, I don’t believe him.

7. I think about how much fun it must have been to make a book like this. Imagine the meetings, imagine the decision-making. ‘What can we put in this space?’ ‘How about that picture of the dog asking for forty thousand dollars?’ ‘I was hoping you’d say the one of the dog catching the martini glass.’ ‘Oh, my dog does that trick all the time!’ Etc. etc. I bet they were allowed dogs in the office as well.

Maybe there is something unhealthy about how much I am enjoying this book. I don’t even own a dog, though I did as a kid (a dachshund, which was, cruelly, called a rat by kids who ever saw me out walking it), and I don’t know when I’ll ever be in a good position to own one again. Landlords are non-dog-friendly, and the future’s too uncertain. In the meantime, I’m a guess I’d describe myself as a dog watcher. It’s not something I actively do – more a reflex. If there’s a dog nearby, I’ll be watching it.

I’m happy to see that a few Wellington pubs are becoming dog friendly, like the Rogue and Vagabond, and Goldings. Pubs are infinitely better with dogs in them, or standing at their peripheries.

Pub dog

Pub dog

The best time to go dog watching is late morning on a Sunday at the farmer’s market near the waterfront. The place trots and skitters with them: whippets, labs, Alsatians, Dalmatians, pugs, those scraggly things that I call sea dogs because they look like they’ve spent a lot of time running around in salty wind. Half sea-foam, half dog.

A sea dog on Sunday

Sea dog

So, I guess that’s all I wanted to talk about today. There are no complex truths to be revealed here. If you get a chance, take a look at The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.

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Visitation

If you swivel the map below around so that you can see the bright red, yellow, and green house, you’ll see a long driveway with a lone figure standing on it, holding a recycling bin, I think. (Weirdly, when I zoomed in I saw that the blurry figure resembles my mother as a young woman.) Our old house was at the top of the driveway. That’s our red letterbox. My brother JP once hit his head on it, somehow – I think I can remember him coming in the door with blood all down his face.

Me and my brothers, Neil and JP, went to visit our old house once. It was after school. My brothers were both in their high school uniforms; I was still in my primary school mufti. Neil was driving my mother’s white Nissan. It was very, very exciting.

We crept slowly up the driveway, past the Orams’s place (the red, yellow, and green house). The driveway was still just as steep, with crispy macrocarpa leaves still all over it. It went under some trees and then out into the clearing, and then the wooden house rose up in front of us. My parents called the house Toad Park, as if it was a house in a movie or a book. (However, they have also called every subsequent house Toad Park.) I saw the dark square grid in the triangle roof. That was supposedly the attic. Once JP and I tried to figure out how to get to it. I remember JP’s legs hanging from the trapdoor in my bedroom ceiling. The legs were kicking about and I could hear JP’s muffled yells from inside the roof.

The pear tree on the lawn was now a white-painted stump, a neat wound in the centre of the hill. The source of the crispy leaves, the macrocarpa, was still standing at the top of the ponga wall. Once I’d stood on the top of that wall holding a plastic New World bag in each arm, and jumped off, thinking I’d float softly to the ground. And once I’d stood on that wall and seen the neighbours’ boy – a blond kid called Matthew who always seemed to be howling – climbing in the tree that stood on the wall opposite mine. Then I’d seen him slip and fall straight down with a crack onto the driveway. I remember thinking how silent his falling was – fast but silent – until he hit the ground. And then it was silent again after he hit the ground.

(I was going to leave that hanging so you would wonder what had happened to him, for dramatic effect. But, I’ll be honest – he was fine. He’ll be around 26 by now. Maybe he has howling kids of his own who fall out of trees.)

The camellia tree was heavy with the same thick bitter leaves, and all around its roots in the same compost pile, there were the same rotting blooms. But something was different; the garden was different. There were visible emptinesses. Many of the plants were gone and the bush looked thinned out, contained, more like a patch of trees than a wild place. 

As our car crept around the bend in the driveway, we saw a person. My god! I’m getting a chill right now. In my memory the person is walking up from the bush, striding over the hill toward the house, in gumboots, with a wheelbarrow. But I’m not sure – they might have been walking down from the house shading their eyes. But I am sure that wherever they came from, the person turned their head towards us to look at us and presumably wonder what we were doing, and at that point we all started shouting. Neil put the car into reverse and we flatlined it back down the driveway. He did a spasmodic 3-point turn at the bend. JP was shouting, ‘GO GO GO.’ I had my hands over my eyes and was screaming.

We would never have thought about just knocking on the door and saying hello to whoever lived there now. First, that would be very weird and the person might say no. Second, it would be seeing too much. We had to be spies. We had to trespass and see only the edges. We hadn’t thought that someone might be wandering around because someone else lived there. But of course there’d be someone. Thinking about it now, I’m glad there was, because it made our old house someone else’s house, and forced the realisation – just for a moment – that it wasn’t ours. But then, after a while, it went back to being our old house. It was too difficult to find new words for ‘our old house’ or to see the house as one in a sequence of houses that we and then other people would live in. It was always ours just because it was first.

JP sometimes says ‘visitation’ instead of ‘visit’. So (this is when we are grown-ups) he’ll say something like: ‘Would you be around for a visitation this afternoon?’ I like to think that the person who saw us fleeing in the car thought of us as a strange visitation, our white Nissan like a big ghost swan, or something.

Anyway, as we were rushing down the driveway, I looked out the back window and saw the house falling back under the trees. That was the last I saw of it. We were out of the shade and flying down George Street, shouting and heading back to the other side of town. What a relief it was to get out of there. It was like we’d escaped some horrible punishment. I remember feeling ridiculously happy.

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Faces and nonface faces

‘The cost of missing a face is higher than the cost of declaring a nonface to be a face.’
Dr. Sinha of M.I.T., quoted in ‘Faces, Faces, Everywhere’ (NYT) 
Photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Context Camera, January 2008. The unnamed crater is about 3 km across. (via NASA)

Photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera, January 2008. The unnamed crater is about 3 km across. (via NASA/JPL/MSSS)

I had this idea for trying to write a blog post every day for a month. For no reason, really, other than I’m curious to see what will happen – aside from the quality of these posts going rapidly downhill and becoming increasingly fragmented and diary-like and resentful, and aside from you stopping reading, maybe I’ll hit something new. Or maybe 90% of these posts will be about all of my perceived injustices while bike riding. But today, at least, I will ambitiously cobble together a few thoughts on smiley faces. 

A couple of weeks ago I was following a thread on Twitter without saying anything, something I do a lot. A New Zealand radio DJ had just made a racist comment (now deleted), and then started to defend herself to all of her challengers, who rightly called her out and/or ridiculed her. This was all pretty routine, but what I found unusual was that the DJ’s tweets were festooning with smiley faces. Rather than overtones of friendliness, or being on your side, or optimism, each of her smileys seemed hostile. More at the ‘homicidal clown’ end of the smile spectrum.

It was a jolt to see the smiley being repurposed in this way, and I started thinking about the evolution of the smiley face. I realised that a snide smiley is not that unusual, since obviously the smiley face has constantly mutated through the generations: it’s been adorned with hats, Hitler moustachesblood; it’s been stretched, worn by comic book villains like Boss Smiley and the Comedian (here’s Alan Moore stabbing a smiley-face cake), made to look drugged and dead, even depicted in place of Swastikas. Late last year an employee of the National Security Agency scribbled a celebratory smiley face on a post-it note that shows a diagram of how to hack the data centres of Yahoo and Google, enabling the NSA to gather screeds of user information. The smiley’s bland, fixed contentment is a kind of blank canvas for subversion. Considering all that, it seems more unusual that it’s ever been used to express joy or optimism or jokiness at all, and that it’s emerged out of all that tumult to depict, once again, just a smiley face.

The DJ had used the archetypal smiley emoticon. I’m talking about the parenthesis and the colon here – not even a nose, an unnecessary frill – together the perfect symbol for a smiling human face. Alongside emoji, it looks old-fashioned now. Almost shrivelled. But, somehow, it’s the very blankness of that parenthesis and colon that holds all the power, and that’s why I’ve always kind of liked it. The blankness allows the meaning of the smiley to constantly mutate. It echoes the fickleness and fluidity of the expressions on people’s faces and the way that we see different things in these expressions. In some ways, I guess the ho-hum symbol of the smiley creates as much distance as it does connection, because it lacks any complexity and nuance (something that emoji attempt to address, but often end up confusing, with their ‘pouty’ faces that actually look enraged and their ‘expressionless’ faces that actually look depressed). But, depending on who I’m writing an email to or who I’m reading one from, I sometimes feel like a smiley can convey genuine, wordless pleasure, or uncertainty, or transactional friendliness. It can almost take on the persona of the person I’m talking to. In some exchanges, its eyes seem weirdly lifelike.

This is an extreme example of how desperate I am to make meaning out of nothing. And of how readily we (I) project meaning, especially affection, onto symbols and objects, hoping that they will carry our signal faithfully or that we will find what we want to find. The name for perceiving meaning where there is none is pareidolia, a type of apophenia (seeing patterns in random data). There’s a story about a Latvian psychologist named Konstantins Raudive and his ‘electronic voice phenomena’. In 1965 he tried to contact the dead using a tape recorder and microphone. He’d set up the recorder for the day and then later would go over the audio, listening for voices. For months, he heard nothing. But soon, the more he listened and his ear ‘adjusted’, he heard whispers. He thought he heard an old girlfriend, and his mother too, though they spoke in different languages. But when the media came to investigate Raudive’s findings, they couldn’t hear anything. Later psychologists who tried the same methods found that everyone heard something different when they listened to the recorder. Disappointing. But a good demonstration of pareidolia.

Lately – I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed – there’s been an explosion of interest in finding human faces in non-faces, i.e. inanimate objects, like floor mops and coat hooks and Iggy Pop’s torso (for our purposes today, inanimate). I bet people’s early encounters with the colon-parenthesis combo gave similar pangs of recognition and delight – a human face, shining out of functionality – and from then on it was impossible to see anything else. But I still wonder what’s given rise to this recent surge of interest in non-face faces. Why the competitive face-finding, which is really competitive apophenia? Imagine if it was because – this is completely fanciful and a massive stretch – we were all developing more empathy for faces that look different from our own. Imagine if it was because the regions of our brains that are highly attuned to faces – the regions that are sometimes triggered when we look at ink blots or rocky outcrops or buns or slices of toast or the moon – were becoming more sensitive, were evolving to recognise and accept more faces. The world would suddenly seem imbued with even more meaning.

The weird thing about the DJ’s smiley emoticon, though, was that I couldn’t really see it as a smile. I saw the functionality: a colon and a parenthesis. Like bits of wood with nails stuck in them.

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 5.46.48 PM

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An ordinary mind on an ordinary day

For instance, when hearing a loud metallic sound outside at night and realising that the cat is to blame, you probably wouldn’t say to yourself, “The cat has knocked the dustbin over.” Instead, you might just say, “The cat,” since that utterance contains all the information you need to express to yourself.
Charles Fernyhough, ‘Chatter box’ [preview], New Scientist, June 2013

Late last year I took on a short tutoring role, and because I hadn’t done much teaching of this kind before, I was set upon by a comprehensive range of insecurities. These always swarmed in late at night and harvested all of the rational areas of my brain. What made these nights different from other times of worry, though, was that my internal monologue was very loud, and very languagey. By this I mean that usually the monologue, or inner voice, is an incoherent blur – more like wind singing between wires than a message travelling along those wires. I can’t pick out individual words. And a lot of the time, the inner voice has no sound quality at all. It’s more like a current, something pulling at you from below. This time, full, pointed sentences were coming at me. (I shouldn’t really be calling it an internal monologue, because it took the shape of a dialogue, an exchange between my different points of view.) ‘You don’t know anything about anything, fool.’ ‘I know, I know, but I thought I did.’ The most persistent one was this: ‘You’ve got no CHARISMA … charisma … charisma … charisma …’

I knew I wasn’t going mad, but I also knew that this was becoming borderline. (Let’s pretend that there are tangible borders.) In this anxious state I would begin to imagine charisma as a measurable substance, something you could find traces of in a person’s bloodstream, or as a genetic quirk, like double-jointed elbows or hypermobility. I imagined I had cells missing. Also, in my head I started filtering through charismatic individuals I have known: like the Terminator, I would zoom in on each subject for a few seconds in order to evaluate their vital stats. And my inner voice would quickly dismiss some and affirm others as gods.

I know this all sounds quite crazy. It is hard not to sound crazy when you are talking about the voice inside your head. I’ve been thinking about inner voice a lot at the moment because I’ve been reading Charles Fernyhough’s book A Thousand Days of Wonder (or The Baby in the Mirror) – ignore the cheesy covers – and his New Scientist article ‘Chatter box’, in which he talks about the theories of the Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky on inner voice. One of Vygotsky’s theories took shape when he observed children talking to themselves while playing (and I watched my four-year-old niece doing this too, talking to herself with two voices that sounded a lot like Gollum/Smeagol; this was actually quite frightening). Vygotsky proposed that this ‘private speech’ branches out of the dialogue that children have with their parents and caregivers and other kids – but over time, that private speech goes deeper, becomes internalised, to form an inner voice. The outward mutterings turn inwards. As they do so, they become abbreviated, condensed, fragmented. They may not even resemble language at all. Vygotsky likened this state – which is really, simply, thought – to a cloud. And the inner voice transitioning to actual uttered speech, he likened to ‘a cloud shedding a shower of words’. 

I like that idea a lot, because most of the time my inner voice has cloudlike properties. I suspect it’s similar for many people. It’s a nebulous, continuously-shifting blur of responses and emotions and ideas that aren’t ready to be put into words yet, but a few of them are beginning that slow surge towards language. I like what the novelist Carl Shuker said once, about how when he was getting ready to write a novel he built up a ‘head of steam’. I have this image of this seething steam cloud at the top of Carl’s neck. 

Cloud of the Month, February (via the Cloud Appreciation Society)

Cloud of the Month for February (by the Cloud Appreciation Society)

It’s a shame that the word ‘cloud’ has been repurposed for that vast online network because it’s an excellent, if well-worn, metaphor for thought. If not a cloud, I think an inner voice is like the metallic ooze before the Terminator reconfigures into a body.

It strikes me that when my inner voice does have readily defineable words, has sentences, it’s nearly always negative and forceful, like someone shouting from a car window as they go by. One of my most terrifying experiences as a kid was thinking I could hear someone shouting inside my head, when I had a fever. I was sure that if you’d pressed your ear to my ear, you would’ve heard the shouting. My inner voice seemed to come from someone else and so it seemed alien. I’m over-simplifying, but it seems to me that negative thoughts find their way into language more easily than neutral or positive ones – that they know more words, are always first to put their hands up.

One thing I’d forgotten about London, which I remembered when I visited, is that a lot of people talk to themselves – on the street, in shops, in parks, in changing rooms. Their private mutterings have turned outward again. (It’s true that in a few cases, people who I’d thought were talking to themselves weren’t talking to themselves at all; they were talking on hands-free devices – which was interesting in itself, because it reminded me of Vygotsky’s theory that our inner speech develops out of dialogue with others.) I wonder how the filter between inner voice and outer voice wears away or breaks, and whether living in a huge city affects your ability to hear your inner voice and to discern what needs to be spoken aloud. And in fact, on a few occasions, walking around the city for hours, getting tired, I noticed I was starting to murmur very quietly to myself, usually when looking at my phone or trying to decipher a map. ‘Ohhh, what’s this, wait, idiot – hang on, ah dammit – maybe I’ll just go over here …’ It was a fragmented babble that seemed to help calm me and guide me.

This reminded me of Andrew Irving’s project New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens, in which he recorded the ‘inner dialogues’ of people in New York City in 2011. He would go up to strangers and ask, ‘This might sound like a strange question, but can I ask you what you were thinking before I stopped you?’ Some people shook their heads and kept walking, but if they didn’t (about 100 people altogether), he would ask them to put on a microphone headset attached to a digital recorder, then to say what they were thinking as he followed along behind with a camera. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, and they were free to walk wherever they liked. Even though the clips themselves are actually kind of dull, what I like about this project it that it tries to capture an individual person’s ‘cloud’ and make it a part of the city, just for one moment in time. And it also creates a portrait of one individual’s consciousness as it unfolds in a particular place and time. Like Mrs Dalloway roaming about in London, her ‘ordinary mind on an ordinary day’. 

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’ (1921)

I guess the other thing that fascinates me about this project is that anybody who does talk to themselves out loud, continuously, in the street, is usually considered crazy or drunk or stoned by passersby – someone to be ignored, someone who’s gone wrong. The New York Stories project reframes that and asks the viewer to listen to the person talking to themselves. It asks the viewer to see an artwork. I find this kind of uncomfortable for reasons I can’t quite explain yet.

Another ‘inner dialogue’ project I came across recently: I did a lot of running in London, and a friend mentioned this short film called The Runners, by Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley, in which the two directors rode a bicycle and trailer around London parks asking runners questions about their lives. The idea was that, distracted by running, perhaps people would open up to difficult questions (‘Are you in love? Who do you care about most? What do you want to do with your life?’). And they do.

In the spirit of creating more of a luminous halo of a blog post here than a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, once I had a portrait of one of my guardian angels drawn. That’s right. This happened at something called the Health and Wellbeing Expo (or something along those lines) in my town, which was held in the Civic Centre, and I went along because I wanted to get my aura photographed, which was clearly the more spectacular option, but it was ten dollars, and I only had five. You could get your guardian angel drawn for five dollars. The woman who drew the guardian angels was sitting at the wooden desk with a sketchpad and some coloured pencils, next to the stage. A few months later I would sit in that same spot in a small orchestra playing flute for a town production of The Sound of Music.

The woman told me that I had not one but five guardian angels. However, the deal was that she would draw only one. ‘Her name’s Emily,’ she told me as she began to draw the angel’s head and shoulders. Emily took shape rapidly. I can still see the picture clearly in my head. She had a prim, unsmiling, square-ish face, with heavy brows, and brown, centre-parted hair swept up into a bun. She wore a brooch at the top of her frilled collar. I remember feeling disappointed that she looked so stern and plain. I watched as the woman turned over the piece of paper and wrote a message from Emily to me. It said: ‘In both name and nature, you are Grace.’ This was also disappointing, as clearly my name wasn’t Grace. I asked the woman about the other four angels – what did they do? One was a dancer (apparently she was dancing around the whole time the woman was drawing Emily’s picture), and one was a quiet man who wore a black top hat and seemed to serve no function. There was also a jester – an actual court fool, juggling and clowning, which only now strikes me as pretty funny. I don’t remember who the last one was. But the crucial thing was that they all talked a lot, at me but mostly to each other. When you are thinking something to yourself or lying awake at night thinking, the woman told me, you are actually hearing your guardian angels. I liked this idea that my inner voice came from somewhere apart from me. And in a tenuous sort of way, if Vygotsky was right, it did: ‘Through others we become ourselves.’ That voice grew out of all the earliest dialogues, grew out of the voices of parents and grandparents and neighbours and other weird kids.

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A stick of dynamite

This blog has been very quiet lately, I know. In the last couple of months all of my confidence in writing, and in having anything of worth to say, has just been detonated. If we think of confidence as being a sperm whale – deep-diving, seldom seen by humans – imagine that the whale has become disoriented and has beached itself, and despite the community’s efforts to save the whale, it’s quietly died, and later the authorities have come along and put sticks of dynamite in the whale and exploded it. I’m not sure why this has happened. I’m not sure why I have chosen this terrible metaphor, either. It was an ignoble end.

I do have some blog posts on the boil. One of them is about the ontology of smiley faces. Brace yourselves.

In the meantime, I’ve posted a brand new poem by the poet Lee Posna. The poem is called ‘Ants’ and it’s over here under Things I Like. Lee grew up in New Jersey and lives in Paekakariki now. He’s also an essayist. I recently marvelled at his piece on hypochondria, Distant Stills In Our Lives, on the Pantograph Punch. He has a poetry chapbook forthcoming with Compound Press, a brand new Auckland-based press run by Chris Holdaway and Samuel Carey. Lee’s work is unusual and wonderful. I’m always unnerved and amazed and slightly daunted by it, in equal measure. Reading and rereading a Lee Posna poem sometimes feel like watching glass shatter over and over again – it always shatters in a different way. Whenever I hear Lee read his work aloud, I sometimes find myself thinking, ‘Wait – wait – can he really be saying these things?’ These are good signs.

This week I wrote a poem too, for the first time in about a year. I genuinely didn’t think it was still possible for me to write poems. I wouldn’t have written one if I hadn’t been asked to do it, but I’m glad I was. The poem was in response to Colin McCahon’s late beach-painting Walk (series C), which is on display at Te Papa at the moment. (I’ll be reading my poem there in about a month’s time, along with other folk who were asked to write Walk poems.) McCahon finished the painting in 1973, a few months after the death of his friend James K. Baxter. I could look at the painting for hours, and I probably did. I’ve spent the last month in London, and it was very strange to look at that painting of a lonely Muriwai Beach, on my computer screen in my brother’s basement flat in Brixton. (I did look at some other paintings too, at the Tate and at the National Portrait Gallery and so on. By the way, I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of the deep exhaustion that is only induced by walking around art galleries. I spent a lot of time sitting down on those long squishy benches, actually panting, my heart thudding, while the fitter gallery-goers sailed by.)

Brockwell Park

Brockwell Park

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Feilding notes

IMG_2241

I went up to Feilding for a couple of days with my photographer friend Russell. We’re doing a story on the community at Kauwhata Marae, and were given permission to attend an unveiling ceremony, which happens a year after someone has passed away. The man who passed away, Paul, had rheumatic fever as a child and died after surgery to replace two heart valves. He was in his early forties. He left behind a daughter. His parents are in their sixties and he has four brothers.

-

On the drive up from Wellington, Russell tells me about a guy called Michael who he recently photographed standing in a patch of vegetation between Five Mile Bay and the Taupo airfield, where, a few years earlier, he landed after falling more than 12,000 feet from a plane. Michael was an expert skydiver who’d been skydiving for years. He was doing a fairly routine jump at Lake Taupo. When his parachute didn’t deploy, he tried to deploy the emergency one. But that didn’t open either. At that point he started spinning around and around as he fell – you can see the spinning because he had a camera attached to his helmet, and you can also hear his voice – he realised that he was going to die, so he said goodbye. As he fell he thought about trying to steer himself towards the lake, but he was falling too fast and was nearing blackout from the force. His father was a police surgeon and had told him what happened to people in high-impact accidents, so he knew exactly what would happen to him. His fall became one long, horrible, bracing for impact. But instead of concrete or grass, what caught him was a 6-foot-high thicket of shrubbery, brambles, and thorns. The thicket was like a fat thorny mattress; he crashed through, it in a tangle of parachute lines. He was still conscious when his friend, who had landed safely with his parachute, reached him – but then he blacked out. He had a punctured lung and a broken ankle and his body made a dent in the vegetation that lasted for months.

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There’s a tree on the lawn of Kauwhata Marae that’s filled with kids. It’s one of those trees that seems to have multiple trunks, with long grass and flowers growing in the middle of it, so kids can play in its base before clambering up into the spangly branches. The whole tree is lurching crazily. Kids carry other kids. A couple of kids carry babies. The babies look unfazed at being carried up into the tree by people only a bit taller than them. One kid carries a tiny radio that plays scratchy music from out of the tree. He leaps from branch to branch. The poor tree is losing it. Down on the lawn, the adults sit around talking and shouting and smoking. ‘That’s a good tree, isn’t it,’ says one of the elders, when he sees me watching the kids in the tree. ‘Been there for I don’t know how long. Friendly tree.’

One of Paul’s brothers, Rangi, has seen me writing in my notebook and wants me to write a story about his sexual conquests. ‘Call it, Rangi’s Conquests!’ He and two others tell me a story about when the teenage Rangi tricked his parents into thinking he was going eeling at night, but really he was going out to kiss girls. Then I get into a long, stumbling conversation with an old friend of Paul’s, Bruce, who has a straggly walrus moustache and slightly unfocused eyes. He tells me about how much he is looking forward to the ham tournament that year. I nod along and it takes me a while to work up the nerve to ask exactly what a ham tournament is. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s a golf tournament where if you win you get a ham. Ham tournament, that’s right.’ He’s nodding, as if I’ve just explained to him what a ham tournament is.

There is a lot of sitting and standing around, here, in the sun, in a big group. I feel my anxiety building, and this makes me feel suddenly, deeply (and probably indulgently) sad. I realise that I’ve portioned almost all of my life into defined blocks of time, and ‘socialising time’ is always followed by a solid stint of being by myself. Doing nothing for a long time with a lot of other people feels like using a muscle I’ve forgotten, the social equivalent of staggering around with a dead leg hoping no one will notice.

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Naomi, eight, has an asymmetrical haircut and a toothache. ‘Mum keeps forgetting to ring the dentist.’ She swings between laughter and whole-hearted misery because of her sore tooth. She’s the daughter of one of Paul’s brothers. When I’m in the wharenui, writing in my notebook, mostly because I’ve run out of steam and feel too shy to keep talking to everyone, she sits next to me. Because I wasn’t quick enough, I’ve ended up with the mattress right next to the deceased man Paul’s empty mattress – there’s a photo of him in a frame propped against a pillow. Naomi strokes the photo and says, ‘Hello Paul.’ Then she asks me to sing something, and we battle about this for around twenty minutes. ‘Aue, please! I’ll sing if you sing. What if we go over to that corner where no one can hear?’ ‘No, I just really don’t want to sing. I only sing when there’s no one around.’ ‘But what if I block my ears?’ ‘Then there’s no point.’ ‘What if you sing some Miley Cyrus? I don’t know what it’s called, but that song. I really like that song.’ ‘I don’t like Miley Cyrus that much. You can sing that song, though, if you want, and I’ll listen.’ She starts half-laughing, half-singing, then buries her head in a pillow. ‘I can’t do it!’ This conversation is repeated several times. Whenever I sit down outside the wharenui to put on my shoes she sits next to me. ‘Do those shoes really fit your feet?’ She hugs me a lot. ‘You’re warm. Have you been sitting the sun?’ When we sit down after being welcomed back onto the marae, after the unveiling of Paul’s headstone at the cemetery, she sits next to me and presents a crumpled cleansing wipe like one you’d get on a plane. She wipes my hands with it and grins up at me. Then, during the speeches, she wipes my bare legs, meticulously, as if she’s dusting furniture. I can’t really do anything so I just sit there being wiped.

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Probably the oddest thing for me is nobody asking who I am or what I’m doing there. There is an almost eerie openness. If you see someone who you haven’t met yet, they come up and kiss you or hongi you. I haven’t done this kind of intensive greeting in years and the first time, when we’re all lined up on the Friday afternoon, I get confused and move the wrong way and end up kissing an elder on the lips. He doesn’t even flinch.

Even the rooster that the kids find down by the river (‘go down to the river, come back with a rooster!’) and bring back to the marae seems unfazed. It sits in the arms of a young boy, chortling quietly, as all of the kids fuss over it.

There’s a transgender teenager, one of Paul’s nieces, who wears a black beanie over long wings of jet-black hair that she constantly strokes. Her face is pale with powder and she has beautiful bright red lipstick. At the cemetery, after the unveiling ceremony, when people are standing around drinking from cups of homebrew and listening to music from a car stereo (‘Proud Mary’), she sips from her cup and talks behind her hands to her friends. When she sees me looking, she gives me the thumbs up.


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The little kid who had the radio in the tree – he’d be about six – asks me where everyone went in their cars, and how come he got left behind. He’s wearing red Speed Racer pyjama pants and has bare feet. ‘We went up to the cemetery for the unveiling of Paul’s headstone,’ I tell him. ‘Oh is that the cemetery at Bunnythorpe?’ ‘Yes, that one.’ ‘Oh that’s where my mum’s buried!’ he tells me. ‘And my granddad, my granddad’s buried there too.’ He runs off waving his radio.

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One of the elders, Ben, and I are sitting under a corrugated iron shelter out the back of the kitchen. Above us is a row of dull metal hooks, where earlier, wild pigs have been hanging to be gutted. Ben is drinking Tui pale ale from a plastic cup – there’s a chiller filled with it. ‘I seen you walking around with that notebook,’ he says, ‘and I thought to myself she must be writing something.’

Ben has been going to exercise classes to help him with his breathing. He gave up smoking about sixteen years ago; before then he had smoked for most of his life. ‘You must be a lot better than you would’ve been if you’d kept smoking?’ I say. He says, ‘Oh, no. I’m worse. It’s the giving up that did it. The shock.’ But he says he’s been a lot better since starting the exercise classes. ‘St. John’s come and pick me up on Tuesdays and Thursdays and take me there and then they bring me home.’ He feels sorry for some of the other people there. Some of them are in wheelchairs, some can’t move around much, and some have worse emphysema than he does. ‘They say, “Ben, why are you here? You’re healthy as!” But it helps me a lot, so, I keep going.’ Ben would be in his seventies, I think. He wears blue sunglasses and a duffel coat, and he agrees with everything you say: ‘That’s right, that’s right.’ He used to be a jockey, then he got a bit too heavy so he started sheep shearing.

Everywhere there’s smoke. Smoke coming off the hangi in white sheets just after they light it. Smoke is pouring out of the portable fire inside a tin near the shelter where we’re sitting. And nearly everyone’s smoking constantly, except Ben. They poke their cigarettes into the fire to light them. Between drags, the wind picks up the smoke trails. The smoke blows everywhere: into the clean teatowels on the washing line, into the men standing around the hangi in gumboots, into Ben and I sitting on the bench under the pig hooks.

Ben tells me that everyone here has their whenua and pito (placenta and umbilical cord) buried in the land around the marae. One of his nieces was born in Perth but she had hers sent back in a tupperware container and buried here. He says they’re thinking about creating a virtual marae – ‘marae in the sky!’ – for people living overseas to visit online. Some people won’t like the technology thing, though. ‘I can’t even really use this bloody cellphone,’ says Ben, pulling a Nokia out of his pocket. ‘Stupid thing, don’t even know how to answer it! Hello? Hello? Can’t even turn it off!’

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Paul’s daughter is often carrying around a big stuffed dog (or a wolf, I’m not sure) with matted fur and a weird pink mouth that flaps open and shut.

‘What’s his name?’ asks Russell.

She says, ‘Russell.’

Russell laughs. ‘He can’t be called Russell. I’m Russell.’

‘He’s Russell.’

Later a boy of about five shows me the picture he’s decided to get tattooed on his back one day. The design, on a sweatshirt, is a circle with swirls inside it, the logo for the club where he goes to learn jijitsu. Emblazoned underneath the logo is Russell.

When we sleep over on the marae that night, I can’t sleep except for one fragmented hour in the early morning (there’s a party out the back of the kitchen that keeps going until around five in the morning, and also everyone in the wharenui is snoring, but Russell, next to me, is definitely the loudest and most persistent) and I swear, around midnight, I hear someone hissing: ‘Russ! Where’s Russ?’

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First thing in the morning, when I’m trying to figure out how to get unnoticed to the bathroom while blind, as I’ve lost my glasses, the kids are earnestly telling ‘yo momma’ jokes. There’s no laughter in between, they’re just reciting the jokes, like times tables, sometimes finishing the punchlines for each other before moving on to the next one. They don’t direct the lines at anyone in particular – it’s as if there is one ubiquitous Mum out there, struggling away through her daily routines.

‘Your mum’s so fat she was lying on the beach and Greenpeace tried to push her back in the sea. Cos they thought she was a whale.’

‘Your mum’s so fat she makes a beeping noise when she’s going backwards.’

‘Your mum’s so fat she sat on a TV and it turned into a flat screen TV.’

Suddenly someone takes personal offence.

‘Aue, so? Least she’s got a flat screen TV.’’

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Russell is good at being on the marae. He has that photographer’s knack of fitting into places where he’s an outsider, and with his camera constantly around his neck, he has a look of authority, so people just assume he’s meant to be there. ‘You’ll need a new neck!’ a woman says to him at breakfast time, when he’s sitting there eating porridge with his camera, and there are shouts of, ’Yeah, a new neck!’

Russell has everyone – the elders, the kids, the cooks, the brothers, the in-laws, everyone – stand or sit in front of the marae in the shade of its awning, to take one group portrait. I stand off to one side. The kids do bunny-ears to each other, and make rapper poses. There are maybe seventy people crammed together, and we’re all waiting for the sun to go behind a cloud so that Russell can take the picture. ‘Once the sun is behind the cloud,’ he shouts, ‘we only have a few seconds to take the photo, so be ready.’ There begins a long commentary on what the sun is doing and how long it will take to go behind the cloud. ‘Is it going? It must be nearly behind the cloud.’ ‘Stupid sun! Fucken, get behind that cloud!’ After a few minutes of this, the light seems to ebb. I look up and the sun is moving through a holey blanket of cloud. A roar goes up. ‘Whoaaaa! The sun’s going in the cloud!’ The sun finally reaches a thicker part of the blanket, and shade briefly falls over the marae. Everyone roars again, in the shade. Russell takes the photo, and manages about three more before the sun comes out again and the group breaks and erupts out onto the lawn into the sun and the tree.

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