What I’ve been reading, etc.

Well, what a disaster. I’ve missed two days of my ludicrous self-imposed rule to write a blog post every day for a month. Technically I’m now back to square one, but I’m just going to carry on like nothing has happened. After all, nothing has happened.

I’ve had a hard time thinking straight lately. (An old creative writing tutor of mine used to say that kind of thing a lot – he’d always be ‘having a hard time’. ‘I’m having a hard time locating the voice in this poem.’ ‘I’m having a hard time making sense of that guy’s face.’ Etc. It was a nice way of saying ‘this thing here isn’t working’, kind of foisting the problem back on himself, in a way.) Anyway, in lieu of saying anything much, here’s a short selection of things I’ve been reading.

I Won’t Eat, You Can’t Make Me: This is a heartbreaking report from Japan about an isopod, named No. 1, that wouldn’t eat. It even pretended to eat to appease its human owners. This piece also contained the revelation (to me) that many Japanese teenagers have iPhone cases shaped like isopods.

I’ve just discovered the ‘Bird of the Month’ series on The Toast. I don’t know how I hadn’t come across it before. Anyway, February’s BOTM is that brainy, spooky bird wonder the raven. I really like the excerpt below, describing a bit from Poe’s poem. It is so bleak, so very bleak.

Somewhere between the 17th-century Bible-quoting raven and the secular bird above is the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poem ‘The Raven.” A ‘weak and weary’ young man sits at his desk at midnight, trying to distract himself from thoughts of his dead lover. Enter a ‘stately raven’, who answers the young man’s theological and romantic questions by repeating a single word: ‘Nevermore’.

The young man tortures himself to the point of insanity by wondering ‘what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore/ Meant in croaking “Nevermore”’ – even as he recognises that the word probably has no meaning whatsoever, and is simply something the bird happens to have picked up from his owner.

Tragically, I’ve been reading bits from The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane. It’s a terrible book. Cabane argues that charisma can be learned, that there’s a formula you can follow in order to present yourself charismatically. If you internalise this formula and adopt all of the correct behaviours, you will be believed. Her advice is to ‘stare like a lover, stand like a gorilla, speak like a preacher’. This to me sounds very difficult for anyone who is human. I have tried it (not on a person, just in the mirror, at myself). It was horrific and I do not recommend it to anyone with self-respect. Besides, even if it is true that it’s possible to learn charisma, that it’s possible to persuade others that you hold power, what happens once you are believed? Then where will you be? Where?

Here’s a good piece on Aeon, about spending four months on Mars (well, a simulated Mars, on the side of a volcano in Hawai’i), but it’s really more about boredom. There’s this bit about an explorer called Felicity Aston who skied across Antarctica. It took 59 days, and she got bored.

Because I had no one else to talk to I found that I started talking to the sun (as it was the only different thing in the landscape!), as if it was a friend accompanying me on the trip. Sometimes the sun would even answer back, asking why I was doing such a silly thing!

I hope she’s read Frank O’Hara’s true account of talking to the sun.

"When I woke up Mayakovsky he was
a lot more prompt" the Sun said
petulantly. "Most people are up
already waiting to see if I'm going
to put in an appearance."

I just tweeted this poem from Poetry Night NZ and am actually kind of miffed that at time of writing, no one has even favourited it. (Addendum: Poet Marty Smith has now favourited the poem.)

Back to Aeon: it’s great. I probably don’t read it as often as I should. I am currently steeling myself to read Twilight in the Box, about the effects of solitary confinement on the human brain.

I’m also reading Words Will Break Cement by Masha Gessen, for a book review. It’s pretty phenomenal, and I’m grappling with the question of how to articulate why. It’s always easier to find things to say when something doesn’t work. The other night I went to the launch of Kerry Donovan Brown’s first novel (it is really, really great – I edited it, so I guess I have a vested interest, but listen, it’s really good) called Lamplighter. Damien Wilkins launched the book, and one thing he said stuck with me, which was that praise always run short. It’s easier to write at length when you’re criticising. ‘You’ve written an oyster,’ he said to Kerry.

One other thing I’m dipping in and out of: Griffith Review: Pacific Highways. In a couple of weeks’ time there’s an event here that I have to read at, because I contributed an essay to the issue. Other readers are Harry Ricketts, Kate Camp, Steve Braunias, Kate De Goldi, Bernard Beckett, and Hamish Clayton (I think?). It is ridiculous how nervous I am about this event. This morning I met my two old road-trip buddies Pip and Kirsten for breakfast, and we got to talking about reading aloud at events. Pip said (I hope it’s OK that I am recounting this anecdote, Pip) that one time she was so nervous when she was reading at an event that she actually vomited. While she was reading. She vomited into her hand then had to swallow it. I have vomited before reading, but never during. I think this is incredible. It makes me respect Pip even more, if that were ever possible. So I will just remind myself that even if I vomit during reading, one day it will be far in the past and I’ll be able to tell people about it over breakfast and in some small way they’ll feel better about the future.

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I’ve been thinking about my old next-door neighbour Bob, who is long dead now. (There was another Bob, who worked at the corner shop, but I’ll get to him in another post.) There are a lot of gaps in what I remember but here are some of the pieces in between the gaps.

The time I’m thinking about in particular is when I tried to fly. It was rare in Te Kuiti to see garden stakes being tugged out of the soil and trees bending and blowing, and I distinctly remember thinking, ‘This is a good day for getting off the ground.’ So I tied a beach towel around my neck, like a cape, and lay down on the driveway. I stretched my arms and legs and waited for the wind to raise me up. I don’t remember where my brothers or my parents were. I pictured myself soaring over the bush and the treehut, trailing birds, and my cape swelling as I flew over the school field and kids from school looked up and pointed.

After a few minutes I had failed to take flight. My hands and knees were sore from pressing into the gravel. I picked myself up. All at once the wind died. The sky was the colour of old sneakers. I felt the weight of the towel pulling on my neck. When I looked over at the neighbour’s house I saw Bob grinning at me. Bob was retired, and married to Foofoo. He had been a navy man in the war, and later on he’d worked as a mechanic at Ford Motors. Every morning he came out to sit on a bench near the front door of their white house, and would stay there smoking a pipe until the sun moved away, sometimes a bit longer. He hacked out a cough and shouted, ‘No good, ay?’

I didn’t know how to talk to Bob, but I liked him a lot for some reason. He was mostly deaf and the skin on his throat was yellowish and leathery, like schnitzel. His hands shook badly and were full of veins. He’d tuck his pipe under the heel of his palm, and lean on it. He always wore grey suit pants, and if you sat beside him on the bench as I sometimes did in the mornings, you could see the knife-edges of his knees in the threadbare fabric, and that his wallet beside him was stuffed with dollar notes, like monopoly money. I wish I could remember what we talked about when we sat there, but I get the feeling it was probably me who did most of the talking. Once, when I returned home from sitting with Bob, my brother Neil was waiting on the driveway. He’d been listening. ‘When you talk to Bob, don’t say what,’ he reprimanded me. ‘Say pardon.’ Encounters with Bob often ended this way, with the sense that I was in way over my head, but still I persisted in sitting by him.

Bob was old in a way I couldn’t understand. Once he’d driven his car straight through the front wall of his house and into the kitchen. The most unusual thing about this was that no one seemed all that surprised. It just became a thing you measured time by – the time before Bob drove the car into the house, the time after Bob drove the car into the house. Bob’s wife Foofoo had blue hair and wore pastel jumpers and pearls. For the purposes of describing her, I wish she’d had other distinguishing features. She painted watercolours – one of them was hanging in our lounge, some watery trees and a watery hill. I was nervous of her, because once when I’d stayed at her and Bob’s place while my parents were away, I’d held a silk cushion up to the glass door of the fire to warm it, and when I took it away, the silk was all burnt off. I’d hidden the cushion behind another cushion and been nervous of Foofoo ever since. She seemed like someone who could get worked up easily. She worked at the town library and was known as an ‘intrusive librarian’ – she’d refuse to let students take out the books they wanted if she thought the material was inappropriate. Apparently even the school principal, Mr Cowley, had got into arguments with her. My mother liked to tell me about when she brought me home from the hospital as a newborn, and Foofoo came running out of the house and across the driveway, wailing, ‘The baby! The baby! The baby!’ as if there had been a disaster.

This day, me and Bob were alone. I went over and sat with him on the bench. He blew smoke and gave me a yellow grin. He didn’t say anything about the towel around my neck. In fact Bob didn’t react to much with anything other than a grin. So we just sat there. Me in my cape. Him smoking.

Later that day I remember untying my cape and putting it back on the towel rail, and going into my brother JP’s bedroom to look at his Batman museum. He’d lined up miniature painted figurines in fighting positions on his bookshelf. Batman badges and stickers were also on display. On one badge, Batman was pictured with arms folded. ‘IT’S MY JOB,’ he was saying. Sometimes my mother borrowed this badge when she taught French at school. On the cover of a comic I saw Batman cradling Robin’s blood-streaked body (‘The Death of Robin’) and his black cape was like a shroud. On another Batman was landing on a roof, his cape blooming into the sky, scattering mangy pigeons.

Bob and Foofoo were the grandparents (or great-grandparents? They seemed so ancient) of a kid who was in my class at school, Blair. Sometimes, Blair, his brother, and his parents would come to visit. And a few years ago, I was in a bar, when a guy with a ghost of a familiar face came up to me. ‘Are you Ashleigh?’ It was Blair, Bob’s grandson. We shared a brief, awkward hello and then parted.


Two Bob and Foofoo notes from my mother:

‘I recall an incident when Bob must have had too much to drink. Foofoo left for Auckland in a huff and Bob tried to follow in his little red car which broke down on the motorway. He was stranded overnight in his vehicle. Very lonely time.’

‘Foofoo would work with Mrs Chapman at the library and the two of them would be so funny categorising and placing new books , saying neeeew, as they considered then discarded strategic placings.’

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On riding into things


c. 1930s, motorcycle pace-setter, via

Last week I rode into a swarm of bees. I realised I was going to ride into them a fraction of a second too late. The bees were coming out of a tree growing on the side of the road. As I rode into the bees, the bees rode into me. Each of these tiny collisions was a tiny shock, like being burnt by a very tiny, very hot hasselback potato. Then I was out the other side, unstung, but – it felt to me – now with tiny bee imprints all over my arms and legs.

Then, on Sunday, I accidentally rode into a cycling event. Miramar Peninsula from Shelly Bay to Scorching Bay had been closed off to cars, and the road was teeming with racing bikes, granny bikes, trikes, scooters, tandem bikes, BMXs. The sun was blasting out, bells were ringing, everyone was grinning. It was truly corny, like a scene from an insurance ad. It was the best event I’ve ridden into. I belonged in that mistake. 

I haven’t ridden into a river or the sea, but a friend once told me about a woman he saw on his way to work. She had clearly ridden off the side of a bridge and into the harbour. A small crowd had gathered to watch as she and her bicycle were fished out by two policemen.

I’ve ridden into countless kerbs, road cones, potholes, and tunnels. Northerlies, southerlies, gales into which it was unwise to ride, and rainstorms. I’ve ridden into an opening car door, and I have lost control and ridden directly into a crop of trees. I’ve ridden (in a Go-Kart) into a barbed wire fence strung up with rabbit skins at the bottom of a rutted hill.

The thing about riding into things is (oh god, here it comes, the part where I have to try to pretend that all of this has wider relevance) that later, it feels so great to not be riding into anything in particular. Most of us are riding into something more often than we are not riding into anything. Riding into work. Into a party. Into an argument. Into your next birthday. Into town. Into darkness. Into the Year of the Horse. Into the sunset/the morning. Into history/the future.

I’ve been going for long rides recently, and most of the way I have a fair idea whenever I’m holding someone up or some driver or other is quietly cursing me. That’s just the way cycling in Wellington is, and I’ve given up thinking that it will change anytime soon. But there are a few stretches, such as between Island Bay and Lyall Bay, where you can break out into empty road, so for a few seconds you get to speed up and spread out on the road and it’s just you and the bay, and you can finally hear your own breath, its own roar of acceleration. I seem to travel at approximately 300 km/h before a car appears to right my perspective, and during that time I become dangerously happy. The happiness is too sharp, like being kicked in the shins. And it makes me feel invincible, all tough and leathery, which is strange because it’s been drummed into me that I should always be full of fear when on a bike. It also makes me ride a lot further than I’d planned. It’s one of the few times when I’m not actively riding into anything, other than wind (and the future, obviously).

You probably remember this excellent clip of New York cyclist Casey Neistat riding into things, but here it is again.

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How are you?

Desdemona: How is’t with you, my lord?
Othello: Well, my good lady.—(aside) Oh, hardness to dissemble!—
Happy birthday Edward Gorey (via)

Happy birthday Edward Gorey (via)

On Friday I got an email from an old friend I hadn’t been in touch with for a long while. His email began:

I won’t start by saying ‘how are you?’, because to me it always sounds a bit rushed and accusatory, when you come right out with it, out of the blue. I get a little uneasy when it’s done to me. You have to earn that ‘how are you’. And then, once you’ve earned it, you tend to use it less anyway.

Do you ever have the fear that, returning to human society, you have somehow missed out on something important, like a meeting, and people have been talking about you? You open the door, someone looks up from the crossword, they ask, ‘how are you?’

Anyway, how are you?

I like this a lot because it acknowledges the difficulty while using said difficulty to arrive at the crucial question, by which point, the question feels genuine. ‘How are you’ is often a mirage of a question. It looks for all the world as if somebody is asking how you are. But if you get too close, if you approach that question openly as if you’ve found some kind of solace – maybe you pour out a few daily grievances, maybe you describe why you wish you had done things differently all those years ago, maybe you list in detail the things your brain was whirring with when you couldn’t get to sleep last night, hence feeling wretched now – the question shimmers and breaks apart before your eyes, resolving itself into a blank face. A face that only ever wanted to say ‘Hello mate’ or ‘Where have you been?’ or ‘Just tell me you’re good and then we can both leave this kitchenette without speaking any more.’

I had a flatmate who had a ‘tactic’ for when he bumped into somebody who then asked him how he was. He would only tell them what he had been doing that day. ‘I’ve just been doing a load of washing and writing some emails. Now I’m on my way to the dairy to get some milk.’ He would do this while looking at one of the person’s ears. He would lose his train of thought if he looked at their eyes. The whole interaction was based on him not quite answering the question, but seeming to, just as the question itself doesn’t quite ask its own question, but seems to.

I think my old friend is right: it’s the people who have really earned the ‘how are you’, the people with whom you share the holy grail of comfortable silences, who don’t tend to ask it very often – with them, you can plunge straight into the business of what exactly is going on here. You gravitate towards what’s important. You don’t need the harness of how-are-you to help you get down that crazy slope.

I liked Alina Simone’s NYT piece about the differences between Russian and American responses to the question ‘How are you?’. Americans will answer ‘Fine’, she writes. But were you to answer ‘Fine’ to a Russian, they will think one of two things:

(1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.

She describes being in an elevator with her Russian grandmother after asking that question. Her grandmother’s stock response:

“Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.”

I definitely veer towards more of a Russian response than an American one, but here in New Zealand I think we tend to weasel the information out of people with less direct questions, like ‘How’s things?’ or ‘How’s your day been?’ or ‘How you going?’ (That ‘going’ softens the existential nature of the question, doesn’t it – refocuses it on your progress through life. You’re going somewhere, not just loitering around, being.) Maybe as a result of this lifetime of fudging, if someone abruptly asks me ‘how or you’ I sometimes feel a bit trapped and put-upon. Like Father Dougal caught on the roundabout in his speeding milk float, it’s all too much, too soon.

But there is always a time when no other question will do. Somehow there must be a way to know when the question must be asked, and when the question has to ask exactly what it appears to.

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Questions currently circling

Hinemoana Baker is this year’s Writer in Residence at Victoria University’s IIML. As she described in her first blog post about it, she has an office and she gets paid to go in there and write. ‘There’s enough room to lie down. There are walls and windows and tui and today, a slightly damp guy with a leaf-blower.’

I loved a blog post she wrote yesterday that was simply a list of questions. Questions like:

Why, when official records pertaining to loved ones are locked in stacks or storage, does it somehow feel like the loved ones themselves are locked in there?

And why is it that when a question is written down it suddenly seems urgent? I want answers to all of these questions too. Anyway, her list kind of triggered something off for me, and I felt like writing one of my own. So, here are a few questions that I’ve noticed idly circling me for the last while. (Obviously, I am hoping that someone else will respond to this post, and someone else will respond to that post, so that ultimately a kind of Mexican wave of questions will form, not unlike that epic poem by Matthew Yeager.)

  • How is it that an inanimate object – like a sculpture of a bird, or a stuffed camel toy – can look full of such weird delight at being alive?
  • How does its maker know when they have achieved that expression?
  • When did the age that I consider ‘old’ change?
  • Why is the one childhood moment I consciously decided to remember – that is, thought to myself firmly, ‘I will remember this moment forever’ – the moment of my mother standing in the kitchen in her apron, holding a baking bowl and a spatula, having a coughing fit after eating some cake mix?
  • When was the last time I wrote a letter, before the one I wrote this week?
  • Why, when I see an old film with an animal in it (e.g. a monkey or dog), do I feel more wistful about the animal being dead now than the actors being dead now?
  • Why, when a friend begins telling me a story that they’ve told me a few times before, do I let them go on?
  • Does my old workmate Mark ever think of the time when I accidentally crushed him in the automatic doors when he was adjusting a window display?
  • Will I ever forgive myself?
  • Does the realisation that The Dead Poets Society was actually a terrible film diminish your experience of being moved by it as a 12-year-old? Does it diminish your experience of being moved by the experience of standing on your desk with your classmates, to imitate Mr Keating’s students in the movie?
  • Why are you all the way over there and why am I all the way over here?
  • Will I ever use an ordinary-sized spoon to eat with again?
  • How is it that when a seemingly intelligent, empathetic person says something cruel do they not seem to hear themselves?
  • Why do I sometimes earnestly consider constructing an anonymous space on the internet where I can ‘speak freely’?
  • Did I make that guy at the gym genuinely angry when I disagreed with his argument that water was a privilege and not a right, and that people who couldn’t afford to pay for it should die of thirst?
  • How did that guy’s day start out?
  • What were his parents like? What is he doing right now, that guy?
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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.

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.


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.


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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