Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tuesday Poem: The Barn

Here, it is that we are
a breath outwards
returning, the gate –
on a slant – the paint pulling
from the wood –
closes –
we let it,
let go of the road,
the run of fences, the tin-cut
tilting hills, the world’s rim, let
the dog out to run,
and we drive
with the windows wound
down - lavender -
olive trees - cypresses.
The barn, at last. Blushes! – there
you are.

Here, it is that we are
a breath outwards
returning, and not much
more than a breath this time,
not much more than skin
and bone,
rubbed thin by all
our comings
and goings, all this
living in the light. We can see
through our scraps of selves
to paint the colour
of ox-blood wrinkling
like the skin on milk
around the double-hung
windows. In the exposed
wood, in the rot, in the rare blushing light,

here, it is – (breath outwards)
a glimpse (returning) – that time –
when paint clung so
tightly the timber groaned,
and in a stampeding wind –
a hot sun – under a welt of stars –
the barn was an instrument
filled with our spit and wild
breathing. Daughter, plump
as a pigeon,
by a tree in a bag for planting;
her brothers
snickering like ponies
on their way back from the frogpond –
their tins and string and
percussive boots.

Light is trickery.
The paint
blisters and peels,
and it’s all we can do
not to help it off.
My knuckles
on the warm wood.
I lean close –
feel it, or someone, humming.

Mary McCallum

This is a poem I worked on over the summer up at the place we call The Barn. It's ours and it's blssful   - as a place to be alone and with family, and to write. There are some photos of our summer here with a glimpse of The Barn.

The poem was written to contribute to an exhibition as part of the Fringe Festival here in Wellington. It's called Translucent Landscapes and it's opening March 1. There are 11 of us involved: a number of visual artists (including installation artists, videomedia artists etc), a composer, and me.  I have written four poems for the exhibition so far and am wondering how to present them now (follow the link to Translucent Landscapes above for some thinking on that.)

In this poem, the theme of the exhibition is concentrated around the line:  'Light is trickery' - the way light can 'show' us what's real and what's not - shining onto the present and yet somehow 'lifting' it like paint - summoning the past as real as if it's there in front of us - the paint - the wood - the paint - the wood - and the way light, too, can wear away at what's there now - 'too much living in the light' - so, again, the past comes through - bidden and unbidden ... these things preoccupy me...

At the Barn there's no internet connection - although I can use my phone when I need to. There's also no Mac computer, just an old laptop which is rather slow. So, I write a lot by hand at the Barn without interruption, which means poems written there are different somehow.

Do go and read the Paul Green poem taster at the Tuesday Poem hub - and the fascinating commentary by Helen Rickerby. Truly it's worth it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Peeling the Onion

Oh my, this book. So exquisite to hold - fat and heavy in the hand, thick creamy paper, ochre onion sketches. One of the most pleasurable books I've read in a long time for its sheer physical beauty. My pictures don't do it justice.  And the writing - also. How to do justice to that?

These are words chosen with exquisite precision and care, the words of a fabulist, an exaggerator, a storyteller, placed on the page via an Olivetti typewriter, translated, printed onto creamy paper... The writing of Nobel Laureate and 'Germany's most celebrated writer', Gunter Grass, author of a seminal novel about Nazi Germany, the disturbing, astonishing The Tin Drum.

Peeling the Onion (2006) is a memoir which covers Grass' life from birth in 1927 until the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959. In it is the revelation that shocked Germany: that Grass - only 17 and one day to become 'the conscience of the nation'  - was a member of the Waffen SS, in a tank division fighting a rearguard action in the last months of the war.

Here is one reaction when the memoir was published in 2006:

Germany - Der Tagesspiegel. Gregor Dotzauer expressed shock: "Whoever hears this, whether disbelieving or stunned, may think it is a bad joke even after seeing it in convincing black and white, both in the literary recollection and in the interview. Günter Grass, Germany's most celebrated living writer, the Nobel Prize winner, the conscience of the nation, the writer of legends, was a member of the Waffen-SS... A cheap joke of history? Or a truth whose bitterness cannot yet be fully measured? The categories flounder, because it gives rise to so many tones of meaning: for the work of Günter Grass, for his role as bearer of left-wing precepts, for the entire intellectual balance of the country, which his inner struggle and questions on foreign policy still fought out, against the backdrop of 12 long years under Hitler."

I can imagine the profound shock to the German reader. Grass knew what that would be, knew it was time to tell the truth before others told it for him, and he writes with inordinate care, skilfully revealing and obscuring at the same time - winding in and out of the onion metaphor which evokes the tricky layers of memory, shifting from first to third person, telling anecdotes as if they are stories to be told or fairytales, even, and therefore an author's enlargement of the truth. It is hard to know what exactly to trust - Grass rightly asks himself the same question.

No doubt his method of writing the memoir infuritated the German readership, but it cannot be disputed that this is memoir-writing of the most literary and astonishing of its kind, and even - paradoxically - the most honest, and that the reader is witnessing something marvellous. For who knows for sure anything of the past, of that other person - the youthful self? Does the reader want it? Need it? Or perhaps Grass is dissembling? Covering his tracks? I don't know quite honestly, and I prefer to think not.

There are stories in this beautiful book that I have repeated over and over to my family and friends - the one on the pages at left, for example, which talks of the closing months of the war and the young Grass in SS uniform with half a dozen other soldiers hiding out from the Russians in a cellar. They can hear shots outside, The cellar is full of bikes, the Sergeant tells them all to grab a bike and on his command to ride. Grass can't ride, his mother couldn't afford to buy him a bike. He gets to stay and 'cover them' with a machine gun. He can't use one but he doesn't say so. He stays. The others are mown down by machine gun-fire. Then see the picture below of Grass riding a two-seater bike with his second wife Ute. After years of not being able to ride, she gets him on the saddle, but only - safely - on the back.

 There is another wonderful 'fairytale' of a story on the pages to the right - running now, on his own, as the Russians advance. Grass is in a wood, it's dark, he can hear twigs breaking, someone's there. German or Russian? He starts to sing the first line of a German lullaby his mother sang him. Over and over he sings it, until at last a German voice answers him with the second line. It is the Lance Corporal whose name he never knows, but who - it is clear -  saves Grass' life.

It is also clear that this way of 'storytelling' his life is the way for Grass to live with what happened during the war. Who's to say there isn't more than a nugget of truth in there? Grass comes back over and over again to his unforgiveable silence, his self-centredness, and the guilt he has had to live with.

The latter part of the book unravels a little - less focused, more the winding of spools of threads - and Grass' ego starts to bother me. He asserts a nothingness at core - someone who struggles to be something - but still we are regaled with the success that seems to come at him from all directions once he's on his feet: this man can dance beautifully, play music beautifully, cook beautifully, sculpt beautifully, write beautifully. The early vulnerability of the boy at home and fighting in fairytale forests and finding his feet is more compelling, easier to bear.

However, it is in the final chapters that I liked reading about the emergence of the writer - the way words hammering Grass' brain finally pushed their way out through his skin, became poems, a novel, more novels ... The Olivetti Lettera typewriter he uses standing up, the need to leave a work rough-hewn like sculpture-in-progress so the writer doesn't mistakenly think it's finished, how he chews up the fodder of his life and makes it into fiction, a memoir.

There is a Book 2 called The Box which begins in 1960. I would like to read that too. I wonder if it is as beautiful to hold.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tuesday Poem: Summer

Check out more Tuesday Poems - most likely more wordy than this one - at Tuesday Poem hub

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 - best of books and music

Music 2011

West Coast singer Mel Parsons is one of my musical discoveries of 2011, thanks to my friend Simon Burt who had a fabulous house concert for Mel. She's got a terrific voice and presence and writes pop-edged country songs with some interesting lyrics and lovely layered arrangements. After enjoying her first album Over my Shoulder, I looked forward to Mel's second album Red Grey Blue launched in September last year. Put it this way, it didn't let me down. 

I've also enjoyed working out the bass for Mel's song 'Bones' which you can hear with some of the other Red Grey Blue songs on her website. I was interested to read there that ex-Cat Stevens bassist Bruce Lynch plays double bass for the album - and a number of other excellent musicians come along for the ride.

The Close Readers released their first album in June 2011. My friend Damien Wilkins is the songwriter, lead singer and powerhouse behind the band  - a Wellington novelist and once the member of a 1970s Lower Hutt, his songs are crunchy things with raw unexpected lyrics and a rough-around-the-edges arrangements that jangle and thrill.

You'll find all the songs here to download or go to Cuba Street's Slow Boat. 

Some other albums I've been playing and enjoying below - by no means the whole lot. 

Books 2011

[in no particular order, as they say on X-Factor - but all published in 2011]


From Under the Overcoat, Sue Orr (Random) - highly imagined, tightly written stories using classic stories from the past -  Gogol, Mansfield, Chekhov etc -  my favourite is the one based on KM's The Dollhouse using a a real estate Open House to do what KM did with a dollshouse, you have to read it! 

La Rochelle's Road by Tanya Moir (Random) - strong historical fiction set on Banks Peninsula, lovely language, well-rooted in place and apposite following the Christchurch Quake

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (    )-- some bad reviews suggesting he's overdoing his literary referencing in novels (first Virginia Woolf, now everyone from Joyce to, well, Joyce) but I liked it ... Art, New York, mid-life crisis, Joycean epiphanies, what's not to love?  

The Trouble with Fire by Fiona Kidman (Random)- short fictions in the style of Munro - with the stretch and weight of longer fiction and linked by fire in all its permutations - metaphorical or otherwise - written by a woman who knows what it is to be a woman in NZ from the 1950s onwards, her women are rooted in this country and its history and politics - gender and otherwise - they are not adrift in the limited domestic worlds so loved by short story writers.

The Beauty of the Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb - beautiful story set in Vietnam grounded in, well, humanity in all its manifestations - beautiful and otherwise - love the way the language and narrative feel weighted and grounded - a little like Gilead to read, a meditation ... and the end is that celebration of life that's so hard to achieve in fiction without seeming chocolaty. 

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (finished it this morning!) - a taut sexy read that circles as only Enright can around the carcass of family, in this case families, picking at the eyeballs, the balls, the flesh... This is the story of the adulterer and the adulteress and the victims of their coupling. Enright is astonishing in her psychology and the way she scoops out the core of the way people are - the endings of her novels are brilliant. 


Little Criminals by David Cohen (Random) - great read for those, like me who live in or near the Hutt and regularly drive past what was the Epuni Boys Home, and for those who are interested in the history of 'teen delinquency' in this country and how we've dealt with it. Wonderful writing of time and place.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal - as someone said somewhere, it's a family memoir that comes from the 'existential hum of things' and in turn becomes a history of a people that moves and horrifies.

The Violinist by Sarah Gaitanos (VUP) - the story of a woman who survived the concentration camps to be at the beginnings of our national orchestra - a stunning story of survival and the wonder of music 

The Exercise Book ed. by Bill Manhire, Ken Duncum, Damien Wilkins and Chris Price (VUP) - inspirational writing exercises from inspirational writers for use with classes or individual writers needing a pick-me-up. 


This City by Jennifer Compton (OUP) - funny, smart, quirky poems that go for the jugular, this collection was the winner of Kathleen Grattan Award, by an eccentric NZer living in Oz.      

Thicket by Anna Jackson (AUP) - deliciously subversive, unexpected, fairytale, clever, fun.
                                                              The Movie may be Slightly Different, Vincent O'Sullivan (VUP) - Andrew Johnson calls him 'the defrocked priest of New Zealand literature' - and these are more of O'Sullivans reverent irreverent poems - wonderful

In/let by Jo Thorpe (Steele Roberts) - really 2010, but right at the end of the year and being feted this year, really, textured, sensuous, joyous, intelligent poems -  LOVE THEM 

On Mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber) - tough, tender, stunning poems 

Western Line by Airini Beautrais (VUP) - poems that enchant because they are enchantments and curses and love poems and prayers and fables. Airini watches the world up close and loves the 'queer' people she sees in it - you will too. 

The Comforter by Helen Lehndorf (Seraph) - domestic and fierce in a way you don't expect, honest and emotional in a way you don't expect. Read and be surprised.

Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 by Kathleen Jones - fierce and honest,too, these are the poems of a woman holding her shoulders high through grief and tragedy and the stuff of family. 

Men Briefly Explained by Tim Jones (interactive press) - men are held up to the light with poems that are intimate and playful, smart and satirical. He focuses on the rituals and carapaces of men and the relevance of that gender in the future. An engaging and provocative read.

I'm bound to have missed something excellent off these lists. Apologies to the writers and musicians if I have. What I realise I need to do this year is try and read more fiction - and at least one classic - I was rather waylaid by poetry in 2011. 

Bring on 2012!