Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree by Sarah Lindsay

He kept dreaming of a tree, dreaming
of a tree, dreaming of a tree
and its sound like a hush,
and it seemed he could open
his mouth when he woke and make the others
know something they didn’t already know,

his tree. But he woke and he couldn’t.
He kept thinking of a tree. He made a tree
of his arms and called to the others,
but all he could say, all they could say,
was tree, not that one, no, not here,
tree. They were hungry, shrugged and went on.

Later a leopard dragged him some distance
and left him on the remains of his back,
his plucked face tilted up, and a seed
fell on the stub of his tongue
in his open mouth. Took root,
sent a finger between his teeth

that parted his jaws with its gradual thickness
and lifted its arms full of leaves that fed
on what was in his braincase
and mixed with the sky, and made
a sound in the wind that was
almost what he wanted.

The limitations of language in communication is a theme that occurs in poetry not infrequently. Perhaps this is a little ironic given that poetry relies on language. But poets demand a lot from words, and it is no surprise that they get frustrated from time to time. To me, there is no poem that explores this theme more memorably than Sarah Lindsay’s Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree.

Mount Clutter (Grove Press Poetry) (Paperback) ~ Sarah Lindsay ( ... Cover Art
Mount Clutter 
I came across this poem on the website Poetry Daily. (No longer available there - this excellent website archives for one year only.) I had not known of Sarah before, but the poem left me stunned. I sought out more of her work, first Mount Clutter (2002), her second collection in which this poem appears, and then her 2008 collection Twigs and Knucklebones.

There are many, many poems in both books that I love. Even the titles are wondrous – Slow Butterflies in the Luminous Field, Elegy for the Quagga, Valhalla Burn Unit on the Moon Callisto are just a few. In these poems, the overriding sense that I receive is the sense of wonder, as expressed in Cheese Penguin (a poem about a penguin hatched from a cheese tin) : 'the world is large/ and without a fuss has absorbed stranger things than this.'

But in the end, when Sarah gave me permission to use one of her poems here, I couldn’t go past Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree. Not necessarily because I thought it the best of her poems, but because it was the first I encountered, and therefore had the most impact on me.

Olduvai Gorge is in Tanzania and is famous for the discovery there of early hominids and their tools.

Sarah Lindsay is an American poet from Greensboro, North Carolina. Of her collections of poetry, Primate Behavior (Grove Press 1997) was a National Book Award finalist, and Twigs and Knucklebones (Copper Canyon Press 2008) was named a "Favorite Book of 2008" by the editors of Poetry magazine.  Lindsay has also been awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize. More of her poetry can be read here.  

This week's Tuesday Poem editor is Catherine Fitchett who lives in Christchurch NZ. She wrote poems in high school but studied chemistry at university which led to several careers as a forensic scientist/toxicologist, and work in accounting. She returned to writing in 1999 and is the member of a poetry group, The Poetry Chooks, which has published The Chook Book, and Flap, The Chook Book 2. Vist her blog Still Standing on her Head, and for more Tuesday Poems enter the world of the sidebar where 30 poets from the UK, the US, Australia and NZ post poems. 

CURATOR NOTE: Catherine's city of Christchurch was devastated by a force 6.3 earthquake nearly 13 hours after this poem was posted. We send our prayers and wishes for their safety to Catherine and her family, and to the other Tuesday Poets who live there or who have family there: Helen Lowe, Andrew Bell, Joanna Preston, Kathleen Jones, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Tim Jones - there will be others; and to the whole of that shaken suffering city. Kia kaha: strength. 

PS. We've heard Helen, Joanna, Jeffrey and families are well, Kathleen's daughter and family are ok but living in a tent, Tim Jones' father and step-mother are also safe, but nothing yet on Catherine F or Andrew Bell. Any news please post a comment here. 

ALL TUESDAY POETS AND FAMILIES IN CHRISTCHURCH ARE SAFE AND WELL. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered loss or injury in the earthquake. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Poem for a Hard Time by Lorna Crozier

in a shed with screens to let in air,
a small door for them
to step in and out, not an inch
to spare. All things

in their place, particular,
the proper attention paid
so that around them
there seems a kinder light.

And then the eggs to gather,
one by one, warm in your palm.
Each tiny sun contained,
unbroken, no need for it to rise
or fall, no need for anything
to harm  you.

Lorna Crozier is a Canadian poet whose work has won numerous awards, including Governor General's Award, the Pat Lowther Poetry Award and the Canadian Authors Association. She has published twelve previous books of poetry, including a collection of selected poems, The Blue Hour of the Day. In 2009, Crozier published a memoir, Small Beneath the Sky about which Ursula le Guin said, “How rare such honesty is, and how hard-won, and radiant, and beautiful.” She has a new collection appearing in March this year, Small Mechanics.

During my year of memorising poems, 'Poem for a Hard Time' was one I memorised and it became one of my talismanic poems.  I love its crafted simplicity and the invitation to focus on small, manageable things.

You can read more about Lorna Crozier on her website.

'Poem for a Hard Time', Whetstone, McCelland and Stewart, 2005 was published here with permission. 

Catherine Bateson is this week's Tuesday Poem Guest Editor. She is an Australian poet and children's writer who has published three collections of poetry, three verse novels for young adults and numerous novels for younger readers. She teaches Professional Writing and Editing at GippsTAFE.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Poets by Janet Frame

If poets die young
they bequeath two thirds of their life to the critics
to graze and grow fat in
visionary grass.

If poets die in old age
they live their own lives
they write their own poems
they are their own might-have-been.

Young dead poets are prized comets.
The critics queue with their empty wagons ready for hitching.

Old living poets
stay faithfully camouflaged in their own sky.
It may even be forgotten they have been shining for so long.
The reminder comes upon their falling
extinguished into the earth.
The sky is empty, the sun and moon have gone away,
there are not enough street bulbs, glow-worms, fireflies to give light

and for a time it seems there will be no more stars.
This poem was one of many that Janet Frame (1924-2004) never published in her lifetime. The Pocket Mirror appeared in the late 1960s in the UK, America and New Zealand and has never been out of print, and many of the poems have become classics. 

"Poets" was first published posthumously in The Goose Bath (Random House NZ 2006; Wilkins Farago Australia 2008) and in Storms Will Tell (Bloodaxe Books UK, USA 2008).

Janet Frame showed this poem to her friend Landfall editor Charles Brasch on one of his visits to her house in Dunedin, but she refused to let him publish it. After Charles died in 1973, Janet sent a copy of the poem to another grieving friend of his, Margaret Scott. Janet described showing Charles the poem: 

"That afternoon he asked me what I’d been writing and I was bold enough to say I had written a poem and then bold enough to get it when he asked me to show it to him. This was so unlike me, for I never show things if I can help it. 
The poem was about the deaths of two poets, one in youth, the other in age. Charles liked it and suggested I send it to Landfall, which I never did, in fact I've never sent it anywhere. He liked it but he did not think it ‘wonderful’ or anything like that, nor did I, for it’s full of stupidities. We talked then about death in youth and in age, and Charles again suggested I send the poem to Landfall. He wanted people to read it and think about it. I'm sending it to you. I knew it would find its home one day."
The whole of the letter to Margaret Scott appears in Dear Charles, Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence which is a hand printed fine edition recently published by the University of Auckland's Holloway Press

Since its first publication 'Poets' has struck a chord with many readers, and I know that it has already been read out at several funerals. The self-effacing Janet Frame may well have identified 'stupidities' in the composition of the poem, according to her own impossibly high standards, but she was correct in her belief that her words might also bring comfort to those facing the realities of death. 

The poem has also been set to music by Jenny McLeod and the song based on it was first performed at the Wellington Festival of the Arts in 2008.

Pamela Gordon is this week's Tuesday Poem Guest Editor. She lives in Dunedin and works for the Janet Frame Literary Trust. The latest news from the Janet Frame Estate is posted at An Angel @ My BlogPamela has had her own poetry published in anthologies and periodicals, and occasionally takes part in poetry readings. She is currently co-editing a collection of Janet Frame's non-fiction.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Homely Ghost by Marjory Nicholls

I shall come back
Very quietly, very softly,
A little brown shadow.

I shall not come
When the moon is white like a bone,
And the house-dogs howl.
Not on a dark night
With uneasy winds,
When the ivy scratches the window,
And the paper stirs on the wall.

I shall come back
In the Autumn,
In the early twilight.
I shall wear a russet cloak
And have a basket on my arm
With red apples and brown nuts in it,
And golden honey-comb.

I shall watch the children playing
And they will not be afraid.
The old woman will just walk past and nod;
Walk past, and into the beech-wood
With its coppery leaves on the ground,
And down by the pond, and the fields
With their big yellow ricks.

I shall pass the cottage-windows –
Those with red curtains and glinting with firelight.
I shall watch the blue smoke from the chimneys
And think of the groups around the fire.
Will any be thinking of me?
I don’t mind –
I am just a little brown shadow, flitting past.

Must I leave it?
Cold and alone, must I go
Through the wilds beyond Earth
To the courts where the white angels stand
August, majestic?

Be certain, I shall come back.

This Tuesday’s poem is a classic New Zealand poem by Marjory Nicholls from her collection Thirdly.

Born in 1891, Nicholls published three collections (A Venture in Verse, Gathered Leaves and Thirdly) and had poems published in The Spike, The Reporter, C.C. Review, the New Zealand Freelance, iThe Old Clay Patch anthology under her married name Marjory Hannah, and in Quentin Pope’s Kowhai Gold anthology. She lived and travelled widely overseas to England, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, New York and India, and married John Hannah. She died in a bus stop accident in 1930. Her last published poem appeared posthumously in the New Zealand Mercury, No. 1, 1933.

Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa (PANZA) archivist Niel Wright, who republished her complete poems in two volumes through Original Books in 2009, says that ‘Nicholls was a leading New Zealand poet of the decade 1910-1920’. She was mentored by J H E Schroder who influenced among others Robin Hyde, Ruth Gilbert and Wright himself.

S. Eichelbaum stated in his foreword to Nicholls’s first volume: ‘Imaginative without being turgid, facile without being slovenly, Miss Nicholls’s verse has above all the rare distinction of a freshness and thoughtfulness, without which all verse is but body without spirit. These qualities should assure for it the warm welcome and appreciation which it certainly deserves.’

Nicholls was adept with the various rhyme schemes and dominant forms of the period, including the sonnet. She wrote beautiful poems on the changing seasons, New Zealand landscapes and the native flora and fauna of the bush. Her other subjects included domestic life, the Great War, fairy worlds, love, translations, local places she had been to (Mana, Wainuiomata) and dedications to, and observations of, people she had met. 

Some of her more memorable poems are only four lines: ‘Love in your life has flashed / Like water white down a fall - / Laughing, vivid and bright / But passing – and that was all.' (‘A Fleeting Gleam’, Wellington, 1913).

The poem I’ve selected here is ‘The Homely Ghost’ - a haunting poem that struck me at once. It almost seems prophetic in that the person in the poem, much like the poet, may come back. It certainly lives up to George Barker’s famous dictum that ‘Therefore all poems are elegies’. It seems fitting to publish it here as an introduction to her work.

Mark Pirie is Guest Editor for Tuesday Poem this week. He is an internationally published New Zealand poet, anthologist, literary critic, writer and publisher with a special interest in cricket poetry and 100 titles in the National Library. In 2010 he edited and published 'A Tingling Catch': A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009.' Mark's anthology of New Zealand Science Fiction poetry, Voyagers (IP, Brisbane), co-edited with Tuesday Poet Tim Jones, won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Collected Work 2010. His publishing company is HeadworX Publishers. Mark also helped organise the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa (PANZA), and is responsible for updating the PANZA catalogue that has around 4,000 titles including the work of Marjory Nicholls. 

Publications by Marjory Nicholls:
A Venture in Verse (Whitcombe and Tombs, 1917).
Gathered Leaves (Whitcome and Tombs, 1922).
Thirdly (H.H. Tombs, 1930).
Complete Poems in two volumes (Original Books, 2009).

Further reading:
A reading of the Aotearoa poet Marjory Lydia Nicholls (1891-1930) : an essay by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Cultural and Political Booklets, 2001.
Notes on Marjory Lydia Nicholls complete poems by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Original Books, 2009.
J H E Schroder and the poetry of E. S. and Marjory Lydia Nicholls in C.C. Review : a report on research plus some original poems by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Cultural and Political Booklets, 2010.