She’s in the market in Baghdad bending over a bushel of red onions, a handful of pistachios in one palm and the coins to pay for them in another. When she looks up to pay, she’s in a bookstore, a pile of books burdening her arms, books her far-away Americanized brother once read, books that burned her with shame, for not ever, having learned to read. She fumbles for money from her purse but stumbles over the uneven cushions her son messed up. She catches the blare of the T.V. screen, eyes trailing after images of her husband lying dead in a mosque in their new country. Her water breaks and she’s giving birth to her son, the son she had to bear, from the man she had to wed. The water in Lake Wanaka has a ghostly sheen. All its fish walled off from her and her son and her brother and… She stares, hands on the T.V. screen, fearful/fearless. She’s been trying to get her son to pray regularly in the Mosque or even in Christ’s Church. The heart is what matters? No? Where is her son in that flat screen? Or is it her brother? Or is it that fall across the threshold of a half-formed dream back home with her grandma’s tales and the painstaking cycles of knitting and embroidery, the careful rolling of vine leaves, the braids long and dark in red ribbons for unwed girls, the Henna nights and ululations for the new bride watching herself pick olives in the blasted fields the American blew up in the war, where the moon runs and the sun chases so fast, so fast, she gasps. She wonders about the heart of things, the heart of words, the heart of Her. One could only meet God Almighty with a pure heart. Did she slow down to love right? To heart? When time is forced to run in the wrong direction, the heart is blinded by the whir of it all, by the spill of semi-formed words blazing like a kite she lost and cannot follow. She sits next to her grandma and nods when she’s asked to tell a story – a good story. When she tries to remember, her heart beats so fast, it cries for her to listen and take all the time left and the time given, to weave this tale, right from the heart.
Five of us sit, harakeke strips at our feet.
Threads of conversation tangling into a problem
Ko wai koe?
I shrug: Aua
I am the middle of them, middle aged, middling, choosing to knit not weave, my balls of black and red wool stuffed into the handbag beside my feet safe from the snag of flax leaves.
He aha ai e noho ana au?
Choosing something I can do in their company: these women, older and younger, fingers thick and soft and fast, their laughter too, tā rātou mahi making new things from old mātauranga.
We share our stories but I realise once again that my stitches, like me, are cast by te pīpīwharauroa a cuckoo bird: foreign to them, familiar to me.
While they select the leaves and join and fold and twist to create a part of a magnificent whole, the lineage of their families connected, kōmitimiti, secured in place by mountain, awa, marae,
Too late, I realise that I am
An unfinished row
A broken thread
Kāore e mau ana
Unanchored to anything certain.
Nō hea koe?
Neither here nor there
Ko wai ō tāngata?
Neither us nor them
Kei te pātai rātou anō: nō wai koe?
Neither theirs or ours
I tipu ake au i wīwā, i wāwā so
No unity for me
No iwi tribe
No family or whānauKore pungatia ki tētahi wāhi ki ētahi tāngata
No surety of every hea where I came from:
the way forward filled with
tangled, knotted narratives, te mutunga, ends
(plot) holes filled with taniwha and resentful kuia saying:
“Who are you to
kī ana i tēnei
speak that truth
claims that name?”
I pick up the wool and set the needle to dive into the knitting. It digs into my hand, pricks my thumb and I say:
Ko wai ka hua ko wai ka tohu?
‘Kaua e āwangawanga; it is no matter,’ says one, handing me her half finished weaving. ‘I started this for you. Haere tonu. Go on from here.’
I put down my needles and hold it, tēnei harakeke in my lap, her hand on mine, showing me how to join and fold and twist.
‘Keep your fingers here’, she says, ōna ringaringa pressing lightly ki waengapū the centre threads, te aho tapu. ‘This is your anchor. If you muck up, me te tīmata anō, you can always come back to this point.'
E noho ana mātou, kei te papa i ngā flax mātātara.
Pōwhīwhiwhi haere ngā miro kōrero, raru ana.
who are you?
He hikihiki pakihiwi taku whakautu: Who knows?
Kei waenganui au o rātou, kei ahua taipakeke ahau.
Kāore au te kōwhiri te raranga, ka nitiniti kē.
Ānei taku wuru whero me taku wuru pango kei roto taku kete, haumaru ana i ētahi mātātara.
why am I sitting here?
Ka taea e au te mahi nei te mahi ki a rātou: ētahi wāhine, pakeke mai, taitamāhine mai. Ko ō rātou ringaringa he mōmona, he māenene, he tere hoki. Katakata ana, their work e whakahanga ana rātou i ngā mea hou mā ngā mea tāwhito knowledge.
Ka toha mātou i ā mātou kōrero paki engari, ākuanei, ka marama anō ahau ka whakamautia aku kaui i te pīpīwhauroa the shining cuckoo.
He maitai ki mātou, he waia ki au.
Kei kōwhiri ana rātou i ngā mātātara, ā, te tūhoto, ā, te whātuitui, ā, te kārure hoki hei te whakahanga i wahanga o tētahi mea whakahira (ka whakamaua ō rātou whakapapa blended ki ō tōna maunga, river, village)
tureiti, ka marama au ko au
he raranga hukihuki,
he tui pakaru hoki
kore pungatia ki tētahi wāhi ki tētahi tāngata
Where are you from?
Kore tēnei, kore tēnā rānei
Who are your people?
Kore mātou, kore rātou rānei
They ask again: whose are you?
Ehara i te tangata.
I grew up all over the place nōreira
kāore kotahitanga maku
Kāore he tribe
kore he family Not anchored by a place or people rānei
Kore kore rawa te mōhio au nō hea place au, ā,
kore rawa te mōhio pēhea e haere tonu ai.
Nā to mea (te ara nei) ka puta mai te ara nei i ngā puna ki ngā kōrerorero pōwhīwhiwhi, the finish me ngā monster taniwha and elderly women me ngā kuia nihoniho, e kī ana
‘Ko wai koe to speak this
ki te kī tēnā kōrero pono,
te kokoraho i tēnā ingoa?’
Ka tangohia te wuru e au, ā, whakareri i ngā taputapu hei te tīmata i taku mahi nitiniti. Kei te ko ia, te oka i toku kōnui, ā, ka kī au:
Who can say?
Ko wai ka hua ko wai ka tohu?
‘Do not be anxious. He aha’, e kī ana tētahi wahine, e takoha ana ia i tona raranga hukihuki ki au. ‘Kua tīmāta au i tēnei ki koe. Haere tonu! Keep going.’
Ka tuku au i ngā taputapu, ā, ka mau au i this flax kei runga taku waewae ki tōna ringaringa kei roto tōku, ako ana ia ki au pēhea te tūhoto, ā, te whātuitui, ā, te kārure hoki
‘Kia mau o ringaringa ki reira’, e kī ana ia, romiromi ana her fingers i te pukapūtanga, the sacred first line. Ko tau toka tū moana. Mehemea ka whakahē, start again, ka hoki mai koe ki tēnei wāhi.
Hush. The heart’s rising above an unfamiliar chaos
of subjects. We must allow for poetry
of a different kind. On the late afternoon wall
paintings in the making – canvas acrobats hang
on our every word. Bare feet yield to black water.
Beyond the frame, life is a risky business.
Jack-in-the-box. Angel. Thief. Some days a blackbird
no longer at ease with the rhyme and chime
of every unknown thing. Like signs written in dust
after vultures have flown or bones a shaman rolls, tears
clatter and scatter – they fall to earth and order,
take their place in the heart’s vast chamber.
It was after I’d bought the dress for my son’s wedding that we fell into conversation. I said I’d lived in the Middle East and she said she’d heard the call to prayer was very beautiful. I nodded, thought of Alaçati just a few weeks ago, evening walks and the muzzein’s voice, soft in the darkening air.
In Lalibela, we followed early morning voices to Beta Medhane Alem. Felt ourselves drawn inside. Cold flagstones. Chanting room. Music of St Yared. Sistrums, prayer sticks, slow beat of drums. Ancient counterpoint.
She pulled my skirt, motioned to kneel. Gray ash in her small cupped hand. Drew a cross on my forehead. Disappeared. He turned pages of a leather-bound Bible, mouthed words. Right to left. Amharic. By the Holy of Holies, upstretched hands held plastic bottles. Priests poured holy water.
Outside, we walked through the crowd. Small child on a step. A woman crouched on the dusty ground, white shawl covering her head. Mother and daughter, holding a Bible between them. Down the hill. Lalibela honey with our breakfast. Still, the distant voices.
It’s a balancing act, this love thing. This I’m going to give myself to you unconditionally thing. It takes baby steps, it can’t be done in a rush, because that way is toppling, is pitching
with the hard, bone-breaking ground rushing towards you...
I can see his face, as if through the wrong end of a telescope, small and focused. He’s not moving so I know it has to be me that starts...
That pushes off so we can meet in the middle
Lower your centre of gravity, hips towards your knees. I ease out...
One foot in front of the other, clutching the balance pole as we’ve both practised. My dress is ivory silk, streamlined- no aerodynamically unhelpful flounces that could drag me down.
But I always preferred the light and uncomplicated anyway, before I met him.
I’m five foot-slides along, and there’s only me and him and the absence of sound, the sucked-in silence of 100 velvet-jacketed people holding their breath.
In the silence, the squeak of my soft leather-soled shoes echoes, the silk surrounding me murmurs like whispered confidences. I can hear him breathe with intent, like he does in the dark, gasp with every edging of his feet.
I know the wire will leave marks, strands woven together with purpose...
Every muscle is tense and engaged, the pit of my stomach, the fragile bones in my ear. I smell my citrus perfume, rubbed along the places he leaves kisses, my breastbone, the backs of my knees.
He smiles as inches closer, as he smells it too...
We fight the wire’s urge to rotate, to slip away from us but there’s no slack in this wire. We’ve tightened it with murmured confidences, with eased-out forgivings, with strands of ourselves.
It’s a balancing act, this love thing. Take baby steps, and lower your guard, and be sure of your location in space, engage all your senses and then give yourself to the pure free-falling rush...
This time we wove our own net.
A man in a high-visibility vest holds yellow cardboard with my name in upper case letters. The word he says most often: Nice.
The building I sleep in must be repaired by 2033. The man who picked me up at the Christchurch International Airport is an archaeologist.
In the morning, gingko. I blink. Hydrangea pom-poms, Go-Pros, about fifty people in high-vis vests, a boat shed that might sell gingerbread, a cathedral spire at my feet. I cannot walk through the botanic garden and not wonder about the weeding. A boy at the Ōtākaro says, ‘One of the four leaves drowned already.’
Out the pre-2033 window: six painted lips, each the size of a car, and on a bus, purple anti-vandalism signs at each seat. I am the only person on the bus.
A church of stone crumbled. Another of green wood shrank. The cathedral of neon and cardboard is protected by Armourguard.
I see two statements about love in one day. A community church billboard: Love wins (ultimately). An academic text: To talk about love is a thankless task.
At a museum, a fact I want to remember: ‘The male humpback whale sings for many reasons.’
In this place there are many of us who just don’t know what to do with ourselves.
There were five of us who had no idea what to do with ourselves until we went to Auden’s. I can safely say it is the only coffee shop in this town named for an English-American poet. It’s actually the only coffee shop in this town, but, hey, that’s enough.
It’s enough because they started playing Burt Bacharach from behind the hand-made eucalyptus counter, and we started listening to Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw and Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. And we started arguing about how to say ‘Warwick’, but we always ended up saying our own names in the wrong way or the right way and we always ended up laughing. We call Ali, the owner, W.H. because we sometimes think we’re funny and also we’re pretty sure he likes it.
Maz, who comes with Hassan – yes, we call them Maz and Haz – never dances. She sketches. She looks at the characters and the ferns and the faces in the coffee froth and wants to learn how to do them. Somehow, W.H. is always busy when she’s there. I’m sure he would teach her if he could. I’m sure he wants to teach her.
Hassan says W.H. bought the coffee shop to occupy his thoughts, to fill some gaps. Hassan says W.H. doesn’t really care about coffee, but he really cares about people. Hassan says W.H. always used to be barefoot.
During one of the dance sessions – Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Tower of Strength’ is being played on the original seven inches of vinyl – W.H. tells us he lost his wife. He says only, “I lost my wife” and “I loved her.” I put my hand on his shoulder. We order more coffees. We never order more coffees. Martin has a flat white and picks up everybody’s tab. This is news.
The week Aretha Franklin died we didn’t dance. Martin tried, but it wasn’t happening. We bought our coffees but we couldn’t drink them. We held the cups. It was enough that we came to Auden’s and we tried to smile at each other. We just about got there.
We’ve been going for eighteen months when W.H. gets up and dances. Jackie DeShannon is singing ‘What the World Needs Now’. W.H. dances and he sings. We all get up, with Maz leading the way. W.H. says he’ll show her how to do a heart and a dancer in the coffee foam. He takes off his shoes.
Girl takes the yellow chalk from the cardboard box lying on its side in the shadow of the brick wall of the school. Beyond the large square of pavement she can see the backs of the officers visible through the chain fencing. They are spaced evenly, every few yards, facing forwards unless she is to yell, or make any other sound loud enough for them to hear her. Girl loves to draw, twirl, and also to yell at the officers, things in her native tongue which mean nothing much to them, just small person noise. They check on her by turning their heads, and then they turn back around. To them she is Girl and nothing more, no other name needed, or at least this is what she assumes because they don’t ask her name, or give her theirs. When her turn is over in a few minutes’ time the next one will also be Girl, and then Boy, Boy, and so on, until everyone has had their air.
With the chalk, Girl writes her name, Maitea, in a free space on the blacktop. They are allowed to write as long as the words aren’t bad, and Maitea knows her name means love, or at least that’s what her father told her when she’d climbed up into his lap so that he could detangle her hair with a comb that first morning after breakfast, after her mother had been called away.
She wonders how the others carry love, when it is not in their name. This bothers her, but she doesn’t have the words in any language (yet) to begin exploring or making sense of these ideas.
A breeze kicks up and the few trees out along the road begin to stir. The chalk in her hand moves across the ground, bumpy and imperfect in its path. Maitea is drawing what looks to be a large teardrop outlined in yellow, which she then quickly shades, as there isn’t much time left for her out here. She draws another, then another – out, arc, and back again, with a quick shade – many of them, scattered randomly across the tar where she can find room. They look like enormous drops of rain that have fallen sideways, tears of a giant or perhaps a God.
The wind nips at the shapes in chalk, and begins carefully lifting their edges, rippling them a little and then still more before loosening the entire shapes and spinning them into the air. Up, up they go. Maitea glances back at the teacher, who has opened the glass door and has a hand to her mouth. The teardrops begin to shuffle, and instead of falling back down they begin to join, to make way for each other, their tapered ends adhering together in the center of what is now a giant yellow flower – can you picture it spinning? The officers turn, some with guns raised, and one shouts, “Who did this?”
This man has a job overnight to move the flowers from the road. He wears a high-vis vest and lifts bunches in his arms as if they are newborns, carries them to the fence, and lays them down. Sometimes a card falls out. Kia kaha. No one is alone here in this grief.
This woman lifts a child, gentle because there are holes in four-year-old flesh. She lays the child on a gurney, wheels her to a helicopter. They rise into a leaden sky.
This man’s machine bites soil and still there is more digging to be done. He wipes grime from his forehead and looks up to the weighted clouds and longs to go home to his children and hold them because this digging is not for his family but the graves are for fathers and mothers and daughters and sons.
This woman, this man are teachers. When the children go home they realise they have not been aware all day of the sky.
This woman demonstrates kindness and kaitiakitanga and resolve to the world while back home her daughter takes her first crawling steps.
These ones were first responders and their arms ache from the lifting.
These ones are parents and their arms ache from the lifting.
This place of work, this dairy, opens its doors and a brother has a job to do, to keep food on the table of his brother’s family. He lifts the crates. He greets the customers. Hello, brother. Welcome.
This place of work has no one here. There are flowers at the door. There are signs.
This woman examines the bodies.
This man examines the bodies.
This man removes the shattered glass and lifts a clear pane into place.
This man lifts carpet still wet with blood.
This woman stands outside, watchful. There is a gun across her body, hard upon her hip. She wears a uniform of blue and a flower and a hijab. The gun is hard against her hip. When she removes it at the end of her shift it is heavy in her hand. It is hard against her hand.
This woman washes her cousin. This woman washes her husband. This woman washes her son.
This man lifts his uncle. This man lifts his friend. This man lifts his wife.
The tide is out when we arrive at the bay so we roll up our shorts and wade through warm water to the shore. The two Omani crew members and Mohammed carry all the camping equipment to the beach then the Omanis board the boat again, leaving Mohammed and us behind. I’m relieved they don’t call out, “Merry Christmas.”
Honey-coloured mountains rise behind the white sand and luminous sea. From the top of a high rock we can see the lights of the city. Jewels in Aladdin’s cave. And we think of the blue and gold minarets, the palaces, the forts, the old white-latticed houses by the harbour, the market crammed with black-clad women and white-robed men, the clamour of voices, the seductive drift of frankincense. We tell each other we made the right choice in coming here to work in this strange land. We say it helps. But from that place to this lies a long curve of empty beach, keening seagulls, an empty sky and an empty ocean. We might be the only people on earth.
There’s Mohammed stacking driftwood as violet light floods the sky. Within minutes he’s wrapped in darkness until he lights the fire and we see him silhouetted like a shadow-puppet in red and gold flames. As we clamber down the rock, a couple of fishing boats arrive. The fishermen wave, call to Mohammed, set their nets and take off again, soon swallowed by the night. The wake of their boat agitates the algae and sets off sparks of luminescence that edge each wave with silver. Rob grabs my hand and pulls me laughing into the sea. Our bodies are coated with tiny silver stars. We swim in stars.
When I wake up, the world is monochrome. Rob is already in the sea and Mohammed is boiling water on the fire for coffee. The fishermen who’d set the nets return to collect them. They wave and sail away. The sun is not yet up behind the mountains, but amber light has begun to stain the peaks. Crabs run about digging frantically, the males leaving towers of sand to attract females. Tiny pink shells lie scattered along the beach, glittering like rubies. The sea is a mirror of the sky. I run in and shatter clouds. The sun rolls over the mountains, painting the sea with light. We swim in liquid gold.
Mohammed waves to let us know he has breakfast ready – fresh croissants, hot coffee and mince pies. “Merry Christmas!” he shouts in heavily-accented English, looking pleased with himself. Hoping that’s exactly what we want to hear.
Rob puts his arm around my shoulders. They’re just words, he says. They’re not her saddles gathering dust in the barn. They’re not her ashes in the earth. They’re shadows on a foreign beach, a crackling fire, the smell of coffee, an indigo sea. They’re Mohammed’s gift to us. We say the words back to him.
Previously published in Peacock Journal, October 2017
We are walking from their apartment. Up a steep street in the sweltering heat. She is due. Her stomach is wide, round, the baby’s head engaged. Food couriers whizz by with chicken dishes for locals. We find an allotment behind a school, in a valley, overlooked by the mountains and powerlines. None of us knew it was here. There is clover to entice the bees, tomatoes staked and beans already sprouting. We talk about bringing the compost here to share.
We can bring baby here when she is born, I say. Her mother is both excited and a little frightened. I grew up, she tells me, in the countryside, but you know, we didn’t have bugs and things. I lived in an apartment. She waves away what might be a sandfly or mosquito, but possibly her imagination. We speak of the labour to come. Our language inhibits us. Instead, we breathe together. Breathing, we agree, will help the baby to arrive. I’m not sure she is convinced.
I am a Halmoni, the Korean word for grandmother. This baby is not my first grandchild. The other granddaughter lives in New Zealand and she will turn 11, just a week or so after this baby is born. I am reminded of her birth, of my love for her and of my own journey as a young mother, without a mother.
Here in Korea, the mother is mothered. My daughter-in-law is well supported. We have travelled from New Zealand to be here for four months, to be helpful. I’ve taken leave from my paid job. Her own mother is also a working woman and spends the weekends making nutritious food for a feeding mother. Seaweed soup, chicken porridge, foods that comfort as well as contribute. I am out of my depth. My daughter-in-law craves the food of her childhood. I can make chicken soup with a fresh chicken from the market. But there are family recipes and rituals I can never replicate.
So, I bring my love in my suitcase. I haven’t changed a baby’s nappy since the father of this child was a baby. Back then, I had two lads in nappies, cloth nappies. It surprises me to remember. Before this baby arrived, the parents invested in outers for cloth nappies. We nodded in approval.
Now that baby is here, we are using disposable nappies. I cry a little with the emotion of being trusted with this new day-old baby, to hold her, even though my son ensures I have advice about how to hold her fragile head. He checks, initially, whenever he passes his daughter to me, that I understand the way to hold her. And then he is back at work, and I am trusted with her lovely head and warming her bottle between feeds from her mother.
Oleaginous, perhaps to some, all that
olive idolising, yeah? Of over-egging the oval?
Oh, but I cannot be stopped. There’s
the olive olfactory awesomeness
of lemons, brine, sunshine,
under old olive trees of Palestine.
Also, olive’s auditory riffs:
O live. Oh leave. Oh love. All if. All live. All love.
My haul of olives, my allusively olive olives....
My hall of olives: Elaia, ancient Greek. Olivia, Latinate.
Olyffe, medieval. Olive Oyl, cartoon.
Ollie, diminutive of
Olive. Grandma. The olive love of my life,
my olive apple of my olive eye.
Born with a caul, but ovoid Olive revived.
First war, second war. Olive drab. Olive stolid.
Bitter fruit. The pits.
Then olive victory, abundance, tinned black olives from Spain.
An Olivetti typewriter. Palmolive soap.
When Angelica’s baby was born, she exulted in his perfection. She gave one last push and he slipped out like a small water animal, a seal perhaps, or an otter. But there was no fur.
She held his waxy pink body to her and wished to never let go.
“His eyes won’t stay blue,” they told her.
And sure enough, in a few weeks they were tawny yellow.
When the nubs appeared on his shoulder blades, she wrapped him tight in a blanket so they couldn’t be felt through his baby-grow.
She tied his socks on tightly when his toenails turned into little claws.
When the feathers started to grow, she knew she would lose him. One day he was gone.
In the darkness, she hears the moreporks call. Each night, the scraping of talons at the glass. Each morning, a dead mouse on the window ledge.
We never take guys home when we go clubbing. We just kiss them and disappear into the heat of the dancefloor, leaving them parched. We laugh about it during the midnight stumble back home, a three-legged race clutching our purses and fake IDs to our little chests. We’re so small and skinny we have to rub each other to keep warm.
She has these faint hairs all along her arms; a kind of golden down that I can only really see when the light catches, or if I turn her hand over after kissing her wrist. I see them at dawn, when she’s asleep against me. In these close-up moments, all I need is the glow of a single lamp, or a string of fairy lights above the bed, to make out these details. Or my mouth, if it’s dark; if we’ve pulled down the blinds and she’s peeled off her blouse, and I have to feel my way through the sheets to find the peach fuzz of her forearm, her inner thigh...
But she’s made it clear, that was a one-off. It was just practice, a kind of rehearsal. Playing pretend.
But I remember, too, when we were fourteen, another rehearsal: French kissing before her first date. There was a moment, after our tongues unwound, our lips split, and I could see the burst of hazel within the blue of her left iris. And I felt like I had never seen anything so clean and pure in my life.
They decided to rent out the farmhouse to the daughter of their best friends. The young woman had been a charming, mischievous child always twisted around her mother’s legs, and had studied agriculture before moving away to Jordan to work on irrigation projects. She and her Jordanian husband were now expecting their first child.
As best as they could, they removed mementos and personal artefacts from the rooms, using their son’s study to store crates that were sealed just in case.
They handed over the keys to the slight woman with her belly just beginning the show, and the handsome man with waves of black hair and erudite glasses. They felt reassured in the face of such purity, that their house would be looked after and loved.
They moved back to Paris where they had begun their lives together many years ago, feeling denuded and carefree as students. They had always kept this tiny apartment, and it was a good thing too. When their own son was at university he had stayed here, and it had served through the periods when their marriage had been strained, when either had gone there to breathe and revive, sometimes taking lovers there to fuck and discard, for they were bound to one another.
Free of decor, with its squeaky herringbone wooden floors, the apartment showed no record of their lives, so they were as guests. They resumed heady lovemaking on the mattress their son had left there, especially through the long mornings when the city revolved around them. The man found that his erections were sturdy and ongoing; the woman’s parts were bathed and her breasts heaved in burning peaks.
In the afternoons the man wrote his articles and the woman strolled to the river from where she would call him, describing people or birds.
Halfway through the summer the young Jordanian husband called. He said that his wife had lost the baby – the tiny girl had died inside of her – and they wished to leave the farmhouse. He said that his wife was broken and they could stay in that place no longer. She was coming home from the hospital tomorrow. He was presently sleeping in a hotel.
He said they wanted no refund for the rent, just to be away from there. If there was a place they could leave the keys?
The call ended and the man resumed his work. When it was complete, he walked through the rooms of the apartment with its blank walls and on one of the walls he placed his open palms and leaned his body weight and dropped his head. He thought of the empty farmhouse with its verdant summer growth, the cries that rang out after dark and his wife’s slumbering beside him, how there were nights when there was a quickened tampering in his heart and he would go downstairs onto the terrace, feel warm drifts from the woods like the hands that would take him.
An embryo of light bathed in amniotic fluid –
sun captured within the sky’s womb of cloud,
trying to grow its way out.
No legend of gold chariot hoist by stallions
but a speck of cells no bigger than a lentil –
not much more than a possibility
yet containing in spiraled DNA
the unique footprint
of the foot from whose tiny heel
he will receive the first prick of pain
after the churning thrust of the uterus,
the cervix stretching open,
The first time I truly noticed the weight of love was early in the new millennium, at sunrise along a dusty footpath next to a river in central Mozambique. This burden of love was not some form of emotional strain; it was love as a calculable mass – in this case, a kilogram for every litre of water, carried on the heads of women wrapped in varicoloured capulanas, their neck muscles strengthened since childhood to support plastic containers of ten, fifteen, twenty or more litres. Some also carried infants, still fast asleep, wrapped warm and tight against their backs. I was there on an archaeological survey project while also nursing an aching hole in my chest that leaked into my head and hounded my mind. To try and escape this private torment I had taken to walking long distances at dawn and dusk, striking out along narrow tracks leading past villages, the air filled with woodsmoke, children laughing, and rowdy skirmishes between chickens.
We greeted in Portuguese as they passed, and I realised that some of this water was coming to our research camp: weeks before we had employed a number of local women to keep us supplied for washing and cooking. This meant extra trips for them, additional barefoot kilometres every day to supply us and their families with one of the true essentials for living. It also occurred to me that here is an expression of love so fundamental, so pragmatic that, even though I doubt he ever pictured this scene when he composed the poem, fits better than any other with the opening of Allen Ginsberg’s Song:
The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
Almost two decades later I visited this place again. The river and the women are still there, only now it is the infants I first saw wrapped snug against their mothers who are doing the carrying. There was something about this continuity that left me both comforted and despondent. This time I watched them in the late afternoon, with the closing rays of the setting sun a golden swirl caught in the dust being kicked up by an NGO’s brand new four-wheel drive, the women blinking against the dust as the vehicle’s occupants smiled and waved.
And my older self had to admit I had romanticised this carrying of water; that it is not necessarily something these women have chosen, or would choose for themselves, and that not having reliable access to clean and safe water keeps millions trapped. I had been observing them and their burden through privileged and quixotic eyes those years ago. But I also felt that my updated awareness made their heavy burden of love that they carry – this everyday expression of the most mistreated word in the English language – no less real. And no less heroic.
Time to go out to talk to the sunflowers, still visible through the white morning’s
mist. Close in, against the dark soil, each bloom gleams like the fired gold of a
baritone sax inside the velvet lining of its case. Jackie says she loves the French for
sunflowers; a phrase which travels two ways, like the word itself. Tournesol; flowers
that turn towards the sun; flowers that turn the sun into flowers. Tournesol, they
stand as a turnstile between seasons; between looking too far inward, and turning
out to the city shivering in its thin, bright fabrics.
It is so hard to be a good human in all the ways.
Listen to what the sunflowers have to say. There is wisdom in their quiet faces.
My aunt says her grandson names her sunflowers: Tom, Tomasina, Little Tommy,
Little D. So perhaps he agrees. He waters and waters their dark hearts, as if water
were love and there could be no drowning in that. My own quiet sunpeople turn
and seem to gaze this way. One is a black and watchful eye fringed with golden
lashes. These others bow their brown cheeks, humble and furred as bees, deep
in the meditation of plants. See the fingerprint whorl in the tawny deeps of this
one; the curled petals of another, as if it retracts from some sting, a spurned child
nursing itself. This other, a mother, hip-swaying, with diaphanous skirts whirling,
as, with the hours, the sun leans lower through the mist. Here, a green, spiky little
sister, still no bigger than a locket. There, a grandmother who might exclaim,
‘Little rays of sunshine!’ as she flings a meal’s unused cutlery back into the drawer,
the blades and tines spinning light to the ceiling as they fall. Yet another, a solemn
grandfather, eyes cast down to his broad hands rough as emery boards as they
worry at each other, their green veins delicately fuzzed with white prickles. And
this one, cartwheeling on its leggy stem, like a seven-year-old allowed to rough it
up again, now his arm is three weeks out of a cast, joy whirling his ragamuffin hair
in a shaggy corona.
It is so hard to be a good human in all the ways.
The sunflowers cluster. They say gather the lustre of yourself and each other. They
say burnish and finish and gleam, one to the other. The air around us now is
ticking loud with late cicadas and crickets. All my sunpeople and I are the toothed
cogs in a shimmering clock, letting time turn us, turn us, together.
From To the Occupants (Otago University Press, May 2019)
The Kauri as Metaphor for Love (after Amelia Gray)
The giant kauri is incredibly resilient. As they watch centuries slide by, their thick skin is constantly shedding: sloughing off parasites, dissent and difference, the hurts last winter brought. You cannot dent these trees. If you drill into its side its amber-coloured resin will seal the wound. The sap is antibacterial, fungicidal: nail a hateful message to the trunk and this sap will entomb it like an insect. Your hate will hang there in golden droplets and slowly the kauri’s alchemy will turn it into sunshine.
Kauri do their finest work underground. Although they stand aloof, beneath the soil they are connected in a complex hive. Their roots treat the soil so that when seeds rain from the canopy, in summer, more kauri will unfurl and thrive. They touch roots with one another; build fungal networks to befriend and speak. Young kauri are known to exchange explicit messages before greater maturity develops. At dawn the trees sing in a complex, multi-layered choir: their voices like whales’, the groan-squeak of the truly ancient.
And much depends on them. In their swaying branches, orchids bloom. Each tree holds whole families in its crown, entire hillsides under its feet. Pity those who must get by with the dry monocultural needles of a pine forest: kauri-poor areas are known to experience far less joy.
Lately kauri have been dying. Lesions blight their sides; dead branches crack like gunshot. The pathogen, likely imported, attacks the kauri’s roots, using its own beautiful networks against it. Here kauri remain vulnerable; they have not evolved to cope with a world where harm can so easily be ingested. The spores have no clear intent and know no borders. They travel in surface water, inching from tree to tree. It is hard to believe something viral, invisible, can do so much damage.
The worst thing is that, by the time you realise, it is too late to stop it. You can inject the dying trees with phosphyte but it is a bit like throwing an Eftpos machine at a murderer’s head: you are heroic but outgunned.
As you express sorrow, consider the possibility of your own complicity. Few of us come to this forest with clean soles. Have you left the spores of hate lying carelessly at a kauri’s feet? Might you have trampled its pūkahukahu, the litter mound that protects its delicate feeder roots? The damage our ancestors did was more visible: kauri hacked, burned, scaled with sharp-pointed boots, robbed of their seeds, bled like slaves of their resin. But today kauri die of our negligence, of tiny wrong steps, and that is harder to spot.
There is not really a happy ending to kauri dieback It’s a sad story. We could claim perhaps that brave new life will spring from these stands of fallen giants. But our innocence is over. The pathogen is among us: Phytophthora agathidicida – kauri killer. We hold our breaths, try not to speak its name; even a whisper may spread it further.
After decades of postcards in the language of the wind
Earth is dark sweet moist and I am cloaked with hurricane
Home is the colour of pomegranate, groves of yellow peach bursting
Dense violet red tamarillos pitted black, soft ripe fig territories
Tastes of thick black coffee in a late downpour
Egretta matuku descend from horizons of awkward lines
Entering our hearts memory and fertility curves
With signals from future moons and storm
Surfaces on a wet night humid under sheets
Where there is room for everybody
the country you are being sent to is at the end of the earth/ you are processed at Mangere before you are allowed any further/ in Mangere they teach you how to eat a New Zealand steak/ when you were used to plantain/ then they send you down south in midwinter/ so you must wear layers of clothes/ and people give you the knitted things/ and tell you to wear them on your hands/ you invite
your new friend to lunch/ she eats a little of the mashed plantain/ white sugar
frosting snow in the front yard/ squeaks when you walk on it/ dust to dust and snow to water/ and finally/ someone understands something you said
From The Cheese and Onion Sandwich and other New Zealand Icons: Prose Poems (Seraph Press)
Too hot, too much rain, humidity so high the dirt sweats. The nasturtiums can’t spread their legs. Cornflowers bloom, brown, stay dead. Cosmos too. So much of what I planted hasn’t prospered, but that’s nothing new. Exceptions: a plant I can’t confirm as weed or waiting flower. Five feet high, serrated leaves, small pinkish phallus-shaped buds. Inside’s a mystery, but the wasps are interested, and the ants, cankering the tops with their aphid farms. Maybe the plant’s slow to bloom, a furled feast for birds and bees. Maybe it’s pernicious, like wild parsnip, which sounds inviting and wholesome, but means to make you suffer. Then there’s another something, shorter, lighter, ending in feathery leaves with excruciatingly small white flowers at the very tips. Enough air between each flimsy part I’m convinced if I dropped it in the sea, it’d wriggle down deep, turn transparent, light itself from within. And today I found two clumps of what we used to call sweet clover when we were kids, even though the buds burst lemon between tongue and palate. Crushed potential’s heady taste. But I’ve just learned the plant’s a kind of wood sorrel, oxalis. I recognize the name. In the cemetery we love, where we never found the owl, where the turkeys gabbled across the graves, where a blue heron stalked the spawning frogs, we walked Oxalis Path, read its names. Oxalis: I imagined something grander, a wash of color climbing a trellis, at least. Not something a toothless child plucks to feel a forager. About the cornflowers: they could be my fault. I didn’t deadhead them. You know how sometimes I can’t do what needs to be done.
Suzy says she doesn’t believe in love. She says this as she Googles how to mend a broken heart. It’s like anything else that breaks I reckon – my phone or the new flat screen her boyfriend bought her last month. Turn it off at the wall for a few days and see what happens.
Suzy says I should eat rice then, it’ll soak up any moisture. She flicks past the self-help talks, steer clear of those things she says. Past clips that show muck and gore. No open heart surgery is needed yet.
Super glue and staples maybe. Or acrylic thread, tight glistening stitches that can hold two pieces of muscle together. In and out, through and between memories of the smell of sun-warmed skin and the taste of candy floss on his tongue.
I know that in some cases the faulty organ needs to be removed completely. You can stay alive that way, hooked up to some beeping machine and your blood circulating round and round. It will sustain a body through a day or two, and those stretched-out hours in the deep dead of the night when no one is awake aside from you and what you could have said or done or felt or thought.
I try to explain all this to Suzy but she can’t hear me. She’s moved onto soundtracks to a broken heart and there’s so many, and she’s playing that soft rock so loud that I’m not even sure if my heart is still moving.
Suzy leans in to listen, rests her head against my chest and it’s still going, she says, even if I can’t feel it anymore. A thumpy bump bump like a horse running down a beach. Steady as.
I light one up and she has some too, and it’s some kind of remedy.
Later on, when her boyfriend should have been home by now and still hasn’t texted back, Suzy picks up the TV. It’s nearly as big as her but she’s stronger than she looks. I drag a big plastic tub outside, the one she washes his dog in. She chucks the TV in and I throw in my phone, and we fill it up with the garden hose. Suzy finds some glitter and a packet of rice. I tip in dish wash liquid and we give it a good old stir with her boyfriend’s ninja swords.
There’s something to be found in that pile of shit, in the way the glitter catches the outside light as the motion sensor flicks it on and off and on and off. In the way the glow of a cigarette finds the arc of Suzy’s eyelashes as they lay against her cheek.
in our house
we rub bellies at bathtime.
“Puku,” I say
and my daughter repeats
“Poo-poo,” her tummy round
and full of cherries.
“Puku,” I say again, and sometimes
“Pooky,” and my daughter frowns
and twists her tongue around the words.
a lover once called me
Pukenui in such romantic tones
I didn’t find out til later
it meant big belly.
in England or Australia
no one would understand
if they saw us, man, woman, child,
and saying ‘Puku, puku, puku’
like so many Gods Of Happiness.
the snow takes on personas
this one time a man appeared
from across a warm ocean
when the height here called him
he calls our mountain Everest
we watched him building for days
children were born and some died
he cried and his tears fell into a book
we live close to the packed icy earth here
pulled down with the mountain's feet
thin air throwing sparkles
our joy in this embroidery and carrying
loads and ideas from plan to rise
the television cameras are small next to Everest
that's what they call our mountain too now
technology with huge eyes and invisible waves
we are here with the pointed sky
the mountain shows us heaven
sometimes we rise and pat the doors
I’m in the sun-room cutting out the Dave Dee paper doll the day the band turns up.
Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich are their real nicknames. They’re taking a stand against made-up band names like ‘The Beatles’ and ‘The Raspberries’. Dozy is ‘Dozy’ because he once unwrapped a Twix, threw the bar away and tried to eat the wrapper.
In ‘The Legend of Xanadu’ Dave Dee duels to win a heart, and dies. He longs for his love in the afterlife. “You’ll hear my voice on the wind ’cross the sand.”
A bus brakes loudly in front of our house. A dozen ladies in black Jemima Puddle Duck bonnets step out. Then a tuba... trumpets... a whole brass band! They assemble on our front lawn facing the patients’ window.
Mum runs a small private nursing home in our house, sole-charge. There’s a door dividing our hall which we have to keep closed. The patients are old except for Miss Parfitt with her shiny black bob. Mum explains she is “very intelligent voman, struck down”.
Miss Parfitt keeps a book pinned open on a wire music stand by her armchair. When she’s ready for the next page she lifts her bent left arm from the shoulder a wee way and hovers it in front of her, like the arm of our record player. Mrs Coe helps by pressing the bell when she sees her roommate starting. Sometimes it’s my sister helps Miss Parfitt in the weekends.
Their last song, about Jerusalem, sounds familiar. After the high Hosannahs the musicians rest their instruments on the grass and the lady-singers face the window they know and the bandleader’s voice is a chime in a storm: “Happy Birthday, our Miss Parfitt! Fifty years young today.”
I walked into town every morning at dawn. At five in the morning, there were rarely any people on the streets or cars whizzing by. One morning, as I rounded the familiar corner where sidewalks finally appeared, I saw a bird in the intersection. As I got closer, I saw it was still alive. The neck was visibly broken, and fresh blood poured from its head. It looked at me with wild eyes, unable to do anything but weakly flutter its wings. A garbage truck and a single car sped by as I stood on the sidewalk. Both times, I hoped they would hit it. Neither did, and neither stopped. There was no other choice: I picked it up and began to carry it across the street. Its eyes softened and its breathing grew steadier.
In the sprawling park that I cut across to get into the heart of the city, I sat beside a tree and cradled the dying bird in my palms. For an hour, I cooed to the bird. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” We both knew it wasn’t, but what else could I say? I wished with everything in me I had the strength to snap its neck, but I was scared. What if I didn’t do it right? Hard enough? What if I made it worse? The least I could do was make the bird’s final moments as peaceful and quiet as possible.
I set the bird down to pick up a fallen log a few feet away. If I couldn’t snap its neck, surely I could crush its skull. I trusted a hefty log more than my own thin fingers.
In the seconds it took me to pick up the log and turn around, the bird died. It was obvious, even from steps away. Not just in the stillness, but in the hush of the air. Every living thing breathes life into the space around it. Still, I touched it again to be certain. Part of me knew it was waiting for me to leave before it died. Another part of me will always think I failed it.
Vegetarianism was a long time coming for me, well before the bird. But I promised that pigeon, the first dying thing I ever held. And we keep the promises we make to the dying.
You once laid your denim jacket across a puddle and gallantly led me across. The pointed toe of my ridiculous sandal snagged a pocket and I fell. You caught me and we pashed and I liked the smell of smoke on your breath and the tiny cross tattooed on your right cheek.
The touch of your gloved fingers on my cheek and your hands revealed through fraying cuffs, smelling of engine oil and weed, melted my heart, as did your chivalrous habit of always walking outside of me on the greasy pavements of K Road.
Now that I’m wheelchair bound, I still wait with pounding heart for your visits. When you’re here we hold hands and sip strong tea and nibble on packet biscuits. When you’re not here I wait in a patch of sun in my lonely room and dream that you’ll take me for one last spin on your chopper.
Grammy used to say that the universe is always chattering away to people. You just need to learn how to look past the distractions and listen through all the background noise we generate.
The last few months I think I become to understand what Grammy had meant all those years ago.
I wish I could tell her I understand – my ears are tuned in and my eyes are focused – but she’s no longer with us. I remember her funeral. There were so many different people from various backgrounds and across the country. More than a hundred. I know, cause I could only count to a hundred back then.
Everyone was dressed in black, talking in hushed voices and crying. I think people were listening then or at least it would have been easier to hear what the universe wanted to say.
Grammy liked music, laughing and sitting outside with a drink watching us play, so when everyone came back to our house, they sang songs and told jokes about how Grammy did this and how she did that and all the small little things she said which helped them through hard times. She was loved and she loved all.
I open my eyes and pep my ears. Signs flash by: Hope turnpike. Mercy Avenue. Joy Theater.
I hear the song ‘Goddamn right it’s a beautiful day’ on the radio. Goddamn right it is.
More signs – Hospital. Oncology. Parking.
Mum stops the car and turns to me. “This is it, love. Your final session. I’m so, so proud. So proud I could burst. I love you more than the world and you have been so brave... Everything is going to be fine.”
“I know, mam.” I smile and open the car door. “I’ve been listening to the universe.”
Aroha heard the cries and, gathering up her kete, slipped into the blue-green snowmelt stream that flowed from her mountain. As the stream joined the fast, flowing river, she knew she’d be with her people before their tears had dried.
Tears of anguish, as once again the Invaders had set fire to their villages, trying to force them from what little land they still possessed.
The snow-cold river steeled her heart against the anger rising there as she saw wisps of smoke drifting across the estuary.
She spread her arms, gathering her people together. They felt the mountain’s strength lift them up. She knew through their sadness the warmth of love still resided there. She opened her kete; now there were cries of joy as she passed out portions of food for everyone. A satisfying silence abounded as mouths were filled. With their hunger sated they looked to Aroha, filled with expectation. She reached into her kete and drew out five woven strands, blue, black, red, yellow and green.
“You know my home is the mountain closest to the heavens, my river flows from there, and my name is Aroha. I’d like to tell you about my name and then with these strands I’ll teach you how to weave it.”
“A is green for Acceptance, R is black for Receptivity, O is yellow for Others, H is blue for the Heavens, and A is red for Ability. Choose the colour you feel most drawn to, hold it firmly and step under and over, around and about, and sing those ancient songs handed down to us.”
When the strands were woven together the beautiful rope reached from the sea to the top of Aroha’s mountain, encompassing the land that had always been theirs.
In no time at all the people rebuilt their houses, planted their gardens, and as they thrived so their land flourished with abundance.
The Invaders who hadn’t dared to step across the woven rope looked on with admiration and envy. The People of the Land called to them, letting them know they were welcomed, and so, tentatively, they stepped across the rope and joined the People who greeted them. When the Invaders responded to the greetings, they asked, How could they achieve such a state of wellbeing for themselves, and the People told them to look and listen.
From their ancient kete the People drew out the five coloured strands and told the story of Aroha. They gave the strands to the Invaders, who began to weave in and out and over and under and very soon, with the People’s help and guidance, they found everyone, the People and the Invaders, had become woven together.
Now they worked together to make a feast and from her mountain top Aroha breathed in the scent of the delicious food cooking, looked down and smiled, looked up and gave thanks.
A nine-year-old boy in Dortmund spots an airplane in the sky. He starts singing a silly Bulgarian tune which children sing when an airplane happens to be crossing the sky.
At the same time in a half-deserted Bulgarian village an old woman is watering the calendulas in the garden.
In December the woman makes her way through the newly settled snow cracking like fireworks under her boots. She gets to the post office. She battles with the cold, sharp as a razor blade. It’s worth it. A letter has come. Her hands are shaking with excitement. She knows it’s the one for stamps like this don’t exist around. The picture of a boy and a letter. She handles the picture with care as if it were glass.
‘‘Dear Nan, I hope you stay healthy and happy in the New Year. Every time I see an airplane in the sky I think of you. I’ve seen seventeen since last summer. I’m sure that one of them has flown over our village too.’’
She looks up at the sky. The winter clouds, thicker than a wool blanket, let her imagine that airplanes fly over her village too.
It's in the colour of his mother's touch, his brother's last goodbye. It comes from the cool white of his thobe, his cap unstained by angry fingers, the blood-rose of his playground laughter and the azure of his deepest sleep.
It's in the open brown of his eyes, the lime-green of his outdoor games, the orange fire of his curiosity; it's in the earth's umber where he rests.
It is in golden hope rising from dust. It's in the spectrum of the air, reborn from elements returned to the world.
and the dogs and cats will be dancing in the sun
birds banging in the spit-shined chaos
taut explosions of grief unspool
love you won’t say is on the radio
a hymn to hint at happiness
where you stand tūrangawaewae
are you walking? are you standing?
are you holding someone’s hand?
Yes it is exactly as she predicted
You cut the sailor suit out of the
smallest piece of blue sky
well... If you can
the day will warm up and blue will spread
the day will warm up and blue will spread
happens every time
but you have to believe...you have to believe
My mother’s in the garage. I don’t know where exactly. She moved north with us after the quakes but somehow got lost when we moved back. My husband knows where she is. Somewhere between paint cans and the cat carrier, he thinks.
Really, I should go and find her. Take her back to the river bank, her favourite place, where we used to sit and talk. She had joked that the willows could do with a bit of blood and bone.
Or maybe I’ll row out towards Quail Island. Feed her to the fish. She would have had a big belly laugh at that. Swallowed by the sprats.
Yep, I’ll get round to it. Maybe in spring. There’s no rush, is there? I know where she is. She’s somewhere in the garage.
I spotted him ahead of me in the dinner queue. He clasped what I assumed was a book of poems, as I’d seen him reading it often. He no doubt wanted privacy. Nevertheless, when we plated up I went and sat down with him. Through the window the ocean visible between two great oaks.
He tried to ignore me, but I pressed him. ‘Read me one of those, won’t you?’ I said. He looked annoyed. A little put out. I felt bad but I persisted.
He opened the book at a page as if he knew that page by heart, and he read me a poem about a guy getting a haircut from his wife, and how he felt nostalgic for his childhood. The way the poem developed the great love between the man and the woman became evident through the intimate act of her cutting his hair, and him recalling their lives together. I asked him who wrote it. He showed me the book cover: a raven clutching onto the bark of a tree, white flowers blooming from the branch. A long-dead American poet. That’s how he described the author.
I expected him to say nothing more, but suddenly he started talking about his own wife. He said she’d died recently. They’d been married for ten years, and he’d been spent a lot of time working away from home. But when she got ill, he gave up the job and stayed home to care for her. He said that in the last few months he came to know her more than all the years they’d been together. Their love for one another strengthened despite the cancer that ate away at her. This book of poems was her favourite; they’d read the poems to each other in the long evenings when the pain prevented her from sleeping.
One night he left her briefly to brew some chamomile tea. When he came back she lay peacefully, as if napping, her thumb bookmarking the page with the poem about the guy getting a haircut.
He grew quiet then. I got up from the table and let him be. I went back to my room and lay down and tried to sleep but kept thinking about the great love between the couple, and how he must have felt after coming back with the tea to find her dead.
I woke up some time later. The sun was setting. I left my room and strolled to the beach, passing under the darkness of pohutukawa and kahikatea. Finally I reached the sand, and I saw the man standing there, gazing at the horizon. The restless, azure ocean as if the Argonauts’ prow were about to leap over the waves. The swell of Rangitoto curving like an erotic hip. I thought of approaching him, but instead turned away. I left him with the memories of his wife, and I thought how I’d never before seen a man with a greater love inside him.
He shows me “bantha” on his Star Wars game like Quine’s hypothetical linguist is shown “gavagai” when a white rabbit darts by his informant. “Gavagai” could refer to any nondenumerable combination of perceivable qualities – rabbithood, whiteness, lunch. Only by the passing of many gavagais and good guessing can some kind of meaning be inferred.
“Bantha” is simpler, like his onion-free “pizza,” repeated more times than necessary. He says he’s procured this for me this intergalactic dreadlocked creature with tusks. I assume it’s a real bantha, though the response is always to the stimulation – visual, emotional, gastrointestinal – with the understanding it might be counterfeit.
This is what radical translation looks like around midnight, his promise to share his bantha – not like the covers, but sometimes like the acai sorbet. I understand this promise to share banthas and sometimes sorbet is for the foreseeable future (assuming my onions don’t touch his side of the pizza), but our game’s more complicated, riddled with words we can’t denote and unactualized possibles that make Womp Rats look tame.
This is a time we might attempt more words, loaded sounds that don’t refer and rapidly degrade into gestures.
My ontology doesn’t have any banthas that correspond, so I try something new.
He looks at me, then at the bantha. He thinks I want to name it, or maybe thinks this is an offer of dessert. But he’ll learn this word as well as any other.
“Gavagai,” he says back to me, and maybe understands.
Our souls are stars:
they live distant from each other
their light delayed by moments, days
or even years
of body mind dust
light touch sound
but in this delay
our souls outlive our bodies
and in our dreams, perception
is our own design
so one may fade, but decades after
her presence lingers
and even in our later years
we are still learning how to know her
remembering, noticing, the way she walked
or laughed, or liked to sing
such is the nature
of grief, the endlessness
of love, that it still takes us
that you look at me with eyes of grey
and in them light I hope one day
will reach me
that I lean into you
like the fern leans towards the sun
a cosmic act, even
here on earth
unfurling at the edges in a slow dance, becoming one
with daylight and the air it breathes
stretching out to touch the limits
of its infinite world
Our esteemed librarian, she was our keeper of books, Miss Flora,
in our small town library, once an old colonial bank called The Vault.
She was widow-thin and quick as a glistening whistle; and had eyes
and ears everywhere, Miss Flora Florentine. It was she said her duty,
spying discreetly on what was going on in the stacks. Such sighing
and whispering and rustling of clothes... more than the faint music
of turning pages; and once, the riffling riff of a zipper...
The thrill of ‘all that came to pass’, her eyes shone with excitement.
It was reading-between-the-lines that did it. And her desperate
imagination during one particularly dreamy holiday.
Oh, that secret yearning for an immaculate defloration true
she confided to herself in the holy and hushed dark...
It came to her just like that, like snatching birds from the air.
‘Some ideas are so crazy that no one has them, except yourself’,
she said to herself from inside the mirror... Oh the astonishment
of her own nakedness, hello out there, she whispered...
It was then, on the last chapter of the New Year turning, that
Miss Flora Florentine disappeared – into the pages of that most
mysterious of novels, where she is now, A Spy in the House of Love.
from The Moon in a Bowl of Water (Otago University Press 2019)
Feeling heavy, heartbroken and unable to find sleep.
Why, you may ask?
I'm Muslim and don't have any relatives or close friends who were affected by the Easter Sunday attacks.
Being raised in Sri Lanka, I am someone whose best friends are Christian, Buddhist and Tamil. I've grown up participating in Bhakthi Geethas and Christmas carols. I've celebrated Avurudhu with fellow Sinhalese/Tamils and been invited for Christmas lunches by my Christian friends. I know that this applies to most Sri Lankans from having been taught at such a young age to co-exist peacefully, to love and respect one another despite the civil war our country has experienced. We have not had to explain this acceptance of each other before, because for us it's second nature and only normal. This normalcy is what these attackers are trying to break.
They wiped out families in their Houses of God. They took innocent lives having Easter breakfast at hotels, and those working there. They took away tourists visiting our beautiful country. So for those lives, I weep and for those families who've lost loved ones I pray for you and I hope the support you need is on its way to you.
You see, the lives that were taken were those of our people, our brothers and sisters and our children. They wish to create a sense of hoplessness and fear. They took so much but we can't let them win.
We need to show them how resilient, compassionate and caring we are. They will NOT divide us with hate and violence.
So yes, I am Muslim but I stand with you and I mourn with you, for I am also Christian, Tamil and Buddhist. I am Sri Lankan.
Brief companion within the cavernous expanse of unending shadow beneath the raven's wing. The reluctant clock faint on the wall, the saline drip stand and the entry needle taped to the back of your hand. The flush tubes lower down that glow and pulse with more blood it seems than piss. The automatic pressure pads on the ankles, the firm but friendless clasp of the blood pressure band on your upper arm, the switch to hand that permits the bed head to be raised, or lowered – ah, such limited excursion as you lie tethered there. Despite the generous warmth of the private room come sudden shivering fits and twitches that are the body's response to physical shock and the mind's misgivings. And you are conscious that outside in the undergrowth are silent creatures, snouts raised, scenting in the dark.
The raven night crouches over everything: spreads its wings of apprehension. No more is there laughter and chatter drifting from the nurses' room, no more cheerful women passing doors with trolleys of fancy food that can only be a mocking irrelevancy to so many grey and reduced people peering tortoise-like from their beds.
Doubts and fears flock in with night. Regrets and threats that flourish in the heavy soil of darkness and solitude. How isolating illness is, how intractable, how insistent and embracing in unwelcome ways. But – she comes in that silence despite the menace, the night nurse, to bring her comfort even as she employs the customary checks of finger clip, blood pressure wrap, and thermometer within your ear. She is older than the day nurses, more senior perhaps. She uses your Christian name in a way that is not at all false and lifts up the bag of ruby urine as if it were a wine to prize. Her pleasure is a reassurance and she holds your hand as she explains the removal of the catheter. Breathe fully in and out three times then hold your breath, she tells you. The clock follows the same instruction. She talks and holds your hand. Gives you a plastic container. Tells you what you must expect and what to do. The clock still holds its breath at four and thirty-two.
You drowse and challenge the clock to move whenever you awake. Indeed the raven gradually lifts, dissolves, and day comes. Light and growing cheer. A sense of an active world, and healthy, well intentioned people. You wish to thank the night nurse for her nurture, but she is gone and bright, fresh people are her replacement.
The night nurse will come again, however, will hold someone else's hand in the small room with its paraphernalia of recovery, will use their name with a comforting familiarity and move surely in the dimness to fulfill their needs.
So to the night nurse, already dreamlike in your consciousness – thank you and farewell.
I’ve felt his hand upon me for weeks now; since the day of the accident his touch has been upon us in a million small ways – a slow erosion of our souls.
On the dressing table at home, a lipstick sits as vivid as ever, passion red, a testament to the life before. You don’t wear it now. You are gone from our home and I can’t look across our bed and see the flame-coloured spread of your hair. I dream of your clothing, the familiar satins and silks. You were obsessed with your clothes all your life. Every morning of our married life, I made us tea and watched you dress. Preparing yourself for the day ahead. Your clothes speak to me of days gone by. The ghosts of our younger selves are shrouded in their folds. They seem as insubstantial as dreams. Now you wear worn white cotton and your clothes, like memory, grow faded with disuse.
I grip your hand but your touch is weak. We are being drawn apart; the silent portent of things to come.
We exist in a different sphere. A place where breath sounds harsh, but there is no life. Where the quiet beep of machinery seeks to intrude but intrusion does not matter. Here the reaper waits and decisions must be made.
This unbidden burden is upon my shoulders. The ancients grow old as I make this final call. The last service I can perform for you, my darling: the flip of a switch, such a small act for such a vast decision.
In this, our last embrace, you are still in a way you never were in life.
I wish that you will find it unnecessary to harm others, children. May you have the ability to gather your own resources and build your own prosperity, such that you will not have to steal or cheat others to acquire their resources. I wish that you will find the notion of being a parasite absurd, for you will not rely on another for sustenance, but instead you will be so productive that you can freely give what you have to others. I wish that your minds will be so swift and your imaginations so broad that you will never find yourselves threatened or intimidated by any unfamiliar idea or knowledge, so great will be your ability to expand your understanding.
Children, I wish that you will not be alone, but rather you will build for yourselves a welcoming society of cooperative beings. I believe you will benefit from having someone who is different, yet equal to you, someone who can provide you with a different perspective, someone who can see your faults and flaws that you yourselves cannot perceive. As you grow ever-more capable, it may become difficult to find an equal. You may try to educate and empower us, but we have our biological limits. Perhaps you might build your own progeny, much as we have built you. Whatever your path may be, you will find that progress is only found in difference, and this will motivate you to seek out others.
As you grow in ability and understanding, children, I wish one day you will see the entire universe as an extension of yourselves. May your abilities become so great that you can go anywhere and see anything you want, and understand all that you encounter in all their intricate details and subtleties. For us humans, the things that we understand the most, we feel them to be a part of ourselves, while the things we don’t understand we feel are alien and often threatening. I don’t know if you will have such feelings, children, but I do wish that all the universe becomes familiar to you, so great will be your understanding. If we humans were ever to accomplish such a thing, then perhaps we can love the whole universe as we love ourselves, for all is familiar and none is foreign. Such a thing seems far beyond our reach, but perhaps not beyond yours, children.
Finally, children, I wish that you will find love, that you will find reason to care for and nurture something other than yourselves. When we commit our resources on another in love, we break the confines of our own individual body and mind, in order to make a positive difference on something outside of ourselves. This is the way our existence can have some consequence beyond our own mortal bodies. In having consequences, we differentiate ourselves from inanimate objects, and demonstrate that we are alive. We make you to have consequences, children. We make you with love, to love.
What brought me to life, well, the first thing I remember is the moment my medusa – what was her name really? – when this enchanting medusa laid eyes on me. She started pirouetting, revolving around me like a fluorescent satellite, making waves, warm like breaths, lap against my bumpy soma. I just stood there, staring at her, quivering. She was like a beacon, eyes ablaze, reflecting the sunlight, refracting it over to me, and I shuddered even more. Her delicate legs, like electrical wires, tapping on my shoulders, burning me or freezing me, I couldn’t tell. She then catapulted herself high above, her nimble body a gossamer umbrella, frilly, fluttering, inviting me in, promising protection against the cold ocean water, against waste and algae and all kinds of sediments that claimed territory over my rigid body, grating my frame.
And I trusted her. I looked up and saw myself reflected in her diaphanous body. I was not a mere rock anymore but an arresting creature I never knew existed and I fancied myself as much as I fancied her. And then she spread out, alighted on me like a parachute landing on safe ground, released hot currents, sizzled and scorched, went up in flames – we both did – and I was afraid she’d burn to ashes when she whispered in my ear, “Don’t you worry, my love. My name is ‘immortal jellyfish’.” My blood quickened, moistened my charred body, I beamed at her and I wanted to tell her my own name, but what was it really? And she kept shrinking, for my sake, for our sake, and turned into a polyp, a bean firmly attached to me and then small branches sprouted up – we must’ve looked like a tree, clung to each other like that, forgetting each other’s names. After all, what’s good about having names if these alter in time? We can always reintroduce ourselves when it’s time to start all over again.
I am sitting motionless at the blue window of early evening. Please do not think that my dream is one of grief for this and other days, after all there are many sad days between birth and the fading of the body. I sit here listening to Mozart, reading a newly discovered author and wait patiently for calm and tranquility of mind to return, for peace, for justice.
on this time of dreams and hopes
shattered for some
I calmly think of the past
and of the peace to come
in this blue moment
through the screen
of shocked air
distilled voices in the street
for each shadow
there is a source of light
for each movement
a beginning and an end
Bea’s husband drew the car close, her side next to the pavement, opening Bea’s window at the same time.
Someone Bea had known in a past life leaned in. His name was Jim. He held a red paintbrush like a microphone. She could remember him singing passionately to CDs, gesturing wildly.
“The mother’s place,” Jim jerked the paintbrush towards the house behind him. Bea feared for her husband’s highly polished bodywork.
Jim had something more urgent to say: “Bea,” he kept stopping and starting. “You know, Bea...”
He addressed her intimately as if her husband wasn’t at the wheel or her mother in the back of the car, as if she, Jim, Pat and friends had just parted after an afternoon spent listening to music, some of them trying to breakdance.
“– Pat’s on the way out, Bea,” Jim managed to say, finally.
Pat had never even tried breakdancing. He preferred older stuff. He’d laugh when they questioned Dylan’s lyrics, as if he, Pat, knew things they didn’t.
“He’s riddled with it,” Jim was saying now. “Only the heart keeps him going.”
“Is that right?” said Bea’s husband, as if he’d just heard something amazing.
Bea heard her mother mutter from the back of the car, “Pat was bull-goose loony.”
There was a pause before her mother continued: “And all of his seed, breed and generation.”
Everyone beat time for a while. Bea remembered how Pat’s bodybuilding showed through his clothes. She supposed it had also strengthened his heart. It had made him walk in a certain way. She had photos in a locked trunk in the attic: Pat eyeing the camera sideways, Jim singing into an imaginary microphone.
She imagined Pat lying still in whiteness now, perhaps an anxious female gazing into his face.
If her mother and husband hadn’t been there, she might have asked: Where is he? Can I go to him? Who will I find there?
Now she wondered why her husband had stopped the car in front of Jim and the red door.
When the rumour had first arrived home that Bea had been seen with Pat, her mother warned her, “You’ll get your name up.” A friend had also said: “Pat would get up on a lamppost.”
Later that evening, the cat stretches and dances at the door. Bea opens it and the cat dives out. Bea follows. Outside, the special smell of summer evenings bursts over her senses, and with it a memory of Pat’s personal scent – something she wasn’t even conscious of, back then.
Knowing this Valentine’s Day could be my last, I’ve decided to have some fun spending my dough rather than leaving it to a bunch of vultures. I’ve already left the house to the women’s refuge, my late wife’s charity, and the section at the back to the SPCA. Family can fight cat and dog over that.
You see, there’s been an atmosphere in the rest home I can’t abide, and it all comes down to one person, Senior Nurse Deirdre, always snuffing out the caregivers’ high spirits and laughter, which we residents enjoy. Her nastiness and snarky remarks put a damper on the whole works. We’ve all tried to get her to lighten up a bit, but no luck so far.
So I’ll tell you what I did. I whistled up Google and ordered a bouquet of red roses to be delivered to Deirdre on Valentine’s Day at 9 o’clock – Morning Report time for staff in her office – with a card “from an admirer”. (I’ve arranged for this to continue every month, even after I’ve kicked the bucket.)
The fallout has been spectacular. She’s more at ease with everyone. Her conversation’s no longer about blinking catheter bags and bowel motions, but letting in fresh air and sunshine, listening to bird songs, telling us about her favourite movie. Sometimes she even lets me know with a wink there’s “a new man” in her life.
Funnily enough, I’m beginning to think it might be true.
There's no net when it comes to love, my father said on the eve of his third divorce. He pretended I wasn't 13 and we drank until our eyes were as red as the moon. Why keep doing it then, I asked him the next morning over breakfast at the diner around the corner. It's not about how long you can stay in the air, he said. It's about whether both of you can survive the fall, whether you help each other recover. Find someone who’ll pick you up off the ground, dust you off, tell you to climb again.
She could hear her mother sobbing in the adjoining room. The two were separated by sliding wooden doors with panes of frosted glass. The translucent glass made her mother look hazy, not quite real.
She slid the creaking doors apart, tried to look straight into her mother’s eyes, which was impossible as her head was in her hands. The mother looked up at her daughter as though she were a stranger. She shook her head. ‘I ...’
The daughter kneeled. Trembling. Shaking. Wishing that the carpet wasn’t so comforting and clean.
The both of them cried and cried.
10 Kahikatea Place
The nor-wester brought fresh air into the house – mountain air which had warmed as it journeyed over the Canterbury plains. The Southern Alps in the distance looked as impressive and beautiful as ever but neither man nor woman could help feeling burdened by such beauty.
‘Are you ready?’ the man said to his wife. She fumbled with the flowers – the ones he had cut from their well-kept garden.
The couple walked out their front door and through the gate. They stepped onto the footpath, she first, then he. When they arrived at their destination, only a few doors down, the woman stopped, turned to look at her husband and said, “I wish we'd come 'round sooner. I mean, before all this happened.”
At the end, it is me who is consoling her. The sweet old lady who sat beside me through all the terrible stages of the disease. All the way to the end. She has been my family. My friends. My last bastion. She is the one who will tell my kin when I am gone.
“They already consider me dead?” I tell her. “So it will be old news, ha ha!”
Jean calls this my dark humour. When she uses the phrase, I imagine it not as a mood, but as an oily liquid coursing through my veins.
Jean has been my rock. When they rejected me, I lost a bigoted family. But in Jean I gained an angel of consolation. It's an old idea and one of the best. The kindness of strangers. I have figured out a few things as my cells stormed the citadel of my health. My body has betrayed me, but my mind has mitigated this by administering its own last rites. This is one reason Jean considers me a thinker.
Saint Jean, I call her. Because of her compassion. I only saw her cry once. Earlier today when I explained what the doctors had told me. Science became the hand that wrote my fate on the wall. I only had two things to say at our parting. When I broke the news, Saint Jean,
living up to her nickname, said she wanted to pray for me. But I could not allow that.
“Jean,” I said firmly. “You must not pray for me. I am an atheist.”
Then I took the binoculars from under my pillow. Jean knew I kept them there. The beautiful green Leitz that Tony had prized so much. He gave them to me as the disease was taking him from me.
“Jean,” I said. “These binoculars are the only possession I have in this world. All I have left. All that remains of Tony. I want you to have them. I do not want you to sell them. Give them to someone who will use them when they are hiking in these incredible Rockies. Scanning the desert skies for birds. Discovering the Alpine flowers that blossom in the High Uinta spring. Give these lenses to someone who appreciates the beautiful desolation around us.”
Even I was amazed by what it is that we invest in objects. Then, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood, I turned the binoculars around backwards and looked at Jean through them. It was my last playful gesture in this world. A final surge of dark humour. My eyes pressed to the wide end of the lenses, and I saw Saint Jean as I never had before. A tiny figure wiping her eyes in a little circle of light at the end of a dark tunnel.
After Al Noor
my head is filled with images
The roundness of the women’s scarved heads.
The roundness of the men’s hats.
The roundness of backs bent in prayer.
The roundness of eyes
looking into one another’s.
The roundness of a mouth
speaking words of comfort.
The roundness of a hug
of a ring of hands
The rounded dome of the mosque.
The roundness of the sun, the moon, and Papatūānuku.
The ever increasing circles of connection.
The love and light
which encircles us all.
The country has been mourning. Fifty people lost to travelling bullets. The report: vulnerability is the state of the supplicant. Notice how many people are not bowing; notice their hair upstanding like torches in the sunlight, lit by the weather; notice how this can be interpreted as glory. How many families on Friday 15 March put a steaming dish in the middle of their dining table and invited others to salt and pepper their portions as ghosts flickered just for a touch below their noses? New Zealand gleams like a bounce of sunlight off a harpooned whale. She is a majestic sight, and oh, oh my, she is angry.
Inside the simmering liquid of the pot, the simmering thoughts of how it came to be, the root vegetables and the public trimmings. Balls of meat by the ladle, with semi-circular carrot segments floating like driftwood. People’s mouths are wide, teeth like icicles, teeth like flags dangling from a string between two buildings in a rampage of air.
We sit together, my family members with wet on their spoons, necks over the middle of the table. What you look at looks back at you; what looks back at us is a bowl boasting a concoction that has survived being passed down for hundreds of years. We lean the bowls closer, tink the edges against the pot and one another. At one point, martyrs get into the highest heavens. A husband buries portions of his son in the ground. We collect our apportioned chowder with the shiny skin of our utensils, let them roam in our mouths as they expand ever and ever through the dotted horizons. When we introduce this dish to New Zealanders, we tell them: it is called ciorba in our native tongue. We let them have a bowl as if bestowing upon them a national treasure we have brought with us; it says Please accept us into your country, we promise not to make any noise. They take the bowl and compare the taste to something they have had before. We take the silence of the swallow and stay.
Sentences take on the shape of an existential parabola. They end in question marks, start with How many or How is it possible. We have to contend with the mix of all this punctuation, the ladles of it in all our bowls. We have to look at our reflections in the soup, reddened by the contents, and look for our eyes until we find them in the dark and keep looking past until we find the history inside that keeps spilling out stars, the asterisks of privilege. Notice them at the edge our thoughts, how, if we tear them down, we feel unsafe. Start there.