Poem – Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne”


It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

– Trumbull Stickney
(1874 – 1904)

Mnemosyne DAMSince my previous Stickney offering met with such favour, I decided to try you all with another one. For those of you who have (very ironically) forgotten, Mnemosyne was the Greek personification of Memory, and the mother of the Nine Muses. Technically she was a giantess, rather than a goddess (these distinctions are important in god-society).

What I love about this poem is not just its bleakness (although that does have a certain appeal), but the way that semi-refrain plays out: it’s autumn; it’s cold; it’s empty; it’s lonely; it’s dark; and then that slight twist to end it rains. The other refrains all give us an emotional response – it’s autumn, it used to be warm, now it’s cold; there used to be swallows and harvests and cattle, now it’s empty; I loved, now it’s lonely; we had children and a hearth, now it’s dark; everything is ruined and wretched and if it wasn’t for the fact that I these places are my own (ah! these places could be metaphorical or psychological, not just geographical) I would badger god/the man/anyone to take responsibility for what has happened here, but it’s me, it’s mine, I’m alone in a world of my own making so let the rain draw its curtain across it all.

Without that turn at the end, this would be a very sorry-for-myself-boo-hoo-hoo-cue-the-world’s-smallest-violin poem. But that admission of culpability disarms you, and the fact that the ending doesn’t launch itself towards greater and greater loss, gives it a kind of integrity. (In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, American poet Ted Kooser refers to the alternative as (I think) the One – Two – Three – HEAVE! ending.) And how intelligent to start it with It’s autumn in the country I remember, setting you up with all those echoes of harvest and reward. The contrast between expectation and delivery is the whole point. If he’d started with winter it would have been too obvious, and spring too big a contrast. And no other season so readily summons the ghost of Keats. Or so perfectly trembles on the border between fulfillment and loss.


Tuesday poem – “Fault”

A mistake. An error of judgement. A penalty
brought against a quiet city. Stroll
through the park, lunchtime almost over.
A defect, a small disappointment. A summer day
laden with clouds, grey light that softens the walls,
the stone and brick, the glass. Less
than expected. Someone to blame. A sparrow
rests lightly on the hand of a statue. A weakness
in the system, communications break down.
A telephone rings into silence. A refusal. Dispraise, dis-
continuity, lateral displacement. A woman
leaves a cafe, checks both ways, crosses the street.
An unthought response. A vice. Students
repeating the phrases – Good Morning, Good Evening, Good
-bye. It is nine o’clock, it is ten to eleven. The time
is twelve fifty-one.

– Joanna Preston

first published in Landfall 222
November 2011

In a (possibly pointless) attempt to avoid appearing completely narcissistic, I try to avoid posting my own pieces on Tuesdays. But on this occasion, it seems warranted.

It’s very much a poet’s poem, this one. Most people are impressed / moved / bludgeoned into an emotional response by The City and the City, which is … understandable. It is probably one of the most overtly grief-filled poems I’ve written, and I think (or hope) that the truth of it carries it above accusations of emotional manipulation. I certainly had to use my full bag of tricks to keep it controlled enough to be readable.

But this is the one that I’m prouder of. Because it captures that moment, one year ago when we discovered that our September nightmare was in fact just the pricking of our mental and emotional thumbs. It doesn’t pack the same immediate punch, but it’s been the one that has had people come back to me later and say things like “you know, that’s actually a damn good poem.” Fundamentally it’s a continuation of something that has become a bit of an obsession of mine – that way language slips, the way it changes and stretches and fails to hold. The way experience sifts through it, and leaves traces behind. (I did say it’s a bit of a poet thing.) All the words that now have entirely new resonance for us in Canterbury. They’re a bit like the earth itself – ringing with the echoes long after the event has happened.

And here we are, ten thousand and something quakes on from September 4th, and on the cusp of the first anniversary of February 22nd. Hell of an anniversary. No: an anniversary of hell.

I doubt I need to tell anyone either inside or outside Canterbury that things are just not going well. That people are still really struggling, especially in the eastern suburbs. Virtually no rebuilding has gotten underway yet. We got our official “Scope of Works” document for the damage to our place in mid January. It began ‘We have recently completed the inspection of your property …’ Recently? Try three months after. (We were supposed to get the damn document within four weeks of the inspection at the absolute latest.)

Welcome to the CERA timescale. Based on geological time, apparently.

But we’re still so much better off than a large proportion of people in Canterbury. We’re still not allowed to actually do any repairs yet (or even repaint … argh), until they have sorted something or other out. And there is no cost estimate provided for any of the jobs listed on the Scope of Works document, so we can’t even start asking around to try and organise local tradesmen, or tackle small jobs ourselves, or make plans of any sort. We just have to wait. But our house is dry, clean, and no wonkier than it was a year ago. We’re lucky. And we know it.

But … tomorrow is going to be hard. Driving home the other day, they were promo-ing the upcoming news special on the quake anniversary on the radio. They played an excerpt from the interview that was being recorded in the Radio NZ building when it struck (can’t find the link, sorry), and if I had been the one driving, we would have run off the road. I can’t listen to it. I start shaking and crying. Stupid, but there it is.

Actually it’s worse than that. For the last few weeks, I’ve been really really jumpy. Partly because they’ve been harvesting peas down the road, so there have been extra trucks rumbling by at unusual times. Worryingly, I find that if I let my mind wander, I get a strong mental image of a really big shake. And it accommodates itself to wherever I happen to be at the time – the room changes, or the building. It’s not just visual either – I can hear the sound of the nails squeaking in and out of the framing, and glass shattering, and that horrible rumbling roar. It’s as though all this is happening in some compartment of my brain, and I have to be really strict about not letting myself drift that direction. Mad, I know. But it feels real. Sounds real. I keep turning my back on it and saying “no!”, in a loud, firm voice, like you would to a dog. So far I’m winning. (Well, I haven’t actually spent time curled into the foetal position, whimpering. So that’s a win, right?) I guess it’s just stress. All I can really do is ride it out. And restock the emergency supplies.

I had a strange moment an hour ago. The delivery guy who was walking up our driveway when June 13th happened, was walking up our driveway today, just as the clock on my computer clicked over 12.51.

I know that geology doesn’t know anything about the Gregorian calendar, and that the significance of tomorrow is purely a human construct.

But I still plan to be outside with the chooks at 12.51 tomorrow.

For more Tuesday Poems, visit http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.

Tuesday poem – “Odyssey”, by Karen Zelas

There are no maps
to ease the passage of the godless.

Already he is where none can follow. He
has climbed into this space, this cavern
in near-night, in the far-distance, driven. Cries
that crash in forests of memory. Hunter and hunted,

and which is he? Obscured
in semi-darkness, crouched
head bent to bony knees,
eyes of landed fish. Nothing
can surprise him now. He is halfway
to star. Rasping breath. Rattle
of chest and chains. I would curl
beside him, head in the lap
that held me. Still
he cannot rest. One uncommitted soul.

I would call off the hunter and the hounds.
Silent, I plead his cause. We are connected
one last time.

Go easy, my father.

– Karen Zelas

first published in Snorkel # 13
April 2011
ISSN: 1833-7880

Karen Zelas is a New Zealand poet, editor and novelist. Visit her website here. This poem used with permission.

I remember when this poem was conceived. It was during a Reading for Writing class, with the triggering poem being John Montague’s “The Deer Trap”. I remember that it was one of those occasions when everybody seemed to be writing out of their skins, and poem after poem was offered that had my jaw dropping.

And then Karen read the first draft of this one.

That stunning first line sets you up for what is to follow – a clear, almost pitiless examination of the cost of faith, and the cost of its loss. I say almost pitiless because there is strong emotion running under the whole poem, and never more obviously so than that penultimate stanza, where the control cracks, just for a moment. Or maybe ‘cracks’ is wrong – softens briefly. Just enough to let us see into the very real grief of the speaker, without ever threatening to turn into ‘emotional slither’.

It’s not a cold poem. Not even slightly. But there is a brain here, as well as a heart. So ‘eyes of landed fish’ is followed by ‘nothing can surprise him now’, and the image of the adult daughter, curled childlike in the lap of her dying father, leads in to that heartbreaking ambiguity of ‘Still he cannot rest’, and the reason why not: ‘One uncommitted soul’. It’s that play between head and heart that really does typify Karen’s best poems.

Which leads me quite neatly to the reason why I wanted to post one of Karens pieces today – she’s just learned that the manuscript of her first poetry collection, Night’s Glass Table, has won the 2012 IP Picks Best First Book Award, and will be published by Interactive Press later this year. (In case you’re wondering where you’ve heard of them before, they published Tim Jones’s most recent book, Men Briefly Explained, which had its Christchurch launch along with last year’s IP Picks winner, Keith Westwater.)

So very well done Karen! Having seen the manuscript in preparation, I can only hungrily await the chance to snaffle myself a copy.

For more Tuesday Poems, visit http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.

Tuesday Poem – ‘To His Bibliophilic Wife’

for Stewart

Had we shelf-space enough, and time,
This gluttony, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and read away
The afternoons of our love’s long day;
You, by the fickle muse’s side
Through Poetry stroll; I, in the tide
Of Comedians’ Biographies drift. We would
Build ourselves an ark of Fantasy, and flood
The kitchen-cum-dining room with dinosaurs.
With Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall we’d pause,
Let love of vegetarian dishes grow
Vaster than empires, if rather more slow.
We’d slip Romances from their covers
And teach them the true tongue of book lovers.
We’d turn the Histories on their heads
And use them to prop up our bed
As pages turn; now fast, now slow,
As night slips off its feathered coat.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
The creak of over-filled shelves, and fear
The wrath of books as yet unread,
Stacked by their fellows, like the dead
In a charnel house, organised by bone,
Not body. Love, when I’m alone
At night, methinks I hear them growl
Their displeasure, cover by jowl
By unbent, uncreased, unheld spine.
I know, my love. You’ve not had time.
The grave’s a quiet place indeed,
But probably too dark to read.

Now therefore, while the festive bunting
flutters from shops, while bargain-hunting
punters surge through every door,
I have a private treat in store.
Let us sport us while we may
With circular saw and drill, just say
The word, and pick the colour out.
We’ll measure and cut and sand and rout,
and fill the last empty vertical surface
with a bookcase built for just that purpose.
My lady, but tend to my need;
I’ll build the shelves, and we shall read.

For decent Tuesday Poems, visit: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.

Tuesday Poem – “Otherwise”, by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

– Jane Kenyon
from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1996)

The last few days have been a turbulent finale to a turbulent few weeks. The aftershocks from the earthquake are finally subsiding, but the shocks from the after-effects are only just beginning. On a personal level, as well as on a more general-public one. Round a corner, and you’re faced with a pile of rubble where a building used to be. Or a red piece of paper taped to the doors, and the words NO GO spray painted across the windows. And there are the little(r) things too – I think it’s been just over three weeks since I last had a solid night’s sleep, and I’m one of many in the same state. Christchurch isn’t quite the City of the Living Dead, but we’re certainly a City of the Shaken, Rattled, and Shell-shocked.

But not Rolled, and it could have been otherwise. So very easily Otherwise. We’ve got a lot to be thankful for, as well as a hell of a lot to repair, rebuild and re-inhabit. I suppose some people might say poetry is a luxury in this situation – an indulgence. But two days ago, two weeks after the quake, I sat in a room of students who were sharing poems begun in the almost unimaginable before, and completed through the after. Not just good poems. Magnificent poems. And I watched each one of my students start to calm a little as they read, as they listened, as they commented and suggested and shared. Maybe not blossoming yet, but certainly shaking a little dust off their leaves. Dust off their lives. I felt so proud of them! such a huge surge of love, right then, right there. Maybe it was the fellowship, the camaraderie. That would be the logical explanation. But … I think otherwise.

This will be my last posting for a wee while. Amid the personal and public chaos of the last few months, we’ve bought a house – one of the lucky ones to have survived both the quake and then the insurance companies’ clamp-down on new policies. So the next four weeks or so will be spent in move-related disorganisation (which is even worse than my usual state …)

Sanity and calm are things that I (and virtually everyone in Canterbury) would very much like to experience sometime soon – but, as Cheryl Crow sings in Every day is a Winding Road:

“I’ve never been there,
but the brochure looks nice …”

For more Tuesday Poems, visit: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.