Tuesday poem: Fred D’Aguiar

May 20th, 2013

Vulture Red Letter Day
by Fred D’Aguiar

Vulture days when she feels there’s no wet in the rain

When no two wingbeats sound alike

On such days she should just chill on a ledge and watch worlds fly by,

But no, she be vulture and she won’t let nothing go nowhere,

Not without her say so.

In her mood she pushes from her perch into a breeze full of sweet things.

The moment she leaps she knows she made a big mistake

But one thing leads to another and other things take over

Before she knows it she’s in the thick of a carcass set upon

By a crew drawn from miles around by a smell as rich as any seam,

Crack, crevice, fold, mold, groove.

She pins flesh with feet, lowers head, fails to hear the engine approach.

I’m fortunate to be this week’s Tuesday Poem editor, where you’ll find another poem of Fred D’Aguiar’s displayed in the main page. But when I contacted Fred to ask if I could use one of his poems from his new collection, The Rose of Toulouse, he generously sent me two and asked me to choose between them. And I loved them both, so ‘Saturday, Ocean Creek’ is in the main spot, and ‘Vulture Red Letter Day’ is the one I saved for my own blog.

Fred’s poetry – like his novels, short stories and plays – moves and engages me in resonant and complicated ways. I think that’s partly because of my attempts to make sense of my somewhat chaotic and dislocated life, as well as Fred’s huge talent for shaping recollection and experience into writing that’s both profound and witty. This poem, above, is a perfect example, and I feel I have often been in that vulture’s situation myself!

I’m honoured and delighted to present two of his poems simultaneously, and also to count him as a friend. Thanks, Fred.

Tuesday poem on Monday: Coming home

March 18th, 2013

Coming home, by Rosalind Brackenbury

The plane tips, the town
lies beneath me, all the streets
and yards I know, the small rows
and intimate glow of houses,
blot of trees; after the dark rush
of so much ocean, this patch of land
and everything I want
gathered there: my husband
in our car driving through
lakes to meet me, my daughter
standing at the stove tasting dinner
from a wooden spoon,
her head under the light.
Friends in these fragile boxes
that I rush down to; love, meals,
arguments beneath tin roofs
sluiced by rain. Rain slides
on the plane’s glass its long
diagonals; we shudder,
land in a puddle; on the steps
of the plane breathe first
the salt damp island air.

Used by permission of the author.

Rosalind Brackenbury was born in London, grew up in the south of England, has lived in Scotland and France, and now lives in Key West with her American husband. She is the author of 12 novels (the latest is ‘Becoming George Sand’) and six books of poetry (‘The Joy of the Nearly Old’ is the latest collection).

Although I spend time in Key West every year I’ve not met Rosalind, but her writing has great resonance for me, especially in poems such as this one, which is not only redolent with familiarity of the plane journey from Miami to Key West, but also reminds me of New Zealand. (Mention a small town, or tin roofs on an island, or rain and “blots of trees”, and I’m taken straight back to my childhood. Which may account for my late-onset love affair with Key West.)

If you’d like to read more Tuesday poems go to the hub site, where a main poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Tuesday poem: The lesson of the moth

March 4th, 2013

Posting a piece last week about the palmetto bugs here in Key West sparked a memory of Don Marquis’s poems about Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat. If you haven’t yet encountered these I recommend tracking them down: they were first published in the 1930s.  Archy is a cockroach with the soul of a poet, and  his friend Mehitabel is an alley cat with a celebrated past who claims she was Cleopatra in a previous life.

“expression is the need of my soul,” declares Archy, who labored as a free-verse poet in an earlier incarnation. At night, alone, he dives furiously on the keys of Don Marquis’ typewriter to describe a cockroach’s view of the world, rich with cynicism and humor. It’s difficult enough to operate the typewriter’s return bar to get a fresh line of paper; all of Archy’s dispatches are written lowercase, and without punctuation, because he is unable simultaneously to hit both shift and a letter key to produce a capital letter. These days of course he’d have a lot less trouble with a computer keyboard, always supposing he could turn on the computer in the first place …

Anyway, here’s one of Archy’s poems: enjoy.

the lesson of the moth

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


For more Tuesday poems you can go to the main hub site, where there is a poem posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Of ants and palmetto bugs

February 23rd, 2013

The other morning here in Key West I saw a dead palmetto bug on our deck. You might think that palmetto bugs are just cockroaches and that ‘palmetto bug’ is simply a nicer name for them, but it ain’t that simple. Some say that’s the case; others argue they are not true members of the cockroach family at all. Some say that palmetto bugs are actually American cockroaches (rather than one of the many other varieties throughout the world); others dismiss that idea with disdain. What I know for sure (at least I think I do) is that the proper name for palmetto bugs is Eurycotis floridana and if that doesn’t make them cockroaches, I don’t know what would.

The real problem, as I see it, is not what their true name is or is not. The real problem is twofold: (a) palmetto bugs are rather large, and (b) – oh horrors – they can fly. The first time I ever came to Key West (which must be more than 30 years ago) two palmetto bugs buzz-bombed my head when we were sitting outside on this very same deck, eating dinner. One of them got entangled in my hair for a few nightmare minutes. I’m still having therapy.

In the intervening years between then and now, palmetto bugs have become a lot less numerous here. You seldom see them indoors any more (except maybe one or two lying dead behind the fridge if you happen to clean there) and you never see scorpions, or snakes, or raccoons, all of which were interestingly numerous in the old days. I suspect they’ve all retreated up the Florida Keys to less human-populated areas. So I was slightly surprised to see one on the deck, and glad – glad, I tell you! – that it was thoroughly dead.

I had it in mind to get a dustpan and sweep it into the trash, but in the tropics you tend to delay any brisk activity for another hour, another day or indeed even for an entirely different year, so I didn’t hurry. And the next time I looked, the palmetto bug’s body was surrounded by about 60 ants, grouping themselves busily for action.
The ants in question are tiny ones (there are many different kinds here) so moving a large object like a palmetto bug is a major enterprise for them, and I was fascinated to watch them. And once they got started they moved the body with surprising speed and ease: it looked as if they’d got it on rollers. (It actually reminded me of that ship scene at the beginning of Les Mis The Movie: the scale was about the same.)

But the thing I didn’t understand was why the ants kept circling, instead of marching steadily forwards. Could it have been miscommunication amongst the team? It reminded me of a poem that my father used to recite, about a Roman called Horatius holding a bridge against the enemy.

Was none who would be foremost

To lead such dire attack:

But those behind cried ‘Forward!’

And those before cried ‘Back!’

And backward now and forward

Wavers the deep array;

And on the tossing sea of steel,

To and fro the standards reel;

And the victorious trumpet-peal

Dies fitfully away.

Were the ants undecided, or maybe un-agreed, about where to go? Was it the fault of the leaders with the feelers? Or were they trying to position the body so as to insert it down between the slats of wood?

“You’ll never manage to do that,” I called to them. “There’s not enough space.” But on and on they went, twirling the body this way and that. I was, as you might imagine, tempted to intervene but I managed to stop myself from “helping”. I told myself they knew what they were doing and I did not. I thought they must have a master plan of their own, and I left them to it.

When I came back they’d apparently altered their ideas as well as their direction, and were heading for the garden at the side of the desk. Then they dragged the body under the side fence and – I suppose – into a nest.

Game over.

But if there are any naturalists reading this, could you tell me what was with the twirling?

I took some video of the activities on my iPhone but WordPress tells me the file is too big to upload. If I find out how to make it smaller, I’ll add it later. But meantime here is a photo of a palmetto bug: avert your eyes now if you’re feeling squeamish. It’s dead. You don’t have to worry.

Tuesday poem: A Riddle of the Soul

February 12th, 2013

A Riddle of the Soul
M. K. Joseph

I cannot give

Unless I have

I cannot have

Unless I save

Unless I have

I cannot save

Unless I give

I cannot have.

Unless I live

I cannot be

Unless I am

I cannot seem

I cannot be

Unless I seem

I cannot live

Unless I am.

I cannot be

Unless I give

I cannot have

Unless I die

Unless I grieve

I cannot love

Unless I die

I cannot live.

This week the main poem on the Tuesday Poem blog is by C.K. Stead, and last week Mary McCullum also posted a poem by Allan Curnow. I’m delighted to add to the generational coincidence of poets with this one by M. K. Joseph, who taught in the English Department at Auckland University (with Carl Stead) when I was a student there. (Ken Smithyman, another significant poet of those times, was my Standard Four teacher at Takapuna Primary. Hopeless at teaching maths, but terrific at introducing us to a wide range of poetry that’s stayed with me ever since.)

I’ve posted poems by other important New Zealand poets of that generation in recent years – Rex Fairburn’s To An Expatriate and R.A.K. Mason’s Song of Allegiance still resonate in my life.

‘A Riddle of the Soul’, though, is new to me, and the structure seems intriguingly reminiscent of the modern ferlew (see the one I posted here). M. K. Joseph was an acclaimed novelist as well as a poet, and an academic with, as I recall, a special interest in Byron. And also a fine teacher.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where there is a poem posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Tuesday Poem: The Seed Shop

January 28th, 2013

THE SEED SHOP, Muriel Stuart

Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry—
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June’s magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee seeks here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century’s streams,
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million roses leap;
Here I can blow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

Muriel Stuart , who died in 1967, was at one time a celebrated poet, praised by Thomas Hardy and Hugh MacDiarmid amongst others. She stopped writing poetry in the 1930s and her work is now largely forgotten – but I love this example, especially at this time in the Northern Hemisphere when it’s hard to believe that spring will ever come; that gardens will grow again; that “June’s magic kiss” will bring anything to life once more.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, if you’re not already there, where a main poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

And yes, I know I’ve posted this on a Monday afternoon, but it’s already Tuesday in New Zealand where the Tuesday Poem site originates, and the new main poem that’s just up is so wonderful I have to post this myself. Immediately. Got to be there…

Poetry in the Tower of Song

January 22nd, 2013

“No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon.”

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Leonard Cohen ever since I saw him in performance in Paris last September. I was completely spellbound by the experience. I haven’t recovered from the spell. I accept that I may never recover, and will probably be the better, and the happier, for that.

But I am still finding it hard to discover the right way to say what I want; maybe I’ve become infected by Leonard Cohen’s well-documented song-writing difficulties. It took him five years to write “Hallelujah” and there are several extant versions of that plus many alternate verses and modifications, and now also a whole published book just about that one song. (The biography of a song, complete with an ISBN? How cool is that?)

Anyway, writing about Leonard Cohen turns out to be, for me, as tricky as herding cats. I get one satisfactory phrase lined up in my mind and the others immediately melt away, or reveal their stubborn inadequacy for the task in hand. Whatever the cause, I just don’t seem to have the words to organise this task – but on the other hand, I certainly know someone who does. One heck of a guy, with a speciality in smoke and mirrors.

The concert in Paris made me re-think the whole idea of good fortune. Leonard Cohen has been part of the soundtrack of my life since the late 1960s, which must be the case for many of my generation and tastes. But I didn’t, back then, put him at the very top of my favourites – I admired him, yes, but it’s only since he started touring again in 2008 that my appreciation deepened into something close to amazed awe. And for me – as for many others – the experience of a live concert changed it all over again. I knew I was in the presence of an extraordinary talent: one I’d not fully recognised before.

Of course, his work has changed over time, as have I. His recent songs seem freighted with layers of meaning and complex emotions that move me deeply. His miraculous creative revival offers truly profound and deeply serious ideas, while his themes of freedom, loss and redemption are universally uplifting and challenging.

My current favourite  is “Alexandra Leaving”, on which Cohen and Sharon Robinson (his long-time writing partner) started work in 1985, and didn’t release until 2001. I first heard it at the Paris concert but it wasn’t until a friend (and fellow Cohen groupie) pointed it out that I realised the song was inspired by a wonderful poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The God Abandons Antony”. The Cavafy poem I love the most is “Ithaka”, which I have long planned to have read at my funeral (friends please take note, though as far as I know there’s no need to start rehearsing just yet), but I did already know and love this poem too; I just hadn’t made the connection. Too mesmerised by the song, I expect. I am now addicted to “Alexandra Leaving” and no day feels complete unless I listen to it at least once. (A really good day is one where I can put it on repeat play for a while. Today is one of those. Yesterday was, too. I’m clearly on a roll.)

In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, the Antony of the title is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra’s lover. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story that, when Anthony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the night before the city fell into enemy hands, he heard the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city and realised that the god Bacchus (Dionysus), his longtime protector, was deserting him. You could also understand it as a poem about facing any other great loss, with Alexandria a symbol for any beloved city or woman or past glory or fading powers, but, above all else, I believe, a symbol for life.

In Leonard Cohen’s song, Alexandria has become a woman – Alexandra – and the lyrics are focused on honouring and regretting the moment when her love has been lost. It captures and develops Cavafy’s poem in moving and memorable detail, and seems to me to make perfect harmony with the original.

See what you think. Here’s Constantine Cavafy’s poem, written in 1911:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Here’s the song written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson in 1999:

Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
Some deity preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
they slip between the sentries of your heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
they gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
and radiant beyond your widest measure
they fall among the voices and the wine.

lt’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
a fitful dream the morning will exhaust—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked—
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect,

And you who were bewildered by a meaning,
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

And here is the incomparable Sharon Robinson singing it – the video clip begins with Leonard Cohen reciting some of the words.

And for further indulgence, Leonard Cohen apparently in Henri Cartier Bresson mode.

And here’s a screen shot of the Paris concert, and I swear, I can see myself (and my friend Dee) in the audience. Over on the right, eleventh row back. Yay.

Tuesday poem: Shoulders

December 17th, 2012

Naomi Shihab Nye

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

Someone posted this on FaceBook in response to the Newtown murders. It’s a lovely poem in any context, and very moving in that one.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where there is a poem posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.


December 14th, 2012

Do you know the poem ‘Sometimes’ by Sheenagh Pugh? It’s so popular that I gather the author is sick of it being chosen – she has written other poems, for pity’s sake. But I still like it a lot, and it has come to my mind so often over the last couple of days.

You know how sometimes you feel you’re battling your way through a sea of cold porridge? Everything conspires against you in a fearsome harmony of mean-spirited opposition. And how at other times you feel unreasonably blessed: that the gods are smiling at you, that the world is in harmony after all, and on your side.

Neither of those states lasts: nothing is for ever; not the bad times, and not the good times either. But boy! have I had a lovely couple of days. Here are some of the highlights.

1. I discovered that I have a terrifically impressive bone scan result. A few years ago I had a just-about-OK result, but this one is great. Right up at the top of the scale. And since I have improved I am taking the credit for eating right and exercising properly, and I am really proud of that.
2. The reason I had a bone scan is that I’ve recently been diagnosed with a horrible condition called polymyalgia, for which you need to take cortisone for – in all likelihood – several years. But here’s the good bit: I’m doing so well with the present level of cortisone that I will begin to slowly* reduce the dose in January. Twice! Can’t wait.
3. I got the exact sweater I wanted in the Eileen Fisher sale. I also got a double discount in the sale: not sure why, but hey! It was my day. To add to the pleasure quotient I had lunch in Food For Thought in Neal Street, where I haven’t been in way too long, and it was just as good as ever.
4. My dear friend Dee scored two tickets for next June’s Leonard Cohen concert, and one of them … is for ME! I was faffing around thinking oh, should I really go to this one? (The last one was in a small venue in Paris in September: this is in the O2 Arena. Would I like it as much? Would I like it at all?) Oh worra worra. But as soon as Dee told me she had tickets I realised not only that I wanted to go to this one very much, but that I wanted to go to every single remaining Leonard Cohen concert I can, while he is still able to skip around the stage and kneel (kneel!) to sing his astounding songs. I am very excited, as you may have gathered by now.
5. I am planning to grow my hair so that I can get it into one of those fancy plaits that start up at the top of the back of your head and the hair gets folded in all the way down. I have no idea if that will work, and I have even less of no idea if I will last the hair-growing course, which tends to be rather gruelling. But still.

* I want to let you know that the split infinitive is deliberate. I’m feeling dangerously liberated.

So here’s the poem:-

SOMETIMES by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a sea of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

And indulge me: here’s a picture of One Heck of a Guy.

Merrily rolling backwards

December 13th, 2012

Last week we went to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ which was – is – a brilliant realisation of a famously tricky bit of musical theatre. (It goes backwards: it begins in 1976 and goes back through time, scene by scene, to 1957 when the three main characters first meet.) An American friend tells me that Sondheim and others have been tinkering with it and revising it over the years since the notorious flop of the 1981 premiere, and there was a New York Encores production last winter that they were then calling the definitive revised version: maybe the Chocolate Factory’s production is based on that one. The Chocolate Factory does have a way with Sondheim and it seems they may have finally cracked the ‘Merrily’ curse. The run has just been extended for two weeks until 9 March: I recommend it unreservedly.

Not that it’s a barrel of laughs, you understand. It’s heart-breaking, in typical Sondheim fashion. But also brilliant. Prepare yourselves accordingly.

Anyway, I woke the next morning thinking of it as being a riff on the last line of ‘The Great Gatsby’: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That’s such an American concern, isn’t it – and a larger human one for that matter. What a complete genius is Sondheim: I can’t think of another modern writer so good at the resonances of loss & regret in human lives. (Oh OK, I can if I try, and they all seem to be North Americans. John Updike. Edith Wharton. Willa Cather. Anne Tyler. Leonard Cohen. Etc.)

I do see that’s also what I’m doing with these retrospective blog posts – boats against the current; back into the past; all that. It’s an interesting exercise and I’m slightly sorry it’s almost over – there’s this one, and another I plan to write about the Leonard Cohen concert I went to in Paris at the end of September, and that’s more or less it. After that it’s all going to be forward! Forward! And anyway I don’t want to get too close to Wordsworth’s famous quote about poetry being the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility,’ if only because I don’t usually feel tranquil about the past, or about past emotions. (Interested, certainly: even retrospectively surprised: just not tranquil.) But I am enjoying this present process, so go figure.

Anyway, back to New York at the end of October, and emotions recollected against a satisfying background of uproar. We went to galleries and the theatre and the opera, and a concert on a barge in Brooklyn. We walked the High Line. I had my first encounter with a sbagliato cocktail. We caught up with old friends and met delightful new acquaintances (the sbagliato cocktail springs once more to mind in this category) and left regretting some of the things we hadn’t managed to fit in as much as treasuring the things we had, which I think is par for the New York experience – I always used to think I shouldn’t go to bed when I was in Manhattan because I’d always be missing something wonderful.

The best thing? Hard to choose, but probably ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ at the Met. Perfect, simply perfect. Worth the journey all by itself.