Tuesday Poem: The Inner Life by Jenny Bornholdt

Monday, 30th May, 2011

The Hill of Wool

The Inner Life

 

I share a bed

with my husband,

an asthma puffer,

and often, under the pillows,

two pens. Life has never been

so good. In the morning

I get up and there are the cups

and saucers—one always to go

with the other.

I feel lucky to know

what a cup of flour

feels like. The way

this flour, with water,

can become bread.

With egg, cake.

 

 

 

This poem is from Jenny's new book - The Hill of Wool. The blurb says it well: The Hill of Wool is a book about memories. Some memories live and grow in families. Some are inspired by rediscovered children’s songs and stories. Others are triggered by chance encounters with old friends. Sometimes personal and lyrical, sometimes jagged and strange like untamed children’s rhymes. 

I love how Jenny's work seems so simple but says so much.

Jenny says: I wrote the poem to accompany an exhibition 'An Interior Life' at PaperGraphica in 2007.

Contributing artists were: Kathryn Madill, Nigel Buxton, Seraphine Pick, Jason Greig, Margaret Dawson, John Pule, Jenny Bornholdt / Marian Maguire.

For more Tuesday Poems visit the hub.

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Monday eye-candy

Sunday, 29th May, 2011

Macrocarpa cone

Monday = eye-candy

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A cheap trick: a guest post from Helen Lehndorf

Tuesday, 24th May, 2011

 

At the end of this post is a short short story I wrote which is about the death of a child.

 

I wrote it a few years back for a short short story competition. (It didn't get anywhere.)

 

Last year, my friend Sarah Laing had this to say about dead children in literature:

 

'I am ambivalent about dead children in literature. For me, it's the ultimate taboo, I don't want to think about children dying, I resist engaging because it is one of the saddest things I can think of. Sometimes I think it is a cheap trick by writers, to force emotion out of their audience. It feels like a device, a tool. But perhaps that 's the point of art, to provide semulcrums of grief, love, rage – practice runs so we are better equipped for the real thing...' (see link for her full musings on the topic).

 

When I read Sarah's post, I thought of my story. She is right of course. How awful, how mawkish and manipulative to write about a child dying, because anyone with an ounce of humanity will have an emotional reaction to even the two words in close proximity: 'child die'. You could potentially get away with terrible writing because the reader will be so sad about the dead child they won't notice.

 

I think she is also right in her idea that sometimes writers go to these ugly, unthinkable places as a sort of emotional rehearsal. I know that is what I was doing when I wrote this story. I was undergoing a different kind of grief about one of my sons. (He wasn't dead, but I had lost him all the same, for a while anyway.) I think I wrote this to prod at that grief a bit, to push it into fiction and see how the grief looked there. Also, I think mothers writing about dead children is like a Mexican sugar skull – laugh at death, defy it, dare it to come near you, show it that you will bite it's head off if it tries...

 

Sometimes a more skilful writer than me, can write about a dead child and handle it with great grace. Two examples are this New Zealand short story containing a dead child by Tracey Slaughter. & I recently read this beautiful memoir by Elizabeth McCracken  – she writes deeply into and through her grief at losing her child (a still birth) yet this book is not 'therapy writing' but beautifully crafted prose which intelligently shines light into some murky emotional places.

& Here is my wee story. The little boy dies, OK? so don't go getting attached.

 

THE BLUR By Helen Lehndorf

 

My mother peers over the top of her glasses at the photos on my wall.

'You never did get studio portraits done of the children, did you? I sent you that voucher.' She lifts a picture of Toby down. 'This is a lovely one of his face, but his hands are blurry.'

 

*

 

The toaster is faulty and always burns one side. It annoys me but I only remember about needing to replace the toaster while I'm eating the half-toasted, half-charred bread. The rest of the day it doesn't cross my mind. Sometimes it seems my life is full of these small irritations – easily fixed, absent-mindedly neglected.

 

It drives Rod crazy that I don't lace my sneakers properly. The laces are a random cross-hatch with uneven knots. It drives me crazy that he automatically puts another round of toast in the toaster when he takes one out. There's always cold toast sitting sadly in the slots. It's such a waste of bread.

“I'm from a big family” he says. “There was always someone who wanted toast.” But now in our family there are just the three of us and I usually eat cereal anyway.

 

When I wake there is always that dozy sense of morning optimism. Then I remember. The remembering seeps across my chest like an ink stain on linen.

 

After he turned five, it was harder to get a good photo of him. He'd spy the camera and pull his 'camera face' – an unappealing fake smile, more of a grimace really. I had to sneak up on him, snap photos while he was absorbed in playing, or pushing cars around.

 

Children these days expect to see photographs instantly on the little screen on the back, so he was annoyed that day, I had dusted off my old SLR film camera. It was the day we bought the second hand swing set from a Kindergarten garage sale. I snapped him swinging, shimmying up the bars like a monkey. His summer-brown legs wrapped around the metal, a plaster on his knee where he'd come off his scooter.

“Where am I, Mummy?” he said, running his fingers over the back of the camera.

“You'll have to wait for these photos. I have to get them developed,” I rubbed his back, “now go and wash your hands. I've made pasta for lunch.”

 

He was always in a hurry, always in a rush. He made us faster, too, as we raced to keep up with first him, and then Priscilla. But we aren't so fast any more. Now we are quite slow.

 

I went inside to finish making lunch. He was there in the yard and then he wasn't and then he was gone, out onto the street. I heard the accident before I saw it. Every day I hear it again.

 

It was over a year later that I found the film in the fridge door. I got my friend Susan to take it into the shop for me. I couldn't do it. There was too much I'd had to do already. She came in, pale and serious, with bagels and the green envelope. I made coffee and we sat.

 

There he was, climbing and swinging. The chickenpox scar on the side of his nose. The tomato sauce trail down the front of his t-shirt. In each photo he was moving. In every photo, arms open, legs in motion. The very energy of him. The blur.

 

 

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Tuesday Poem: On getting away by Helen Heath

Tuesday, 24th May, 2011

Sting Ray 

Not sure if this a poem or prose but who cares? ;-)

 

Sting-rays are large shadows cruising up and down the beach. My son wears some borrowed goggles to check before we swim All clear. At first it’s cold and then you can stay in for hours, just floating in a hook shape, your toes poking out, hands paddling like a sculler, hoping that nothing too bad is lurking beneath you, letting the light surf take you slowly back into shore. Then drying off with a salty crust mixed with sunscreen, your hair - stiff strands. The red-billed gulls yell insults at the German hikers.

 

We walk very slowly. Every step there are treasures to pick up - Cat’s eyes, a feather, a limpet shell patterned like a star-burst, pieces of kina and sand dollars, bones we try to identify and once a desiccated seahorse. Every now and then a shag surfaces then dives back down. We try to guess where it will re-surface. Is it even still there? It seems to take forever. Perhaps it has drowned, or been eaten by a shark? It’s gone for sure and then Oh! There it is!

 

The estuary is wide. Strands of the river thread and plait themselves down to the sea. Small scale sand bars build and ripple, a deep pool forms against the contours of the rocks, which holds barnacles and limpets. Wading across isn’t too hard, although your feet sink into the soft sand and the water runs over your knees. Then you are on the other side, against the cliff. The rock formations call out to be photographed but you’ll be disappointed by the inability of pixels to capture the light and shade.

 

Later as I write in my journal my daughter can’t keep quiet, she chatters her inner dialogue. As the night goes on even the silence isn’t silent. The cicadas, the sound of the surf, the birds, all constant white noise to replace the white noise of the city and suburbs - cars, radios, dogs, mowers and people, people, people.

 

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A nest for stingers

Monday, 23rd May, 2011

Wasp nest fragment 

Monday Eye candy, a fragment of a wasp nest.

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What I’ve been reading

Tuesday, 17th May, 2011

Art of the personal essay

Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present

Lex Williford & Michael Martone (eds)

The Next American Essay

John D'Agata, Guy Davenport (eds)

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present

Phillip Lopate (ed)

 

Following on from last week’s review from Courtney I’ve been reading a lot of essays recently, partly because they’re so hot right now ;-) and partly because I’ve been taking a paper on creative non-fiction. Anthologies are funny things, they are by their nature fragmented and some editors have a stronger presence than others.

Of these three anthologies the Lopate strives to be the definitive collection. It is a huge book, covers a vast period of time and introduces readers to the classics of the genre. You can see why it is often used as a text.

The collection consists of 75 personal essays, spanning over 400 years. The earliest dates from the 1600's, from Seneca and De Montaigne to Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf and Orwell.

One section - "Other Cultures, Other Continents"-includes: Ivan Turgenev, Lu Hsun, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roland Barthes. He also includes the "American Scene" with Thoreau, Thurber, McCarthy, Fitzgerald, E.B. White, Baldwin, Didion and Lopate himself.

The whole collection is also categorised by "Theme and Form" such as: ambition, city life, country living, death, drugs & alcohol, disability & illness, food, family ties, leisure, love and sexuality, music, nature, walking, race & ethnicity. The classifications of essays under "Form" list: analytical meditation, consolation, diatribe, humor, list, mossaic, memoir. I really like this aspect.

His introduction is a great essay in itself about the personal essay. He discusses his selection, rationale and arrangement of this book.

The other two anthologies are not as ambitious in covering the history of the essay; they only cover my life time. Of the two D’Agata’s is the most eclectic in taste. He is trying to make us think about the genre- What is the essay? How do we define it and why? What are our expectations and do they matter?

Of all the editors John D'Agata's voice is the most present –he manages to carry the entire collection on a whimsical story about why he loves essays. It's charming. His selections are often bold and buck tradition in an attempt to show us the potential of the essay.

The touchstone anthology covers the same era as D’Agata’s but is less experimental. The editors asked 500 creative writing teachers which essays they like to teach and picked out their 50 favourites from the submissions. With that in mind it would have been interesting to have a small commentary from a teacher before each piece. The essays are all consistently good but not, on the whole, very risky.

If I could only choose one to take to a desert island I would probably pick the Lopate because it is so comprehensive but really you wouldn’t go wrong reading all three for three different takes on the form.

 

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Tuesday Poem: Learning to swim by Helen Heath

Monday, 16th May, 2011

Learning to swim

 

At the side of the pool

mothers blow

tiny ‘Oh’s.

 

o, o, o, o, o, o, o, o, o, o, o

 

These instructions, little gifts

to sons and daughters

a silver thread from each

set of lips to under-water ears.

 

 

This poem originally appeared in Poetry NZ 34 in 2007.

You can find more Tuesday Poems at the hub.

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I love feijoa season

Monday, 16th May, 2011

Feijoa

 

Monday = eyecandy 

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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer: a book review from Courtney Johnston

Tuesday, 10th May, 2011

 I'm chuffed to bring you a book review from Courtney Johnston aka Auchmill. Courtney has a great blog, tweets and you can also catch her on National Radio, talking about the arts with Kathryn Ryan. Here is Courtney's review of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

 

I have been trying to read Montaigne's essays for about 12 years now.

Montaigne entered my consciousness in my first year at university,

when I somehow picked up the notion that every well-rounded reader

should be acquainted with him.

 

However, my every attempt to grapple with the Essays left me flummoxed

by the As and Bs and Cs that are scattered through the sentences

(noting which version of the Essays they are derived from), the

snippets of Latin and French, and the roundabouts and whirligigs of

the language. While every commentator dwells upon Montaigne's personal

appeal to the reader (a dangerous seduction for those who find his

writing seditious; satisfying self-identification for those who don't)

I couldn't find my entry point.

 

Sarah Bakewell has given it to me. She notes at the end of this book

that it was five years in the making, and I don't doubt that at all.

Not only must the research and reading required been prodigious, but

that crafting of research into the eventual structure of the book must

have been a painstaking process (unless Bakewell is touched by genius

when it comes to textual visualisation).

 

A little background. Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) was a landowner,

writer, politician and diplomat who live in the Aquitaine region of

France, near Bordeaux (his father was a winemaker, and the label still

exists). Montaigne lived through a period of French history

characterised by religious conflict and civil war, but also an

intellectual context that mirrored that of the Italian Renaissance,

with great love and respect for Greek and Roman culture and

philosophy.

 

During his life, Montaigne was perhaps better known for his influence

as a politician and go-between in royal matters than as a writer, but

he was also recognised for his Essays; short pieces of that reflect

his own point of view on various topics. The word 'Essay' here comes

from the French 'essai' for attempt or trial - Montaigne's pieces were

the first example of a new genre: short, subjective takes on a chosen

subject.

 

Bakewell's book, as the title declares, takes the overarching question

asked in Montaigne's essays - How to live? - and offers twenty answers

drawn from the texts. Both the structure and the answers - Use little

tricks; Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted;

Don't worry about death; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Be

ordinary and imperfect - can sound glib. But both, when ventured into,

prove to be engrossing, pragmatic, and humane.

 

Bakewell manages to move roughly chronologically through Montaigne's

life, setting his essays within his upbringing, his education, his

personal relationships, his work as a public servant, and his

historical context. She shows us the prevailing intellectual modes of

the day, and does an especially good job of explaining how Montaigne's

writing has been received and perceived, used and abused up to the

present day. There are Montaigne's contemporaries, who admired his

application of Stoic philosophy and collation of extracts of classic

texts. We move to Descartes and Pascal, who were horrified and

transfixed by his Scepticism, and the 17th century libertins who

celebrated his free thinking. Four centuries of English readers and

interpreters took some pleasure in adopting this son of France, who

was cast out from his native literary tradition and placed on the

Index of Prohibited Books for 180 years. In the 20th century,

modernist writers sought to replicate the immediacy of Montaigne's

writing, the sense of being fully-grounded in the present; today we

are surrounded by the proliferation of the public/private personal

essay in the form of the blog.

 

Each of Bakewell's chapters then does not simply recap what Montaigne

says about reading and remembering what you read, or marriage and how

to raise children, or friendship, or how to prepare oneself for one's

death. And it could not be that simple, as Montaigne's writing is not

that simple. It would be easy to recast his writing as self-help

speak: to achieve goal X, apply methods Y and Z. But that wouldn't be

true to Montaigne's own approach, which was circular, occasionally

contradictory, always exploratory, never authoritative, and often

ended with a Gallic shrug, a wry smile, and whatever the French is for

'Eh, what do I know?'.

 

Underpinning Montaigne's essays - and his entire approach to life -

are three schools of classical philosophy. My favourite chapter of

Bakewell's book - 'Use little tricks' - lays out this territory, but

to give a rough summary: Stoicism taught Montaigne to face up to the

life unflinchingly. Scepticism taught him question everything to never

take anything fro granted, to always seek other perspectives, and to

avoid making or building off assumptions. And Epicureanism taught him

to focus on the pleasure available in life whilst living in these

ways.

 

All three schools, despite their different approaches, share one goal:

to achieve 'eudaimonia', a way of living that is translated as

happiness, or human flourishing. This means living well, without fear,

with the ability to enjoy every moment, by being a good person. The

best way to achieve eudaimonia is through 'ataraxia' or becoming free

of anxiety; of (consciously) developing the ability to move through

life on an even keel. To do this, one must overcome two major hurdles:

controlling one's emotions, and paying attention to the present. All

three schools taught ways - little tricks - of achieving these ends.

None offer an answer to the question 'How to live?'; none say that if

you do X and obey Y you will be happy. Instead, all three offer a

method, thought experiments and mental tricks that will help you calm

yourself and bring yourself into the moment. From there, it is up to

you. As Montaigne himself wrote: 'Life should be an aim unto itself, a

purpose unto itself'.

 

So Montaigne's essays show him attempting to live out these precepts,

to apply them to moments like the death of a friend, the fear of armed

bandits, the passing of a kidney stone, playing with one's cat

(somehow, in a way I still don't fully understand, Montaigne's sudden

switch of perspective, from seeing his cat as something he played with

to himself as a toy for his cat, got him blacklisted by Descartes and

led to his posthumous falling-out with the Catholic church).

 

Bakewell's book is utterly beguiling, which makes me think Montaigne

must be too. So I am going to tackle the essays again, this time

feeling a little more prepared, knowing what to look for, and ready to

be surprised.

 

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Tuesday Poem: Stellar says by Helen Heath

Monday, 9th May, 2011

Stellar says

 

scares swim in the seen

tear looking for pray.

 

Stellar draws

a basking scare

a great white scare

a hammerhead scare.

 

I’ve seen them swim

scare a tear

look, pray.

 

We are in the soup

we are swimming

we are scared

we are looking

we are praying.

 

 

So yes, here I am back from my bloggy holiday. I've been writing some essays. They aren't quite ready to share but not too far off.

It's lovely to start back with a Tuesday Poem. This one appeared first in the Whitireia journal 4th Floor. Submissions are still open for '4th Floor Literary Journal' 2011. It's the online journal of the Whitireia New Zealand creative writing programme. If you're a past or present student or tutor, you can submit up to five poems or max 1000 word prose pieces. Submissions close 29 May.

Details here. 

For more Tuesday Poems visit the hub.

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