Michael Harlow has published eight books of poetry, including Giotto's Elephant (premio: a Finalist in the National Book Award for Poetry, 1991), Cassandra's Daughter (AUP, 2005, 2006), and most recently The Tram Conductor's Blue Cap (AUP, 2009). The Associate and Poetry Editor at Landfall for some ten years, he has also been the Katherine Mansfield Fellow to Menton, France, and in 2004 the Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Take A Risk, Trust Your Language, Make a Poem was awarded the PEN Best First Book of Prose (1986). His work has been translated into Greek, French, Spanish and German. He was the Burns Fellow for 2009, and the inaugural Caselberg Artist in Residence (Dunedin). His most recent poetry collection The Tram Conductor's Blue Cap was a (premio) Finalist for the 2010 National Book Awards for Poetry. He has been awarded the University of Otago Wallace Writer in Residence for 2011/2012. He has a new collection of poetry forthcoming, The Company of Map Makers (2013) and also a Selected Poems from Cold Hub Press. Michael Harlow lives and works as a writer, editor, and Jungian psychotherapist in Central Otago, Alexandra, New Zealand.
A field note on poetry
Poems that ask what it means, in the face of the absurdities and shadowy things thrown up by life, to ‘risk delight’; and what that might mean when we are looking-out and listening-in for a language to say something about how mysterious we are to ourselves and to the world.
Poems that are lyric moments of recognition of what happens when we stand up and speak in front of ourselves and others; you could say a way of ‘being restoried’; a way of letting ‘words dream again’, so that making the ‘invisible, visible’ is at the heart of what the I call the ‘persistent imaginal’. From this ‘the poem springs’.
And there are poems that come calling on and celebrate the ‘privilege of ordinary astonishments’--so that one day ‘a single original carrot shall be pregnant with revolution’ (an echo from the painter Cézanne).
Poems that acknowledge and reflect on how it is always that the ‘light lies down with the dark’, however various the shuffling weathers of the heart turn up loss and death, time and memory, despair and delight; when 'forgetting is always about remembering'. And on those occasions that poems return to that inevitable and archetypal mystérion, what is it ‘that love dares the self to do’?
A poetry that rests on and enacts the belief that we need to ‘see the sounds and hear the words’, so that despite every dark thing there is in the world, there will always be music, when ‘words sing’ poetry makes intimate everything that it touches (there is always the distinct possibility of romance', and more); naturally, poetry wants to go to the heart of the matter.
The nannies are coming
What do the tanks know, dreaming
at night under a full moon or the dark
of none? Idle in their slots they design
parades. Their devices are intact.
Swivel heads scattering birds, they live
off visions of coughing up shells; they purr
in earnest. As prams they are remodelled
for nestling under the Acropolis, patrolling
the esplanade in Barcelona. Let it be said
they’ve caught on. ‘The nannies are coming!’
They are moving into the backyards of our city.
They glow under the greatcoats of our generals,
making sudden invasions to the centre of our sleep.
They polish their treads under the dark inside
yards of iron. ‘We will eat them raw’, they say,
and lull themselves to a wakeful sleep: and
one by many they are counting people.
Athens, Greece 1973
Today is the Piano’s Birthday
Today is the piano’s birthday. Yesterday it was found alone and forlorn in the garden. Mother was not there, father was gone. But today is the piano’s birthday.
Under the spinet tree the children touch it. The piano’s foot-pedals hum. Hurrah! shout the children. The piano is on holiday. They say Wake up and would you and we would, they sing the birthday song. They strike the exact notes without looking, without looking the piano writes a song for the children. And you can hear inside the song for the children you can hear plinking, planking, plonk you can hear how the piano conducts the children through a small wood of ivory; you can hear the music of running water.
The children sing with their feet. They bound up and down. They pirouette. They call to mother who is dreaming on the lawn, to father who is at the office polishng his machines.
And now the piano falls into a dream. The children listen. From far off birds with the faces of women, birds with the faces of men fly into the garden. They lie down. They call to the children. The children listen. They lean into the falling darkness so much light buriend there. They decide. They say Look how we curl inside the piano’s birthday. The children are the size of a crotchet. They are the stories being played inside the piano’s birthday. They are listening...to mother wake on the lawn and touch the space around her...to father close the office door... And today is the piano’s birthday.
If we listen...we can hear mother call them a small song waiting on air, we can hear father enter the house with the courage of his tenderness. If we listen we can hear the one song the very first song the children sing, the one dream the very first dream the piano dreams...
We can hear what we see...mother and father touch each other with wonder.
Talking at the Boundary
John Clare, 13 July 1793-20 May 1864
Whopstraw man about the countryside
In your own time ‘Peasant Poet’, Clare
Talking at the boundary; from Helpstone’s
Centre, a day’s ramble you define
Earth’s curve. What wild ways you go, such
Bright astonishments heart holds. Under
The sun’s arm you rise into the light; your
Devotion to small things, each one a
World; speckled eggs, still warm in your
Hands a nest of planets. All noise
Songs: to your country ear the ‘fern owl’s
Cry that whews aloft.’
Storyteller talking straight, names
Flourish like grass: Swordy Well, Sneap Green,
Eastwell’s Boiling Spring; Salter’s Tree
That in you lived, world-inner-space,
‘Humming of future things that burns
The mind.’ Yours -- of course, a wounding
Drive, a purity of heart; person and place
As you rightly say, Loves register.
And, failed: ‘Blue devils’ rode you hard;
Like that other you most admired, ended
Up in bedlam. You signed your name,
Clare: out of a terrible clarity given,
You gave your word.
Sought asylum from a world, its
Tormented sleep that wanted books to be
‘About’ and yours were not; that
Tore up trees, would titillate itself
With ‘high life seen from below
Stairs.’ Too much seen from which
There’s no retrieving, you say, a man
Whose daughter is the queen of England now
Sitting on a stone heap on the way
To bugden without a farthing in his pocket.
You may have seen the face of God;
Or staring back from the spoon-hollow
Of a stream, that unspeakable shadow.
Saints are not made, they are chosen, Clare.
And I am moved to say at risk these fell
Days of a century’s end where reason is on
The make: for such ‘mad’ men as you
Measure must be taken; some small witness
Given alongside those desperately sane,
Who nightly lie above their wives
Planning devices so subtle
They eat children before they are born.
This is your birthday
He had always wanted to end up
as a constellation in the night sky.
Sending out all that starlight to cover
the earth. To leave behind a map
of himself. Better the dream to wake
to than the nightmare—and he was
worried that if he failed to love greatly,
he would fall early out of the picture.
That he would never catch hold of
the other one in himself. Her words
now hurrying from one empty room
to another. Then, closing the door as
quietly as she entered his days, she said
the heart never lies more than it needs to.
Look behind you. This is your birthday.
And you are always ten years old.
Bride with beautiful feet
Under a sudden sunfall of bright
that strikes the dark in waiting,
we look to sing one pleasure or
another--trying to understand
the way we come to each other,
to let loose words in their looking,
whose language is telling what story,
ours; the right kind of adventure,
waiting for some goddess or other,
dear Sappho to arrive on a rill
of wind; to take your ease, to lean
back, to shout the world the right place
for love to come calling on the ‘wings
of pretty sparrows’. In all the right
places, the right touch to take with great
style the pleasures of your company
Water in one hand fire in the other,
we sing you to make the far, more
near, and the more love’s longing--
some die without it--but look: you
are as sunlight among flowers, such
a ‘bride with pretty feet’, we make
the air be music with your name.
A lovers’ quarrel
Something about how we live through
so many betrayals only to discover our
own, you said--trying to stay alive inside
the alphabet, and meet up with old friends
We were walking out of the park, your
hair on fire under a full fall of moon;
the flowering almond its bridal white
fading earlier than we remembered
I could hear, a leaf-fall of thought, one
of those moments when little is said
and always its meant to mean more
And you know words don’t do well
in loneliness; they don’t like to dwell
in the solitude of themselves. And who
can blame them? I said, thinking that here
we were again inside a lovers’ quarrel
in a place we called the world. Just then
I had in mind of the six chairs missing,
the one remaining, the last of the family:
its slat-back broken, the seat eating air
alone in the garden with the stone Buddha
under a cloak of ivy. And I remembered
the map-maker’s secret wish that finally
the one map arrives, the four gates to the
future drawn to perfection. It’s here you
say we find ourselves best by being lost
And that trying to climb into heaven
on your own will never do. Those tall dark
poplars, daughters of that wily old sun
god, we may need to keep in more than
mind. Such leaf music we hear the voices
of anyone’s unborn children. I can see
there is a tenderness to attend to, and now.
This young boy and his sister
on their skipping way to school
and everywhere tossing shouts
of laughter into the air. In a shower
of light on the bright whitewash wall
of the Church of Saint Dionysia, they throw
their shadows. They sign themselves
and their animal friends, letting words
talk to each other; they tell their dreams
They do no less than risk delight: despite
every dark thing there is in the world,
there will always be music. And they
wonder: what is the name of this song?
All about the world
my friend’s daughter Cassandra
asked me in a small voice of wonder,
if I wouldn’t mind could I tell her
all about the world?
telephoned and said I’m going to tell you
about poetry, since they had been hearing
poetry at school.
Uh huh, I said
Because I couldn’t think of anything else
to say, and besides it had been hard work
not telling her all about the world
She said then
lowering her voice, letting me in on a big
one, Poetry is when words sing. I could
hear then that already she knew enough
of ‘all about the world’ to keep her singing
from time to time
And then she added,
since she was in that kind of a hurry,
About 100 years from now, trees
will be called very important people.
Cassy for short.
We’re discussing the colour green
and why. And how last night
in her dreamtime a wooden-horse
appeared. And look--how the wind
puts shivers in the water, shaking
the keys in their locks.
Only five years old, she is
already in love with how
one word wants another
with astonishing ease.
Inside the alphabet now,
inside the lining of a word
she asks me as we sit
on the garden wall under
a plum-coloured sun: why
were you born at seven o’clock
that night? I was a morning baby
my mum says, the best kind.
I was born with my eyes open,
you see? Would you like to
hear me sing? I can almost dance,
too. Would you? I can hear
that she knows, Priam’s daugher,
all her years to heaven--
that every word was once
a poem, isn’t it?
The Company of Map Makers
That oldest story mapping the world, the
world-snake in the habit of swallowing its tail.
In the company of map makers you are one.
When you lay out the world there are no
straight lines. There is only clamouring for it
in occluded offices where high words plump
for the ‘straight and narrow’, and are bluster.
The only rule that’s truly to itself is to turn
and follow the stories. And the stories inside
them is what map makers do. To know how
mind’s thought feels its way through the dark,
into the light. The way we lie down together
and wake apart. One side-track then another is
how to wander. An art to make any quick
surprise a wonder. There is laughter buried there.
And the astonishments of laughter to keep you
alive. To see what it feels like to follow earth’s
curve the shape of what you imagine, and are
imagined by. To follow the air’s swirl of song;
the hurrying water, to recall the ‘river of rivers’
running to the sea to lose itself a name, and then
returning to take another. In word-struck lines
of optic infatuation: you are ‘mapping the territory’
to make the invisible, visible. To know how the
imposing impossible is possible, when it is like this:
‘The air is full of flying children’ wanting to be
everywhere at once. Trees are so musical they can’t
help themselves scoring ‘harmonies of a heaven’.
And to know the turbulence of women, and then
their quietude: to find a place to be, and being what
is in us to attain. When you say there is no one thing
naturally alone on either side of the great divide—
to map that, is no sophistical aside to say that you
would like ‘to die with life’. And to know today’s
map is tomorrow the same, but always different.
Longing for Harmonies, Lettre de Menton
Have you ever noticed?
Always there’s a pair
of them together; ring-collar
doves, even when they’re
flying switchback from tree
to tree, daubs of colour
in a toss of light, you can’t
tell which one is following
the other. Have you listened
to them singing their hearts
out under the parasols of trees?
I swear you never know
when one song begins
and the other one ends.
You might say--they have an
arrangement: one long song
for two voices: they are calling
down the lost noises of the sun
and clearly--this ‘magic study
of happiness that no one eludes’.
No problem, but not easy
This is the Green Man
He lives at the corner of Hello Street and Goodbye.
He lives in a house, Alchemy House.
When you stand close to him
He is surely a man, you can see that
Sometimes, even, he has a beard.
And there are times when you see him
From afar, say, from across the room
He is also a woman.
Now, she is the Green Woman.
This is the way it is.
Sometimes he is friendly
Always in a hurry to be singing.
Sometimes she is not unfriendly
She is full of lightness, and music.
And there are times when he is quite terrible
Full of fire, you had better watch out.
And sometimes she is quite bossy
Even wicked, be careful.
Which is the way it is.
And you know, sometimes even they go to war.
There is destruction all over the place.
And of course there are times
When they lie down in each other’s arms
And they touch each other again and again.
And this is the way it is:
No problem, but not easy.
The tram conductor’s blue cap
for Christopher Middleton
In the waking hours of the night, a bell-tongue claps him.
He is the tram conductor. In retirement, his fingers are stubs,
his legs brittle, the light pinches. And he is waiting inside a blue
cap that is too small, and smaller still...
When the bell rings and the air is ghosts; when the places
around him are wounded, when the moon’s cup is empty or full,
he is the tram conductor--and he is sailing down the line. Look--
how he sparks along the blue rails; behind his eyes electric
currents hum. Hooh! he says and throws his hands at lampposts
passing by, at the eyes of windows, at letter-boxes posting
themselves in the opposite direction.
He is the tram conductor, and he inside a story that dreams
him: in it there is a leather pouch the colour of old furniture,
inside that there are years; there are the bright holes of punched
tickets, and the gobbling tongues of strangers; there are the
small disturbances of wayward words... There is yes, this man
in a blue cap, he is waving his arms, and we see and we hear...
There is no wife waiting to climb out of the story to greet
him, to rub the sleep from his eyes; there are no children in the
darkness waiting to be born; at the foot of the stairs there are
no hands holding other hands, there are no love-birds
happy in their cages to be singing...
But there is yes, a small eggshell voice that says step up step
down, tickets please, madame if you smile I’ll eat you with my
eyes, and please sir, your flies are open your flies...click, click..
And we see: there is mother climbing out of the bedclothes,
she is calling out a name; there is father falling to the ground
in a wreck of a place...And that black dog with a doll in its mouth
And why does my head hurt? And my legs... Why are my
words disappearing? And finally we see: a man, he is waving
his arms and he is shouting...and this bue cap flying now through
whirlwinds of air...