Saturday, August 31, 2013

To end

Eric Ravilious
Wiltshire Landscape (1937)
Watercolour on paper

It was a covered van  and by no means a new one  and appeared, from the mire upon its wheels, to have already travelled some distance that day. The driver, whose right hand rested upon the wheel, seemed to be awaiting the arrival of a companion – who was also, perhaps, his partner in business  for he turned now and again to glance expectantly...

T.F. Powys Mr Weston's Good Wine (1927)

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson was born in Christchurch. After graduating from Canterbury University he went overseas for nine years, teaching English in Germany, Spain and North Africa. He returned to New Zealand in 1980 and moved to Waiheke Island in 1982, where he has lived ever since with his family. His many books, ranging from collections of poetry and translations through novels to a graphic novel, include The Palanquin Ropes (Voice Press, 1983), Lear – The Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon (Hard Echo Press, 1986), Dumb Show (Longacre Press, 1996), Treasure Hunt (AUP, 1996), The Vertical Harp: poems of Li He (Titus, 2006), Travesty (Titus, 2010). Mike was co-winner of the 1981 John Cowie Reed Memorial Competition with The Palanquin Ropes; a finalist in the 1986 New Zealand Book Awards for the novel Lear, and has held both the University of Canterbury Ursula Bethell Fellowship and the University of Auckland Literary Fellowship. 

Mike Johnson is the most underrated of all living New Zealand authors. Sometimes gothic, sometimes lyrical, sometimes both at once, his output over the past three decades has been extraordinary. Yet much of his fiction and most of his poetry has slipped by, barely reviewed... 
(Iain Sharp, New Zealand Herald)

Let’s begin with an early poem that remained unfinished until recently. It seems to capture that mysterious, magical quality to life and art that has haunted me from the start. A touch of fantasy, a feel for the beauty of the lyric, and ah, the drudgery of trance.

stone by stone by stone

we are the builders, our secrets go into the stone
with our blood and breath and our mortal history
the sun on our backs, the dust in our eyes, smoke in our throats
gods with greywacke faces looking down at us from the sky
the fist of the earth pushing up from below

we are the builders
our hardships are well documented, stamped and archived,
we scratch our names in granite dawns while the carnival goes past
fluttering dragons, planets tethered to a string, balloons full of stars
that go pop when children laugh too loud, galaxies of firecrackers
embedded in the night with slurry and trowel

to the gods we were taught we do obeisance in the style
of the times, obedient to the will that raises a hand
or lets it fall, lifts or breaks the stone we roll like a sun
through the heavens, a great thundering sound
heard through all the eleven realms, putting on notice
the evil that undoes the world

we are the builders, we never rest, we go on building
night after night, phantom cities of blossom and rain,
stone pools with leaves floating in the heart of the light-angel
courtyards with voices, floating in the slender arms of young
grieving mothers – with steady tread and sure hands,
with our secret alphabet, our coded whispers, balconies and cornices appear,
highways and alleyways and mirrors that stand so high
they can sing to each other across time

we are the builders, our secrets go into the stone, carve creation,
blocks of sleep stacked on quivering eyelids, the waking drudgery
of trance, aiming the bridge for the far shore, glittering islands
in cracked hands, creviced fingers, we haul, stone by stone by stone
the walls we build for the city

At some point I stopped being so precious about the way the words came out. I wanted poetry less intensely mediated and minimal, but more spontaneous, slapping down chunks of language the way, after a storm, the sky will slap down chunks of light on the Coromandel. Much more fun. Unpublished.

Silk Screen

an old silk love, it crossed mountains and deserts, lakes and forests
until nothing was left but a gas station and an upturned tank spinning
on its turret in the sand like a kid’s toy after the party

the way the colours adhere, the paper, floating orange oblongs, trendy mauve triangles, so sixties, packed with silk-cut nostalgia and home-baked buns,
milk with cream on top, telephones two cents a call – feel it

in the texture, the way it feels you back when you feel it, tastes your tongue
when you lick the seal, makes it something personal you might have heard on
the wireless while remedies were cooking

no renegade gloom, no palace of mirrors; no fate nor destiny nouns
no rats in the bolts, the caravan makes its way to the city of gold
in matt finish, a little hairy with dream-patches attached

through the opened fan, through the silk screen peacocks, glimpse ice melt
the face of the beloved recalled from curious times, through wars,
the feasts, the discarded rooms – imprint

How to write political poetry? I haven’t solved the problem, but sometimes it seems we poets merely fiddle while the world burns, decorate atrocities with fine words and finer sentiments. The outrage remains, and the loose sonnet form again proves its worth.

Eyeglass in Gaza

the camera will ferret out that telling detail
and linger there, lapping up the mind

the tree bends to the weight of the wind
the wind follows the bend of the sky

the little girl kneels to pick up a shiny thing
which turns into a frag bomb which explodes

and takes her apart bit by flying bit, holes in the world,
holes in the flesh, holes in the air, holes in the body and blood

with ice-cream petaled pink or gun-metal grey, the camera
will linger on telling  detail, an empty shoe, perhaps

the scribble of shrapnel on the wall, while the tree
bends to the weight of the wind and the camera

shifts focus: give us a wide-shot, the wind
following the bend of the sky

I’ve a collection of largely unpublished poems of my childhood and Canterbury upbringing, nearly all unpublished. I found this one is a dusty corner of the mind and scrubbed it up for the occasion.

       my father was a shoulder

my father was a shoulder
                             to the wheels the gods spin

every time they dream – there was milk in the cup
and the taste of sunshine upon the tongue of morning

but in the end it killed him

                                                  my mother
              made lots of paper children out of the discarded wings
she collected in the yard while she was waiting
                            for the heat to fade or
                                       the floods to come
or a life to come by drawn by a peacock carriage
                                                                                 or some word
from my father

but in the end it killed her

                                                                                             my father
his face mutilated by work
                          his shoulder turned to granite
                          his hands to greywake  
                a mere
                            scoop of clay, filled
with the milk of the early star while her shadows are still cool
filled the cup, rang the till
                                             with assiduous movements magic enough
                             to warm the hunger which swells
                     like a bean seed with all its rage and glory
         after the rain

he held me upside down, to give me
                                                                  the feel of it
                                                                                             the inverted
the inverted bowl of the sky
                                        across which sparrows skip like flung stones
held me there, till I got used to it, seeing the world that way

Writing from observing nature is as old as poetry. At the same we await the judgements of nature. I enjoy this kind of focus, traditional as it may be. The question being, how to capture the little moments of everyday experience of we who love to be astonished, and astonish. A new poem that feels old, as if I wrote it a long time ago.

the damselfly

the white root bleeds from where the spade
bit too deep, root-fibre snapping – the runic syllables of digging,
the heavy shout of the spade, a fierce rhyme
rather than a casual prosody
with its ‘terse occupation’, made for cutting and severing,
turning a single worm into two strangers

it’s all a big panic down there on insect street –
nature’s wit, the fantail, has a thing or two to say about the this and that
and the here and there of avian gossip,
and look, here comes the damselfly,
nature’s psychopomp from the order Ondonata,
with iridescent wings that shimmer in and out of existence,
first felt as fluttery halo,
invisible elliptic, Doppler effect in surround-sound
till it lands, biplane-wings, on the tip of a ponga
setting up surveillance, looking out at the world through
a multi-facetted emerald glaze
in which the white root bleeds red
and the sound of the spade reverberates across the eleven worlds
its curt mantra

pray for a good report

My most anthologised poem, from the volume Treasure Hunt published by AUP (1995). Thought I had to include this because it seems it is much admired.

Be glad there's still a morepork or two left
to make the night eerie - standing in the kitchen, hands slick
with soapy water, I look out the window
as one of these shy owls lands on a manuka branch
and stares in at me with her big, brown
unblinking eyes. I ask, "What are you doing, bird,
out and about before twilight, and you must know
this is the Kingdom of Claws."

"I am here with a message,"
the bird said, "I carry an omen on my wings."
"What is it?" I ask, quickly drying my hands.
"Just this," said the bird and flew away.

You must find the bird. You must
lower yourself into the disillusioned depths of her prescient eyes,
you must hold her in your hands without claws
            you must lift her sleeping wings
and read
            in the feathered pattern of moon and cloud
the riddle of her flight.

I’ve always loved what is called the ‘new physics’, the science of the quantum field. Amazing discoveries have taken place in the last few years, summarised as M Theory, which posits a multiverse existing in eleven dimensions. For a bit of humour, I combined this most rarefied of theories with the most sordid of behind the shed sex, seeking absurdities and illuminations.

Margery and the Multiverse: being a most rude and irreverent musing on M Theory

Margery Razorblade and the back-room bosons slip
behind the big gig in the sky
where Margery drops her drawers and the hubble
sees all they way up the pink giggle of creation
to where the god particle may be found

what a revelation! Behind those gauzy pink folds
of super galaxies, the slipping and sliding, colliding
and riding of flushed membranes and
the coy veils of time
the bosons cracked the singularity big time this time
and had themselves a right Big Bang Bam
discovering ten dimensions of pleasure that mingle and tingle
giving off sparks and larks and eventually quarks ­–
floating in a vast eleventh… before the bell rang

Oh, her ragged her breath and owl eyes
the promise of love on a hot morning of the world
where there was nothing but the hard excitation of energies
and the coming in out of form, the coming in and out of form, the coming

the truth can now be told: the big bang was no lone wank
no perturbation in the void, but one of an infinity of gang-bangs
and clangs and jiggily jogs
happening behind every bike-shed in every possible universe
with multi-Margery Razorblades
(where Asymmetry puts-out, or it doesn’t)

Oh, her ragged her breath
on a hot morning of the world
where there hard excitation of energies
coming in out of form, the coming in and out of form,
the coming

And sometimes it’s just about having fun. Word fun. Homily fun. Could I write a poem entirely composed, almost, of common clichés – just do it! And if a little darkness creeps in here and there, it’s only because it’s getting late.

Argument ad homily – a cliché string rap poem

there’s talk of judder-bars and speed bumps and over the humps
and take your lumps and man the pumps, but
there’s no sitting this one out, kiddo
no sleeping on the job
no handy foxhole
it’s make or break time
kill a commie for christ, the devil take the hindermost
you’re on buddy, it’s show-time in no-time

there’s no equality of the sexes in the alphabet soup of war, sweetheart
where A is a hero and Z is a whore, pretty is as pretty does, you’re nailed to the wall
when your number is called, ground zero, you’ve gotta hand it to them,
whaddareya anyway? take it like a man or be a girl, see if I care, a wing
and a prayer, you wouldn’t know a Ragnarok if it jumped up and smacked you
in the face, pray for grace and pass the ammunition, fire at will and

just keep on forking it over until the guts fall out, the whole shebang
goes up in smoke and you won’t see me for dust and small stones,
rattle your bones, Malloy, Fitzroy was here, and Jesus, and the taxman,
who all scratched their name in sand and scratched them out
pulled their heads in and stuck their bums up for the bums rush
It’s tough titty for the litter’s runt, kid,
shit sticks but you can’t take it with you says simple Simon to the pieman
who pays the ferryman? who knocks on the gate? who casts your fate, mate?
who falls asleep at the wheel? Life? it’s a steal, keep it real
it’s your turn to deal

they say that things have changed but I can’t see it, things have
always changed and therefore always stayed the same, it’s just a game,
some old flame, oh you heard the name, there’s nothing new under the sun
with the same old same old, Tom’s a cold, winners and losers and big time boozers,
ants rants and smarty-pants, you can’t tell me it’s game over – the game ain’t over, buddy, till the fat lady

Other times the poem fails to materialize and only fragment are flung clear. Sometimes I think all my poems are just fragment. I’ve got zillions of these fragments, bits with nowhere to go, no home in a larger framework, just raw unturned thought that cannot sleep.


in ancient china, it was said
music has the power to melt ice

wouldn’t that be nice


deep tissue massage

she elbowed open his chest
and he was able to breathe
his blood was able to breathe

his words were able to breathe


bees are dying
that is all you know and all
you need to you

the frogs are dying
but then again you, you
already knew that

can you live in a world with no bees and no frogs?

I suppose you can
(or you can try)
but then again
why would you?

A reflection on process, written in 1991, mangled up for a poem in Treasure Hunt and here restored to it’s original minimalist expression. I still like its rhythm and balance – needs to be read aloud, set on the scales of voice.


there is nothing between
the word and the air
but the muscled throat

between the lyric and the body
but bare skin, between love and love
but the symbol 

from words
the body comes, from body
words backstend

something rests on me
infinite and gentle –  I know
the name

something holds me in the empty air
with perfect accord – I  heard
the word

I pick up this and put down that
with full and equal measure
to each

with nothing between

Another reflection of process hiding in that 1991 ms. What can we do but be reminded of Leigh Davis’s ‘What can we do but fade into history?’? That’s the line referred to here but how the hell the reader would ever know is beyond me. At the same time, there’s something here that touches the nerve centres of creativity. What is the po-em anyway?

finding the line

I found the line
I was looking for

it's just another
in another poem

in another book
shut to the wall
page facing page

line facing line
in one dark jostle
of ink

and I know this line
is no line, but in the line of the eye
the goosestep march into history

Precision, the quintessence of that guiding ethic.


the world comes in
at an angle

tangential to the

the thought goes out
at an angle

tangential to the

This has not been written down until now except in scribbled longhand, but I have used it consistently over the years as a kind of prayer or incantation or evocation before or after a reading. It is the offering of the work. It puts me in the body for a performance. It offers up the flesh to the word, the word to the flesh. Looks odd written out coldly like this. Looks better scribbled on the back of a folder.

this is my

this is your

this is
bo         dy

shake shake shake