Sunday, August 25, 2013

Alistair Paterson

Alistair Paterson is a New Zealand poet, editor, critic, and occasional fiction writer. He is the editor of Poetry NZ and has thirty years of literary magazine editing behind him. In 2006 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.  

Paterson has published nine books of poetry (five of them long poems) numerous articles on poetic theory, and edited two anthologies He has given readings and promoted New Zealand poetry in Britain and America. In 1993 he won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award. A selection of his poems is available in Andrew Motion’s on line Poets and Poetry Archive UK.

A former naval officer, adult educationalist, Green Party supporter and parliamentary candidate, he enjoys sailing, camping and family life. He says he has had a lifelong love of poetry and been privileged to support and mentor poets in NZ and elsewhere. He believes New Zealand poetry is among the best in the world and much of it at poetry’s leading edge of innovation and development. His poetry is grounded on his experience and delight in literature and history, and his interest in literary theory and poetics.

‘Selecting the following 13 poems from my work,’ he says, ‘has proven difficult, but it’s given me an opportunity (which I much appreciate) to reflect on and think about continuity, change, and the ebb and flow in other people’s and my own writing.’

Heron Park

Yesterday in Heron Park
I saw young Harry,
with his war proof on, his sword
& buckler at his side–
            a prince indeed

time warped
bemused perhaps & loitering
where he’s never been before
except when imagination’s
             called him up–

& the other unexpected guests
cormorants & molly hawks
thrown into sudden flight   
clamouring through
          the startled air . . .

Hamlet’s father
on shadowy, misnamed Elsinore
crying out from the parapet
his anguish & despair
           ‘Remember me! . . .’

I remember them
& lesser ghosts from other climes
summer dappled seas & skies–
Sam Coleridge
               & Christabel

people met in Singapore
a woman seen on Rousseau’s Isle
‘two girls in silk kimonos
both beautiful,
                one a gazelle’ . .

the swans Yeats saw
on the lake at Coole–& the herons
that once were here, now
long gone, are
         ghosts themselves . . .

Heron Park is a place I’ve visited often, carrying in my head recollections of people from the books I’ve read and know or have  known. There used to be herons in the park but since the Auckland City Council began an upgrade of it, they’ve disappeared. This was written no more than a few days ago and therefore hasn’t previously appeared anywhere at all.

Homage to Leofric

Maeg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan . . .
- The Seafarer

The Exeter Book says it, where you’ve
come from; the wanderer, the seafarer
whoever searches for landfall, a planet
          a star, the place where sea
meets sky & massed clouds shimmer
roll overhead so that you ask yourself

did they (the wanderer, the seafarer)
think as others think, as you think–
of the swell, the ocean, the seabed below
        the wind’s howl, the wave’s song
mountains hanging in the mist
above the waterway, the ice-cold sea?

But you follow the sun’s course –  
watch a movie, read a book, wait
for the minutes, the hours, time to pass
         expecting to reach on schedule
your destination – þær gebidan
where people you know will meet you.

And you hope travelling’s a forgetting
a putting aside the dangers of the journey
all thought of vast distances, what
         happens when you least expect it
that no longer needs an accounting
maeg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan.

The quotation which can be translated as ‘I can recite a lay of truth about myself’ comes from The Seafarer, found in The Codex Exoniensis, given to the library of Exeter Cathedral in the Tenth Century by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter.  

from Africa, //Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter  

This is the moon

I told you about, that I desired
                     should return–
should come for me,
                    //Kabbo says.

I’ve waited for the shoes
I must put on  
                  strong for the road.
The sun will go along
                         stay with me.


I will go with the moon        
                      & the warm sun
while the ground is hot,
along a great road.
                         I shall walk

letting the grass
the flowers become dry
            while I follow the path–
while I go
            with my ancestors . . .

They’re alive, our ancestors
our ancestors are alive

they live through us & yet
         there’s a sense in which

what’s happened seems
      never to have happened . . .


The earliest people
were dancers, became
            antelopes, were lions

entered the place
of the Cave Bear, painted
its walls, its over-hangs

fish, serpents, the Rain bull
painted themselves as huntesr   
                    as spearmen

those who have died
       who have become spirits
        & now live in rivers . . .

These are the opening sections from Africa, a poem of more than 2,000 lines suggested by Neil Bennun’s The Broken String, Viking, London, 2004–which explores the myths and legends of the vanished bush people of South Africa.

The night before Christmas
(after Randall Jarrell)

The blue & white of clouds, of sky
the green of grass & willows–
although of course there’s usually
not much grass under willows . . .
It ought to be a quiet place with
the river redolent as it always is in fairy tales,
redolent of so many things: the splintered
fragments of half-forgotten dreams,
the night before the night before Christmas
as Jarrell would have said, actually said,
& the days, all those days after the night
                              before the night . . .

Not that it matters–that nothing’s silent,
nothing at all. The noise of course,
the noise is principally not there
under the willows but in your head:
a clamour of voices, the perpetual sound
of people talking, each somehow striving
to be heard above the rest, to be heard
& understood–so many of them,
So many before and after the night before
                                the night after . . .

your stockings lying under the window
when they should be over the fireplace.
A tinsel twist of lights & coloured paper
drifts round the room beneath the willows.
They’re becoming–the lights & coloured paper,
drifts of tinsel–they’re becoming something
they’re not: the thousand & one nights
of Scheherazade–becoming the fabled hare
& tortoise, a wily fox waiting for the lights
                  to go out in the farmhouse . . .

It’s the night before the night before Christmas
& this is a quiet place–the willows & river
redolent as they are always in fables–
                                 in fairy tales . . .

Written in the 1990s in response to one of Jarrell’s poems in Selected Poems, Atheneum, New York, 1968, the piece above first appeared in my collection Summer on the Cote d’Azur. More recently it was reprinted in the New Zealand section of Andrew Motion’s on Line, Poets and Poetry Archive UK.

a cappela

In the yellow street lights of youth
                         I knew you though we hadn’t met
               you were there where I couldn’t see you

half-hidden behind those sudden rains
                                      that leap across footpaths
                      & roadways, stream down the steep

hills & narrow gullies of childhood.
                        My bones said it, myth & memory
                 confirmed it through a stumbling maze

of false starts & clumsy wanderings
                    & now when your voice comes to me
                                              unexpectedly at noon

or out of the last hour before dawn
                             the words I hear are your words
                                       the face I see is your face

& it seems as though each
                                    & every morning the world
                                          makes a new beginning

that somewhere between myth
                             & history, illusion & subterfuge
                                        there’s truth & meaning.

A cappela is another poem from the 1990s. It first appeared in Summer on the Cote d’Azur, but has since been included in the New Zealand section of Andrew Motion’s Poets and Poetry Archive, UK.

Waiting for the cabbages to grow & keeping them safe

Every morning
after looking at the paper
to see what (if anything)
is happening in the world
I go outside & check the cabbages.

It’s not just the cabbages though–
there’s the potatoes as well
& I’m not certain which of them
concerns me most.

They’re there in the garden
peacefully minding their business
unaware even (well I think
that’s the way it is) that they’re
unaware I’m interested in them

but then, who’s to know
about cabbages, what they think
or whether they think at all?

Then again, my interest
in them is personal–and I care
what happens to them
have an empathy for them

the way (in the case of cabbages)
their leaves crinkle & fold
& the potatoes–in their flowering,
whether it says anything
about tubers & what’s happening

in the earth below.
What they make me think of
is people & everything
that goes wrong . . .

that might go wrong
that usually does & especially
when nobody’s thinking
about it because there’s so much

–more than anyone can imagine–
so much more to think about
that fills in the days, weeks, years
& seems so important

except when the worst happens
as it does so often–
& then it’s too late
to do anything about it . . .

Cabbages was initially published in Summer on the Cote d’Azure, HeadworX, 2003. In 2007 it was anthologised in Harvey McQueen’s the earth’s deep breathing, garden poems by new zealand poets, Random House NZ.

A view of Rangitoto
(for Roland Barthes & Jacques Derrida)

What I’m paid for
is to stare through the office window
& look at clouds:
               the clouds are interrupted by paper
which is brought in
& dropped onto an ‘in’ tray
                                 by ‘Christine’ or ‘Anne’
two women who could be
          from Barcelona, Spain–but more likely
arrived here (yesterday)
from Putaruru or Taihape
                                                          which is
not necessarily ‘the truth of it’
                             but at least–or at the most–
                                a good enough imitation.

The clouds–Anne or Christine–
drift across the horizon
the variegated blue of the sea
‘ride’ over Rangitoto
That mythical (mythos) island
                                          the paper obscures–
& all of it ‘in the course of time’
                                                becomes money
which (by the nature of things)
appears in my bank statement
                           not exactly ‘belonging’ to me
but as a form of transitory accounting
                                             that waxes, wanes
                             independently, ‘of itself’ . . .

And it is ‘independent’
a kind of choreography/dancing–
clouds that are more or less
                                 paper moving over a desk
that is more or less plastic or wood
‘signifying’ as much
                          as anything is ever ‘signified’
the nature of things:
                             Anna or Christine, the wave
of a hand, the slide of a pen
which ‘constitute’
                                 whatever is ‘constituted’:
Christine, Anne , the clouds–
                                particulars made manifest
                                                       realised . . .

A view of Rangitoto  first appeared  in the New Zealand Listener and later in Fire 15, Ed Jeremy Hilton, Field Cottage, Old White Hill, Tackley, Kidlington, Oxon OX5 3AB, 2001.

The Dictionary of Battles

The Dictionary of Battles
covers more than three millennia:
from Thothmes III against the Hittites
(Megiddo Pass–1479 BC)
to the Golan Heights, the Gulf Invasion–
endless bloodshed, constant warfare . . .

I turn the pages–
identify the man next door
people who live on the next block
someone dressed in black
who’s walking towards
an empty house two streets away–

and you my love, and you . . .

In 1099–the 15th of July–
forty thousand died
when Tancred and Raymond,
Godfrey and Robert (both of them)
scaled the walls
and captured Jerusalem . . .

They’ve worked it out
in the Pentagon, in the Kremlin–
made an estimate of
missiles, tanks, what it will cost
how many Scuds Iraq will be able
to launch against Israel . . .

You take your coffee in Vulcan Lane
walk along Wyndham, Wellesley, Durham
risk your life–
you’re reading The Wealth of Nations:
somewhere near Customs Street East
there’s a man with a knife . . .

and you, my love, and you . . .

This piece, written in the late 1990s, was also include in, Summer on the the Cote d’Azur, 2003.

Cemetery Point

The clean, white sails of childhood
                                                         a boat
moves over still water
& with such certainty, such grace
               one can see the physics behind it:
triangles, hemispheres–
                                 complimentary forces.

It moves
beneath that steep hill
                               where in company with
his fellow townsmen (the last of them)
my grandfather lies under stone–
                                                   lies fugitive
his bones amongst
                                    long forgotten bones.

And soon
There will come a time
                         when no one remembers him
who, living, passed his life
a stranger
                     moving in front of strangers . . .                        
He lies with his fellow townsmen 
                                                in the shadows

of hills
& mountains, lies where
                           morning breaks from silence
a tolling of bells
the far crying of gulls–
                                                      where boats
move over still water, their sails
                                           bent to the sun . . .

This tribute to my grandfather who I had great affection for, formed the last section of the longer poem Odysseus Rex,  Auckland University Press, 1986.

from Qu’appelle             

(which is the present–now)
she sings the sun–
                                   of the day’s begetting
& a morning so bright
it reaches out catching the throat:
a supreme perfection of things
that have a handiness about them
                                        that could be used.

She could make of this morning
a net or a boat–music–
                                             a wooden bowl
something to fish with
or for travelling–
                                            a scarf or a rug.

She sees that the sun is a climber
ascending the East –a  journey man
                             who’s mastered his trade
& knows how to use brush & ladder.
She is moved by it
                                                    waves to it
as if she knows what’s done well
is not done with ease
                                   & rarely for pleasure:
she recognises a wrestling
a striving
a tension of opposites

                                           & the sun rising.

This is a representative section from Qu’appelle, Pilgrims South Press, Dunedin, 1982. In 1981 the poem was co-winner of Auckland University’s John Cowie Reid Memorial Award for longer poems.

from The Toledo room

It’s not Spain nor Mexico, but nowhere
no place at all–neither the llano nor
the sierra, neither the plain nor the high
places . . .

and you arrive late, a little nervous

uncertain of yourself, & the room’s empty
as empty as a theatre when the actors look
between the lines & the audience begins
to lose its patience . . .

I make signals to you, reach out to you

but there’s so much noise it’s useless:
everyone talks–is smiling / serious–laughs
& behind the scenes they mark the slates
with chalk . . .

It’s Spanish, at least the arch & grill

are Spanish–the bright blades, the black
cape & matching hat–& it’s logical, it’s
logical enough to make a rough & ready
kind of sense . . .

But it’s not Spain, not Mexico–the llano

And no one can equate what’s being said
with what is being done: haggling & talk
of politics to pirouette, veronica, death
                              in the sun . . .

This is a section from The Toledo Room, a poem for voices illustrated by Terry Stringer, Pilgrims South Press, Dunedin, 1978, performed at Downstage Theatre, Wellington in mime form and later over Radio NZ as a poem for voices.

 Letter to Miss Dickinson

Dear Emily
                                                You say
                          exultation is the going
that you know the way
by mountain and plain
                      from your father’s house
                                out from the inland
                                  to the shining sea.
You ask
can the sailor understand
                          the divine intoxication
                                  of the first league
                                  out from the land
and I ponder explanations
of your attitude
                                       half convinced
                     no one’s completely sane.

Thinking of a man
who composed a symphony
he carried in his head          
                                                 who said
                                   all he needed was
              a skilled and sympathetic hand
                                          to set it down
of a woman who thought
her private possession
                                    and remembering
                      the fisherman who needed
neither line nor hook  
                                              I wonder at
the narrow circumstance
gives a larger view–
                               and the consequence
                                           if this is true.

Holding little else

                you held more truth than most
being disbursed
of a clamour and clatter
an obligation of days
                               deprived of so much
                       you escaped being crazed
                                                       and if
                                                as you say
                             exultation is the going
the sailor through sailing
loses sight of the land
                           your song be the praise.

Letter to Miss Dickinson is one of my first poems in double margin field form. It was included in the collection Birds Flying, Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1973.

Horses with children

Horses with children by a green paddock
      stop the car. In a field of silence
      colder than stars, ears pricking
      the great beasts move gently
      through grass–the children follow
      wind-driven, like ungainly flowers.

We watch while the landscape, strangely
      pale, white as the wood
     of weathered rails, and the sky’s
     distant bars bespeak unearthly
     thunder–a struggle of horses
     and men, rain and trampled mud

swept by lightning and coursed
     by flood. Soon the children
     will know that the sky itself
     is the implacable force that throws
     horses and men from a babble
     of fields, the heat of the sun,

that in spite of whatever they say
     or do, there’s nothing can ever
     be changed, nothing at all
     to be done. Disturbed by the engine
     the horses start, though faintly
     they sound, the children laugh.

Horses with children first appeared in Birds Flying, Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1973. It reappeared in Our Own Kind, 100 poems about animals, ed Siobhan Harvey, Random House NZ, 2009. It arose from stopping in the late 1960s on Auckland’s North Shore so children could view horses there Imagery in it was derived from William Morris’s The Haystack in the Floods (1858), and Shakespeare’s description of the dying Falstaff ‘babbl[ing] of green fields’. The hanging indent comes from R A K Mason.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely to revisit familiar poems. Best Wishes Rob Allan Carey's Bay.