Saturday, August 3, 2013

Frankie McMillan

Frankie McMillan is a short story writer and poet. In 1998 she completed an MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters, University of Victoria. Her publications include The Bag Lady’s Picnic and other stories and a collection of poetry, Dressing for the Cannibals. Recent poems have appeared in Turbine, Snorkel, JAAM, International Literary Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, The London Grip, Shenandoah, and Best New Zealand Poems 2012. Her short stories have been included in Best New Zealand Fiction (Vintage, 2008 and 2009). In 2005 she received the Creative New Zealand Todd Bursary. In 2009 she won the New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. In 2013 she won the New Zealand Flash Fiction Award. Currently she teaches creative writing at the Hagley Writers’ Institute.

This selection of poems comes mainly from my recent manuscript, There are no horses in heaven, plus a few from my first collection, Dressing for the Cannibals (Sudden Valley Press).  

Cathedral of the Poor

Gaudi watches his father tend bees,
draws the shape of hives,
the pillars of Sagrada Familia

smoke pours
from a wooden box, his father rises 

around his neck are baubles
seeds from the magnolia tree

Is there any better structure
than the trunk
of a human skeleton ?

But look
here is the four armed cross
the breath of the glassblower,
the ceramicist, ironmonger 

Here is work, long as the prayers
of a Bavarian priest

Here are the trees that grow in the nave
the helicoid columns     
the bees in his father’s hair

In July 2011 my partner and I travelled around Spain, spending several days in Barcelona, home of Gaudi's famous architecture. My mother had recently died (she never travelled far) and in some funny way I became her eyes; she too had come along for the ride. The 'wooden box' and the 'skeleton' are attributed to Gaudi's father but also reflect my own concerns. I was enthralled by the Sagraga Familia - Gaudi's vision, his use of intricate organic forms (many of which reference the beehive structure), the soaring spires, the inclusion of glass and metal work, and overall the sheer energetic excess of the architecture. It left me feeling like an awestruck kid. 'But look' and the end line, 'the bees in his father's hair', allude to the inherent difficulties of the parent/child relationship.

   In the corner of my mind, a boy

This morning watching people in the street
I remembered the book I’d forgotten to write –  

The Boy Who Lived In A Wardrobe
which I promptly changed to

The Boy in the Wardrobe, this meant
it could be flash fiction as living implies

a day’s activities which in the case of the boy
would normally be kicking a ball

around the overgrown tennis court, or finding
a lost bird in the hedge

then there is the business of eating, licking fingers
washing and scrubbed knees all of which

are impractical in the dim wardrobe smelling
of furs and the indecision of shoes

and though I can present the child however
I wish a chance encounter might be best

say, a glimpse through a key hole 
to where a small boy sits 

playing with his fingers in what would be
my parent’s wardrobe, the cotton dresses

falling on his shoulders
my father’s trousers a stack of chimneys

which brings me back to the parade of people –  
how they walk towards deeds   

they never knew they had within them

Developing My Father

My father has been enlarged
in a Sydenham photo shop
specializing in reproductions
and silver fish repair. He walks

with my mother down Hereford
Street. She wears a hat and tender
gloves, he wears a striped shirt,
the collar splayed like the wings

of his RSA badge. There is a war
 to put behind them, shopping
to do, hungry mouths to feed.
The street photographer shoots

them wide eyed  under a white sky.
For years he stores the negatives,
my mother and father
holding hands in the dark.

I’ve included this as it was my first published poem and later travelled the world as a poem poster from Phantom Bill Stickers.


We three 

and almost there, the long gravel road, headlights sweeping the paddocks and he slows and says this is not working out and I say, sweetheart we are almost home but we both know it’s not really his home; he’s in a caravan while up on the hill my husband and children sit in electric light and I say, can’t it wait, and he says get in the back and I say this is not funny, and he pulls me from the car, a big fat moon in the sky, you fuck him all week he says and I hit him, get into the back he roars opening the door and possum traps and skinning boards tumble out and we struggle, his long hair in my eyes and I feel the gun under my back but maybe it’s a rifle and far off my daughter practises her flute, the baby needs a bath and my husband peers into the night like he always does and if he peered a little harder he’d see to China which is where the man flees where my language will never reach him, where he will pedal through rice paddies, a bag of wool on his back, his memory short clippings and only in the next village a wife-to-be who teaches mathematics and if you calculate the odds of him finding her they are good but when my husband waits by the window he does not know this comfort, and when I open the door he is a statue and the children a frozen tableau on the couch, they thought they heard a scream, a terrible scream from the woods but I laugh and say it was only a weka, my darlings, only a weka.

A weka is a small, native flightless bird.
Recently I have been writing more prose poems, also flash fiction which seems to me to be a distant cousin.   

Hour glass

she was a corsetiere
threading whale bone

through cloth

placing herself close
to the ocean                                                                                 

became lucrative

when whales surfaced
she saw 

bustles, derrieres,   

the amazement of men 
on their wedding night  

she scraped her learning
from medical notes

collapsed lung
block and tackle

1925 Henry Soutarr does the unthinkable  

There are no straight lines in the human body
even when the heart is wrung out to dry

there will be other routes – journeys
via small balloon through

the artery of a leg or the underside
of a thigh, here people walking past

look into my window as if they might see
my surgeon’s hands at work, the whiff

of wrongdoing, a pig’s heart sewn inside  
an empty chamber, an opening

in the atrium where once I carefully poked
my finger in order to palpate

the heart valve of a woman 
laid bare before me on the gurney

no harm done though once she was
stitched my colleagues

scattered like geese
throughout the hospital wards

Outside I touched earth, called upon it as witness
I too, am learning to heal myself

Souttar was not permitted to do this pioneer operation again.

There are no horses in heaven

When Sister Teresa dreams it is always
of equine matters, say plucking a hair

from a horse’s tail to string a bow
for her cello and though her night 

walks go unnoticed by the nuns,
each day she sleeps a little on her feet        

the closest relatives of a horse
are the rhinoceros and the tapir

her students wander through the Gobi desert
only returning to clean the blackboard  

horses do not have collar bones
their front limbs are directly attached
to the spinal column

Sister Teresa wakes to the taste    
of an iron bit
she does not recognize underground water
the wild grasses good to eat

She stands, shuddering in her skin
the world laid bare before her

On finding a gun in the long grass

Chekhov would have taken it home
propped it on the mantelpiece
and waited for the third act

Monroe might have sat on the river
bank, gun in her lap
picking daisies 

he loves me, he loves me not

I might have cocked the trigger
like a beggar man or thief 
but I was in a hurry

I hid the gun in my pocket
the barrel hard against my hip
and I never called the police 

one day a stranger will appear 
asking for his pistol back    
I will reach up, whisper in his ear

Is that you love, is that you? 

Sleep walking child

In 1481 Jean Bourdicon painted
fifty rolls of paper with angels

on a blue background. The guild
of paperhangers had not yet

been born. Nor the cabbage rose
the arabesque patterns

that covered my grandmother’s wall.
I was the kid who worried

the wallpaper, tearing strips in the dark – 
in the morning my hands full

of shredded roses, not knowing
who placed them there or why.

King Louis XV1 made a decree 
that the length of the wallpaper

should be a continuous thirty four feet.

All those angels, not one
held back my outstretched arms.  

Observing the ankles of a stranger

We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea
and we owe each other a terrible loyalty 
– G.K. Chesterton

I could see you were a tourist
(the white Capri pants, the jaunty cloth
hat, maybe your daughter’s suitcase,
the one with wheels in your hotel room) 
not sure how to get into the Square; only now
the ground began to shake, buildings tore loose 
thick white dust and workers running from the city,
you cried out the name of your hotel but
the streets began to flood, thick sludge
over the asphalt 
and such was your astonishing concern
over the ruin of your shoes I almost laughed
as I hurried you towards Oxford Tce but then another shock
hit and like dumb animals we clung to the side
of Retro’s a wooden building, walls 
swung in and out, we dropped to the ground, flattening
ourselves and that’s when I fixed on your pale ankles
the bony mound, the muddy sandal strap and then
a man’s voice cried a warning
about the building, how we could be killed
and on he ran and so did we
gabbling our names, where we’d
come from and who would know
how this would end 
and always the hotel that would
save you and there it was still standing
white plaster and glass facade, Holiday Inn
and you told me to Save myself, and I said God bless and
in this grandeur of occasion I felt like Joan of Arc
but as I left to turn the corner
into Armagh street I was just another woman hurrying   
home ticking off a list 
candles, shelter, food and water  

This poem refers to the devastating Christchurch earthquake of Feburary 22nd, 2011. The buildings mentioned here, like many others in the city, have since been demolished.

When gorillas wake

In the 1990s a hunter in Uganda was sought by local authorities for shooting
gorillas with a tranquillizer gun then dressing them in clown suits. 

often they were found wandering
in a one piece jumper, white ruff at the neck
the pom poms cast aside in elephant grass

sometimes he spotted them
wearing white gloves to the wrist, rocking
their haunches under a candelabra tree

it was a condition, the park warden said
(he knew the ways of clowns, the dancing slippers
the skull cap of Pierrot)

he had to shoot them again – watch their mad capers
as they reeled over the savannah or swung through

branches hooting at the wide sky 
before they fell asleep. how closely their hands are to ours!

he’d say tugging a sleeve over hairy forearms
how huge the beating of the heart
the small applause of dreams

Piece by Piece        

This Clifton courtyard has possibilities
 the thin ribs of the sun umbrella

the canvas arc of shade
even the café lends itself to script

the man with the grey ponytail
eking out the last coins for coffee, a black

haired waitress with white face and the whiff
of circus, maybe palomino pony

which makes me ask
how do the dead balance their limbs?

Up in the hills we see the possibilities
of height and light on rock, here is a pile

of sheep shit that marks the track, here
is a postcard view of the city, a rabbit

stuffed in a frame, the small cries of insects
is this how the dead laugh?

Here’s the idea, the cinematic version
the clatter of boards, cutting of scene

the screen with black numbers counting down
a lion roaring and somewhere the Queen in polite

gloves and you in the Square holding her hand
with nothing to say

how do you talk to the dead?    

This poem began with a few observations but then a shift occurred and grief announced itself as the subject material. Where the dead 'go' and what form they take is a mystery to me – 'is this how the dead balance their limbs?' I quite like the naïve enquirer approach as it allows some risk-taking. In the poem it’s more important to ask the questions than to answer them. The person shaking hands with the Queen in the Square is my mother.

My father’s balance  
Le marriage des funambules

It requires practice        
not the falling, but the art of equilibrium      
There he is, sleek as a raven in black tails
the white rim of collar
and cuffs show his preciseness for small details
like the placement
of a foot, the exact centre of mass directly above
the wire, the way
his hands clasp the balance pole. Today a wind –    
and because his bride  
is a little unsure, the breeze tugging her veil  
he’s arranged a ladder  
to dismount from the rope at  either side,
she need
only lower her pole and the riggers will heed.  
His ears are tuned
to the calibrations of passing clouds, the wing beat
of doves, but mostly
her advance – watch how my father stands steady
balance pole dipping
thin leather slippers curved to the wire  

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