Friday, August 30, 2013

James Norcliffe

I have published a collection of short stories, The Chinese Interpreter, and eight collections of poetry, including Rat Tickling (Sudden Valley Press), Along Blueskin Road (CUP), Villon in Millerton (AUP) and Shadow Play (Proverse).  A new and selected poems aimed at younger readers, Packing a Bag for Mars, has just been published by Clerestory Press. My writing for younger readers includes several fantasy novels, among them the award-winning The Loblolly Boy, its successor The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, The Enchanted Flute and Felix and the Red Rats (all Longacre/Random). I am poetry editor for The Christchurch Press and teach in Lincoln University’s Foundation Studies and English Language Division.

Of this selection I’d say that while I don’t especially like exegeses of poems – this is the hat and here is the rabbit – I am rather with my friend the New Zealand novelist and poet Fiona Farrell who does like poems backgrounded and contextualised. In other words, not what this poem is about so much as how this poem came aboutWith one exception, The Death of Seneca (which was prompted by the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011), the poems are taken from my last two collections Villon in Millerton and Shadow Play. I am fascinated by the concept of idiolect: that difficult-to-define fusion of lexis, grammar, and imagery that identifies a poem as being by a given poet, much as a combinaion of features marks an individual face. These poems are very much James Norcliffe poems. Some derive from Asia, or America and some are very much rooted in the South Island of New Zealand. Some of the settings are real, some imagined. I have never been to Siberia, Baghdad or Nineveh. I will add though in the spirit of life imitating art that I do leave for Portugal tomorrow for the very first time.

James Norcliffe  (30 August 2013, Bonn)

Lost in Nineveh

A line of black pines rests on the clouds
and there is a calla lily on the white card
its yellow spadix wrapped about by
a spathe of lilac as poignant as paper,
as poignant as the note I will write later
to my old friend – a note as helpless as all
the messages we send to those who survive
who arrive at  the end of the day to find
themselves alone and opening envelopes.
Meanwhile everywhere it seems wolves
are descending on the folds as pitilessly
as ever. There is a faint scent in the air
of lubricating oil and cordite. The news
is not good, is never good.  Where are the
fields? The lilies struggle to grow on sand
or on greeting cards. And what of pity?
There are hanging gardens everywhere.

Missing the Whirling Dervishes


Was their presence something
we’d only imagined like a shooting
star that could have been a trick
of the light 
some ignis fatuus
shimmering white on the river like
the geese haunting the tow path?


As we stood at dusk on the bridge
above the jocks at their oars,
we consoled ourselves that we
didn’t need dervishes anyway,
that there was sufficient novelty
in the ordinary world without
their sort of spicy dukka
on our pita bread.
But we fooled nobody.


All the others had walked with a new lilt
to their hips having seen what we had
missed and when we tried to emulate them
all we could do was strut like clumsy geese,
the white geese that had soiled the path
and made life difficult for everybody.


Bad was the sympathy -
worse, the forbearing smiles,
but worst of all was the elegant
grace with which we were avoided
even as we tried,
            God how we tried,
not to get in their way.


Now down the river the shell glides,
the eight pulling in efficient rhythm,
the cox barking through a megaphone.

In their wake shifting patterns of
fading chevrons ripple before the wind
and the current ruffle them away.

It is a fine sight: the bright white
singlets in the twilight; the choreography
of arms and shoulders waxing, flexing.

A fine sight: the white lamps like a line
of glowing camellias, the dark water
properly sane, predictable and possessed

in a quite undervish way and light years
away from the constellations of frenzied
stars already beginning to dance in the night.


so lonely he pushed
his card into the ATM
not for the cash but
for the conversation

so hungry he hungered
after the bowl of the sky
the clouds of billowing rice
mocking and out of reach

all other food had disappeared
gone the way of discourse & dogs
even the parking meters
cold shouldered each other

so cold he wrapped
his body in wool
his face in his hands
his breath in his fingers

so reasonable he
hoped to die in the
cemetery to save
the hearse the bother

when asked if he wanted
another transaction what
else could he do but press
that yearning arrow marked yes

and yes he whispered yes
wrapping his arms around
the soft yellow light glowing
behind the plastic cowling



It nudges its long snout
through the dappled curtains of time.

In a green light its teeth shine
they are sharpened emeralds:

wanting, waiting and momentarily 
there is no longer snatch gob and grab -

there is only the soft rise and fall, 
the even breath of a sleeping ocean.


There was a perfect arch
from hill to shining hill,
the dark water between.

There was the smell of morning
coffee, a warm cup and toast
to ward off the autumn chill.

There is not one centimetre
of human history in the
kilometres of its eyes.

It would have sensed
your uneven breath as
you waited, warm and naked,

and as your rainbow body
arched with love, it would
have burst through the surface

of the ocean, its jaws stretched
beyond lex talionis, beyond reason,
streaming with saltwater, with lust.

along the groynes

you can hear the knocking
of the stones in the current

telling you the riverbed is rising
the mountains are coming down

we walk a dirt road along the river
dusty with the billowing grit of the plains

when all at once a succession
of weasels undulates across our path

like a shook rope sudden and startling
beneath the blind fluttering of the aspens

did we really see the pulse of them 
throbbing through the brown dust 

so purposefully so secure
in some secret knowledge 

as if they had opened a door somewhere
just beyond the knocking river

and discovered all that gritty news 
the world was not prepared to share with us

yet another poem about a giraffe

pity the poor giraffe
lost on the frozen steppe

his wishbone legs
make pipe-holes in the snow

the stunted furze
laughs at his reaching neck

for Africa is
sixty degrees below

the hoarfrost catches
in his soulful lashes

his brown eyes lost
beneath the arctic moon

his blotched hide a map
of hopeless wishes

the swishing tail
a pendulum of doom

so he stands withstands
the bitter polar blast

that rips the fluttering
pages of his dreams

the flickering pixels
of a brilliant past

when the world was warm
and still and green

the Empress Cixi among the lotuses

on delicate stems
the moon-coloured petals
unfold to the sun

the same sun which
burnishes the bronze
backs of my eunuchs

they hate me
they stand waist-deep in hate
slashing with their machetes

their hate burns like the sun
which burns their backs
and opens these flowers

they cannot see how
(sun-shaded under my parasol)
I love their hate

how the swing the heft of it
the faint whistle in their breath of it
caged like an oriole
opens me like a flower

Villon in Millerton


a plank bed in a gulley
and a woman there with
a buckled mouth my hand
plunged deep in her pigfern

turpentine and tea-tree
the sour-smoke smell
of damp coal in the scuttle
and flat beer on the bench

once I stood so tall on
a stolen Triumph
my hair streamed behind
like a thousand freedoms

now I stand two miles
above the flatlanders
screaming so loudly
no one can hear me

earthbound beneath
a high ocean of air
I am a poisoned stream
full of slippery words
sliding underneath a broken
bridge’s collapsed members

her body is heavy and overgrown
her laughter is desperate
already my sons have gone
there is nothing for me here


I am tired of the chipped formica
and its clouds of blood
I am tired of stainless steel
and its bleary reflections

I am sick of the feltex floors
which stick to my feet
the broken glass and crushed cans
the rain the water the strangled drains

my mind is a mixed miasma of
smoke gathered on the ceiling
cut through by angle iron and
the jangling chords of a rusty guitar

and I am tired of screechy voices
of brotherhood and sisterhood
I just want to curl like a frond
of bracken into the silence of love


Item: I leave to the helicopters
one thundering yellow fart
to chunder up Calliope Street
and daub the hall with camouflage

Item: I leave to the cops
astigmatism arthritis
gout galloping deafness
and olfactory deprivation

Item: I leave to the future
that flaky blistered rusted
tangled tumbledown
crock of shit that is the past


they have lobotomised
the mountain and with steel
fingers they fossick and fiddle
in the black stuff beneath

out in the Tasman the Koreans
have built a city of lights -
imagine their parties: disco
squid and cheap whiskey

but what parties I had:
Lion Brown and Millerton Green
the good old songs of The Band
on a sixty amp lute

beating up enough brave decibels
to wake up the city of darkness
the empty passage ways
the cloisters the dripping walls


I think of the things
the fingers remember:
the telephone numbers
the diminished sevenths
the one-handed roll-your-owns
and the nicotine tang of women
the stink of fennel and artemisia
of wormwood women and gall


between what is left
and what is to come
I squat for a second
to catch my breath

I have always been
a gasping stranger here
a whistling frog puffed up
and croaking to its echo

just a mad ripple on
that pool of black water
I foolishly let
become my world

a weatherboard
a borrowed clapboard
banged on the side
of a clapped-out house

Oh God

before I become pluperfect
just pinchbar me
the hell out of here
but leave my nails

bent naked spiky
and dangerous
and never drive
them home again

festive lentils

flakes of smoked fish
swim among the lentils
in a sorrowful chowder

you’ve somehow curried
your hair brightly spiked it
like an orange artichoke

it had been something to do
a good way of not doing
the things you needed to do

bending over your gnocchi
you talk of escaping to the east
and give a little teaspoon smile

saying somebody has to do it
or else it’s a life of lentils
virtuous viscous and grey

a life needing to be spiced
with paprika or saffron by
somebody such as yourself

then you wave your hand
stirring the air with explanation
but I don’t really understand

why you should have to take
irresponsibility so seriously
why you’re so wild about it

there is a bigger wind beyond
the window a video parlour
and a valley filled with dayglo

& although on the corner Patel’s
dairy is apprehensive you smile
and tell me ‘I’ll be fine. Really…’

then talk of an expressway
you hope to balk
                                    I hope but doubt
(or doubt but hope) as you pick at your

potato pretending to be Italy
while I pick at my lentils
and the sad taste of the sea

the attack on Baghdad

in the evening a rising wind
knocked the black peaches
from the laden branches

one by one they dropped
and some fell into the roses
where thorns tore at their flesh

and some fell onto the bank
and rolled down towards the river
gathering dust and bruises

the dark sand was stained
black with peach blood
and when wasps arrived
and were excited

the air crackled with their lust


could we have
the height of the plum tree
the measure of it blossom
this fine day

we would open our arms
in acceptance in offering
the wind warm
between our fingers

could we have the age
of this grey stone on the hillside
we would be older
the news of the world in our arms

could we have Portugal
the white city by the blue sea
the scent of red geraniums
we would listen to its music

we would know
whether we were walking
through these angels
or they were walking
though us


I squeeze the mop. I push the squeegee. The fine oil of humanity shines and rainbows on the tiles. I push the squeegee. All slides and slithers before me in a broad detergent smile, in a swathe of suds and scurf and tired bubbles. I squeeze the mop. I squeeze the mop's wet afro into the maw of the bucket. I push the squeegee. Sweet-scented steam clams on my brow. The mop's damp dreadlocks flip and flop. Body hairs curl, they shine like little springs of brightness, like crescents of bantam feathers. I push the squeegee. Bantams run before me in a frightened eccentric scatter. Behind them, behind the squeegee all is shiny, new. Before me sweat puddles and puddles, stains and stains. Behind me gloss glimmers. Hopes skitter before me with bright eyes, with frightened little feet. I push the squeegee. I squeeze the mop. I press the treadle and squeeze the mop. I move the bucket. Silence. Wide empty boulevards and broad leafy suburbs behind me. Quietude, the beatitude of sheen, shimmer and shine. Mess before me. Shambles, seepage and dreams. I push the squeegee. Squeezed foam filtered and flecked like wet feathers flows before me. I hear the cries of birds, the squeak and scrape of black rubber on shiny tiles. The scatter and fear. Blood flows before me red-feathered red and bubbly.  I squeeze the mop. I move the bucket. I push. I push the squeegee.

The Death of Seneca

Such a gesture of indifference is the shrug -
or rather indifference with a hint of disdain,
and when the earth itself shrugs and picks
pips from its teeth, nothing is different.

All night the tremors came, rattling windows
shaking walls, cleaving stones and rolling
them down hillsides.  Fondly we believed that
because we loved this place and these gardens...

Now we are beyond shrugging. Unlike Seneca
who, when the emperor came rattling, ordered
his grieving servants to draw him a warm bath,
bring him sharp blades, bring him pomegranates.

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