Thursday, August 15, 2013

Joanna Preston

Joanna Preston is an Australian-born poet, editor and freelance writing tutor who lives in a small rural town in Canterbury, New Zealand. In 2008 she won the inaugural Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. Her first collection, The Summer King, was published by Otago University Press in July 2009, and won the Mary Gilmore Award for the best first poetry collection by an Australian author in 2010. She has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan (Wales). She worked for three years as a part-time tutor in Creative Writing at Christchurch Polytechnic, and was co-editor of Kokako magazine from 2009 to 2012.

A Simple Thing

It seemed a simple thing; to leave;
to pack my bags for somewhere new.
I didn’t know that I would grieve.

I thought it was what I should do –
a bold new life, a different place,
to pack my bags for somewhere new.

I spread my wings, tried to replace
the memories I left behind –
a bold new life, a different place.

It came as quite a shock to find
(I didn’t know until I went)
the memories I’d left behind

were ties that merely stretched and bent.
Now I see where I belong –
I didn’t know, until I went.

The ties of past love prove too strong:
it seemed a simple thing, to leave,
but now I know where I belong.
I never knew how much I’d grieve.

– 1997

‘A Simple Thing’ was my first published poem, and I’m still quite fond of it. Sadly, the use of cliché was not ironic so much as unnoticed. I like to think I’d do a better job of it these days.

The form is a terzanelle – essentially a hybrid of villanelle and terza rima. Choosing the form for this subject was a fluke, and a lucky one. Thinking about it now, there are a lot of parallels between this poem and ‘The City and The City’. Both were dealing in strong emotion, and both risked becoming completely horrible (so many bad poems are written out of true, deep and completely worthy sentiments! I’ve been responsible for plenty). The form kept things manageable, although the challenge then is for each repetition to move beyond mere reiteration. (More on this later.)

Breaking Up    

The left index finger was first. It fell without warning, smashing
on the floor between us. Tiny faults
ran up the palm, past the wrist. A cobwebbing of weakness,
the whole left arm misted in a glove of silk lace.

You reached out, barely flinched when the skin blackened at your touch,
crumbled into dust leaving arm bones naked. The torso cracked
like an ancient glaze, flesh peeling off in flakes and slivers and sheets,
dissolving in the twin gusts of our breathing.

From the hands the tiny bones – carpals, phalanges – dropped
like pins, a rain of bones, pattering
until all that was left of us was a rib cage, propped up
like a recipe book, an empty box, a sprung trap,

and all you said as you turned away
was that it proved I’d never really loved you.

– 1999

This is the earliest poem that made it into The Summer King. I wanted to see how far I could spin an extended metaphor, and even now feel that I did a pretty decent job. This was written in the days before I was online, so the research for the bones and the finer points of the human skeleton were photocopied from books at the library. I love incorporating odd or technical words into poems, although I try to make sure their meaning is reasonably clear from context.

The Bat

A kite flown by night-gods,
brittle sticks and parchment,
a fox-eared scrap of skin
whose panic compressed
the cavernous room to the size
of two hands and the flutter
of a heartbeat with teeth exposed
and a scream that I could see

but not hear, a scream
that broke through the doorway
out from under the eaves and tendrils
of snail-vine to the sky and stars
and the sound of the river in moonlight.

– 2000

This was the first poem I wrote that really surprised me, and made me think that I might be on the way to being a real poet after all. The story it tells is true (which is one of those things that can get in the way of a good poem, as often as not), and is one of my clearest memories from early childhood. It was originally a sonnet, but lost a line during revision for The Summer King. Again, the form was an important part of the writing process. From a technical point of view, the volta (now stanza break) operates on three levels: as a place to take a breath; as a point of transition from tactile and visual to aural, from still to moving, from small and confined to large and unconstrained; and also a switch from physical and actual to metaphorical. The bat never explicitly leaves my hands, but you can feel it surge free and away. A much better poem than I was a poet.


(for Mary Harris)

My Grandmother taught me this,
to bake the brown loaf
that crackles like starched linen
as it cools, and fills the house
with the scent of fresh bread.

On tip-toe beside her
I learned the alchemy of yeast,
the rhythmical sway of kneading,
the patience of rising,
of proving.

With her love I make this bread,
hands dancing with flour and magic;
this household sacrament
that keeps a family – come, eat:

the staff of life,
the stuff of love.

– 2001


The gleam of light
from the edge of the cold
curved blade of Grandpa’s sickle
hung like a harvested moon
in the darkest corner of the barn.

It followed the tines
of the garden fork,
splayed like his fingers,
probing the vast earth
for constellations
of Kipfler potatoes.

When he died, I saw it leave him,
watched the glaze of shadow
spread, like a bruise
in the lee of his
sharp bones.

– 2001

These two are almost companion pieces, although they weren’t written that way. My grandmother was the one who gave me to poetry. I adored her. ‘Bread’ is a poem that some people love, and some hate – usually it’s the last line that does it. It’s about more than just baking bread, of course. It may be that there are still some change to make before it’s completely right.

The man in ‘Edge’ was my grandfather – grandma’s husband. We only became close in the last few months of his life, and I was with him when he died. The poem actually started as an exercise. It only went through four or five drafts – quick, for me. One of those gifts from the muse, that come so rarely.

The Summer King

Before the boar stops twitching
Dad and Jeff slash his throat.
Blood on autumn grass –
a torrent of curses
gush from his new-made mouth.

The iron bathtub broods in the flames,
its belly of water ripening.
We slide the boar in,
glide the razor’s bright tongue
across his skin.

Pale flag, he hangs by his heels
from the gambrel.
Dad slits him open, balls to neck
and omens spill out
in dark coils of gut.

The hand that feeds,
the bullet, the knife –
I am learning their language.

– 2003

I had this one echoing in my head for quite a while before I managed to write it. Again, it’s a very clear memory, but finding a way to put it into words took some doing. Two things led me in. The first was a talk with someone who’d worked in an abattoir, so that I got the technical bits right and had things happening in the appropriate order. The second was discovering the invisible last line. I knew I needed to write the poem, but I also knew that people would ask why. It wasn’t until I understood that for myself that I was able to write it. The line was ‘This, too, is love.’, which I knew I would never get away with having in that form. Which worked out better for the poem anyway – the disguised form (‘I am learning their language’) has much more resonance, and gives the poem greater scope. Yet another example of the poem knowing more than the poet.

People’s reactions to this poem are interesting – it was rejected by five magazines in a row (usually with a comment about ‘gratuitous violence’, which amused me), but was then commended in the highly prestigious Arvon competition in the UK. Since then, it’s been the poem most often picked out of the book for praise, including by some of the people who rejected it originally …

from Venery

i. The Pride of Lions

But before we could marry, he became a lion –
thick pelted, and rich with the musk of beast.

The switch to all fours was not easy – all his weight
slung from the blades of his shoulders.
His deltoids knotted like teak burls,
and I burnished them as he slept.

Burrs matted his mane, and for days
he wouldn’t let me groom him –
slapped me away with a suede paw,
snarled against my throat.

He would not eat fruit, or drink milk,
but tore meat from the bones I provided.

His claws caught in the carpet,
so I stripped the rugs from the floor
and polished the boards until they gleamed
and rang with the chime of his nails.

I stroke his saffron hide
and tangle my fingers deep in his ruff,
draw him up around me, ardent
as the gleam of his topaz eyes

– the hypnotic lash of his tail,
the rasp of his tongue on my thighs.

– 2004

I thoroughly enjoyed writing this one. It came from a snippet of trivia – that the surname ‘Singh’, often taken by Sikh men at adulthood, literally translates as ‘Lion’. The Venery sequence was already well underway, and this fitted in nicely. It wasn’t meant as a variation on the Beauty and the Beast myth, although I guess it shares many of the same undercurrents.

from Cowarral

iii   A Summer Storm

At first light the sky tore open.
I padded barefoot through a maze of boxes
to close all the windows.
I opened the curtains and curled up on the sill

as I used to curl up on Great Grandma’s lap
to watch storms sweep down
from the mountain

named for a man
she’d been widow to most of her life.

From the ark of her armchair
we’d spell our names between thunder
that rattled the china and knocked out the power.

mist on the mountain means rain on the way

Light grew rich and heavy
until the horses blazed like molten bronze.
Once, lightning blasted a mountain oak
halfway up the red-clay ridge,

sent shrapnel of timber out eighty feet.
The stump burned through two nights of rain –
I could see the glow from my bed.

Rain falls almost silent against a slate roof,
and two panes of glass keep weather at a distance.
Those storms roared on corrugated iron,
and ended the world at verandah’s edge.

But when I went out and stood
on the lawn in my nightshirt, mud
welling around the pale of my feet,
I offered my face to the English rain

and she was behind me,
one hand resting on the verandah post,
waiting for me
to close my eyes, to step back.

– 2006

The Disembodied Woman

It’s the delicate feedback-loop of sensation
from joint and muscle and the pale sheath
of your own skin that tells you
you have a body, a physical location.
Tonight, all the gods are at a party –

I was invited, but what would I wear?
A body the world knows better than me?
It started simply – I was my mother’s 
mistake. I left my name, dyed my hair.
Did I ever feel? I can’t remember.

I lose my hands. Break concentration 
and they’re not where I expect them to be.
Stupid. It takes all my skill to hold onto
a knife, say, and a conversation.
Nerveless fingers, white with pressure.

I remember I swayed, unsteady on my feet
and they whistled and cheered. So I filed
half an inch off every left heel.
They loved me. When I couldn’t breathe
they said I sounded sexy.

Body, blind and deaf to itself.
Artifice makes up what nature lacks.
I know I belong to the audience, because 
I’ve never belonged to anything else.
They made me their mirror. The crumpled cover

of every other magazine. Sometimes
I can’t even imagine that other girl.
But tracing the curve of these lips
I almost remember when they were mine
and real. In Peter’s Spyder, driving like hell

with the top down. Wind rushing 
against my arms and face to tell me, yes
I have two arms, a face. Not a ghost
lost in some painted, posed machine,
too statuesque, too consciously maintained. 

I married for love once. It didn’t last.
Now I am numb. Heavy lidded. Grateful. 
Half listening for footsteps. Footlights. No, headlines.
Headlights sweep across the room, make the water glass
on its side twinkle, twinkle. I can almost reach them.

– 2006

These two poems were completed under the microscope of my MPhil Critical Study thesis. Both were conscious attempts to weave multiple strands together. ‘A Summer Storm’ plays with multiple levels of memory, and tries to evoke the way that memory and present can blur together to the point where they are equally real. ‘The Disembodied Woman’ is tougher. It mixes quotes from Marilyn Monroe and biographical information with bits of medical terminology and the case of Christine, “The Disembodied Woman” in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. There is something incredibly dangerous about the way that modern western culture treats the female body. We divorce it from the person, treat it as something we are entitled to comment on, to judge, to criticize. It’s madness, when you think about it. In very much the same way, Norma Jean genuinely felt that she did not belong to herself. She was, in a very real way, ‘disembodied’ – her appearance was studio property, and her self an irrelevancy at best, an irritation at worst. There are frightening parallels between her life, the medical ‘disembodiment’ experienced by Christine, and modern western culture, especially in the demonising of the overweight and obese, the elderly, and the non-beautiful (whatever the hell that actually means).

The Salmon 
after reading Ted Hughes

Already a bone-deep rumble
becomes a roar too loud
too low not
to be disaster

its stippled belly swollen
with four hundred strangers,
it hangs in the current of night
above my bed
are oblivious.

Darkness like water
darkness thick and corporeal
the moor opens in front of them,
hillsides aching to reclaim their metals.

Stewardesses in their regimentals
flicker along the cabin
to take their seats for landing.

They think they’re going home.

Wingtips glisten green and red,
safe, and caution

            midwife of fiery endings.

Rumble becomes roar becomes the howl
of air torn apart,
salmo salar; salmon, the leaper
fighting the spate of gravity

a surge, and it passes above me,
and onward and up and a flick of its tail
and up

at the rim

of the valley

– 2007

After my MPhil and all the work revising the manuscript of The Summer King, I went into a prolonged bout of writer’s block. It lasted for the best part of thirty months. I felt completely burnt out of anything poetical, which sounds pretentious, I know. Worse, we had just come back to New Zealand, and I was back in a poetry scene that had moved on without me (cue sound of violins), and where everyone assumed I was writing as prolifically as ever. I was also going through the process of collecting rejections for the manuscript. It was not a good time, and I did genuinely consider that I had nothing to offer as a poet, and that maybe I’d written every decent poem I was going to write and it was time to walk away.

And then this poem came. Again, based on a true story, and with more than a little borrowing from Ted Hughes. It didn’t break the drought, but it did give me some hope that maybe I could still write good poems. From a technical perspective, it echoes the extended metaphor work that I’d first explored with ‘Breaking Up’.


A mistake. An error of judgement. A penalty
brought against a quiet city. Stroll
through the park, lunchtime almost over.
A defect, a small disappointment. A summer day
laden with clouds, grey light that softens the walls,
the stone and brick, the glass. Less
than expected. Someone to blame. A sparrow
rests lightly on the hand of a statue. A weakness
in the system, communications break down.
A telephone rings into silence. A refusal. Dispraise, dis-
continuity, lateral displacement. A woman
leaves a cafe, checks both ways, crosses the street.
An unthought response. A vice. Students
repeating the phrases – Good Morning, Good Evening, Good
-bye. It is nine o’clock, it is ten to eleven. The time
is twelve fifty-one.

– 2011

The City and the City 
I lost two cities, lovely ones …
                                    – Elizabeth Bishop

The city I love, the city has fallen,
brought to its knees amid wreckage and mud.
Across the four avenues sirens are calling.

A rumbling shattering roar, and the yawning
gap in the sky where a building once stood.
A rupture in summer: a city has fallen.

Smoke rises and hangs in a thickening pall
over mothers and businessmen clawing at rubble.
Across the four avenues sirens are calling.

A sheared-off shop front. A bright painted wall
translated   into    a coffin lid.
Bones of the city, cradle the fallen.

Who do you pray to when churches are falling?                                                                                
What sanctuary when stone splinters like wood?
when across the four avenues, sirens are calling?

A grey summer midday, without any warning
brought us to our knees amid rubble and mud.
The city, my city, the city has fallen.
Across the four avenues voices are calling.

– 2011

And now the earthquake poems. I was going to be performing at the 2011 Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, and was taking part in a special session to highlight Canterbury writers in the aftermath of the earthquakes. I’d faffed about with ideas for a couple of poems about the earthquakes, but hadn’t really settled down to writing them properly. (Worth noting that during the first shake back in September 2010, even as I was cowering in the doorway there was a part of my brain logging sounds and sensations, thinking ‘ooh, yes, I can work this into a poem’. I am a sadly un-evolved person in many ways.)

‘Fault’ was the first of the poems completed, and in many ways is my favourite. It’s a poet’s poem in many ways. So many of our metaphors for solidity, reliability, trust-worthiness, are linked to the idea of the ground beneath our feet. After September 4th and February 22nd, those certainties had collapsed. Things like ‘solid ground’, or ‘terra (terror?) firma’  felt like bad jokes. So the structure of ‘Fault’ emerged from this – it’s based on the various ways that the word ‘Fault’ is used and/or defined. It surprised me after the poem was drafted to see how well the simple litany of those phrases built into a deeper story. Again, the poem knew more than the poet.

‘The City and the City’ was a gift from the muse. I’d been struggling with ‘Fault’ and a couple of other poem-starts for a week or so, and the line from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ –“I lost two cities, lovely ones” – kept ringing through my head. It felt appropriate: the city that existed before the quakes, and the city that existed after them. So I decided to take a break from my labours, and just muck about with a villanelle for an hour or so. And got this poem, largely complete, in only a couple of drafts. As with ‘A Simple Thing’, the lucky choice of form was incredibly important – it let me deal with emotional material without becoming overwhelmed by it. And the recurring lines echo the recurring aftershocks, and the never-ending heartbreaks that still come when you round a corner and see yet another building that you knew being pulled down. I made a conscious decision to let one refrain line vary quite a bit, but to keep the other unchanged until its final appearance. The only change since the poem debuted at the Auckland Festival was the tweak that I’m most proud of. The refrains felt earned rather than mechanical in every stanza except the fifth, and it annoyed the heck out of me. Adding ‘when’ to the beginning of the third line did the trick beautifully.

Female nude

The things we prize. Innocence,
that sleeping fire that speaks

through the long white flower
of her spine, the curve

of her hips the rim of a slow
turning wheel

on which to break a man.

– 2013

Which brings us to now. The poem was triggered by a couple of things: a poem by Derek Walcott, called ‘Sixty Years After’, Man Ray’s ‘Ingres’ Violin’, and the story of Tunisian feminist, Amina Tyler. Which made me start thinking about the whole issue of the depiction of women’s bodies, especially in art. How male nudity is usually presented as strength (think of Michelangelo’s ‘David’) but female nudity is often presented as clandestine, with viewer as voyeur, or else as sexually provocative. As though the idea that a female could just be unselfconsciously naked – not teasing, not challenging, not provoking, not hiding, just ‘not wearing clothes’ – is somehow unthinkable. Well, that’s poetry’s secret super-power – to carry you inside ideas you’ve never thought before, and to speak to you in ways that can bypass the usual social censor and echo around in your mind forever. The fact that it’s also art is a bonus.

© Joanna Preston 2013. No text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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