Tuesday, September 28, 2010

After Tomato Picking by Maria Garcia Teutsch

In fourth grade
I picked tomatoes
to make money.

The night before, we packed
our lunches with anticipation
and American cheese sandwiches.

We left at dawn with the sun
slithering across the desert,
twisting the horizon into slivers of gold.

The drive out to the farmland
was filled with yawns and coffee.
I leaned against my brother and dozed.

On our way we passed farm workers,
their painted signs blurring by.
I catch one word, strike.

My brother yells, Viva la Raza
but don't yet know what it means.
He raises his chin and smiles.

In the field the smell
of disturbed earth and sweat mingles
with the sound of giggles

from my sister's friends.
I stand in between rows,
a bucket full of green tomatoes

too heavy to lift, my brother
carrying it to men sitting
in precious shade.

We left as soon as the thermometer
moved above 100.
The others stayed.

This poem is a true account of Maria Garcia Teutsch's short time she spent working in the fields. Maria currently teaches in Salina, California, in the US. This area is commonly known as the 'salad bowl of America' and many of her students have long histories of field work. Plenty of them have parents who make their living in the fields. This poem has emerged from her inspiration and humble appreciation of their daily work. For me, as this weeks editor, I was immediately drawn to this poem of Maria's as it possesses such a strong grounding in the landscape. The social conditions intertwined with the act of 'tomato picking' appears to emanate naturally and effortlessly from this powerful and nostalgic evocation of the journey and the landscape.

Maria Garcia Teutsch is editor-in-chief of Ping Pong Journal of Art and Literature published by the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. This is also where she edits the Homestead Review which is now in its 10th year of publication.

For more words, visit her blog: mariateutsch.blogspot.com or her webpage: marialoveswords.com

This week's editor is Elizabeth Welsh, an Auckland writer and Katherine Mansfield scholar. Her blog is here. And remember to visit the live blog roll in the Tuesday Poem sidebar for more Tuesday Poems.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Soul's Companion by Doug Poole

(painting by Penny Howard)


Entering the estuary Oyster Catchers & Red-billed Gulls swirl overhead then reel away. Estuaries expansive shadows green- ochre saltwater dappled with sunlight reflects the mangrove arbor. Miromiro dart unseen into the mangroves. Piwakawaka song; a sense of being observed. Creek bed swells then grimaces with the tide. Land crabs scuttle for shelter as the flat floods. High on the bank amongst the Mangrove arbor rests the soul courier: Rienga to Hawaiki; soul companion of Te Tagata Whenua.


The souls last footfall, the journey to Reinga. The tears of Te Whanau;. The wailing dirge of the Karanga. The first fall of rain on the skin of Te Whanau. The soul & the Kōtuku journey to Reinga, to She whose name shall not be said; She that will keep our soul. Maui, would have cheated but for her comeuppance. Kōtuku is the great one passing, the heart knows. The last of a generation passing through Miru to Her open arms.


Okarito Lagoon, Waitangituna Stream meanders through a Kahikatea swamp. Black bill & green skin the nubile birds. Males showboat on platforms, nuptial plumes flaring. Neck erect, clacking bills for consideration. Engaged she entwines her wings, neck, bill, with his; lovers hold close. Preening an act of love.


Nests built of fern and sticks amongst the Kahikatea arbor. In the crowns of tree ferns. Feathers crowned the heads of chiefs. Victorian modiste took the Kotuku to near extinction. Fashioning hats from nuptial plumes. Once worn as adornment, highly prized & pure. Your grace rare but hardly demure.


O my soul’s companion, before I depart, I shall watch the falling tears mingle with grandchildren’s laughter.

O my soul’s companion, Follow the river to boat housed memories, the sails melody; the sounds of life: prow cutting salt water.

O my soul’s companion, let me walk in the last light, my grandmother’s land, hand in hand with you. One last sunset with you.

O my soul’s companion, In the falling light you rest your sorrow laden head. the match head moon burnt for such a short time.

before sunrise, I will breathe on your neck.

This wonderful poetry-prose cycle is by Doug Poole, an Auckland poet of Samoan and European descent. The image is by Penny Howard, Doug's artistic partner who is of Maori (Ngapuhi) and European descent. The coupled painting and poem were part of a recent exhibition, Parlour Birds, looking at inherited memory and narrative using the metaphor of Victorian living room furniture.

I love this work for many reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, my reaction is visceral: the words are full and rounded, images that can be felt ("the first fall of rain on the skin"), smelt ("the match head moon burnt"), absorbed ("the prow cutting salt water"). I read this work after returning from a trip to Okarito Lagoon, one of the last sanctuaries of the Kotuku (white heron) - where my partner proposed to me. So it's probably not surprising that my first reaction was so strong! But even now, when some of that new emotion has faded, I find this work still speaks to me, on many levels.

It's the multilayering of the poem which is another delight. Like Penny's exquisite paintings, this poem moves between spiritual and legendary references, darting like the piwakawaka between life and death, love and selfishness. This poem brings to life the forgotten legends, suggesting that in our daily lives there is an echo of the past, a sense of timelessness. It's a solemn poem at times, but that is balanced by its lyricism and moments of joy.

Finally, as I know Doug and Penny personally, it's a privilege to witness the maturing of a collaboration now spanning over three years and at least three shows plus a number of publications. The exploration of Penny's Maori and Doug's Samoan heritage and their shared European ancestry has been fruitful indeed. If you haven't yet come across their work, consider yourself introduced - and watch out for more in the future.

This week's Tuesday Poem editor is Renee Liang, an Auckland poet. Some of her poetry (and various other rants) can be found on her blog Chinglish. For more Tuesday Poems from the rest of the TP community enter our live blog roll in the sidebar. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Year of the Elephant by Michele Leggott

did you feel that    she puts his hand
on her belly    the baby has woken her
with its kicking and when she comes back
to bed the feet pound up and down
making bumps in the tight drumskin    they laugh
not long now    if they have the dates right
William for a boy    Isabella for a girl

d i d  y o u  f  e e l  t h a t    the telegraphist
in Wellington taps out the words mid-message
in eight seconds    the earthquake hits
the south as they arrive    shocks travelling
northeast to southwest on a transverse
that can be plotted with some accuracy
when the reports are collated    and added
to the waves that rushed into Lyttelton
Okains and Pigeon Bay the day before
starting in the early hours and getting bigger
through to noon    the last and most destructive
at Pigeon Bay rising seven feet
above the spring tide mark    no lives lost
but wreckage and silt observed far out to sea
and the Stormbird driven offcourse
by such a strong current that it was impossible
to make headway against it    twelve hours later
bores ran up several rivers on the West Coast
and travellers going by Cobb’s coaches
along the beach    saw the tide rush very far back
and come up again in very high rollers

yes this is the geologist speaking
offering a comprehensive explanation
for the propagation of events
of a truly plutonic nature    he also knows
about the stranding of a ziphid whale
probably Berardius arnuxii    near New Brighton
and about the death of an elephant
some months earlier from eating Coriaria
at Waitaki while being brought overland
for exhibition on the plains    it fed four hours
amongst the herbage and afterwards
went to a neighbouring creek    Haere ki te moana
and had a long drink    in turning back
the animal began to reel    fell on the ground
and died after three hours
it would seem from this instance
that the poison must be very virulent    the bones
are being cleaned and sent to Wellington
where Dr Hector and his assistants
will articulate them for display    the munificence
of the Hon J McLean MLC in securing
the carcase and arranging the gift
is gratefully noted    the owner was paid £2

did you feel that    Isabella jumping
in utero as the vast soul
dips its wings going north    some manta
out there in the dark and she
a subduction of the Pacific plate
or a minute in the arc of the spring horizon

I chose this poem - which Michele sent to me a day or two after Mary asked me to edit this Tuesday's post - because it is so timely, an earthquake poem set in Canterbury, circling around the great human tremor where we all begin. It speaks of birth, our entry point into these unstable elements of land sea and sky, earth air and fire. The images are so apt this week just gone, given the tectonic birth pangs we are going through, shock by shock, in an edgy week of long labour.

leggott.jpgHere, from a Christchurch Press review, is what I said of Mirabile Dictu - Michele's seventh volume of poems (2009), in which this one appears.
"She is surely a poet's poet: more accessible here than in her earlier work certainly but, sadly, destined it seems, to be appreciated by a tiny minority of the nation's readers. 
This is not because there is nothing here for them - here is life in all its fullness, if you have learned to speak the language. These new poems contain some of her greatest lyrical flights, set down in broken strips of reportage, in dreamlike sequences, touching every aspect of a tactile world where light is fading as the poet's own eyesight fails, and her white walking stick appears as a character both in her life and, volubly, in the poems."
I concluded that "for those who wish to discover where New Zealand poetry has been, and where it might be heading, Leggott's work is a rewarding start line".

Michele Leggott, during her 2007-2009 tenure as New Zealand's Poet Laureate. Image: National Library of New Zealand/Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa.

"The Year of the Elephant" is published on Tuesday Poem with the kind permission of the author and Auckland University Press. This week's Tuesday Poem editor, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, is a poet from Christchurch, New Zealand. Visit his Tuesday Poem September Quake on http://paparoa.wordpress.com/ , and the other Tuesday Poets using our blog list.

Postscript: There is a faultline of earthquake poems on Tuesday Poem this week! Check out:  Jeffrey Paparoa Holman's September Quake, Seattle Poet T Clear's post Earthquake, with Forty Pianos by Tom Porter, piano tuner; Boston Poet Melissa Green's  Christchurch as seen from the Nortern Hemisphere and Wellington Poet Mary McCallum's Earth.  No doubt there will be others. 

Claire Beynon (TP’s co-curator) says on her blog about the way Tuesday Poem has come together this week:  “Together, we find the words we need to make sense of our world.  Today, it seems to me something new and different is unfolding... we're building a composite; a communal poem composed of many parts. What a privilege. Thank you all.” 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Poet as Absent-minded Neuroscientist: The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin & Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Our thoughts go out to the people of Canterbury in the aftermath of Saturday's 7.1 earthquake - especially to our friends and family and fellow Tuesday Poets. With the knowledge that you're all safe, may the spirits of poetry fly to your comfort and carry your minds away from any troubles you face.

Lines from Philip Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"

Here's Larkin's narrator in "The Whitsun Weddings" (you can listen to the entire poem here):

At first, I didn't notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what's happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,

Here's Nabokov's fictional poet John Shade, from "Pale Fire" (from the novel Pale Fire):

When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end...
...And while the safety blade with scrape and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek...
Dressing in all the rooms, I rhyme and roam
Throughout the house with, in my fist, a comb
Or a shoehorn, which turns into the spoon
I eat my egg with. In the afternoon
You drive me to the library. We dine
At half past six. And that odd muse of mine,
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair.

In previous posts we've discussed the song of poetry, its music, its efforts to capture and preserve unique specimens of perfect beauty. Now we can look at where it lives (in shadows, sidelong glimpses, midge-like sparks of memory) and how it's found, allured, gently caressed, almost never coming when it's called (see my post on poets and their cats). In the above excerpts, notice how both narrators -- composing some of the most beautiful lines in English -- present themselves as engaged in the mundane activities of ordinary life: Reading, in the case of Larkin's narrator. Shaving, in the case of John Shade.

The sort of shaving commercial which appeared around the time Nabokov was writing Pale Fire.

Marvelous illusions. Joyce's nail-paring. In fact, these poems were more likely constructed out of intense, agonizing, jackhammering desk-work (or podium-work, in Nabokov's case), but the special effect is one of detachment, absent-mindedness. A uniquely artistic pairing: blind-spots to the outside world coupled with a most vivid spotlight on the musings of our brain.

We've already heard Jonah Lehrer's take on Proust (see his book, Proust was a Neuroscientist), how the greatest of French novelists discovered the importance of smell, taste and our present mood upon our recollections (we can add madeleines-and-tea to reading, shaving, the bowel movement of Leopold Bloom, etc) -- but Larkin and Nabokov, as shown above, deserve honorary chairs amongst the emerging bio-poetic panel of brain scientists: mainly for their insights into the idea that the most unexpected and brilliant poetic sprites of fancy often come to us when we're occupied with the most familiar, the most routine.

Obligation touches genius "like a scourge of scorpions," writes Coleridge; and yet in my view, meditation, in the monkish sense (obligatory musing, you might say), is just as unlikely to produce a great poem. Reading, shaving, showering, smoking, driving a car -- the auto-pilot activities of the everyday, according to scientists such as Rebecca Saxe of MIT and Randy Buckner of Harvard, may be the true handmaids of our genius. At such times, they've noted, certain regions of the brain, including, for example, the right temporal parietal juncture (responsible for our imagining what other people are thinking) kick into action, indeed, appear to take on a life of their own, rummaging through the past like kids in a costume-trunk and performing for us fanciful skits about the future.

Traveling through time, designing and preparing for imaginary futures -- a human survival trait, no doubt. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that, in moments of mind-block, you turn to a Gillette Mach3 Turbo or a Silk-Effects for Women to find your muse -- although who knows? I'm simply suggesting that the narrator of a poem or novel will often appear more alive to us, more real to us, if his or her mind wanders (like ours, like everyone's) during moments of daily habit; and that this quality of an absent-minded exterior combined with a radiant, boundless interior is what makes poems like "The Whitsun Weddings" and "Pale Fire" such extraordinary works of art.

Zireaux is an Auckland-based novelist, poet and playwright. For Zireaux' other Tuesday Poems please visit ImmortalMuse.com, and in the live blog roll in the sidebar there are more Tuesday Poems.