Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Villon in Millerton by James Norcliffe

for Leicester Kyle 

a plank bed in a gully 
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 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 

Posted with permission from James Norcliffe

Editor this week: Harvey Molloy
I’ve chosen the first two sections of James Norcliffe’s poem for this week’s Tuesday 
Poem because I want to share my appreciation of longer, more challenging poems. 
‘Villon in Millerton’ is a long poem composed of six sections in which the fifteenth 
century troubadour Villon, exiled from France for his crimes, hides out the West Coast 
town of Millerton.  Villon—who has been translated into English by Rossetti  and 
Pound—is perhaps best known for his 'Ballade des dames du temps jadis'  (Ballad of 
yesterday's women) which ends with the line "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" ("Where 
are the snows of yesteryear?") and for the imaginary wills (bequeathing his soul, his stolen 
wine, his love, etc) of his Testaments. Sure, I had heard of Villon before reading James’ 
poem, but it was this poem that led me to read more of Villon and to learn more about 
his life, as well as to the life and work of the poet Leicester Kyle.  Long poems are still a 
great form of social memory. 

The opening stanza makes me reel as I am caught in Villon’s giddy, violent swagger.  The 
brutal objectification of ‘the woman’ (who may or may not be real or who may or may 
not be ‘the bush’) coupled with the perfect adjective of ‘buckled’ flows in the alliterative 
melody and ps and bs and the subtle assonance of ‘u’s .  The unadorned, exhilarating 
wild energy of this persona hooks me into the poem as we end the first section with a 
note of tenderness: ‘her laughter is desperate’.  A bad boy; yes, but Villon is surely no 
unfeeling monster. 

Norcliffe's Villon is the Kiwi man alone: "tired of screechy voices/of brotherhood and 
sisterhood"; he’s "tired of chipped Formica" and "sick of the Feltex floors." He's in exile 
from domestic life and on the run from the cops. Employing the imaginary wills of 
Villon's Testament, later in the poem he bequeaths a “thundering yellow fart” to the 
helicopters, “astigmatism arthritis” to the cops and the “crock of shit that is the past” to 
the future. Like Vincent O'Sullivan, Norcliffe has a great ear for New Zealand English and 
like O'Sullivan Norcliffe's poetry combines intellectual concerns with visceral impact.  It's 
a staggeringly good poem: bitter, humorous, middle-aged and angry.  The man alone 
myth ends with a wrecked kitchen, a failed encounter with ‘the woman’ (papatuanuku?) 
and memories of road trips past.  Yet the poem raises a question of the Kiwi bloke ‘man 
alone’ mythos: what does the loss of the bush man mean for how we view and treat the 
wilderness? It’s all very well to point out the sexist pitfalls and traps of the notion of the 
good keen man—fair enough, too—but what’s lost in the rush to buy formica and stainless 
steel?  Or is the persona’s resistance to domestication merely a bubbling, immature hostility? a residual masculine violence? There’s a lot to consider here. 


New Zealand writer James Norcliffe has published eight collections of poetry, most recently Along Blueskin Road, Villon in Millerton, and Shadow Play, and several award-winning fantasy novels for young people. He publishes poetry widely internationally and regularly reads at festivals and occasions throughout NZ and overseas most recently at the XX International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia in 2010 and the Trois-Rivieres International Poetry Festival in Quebec in 2012. Recent work has appeared in Gargoyle, The Cincinnati Review, Fourteen Hills and Spillway. With Siobhan Harvey and Harry Ricketts he has edited the new Essential New Zealand Poems anthology to be released by Godwit /Random House in August.

Harvey Molloy is a Wellington-based poet.

Be sure to check out the other poems shared by Tuesday Poem members. Scroll down the left-hand sidebar and click on the links there to see what poems others are reading and reviewing this week. 


Mary McCallum said...

A marvellous write-up about a marvellous poem, Harvey - thank you. I loved James' collection when it first came out and am pleased to see this poem again and will seek out the rest... Interestingly, for the second stanza, I switched the voice in my head to the voice of the woman - whoever she is, perhaps me? - cursing smeared and noisy domesticity wanting the silence of love/the bush. Your reading is no doubt the correct one and interests me. Thanks again, and to James Norcliffe for the poem, and Michelle for being the hub sub here.

Harvey Molloy said...

Mary, I had never entertained the notion of the second voice as feminine but now I read the poem with her voice in my head--thanks for that! I don't think that there can be any correct reading here because poetry allows for just these sort of possibilities. My reading surely says as much about me as it does of the poem.