Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bad Housekeeping by Emma Neale

The cat does a fine patriarchal stalk
his paws all rosebuds and thorns,
eyes a tender-censorious almost-blue
as he plays pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake
with the living room rug
which bubbles and bumps
like bread dough baking
until I lift its edge
to see a small, dark, anguished mouse
race the thread of its tail up and down
like a seamstress frantic to say least and mend soonest
the deep rift in time the cat’s mood gouges.

And now, and again now, the cat leaps victorious,
hurtles the mouse across the floor:
she’s a dainty stunned spool of nerves and blood,
her sequin-sized heart would fit on a fingertip
and beats fast as an edge-flipped coin,
the glittering of her minikin eyes
says terror plunges through her
in two black pins
and tells me, mute but clear,
that once upon seventy-five million years ago
we sprung (crept and hid) from one lost common ancestor.

And so as if she is a Thumbelina-Cinderella
in kohl-black eyeliner and gothic velvet coat,
I spirit her up and over the windowsill
out into the darkened garden that sways in the wind
like a boat briefly anchored;

she stumbles once, rouses,
then see, see how she runs:
free and easy, heel-kicking,
midnight’s ship-deck dance
safer than houses
for some little sisters.

Posted with permission from Emma Neale
Editor: Andrew M. Bell

I came upon this poem in TakahÄ“ 77, Summer 2012, in which it was first published. I was immediately struck by how the tone of the poem was, at once, both compassionate and playful. The title is well-chosen, a wry self-chastisement by the poet that implies that the mouse is present in her house through some fault of her own, some failing of her domestic standards. Also implicit in the title is the feminist counter-punch, a sly dig at the patriarchal ideal of the perfect homemaker.

The poem itself is a vivid portrait of a cat bringing a mouse into the house, one which many readers themselves would have experienced. Emma perfectly captures the callous indifference the cat shows in its protracted playing with the mouse before the inevitable kill. She beautifully counterpoints this with the abject terror of the mouse.

I love the way Emma has skilfully woven echoes of Beatrix Potter and Hans Christian Andersen through the poem with phrases like "her minikin eyes" and "as if she is a Thumbelina-Cinderella". This seems to lend the poem a dark underpinning such as that often found in fairy tales.

The poem is brimming with startling images that grab the reader's attention such as the depiction of the tossed mouse as "a dainty stunned spool of nerves and blood" whose heart "beats fast as an edge-flipped coin". With her poet's skill, Emma has taken a domestic incident to which many people would not give a second thought and imbued it with drama and humour. In doing so, she has created a folk tale of her own. And, in our heart of hearts, we all love a happy ending.

Photo Credit: Graham Warman

Emma Neale is a writer, editor and occasional creative writing tutor living in Dunedin. As a child she lived in Christchurch, California and Wellington; as an adult she spent 8 years working and studying in England where she gained a PhD in English Literature from University College London. She has received the Todd/CNZ Award, was the inaugural recipient of the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2008, and in 2012 held the Robert Burns University of Otago Creative Writing Fellowship. Her novels are published by Random House. Her latest poetry collection, The Truth Garden (OUP), won the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2011. She was one of the three finalists for the inaugural Sarah Broom Poetry Award in 2014.

This week's editor, Andrew M. Bell, writes poetry, short fiction, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. His work has been published and broadcast in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, England, Israel and USA. His most recent publications are Aotearoa Sunrise, a short story collection, and Clawed Rains, a poetry collection.

Andrew lives in Christchurch with his wife and two sons and loves to surf. Some of his poetry and flash fiction can be read at Bigger Than Ben Hur.


Helen Lowe said...

A wonderful choice, Andrew. So glad I've now encountered this poem!

Cattyrox said...

I second what Helen has said - I love the language and imagery throughout this. Thank you, Andrew.

Keith Westwater said...

Thanks Andrew - great choice.

Michelle Elvy said...

Love the poem and your discussion, Andrew. It's a terrific poem with such attention to detail at this small domestic scene. And I like the rhythm and suggestion of a larger theme in that last stanza. The midnight's ship-deck dance -- wonderful image.

Mark said...

Superb.Easy to read. I think what especially stood out to me were the metaphors.

Mark said...

Fee free to check out some of my own creations www.mark-poems.blogspot.co.uk

Jennifer Compton said...