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.” 


melissashook said...

oh, thank you....what a surge of a poem...

Helen Lowe said...

Great choice, Jeffrey--and indeed, very apt.

Kathleen Jones said...

I really loved this poem - it has such tremendous scope and the technique is fabulous!
Sorry not to be able to debate with you at the Christchurch litfest - perhaps one day in the future.