Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Baobab Tree by Rachel Sawaya

You know he is there, standing
in a field, like all the others,
but he is not like them.
The children do not eat his leaves,
or sugar coat his pulpy fruit.
His trunk has not been stripped
by women hoping to calm
a fever. He cannot soothe you.
He can only hold you after
your last shred is torn away.

You were told anyone can visit him,
as long as they are respectful.
You let your blue bike fall into the furrows
and do not lean it on his girth.

You stand back and you can see
the knobbly places
where he might have grown
his freckled flesh over the bones
of young mothers,
dead in childbirth
or of dwarves,

to rest in the ground.

You step to the left.
A pale jumble is revealed
in his patulous maw. One sliver so tiny
it can only be an unborn finger.
Cradled, safe inside
his kind, woody womb.

Poem published with permission of  Rachel Sawaya
Editor: Andrew M. Bell

This poem won the Takahe 2012 Poetry Competition. The judge of that competition, Kerrin P. Sharpe, said of this poem: This is a sustained and mysterious poem which draws you into its mystery. I found myself being drawn into an African setting, perhaps along with others crowding round me, to witness the tree’s mysterious influence.”

I was immediately captivated by this poem when I read it in Takahe. Rachel paints a really vivid picture of this tree. I've never travelled to Africa, but these trees also grow in northern parts of Australia. For those readers unfamiliar with this tree, a magnificent example would look like this:

whereas the one described in this poem probably looks more like this:

or this perhaps:

You can interpret from the poem that this tree is special. It is venerable because of its age and it has attained a spiritual significance. This tree is not used like the others because of the power it emanates so, although it is not a pragmatic or utilitarian tree, "He can only hold you after your last shred is torn away."

For me the wonderful lines, "You let your blue bike fall into the furrows/and do not lean it on his girth" evoke the image of a child standing in wonderment and awe looking up at the tree.

I love the idea that this old tree is spreading and growing over the dead, reclaiming them into the natural world. And the tree, unlike humans, is not judgemental, but forgiving and it gives final resting place to "young mothers,/dead in childbirth/or of dwarves,/forbidden/to rest in the ground."

And I'm sure, poets being the word collectors that they are, like me, you will love the use of the word: "patulous".

Rachel's poem is so well-executed that like the child standing before the ancient baobab, I am in awe of its power and beauty.

Rachel has provided me with this short and very modest bio:

Rachel Sawaya is a New Zealand author and poet. She has won a few competitions and been published several times. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from Victoria University as well as sundry other degrees and diplomas. She tends to move around a lot. 

But I would like to add:

Rachel Sawaya won the Biggs Poetry Prize in 2011. She has been published in magazines such as Sport and Poetry New Zealand, and has self-published a YA novella under the pen name Joey Deleen.

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. He is about to release his second poetry collection, Green Gecko Dreaming, before the end of this month.

Andrew lives in Christchurch and loves to surf. More of Andrew’s poetry can be found at Bigger Than Ben Hur. Or check out his website at: www.biggerthanbenhurproductions.com

Please take the time to read some of the other fabulous poems posted by the other Tuesday Poets in the sidebar to your left.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

lost and found on the b train in winter by Walter Bjorkman

i first heard the rumble, felt the roar, before i was born
in my mother’s own cave, on her doctor’s way
i first saw the white porcelain straps, felt the frayed straw seats
smelled the wet drying wool before i was one year of age
record snow the christmas eve three months before my birth
then every month thereafter – i rode the rails in that womb
while dirt-crusted plowed snowdrifts piled to the sky
and were covered anew, freshened again
bread factory aromas ran down from the street
the sugary candy factory ones too, the car would
rise and emerge into the light, a city-wide roller coaster ride
coney island began at the train platform edge
a distant cousin lived in an apartment above a store
the el curving just outside his window, near ebbets field
eyes wide at the gaps in the stairs, big enough i could fall through
my father’s hand safely protecting the climb
first neck nuzzles and thigh grabs after ice skating in the city
in the car-end lone double seat, our semi-private room
midnight heads on shoulders, pretending to be tired
while our hands began their moves
i now dream of dark browns, grey and black shadows
dashing, darting through vertical steel pillars, deep in this cave
avoiding screeching blue-sparks from across third rails
my mother holding our hands, safely leading the way

to my father, waiting on the platform across and above

Posted with permission from Walter Bjorkman.
Editor this week: Michelle Elvy

Interview with the poet

This poem opens Walter Bjorkman's new poetry collection, and sets the tone for the group of poems he presents in Strand. I decided the best way to tackle Bjorkman's poetry here was to talk with him directly. So I asked him a few questions and he was kind enough to provide not only his poem but a few more words and images  as well...

ME: Walter, I admire your new collection's opening poem  ‘lost and found on the b train in winter’ very much. It feels like a deeply personal poem, beginning with the mother and ending with the father. Can you tell us more about this poem and why it begins the collection? How does it set the stage – or, better put, mood of your poetry?

WB: Thank you, Michelle. I feel that almost all of my poetry is personal, or at least the poems that I write now. b train is a decade old, and really was the first one in which I broke away from writing poems just for the sake of writing, and put myself wholly into. I had not written poetry since the mid-sixties to the early seventies; those efforts addressed the requisite youthful world angst, and though highly personal, and some quite good, they were riddled with classical references and language that was not my real voice. When I returned to poetry in the late nineties, I at first did mostly descriptive poems, with my occasional personal insight. So this poem was the dividing line between then and what I do now and feel for that reason it was a fit to start the collection.

As to the mother/father transition, you are correct, that was intentional. As background, my dad died when I was nine, and the dream sequence at the end was a recurring dream I had for some years throughout my teens. So much of city life centred on the subways, so it was a natural setting.

ME: The poem ‘driveby’ (the second poem, previously published in Word Riot) strikes me for the simplicity of the moment, especially after the complexities of the opening poem. Can you share where this poem came from?

WB: This poem was written after I returned from a ride, perhaps the third time in two weeks, where on a lonely country road next to an open field, I passed by a very strange person who just stood there looking down the road as I approached, and as I got near, ran into the field and waved his arms to the sky, then fell down to the ground. After the third time I started wondering what it was all about and came up with this scenario, where of course I am writing about what might have led me to be this person.

ME: I hear Dylan in your poems – here and elsewhere. Tell us how music has influenced the way you hear poetry, and the way you write it.

WB: Having played guitar for 48 years now, it is innate. Whether I am writing lyric, narrative, free verse or prose poetry, I want the words to flow in a way that the reader will not stumble or pause over the words. Unless I want them to.

I also grew up listening to music when poetry, in the modern sense, was first infused into folk and rock & roll – Dylan above all, but others like Eric Anderson, Joni Mitchell, et al, so it was just a natural thing. Allen Ginsberg, on first hearing Dylan’s music, wrote, “I heard ‘Hard Rain’  and wept. Because it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation, from earlier bohemian, and Beat illumination.” I was part and parcel of that generation, and although I was studying the masters from all movements back to Classic Greek through to the Beats, I could not read or write without the music of poetry, the poetry of music, in my inspiration.

ME: Warblers, starlings, magpies. Why do birds play such a central role in your poetry?

WB: Although a child of the city, I have spent thousands of nights in the country. Even in the city, I always seemed to become more aware when birds were around. They are harbingers, Greek Chorus, life affirmers and life critics. They are descendants of the greatest animals to roam the earth. All parts of nature can ‘talk’ to me in their own way, but none as much as they.

ME: Driving and motion seem to be two themes inherent in your work – themes that are, for me, deeply American. Do you agree that there is something about your poetry that captures something intrinsically American?

WB: Of course. Although first generation, and exposed to immigrant traditions at home and church as a kid,  I had the full American experience. My parents wanted me to grow up American, and, growing up in post WWII Brooklyn, I lived through and participated in the turmoil of the sixties in the USA, and all what followed to this present day.  Cars became the ultimate freedom, the means to motion and exploration. Outside of a summer at age ten in Sweden and Norway, and some Caribbean adventures, all my traveling has been in the US – I have been in 47 of the 48 contiguous states and all southern Canadian Provinces. I could not help absorb, and as a result it is reflected in my poetry.

ME: In the last poem – ‘beachcomber’s dirge’ – there’s a sharp sense of loss, and possibly regret. There’s a glance to the past – an echo, as the poem notes. Tell us how this poem found its place as the last in the collection. And how it reaches back to the opening poem and creates the complementary book-end.

WB: I ended the collection with beachcomber’s dirge because of the subject – knowing each year and day I will eventually be coming to my own end. There is some regret in there, but I feel it is more melancholia. I feel it is one of my best, and I wanted the reader to feel some closure, as the naturalist does in this poem. Life to me is a series of loss and gain, and, as Richard Manuel once said, “I just want to break even.”

Thank you, Walter Bjorkman, for the words and images. 


Walter Bjorkman is a writer, photographer, book & web designer and editor from Brooklyn, NY, now residing in the foothills of the Adirondacks. His works have appeared in Word Riot, Scrambler, Pirene’s Fountain, Poets & Artists, THIS Literary Magazine, Connotation Press, Blue Fifth Review, Foliate Oak, Wilderness House Literary Review, A-Minor, Blue Print Review, Metazen and many others. His collection of short stories, Elsie's World, was published in January 2011 and can be purchased on Amazon hereHis poetry chapbook, Strand, is both available from estore here, or Amazon here.

Michelle Elvy lives and works as a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand and currently sailing in SE Asia. She edits at Blue Five Notebook, Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Awkword Paper Cut, where she also curates a monthly column, Writers on Writing. She is also Associate Editor for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Her poetry, prose, nonfiction and reviews can be found in various print and online journals and anthologies. More at michelleelvy.comGlow Worm and Momo, her home of eleven years.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A whimper after the bang by Emily Manger

Tenderness scorched from the planet
but she's got it, baby
strong as the cockroach and faded as a fable
she chews preserved meat open-mouthed
and when she declares
around the pride of survival
that she used to be a vegetarian
you can almost see
eyelashes gentle as tattered lace
nobody's beautiful
but in the arctic solitude of a crumpled climate
she slings that shotgun over her shoulder
like christmas morning
lukewarm sunlight chokes the doorway
each day a cavernous fairytale
and remnants sit
collecting bitter laughter in cracked mugs
unlike the rest
she doesn't assemble the toxic ornaments
of when when meant more than then
and now
silhouetted beside
anguished vegetation
she can stare for hours
wears vigilance like lingerie
the shivering horizon is abashed by her bleak gaze
she's a much better shot than you
you remember the first time
you felt the kick of the revolver
back then, there was plenty of clean water
but when the snarling finally stopped
you stood ankle-deep in a wave of deafening thirst
thirst for her voice
telling you you should have used the other bullet.

from The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry (IP, 2014), ed. Tim Jones and P.S. Cottier.
Reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet and the publisher.

First published in Eye to the Telescope 2 (2011).

Editor: Tim Jones.

In 2011, I guest-edited an Australia/New Zealand issue of the Science Fiction Poetry Association's online journal Eye to the Telescope. Emily Manger submitted 'A whimper after the bang' for this issue, and I was delighted to be able to include it. Subsequently, I was equally pleased that my fellow Tuesday Poet P.S. Cottier and I had the opportunity to include it in the anthology we have recently co-edited, The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry.

What I like most about this poem is its swagger. Most post-apocalyptic poems are, believe it or not, something of a downer, but - at least on the surface - the protagonist of this poem is full of vim and vigour, tough as biltong, a kickass predator perfectly adapted to her environment. The toughness of the character is mirrored by the toughness of the poem, a landscape of spiky lines.

Look a little closer, though, and you can see the remnants of the self the protagonist has been forced to leave behind peeking through those almost-visible eyelashes. If the poem was all swagger, its terse confidence would still be bracing: but those tantalising hints of a former life make this a poem I have been happy to return to again and again.

Emily Manger: While studying, Emily Manger wrote poetry as a treasured distraction from the academic rigour of psychology. Now that her thesis has been submitted, her poetic ponderings are more post-posterous than ever. She and her identical twin Bronwen can be found regularly and joyously listening and performing around Melbourne's spoken word scene.

You can watch Emily and Bronwen Manger read a number of Emily Manger's short poems.

This week's editor is Tim Jones, who in addition to co-editing The Stars Like Sand with P.S. Cottier, is author of books including poetry collection Men Briefly Explained (IP, 2011) and short story collection Transported (Random House, 2008). With Mark Pirie, he co-edited Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand (IP, 2009).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Agnus Dei by Marty Smith

I carried the lamb in a sack on my horse
the tongue hanging grey and limp.
It’s buggered, said Dad, throw it in the creek.
The creek leaped, dimpled. Small bubbles
whirled, it rumpled where I was looking
the water shadowed half-blue-black

deep just there with duckweed floating out
the yards behind all noise, the cattle swirling
up air swelled with dust and bellowing.
Flies lighted on and off the rails.
I took the lamb and kneeled in the pudgy mud
both hands under it, under the water,

laid it carefully into the shocked cold.
It hardly struggled, there was so little left.
Put the bloody thing out of its misery
I heard in my head as I pushed it under
and the water shuddered.
Get the hell out of that he yelled at my back

you macabre little bastard!
It might have been ghoulish, he was good with words.
The yards were sweating hot
Dad wiped his hatband, the sack smelling
of stiff dry flax, I wiped my nose
my hand all mud and numb.

The birds hummed. In rain, in wind
I go out all hours on my lambing beat
he’s the shadow of me, always riding beside me.
Let it go he said, quietly. And I let it go floating
it bobbed and the sun caught the eye, closing.
Shush, shush, said the creek.

from 'Horse with Hat' (Victoria University Press, 2014)
Reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet.

Editor: Janis Freegard.

Image 1

This is a poem that really stayed with me, not just because of the drowning of the dying lamb, but because of the expertly sketched relationship between father and daughter. Then there is the surprising language: a creek that dimples and rumples, the "pudgy mud". It stands alone perfectly, but is also part of the bigger family story that Marty tells in her excellent Horse with Hat.

Marty says: 'This is an exercise poem from the distance learning IWP programme I did with marvellous Iowa tutor Margaret Ross. The idea was to try to burrow down into memory by free writing - wide-ranging, jumbled, and fragmentary- to try and snag some memories.  We were looking at poems by Lynn Hejinian by way of example. I suppose the rubbish tip of your brain throws up high voltage points in memory, and it started straight off with the little flowers floating in the creek.
I’m pleased about the image of my shadow as my father, because it hooks into part of a larger exploration of why humans persist in believing in paternalistic systems of faith (and what cultural shift is doing to that belief). I also just really like the visual idea.'

On Marty's website, you can scroll down to a most interesting audio recording of Agnus Dei, in collaboration with Maude Morris, an analysis of the poem by one of Marty's students and footage of Marty riding a gallop at Newmarket. 

Horse with Hat (Victoria University Press) is Marty Smith's debut collection. It recently won the NZSA Best First Book for Poetry award at the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards and is a finalist for the main Poetry award. The manuscript for Horse with Hat was also short-listed for the 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award. Agnus Dei was a place-getter in the 2014 Joy Harjo Poetry Prize (US), was short-listed for the Bridport Prize and has featured on a Phantom Billstickers poster. Marty describes the book as a conversation with her father, who loved books and ideas but found it hard to breach his habitual silence.

Horse with Hat also features a series of marvellous collages by Brendan O'Brien, made from engravings in a bible similar to the Smith Family Bible. The coloured images are from Garth Smith's cigarette card collection. As in the poems, figures in the collages appear, disappear, then make another entrance in a different configuration.

Marty Smith describes herself as a teacher who still keeps a secret longing to do one more round of a racecourse on a quiet horse. She worked as a track-work rider in New Zealand and in Newmarket, England, and her next project is an ethnography of the racing world.

Her poems have been widely published, including in Best New Zealand Poems 2009 and 2011, and the anthology Best of Best New Zealand Poems.

This week's editor is Janis Freegard, author of The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider (Anomalous Press) and Kingdom Animalia: the Escapades of Linnaeus (Auckland University Press).