Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tuesday Poem - John Donne

Mary McCallum left a comment on yesterday's Syrenka post that reminded me of a poem I'd written, oh, perhaps a decade ago. This set me off on a late night hunt. I'd hoped to find it and type it up here for today, but apparently the fish that's in it has discovered its fins and swum the poem into hiding. Never mind, it'll turn up. Meantime, staying with the mermaid theme (in itself, a totally unexpected little tributary) here is a poem from John Donne ---

Go and catch a falling starre
Get with child a mandrake's roote
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foote.
Teach me to hear the mermaid's singing;
Or to keep off envy's stinging.
And finde
What winde
Serves to advance an honest mind.

John Donne

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In the late 1850s, a 1233 ton ship name Mermaid made many voyages between London & Auckland, Liverpool & Lyttleton (I stumbled on this passenger list on the NZ Yesteryears site).

Monday, June 28, 2010


Rebecca Loudon pointed out that the mermaid holding her tail(s) over in Hobart is related to the Starbucks mermaid; and a Facebook friend recognizes the sword-brandishing mermaid as the nobel fish-tailed woman in the Warsaw coat-of-arms... I wonder if any of you has a story to tell about the other two? (This is a bit of a high-speed chase; I've just got home, Tuesday is only an hour away and I'm not sure yet which - or whose - poem I'll be posting in the morning!)

fyi. . .

Syrenka folk band, Sydney, Aus.

A Polish syrenka is synonymous with a siren.

". . . The Coat of Arms of Warsaw consists of a syrenka ("little mermaid") in a red field. Polish syrenkais cognate with siren, but she is more properly a fresh-water mermaid called “Melusina.” This imagery has been in use since at least the mid-14th century.[1] The syrenka has traditionally held a silver sword although this does not appear on more recent versions.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tasmanian Devils & full-breasted women

I didn't come face-to-face with any Tasmanian Devils whilst in Hobart, but I did come across this group of lissom mermaids. . .

Four aspects of the same woman?

On a late evening walk around picturesque Battery Point, this mysterious image caught my attention - tar calligraphy? I'm absolutely certain it wasn't there the morning before.

The things roads get up to when the rest of the world is sleeping?

I wish I knew how to animate these kinds of 'found' gestures. Imagine these lines choreographed into a 3D dance. Lisa Roberts would know just what to do. . . I especially love this piece, her lyrical observation of Southern Ocean krill (with a spoken commentary by biologist and krill expert, Steve Nicholls) and this one that illustrates their life cycle. . .

The day following the Antarctic Visions conference, three of us took a taxi out to the Antarctic Division (about twenty minutes drive from the centre of Hobart) and spent the day in conversation with various scientists there, and too, drawing Euphausia superba in the krill nursery - what ephemeral, balletic little creatures they are. Exciting research is being done on krill's relationship with whales - theirs is an intricate and vital dance - and we'll be looking for ways to visually represent an important new piece of data on this subject. This collaboration is likely to include dance, animation, painting, poetry and music. (Geologist Rupert Summerson brought his shakuhachi along to play to them!)


This is all a bit disjointed, perhaps because I'm sitting cross-legged on the hard floor of Auckland airport (beside the only power outlet I could find in the domestic departure lounge). I ought to be in Christchurch but last night's flight from Melbourne was delayed, first by mechanical problems, then - when one of the aircraft's air conditioning units failed - by our having to take a longer, coastal route South. About half an hour away from Christchurch we were told we'd have to turn back to Auckland because heavy fog in Chch made landing there impossible. That was at about 2.45AM. It must have been about 3.45AM when we landed and 4.45AM by the time we'd all been herded into buses and off to a hotel in town to sleep what was left of the night away.

The first Auck-Chch flight I've been able to get onto leaves here at 8.00PM this evening, so guess where I've been all day? Actually, it's been fine; peaceful even. I've savoured (a good number of the) 100 Poems from the Japanese, surrendered again to the place and characters of Penelope's potent Island and been transported into new landscapes by Gretchen Legler's stirring essays, All the Powerful Invisible Things. (Gretchen was a co-presenter at the conference. I intend to write more about her book once I have absorbed more of it...)

Essential things, places of pause.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Thin Ice





























Today's poem comes to you from Hobart, Tasmania where I'm attending the Antarctic Visions conference. It is wonderful to be here and immersed for a time in 'all things Antarctic'.

Thin Ice speaks to my experience of having to negotiate a safe passage across the sea ice at Explorers Cove. Towards the end of the summer, the ice begins to thaw and traversing it becomes fairly treacherous; one has to step lightly whilst listening to every footfall. The poem also references creative processes and the sometimes breath-holding experience of approaching the blank page.

Where there is ice, there is music - CB 2007 Pastel on paper.

Serendipitously, my conf. presentation is this afternoon. I'll be showing my short film, Hidden Depths - Poetry for Science (which I hope to be able to upload to Youtube one day soon) and an adjunct paper on ArtScience collaboration. When I woke this morning, I thought 'how wonderful that my 'poetry for science' film has been allocated a Tuesday slot in the programme. . . ' I can see myself mentioning our Tuesday Poem initiative to the good folk in the audience!

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An honest continent

Life's an incongruous mix of shimmer and chaos these days.

Something's up, though not necessarily amiss - each day a birth, a death. Back-to-back these dual pronouncements come, sometimes calmly and quietly, other times in a hot and bloody rush. With every arrival, a departure. With every departure, an arrival.

A trusted mentor reminded me recently that one of my life tasks (as he - and I - see it) is to 'burn up the past' so that I can more fully inhabit the present. For all my fiery independence, I am one of those people pathologically wired into loving 'for the long haul.' As time goes on, I realize that this does not necessarily imply wisdom, generosity or capaciousness. There are times when an imperative like this can become a trap for both self and other, a bind that speaks more about enmeshment than connectedness. Such 'love' can be more suffocating than emancipating. L also suggested that if we are to nurture our soul's 'true efficacy' we need to live in as invested and unencumbered a way as possible. Love with neither expectation nor attachment. . . While this notion resonates powerfully with me, there are times when I don't feel particularly well-equipped for the (t)ask. Like now, for instance, when I find myself soaring and plummeting, capable of deep joy and generosity one moment and unspeakable twistings of the heart the next.

Yesterday was a tough day - much of it around revisiting the past in an attempt to make peace - again - with the 'old order' so as to be more at peace with the new. Regardless of one's relationship status, there is always Relationship Humus asking to be sifted through. And, well, some bits on our personal compost heaps take longer to break down than others. There's nothing for it but to trust that sooner or later, with a careful mix of diligence, cut worms, spades and good faith, even our darkest material can be turned over and put to good use; the foetid and fermenting can (even wants to?) become generative, informative, transformative.

I laid my precious cat Sage to rest yesterday. He was the dearest, most complex wee creature. I loved him. We had in common a burning need for solitude. His small, handsome body will not be laid into the earth - at least not yet. He's to be cremated and in time I will dig his ashes into the soil and plant a renewable Sage bush for him in his favourite patch of garden.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . . Of course, Sage's death brought a myriad other griefs into the room. Over the years, loss has been a persistent theme; I've tended to think I have to be brave and firm-footed - stoical even - but not so, yesterday. Something in me cracked open and I felt as though I was finally able to weep years of unwept tears. There was some relief in giving myself over - unapologetically, noisily, un-prettily - to the catharsis of snot, puffy eyes and freely-flowing salt water... I wept because I had every good reason to in the moment, but of course I was also weeping for past losses and, too, for who knows how many other unknown, undeclared reasons.


My older brother Alan died in 1984. He had an incredible gift with animals, his love and empathy towards them a language all its own.

Here is one of the poems I wrote for him but that speaks no less to others we have loved and lost.



You warmed my blood
for years I kept an eye
on you. Now I tell myself
Death at least is
an honest continent
a simple compost
of history and bones.


Chisel an altar
out of mourning.

When stone thaws
and herons dream

unbind your feet
and sign yourself.

d. 15 June 2010, aged 12 & 3/4


"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea."
Karen von Bliksen-Finecke

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Jade


"Hold this," he says
kneeling on air.
"This stone
is alive." But she
is five and unprepared
for such magic.

The frozen sea
rolls itself over
in her trembling hands
and now her bottom lip
is trembling, too. She
cannot see for sobbing
is quite unable to stop
the quaking, stop
the jade

It cracks
the kitchen floor
stains the concrete

The room is dim
and small. It quickly fills
with fish that flash
a sudden squall of men
the whip and slide
of kelp, the smell of gulls
and thunder circling.


I've been 'elsewhere' these past two weeks; I imagine you've noticed how skinny my recent posts have been as well as how dismally few comments I've left on your blogs lately? Sorry. I've been wrestling with daemon and demons alike, and - not unlike the five year old in this week's poem - found myself uncharacteristically 'unprepared for such magic.' There's been something Herculanian about this latest chapter in terms of tasks and asks. This may sound dramatic but truly, I can't recall tackling an obstacle course quite like this one before. I've made a right show of myself, too, coming face-to-face with my Beauty and my Beast and getting to know each of them better and a whole lot more bluntly than once upon a time. You could say I've been doing some grueling dueling.

But I digress...

Back to things jade; pounamu is a myth-rich stone. (For overseas readers, pounamu is the Maori word for jade or greenstone). Pick up a piece and it invites 'reading', to be entered like a landscape.


The Gulf calamity continues to haunt me. I'm unable to paint or draw anything but that right now and don't expect to be able to for a long, long while.

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And for good measure, a wordless offering from the sea.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Elegy for the giant tortoises


Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can't quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralyzed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

Margaret Atwood

I'm busy preparing paper for a series of new paintings that will be part of an ArtScience exhibition here in Dunedin early next month. The title of the show is BLEND. There's no way I can't not make work in response to the environmental calamity in the Gulf. I can't get the manatees, seabirds, foraminifera, turtles. . . out of my head. The words 'oil and water do not mix, oil and water do not mix' have been pounding in my chest like a storm; a chant, a plea, a protest. . .

Margaret Atwood's website is (as you'd imagine) a roomy place that, amongst its many treasures, offers generous resources for writers (ref. Negotiating with the Dead: A writer on writing). She has also included 'links of interest', photographs, media clips, podcasts of interviews, reviews, readings. . .

Remarkably, she wrote ELEGY FOR THE GIANT TORTOISES in 1968.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Girl

for Ali, aged fifteen

You're all prickles today
a native pyracantha
snapping and wrapping
the house in a barbed-wire

There are tacks
underfoot, an armoury
of weapons
at the back door
a legacy of lead.

Your mouth
is a live coat hanger
a twist of wire firing
into unexpected
Alexander Calder shapes.

Despite the jabs
the flicks and flays
all the elements are here
for a mobile shape
of extraordinary aesthetic.

When winds thrash
and sharp shards fly
there can be no denying
the whole damned gorgeous
truth of you.


Girl appears in my collection Open Book - Poetry & Images , published by Steele Roberts (2007).

Ali is now twenty-five. We weathered some spectacular teenage storms and, yes, she's gorgeous!

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