Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Tuesday Poem - Surprising The Quarry by Kay Mackenzie-Cooke

                 SURPRISING THE QUARRY
                 The joints of this house click - still sending signals -
                 where Hicks* sent the first message in morse
                 across the harbour, an ordinary afternoon closes in.

                 We are here to find inspiration wherever  
                 - the bath-tub that stands, feet apart,
                 or the toilet window Harbour Cone peers into.

                 Claire’s stacked paintings against the walls;
                 inside-out windows. The house knows
                 only what it once contained. White butterflies

                 twirl in four p.m. light. What can we add?
                 That here today the moment is still being born;
                 birds silenced by the flick of a switch-blade claw;

                 hills unmoved even as oar-shaped clouds row 
                 in an easterly direction. All expressed with weapons
                 of our own choosing - lead or pastel. Time will always

                 claim its quarry; a favourite singer’s voice
                 forced to travel through a smoke-damaged throat
                 is a de-capitated voice. But great for singing the blues.

                 Kay Mackenzie-Cooke

A couple of times a year, I get together with three women friends - Kay, Martha and Penelope (dedicated director of Rosa Mira Books and creator of The Most Unique PR-family In The World - Ratty, Lily The Pink, Isgar and Daisychord) - to workshop poems. We rotate houses (so to speak). Kay wrote Surprising the Quarry one afternoon we'd gathered at 22. She read it aloud to us in the moment; a poem with still-damp wings, it arrived pretty much fully-formed. I love the details she picked up on; the new slant on old things I've grown accustomed to. . . I especially love the opening line 'the joints of this old house click - still sending signals' (they do) and 'What can we add? That today the moment is still being born. . .' Oh, and too, the 'hills unmoved even as oar-shaped clouds row in an easterly direction.'

Kay is a much-loved and -respected Dunedin poet and warm-hearted friend. She identifies deeply with our South Island landscapes (I believe our rivers run in her veins). Kay has published two collections - Made For Weather and Feeding The Dogs. Her third book, Born To A Red-Headed Woman (also the title of her blog) is due out soon. 


The joints of my house - no. 22 (built in 1880) - really do click. Like every good man and woman, she has weathered much over the years; there are several chapters to her story. It turns out Kay's poem was prescient. Since returning from South Africa a few weeks ago, I have noticed cracks and signs of stress that were not there before I went away in early December. Two builder friends suggest she's showing signs of earthquake fatigue. . . not uncommon, apparently, even down here, 380 kms South of our sister city, Christchurch. I've been advised to lodge a claim with the Earthquake Commission (which I have done); the next step is to organize an independent assessment from a structural engineer. I'm not sure yet what the implications are. One step at a time. I am humbled all over again by all that our Christchurch friends have endured since September 2010. 

Every time something 'happens' to my house - structurally, esp., - I contemplate its symbolic, metaphoric meaning. Was it Jung who first referred to our psyche as 'a house of many rooms' (I'm paraphrasing)? Jung aside, I have long been interested in the correspondence/correlation between the things that manifest - often simultaneously - in our outer and inner worlds. . . The stories our house/our bodies tell us seem to me parts of the same thing; each has the potential to reveal hidden flaws and fractures, necessary truths? Suffice to say, I am paying attention. 

Staying with my house a moment. She (22 is def. female) was significantly damaged during a bizarre thunderstorm in Dunedin in February 2005. At the time - my personal foundations shaken - I was in the process of separating out from my husband of 19 years. Waterfalls gushed through the roof and into every room. Walls had to be stripped back, relined, re-plastered, repainted. An entire outbuilding collapsed, taking with it my laundry and loo (22 had an outside bathroom in earlier days). One wing had to be completely rebuilt. The crisis gave birth to my beautiful studio - it was as though the house was taking things into her own hands and insisting on this - inviting me to take my place fully in a whole new chapter.  

In honour of this transformative process, I left a wall in my passage 'exposed'. I like the idea of the house wearing this aspect of her history 'on her sleeve' and refer to this as her 'dreaming wall'. In the ensuing years, the wall has become a notebook/sketch pad/ideas board/telephone directory and visitor's 'book'. On my fiftieth birthday, Kay transcribed Surprising the Quarry onto the wall (see pic above). She made me chuckle last night, in her email saying 'yes' to my posting her poem here today. Her response to my telling her about 22's latest malady was this - 'Sorry the old girl is needing hip replacements ... hope it all goes well and is a stress-free process for you guys.


This is turning into a much longer post than I'd intended. I must be distractible (am supposed to be working on a talk for Thursday - International Women's Day - isn't that the way?!).  

* To add an interesting bit of background to Kay's poems and the house, 'clicks' rhymes with Hicks. . .(Clever Kay ; )). Stanton Hicks lived with his family at 22 in the early years of last century. The photograph below shows him and his friends sitting on the front steps on the harbour side of the house. 

An excerpt from our then-local newspaper, The Witness - "The first concrete evidence of transmitting and receiving Morse messages occurred on September 10, 1908, when two Otago Boys High School pupils, Stanton Hicks and Rawson Stark, sent messages across Otago Harbour between their homes in Ravensbourne and Andersons Bay. . . The Witness reported: "About two years ago the three boys seriously set about the equipment of a wireless station each, but although the conception was somewhat ambitious for boys of 14 and 15 years of age, their equipments were extremely modest comprising one or two small induction coils and battery cells of feeble power.

"Pocket money being scarce, their ingenuity found vent in unexpected directions. Discarded material and scrap heaps of various workshops in the city were laid under generous tribute. They were indeed like starlings at nesting time, and their school teachers can tell of weirdly distorted pockets and bulging school bags, as odds and ends were being collected and smuggled to safety, until the boys were free from lessons, when they would rush to their respective homes and toil away industriously."  (Continue reading this story here )

Cyril Brandon (17), pictured left, Rawson Stark (17), centre, and Stanton Hicks (16) are shown (on the steps of the Hick's Ravensbourne home) in an Otago Witness photograph with one of their wireless stations.

For more Tuesday Poems, please click on the quill.

This week's editor on the TP hub is UK-based Kiwi writer Belinda Hollyer with the poem Five Quartets by Australian John Tranter

PS. Tuesday Poem stats as at 4 March 2012


  1. Thanks Claire - I love how the poem has become embedded by you into today's story, as well as yesterday's - and how it also waves a feeler towards the future. Fascinating. I love too that Hicks n Co were transmitting from your house in Ravensbourne across to Andersons Bay where I happen to live. (I have on occasions been known to send out a 'click' across the water and around the corner to you over in Ravensbourne).

  2. I've just relished poem and commentary, thanks you two. And 22 goes on proving her capaciousness. Still sending messages out into the world.

  3. Dear Claire, I absolutely loved this complex, many-layered post. We've talked about the sad ravages at 22, and it is a worry, but you've written about it in such a way, that you've nearly rebuilt the place merely by the force of your pen.

    The dreaming wall is a beautiful place to begin this piece. To think that Mother Nature sent you a flood so that you could pull out of thin air a wonderful studio, and then have the splendid idea of leaving, as a way of thanking her for the gift of your studio, this amazing wall with signatures, phones, billet doux, drawings, and all kinds of offerings to her.

    Kay's poem is absolutely perfect. The house does click as it settles; I love the details and the photo of Hicks still sending signals, as if they are still being sent to Kay on the opposite shore and she is there to receive them.

    And these wise lines, "What can we add?/That here today the moment is still being born." 22 has been occupied before; you are only a temporary guest, as you were at the Mud House, a companion and caretaker of it while you live there. "Time will always claim its quarry--your house, your study, your paintings; young Hick's ingenious telegraphy, Hicks himself; the photo on the porch; the porch itself.

    Your post is layered so wonderfully with the way your old girl has been built--lathes, support beams, layers and layers of plaster over cracks.

    Houses do represent our bodies in the outer world, and often we dream of their rooms, or like Alice's, different rooms, or rooms we didn't know about, or doors that weren't there before, and open into attics or fabulous greenhouses; all rooms in our very active minds; our souls build and investigate and discover, and 22 is a place for all that dreaming.

    The story of young Hicks and his pals and the quote from The Witness all add another layer of plaster and paint and shingles to your home, very movingly.

    Let's home 22 will be repaired and restored, so that your mind can rest there again, you can add to your dreaming wall, and discover in the house of the mind other rooms, with other meanings. Lovely post, Claire. xo

  4. Claire, you're back! For some reason I wasn't getting your updates on my reader. And I return today to find that you've been posting for a while--so glad to you writing here again.

    I love, love the 'dreaming wall'. When I redid my son's bedroom last year, I painted one of his wall with magnetic chalkboard paint, so he could have his own version of a dreaming wall. I love that his friends and cousin add special messages or pictures to it. He refuses to erase anything so it is layered with love.

    A beautiful poem from Kay, we have. Jung, yes, talked about houses of many rooms in dream analyses. I too look for meaning, or metaphor, in the physical world around us, it does seem there's a certain synchronicity of that world and our own world within. Take care of your 22. She sounds like a real beauty, worthy of continued love and care. ;)

  5. I'll go to bed tonight thinking of houses slipping from foundations and "birds silenced by the flick of a switch-blade claw."

    This post (and poem!) is a marvelous peek into many lives, rich in details and moods.

    Simply lovely.

  6. Dear Friends - Kay, Penelope, Melissa, Jayne and T - thank you for the gift of listening you bring. In a way we all share a dreaming wall out here in the blogosphere -and what riches are inscribed on it. xo

    I will answer you individually over the coming days. . . for now, love and thanks as I put my head down and re-write the talk I 'thought I'd written' for a Women's event this evening into one whose related-but-different focus 'arrived' in the early hours of this morning. How often does this happen?! One thing I do know is that it carries our collective women's voice and aspirations. . .

    'All is love', to borrow my mentor Lawson's words. He is right and he doesn't have to wear a skirt to be in our conversation! ; ) xo