Thursday, October 25, 2007


(for Lisa Clements)

“I like to ambush my brain before fear and reason can kick in …”
Joan of Arcadia

the wine-shop sign

I watch Gaston

joshing with his buds
Out in the sun

all day - poor you!


married to a Japanese
(Yuko, was it?)

does he recognise me?

I him

Are you getting popcorn
all of us?

the kids shrill
I stand queuing

right behind them
harassed father

has no answer
I make sure

that I get served
no matter what

the upshot

It’s always already

that sharp blow
to the back of the head

throwing the pen
in the language student’s

He’s having trouble at home

Lisa explained

The redness
of red trousers

in a shop

tried on


tried out
in the park

holding hands
– with whom?

gossamer smile


I always think the ideas behind my poems are crystal clear, but (as a young Zen-Buddhist hippie of my acquaintance once complained): “You put in only about 70% of the meaning.”

Anyway, with that in mind, I’m going to have a go at contextualising these three poems I’ve written in response to Eleanor’s challenge to consider the “Academic as Hero” – as the simple protagonist in a drama (one meaning), or as the individual who surmounts great dangers and difficulties for his culture or community as a whole (Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces).

I begin with the model of the artist-as-hero: in this case, the feminist, pacifist, self-proclaimed High Priestess of New Zealand painting, Rita Angus. These two poems record two anecdotes which I heard from my wife Bronwyn, who’s writing a PhD thesis on Rita. The first is her defiant reply to a tribunal which questioned her right to refuse to do war-work in a rubber factory. The second is from a letter she wrote to her younger sister Jean, also a talented artist, but one who (in Rita’s eyes) had chosen domesticity and children over the pure monastic calling of High Art.

The second exhibit is a similarly “found” pair of poems – taken from Cluny MacPherson’s talk, at our School research day last year, on how best to start your career in this area. I guess my point here is the contrast between the feisty, irrepressible grandstanding of the (admittedly personally rather insufferable) Rita, with the rather apologetic tone of Cluny’s talk – the lack of inspiration to be gleaned from many of one’s intellectual heroes when one meets them in the flesh. Also, the fact that one so seldom sees perceptible amelioration in the lives of one’s research subjects as a result of one’s efforts. What exactly are we in it for? is, I guess, the question I’m posing here.

I suppose one is entitled to expect this dialectic paralleling of thesis and antithesis to produce a synthesis, at any rate within the world of the poem. In part three I do my best to provide an (admittedly personal) solution which I can more-or-less imagine living up to. I hate the fact that I didn’t greet my old language-school colleague Gaston, but I doubt that he felt the same fervour about his failure to greet me. It’s just the way things go. Colleagues slip off the radar as time goes by. Nor do I respect the way I tend to guarantee my own interests first before worrying about those of others (as in the cinema queue). I lose it sometimes, too – as in the incidents referred to in the third section of the poem. Nevertheless, there can be a kind of transcendent boldness in small things – the wearing of a daring pair of trousers, half-proud, half-anxious, as I saw a girl doing in Western Park one day. If that’s all the heroic gesture can come down to in my case, too, then so be it.

Perhaps that’s also my main motivation for presenting you with a set of poems when you might have (not unreasonably) preferred me to stick to the world of analytical prose …

[14 May, 2008]

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