Thursday, December 30, 2010

Just a quick note...

I think we'll continue to choose books in alphabetical order by the first letter of our screen names:

So after me this month follows:

Emily J--January
Mrs. Darwin--May

So, Emily's been in town this past week, and I know she's still on the road, so it might be awhile before she gets something up here--but we did get to chat a little about the book. Making a comparison with Mary Karr, which is difficult not to do, seeing as both authors overcame addiction by conversion, it seemed as though the conversion portions of both books were rather brief.

I understand there are numerous different reasons why this might be so, and I know Heather King writes about ongoing conversion elsewhere. But I was thinking specifically about the memoir genre, and how one weakness of the genre would be that the author has to fabricate an ending that hasn't actually taken place--particularly if that ending is of a spiritual nature. We know the authors accepted Christ, but do they finish the race? We cannot know.

Even though I'm drawn to a more personal style of spiritual writing, or testimony, the whole bit is plagued by this kind of, "...And then I found Jesus" simplicity. It feels like an easy ending.
Still, I'm not sure what the alternative would be.

I was reading through some old journals lately, and it was funny how quickly my own reversion took place. It really was the turn of a page--one day I decided to love Jesus. I made a few necessary ammends in my life, and all those pages of preparation and suffering were over. One day I didn't love, the next day I did.

Maybe the ending is just that easy. I don't know.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Loss and Redemption

I have only read a few pages of Parched and don't have anything as interesting to say as Melanie and Betty in their discussion in the comments, but I thought I’d throw this thought out there as a new post just to continue the conversation. After reading the first chapter and knowing where the story is going, I found myself wishing that I had a drinking or drug problem or some other scandalous situation, just so that I could struggle through a tragedy and survive, and so that I could have an excuse for the self-pity I wallow in at times. I can’t blame my minor woes on anyone other than myself, because I’m the one who makes them up.  I’m like the prodigal son’s older brother who complains about the lack of appreciation. The virtue of gratitude seems to come easier to people who have lost everything and had life restored.  I just heard a new story of loss and hardship from Katrina the other day, and found myself wishing we had been here so we could lose everything, too. (Maybe this is related to the anticipation of Christmas glut.)  What I should be feeling is immense gratitude that we have been spared those sufferings and a sense of admiration for those who have suffered much and survived.  I know this in my head, but it’s easy to let the poor me story crowd out those virtuous thoughts. 

So perhaps my Advent challenge as I read the rest of this book on the trip to gather with family is to remember how blessed I am. We helped sort the gifts for the giving tree at church the other day, and I saw the name of a family from our school. Their kids are at the parish school on tuition assistance because they lost their business in Katrina and then lost their home in a foreclosure and had to declare bankruptcy. They went from riches to proverbial rags overnight. There but for the grace of God go I. 

But perhaps I belittle the losses I have experienced, and I know I forget the communal nature of suffering with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Reading dark and grungy tales confirms that the story of our souls is one of loss and redemption. I am reminded that even if the ways that we give into the temptation to isolate ourselves are only venial instead of mortal sin, they are a rejection of grace requiring a conversion of heart. So I'm interested in reading more to find out what King's initial moment of conversion was, to discover how she continues to turn away from the urge to give into temptation.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Heather King's "Parched"--First Impressions

I’m about halfway through the book, and should finish with one more night of good reading, but I wanted to get something up here for those who are ready to begin the discussion.

I’m enjoying the non-linear story-telling, sort of weaving the different elements of her life into a full portrait of the addict, but that leaves me with a non-linear approach to discussing her work. The following are a few pulled quotes that spoke to me, and a couple reasons why they did.


“When I wasn’t drinking in crappy bars, I was home by myself reading: a life that was achingly lonely, and yet perversely designed to prevent anybody from ever getting close enough to really know me.” (p 12)

Comparing this detail with other addiction stories, “Lit” and “The Edge of Sadness” it seems a recurring attribute of addiction is self isolation. I think it’s interesting how most addictive behaviors (internet use comes to mind) at first appear to be a remedy for isolation, but eventually become a reason to self-isolate.


“When it came to sibling dynamics, this meant we had one basic mode of communication—ridicule; and one base mode of interaction—violence.” (p 35)

For some reason this makes me want to have more kids. It gives me the sense that a lot of what happened in my childhood, and is currently taking place between my children, might not be as out of the ordinary as I thought it was. Sure it’s painful for everyone—but so’s life. And it does sort of confirm my suspicions that these modes of interaction among siblings can help build character.


“And it occurs to me now, as I write, that those two things I did at Nana’s—daydream and snoop—are pretty much what I do today for work.”(47)

This whole scene with her Nana was so touching to me, and also very similar to my own experiences with my Grandmother. I loved every minute of it. And again, it gives the idea that child-rearing is rarely as complicated as we want to make it. Give a girl a drawer to go through and she’ll be happy for a loooong time.


One of the most enjoyable elements of this book for me is the freedom with which she writes about the darker episodes of her life. I know that sounds oxy moronic, but it gives me hope for the kinds of books that can be written, read and accepted into the Redemption Narrative. We’ve discussed here before how glossing over details, like Merton’s illegitimate child, and Dorothy Day’s abortion, causes us to underestimate the immense power of God’s mercy. To me, all these details, though they detail a life of incredible suffering, help to affirm the life of faith.

An Excerpt from Parched

For those who can't get their hands on the book right away:

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Parched" by Heather King

Parched it is. And I'm sure all of you already read her blog, but if not please check out Shirt of Flame.

...Would like some Divine Intoxication myself.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How are we feeling about December?

I think we're starting our list over again this month--which makes me chooser.

But is December too busy? Want to wait until January?

I plan to do much reading this month either way. On my list, if any of these should appeal to this group:

My copy of Heather King's "Parched" finally arrived, as did my copy of Jonathan Potter's "House of Words" (poetry).

ALso on the list:
1. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi--started this last night and didn't want to go to sleep. Funny and dry, full of interesting passages, though Steven Riddle says it might get rough in the middle.

2. "Comedy in a Minor Key" and/or "Death of the Adversary" by Hans Keilson--these just came in on my interlibrary loan, and Francine Prose said they're genius. I'll read anything Francine Prose tells me to.

3. Still wanting to read Murial Spark, Dorothy Sayers, and Marilyn Robinson's "Gilead."

4. Something "Advent-y."


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On Tagalog vs. English


Our discussions of language in the Philippines reminded me of some related observations by another Filipino writer that have always intrigued me. They're from the writer and critic Bienvenido Lumbera, but I came to them second-hand, in the essay Expression in the Philippines by my own favourite local writer, Nick Joaquin.

. . . Lumbera stimulates as he explains the absence of irony in Tagalog writing (writers in the vernacular have for sole tradition writing as naive as Florante at Laura, and for outlets commercial pulps with iron taboos) and the pronounced irony of Filipino writers in English (though generally of the middle class, they're alienated from it and moreover are spared the temptation to write for profit because they have no commercial outlets).

Lumbera's thesis was published in 1967, five years after F. Sionil Jose's first Rosales novel was published, and seventeen years before Po-on. All these books were written in English--but you can buy Tagalog translations, I think. (LOL!!!)

Later in the essay, Joaquin continues:

A related mystery is the continuing "naivete" of writing in the vernacular, including Tagalog. The language problem of the Filipino writer is usually posed as a choice between the native tongue and a foreign medium. But Bienvenido Lumbera has made a most perceptive redefinition of the problem: the choice is really between a written literature and an oral one. The modern writer writes to be read; it's not so much his training in English as the readership he would reach that obliges the 20th-century Filipino to write in English. However well he may know Tagalog, he cannot write in it because, in a sense, Tagalog is not yet a written language. What Tagalog literally has is an audience that does not so much read print as listen to it, the way it listened to bard or storyteller in pre-Hispanic times. It's still in the age of the ballad, not yet in the age of prose.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Po-on and the sense of home

I was pondering the title -- why "Po-on"? Why not "Rosales" or "Journey", since most of the book is concerned with those? Po-on itself only makes a brief appearance at the beginning, and then everyone has to pack up and get the hell out.

Then I realized that this is rather a silly question for me to ask, who am moving back to my family's old stomping grounds. I think that once you bond to a certain location, you can't get it out of your blood. I've wanted to come back to Ohio for years now, though when I first left I was chomping at the bit to get out. Istak's family, being forced to leave quickly, had to carry Po-on with them. They had no chance to leave the place behind or sever ties smoothly. Almost anywhere they settled would put them in mind of Po-on, whether through similarity or, more strikingly, through dissimilarity.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Damn Good Writing

Starting a new thread, since the comments are stretching out on the last one.

I just want to say how much I'm enjoying the narration in Po-on. Mrs. Darwin mentioned that it was written in English; I originally thought it was a translation. But I think the ESL quality of it is what appeals to me so much--the simplicity and straightforwardness of the language (almost, but not quite, monosyllabic), and yet the most expressive arrangement.

Mayang doesn't just get mad. "It was her time to be angry."

And Istak calming himself, "Let me not think ill of my father, for he has suffered."

The dialogue has each character sounding like an oracle, which should be annoying, but it's not.

"Will you pray the nine-day novena by yourself and keep the year of mourning?" he asked.

"Everything else that must be done I will do."

That's getting pretty close to iambic pentameter, and I've had to stop reading several times to dwell on a line of dialogue here and there, or some descriptive detail, like the rays that "impaled the mists upon the kapok trees."

I love being in competent hands. Thanks, E, for a fun read.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

First Impressions?


Although I knew almost as little as everyone else about F. Sionil Jose's Po-on before I started reading it, I was definitely able to put it in a context. That is why I first put it off for so many years and then came to like it so much.

The reason I put off reading it was that I thought I would hate it.

I certainly hated the two novels that were required reading (by law) in high school. They were written during the time the events in Po-on are supposed to be unfolding (I think the central character of this story even gets to read one of them); and they are some of the most bare-faced propaganda in the world. They are read primarily because of their historical significance (which I don't dispute) and the deep, dark desire people in government and public schools have to stick it to the Catholic Church (which they should finally acknowledge). Very recently, while with a friend from Canada, I described the more famous of the two novels as "the Mein Kampf of the Philippines."

And well, I thought Po-on, written in its shadow, would be more of the same.

After all, isn't one of the more famous stories about Jose that he read that famous novel as a boy and wept inconsolably at the fate of its two young altar boys--one of whom is beaten to death by a sacristan, the crime covered up by the clerics? (I do understand. I was staggered the first time I read it . . . and still skip those chapters whenever I have to reread the story again.) I asked myself whether he could possibly write a novel set in an age when clerical abuses were at their height that could also be fair and honest about the historical context. (Am I just showing my own inflexible bias here?)

But really, I think there was more to this chapter of the Philippines' story than the theme The Catholic Church was holding us back. I'm just never optimistic about historical novelists getting that. It's just so easy--almost traditional--to blame the clerics.

And yet . . . despite the fact that in the very first part of Po-on, we see a priest take advantage of one of the girls in his catechism class, and then learn that he was responsible for getting a (possibly innocent) farmer's hand chopped off in the name of "Spanish justice" . . . I think Jose is exploring a new theme. Maybe something along the lines of, After a long, hard, bloody labour, the Catholic Church finally gave birth to the Philippines.

So . . . what were your first impressions?

Friday, November 5, 2010

More Thoughts about A Song for Nagasaki

Well, then I was going to continue to post my thoughts as a comment below because I was too lazy to start a new blog post; but it got to be too long for a comment.

Like my previous comment, this is just a string of random bits, expanded from some notes I made as I read. Not really a coherent train of thought.

I think the moment in the book that most moved me was Chapter 26 "The Little Girl Who Could Not Cry", the chapter about Nagai's daughter. Her story is so sad, though I know it is not unique. It makes me think differently about how I react to my own children's tears: "Our childhood is happy because we can cry. We know that if we cry, our mother will come and comfort us. At times since your mother died, Kayano, I wanted to bawl my eyes out. But an adult cannot do that; only a child who has a mother can." How often do see their crying as an annoyance and an intrusion. How often do I deny them that comfort when they are crying because it is inconvenient to me?

The story about six year-old Kayano saving the pineapple juice and carrying it home from school because she thought her sick father would enjoy it.... I so could see my little Bella doing that. Another moment that made me cry. And that I had to read to my sister and to Dom, to anyone who would listen.

Also, in this chapter Glynn quotes from some of Nagai's books in which he writes down all the things he wants to tell his children before they die. that are not available in English, but which he says became bestsellers. So tantalizing getting a little taste of books I'd love to track down and read:

I'm sure you remember the fairy tale of the bluebird of happiness. When your mother dies, your bluebird, alas, flew away. You will not find your bluebird again except in heaven. Heartbreaking.

I don't frequently read biographies because they are so often dry. Like the bio of Jane Austen I've attempted several times but it's so weighed down with attempts to create the historical milieu through detail after detail that the story gets lost. Glynn knows how to tell a story and obviously cares about Nagai as a person rather than a subject.

I found the connections that Glynn drew between Nagai's prayer practices and traditional Japanese culture fascinating. I'm thinking of the passage in chapter 15 when Nagai is in China for the second time. Glynn writes about Nagai's adaptation of the Buddhist Nenbutsu prayer:

"Nagai's Christianity was deepening, but its style was becoming more Japanese.... Nagai began praying a kind of Christian Nenbutsu. He would choose a short passage from the Psalms or from the pocket New Testament he always carried and repeat it over and over.... His body and mind became almost numb as he worked around the clock, but he kept his spirit at peace by continually murmuring: 'The Lord graciously restores the dead to life.' Another of his Biblical Nenbutsu was a line from Isaiah, prophet in exile: 'For your sake we are massacred daily and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter."

While I don't doubt that Nagai was drawing on those roots and integrating Christian and traditional Japanese prayer practices; still what struck me about the prayers that he prays is how much they resemble the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic's practice of the Jesus prayer. Glynn says that in Nenbutsu the goal is to escape preoccupation with the past and the future and to dwell in the Now. Not at all very different from the goal of Christian prayer, except int he awareness that to be in the Now is to be with Christ.

Likewise with the Parable of the Bare Hut in chapter 25. Nagai's hut is modeled on the huts of Buddhist pilgrim hermits and the later tea hut/private chapel of Christian baron Lord Takayama. But at the same time the Christian tradition in the West also has a history of hermits withdrawing to live alone in spare huts. The early desert fathers, the Irish monks on the islands off the west coast in their little beehive huts. Of course the difference in Nagai's hut is the emphasis on gracefulness and beauty that the Japanese aesthetic brings. In that way, the traditional tea hut has a very different spirit from the crude huts of Western monastics. Perhaps it's more akin to a Benedectine aesthetic, which tends toward balancing beauty and austerity.

If I had any quibble with Glynn's approach, perhaps is was the excessive focus on Nagai's Japanese exceptionalism that de-emphasizes a continuity with traditional Catholic practice. I suppose I'm still thinking of Silence and the insistence that Christianity is somehow a foreign invader that is swallowed in the swamp of Japan. Although I think the fact that it survived underground for centuries without any priests in itself rather belies that claim. Anyhow, it seems to me that Nagai's life shows much more clearly how inculturation happens, it's subtle and nuanced blending the best of East and West. He reads the text of the Book of Revelation onto the landscape of the atomic wasteland of Nagasaki. Far from being a foreign invader, Christianity gives him a rubric that makes sense of the tragedy in a way that native philosophy cannot.

It was especially interesting the contrast between Nagasaki's peaceful celebration of the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb and the violent protests in Hiroshima. Glynn lays almost all the credit for the difference at Nagai's door. This deep-seated and widespread influence made me wonder whether there has been or might ever be a popular movement in Japan for Nagai's canonization.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

About November . . .


This is an awkward post for me to write because I barely survived October, the month when Horror movie connoisseurs are pelted with requests for "scary" recommendations. Picking movies for other people is like building a glass house and handing out stones at the house warming party--or at least that has been my experience.

Picking books for other people is almost exactly the same, but with hand grenades instead of stones. My recommendations hardly ever go down well. (Do you suppose that might be due to the way I preface them with comparisons like these? Hmmmmm . . .)

I'm not really sure what the criteria for choosing our books is, and my original idea, from when I was still expecting to be "Miss October", was Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear all of you cringing from here, but this novel really is an incredible expression of faith. Undead faith, yes, but faith nonetheless.) Since then, I've mellowed out a bit and have settled on two possible picks for November. I figured that if I gave everyone more of a choice, I wouldn't be hated so much in the end . . .

#1) Po-on by F. Sionil Jose

Since we had so much fun reading poems from New Zealand last July, I thought I'd suggest something from my own part of the world. Po-on is the one Filipino novel I automatically recommend to anyone who is curious about Philippine literature. It is an epic--a Historical spanning ten of the most tumultuous years of the Philippines, which saw the end of Spanish colonisation and the beginning of American rule. The whole nation's history becomes the central character's personal history.

The above is a rather dry description, so I'll just point you ladies to my non-review of Po-on and my character sketch of Istak Salvador on my blog.

#2) The Other Shepards by Adele Griffin

Just in case everyone would prefer some lighter--or at least shorter--reading, here is a Young Adult recommendation. YA and MG are the genres which take up most of my shelves, so trust me when I say that one doesn't have to be part of that demographic to enjoy them.

A few years before the two Shepard sisters were born, their three older siblings died together in a huge car accident. Although they never knew them, they are haunted by their memory every day, living in the same house the three grew up in and even going to the same school. And it turns out that their lost sister and brother are the toughest act in the world to follow, especially in their own parents' eyes. I mean, how do you compete with seemingly perfect ghosts who have taken the best of your parents' love with them?

There is an element of fantasy here--which I guess is something to be aware of if you prefer your fiction as realistic as possible. And if you don't mind another shameless plug, I wrote about The Other Shepards very recently, too.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On A Song for Nagasaki

Dear Betty - In response to your post below: As I was typing this, it crossed my mind that you might have posted something, but then I thought you had been too absorbed by Jonathan Franzen. So I'm glad to see you are reading this book, too. What are your thoughts? I couldn't pull together any statement or concerns about this book, but I am enjoying it and finding it more a source of consolation than of conversation.  Here's what I typed up this morning:

I guess I’ll break the silence on A Song for Nagasaki. I am still slowly working through this book a few pages at a time before bed. I think what I like best about it is learning about Nagai’s integration of Eastern values with Christian faith (along with the tutorial in the Japanese vocabulary for these values).

Some incidents described by Glynn stand out: One is the story of Takashi’s visit to the site of Japan’s victory over the Mongals with the help of kamikaze, the divine wind, that confirmed the indomitable spirit of Japan.

Another is the death of Takashi’s mother, when he looks into her eyes and becomes convinced, through chokkan, or intuition, that the human spirit lives after death. Her death also sends him back to Pascal’s Pensees, which become the spur to the begin his spiritual life, although he seems always to have been open to spiritual truths, the wisdom of the heart. I liked how he begins to see the beauty in simple things, like green tea, but only when he realizes that looking for meaning for his life in the words of others only complicates his thinking, does he begin to understand that his life only needs to make sense to himself, like the complicated patterns of the lace makers.

This book makes a good companion to Silence since it describes what happened to Christians after the faith was outlawed in Japan and how they persevered in their faith and worship in spite of great danger. The description of the Christmas celebration was also moving, as was the history of the priest Nagai visits to ask about faith and to learn how to pray. The priest apparently taught Nagai well, since his prayers keep him sane during the war with China and perhaps even are the source of the miraculous arrival of back up troops at the last minute.

I keep meaning to look up The Ten Foot Square Hut, the short book that Nagai thinks about when he wakes up after his night of carousing with a case of meningitis and has to miss giving the graduation speech. The first line sticks with him: “Ceaselessly the river flows. . . The eddying foam gathers and then is gone, never staying for a moment. Even so is man and his habitat.”

Ironically – or providentially – shortly after I read that Marge Piercy poem about Ruth and Naomi that I posted on my blog I read the chapter about how Midori accepts Takashi as a groom and agrees to follow him even though he tells her he may die of radiation sickness from his research. I liked her response: “It will be my privilege to share in his journey, wherever it leads and whatever happens on the way.” Midori’s gentleness and open ear, her strength and grace like the bamboo, make her as saintly as her husband, although such meekness as she displays would seem unnatural in our culture. Perhaps the most vivid scenes are those of the husband and wife together, such as when selfless Midori carries the ill Takashi on her back through the snowstorm or when Takashi tells her he is going to die and she responds with strength, saying “We said before we married . . . that if our lives are spent for the glory of God, then life and death are beautiful. You have given everything you had for work that was very, very important. It was for his glory.” Her words free Takashi from guilt, but later, when fear of an American attack is imminent, he discovers her weeping on the floor after she thought he had gone.

Last night, with the attention of someone reading news of the grotesque, I read the chapter that describes the dropping of the bomb. The author makes it clear that the government of Japan had become corrupt under the military dictatorship, but he also doesn’t shrink from telling how children and parents and innocence and beauty were scorched in the heat of the atomic bomb. Collective guilt still feels oppressive. I’m looking forward to reading how Nagai held on to hope in the face of grave losses.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Almost Done...

About halfway through A Song for anyone else reading this month? Is anyone else still here? Are we dead?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wanna take September off?

Then we can come back in October with Melanie's choice, followed in November by Enbrethiliel?

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Not Much of the Truth in Any Technical Sense"


Although I am not yet finished with The Liars' Club, I went back to the first chapter last night and reread Mary Karr's explanation of how the original Liars' Club got its name.

What seemed to be an unfortunate nickname from "somebody's pissed-off wife" turned out to be the perfect description for her father's group of friends.

Of all the men in the Liars' Club, Daddy told the best stories. When he started one, the guys invariably fell quiet, studying their laps or their cards or the inner rims of their beer mugs like men in prayer. No matter how many tangents he took or how far the tale flew from its starting point before he reeled it back, he had this gift: he knew how to be believed. He mastered it the way he mastered bluffing in poker . . .

I think that Karr is a real sport for warning us, about fifteen pages into her memoir, that she, too, might merely have the gift of knowing how to be believed . . . that her stories might not tell the truth in any technical sense . . . that the bullshit might get as "high and deep" in her own stories as her father's friends, riveted despite themselves, suspected it got in his.

In an earlier thread, Betty and Emily wondered how much of Karr's memories are "a bit fictional," with Emily teasing Betty about making autobiographical stuff up all the time, too. And I thought about my own autobiographical writing and realised that, heck, I "make up stuff" all the time, too. (No, I don't lie. I make up stuff. That is, I don't tell untruths; I make up stuff about the truth.) And from my experience and from what I know of similar writing by others, it seems to be a natural part of telling the stories from one's own past.

All this reminds me of Madeleine L'Engle's comment that there is a difference between fact and truth. It's a romantic distinction to make when one is reading any of her novels, but it's much more problematic when one is reading her non-fiction. Take her memoir Two-Part Invention, with a title nearly as frank as The Liars' Club: her children have described her account of their family life as "pure fiction" and "good bullshit"--and they didn't mean it in a good way. I was so impressed that I decided never to read any of L'Engle's non-fiction ever again. I didn't want her children, who presumably knew her better than any starry-eyed reader ever could, thinking of me as yet another gullible guppy.

Yet they probably, like Karr's mother and sister, don't really care. It gets high and deep in any memoir, I think. And who better than our family to call us out on what we make up about the truth? But Karr's point seems to be that it's not the technical truth that matters in memoirs.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Liar's Club again

Finished Liar’s Club just before company arrived for the long weekend. Was talking about the book with my sister-in-law, and she said “Wait is that by the same author as a book called Cherry? I loved that book.” Did you finish it, Otepoti?

Liked this last quote. It stood out after the discussion about the stories we tell about ourselves in the last thread.

“All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear. We expected no good news interspersed with the bad. Only the dark aspect of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie… It’s only looking back that I believe the clear light of truth should have freed us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters. I’m thinking of the cool terminal of white light the spirit might fly into at death, or so have reported after coming back from various car wrecks and heart failures and drowning, courtesy of defibrillator paddles and electricity, or after some kneeling samaritan’s breath was blown into stalled lungs so they could gasp again. Maybe such reports are just death’s neurological fireworks, the brain’s last light show. If so, that’s a lie I can live with.”

(I copied this in the car on a scrap paper, so now I’m not sure I copied all the words correctly. Apologies for mistakes.)

So what’s on for September? Whose turn is it to pick?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Liar's Club

Steven King said he was blown away by Mary Karr's use of the colloquial in The Liar's Club, and I have to say that I am too. "I shit you not," is not even the best of it. I keep thinking I can predict what she's going to say next, and how she's going to say it, and I'm always wrong. It's a pleasure to be surprised.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lead Balloons

It seems that Lit is going over like a bit of a lead balloon, at least in part because some people don't have access to it. Betty and Enbrethiliel are reading The Liars' Club instead (well, Betty did read Lit, too). Does anyone want to join them? I have reserved it at the library; strangely, Lit was easier for me to get. If not, we can chalk it up to the doldrums of August and wait until September.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Faith and Drinking

In contemplating Mary Karr's conversion experience, I recall how one of the things that led me back to the Catholic Church was my relationship with a man who had "gotten right-sized" in Alcoholics Anonymous. He was, like me, a cradle-but-lapsed Catholic, returning to his faith when he entered sobriety. The reason for his return was that he realized that his being able to stay sober -- one day at a time -- was wholly beyond his power, and that it could only be God who was keeping him from picking up a drink. Until he had surrendered his craving for a drink to God, he told me, he would sit in AA meetings, shaking and with sweat streaming from every pore because he wanted a drink so badly. But he had nearly drunk himself to death while on a business trip, and had woken up in the ICU; he had checked himself into detox during his Christmas-New Year's break from work because he knew he had to stop drinking or he would die.

A month or so ago, when I wrote a long blog post about the conversion of the actress Ève Lavallière, someone wrote a comment casting doubt on the sincerity of her faith, seeing as it had come to her in the midst of personal suffering and turmoil. All I can say is, this is undoubtedly the door to faith for most of us. Some of us are lucky enough to have received the gift of faith in childhood, and never to have strayed from it, but they are outnumbered both on earth and in heaven by the eleventh-hour converts. And there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, etc.

I remember my old boyfriend C. telling me about how a friend of his in AA said once that drinking was just something you did while you were driving around looking for drugs. C.'s own sponsor in AA was killed in the World Trade Center. I have a particular affection for the gallows humor Mary Karr relates from "the rooms," i.e. the rooms where AA meetings are held. I've been to a few AA meetings in my life and more Al-Anon meetings than I can possibly count.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Kiwi and Brie

Thanks, Pentimento, for steering us to Mary Karr. I found the poetry collection and all three memoir volumes at the library.

I expected to have to reserve, and wait and wait, but no. That saddens me, because books as good as these shouldn't be on the shelf, to the left of Kerouac, to the right of Ginsberg and under Atwood and Capote. They should be zinging around with the velocity of a squash ball, getting thumbmarks and food stains.

I've started with Lit, because I didn't know any better, not having registered Mary Karr before. (I live a sheltered life.)

There's a heap of gorgeous stuff here - Dev's take on the necessity of the crucifixion - "It's like Pulp Fiction - what else would get our attention?" alone is worth gold. There's also Janice's remark on the value of kneeling in prayer - "It makes you the right size" (or words near that; I'm writing in a hurry here, because the possums have gone to the playground with their older brother, and I have a scant half-hour before the blitz starts again.) But what got my laugh, for obvious reasons, was the privileged preschool child and his kiwifruit and brie sandwich, "I first had this sandwich in Vienna."

Kiwifruit are school lunchbox material here, folks. Mothers stuff them down their children as fast as they can, because they're so much cheaper than oranges and have twice the vitamin C. (And are sovereign against constipation, too, in case your children have not gorged enough to find out.)

We tried the Brie and Kiwi combo at lunch. "Baby-foody" was the verdict. So we urge you all to stand proud in your great tradition of peanut-butter-and-jelly, the sammy Dev was getting instead of B & K. Gourmet food is just peasant food with a plane ticket.

Anyway, wasn't peanut butter invented (or at least promoted) by Booker T Washington? (No. George Washington Carver, apparently. Close but no cigar.) That's another reason it's a great food.

Thanks again for this book choice, Pentimento.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sinners Welcome

I first became interested in Mary Karr when my Jewish-atheist sister-in-law gave me her book of poems Sinners Welcome for Christmas a couple of years ago. The essay linked to below, "Facing Altars," is included in the book. This is the title poem:

I opened up my shirt to show this man
the flaming heart he lit in me, and I was scooped up
like a lamb and carried to the dim warm.
I who should have been kneeling
was knelt to by one whose face
should be emblazoned on every coin and diadem:

no bare-chested boy, but Ulysses,
with arms thick from the hard-hauled ropes.
He'd sailed past the clay gods
and the singing girls who might have made of him

a swine. That the world could arrive at me
with him in it, after so much longing—
impossible. He enters me and joy
sprouts from us as from a split seed.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


It strikes me that Lit probably contains more swear words then any other book we've read here. I hope that doesn't offend anyone (unfortunately, it's pretty much the way I talk to myself in my own head, though I do try to restrain myself in polite company).

Friday, August 6, 2010

"Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer"

Here is an essay by Mary Karr that appeared in Poetry magazine in 2005 and was reprinted in her volume of poems Sinners Welcome in 2006. It's a nutshell of her conversion (she describes herself upfront as a cafeteria Catholic, which is not unexpected), but goes on to write very cogently and movingly about the sacramental in poetry.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Beauty, Truth, Sordidness

I picked up my reserved copy of Lit at the library the other day and started it on the way to New York, where I had a family event to attend this weekend. One issue it brings up for me right away is the balance between the literary portrayal of what is sad, shocking, and disturbing, and the redemption that we assume will follow (we assume it because we know that Mary Karr eventually became a Catholic). How much sordidness is enough? How much is too much? I often ask myself this about my own anonymous confessional writing, and I think that the only reason to talk about these things is to demonstrate how, in the end, the lotus has bloomed out of the proverbial mud; "Where sin did abound, there grace did abound ever more."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thank You

Thank you all for indulging me this month, as I renewed my acquaintance with Joseph and Baxter. It has been wonderful for me and I hope it has been interesting for you.

By way of an epilogue, here is one last poem from Baxter, again a devotional. I think it is interesting how close it comes to ordinary prayer, drawing on the Scriptural images that the Lord gives us, the better to understand Him. The best prayer is poetry, and vice versa.

Song to the Lord Jesus James K. Baxter

Lord Jesus, you are like the sun in the sky,
The light shining in our darkness
So that we ourselves can become the light.

Lord Jesus, you died in pain on the cross,
You rose again from the dead.
Now you live within us,
You live our lives and die our deaths with us.

Lord Jesus, all that is in heaven belongs to you,
All things that are on earth.
Send your Spirit like a river of clear water
Flowing through our hearts.

Lord Jesus, you are the house and we are the timber,
You are the vine and we the branches.
Send your Spirit so that the vine may flower,
Heal in us whatever is at fault.


Te whakapaingia o to tatou Ariki, ko Ihu Karaiti, ki a tatou katoa, ake ake ake, amine. (The blessing of the Lord Jesus be to us all, now and forever, Amen.)


Does everyone want to do My Friends by Emmanuel Bove for August? Because if you'd rather, I'm kind of interested in reading Mary Karr's new conversion memoir, Lit.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

For Fun - Who Doesn't Like Camels?

Poem About Camels M.K. Joseph

Said the preacher:

Consider the camel
It is easier for this crature
(Think of its hump! Its size!)
To creep through the eye of a needle
Than for a millionaire
To enter in the gates of paradise.

John Brown II
Had inherited a fortune
And a devout nature from his father
Who ground the faces of the poor all week
And on Sunday went to chapel
Hearing the preacher's comment on the camel
He got the right idea
Set up the Brownian Institute
And bred the animals in captivity

smaller and smaller
smaller and smaller . . .

When he was forty, the Institute
Had camels no longer than Alsatian dogs
At fifty, terrier-sized
At sixty, no bigger than hamsters
It became a race against time, the whole nation
Was agog, when on his deathbed
John Brwon watched
With a magnifying-glass gripped in a palsied claw
While a skilled operator gently seized
With tweezers a small creature
Like a hump-backed flea and carefully
Passed it through the eye of a large darning-needle

Hallelujah hallelujah
All the angels cry
John Brown II enters heaven
Through a needle's eye

Now once a camel heeded
The traditional lore
Which told him it was harder
For a camel to enter heaven
Than for a millionaire
To pass through the eye of a needle
So he began to breed millionaires

smaller and smaller
smaller and smaller . . .

My name is John Brown XXXV
Two millimetres high
And I'm sick of being stuck forever
In this goddam needle's eye

Hallelujah hallelujah
All the angels cry
Caravans of Camels enter heaven
Through a needle's eye
Laden with Sheffield needles
paper hats

. . .

If there's a serious point to this poem, it may be about the dangers of private interpretation of Scripture. This is a problem, believe me, of which your token Proddy is very much aware. If I solve it, I'll let you know...

And since I've begun with a poem that very well might appeal to children, I'll continue with a few of James K. Baxter's poems, written for our School Journal. The School Journal, supplied to every school in the country, provided employment for quite a few writers who otherwise would have found work at the Post Office or not at all.

The Tree House

John and Judith
And Billy and me,
We have our own house
In a willow tree.

It's built of boards
And battens and tin
From the packing case
That the tractor came in.

Up the slipper trunk
Of the tree we climb
With a rope to help us
One at a time;

But once we're up
And safe inside
Only the wind knows
Where we hide.

Down in the paddock
The brown horse neighs
And in stormy weather
The whole house sways

Like a ship at sea
While the branches roar
And birds fly past
At the open door.

The Shepherd

Where rivers tumble
In gorges deep,
High on the mountain
I muster sheep -

The scraggy, wild ewe
That has never been shorn
And the big, rough ram
With his curly horn.

The sun shines down'Like a burning-glass
As they nibble the fresh, green
Tussokc grass.

The tracks they make
With their nimble toes
No one but me
And my old dog knows.

With a long, low whistle
I send him out.
He cocks his ears
To hear me shout.

He is tired and dusty
Before the night -
His tongue hangs dripping
And his teeth gleam white.

When the cold stars glitter
And my door is shut,
We sit by the fire
In our mountain hut.


Five Poems

1. The New Bidge and the Old One

The new bridge is made of white concrete.
Its piles go down into th river bed
To stand against the boulders washed down by the winter floods.
The old bridge is made of grey timber.
It has been standing a long time
And the wheels of the logging trucks have worn the planks thin.

Side by side the two bridges stand.
The boy Tame sits on the old one in the sun.
He thinks, 'Down there the taniwha lives,
Where the water boils up under the willow roots.
He is strong and old,
He was here even before the pa began.
He'll push the bridge down if he doesn't like it.'

When he looks at the new bridge it seems to him
The piles have already begun to tilt a little.

2. Fishing

In the bare evening, the sandflies rise from the river.
If you have bare feet, they bite your ankles,
And when you kill them it leaves a small stain of blood.

Tame and Rua are fishing from the clay bank.
Tame's line has three hooks and a sinker,
But Rua's line is baited with muka
Where the eels can bite and snag their teeth.

Rua feels a sharp tug on the line.
He pulls it in quickly.
A grandfather eel wriggles on the bank.
He dumps the eel in the pit they dug
Before they started fishing.
The eel twists and turns like a big snake.

It is almost too dark to see your hand
When you hold it in front of your face.
The wind is getting colder.
Rua says, 'I'll take that one
Up to Rangi's place.
He might like to have an eel for dinner.'

3. Gathering Watercress

Whetu goes with a bucket to gather watercress
And her younger sister trudges beside her.
The creek spreads out in a bog at the bottom of the paddock,
And the white roots of the watercress
Go deep in the mud.

This time the cows have been in the creek before them,
Trampling the liaves,
Nibbling atthe flower heads,
Making great holes with their hooves,
Stirring up the mud.

Whetu says, 'Over by the bank
There are some leaves left.'
They wade across and begin to pick them.
Whetu's legs are longer than her sister's legs.
Once or twice she goes in up to her knees
But her sister gets her dress muddy.

That night Mrs Pohatu cooks the watercress
With meat and pork bones in the big pot.
The watercress is beautiful to eat.

4. The Hangi

Tame's father is making the hangi.
Rua's uncle is helping him.
First they dig a deep pit in the ground,
Then they pile up wood with round stones from the river,
Then they set it all on fire.

The fire burns for half and hour.
They rake away the ash and leave the stones,
Three pigs' heads,
Corn and kumara,
Half a sack of potatoes,
The two halves of a sheep,
And four pumpkins chopped up in pieces.

They cover it all with sheets, then with sacks,
Then they pour on water,
Then they cover the whole heap with earth
So that you can't see any steam at all.

Three hours later they uncover it again.
The kai is all cooked; it tastes better
Than anything you ever tasted.

Whetu's grandmother says, 'That was a good hangi.
They didn't let the smoke get into the meat.'

5. Outside the Meeting House

Whetu's grandmother and her friend Puhi
Sit outside the meeting house.
They wrap their shawls tight around their heads
And talk about old times.

'Kua ngenge oku waewae.'
'My legs are tired today.'
'He tino makariri te hau.'
'The wind is very cold.'

But they sit and talk together
Outside the door of the meeting house
On the concrete step
Just where the wind doesn't blow
And the sun shines warmly.

They talk about their sons and daughters,
Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren,
The tangis they have been to,
Friends who are still alive
And friends who have gone to God.

The sun is warm now,
It shines out between the clouds,
Their two hearts are full of peace.


And Now For Something Completely Different

I thought I'd balance things up by posting a couple more of Joseph's poems.

Stevie Smith, the British poet of "Not Waving But Drowning" fame, once said that she liked to write her cat poems, but that critics always thought she was letting the side down, when she wrote them. This cat poem by M.K. Joseph is so multi-layered, no critic could possibly object, but perhaps it's a bit try-hard for contemporary taste.

I liked it, once, but now I haven't the faintest notion of what it's about. Ideas, anyone?

The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus M.K. Joseph

(paste-up, with montage of old movies)

Paracelsus claimed that he could make homunculi
(Little men) a span high, growing the lifeseeds
in vessels buried in dungheaps to maintain
a mild and even heat . . . Wise Paracelsus believed that if a rose
was burned in a crucible to finest ash
then in the heatshimmer as the smoke ascended
it would hover and shape itself into the grey
ghost of a rose. My grey ghost hand
plucks from the air, presents to you
This ghost of a rose.

When Nijinkski danced the Spectre of the Rose
leaving the dreaming girl he seemed to
float out of the window into the moonlight
light as a rose petal
then fell into a chair
backstage, where two attendants worked him over
like a heavyweight boxer's seconds with towel and sponge.

That was Jean Cocteau's story, perhaps he was lying.

Cocteau the magician conjured an Orpheus
who could walk through mirrors into death's kingdom.
He also had a story about cats. It went like this.

'The English poet Keats once rode
At night-time through an gloomy wood
When all at once he seemed to hear
A sound of tiny trumpets near.
Dismounting from his horse he sees
Small torches flickering through the trees
Bobbing and twinkling two by two
And presently came into view
Cats all dressed in funeral black
Marching along the woodland track.

Only the tap of drum is heard,
Six drummers pass without a word,
Then the trumpet's mournful cry
As six cat-trumpeters march by,
Six cats in mourning for the dead
Wave six black banners overhead,
With trumpets' cry and tap of drum
And flapping bannners on they come.

Then guards-men cats with arms reversed
Of which six musketeers were first
To fire the volley at the grave,
Six swordsmen-cats with whiskers brave,
Six grenadiers with drooping tail,
Six pikemen with pikes at trail,
Six cat-princesses glided by
Blackveiled and sobbing bitterly.
Last came six blackgowned pallbearers
Bearing heavily on their shoulders
The coffin draped, and on it set
A tiny golden coronet.
Silent they marched by where he stood
And vanished in the darkling wood.

When many a weary mile was past
Keats reached a friendly house at last.
Beside him on the hearth-rug sat
And purred a handsome ginger cat
As resting by the fireside
He told of his strange evening ride -

Torches and drums and minstrelsy
Banners and guards and heraldry
Princesses sobbing bitterly
But when he came to the coronet
Upon the little coffin set
The cat said: That means I'm king
Of all the cats.
With sudden spring
He cleared the windowsill and quite
Disappeared in the summer night.'

(And when Swinburne died - so Karl Stead
told me - Yeats said
Now I'm king of the cats).

but Mary Shelley heard of this from Monk Lewis
at Geneva in the summer Frankenstein,
she also believed that if a cat ate roses
it would turn into a beautiful woman.

'Quickly, come quickly, the little cat
is eating the roses. It will turn into a beautiful woman
with green eyes and short sharp fingernails.'

O catwoman mother of monsters
may the pads of your paws be
as soft and pearly as rose petals
your claws no sharper than thorns.
(A huge hand ripped off in a closing door
clawed with gigantic thorns.
Where could this be? In the arctic hut in
The Thing from Outer Space
the tall walking vegetable vampire*
whose seedlings must be nourished
with human blood. Trapped in the end
screaming in electric arcs
fried down for compost.)

*(played by James Arness later known as Matt Dillon.)

[Samuel Johnson had a cat named Hodge.
When it fell ill his friend the barroom doctor
Levett prescribed a nourishing diet of oysters.
Dilemma: should he send his black servant
Francis Barber who might feel put upon
running errands for a fat old cat?
Solution: Doctor Samuel Johnson went himself
to Billingsgate to purchase oysters for
Hodge who recovered. This is a digression.]

Doctor Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger)
was a paracelsian who kept his homunculi
imprisoned in glass belljars; when they knocked
with tiny fists upon the glass it rang
like toy telephones: this in The Bride of Frankenstein
In which the Bride (the Monster's of course: Frankenstein's
bride was played by Valerie Hobson who later
married a British Cabinet minister named
John Profumo, which is stange but not relevant)
was played by Elsa Lanchester who in 'real'
i.e. offscreen life was married to Charles Laughton
who was Quasimodo in the second Hunchback
of Notre Dame
and Doctor Moreau in The Island
of Lost Souls
in which the leader
of the Beast Men was Bela Lugosi who
(need I say it?) played the title-role in the original
Dracula in which Renfield the madman
who ate flies was Dwight Frye who acted
the malignant hunchback who in Frankenstein the first
selected the wrong brain for the poor Monster
(doomed from the start) who was played
by Boris Karloff who was played by
a very gentle Englishman named
William Henry Pratt.

Ash in the crucible revives
Roses and monsters hover in the mind.

Bernard de Fonatanelle who lived for a century
And dreamed of men dwelling on other stars
Also listened-in on the conversation of roses.
He overheard one rose say to another
No gardener has ever been known to die.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Song to the Lord God on a Spring Morning

This is more a straight devotional poem:

Song to the Lord God on a Spring Morning James K Baxter

The guitar is playing in the morning
And the tame goat browses on heads of grass
Close to the sawing block. I hear the voices
Of many friends on this spring day
Like music to me, because God has lifted
A mountain from my soul, and the winter has gone.
Alleluia. Adonai.

I need not complain that youth has gone
Or that the sins of morning
Haunt me at noonday. Whoever has lifted
The burden of Christ will find that an armful of dry grass
Is the same weight as the cross. Man only lives for a day
Yet he can hear the singing of strong voices.
Alleluia. Adonai.

Love is the answer to the dark voices
Of the demons that trouble us when youth has gone,
Saying, 'You fool, you have had your day
And wasted it.' The spirit of a spring morning
When the wind moves gently over the grass
Is enough to tell us that the stone at the door of the tomb has been lifted.
Alleluia. Adonai.

I have seen the boulder lifted
From the back of the tribe. I have heard their singing voices.
I have felt their hands like the wind on the grass
Stroking my cheek, when it seemed all hope had gone,
'Piki to ora ki a koe. The morning
has come. E koro, be glad and eat a kai with us today.'
Alleluia. Adonai.

Therefore, whatever another day
May hold for me - exile, darkness, and the rod of Pharaoh lifted
To scourge my back - this brightness of morning
Cannot die. The murmur of many voices
Will stay with me when the light has gone
And my days are like an acre of burnt grass.
Alleluia. Adonai.

So small a price to pay! The Maori bones beneath the grass
Of the graveyard sing of the resurrection day
When chains of darkness will be gone
And the yoke of sorrow will be lifted
From the necks of the poor. A choir of many voices
Goes with me into the blood-red morning.
Alleluia. Adonai.

The light of a new morning is bright on the grass
And the voices of the poor are welcoming the day
When the cloud of night will be lifted and Pharaoh's kingdom gone.
Alleluia. Adonai.


Betty Duffy Will Like This One

James K. Baxter

They have lighted a bonfire on the beach beyond
The old shellfish midden - the young ones jiving and
Stamping their feet in the flicker of the flames,
Barefoot, their heads tilted back,
Utterly absorbed.
The gaunt man watching
Thinks - 'Hooligans' - and his wife - 'How heavy
This drugged weight that I must carry
Always uphill . . . '
Some will go
Home later, but others two by two will vanish
Into the dunes, wearing their jeans and sandals -
And like a slow vapour from the ground,
Or silence between words, the hunters who made that
Midden of shells with a different colour of absence
Possess the widening flesh. A child conceived out of these hot embers
Will hear the surf's voice like a stumbling language
And be a masterless man.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Maori Jesus


James K. Baxter has said that a poet is "the sore thumb of the tribe . . . a bad smell in the nose of good citizens."

If that was his mission statement, I think he managed to live up to it.

Of course, I have The Maori Jesus in mind . . .


The Maori Jesus by James K. Baxter

I saw the Maori Jesus
Walking on Wellington Harbour
He wore blue dungarees.
His beard and hair were long.
His breath smelt of mussels and paraoa.
When he smiled it looked like the dawn.
When he broke wind the little fishes trembled.
When he frowned the ground shook.
When he laughed everybody got drunk.

The Maori Jesus came on shore
And picked out his twelve disciples.
One cleaned toilets in the Railway Station;
His hands were scrubbed clean to get the shit out of the pores.
One was a call-girl who turned it up for nothing.
One was a housewife who'd forgotten the Pill
And stuck her TV set in the rubbish can.
One was a little office clerk
Who'd tried to set fire to the Government Buildings.
Yes, and there were several others;
One was an old sad queen;
One was an an alcoholic priest
Going slowly mad in a respectable parish.

The Maori Jesus said, "Man,
From now on the sun will shine."

The first day he was arrested
For having no lawful means of support.
The second day he was beaten up by the cops
For telling a dee his house was not in order.
The third day he was charged with being a Maori
And given a month in Mount Crawford.
The fourth day he was sent to Porirua
For telling a screw the sun would stop rising.
The fifth day lasted seven years
While he worked in the asylum laundry
Never out of the steam.
The sixth day he told the head doctor,
"I am the Light in the Void;
I am who I am."
The seventh day he was lobotomized;
The brain of God was cut in half.

On the eighth day the sun did not rise.
It didn't rise the day after.
God was neither alive nor dead.
The darkness of the Void,
Mountainous, mile-deep, civilized darkness
Sat on the earth from then till now.


I first read it in 2004. And after all these years, it's still my favourite Baxter poem and it still makes me feel like a "good citizen."

Friday, July 23, 2010


I've gotten really busy all of a sudden, and am thinking of passing off my choice onto the next person. That is, unless everyone would like to read a really short book: My Friends by Emmanuel Bove. Let me know.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Can't I Just Post a Picture of My Bookcase?


I just spent the past few days reading everyone else's bio and wondering which of them I could persuade to write mine for me, knowing that I had to get it right the first time because I could only ask that sort of thing once. As soon as one person knows about the secret but isn't also "in" on it, the game is up. Luckily for me, I found an excellent co-conspirator who agreed to do this post and never reveal to anyone who she was. You ladies are really nice people, you know? =)

Have I thanked you for letting me join your group yet? If not, let me do that now. It's really wonderful to be here.

I probably should have just posted that picture of my bookcase (that is, my main bookcase; of course I have several), because reading has made up the greater part of my identity since I learned my alphabet. Sometimes I'm really glad to be "The Reader" of the family--or the student flat--or the classroom--or the office. Then someone asks me a question like, "How many books have you read in your entire life?" and seriously expects an estimate, and it just gets weird.

Anyway, I've lived in the Philippines all of my life, except for the two crazy years as an English major in Wellington, New Zealand and a little under six months total vacation time visiting relatives in the United States.

My first full-time job was as an English teacher in my old high school. I lasted two years before I resigned, demoralised and depressed. I've only done tutoring and freelance work since then, following behind real educators with a mop and a bucket. It's actually very interesting work for one who can look at it in the right way. One excellent benefit is that I get to read and write as much as I please. And now, perhaps, other English teachers are handing out demerits left and right to students who are plagiarising my more literary blog posts for their papers. If it wouldn't take up so many words, I'll explain why that is so ironic.

I don't have any children of my own, but I make do with my little brothers--who are still young enough to put up with my bossing them around. We read together every evening that they spend the night (and some evenings when they don't), not just because I think it will improve them, but also because I think they should have some meaningful memories of me. Twenty years from now, if their adult selves come across future editions of Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown, Louis Sachar's Sixth Grade Secrets, or Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee and they feel a wave of warm nostalgia, then I'll know my life has not been in vain.

Whether I am teaching, tutoring, blogging, or big sister-ing, I am actively engaged in the reading and regurgitating of books. It has been the theme of my whole life and I am honoured to get to do a little of that here as well. Thank you again!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Te Whiore o te Kuri by James K. Baxter


Two trucks pass me in a cloud of dust
As I come up the road from the river,

So I put the bathing towel over my mouth
And breathe damp cloth. Taraiwa on the bridge

Is cutting the iron struts with a blow torch,
But he tells me - 'Kua mutu' - 'the oxygen is finished.'

I climb the long track to the wharepuni,
Meditating on the words of Thomas Merton -

'At the end of life God presses down a seal
On the wax of the soul. If the wax is warm

'It receives the mark; if not, it is crushed to powder' -
So be it. My own heart may yet be my coffin.

Up here they give me a cup of crushed apple pulp
To drink. In autumn the kai falls from the trees.


The dark light shines from the graves of the saints,
By which I mean the humble ones

Buried beside our house and under the bramble
That hides the fallen pas where sheep are grazing

And leave their clots of wool. The dark light shines
At the heart of the tangi where a tent has been put up

To hold the coffin, and a widow with a
Three-day-sleepless face is waiting for the

Resurrection. I remember
When the church was shut at Ngaruawahia,

Kneeling instead in front of the stone statue
Of Te Whaea, darkened by rain, eroded by moss,

Under an apple tree. The dark light shines
Wherever the humble have opened a door for it.


A giant weta climbs the curling ladder
Of the scrim beside my bed. I don't want

The scratching of this amateur bush demon
Interfering with my dreams,

Or love-bites on my neck. First Steve comes through
With a saw - 'To cut him in half,' he says -

Then Zema - 'You're piss-poor, Hemi,
At killing' (she giggles) - but I get a shoe

From the other room, stand on the strongest chair,
Wield it by the toe and belt him - crack!

The weta, trailing white guts, drops to the floor,
A three-inch dragon in his broken armour,

Poor creature! I finish him off with another blow
And lie back to read while the mosquitoes play their flutes.


The rain falls all day. Now the tanks will be full.
The road down river will turn to wet porridge

And the slips begin. Herewini told me
How Te Atua warned him that the bank would fall,

So he left the grader and came to shift his mates, -
They ran to safety and the bank did fall

Silently, eighty tons of earth and boulders,
Burying him to the armpits. His leg is still blue

Where the great stone cracked it and the bolts were put through the bone,
But he can walk on it. The drips from the holes in the roof

Spatter in the kitchen, on the boards behind the stove,
At the foot of Francie's bed. Beyond the lid of cloud

I hear the droning of the birds of Armageddon
That one day will end the world we understand.


The tribe in their own time are making a fowl run
Below the big chestnut. Therefore I wake

To hear the screech of nails being dragged with hammers
At the front of the house - Steve and Gregg

Doing what once would hardly happen
In two years. One by one the girls

Come in to visit their old hairy koro
On the broad of his back in a sleeping bag

Resting his rheumatism - Te Huinga,
Zema, Francie, Cam, they bring in coffee,

But stay to sit and open out their thoughts
And put their heads on my pillow. Some people think

I keep a harem. No, my back's not strong enough.
I keep a chook pen for birds of paradise.


'Te whiore o te kuri' - this is the tail of the dog
That wags at the end of my book;

After a dispute with one dear Maori friend
I walk all night on the road to Raetihi,

Thinking, 'Twenty-four miles will pulp the pads of my feet
Till the soles of them swell up like balloons;

'Pain in my feet; pain of my hara.' This morning
I saw the sun rise molten and red

Over the hill at Herewini's house
At Raetihi. But staggering on the stones

Last night, I had to stop, and looked up at the stars
And saw those ribs of white fire

Hung there like the underside of punga leaves
Planted for our human shelter.


To go forward like a man in the dark
Is the meaning of this dark vocation;

So simple, tree, star, the bare cup of the hills,
The life-long grave of waiting

As indeed it has to be. To ask for Jacob's ladder
Would be to mistake oneself and the dark Master,

Yet at times the road comes down to a place
Where water runs and horses gallop

Behind a hedge. There it is possible to sit,
Light a cigarette, and rub

Your bruised heels on the cold grass. Always because
A man's body is a meeting house,

Ribs, arms, for the tribe to gather under,
And the heart must be their spring of water.


. . .

"koro" - old man. But Baxter was only 46 when he wrote this. Perhaps it's partly that he felt his body breaking down, perhaps it testifies to the demographic skewing of the Maori population, which has a huge preponderance of young people. Actually, I am unhesitatingly addressed as "E kui" - old woman, and I am just about fifty.

Te Whaea - the Mother

hara - sin.

This is the final poem in Baxter's last collection. Baxter wrote many other poems in this loose sonnet form. I'd like to type out "Autumn Testament" for you, but it is 48 stanzas long!



Sunday, July 18, 2010

M.K.. Joseph on Married Love (This is Not a Sex Post*)

Since I seem to be circling around the theme of married love, here is the first of a two-poem pair by Joseph. Since I also like John Donne very much, this particularly appeals.


Meditation on a Time-Piece

All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical mathematics of the city of heaven.

As on a clock-face the artificer
Doth lay two hands which readily shall go
Turned by the cunning engine: the first one slow
Doth pace; th'other pursueth her
As in a race he runs, and passing on
Circles the dial twelve times to her one;
Nor shall they confer
At noon or midnight till the full race be run,

So are we two: for as at first we lay
Together on the noon-stroke, now I roam
Busily round the dial, while you at home
Pass (what the hour hand's hour is and) your day.
Now in these circlings we may daily meet
As hourly do the hands each other greet,
And can we never say
That time shall yet be ours, till all hours are complete.

Yet this our clock runs not on hours but years
Cycles and centuries, as measured are
By magian transposition of a star
Or no-map-marking Aztec calendars.
Upon eternity's still ceaseless ground
Plato's Great Year goes wheeling round
All minuted with prayers
That we together be when God's great midnight sound.

. . .

I really like sonnets of the shakespearean form, and the solid couplet at the end of this one is particularly satisfying:


She was content in the kitchen, hugging cheap dreams
Until that old woman, starting in a puff
Of ashes, clothed her in cobweb and moonbeams,
Conjured a coach from rats and kitchen-stuff.
At midnight the dress upon the dancing-floor
Lay dirt and glimmer, the slippers were ice-hard,
The clock-prince chimed along the corridor,
She fled him weeping through the palace-yard.
But the old witch had her way; the messengers
Went out to match the slipper to the true princess.
Dragged in her rags before the tittering courtiers,
Put to the question, she could only whisper Yes.
In glass-heeled slippers she minces towards the tomb
Beside her bridegroom ticking like a bomb.

. . .

Best to you all.

*Betty Duffy, I'm looking at you...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

He Waiata mo Te Kare

In his later years, Baxter became very taken up with the injustices and spiritual dislocation of Maori people. Eventually he started a commune at a place called Jerusalem, on the Wanganui river, not far from the Catholic mission started by Mother Mary Aubert. His much-tried ex-wife stayed behind in Wellington. Alcoholism affected his health, and he was then moved to a commune in Auckland. He died there at 46.

He Waiata mo Te Kare


Up here at the wharepuni
That star at the kitchen window
Mentions your name to me.

Clear and bright like running water
It glitters above the rim of the range,
You in Wellington,
I in Jerusalem,

Woman, it is my wish
Our bodies should be buried in the same grave.


To others my love is a plaited kono
Full or empty,
With chunks of riwai,
Meat that stuck to the stones.

To you my love is a pendant
Of inanga greenstone,
Too hard to bite,
Cut from a boulder underground.

You can put it in a box
Or wear it over your heart.

One day it will grow warm.
One day it will tremble like a bed of rushes
and say to you with a man's tongue,
"Taku ngakau ki a koe!"


I have seen at evening
Two ducks fly down
To a pond together.

The whirring of their wings
Reminded me of you.


At the end of our lives
Te Atua will take pity
On the two whom he divided.

To the tribe he will give
Much talking, te pia and a loaded hangi.

To you and me he will give
A whare by the seashore
Where you can look for crabs and kina
And I can watch the waves
And from time to time see your face
With no sadness,
Te Kare o Nga Wai.


No rafter paintings,
No grass-stalk panels,
no Maori mass,

Christ and his Mother
Are lively Italians
Leaning forward to bless,

No taniko band on her head,
No feather cloak on his shoulder,

No stairway to heaven,
No tears of the albatross.

Here at Jerusalem
After ninety years
Of bungled opportunities,
I prefer not to invite you
Into the pakeha church.


Waves wash on the beaches.
They leave a mark for only a minute,
Each grey hair in my beard
Is there because of a sin,

The mirror shows me
An old tuatara,
He porangi, he tutua,
Standing in his dusty coat,

I do not think you wanted
Some other man.
I have walked barefoot from the tail of the fish to the nose
To say these words.


Hilltop behind hilltop,
A mile of green pungas
In the grey afternoon
Bow their heads to the slanting spears of rain.

In the middle room of the wharepuni
Kat is playing the guitar, -
"Let it be! Let it be!"

Don brings home a goat draped round his shoulders.
Tonight we'll eat roasted liver.

One day, it is possible,
Hoani and Hilary might join me here
Tired of the merry-go-round,

E hine, the door is open,
There's a space beside me.


Those we knew when we were young,
None of them have stayed together.
All their marriages battered down like trees
By the winds of a terrible century.

I was a gloomy drunk.
You were a troubled woman,
Nobody would have given tuppence for our chances,
Yet our love did not turn to hate.

If you could fly this way, my bird,
One day before we both die,
I think you might find a branch to rest on.

I chose to live in a different way.

Today I cut the grass from the paths
With a new sickle,
Working till my hands were blistered.

I never wanted another wife.


Now I see you conquer age
As the prow of a canoe beats down
The plumes of Tangaroa.

You, straight-backed, a girl,
Your dark hair on your shoulders,
Lifting up our grandchild,

How you put them to shame,
All the flouncing girls!

Your face wears the marks of age
As a warrior his moko,
Double the beauty,
A soul like a great albatross

Who only nests in mid ocean
Under the eye of Te Ra.

You have broken the back of age.
I tremble to see it.


Taraiwa has sent us up a parcel of smoked eels
With skins like fine leather.
We steam them in the colander.
He tells us the heads are not for eating.

So I cut off two heads
And throw them out to Archibald,
The old tomcat. He growls as he eats
Simply because he's timid.

Earlier today I cut thistles
Under the trees in the graveyard,
And washed my hands afterwards,
Sprinkling the sickle with water.

That's the life I lead,
Simple as a stone,
And all that makes it less than good, Te Kare,
Is that you are not beside me.

He Waiata mo Te Kare: A song for Te Kare (the object of my desire)
wharepuni: meeting house (though this is not the usual word, wharenui)
kono: food basket, again not the most usual word, rourou.
riwai: potato. Amusingly, this is because the commonly-grown Victorian variety was "Levi"
meat that stuck to the stones, i.e. "should have bought fish and chips" hangi food!
inanga: "trout" greenstone - has pretty ripples through it, like a fish.
"taku ngakau..." my heart is yours.
Te Atua: God.
"The Tribe" - Baxter's commune group.
pia beer
whare: house
kina: sea-urchins, a delicacy (I've not eaten them though.)
Te Kare o Nga Wai - Te Kare of the Waters (weeping, possibly.)

Stairway to heaven and tears of the albatross are both tekoteko (grass-stalk panel) patterns.
pakeha - anyone who isn't Maori.

tuatara: wiki it. They are strange and fascinating beasts.
porangi: madman
tutua: a nobody.
"I have walked barefoot..." the North Island is known as Te Ika a Maui, Maui's Fish. Auckland is at the tail, Wellington (capital) at the head.
pungas: tree-ferns
E hine: girl
Tangaroa: sea-god
moko: facial tattoo. Now undergoing a revival.
Te Ra: the sun
Taraiwa: driver


I'd like to have heard Jacqui's side of their marriage, but she has been very reserved. And I'm sure Baxter was as full of shit as anyone. However, this poem just does it for me. It speaks of a true and deep love. (Though perhaps not one that brought either partner much happiness.)

Arohanui to you all.


Poem in the Matukituki Valley

This is a link to another early poem of Baxter's. This one is so popular, that our national museum has put it up as part of its archive. There's a nice photo there, as well.

I think this was written prior to Baxter's conversion, but it's pretty obvious that he's feeling his way towards the Church.

I've often walked through this valley, which has steep bush-covered sides. It turns into mountain-climbing territory fairly quickly.

I don't expect I'll walk there again: I'm no longer nimble enough. So by reading this poem I relive it.

And now here's another poem by M.K. Joseph:

Distilled Water

From Blenheim's clocktower a cheerful bell bangs out
The hour, and time hangs humming on the wind.
Time and the honoured dead. What else? The odd
Remote and shabby peace of a provincial town.
Blenkinsopp's gun? the Wairau massacre?
Squabbles in a remote part of empire.
Some history. Some history, but not much.

Consider now the nature of distilled
Water which has boiled and left behind
In the retort rewarding sediment
Of salts and toxins. Chemically pure, of course
(No foreign bodies here) but to the taste
Tasteless and flat. Let it spill on the ground,
Leach out its salts, accumulate its algae,
Be living: the savour's in impurity.
Is that what we are? soimething that boiled away
In the steaming flask of nineteenth century Europe?
Innocuous until now, or just beginning
To make its own impression on the tongue.

And through the Tory Channel naked hills
Gully and slip pass by, monotonously dramatic
Like bad blank verse, till one cries out for
Enjambement, equivalence, modulation,
The studied accent of the human voice,
Of the passage opening through the windy headlands
Where the snowed Kaikouras hang in the air like mirage
And the nation of gulls assembles on the waters
Of the salt sea that walks about the world.

. . .

What interests me about this poem is that no-one would write it today. We simply don't have that sort of crisis of identity hanging around us, but, my word, we certainly did, back when I was a child in the 60's and 70's. We were having great difficulty realigning ourselves away from British apron-strings.

Perhaps we're not so assured of a national identity that we take it for granted and no longer think about it. There might be a "who are we?" poem or two still in the pipeline of some poet. But we certainly won't be agonizing as to how British we should try to be...

The Wairau massacre - you might be able to wiki it, but if it's not there, the interesting thing about it, is that it is not (as you might think) British soldiers/settlers slaughtering poor helpless Maoris. No, it was a wildly skillful Maori chief and warrior called Te Rauparaha, who made mincemeat of some hapless scratch militia of pakehas (British settlers). I think about fourteen people were killed.

OK, one last poem before I go and do the dishes. Also by M.K. Joseph:

For My Children

To you who have come
In this tired time
Ruled not by the stars
But by two wars

What can we give
Excepting love
That having no end
Pays no dividend?

And what bequeath
But island earth
From Eden yet
Whole seas apart?

But still the spring
Renews its song
Immortal life
Through bud and leaf

And so we pray
No cliff too high
No gulf too deep
For hand and hope.

. . .

Arohanui to you all,


Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Inscription on a Paper Dart" Selected Poems 1945-1972

Inscription on a Paper Dart - M.K. Joseph

Take now this tome of criticism
Judicious, up-to-date and learned
And let it fall upon the ground
Ponderous as a ton of lead.

I fold a sheaf of verse at random
(This one perhaps) into a paper dart,
Launch it on an auspicious up-draught,
Watch it gliding out of sight.

Pious Muslims it is said
Treasured each scrap they came upon
Of paper lest it should contain
Some potent text of the Koran.

Even pious Muslims now
Let the crumpled fragments pass
And give their holy custom up
Knowing that the world is full of trash,

Yet some old turban'd holy man
Passing down Hiriri Street
Seeing the name of God somewhere
May pick this up and cherish it.

Drunken Gunners - M.K. Joseph

The gunners move like figures in a dance
Harmoniously at their machine that kills
Quite casually beyond the shadowed hills
Under the blue and echoing air of France.
The passing driver watches them askance:
'Look at the beggars - pickled to the gills.'
Yet bodies steadied in parade-ground skills
Correct the tottering mind's intemperance.

Housed under summer leafage at his ease,
Artillery board set up, the captain sees
His rule connect two dots a league apart
And throws destruction at hypotheses,
Wishing that love had ministers like these
To strike its distant enemy to the heart.


Jocelyn (Otepoti) here:

The second poem is a much-anthologized relic of Joseph's war service, and if you're thinking, those Kiwis, they're pretty obsessed by war, aren't they, then you'd be right. I don't know why that is, except that we've been so isolated from major conflict that perhaps we feel drawn to stare into the abyss, and jump in now and then. (There were NZ troops in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and are still in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and peace-keeping troops in Vanuatu and elsewhere.)

But the first poem, the title poem of the eponymous collection, published 1974, is the one that sold me on Joseph's poetry, back when I was sixteen, and I haven't stopped loving Joseph's work. Unlike, er-hmm, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, which I was already well-over by then, having had a brief flirtation with that piece of sixties kitsch culture.

Now you can tell me what outgrown tastes of your teenage years now embarrass you, and what has proved of lasting value.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A couple of my favourites

The Bay James K. Baxter

On the road to the bay was a lake of rushes
Where we bathed at times and changed in the bamboos.
Now it is rather to stand and say:
How many roads we take that lead to Nowhere,
The alley overgrown, no meaning now but loss:
Not that veritable garden where everything comes easy.

And by the bay itself were cliffs with carved names
And a hut on the shore beside the maori ovens.
We raced boats from the banks of the pumice creek
Or swam in those autumnal shallows
Growing cold in amber water, riding the logs
Upstream, and waiting for the taniwha.

So now I remember the bay, and the little spiders
On driftwood, so poisonous and quick.
The carved cliffs and the great out-crying surf
With currents round the rocks and the birds rising.

A thousand times an hour is torn across
And burned for the sake of going on living.
But I remember the bay that never was
And stand like stone, and cannot turn away.

. . .

Elegy for an Unknown Soldier
James K. Baxter

There was a time when I would magnify
His ending; scatter words as if I wept
Tears not my own but man's; there was a time.
But not now so. He died of a common sickness.

Nor did any new star shine
Upon the day when he came crying out
Of fleshy darkness to a world of pain,
And waxen eyelids let the daylight enter.

So felt and tasted, found earth good enough.
Later he played with stones and wondered
If there was land beyond the dark sea rim
And where the road led out of the farthest paddock.

Awkward at school, he could not master sums.
Could you expect him then to understand
The miracle and menace of his body
That grew as mushrooms grow from dusk to dawn?

He had the weight, though, for a football scrum,
And thought it fine to listen to the cheering
And drink beer with the boys, telling them tall
Stories of girls that he had never known.

So when the War came he was glad and sorry,
But soon enlisted. Then his mother cried
A little, and his father boasted how
He'd let him go, though needed for the farm.

Likely in Egypt he would find out something
About himself, if flies and drunkenness
And deadly heat could tell him much - until
In his first battle a shell splinter caught him.

So crown him with memorial bronze among
The older dead, child of a mountainous island.
Wings of a tarnished victory shadow him
Who born of silence has burned back to silence.

. . .

Otepoti here. These are both fairly early poems. His later work is much sparer. Unfortunately my copy of Baxter has disappeared, dammit - that's the trouble with favourite books - they're too good not to be shared, but you always risk losing them - same as children, really.

A taniwha is a river guardian, living in the water. Not quite a god; they were never prayed to or propitiated, but every stream has one. They're depicted sometimes as lizard-like creatures.

Poisonous spiders, by the way, are not a big problem in New Zealand. There's only one, the katipo, and as far as I know, no-one dies of their bites.

Maori ovens are groups of rocks gathered for hangi cooking - a pit is dug, a fire is built in it, the rocks (of a type that won't explode) are gathered and piled on top, they are well-heated, the fire-pit is cleaned out, the rocks are put back in, the food in baskets of flax or modern materials, goes in, there are soaked sacks laid on top, then the earth is shovelled back over, and the whole thing is left to steam - three hours or so.

The food is unforgettably delicious, if it's done right, and it's a good way of cooking for a big, big group in the outdoors. The Wikipedia entry, however, says, quite rightly, if you rake off the earth and no steam comes up, then shovel the earth back on and buy fish and chips.

Calling Enbrethiliel - did you ever have hangi food while you were here? Was it good, or the "should have bought fish and chips" sort?

The second poem: NZers rushed off to both World Wars in huge numbers. For WW1, the NZ soldier deaths were the highest per capita of anyone. There are memorials all over the show - every small town has a stone soldier leaning on a rifle, or some such, and a sad list of names underneath, often several members of a family. It's a melancholy sight.

James K Baxter came from a famous conscientious objector family, so I think this poem is remarkable in its restraint towards the enterprise of war, considering. It haunts me somewhat, now that I have two sons in the armed forces.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dear Old Aunt

Sorry, folks, a family situation has blown up which will take all my time for the next month or so.

My aunt (78) has been in hospital with a stroke and while we were looking after her affairs, we found that she is in a very bad way for money.

At the moment, we are planning for her to move in here with us, while we sort out her affairs. This will also be the safest thing for her, health-wise. She's a bit wobbly since the stroke.

So I regret that I'll be unable to sort out any NZ reading for you, but if you do find any James K. Baxter or M.K. Joseph on the net, they are both well worth reading.

Every blessing to you all.