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.


mrsdarwin said...

The second reminds me of some of the wartime poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. I'll share it with my husband -- he'll appreciate it.

Emily J. said...

I have to admit, I like the war poems better than I used to like war poems since my husband is gone - just tonight he told me about a ramp ceremony scheduled for tomorrow for a serviceman who was bombed while working on one of his projects. A ramp ceremony is the farewell on the tarmac to the bodies returning home. As a teenager, all I wanted to read about was love, not death.

On the other hand, I have been sorting through "crumpled fragments" of my children's schoolwork, and treasuring too many scraps that might contain some secret indication of whom God has made them to be, or else some secret incantation that might reincarnate their present selves some 20 years or so down the road when they are all grown and gone. Do these bits of paper really have any value - will they be a testament that I did love them? - or is my sentimental piety toward them worthless because some 50 years hence the kids'll complain about sorting through the boxes I've hoarded so they can divy up their artwork into manila envelopes as my aunt has been doing with the cards and photos my grandmother held onto?

Otepoti, I hope that your aunt is doing better and that your sorting has not been a burden.

When you mention outgrown teenage tastes, what first comes to mind is e. e. cummings, which I read on the sly like something in a brown paper packaging: "I like my body when it is with ..." and "since feeling is first/ who pays any attention/ to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you." Forget syntax and kiss! But what memory also brings back are little snippets of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti from the tiny poetry book illustrated by Tasha Tudor that I loved for its size and details as much or more than the poetry that I paid little attention to at the time I carried the book around: "My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a watered shoot . . ." or "When I am dead, my dearest/ Sing no sad songs for me;" And "There is no frigate like a book/ To take us lands away, " I also loved to hear the aforementioned grandmother read Hiawatha -- her copy of which I think is hiding at the Duffy's. . .

Enbrethiliel said...


I love Inscription on a Paper Dart! How much of our public writing is that sort of sacred fragment, whether we recognise it or not?