Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tim Upperton


Scrape margarine across eight slices
of white bread, raspberry jam and Nutella
and Marmite and jam again. Eight sandwiches—
two each. Cut and wrap. It’s not enough.
Add four bananas that will come home bruised
and blackened mid-afternoon. Seal in four
plastic lunch-boxes. It’s not enough. A thump
of backpacks and a wrenching of zips,
this daughter smiling and this daughter
sullen, and these two in a stumbling panic—
Don’t slam the door, don’t leave me here
beside myself—these two, my hatchlings,
my little ones, are gone, fallen through
that bright rectangle to where the world
waits with its claws and teeth, its every kind
of sharp and sudden thing . . .
I would halt traffic to let you pass,
I would snarl and swipe at the dogs
that bound from driveways, I would
smooth and make safe and contain but all
I am is here, I am always here—I wipe away
the slopped cereal, inhale the sour smell
of your rooms as I make your beds,
the sheets in which the grains of your hot,
dry bodies threshed all night already cooling.

Tim Upperton

I am delighted that friend Fiona sent me a copy of Tim Upperton’s poems A House on Fire.

I was once introduced as having poetry as a hobby. It is more than that. Passion is too strong a word. Love is better. Poetry is a rather strange love. After my father was killed – I was five – we lived near Mum’s parents. Granny had a store of nursery rhymes and songs which she taught me off by heart, `little pig, little pig where have you been’, ‘pop goes the weasel’, ‘Jack and Jill’, ‘see saw, Marjory Daw’, and ‘oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clemens’. A better seedbed for poetry is hard to imagine.

I have no recollection of learning to read. All my life I’ve read – a born bibliophile. Granny used to say “always got his nose stuck in a book that boy”. In my primer years at Little River and Okuti schools the teachers used me to teach other pupils. I quickly read all the children’s books in the local public library and moved on to the adult section. It irked me that the librarian vetted my selection. During the war years books were scarce so my own small personal library slowly grew only on birthdays and the annual Christmas pillow case. So I reread my books again and again – a good habit for poetry reading.

The war over, Mum remarried. My stepfather, Dick, got a rehab loan to buy a farm at the head of Okuti Valley, a side valley off Little River. The farm was a place of country silence. Valleys, like islands, form a unity. This one provided shelter and challenge. Years later when I studied Wordsworth’s poetry and read his claims about the healing power of Nature they made sense - Okuti. The school-teacher there, Mrs Bulman, the post-master’s wife, had come out of retirement during the war. She made us learn poetry off by heart. I am grateful to her influence - hard stuff like Keats’ Ode to Autumn. ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and a sound dosage of Georgians, Mansfield’s Cargoes, Davies’ Leisure, and Brooke’s Grantchester.

I went to Akaroa District High School for the first three years of my secondary schooling. We had two poetry texts, Mount Helicon and Grass from Parnassus. I still have them both - in those days one bought one's school texts. Miss Greenwood took us through them, with emphasis on the late Victorians. She read them to us, we chanted them together, we each chose a stanza, copied it out and illustrated it. I pored over both books at night. (I didn’t tell my classmates about this. I sensed their disapproval or at least misunderstanding).

Many lines linger, part of a literary midden: ‘There's a breathless hush on the close tonight’; ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree’; ‘Oh England is a pleasant place for them that's rich and high’ and ‘the highwayman came riding, riding.’ Miss Greenwood’s conviction that poetry mattered proved contagious – it entered my bloodstream, though she missed an opportunity - we talked about the poems and ideas in them, but she never suggested I write poems nor did she give any creative writing lessons.

She did one further useful thing. She put up on the blackboard - no banda or zerox those days – a few New Zealand poems for us to painstakingly copy, Dora Wilcox's Onawe, McKee Wright's Arlington and Blanche Baughan's The Old Place. All three deal with questions of displacement and change as well as reflecting the pioneer values of my childhood. It was a revelation. Poetry was not something from the other side of the world. Poems could be made in New Zealand.

And so I’ve gone on reading poetry all my adult life. It never ceases to amaze me how year after year slim little volumes of poems continue to appear. I can’t keep up. When I was reviewing regularly I used to get most volumes as they came out. Now I mainly just buy on known name or after high praise in a review. So I might have missed Upperton.

I was captivated from the prologue about a trout – ‘its mute, quivering grace.’ Acute observation and skilful language use. To which I add, wisdom. ‘We all fall, always, and falling, grow old.’

A few more examples. ‘The fitful flap of sheets pegged on the line/ is a kind of sadness.’ History is ‘the burning of a thousand thousand libraries.’ ‘Girls become wives.’ ‘What does a vegetable know/ of decay’s indifferent fact’

If I were doing my garden poetry anthology ‘The Earth’s Deep Breathing’ today I would include at least two of Upperton’s poems. And he is splendid on children.

Thank you Fiona. .

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