Tuesday Poem

I haven’t heard back from the publisher whose permission I sought for the poem I wanted to share today, so, wary of infringing copyright, I go back a century or so to Rilke’s Poems from the Book of Hours. For some reason, I can’t separate it out into four-line stanzas, or separate off my comments at the end; please DIY as you read.

Now the hour bows down, it touches me, throbs

metallic, lucid and bold:

my senses are trembling. I feel my own power—

on the plastic day I lay hold.

Until I perceived it, no thing was complete,

but waited, hushed, unfulfilled.

My vision is ripe, to each glance like a bride

comes softly the thing that was willed.

There is nothing too small, but my tenderness paints

it large on a background of gold,

and I prize it, not knowing whose soul at the sight,

released, may unfold…


I’m not having that sort of hour, day, or week, but I’m sure glad Rilke did.

Check out the other Tuesday poems here.


Phew, it’s Tuesday again already

I’m going to extort one from someone else next week. Meanwhile …

Dog Attack

The nor’wester howls over, trees have fallen.
Two dogs, silent as stealth,
shadow mine into the bush.

Down in the gully, she screams.
They have her rolled in leaf-litter.
The black brute shakes her like moss.

When I roar so hard I’m shaken,
up comes his head; he recalls the century,
remembers he is now a dog.

I clasp her; frail with fright
she is momentarily lighter,
then back it comes, her full weight,
and the wet-iron smell of blood.

Next week I’ll try to put all the links in but you can find the Tuesday poems via Mary’s site,

Oh, btw, she lived. She’s fine and 13 now.


Tuesday Poem

I was going to say no to this suggestion from Claire, from Mary; I’m not a poet. On the other hand, it looked like more fun to join in, and I’ve written a few poems I’m not entirely unhappy with. Thanks, Mary. Thanks, Claire.


We say yes to the queue
of people who look like us.

Yes to the woman giving tickets
in exchange for our socks and shoes.

Yes to the wait on winter asphalt,
Yes to the doctor checking soles.

We say yes, I am ready
yes, hold my hand
yes grass, yes fire
But oh!

at the brink

no. No, no. Our feet say no.

And yet the queue, the crowd, the doctor and the drummers;
and over there, our proud shoes wait.

We say, go. Plunge, wade, leap, whimper, hoppit!

Later, we hold our feet. We murmur to our toes.
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.


Coming on the 3rd of May

Back cover blurb:

“An island in a bleak harbour; an isolated quarantine station where a group of nurses works tirelessly to care for sailors and immigrants recovering from the effects of the long sea voyage to the new land.

Kahu swims ashore, searching for a woman. Young nurse Liesel, caught in a passionate triangle, is faced with choices both harrowing and intoxicating. Martha, who oversees the hospital and guides the community, is making a kind of experiment with life.

Some on the island are too sick to live. Others flame with life. The island is cradle and crucible.

Penelope Todd’s first novel for adults is full of brilliantly drawn characters and a narrative which sweeps the reader along with its power. This is literary fiction of the highest quality, and an intensely romantic page-turner.”



It ‘s tiny, the size of half an s, in the middle of my screen. It creeps along the line of print, negotiating ‘trucks and drivers’ with slow aplomb.

Little does the spider know that the creatrice of worlds is about to press the red cross in the corner of the screen. It’s flipped into a new reality: teetering on the rim of my daughter’s funky glasses, staring into the green of her eye. Should I change the screen-saver to a field of grass, or a web? Or tell the spider nothing’s really changed; the merest membrane’s been removed. It’s all in the way it seems.

Why shouldn’t this happen to us?

One day we’re complacently decoding the same old same old, then zip, that background’s whipped away, and everything looks strange — we’re flipped into one of our other realitites: an imagining, a work of ‘fiction’, the dream behind the substance.

(In which case, don’t panic: keep your feet on the screen and make for the titanium rim at the edge of the world.)


La mariposa nocturna (Sp), papillon de nuit (Fr)

What’s to be said about moths? Quiet night messengers, moon-wed, subtly toned and always rewarding inspection. I can’t recall photographing this one although I did so recently (Correction: I didn’t. It’s Jonathan’s handiwork. What a memory. Thanks, J) Moths make themselves forgettable, seeking light but never lime-light. Earlier this week, another came in through the kitchen window, aiming for the light above the bench. I turned that off. It made for the one above the table and flattened itself against a high wall. I flicked it into a cup and took it back outside to go and hunt the moon.

According to the OED, moths have two sets of broad wings covered in microscopic scales, and lack the clubbed antennae of butterflies.

Penguin Dictionary of Symbols : said to shrivel the leaf on which it settles, the ‘night butterfly’ is the symbol of the soul seeking the godhead and consumed by a mystical love.


After the wedding

It was a gorgeous day, the best of the summer, blessed by sun, friends and family, tears, delight, good food and finery, heartfelt speeches, and the dazzlingly happy couple, Sophie and Ryan, married 6th February.

The photographers have hived off to the Himalayas: photos when they’re back.



I wrote to a friend the other day that I didn’t think music crucial for my survival. I might have to revise the comment. A couple of times this week music has moved me to awe and tears. I think those are necessary elements in a life…

The first was after a workshop with Stephen Taberner when twenty of us practised ‘sobbing manfully’ as a prelude to grasping the rudiments of Georgian singing in three deep and soulful parts. The following night we heard his trio ‘The Secret Lunch‘ in Chicks Hotel at Port Chalmers and were wooed into putty by their skin-stirring harmonies, eccentrically wondrous lyrics and musicianship.

Then I found Stephen combining music with a spot of social activism, stirring up shoppers in the most decent way possible: with one song, many singers. Coincidentally a friend alerted me to Il Travatore bursting forth in a Spanish marketplace which led me along the youtube path to the Antwerp railway station. This is where the tears spilled. Such delight and vigour penetrating the mundane, transforming the moment, the day, binding the crowd into one appreciative whole … Who knows where that will end and what further creative acts have already been engendered by such generous outpouring of talent and joy.

This small cry of pleasure, for one.


Okay enough

I’ve started setting up Skybooks, where dynamic, literary, heartening writing will be solicited, selected, edited and turned into stunning ebooks. My confidence waxes and wanes — not in the work itself or in its writers, and not in my ability to recognise that work and present it in its finest light — but in my capacity to approach and interact with the mysterious entity called ‘business’. When I sidle up to business-savvy souls, who have something I need, I’m often so daunted by the coded (and ugly) language of that other reality, that I simply sidle away again. Seth Godin’s daily blog-bridge helps coax me across when I’d rather rather stay on the dreamy, creative side of the river. Today he offers no false reassurances — every outcome is necessarily mixed; nothing is ever entirely okay — but he underscores my conviction, too, that Skybooks is more than a good idea; it’s important and worth seeing through. In fact, it amounts to a kind of glad duty: finding and launching ‘work that matters’.


Our human family

When something touches us all (a wondrous feat or a dire tragedy) we remember that we’re all of one tribe: the tribe of those living on tiny, fragile Earth early in the 21st century.

These members of the 2007 Iowa International Writers family hail from Turkey/Bulgaria, Egypt, Malta, Hungary, and B from Haiti. Two years ago our Burmese sister’s province was ravaged; now it’s Haiti’s turn. Another day, another year, it might well be ours.

Claire’s provided a beautiful dedicated moment/space on her site, with possible ways to act.

(I’m pleased to learn that B is in the US with her children but she awaits news of her wider family and friends.)


Goodbye, 2009

The real index of civilization is when people are kinder than they need to be. Louis de Berniere, novelist.

Saying goodbye to the old year seems an apt time to ponder this quote (from Word a Day). I’ve foregone opportunities this week, this day, to be kinder than necessary (to others, to the earth, to myself); I’d like to take up more of them in the coming year and if you do, too, well, how civilised we might become.

My family said goodbye yesterday to perhaps its most civilised member, Uncle Frank Davie, with tears, and coral-coloured roses laid on coffin and violin. We remembered his gentleness, wit, compassion, mischief, vegetarianism, intelligence, laughter, and those piercing blue eyes which told you he knew something of the law of the stars. Here is a tribute from one who loved him well.

Frank was kinder than he needed to be. It’s a fine thing to have his footsteps up ahead.


Who’d have thought Mars …


… could prove beautiful. Okay, perhaps I haven’t picked the most elegant image but prepare to be awed by the others at this BBC site — with thanks to Grace at Rata Weekly for pointing me in that direction.

Via vast new telescopes and exploratory eyes-in-the sky, we’re seeing planets, stars and galaxies in scope and detail unimaginable mere decades ago. If the inner world is ‘intensified sky’ as Rilke has it, what does this expansive new vision say about our capacity as humans? It might say that willing or not, ready or not, we are opening, being opened, to new possibilities — which are ours to embrace or to refuse.


Sharing a maté …


… is both a quotidien and a subtle experience. You don’t share with just anyone. You’re sipping from the same bombilla, after all. There’s a technique to it: filling the cup two-thirds full of the ‘tea’; jolting the woody bits to the top, trickling on the cold water, not too much and not too little; inserting the bombilla; having the hot water almost boiling but not quite and pouring it each time in the exact same spot; never moving the bombilla! — which is the metal straw with a wide, seive-like base. On a bad day the yerba tastes like straw chopped with a cigarette butt; other times it might be clover hay minced with a small joint, perhaps. More stimulant than sedative.

You drink it with family, with a partner, a friend, or an acquaintance who’s proving simpática.

It’s an eloquent moment when the little cup is slid to you across the table for the first time.


When the ‘pasta’ is flat

Pen en casa y 2 de noviembre 09 003At Elena’s flat in Buenos Aires, we were taking an inordinately long time to clean our teeth, and we had three tubes of toothpaste — but all at the identical stage of oversqueeze. (Thanks for the charming photo, Elena.)

Is it worth cutting off the lids and scraping the aluminium lining? When is it time to buy a new tube? Should I stick with the tried and true or risk a new brand? Why not go without for a while (salt and water served the ancesters, and frayed sticks)? How about having them removed (the teeth)? Or making a whole new hybrid product: is the world ready yet for cybertoothpasta?


Coming or going?

IMG_7410A few (more) of us lost jobs this week; yes, Longacre Press is moving north, to live on Random’s verandah. So, it’s Opportunity Time. I went off to ponder mine in Naseby, ‘2000 feet above worry level’. Polly was in dog heaven, sniffing and poking and rolling about wherever rabbits have been — which is everywhere. The air was clear and so was my head. I had an idea and it seemed like a good one.

Back home, it doesn’t look quite as simple but I’m toying with a sort of manuscript consultancy seguing into a kind of publishing mumble-mumble

Watch this space — or send me your manuscript.


Día de los muertos

2 noviembre 017I’ve tried to translate what Elena wrote to me (with the photos — thanks, Elena) about this important day in Jujuy in the north of Argentina; this is the gist, anyway, of the bits I could manage:

… people don’t go to work because their dead are expecting them. As I live near a cemetery park, I find myself in the middle of the fiesta …The night before, in their houses, they set up a table with bread for an offering — bread that substitutes for whatever the dead loved in life; also they prepare their favourite food and drink. They leave the table set up when they go to sleep so that the souls can come at sit down at their leisure, eat and drink with gusto and without frightening anyone ….

Although I live in the country, in a very peaceful place, today the house is surrounded by cars, people have been coming to the cemetery since morning … to share lunch with their loved ones … They put coloured paper flowers on the graves and have a kind of picnic, they drink chicha and dance until they ‘drop dead’.

2 noviembre — pane y chicha por los muertos
2 noviembre — pane y chicha por los muertos

The dead are allowed until midnight.


Alternative Halloween

Pueblo de muertos
Pueblo de los muertos

In Argentina the dead are given the goods: their own miniature town with the best view in the neighbourhood, flowers galore, gossipy prayer sessions with the living, and food. On the annual ‘day of the dead’ families spread picnics on the graves including the dead one’s favourite dishes, tell stories, and celebrate their life and memory.


This year (in NZ) we lit candles one by one and wrote beside them the names of our remembered dead: grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends who died too young. I thought especially of Clare at sixteen — stroppy, funny and fiercely intelligent. She loved hockey, Latin and our pink VW, and appointed herself window cleaner when my flatmates and I moved house in her neighbourhood. The day before a bus knocked her from her bike, she bought flowers for her mother. After the funeral I was shown the tiny striped socks she’d just knitted for our new first baby. Clare was always as bracing as a tonic; just thinking of her straightens my spine…



Following the milk, Jujuy

Congratulations!!!congratulations on the pregnancy. How many months are you?

Gosh the dangers of mistranslation. I thought I was signing off my message to Silvia with a hug. Con un embrazo. But no, I should have said un abrazo. This is how rumours begin. However, I was flattered that she considered it a possibility for me, and a joy… (and delighted that her father’s op went well for the removal of ‘waterfalls’  from his eyes).

I am not with child but there’s certain pregnancy in the air, don’t you think? In spite of political blindness and folly , in spite of our collective dimness and selfishness, Spring is irrepressible …

‘What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being…’

… and each morning, each moment, we have the chance to choose again, to make our corner a little greener, to write the stories in us, to create, to say yes, to love … to be pregnant with our own life — with our life.


Patagonia plus

IMG_6703Could be Canterbury? We were heading a little left of here, towards the marvellous rock faces of Mt Fitzroy. Or is it Fitz Roy?IMG_6741On to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Mesmerising, except that staring eyes eventually were stabbed by needles of snow.

IMG_68213000 miles to the north it’s warm in Jujuy. I swam amongst demented Alsations, and Jorge cooked our dinner on the asado. Estoy muy feliz.


Half ‘n’ half

P1000152Work and play run together. Here’s the lunch table. Just un poco vino at this time of day…

P1000166When is a dog not on the (forbidden) sofa? Meet Pocha.

P1000168We happened upon a tango class. Lovely Alejandra (L) gave us two lessons before she and Ariel returned to Buenos Aires. In the class we met lovely Lidia (R) who happens to be a masseuse … Today she fought with the writers’ knots in our backs — and won. Tomorrow we’re going to let her have our forty digits. My first-ever mani-pedi-cure. Don’t cry for me (in) Argentina…


The risotto

IMG_6453Okay, so the risotto looks oddly like the jellyfish I saw washed up on one of those toxic Auckland beaches the day before I came here, but it tasted fantastic (except that the mushrooms had the texture of, well, jellyfish, probably).

IMG_6423Talking of mushrooms, an hour up the road is the fast-growing city of Mar del Plata, filled in summer with tens of thousands of portenos — Buenos Aireans on holiday. Down at the port, sea lions sport amongst the fishing boats. They make Otago’s ‘Mum’ look like a pixie.

IMG_6455The next largest mammal frequenting our neck of the woods … every house has one, many two. This wag was beside itself to be petted; most are functional. They guard the house.

IMG_6466I walked home from lunch, half an hour along the Atlantic. Note the nor’west arch, and those are mares’ tails on the left. I thought I saw a penguin in the surf, looking to come ashore, but the sandhills are so (newly) built up, there must be many, many birds that have lost their original habitat.

IMG_6373I’m thinking of painting the brickwork when I get home.



IMG_6302Wanting soap, I held my hands under the pink thing. Waved them about. Squeezed it. Nada. Then I realised it was the soap. You wet your hands and carress it…IMG_6332

Go out the door of our little house and look left due west up the sandy road. La pampa begins.

IMG_6342Drive for an hour and a half to Ayacucha. Have a cup of coffee and wonder where everybody is.

IMG_6345Talking about the colour, okay? Fooksia.

IMG_6392I was alarmed when Elena whooped and began to scrabble up these hongos from under the pine trees. You know, the sort that turn to slime, the ones you’d tell your children not to touch. Perfecto, she says. Tomorrow’s risotto. Watch this space.


From BA …


… to Pinamar four hours down the Atlantic coast.


That’s taken up the first week in Argentina. We’re doing some good work on our novel, have hired bikes which we park inside at night like two pampered ponies. I’m working my way through Spanish Pastries 1, and Calvin and Hobbes, the Spanish version, for the sake of mi languaje.

Papa! Papa! Donde guardas las pistolas?




That’s how they laugh in Argentina. That’s the first line of any email from Elena on receipt of another three laboured lines from me in Spanish.

Elena and P, Bo Gardens, Chicago
Elena and P, Bo Gardens, Chicago

My young tutor Pia from Chile has been excellent. She hasn’t laughed at the knots I’ve tied in her language. She makes me feel I’m communicating. I can probably poner los vegetales en la cosina (put the veges in the kitchen) when I visit Elena in two weeks, and possibly mention las pinguinas de ojos amarillas (yes, the yellow-eyed ones), but knowing what she says in reply is another matter all together. In real life people speak fast and run their words together — and I’ll have to resort to counting on fingers, smiling, pen and paper, and if all else fails, tears.

It’s only fair that I try, though, to speak in Spanish. Until now our friendship (we met in Iowa) has been conducted in English, which is hard work for E. We’ve written our novel each in our own language, and had it translated back and forth. Now we have to practise subtlety together, as we examine its themes and polish the translations. The more skilled I am with my little Spanish-English dictionary the better.

Hay peligro de aludes? (Is there a danger of avalanches?)


First, find your Mohammed

Tantalised by Claire’s delicious story about a Moroccan chef called Mohammed making a tagine, I realised I had my very own …

May 2oo5, I was at Can Serrat Artists’ and Writers’ Residency at the base of Montserrat near Barcelona. From my memoir Digging for Spain:

When the original twelve Norwegian art students bought the crumbling casa … they needed a bricklayer immediately, to start shoring it up. (Moroccan) Mohammed, their man for the job … finished at Can Serrat, and was heading off for a new job in Tangiers. Someone at the residency cemented a lock of his hair into a brick wall to ensure his return. The hair did its work, the new job fell through, and Mohammed has been drawn back again and again

As a young boy he took the family’s produce to market in the donkey cart. Noted for his intelligence and aptitude, he was trained from youth as a muezzin. A couple of times we cajole him into singing the call to prayer. The resonant wailing, the glottal stops where silence pours in, and the sense of ancient authority reverberating from such a slight body, make the hair stir on our scalps.

… Mohammed now lives in the local village, fixing from scratch an old shop into a cafe restaurant where he’ll serve the wholesome vegetarian food for which he’s famed.

He turns up most days at Can Serrat, often with a basket of his handmade organic bread, dense, moist bricks with a hint of aniseed flavour that he sells for two euros apiece. He sits and talks with anyone who’s around, and makes himself available as taxi driver for which he won’t often accept payment.


… one afternoon, he flits home and brings back a chicken that he cooks up in an earthenware dish on the gas ring with garlic, chickpeas, raisins and cinnamon. This late lunch on a sun-drenched balcony is preceded by chilled melon, and served with unshucked basmati rice and strips of roasted peppers and aubergine. Mellowed by sun, wine and his own superb food, Mohammed tells how much he enjoys his weekly stints with the mentally handicapped at a psychiatric hospital in the city. We take another serving of chicken. This guy is unbelievable.

Okay. Quick change of topic. Are you stressed? No? Are you sure? Try this simple test.