Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Lynn Jenner’s ‘On joy and other obligations’


On joy and other obligations [1]


If you open a book that has been closed for forty-four years, if dust floats in the sunlight, if the book sold in 1969 for $1.60, and you buy it second-hand for $10, that might be your good fortune. If there is a tiny segmented weevil in the dusty space between the binding and the cover, if the worm lifts its head, if you raise your hand to kill the worm but pause instead, that might also be your good fortune. There is no such thing as a life that means nothing, the worm says in its airy voice.

I see that I disgust you, the worm says. Do what you must. But in the blood, the blood, the stream, the river, I am you and you are also me. Every life contains the memory of countless other lives; lives we knew, deaths we mourn and those behind the door. Perhaps, after all, a cosmos binds and holds us all together, whatever death may report?

Bend your neck, pause long enough to say your own name, and raise your head again. In the presence of the river, of pieces of bone, fish hooks and the skeletons of tiny glassy fish, this movement is required of you. Also, near towns where your ancestors died, take off your sandals so that mud and blood and salt water will soak your skin.

Light will slowly fade as winter comes. Clouds will cover the moon. Winter of earth, winter of sky, winter of hope, winter of loss, winter of exile, winter of silence, winter of anger. Winter of such faint light, winter of waiting, winter of longing. In these short days, people will travel together for safety but will be beaten down by soldiers and armies of words. There is no forgiveness. Rain never stops, rivers run to flood, run underground and swell the sea. To endure is the thing.

Ah, but joy has a new shoot. In the bush, cabbage trees flower and a breeze blows their sweet pink perfume along your path. Someone of ninety makes marmalade, there is a yellow bowl of persimmons and three blackbirds on the table outside. It doesn’t always come back to you, Rilke says, Brasch says, the worm says. Leaves of giant flax rattle and clack. Green is dark and wild. Joy is a single tūī, two fantails, a cloud like a child’s drawing. On your last day, you may see a vermillion sky.

Speak like Auden of human kind in all its endeavours, of all its want and weakness, speak when it seems there may be a new war and everything is advertising and resignation. Pain and love through dark glasses, that is your business. Or, like Blake, go inside the vault of your head to where the visions start. Walk with the dead, hold their hands, dance until you cannot tell them from yourself. Record an image, a young woman stepping down from a bus. Can you call her back? To name, to try, to do, is the thing.


©Lynn Jenner



[1] This poem was inspired by and borrows significantly from poems in Charles Brasch’s collection Not Far Off, Caxton Press (1969), especially ‘A Closed Book’. ‘O lucky man’ and ‘Homage to Rilke’ from Riemke Ensing’s 2009 poetry collection O Lucky Man, poems for Charles Brasch, Otakou Press (2009) and Ruth Dallas’s poem ‘Last Letter, for Charles Brasch, 1909-1973’, in Ruth Dallas Collected Poems, Otago University press (1987), have also left their mark.

‘On joy and other obligations’ is from PEAT, Lynn’s forthcoming book.



Lynn Jenner’s new book Peat, a collection of essays, prose poems and glossaries about the poet Charles Brasch and the Kāpiti Expressway, will be published by Otago University Press in 2019. Lynn’s first book Dear Sweet Harry (AUP 2010) won the NZSA Jessie MacKay prize for the best first book of poetry. Her second book, Lost and Gone Away (AUP 2015), was a finalist in the non-fiction section of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016. Lynn has a PhD from the International Institute of Modern Letters. She teaches creative writing and mentors writers. Lynn’s author website












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