Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Michele Leggott’s ‘very fine lace knitting’

 

very fine lace knitting

 

this is a picture of my house

wallpaper silvery with birch trees

covering the workbook

the stories and the pictures

red and yellow blue and blue-green

the smiling suns

jack in the box on the window sill

see Sweetie run

the high shelf in the toyshop

I want to be a ship

the umbrella poem

the oak tree and its acorns

the blue eyes that wouldn’t

the bar of chocolate and our mother at a high window

angelic openings in the calendar

circus elephants on the road at Waitara

hot black sand and the donkey rides at Ngāmotu

 

 

but we came ashore after the others

Mama still pale and no baby sister

though we begged her to tell us

when we might see her again

hush darlings she said

look at the tents and the lovely black sand

we will camp out until there is a house for us

but that house burned down right away

and Papa had no watch

or any instruments to make drawings with

and all of us felt sad

because the ship had gone

perhaps with our baby sister hidden somewhere inside

crying to us but we couldn’t hear

now Papa must cut the Sugar Loaf line

now Mama must tell us a new story

and when the earth shakes and the rats run across our blankets

we will not think of her

our sister outside in the dark

beside the rivers and wells

that wait to drown children less wary than us

 

 

when my mother was a girl

she thought all grown men had to go to jail

and feared to find her father one day

among the figures working in the prison gardens across the river

under the watchful eye of Marsland Hill

how did she know

afternoon sun slanting through eucalypts

stream curving or carving the valley that divides

here from there, us from them

now from then

or not at all

how did she know

that her grandfather was locked up

for three months pending trial

for the attempted murder of his wife and child

on the farm at the top of Maude Road

and that she, our great grandmother

would drop the charges, needing him

at home and claiming he would often shoot at her

going down the road, for target practice

he was cautioned against excessive drinking and released

to lose the farm and start over

as a teacher in country schools

how did my mother know

that her father, a young man in a country town

was put in the lock-up for two weeks in the year before the war

for sending indecent literature to the girl who jilted him

two postcards and a photograph

he is named but she is not

in the police report that went to the local paper

he was in the second draft

leaving for Palmerston North

dark hair brown eyes five foot seven

oblique scar on left forearm

August 1914

 

 

We were too small to remember

the trouble that took Papa to prison

for losing all his money

were we there too we ask Mama

did you take us did we all live in prison for a while

she will tell us only

that it wasn’t so bad

that everyone helped out and soon

he was home again I cannot now recall

how long we were away

but I was glad enough to leave that place

though I was not in favour of the long voyage

to the other side of the world

and dreaded confinement at sea

Well that is another story

now your father ties off his lines

for the company and remembers Cornish hills

Somerset hills and Devon hills under his pencil

he sees the nature path in the valley of the Huatoki

and knows it will take him to slopes covered in red and white pine

rimu and kahikatea

where a house may be built or brought

on land bought with remittances from England

 

 

the small child in the big photo

dark hair dark eyes pixie face

is my mother’s sister

they share a middle name

the child in the photo could be a year old

she is holding onto a stool with baby fingers

her feet are bare and she wears a dress

of soft white wool knitted by my grandmother

in whose bedroom the photo hangs

above the treadle sewing machine we are pumping hard

for the noise it makes up and down up and down

up and down and we are never told to stop or be quiet

we know the child in the photo died long ago

before she had time to become my mother’s sister

but we never ask our grandmother

about the very fine lace knitting

of the photo that hangs in her room

 

when at last we go looking for

the child who would have been our aunt

the trail is cold the dates stones or tears

Date of death: 20 September 1923

Place of death: Stewart Karitane Home Wanganui

Cause or causes of death: Gastroenteritis 2 1/2 Months, Exhaustion

Age and date of birth: 19 Months, Not Recorded

Place of birth: Stratford

Date of burial or cremation: 21 September 1923

Place of burial or cremation: Kopuatama Cemetery

 

we see our grandfather thrashing the Dodge

between Stratford and Whanganui

and the journey home with the little daughter

he will bury next day at Kopuatama

was our grandmother there

in the car at the Karitane Home at the graveside

the two and a half months of sickness

the birth of a second child

our Uncle Jack

8 July 1923

 

up and down up and down up and down

noise to cover a heartbeat under soft white wool

 

 

I look upon these letters and do not like to destroy them

they are a house of memory and when I read

I am my mother on deck at last

searching for a ripple on the flat Pacific Ocean

I am my father making delicate waves

around each of the Sugar Loaves on the map going to London

I am my brother in a choir of breakers

that bring his body to the landing place

I am my sister in the boat

outside the orbit of the moon and the orbit of the sun

I am my sister a bell-shaped skirt

between ship and shore

I am my sister painting a rock arch

that became fill for the breakwater

I am my sister exhausted

by travelling and the house to clear

I am my sister writing poems

that lie between the thin pages of letters

I am my sister singing

ship to shore choir of breakers alpine meadow

I am myself on the other side of nowhere

waiting for a knock on the door

 

 

my mother is taking a photo

of herself and our baby sister

in the mirror on the wall of silvery grey birches

it’s summer and she has propped the baby

between pillows in the armchair

holds the Box Brownie still

leans over the back of the chair smiling

into the mirror

she and her baby by themselves

reflected in silvery light

not for a moment aware of the child

whose passing long ago

mirrors to the day

the arrival of our sister

whose middle name my mother took

from the light of Clair de Lune

 

 

and so the daughter library

remakes itself and is not lost

though great libraries burn and cities fall

always there is someone

making copies or packing boxes

writing on the back of a painting or a photo

always there is someone

awake in the frosty dark

hearing the trains roll through and imagining

lying under the stars at Whakaahurangi

face to the sky on the shoulder of the mountain

between worlds and mirror light

 

***

 

Michele Leggott

Michele Leggott was the first New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007–09 under the administration of the National Library. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. Her collections include Mirabile Dictu (2009), Heartland (2014), and Vanishing Points (2017), all from Auckland University Press. She cofounded the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (NZEPC) with Brian Flaherty at the University of Auckland where she is Professor of English.

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf review of Mezzaluna

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