Poetry Shelf favourite poems: Fiona Kidman’s ‘The presence of M. at a School Reunion’

The presence of M. at a School Reunion

The lies we tell are part of the truth we live. Michael Holroyd.

If, out walking, we caught the scent
of penny royal in the air, or watched a twig
revolving in a circular eddy in the stream,
listened, perhaps, to the  shush shush
shush of the trees in the gum belt,
that is not surprising. We know
how to watch, how to listen. We have always known.

But when we’re dressed for roll call, like girls
aching for a party, M. turns
and says, recant. We shared this past. This
isn’t the first time we’ve set off for school
together.  How was it you came to see things
                               so differently
from me? What was I doing while you suffered
so much? We were both there.
        Think on it.

Fiona Kidman
from Wakeful Nights: poems selected and new, Penguin (Vintage), 1991

This poem, written about thirty-five years ago, still holds true for me. M. has been one of my closest friends for seventy-seven years. Some of the strength of our friendship lies in the fact that we can disagree about some things without altering the arc of this relationship.

When we were in our late forties we went to a school reunion up north, and as the narrative in the poem tells the reader, it was an occasion for exploring differences in our lives. I had just heard Michael Holroyd speaking at a writers’ festival and I was struck by what he said, the way memory is really a tangle of stories that become our truth, whether it’s exact or not. I put these two experiences against each other.

In hindsight, I see that although M. and I shared so much of our daily lives together when we were children, a great deal was going on behind the scenes for both of us that wasn’t stated or understood at the time.  But what M’s question did for me was make me pay closer attention to the way I interpreted the past when I came to write memoir. She has continued to be an influence on the way I approach the genre.

And, at a very simple level, I enjoy the landscape and sensory experiences the poem yields, the onomatopoeia, the scents and sounds, as sharp when I read it as if I was back in that place.

Fiona Kidman

Fiona Kidman has been writing pretty much all her life, across several genre. Over the years she has written about 35 books, including six collections of poetry. Her novel This Mortal Boy won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction in 2018. She has several awards for contributions and services to literature, including a Damehood in New Zealand and the French Legion of Honour  (Legion d’honneur) from France.

Favourite poems is an ongoing series where a poet picks a favourite poem from their own backlist and writes a note about it.

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