Tag Archives: Cold Hub Press

Poetry Shelf Interview: Diana Bridge – ‘I begin a poem in a state of white hot energy’



Diana Bridge received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award in 2010 for her outstanding contribution to New Zealand poetry. She has a PhD in Chinese classical poetry from the Australian National University, received the 2015 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize and has published numerous collections of poetry. Elizabeth Smither writes: Diana’s ‘range is both local and international, delicate and down to earth, and at the same time, probing and intensely rewarding.’ Vona Groarke wrote in her judge’s report that Diana’s work ‘is possibly amongst the best being written anywhere right now– for the arresting composure of the poems, for their reach and depth, for their carefully wrought thought and language, for the beauty of their phrasing, for how they are both intellectually astute and also sensual and accessible, for the way they catch you up short and make you wonder.’ Cold Hub Press has recently published an edition of selected and new poems with an introduction by Janet Hughes. To celebrate the arrival of this astutely complied edition (selected by Robert McLean), Diana agreed to a Poetry-Shelf interview.

In the Supplementary Garden: New and Selected Poems Diana Bridge, Cold Hub Press, 2016


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do? 

Well if it did, and of course it must have, then there was an awfully long incubation period. I didn’t start writing poems in any serious way until I was fifty.

By then I’d lived abroad intermittently, mainly in Asia, for over twenty-five years and had just completed an intensive study of a period of classical Chinese poetry. I’d learned to speak Mandarin and to write and read the language. I’d also begun to relish living and travelling in India. Chinese and Indian cultures had taken a bit of a grip.

So my poetry has been shaped by more than a fortunate New Zealand childhood crammed with books. But that reading certainly fed and developed my imagination and a love of fiction first, I suppose, but any writing with exciting language. I read avidly, all the usual suspects, the classic children’s books from Beatrix Potter on, anything that I came across really. I loved historical novels, especially anything by Geoffrey Trease or Rosemary Sutcliff. If I was sick a book would appear like a rabbit from a hat; an early memory is of Charlotte Yonge’s The Little Duke, which had been one of my mother’s own favourites. I ranged into fantasy, beginning with George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Tolkein and CS Lewis must have followed soon after. My sister and I would make up, and often enact, stories of our own taken from the plots and plates of these books.

Books produced an eddy of ideas and narrative in my head, and a wonderful strangeness that ran alongside the happenings of my child’s day. This was much like the swirl of thoughts, images and language that these days prompt a poem. And in those days resulted in stories, told or written down, and sometimes composed in verse.

My Wellington childhood was filled with endless, imaginative, unsupervised play. I roamed with my sister and a gang of friends around the neighborhood – Hobson Street and the Thorndon School grounds – and, when we were older, ventured into the Tinakori Hills. There were family picnics to local beaches, Waikenae and what used to be the bush and swift running river of the Moonshine Valley. This post-war New Zealand upbringing was not a cocoon. It was protected but freeing in ways that matter. And it gave me, as it gave so many others, a secure enough basis to grab at uncommon opportunities when they came up later in life.


When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I was twelve when a gifted English teacher had us begin reading excerpts from Shakespeare. I had earlier read Lambs Tales from Shakespeare, reading for the story. But now language of another dimension entered. We were asked to learn some of the famous speeches by heart. The first lines of these speeches went into a hat and we were to deliver, if we could, the speech from which it came. It was a gambit intended to fix rhythms, images, what language could be, in our twelve year old heads. I drew ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ but in my enthusiasm stumbled over it. This true teacher understood that I knew the lines and wasn’t about to undermine enthusiasm when she met it. She gave me a 10.

I went to University when I was just seventeen, having missed much of my sixth form year through illness and lacking a seventh form at all. I was too young but I loved it, especially the reading for English I. I met John Donne and Henry James and, with no context for either, I responded giddily to the language alone. King Lear seemed a breeze beside The Ambassadors.  In my second year the incomparable Don McKenzie led us into The Winter’s Tale.


I am drawn to the way your poems make quiet demands upon the reader. There is a quiet, contemplative vein, exquisite detail and satisfying melody. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

One is not to forget that, in Emily Dickinson’s words, ‘Much Madness is divinest Sense’. I begin a poem in a state of white hot energy, which, as I get further in, generates angles and aspects I hadn’t thought of when I started. These insights  impel the poem along tracks I would never have imagined and frequently drive it off course. They influence the shape a poem takes.

The entry point might be odd enough in itself. A recent poem called ‘J H Prynne in China’ ties the syntactical disruption and experimentation of one of the U.K’s most elusive poets, described on the back of his recent Poems, as ‘Britain’s leading late Modernist poet’, to a cluster of observations drawn from my own China background. I knew from the title of one of Prynne’s collections, and the accompanying Chinese poem, which I thought was written by someone else, that he possessed China background but I imagined that I was pretty much fabricating the connection. I had completed the piece before I realised that the Chinese poet’s name, Pu Lingen, was a transliteration of Prynne, and that my subject had indeed a deep knowledge of Chinese literature and the language. I believe in following your nose and probably could write in no other way. But to have what you thought you’d invented given at least some basis in fact gives a twist to the idea of ‘poetic truth’.

This account seems rather a way from quiet and contemplative. Poetry is obviously a meditational activity in itself. It requires attentiveness of a fairly high order. Without it neither insight nor language that is fresh and accurate will come up. The fact that certain of my poems start with a devotional icon, such as the Buddha, throws up the idea of a contemplative vein in my work. But part of what impels me to write any poem is having looked intently enough to generate at least a jot or two of understanding.

That said, I hanker, as most of us do, after insight, including into ‘life’ and the great abstracts. That search runs, underground or on the surface, through many of my poems.


Where, I might have asked

a few days or a few hours back, is the human face of it?

Where is the face of longing, source of sorrow?

(from’Gupta sculpture’)


But many poems are, in the words of Janet Hughes, who wrote a fine introduction to my new & selected poems, ‘mined with explosive feeling’.

As to formal demands, I was taken with something I read years ago in The Guardian’s ‘Notes & Queries’ column: ‘Stripped of set metre and rhyme, free verse still rests on the bedrock of a concentrated, structured, rhythmic expression at the heart of which is metaphor’.

With each new poem I listen hard to the rhythm that attaches itself to that particular piece. Quite often there is a fight between metre and the words I have come up with, in which case I will often look for new ways of expressing a thought. The inflection, the pacing of each individual line, are important to me.  I also pay a lot of attention to how the words look on the page.


Your New and Selected Poems demonstrates the gift and range of your poetry. Looking back are there two or three poems that stand out for you?  Why?

I am always interested in finding a point of connection between disparate items. In Forster’s ‘only connect’ lies a reservoir of meaning. And an ideal that, if we followed it, might help retrieve and repeal some of the situations in which human beings have placed themselves and others, to say nothing of the physical faultlines that threaten our existence. Less somberly, I’ll single out a poem that has conjunction as its deep theme. Here, it is between the sensual and the spiritual and the singular way in which they are combined in Indian culture. But it brings in, through the persona of the narrator, East and West. I hope that the poem reaches out beyond its particular circumstances, those of looking at the erotic sculptures on a Hindu temple.


The juncture wall


None of our poets knew it, this strip conjoining

the great squares of vestibule and sanctum,

this plank across to god. That was its deep grammar.

To disclose it, priest-architects devised a scheme.

They faced the wall with a cascade of figures.

On horizontal bands, in nooks, on pediments,

they spoke a ‘twilight’ language, paean and pointer

to what lies beyond; a language that the here-

and-now imagination is stood up against

and – easy to say because it’s saying it itself,

any way you read it – along, diagonally or down –

even the camera is fucked senseless.


We’re human; we go first to the faces – males

delicate as antelopes, the St Teresa look leached out,

ecstasy not so much flowered and flown as endless.

And I’d say endless, rather than repeated,

of the sinuous inventive bodies: the onlookers,

the couple at the core, the flanking figures,

straddled, spread-eagled, effortlessly yoked –

each panel branching out to make a vision

you cannot find the words for, though tradition,

like traditions everywhere, upholds ‘divine’.


We’re tourists here, lacking our priests and poets.

None of them saw it – though we wondered

about one who stocked the triple layers

of his world with story, one who dealt in passage.

The full day that we stood there, our eyes

drawn up as though to paradise, our minds

enfolded in the simple, various, blissful act

of joining, we wondered about Dante.


A line of poems that responds to the developing life of my family, with its attritions and additions, weaves its way through my work. The following poem is the latest of these. A chapter in my Ph. D. dissertation was called ‘The game element’. It discussed allusion, riddles, game contexts and codes in early Chinese poetry and traced the impact of these features on later poems. Something in the way the following poem unfolds tells me that I have kept that background alive.


A passionate possession 


When I see it, I discard synapses, and the language of ignition,

in favour of a salty, dark, free-flowing liquid.


I lie, but it’s not really Plato’s sort of lie when I pursue

from that first momentary likeness a lateral kind of truth, swapping


the fizz of Catherine wheel, the vision of an asterisk, for seaways

in the brain; and then seek further watery connections


and say he is entranced and will as surely as Odysseus,

in a ship we don’t yet know the name of,


start out on enchanted forays.

Here’s the trigger: the child’s forehead billows like a sail.



Travel is a significant part of your life and many of the poems have their origins in elsewhere. What are the difficulties and rewards when you write from and to another place?

I would say that the writing, together with the understanding that process brings, has been all reward. Reception is another thing. What difficulties I have encountered cluster in one way or another around the idea of distance.

I wrote about some of the difficulties and rewards living away has entailed in an essay called ‘O to be a dragon’. To  quote from a section called ‘Bridging the distance’:  

‘The acquisition of distance is an essential component of the creative process and distance is, literally, what is handed to you when you leave your own country. You can look back through its lens at the home you have left behind or you can use it to examine the new place in which you have found yourself. I shone the light forward on the ground in front of my feet. I am not sure that choice was involved but I am conscious of taking a path that differs from most New Zealand writers.

I have always believed that my use of Asian repertoires was just that – a repertoire employed to pursue common human questions…But I also realised that my work held a dilemma, the dilemma of how to make the strangeness of the poems’ particulars accessible. I began to think about issues of representation and to think more urgently of the audience for whom my poems were intended. It was perhaps not enough to articulate the thought that my poems reflected a national identity and a literary community that were acquiring an increasingly sophisticated and diverse character as different cultures came forward to take their place in New Zealand society.’

Supplying notes is one obvious way to help a reader. I did that but, in a step more integrally connected to writing, felt the urge to use a less compressed and more conversational idiom. A new persona, that of traveller, entered some of the poems. Although this persona came up spontaneously, I knew it offered a way of providing information that some readers would lack, and I hoped that it might bridge a gap between my non-Asian reader and the poem.

I am not sure it has been enough. When I began to write it was from the India in which I was living; under my belt I had a Ph.D. in Chinese literature. But I was not Indian or Chinese. It was a tricky identity to accommodate and I might not have survived as a writer in New Zealand if it had not been for the support of the former Director of AUP and two of our most established poets. I was also published in several excellent overseas journals, which made me feel that I was meeting someone’s standards.


Are the poems a way of anchoring home?

I don’t think the poems were a way of anchoring home. It seemed to work the other way. Unlike those who choose to leave NZ, Nick and I were sent to various places, he to work in our offices abroad, I to be with him. Officially, we functioned as representative New Zealanders. We had regular leave in New Zealand and returned at the end of our postings. For me, each change required a re-making of my identity on the ground; but there was no conflict about choosing where to live my life. Rather I was involved in trying to comprehend, and relate to my own experience, the places in which I would live for three or four years. You could say that it was China or India I wanted to anchor in my mind. New Zealand was in no danger of slipping away.


Has one particular place resonated with you? Is there a poem that represents that?

I think people might expect me to say China, but in so far as I started writing seriously in India I would put India up there too. ‘Temple (A Sequence)’ comprises four poems in which the narrator scans the face of a colossal structure covered with carvings in the hope of learning something not just about the temple architecture of South India, or aspects of the Hindu religion and Indian culture; these are poems about being lifted into understanding more generally. Here’s the first of them:


You’re for ever looking above your head.

This time it’s a bone-white tower, a gateway,

one of six, struck like a pyramid off its base,

flung into contrast by a companion tower

still swathed in the shadow gauze of morning,

the shade where we linger, glued to its hold-

your-breath outline: the world mountain, lifted,

like your face, to the unerring blue of sky.



Through those poems, and many like them, runs a counter-current which is the inability, no matter how much effort you put in, truly to know another culture. Images can become a bridge.


The temple’s a giant hen, small cities crowded

under her wings, people crossing her ribs, crossing

to the beat of a heart far down in the sanctum;

myth – an undertow flooding her organs.

(‘temple, close up’)


China is pervasive in my work. I began with fragments that traced the fate of friends and representative Chinese people after the Cultural Revolution, which was when I lived there. I went on to write about figures in history, poets, painters, art objects, gardens. My later work reveals a web of brief and more assimilated references. For example:


Two or more

islands were cranes, fishing companionably close.

No special pattern to cranes. But feed in, not setting

but space, as the Chinese know space, and one day

the islands rise in a spray of swallows, godwits headed

for the far rim of the earth. Readable after a fashion.

(‘J H Prynne in China’)


Things also play a significant role in your poems—as the gateway to feelings, anecdote, memory or ideas. Sometimes they simply sit centre stage in their own beautiful right. What attracts you to things? Name a thing that has particularly fascinated you and made its way into a poem.

Yes, things grab me not only for their own striking quality or beauty but as a way into a situation, a predicament, a culture. As an example, may I cite a poem set here, at my desk?


A pounamu paperweight



From the knotted driftwood of the carpet, where it has fallen,

it looks up, shiny as a grey-green frog half in,


half out of water. On the three-inch circle of its back,

like bruises healing, are streaks of yellowy agate. And it is true


that sometimes you can free a headache by pressing

to the places where it lurks the greenstone’s solid cooling balm.


Wisps of charcoal, brush strokes in a landscape that will never

break the surface, are sorrow’s sunken remnants.



In the distance, washed in silver, one of a band of children,

she plays on the flecked iridescent sand.


She is mature for six, and sensible, kind as a six-year old

is kind, artistic in her way.


In the first months of her life she howled for hours on end,

as if for hurts just shown her, and in her eyes the bleak


blank trauma of existence. Oh but she was honest with us.


The infant sadness she once harboured lies forgotten,

buried deep as veins in youthful arms.


And I no longer need, on her account, to probe dark seams

in the jade of talismans and charms.


Do you think your poetry has changed over time?

From the spare twigs of an image-dominated approach, I have become progressively more attached to syntax. I miss the spareness, though, and that lack might be what leads to a more compressed and heightened, a less than orthodox, syntax in some recent poems.


What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time?

I am drawn to the work of Vincent O’Sullivan and Elizabeth Smither. Along with sparkling scenarios and a wealth of lovely, thoughtful and moving lines, Vincent’s poems offer a potent model for the witty, resourceful use of personae. The freshness of Elizabeth’s vision, her altogether metaphorical way of looking at the world, constantly surprises. Then there is the course her poems take, rising into something which hits, or is very like, the sublime. Her work is replete with a humanity that draws the reader in, moves us and stays with us, achieving what the Chinese call ‘the meaning beyond the words’.


What international poets?

At university I was exposed to a mix of metaphysical and Modernist poetry. I read and still read these poets with pleasure. In the eighties I read a lot of Chinese classical poetry and wrote a Ph. D. thesis on it. I am currently combing the work of some of these poets for a collaborative translation in which I am engaged. Like millions, I adore Du Fu and could not keep him out of an essay I wrote called ‘An attachment to China’.  I relish Ezra Pound’s Cathay and patches of the Cantos. There is much in him I do not relish.  In the last few years I have read Geoffrey Hill. Even half-understood,  Hill’s poems are immensely satisfying – far beyond what most contemporary poetry offers – and this year, following his death, I have returned to read him. I am also re-reading Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain in tandem with his beautiful posthumously published translation of the Aeneid Book VI.


What irks you in poetry?

Sloppiness and sentimentality. Obviousness, I suppose.


What delights you?

A beautiful and arresting image.


What kind of poems are you drawn to?

I like to have my mind stretched as well as to be caught by those beautiful and arresting lines or the miraculous turn a poem takes. Hence Hill. I delight in witty, even outrageous, expression, à la Vincent O’Sullivan in wicked vein.


The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

We get far too many journals and in the evening I read well outside the poetry and literary commentary with which I tend to start my day. I am interested in international affairs and in the last weeks have ripped into the mountain of articles on Brexit. Early in the day I do simple yoga; I try and make time for tai ch’i and I walk in the afternoon.  For the rest, it’s what everyone does: see friends, see films, go to concerts, read as many novels as I can. My two daughters live overseas and we try and combine seeing them with an excursion to somewhere else. Asia is closest and takes me back into the world of wandering among ruins devastated by time and old, occasionally recent, wars, and relishing a culture different to my own. Sometimes writing will result from the newness and stimulus of the encounter.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Right at the moment I’d probably bring a beautifully produced small book called Les Dix-neuf Poems Anciens, which gives both the Chinese text and an annotated French translation of the Nineteen Old Poems, poems which date from the first and second century CE and have had an enormous influence on the Chinese poetic tradition. I had forgotten what a beguiling mix of the lyrical, the sad and the allusive they are. French scholar Jean-Pierre Dièny has reminded me. Having to concentrate on both the Chinese and French, and being rewarded with many beautiful hauntingly allusive lines – from Dièny’s commentary as well – would help keep my mind off my predicament.



Toasting Michael Jackson’s Selected Poems with the Preface and two poetry treats

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Walking to Pencarrow Michael Jackson, Cold Hub Press 2016

Cold Hub Press has recently released, Walking to Pencarrow, a selection of Michael Jackson’s poems. The poems are drawn from eight collections dating from Latitudes of Exile in 1976 to Midwinter at Walden Pond in 2016. Michael has written thirty-five books, eight of which are poetry. He has received a Commonwealth Poetry Prize and a New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. Vincent O’Sullivan writes on the blurb: ‘Jackson’s vocation as a world-class anthropologist, and his spending so much of his life away from his own country, are shaping forces on his oeuvre.’ Martin Edmond writes: ‘One of our most astute, humane, idiosyncratic and perdurable writers.’ The collection gathers together luminous pieces of the world–with family, fidgety notions of home, anchored home, slithers of beauty, people and anecdotes to act as both an interior and poetic compass. The poems both augment and transcend what is real. Reading your way through the arc of living and writing, poetry becomes an absorbing form of solace as well as an impetus to write. A spotlight on Michael is long overdue as this magnificent selection underlines.

To celebrate the book, and the poems within, I have been granted permission to post Michael’s excellent preface and two poems that I particularly like. Both poems were originally published in Midwinter at Walden Pond.


9780473327811 cover  9780473327811 cover


Author’s Preface

As an adolescent, I was in revolt against the bourgeois tendency to paper over the harsh realities of social inequality, capital punishment, and colonial violence in order to create a fools’ paradise of domestic comforts and hackneyed phrases. The poems that poured out of me were filled with the angst and ambivalence of youth, its romantic infatuations, its embrace of lost causes, its wild oscillations between home and the world. Jim Baxter gave me good advice, critiquing one of my early poems about un-requited love. “Write about the body straight, and you find you are writing about the soul without knowing it … It’s the facts that count: her black or blonde or yellow hair, whatever treasure she is able to give you. The footloose sand and the seabirds and the crabs have a right to control the poem, not the I-centre or the her-centre; they can tell us more about love than we can tell them; they do in a sense control Fairburn’s greatest poem, The Cave.”1  Clearly I had to learn how to yield completely to the things that captured my attention, allowing them to speak to and through me. I also had to learn that poetry is far more than an exercise in breathtaking imagery and verbal legerdemain; it had to do justice to life; it had to measure up to something beyond itself; it had to be a kind of witnessing. My first breakthrough was ‘Blind Man’ which appeared in a student magazine when I was 19.2 Its focus was a Westland schoolteacher who had lost his sight in a car wreck, and subsequently moved to Auckland with his wife and two small children to study for an arts degree at Auckland University. Terry rented a house near the Blind Institute and I spent my Saturdays helping him with his English 1 coursework. The second poem was inspired by Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging, and appeared in Landfall in 1959.3

Nevertheless, it was only after I left New Zealand in 1963 and immersed myself in various forms of welfare work among Aboriginals in Victoria, Australia, among the homeless in London, and among war-torn communities in the Congolese hinterland, that I began to find my own voice and painstakingly piece together the collection of poems I published in 1976 as Latitudes of Exile. The earliest of these poems date from my return to New Zealand from Africa when I took a job relief teaching in the Wairarapa and began editing poems I’d drafted but never finished during my travels. To these ‘Congo poems’ was added new work based on experiences in Sierra Leone where I did fieldwork between 1969 and 1972; other poems reflected my everyday life in the Manawatu where my daughter Heidi (born in Sierra Leone) spent her early childhood and I taught anthropology at Massey University.

In hindsight, the poems in Latitudes were born of a quandary that troubled my thirties but undoubtedly had its origins in the experience of growing up in a small backwater Taranaki town in which I felt a complete stranger. A yearning for the freedom of new horizons (the ‘latitudes’ of exile) pulled me in one direction, while the longing to have and hold a place I could call home pulled me in another. A similar struggle informed the poems in my second collection (Wall) where I describe, not without irony, the experience of breaking up a concrete path only to find myself building, with the broken pieces, a wall between myself and my neighbor. What had happened to my desire to break down walls and embark on new journeys to the ends of the earth? Wall not only bears the impress of the Manawatu, Wairarapa, and East Cape ––regions of social and spiritual anchorage for me––but excursions abroad to Australia, Sierra Leone, and Europe throughout the ’70s.

In 1982–83, I took two years’ leave from academe, deter-mined to turn my hand to fiction. Two-thirds the way through my Katherine Mansfield fellowship year in Menton, France, my wife Pauline fell gravely ill. We traveled to England for medical advice before returning precipitously to New Zealand where Pauline died in September 1983. In the wake of Pauline’s death, our daughter Heidi found it difficult to settle back into school, and I felt an urgent need for “fresh woods and pastures new”. When friends at the Australian National University offered me a temporary teaching position, I sold our house in Palmerston North, sent the furniture for auction, and moved to Canberra where I completed Going On––a kind of logbook of the year before Pauline’s death and the six months after. Some of these poems were written in Menton; others in England, New Zealand and Australia. Though pervaded by a sense of desolation and loss, the best of them celebrate that deepened sense of life that sometimes arises un-bidden in the face of catastrophe. A return trip to Sierra Leone, a sojourn in Sweden, Heidi settled in school, and the miracle of my falling love again reinforced this sense of rebirth and inspired several of the new poems I published in Duty Free (1989).

Though I revisited New Zealand every year and hoped to keep the home fires burning, the gradual attenuation of old relationships was the inevitable price I paid for living abroad. After several years of unemployment in Australia, I accepted a job offer at Indiana University (Bloomington) in 1989 and throughout the 1990s made a succession of life-changing ethnographic field trips to Central Australia and Cape York Peninsula, accompanied by my second wife Francine Lorimer. But my years away from academe had radically changed my priorities as a writer, and most of the work I published between 1988 and 1998 interleaved poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. The titles of my books suggest a preoccupation with questions of personal identity and belonging. Rainshadow (1988) explores the conspiracy of silence that may sometimes follow a family tragedy no one knows how to work through or explain. Pieces of Music (1994) questions the notion of a coherent self, or a single seamless life story. At Home in the World (1995) is a sustained meditation on the meaning of home among nomadic or displaced persons, while Antipodes (1996) ponders issues “of inequity and division between North and South as well as personal quandaries and contradictions arising from a life divided between two hemispheres.” Although I called my memoir, The Accidental Anthropologist, I could just as well have called it ‘The Unsettled Expatriate’, for while I had come to call several countries ‘home’, including Sierra Leone, Denmark and Australia, the close friendships I had formed, the roots I had put down, the landscapes I had come to love, were not of a piece. At the same time, I was beginning to discover that my homeland was not altogether accepting of its native sons and daughters who, in search of employment, adventure or love, wind up living elsewhere. Though our hearts may remain wedded to natal landscapes and seascapes and though we return annually like godwits to rebuild our nests, we are no longer regarded as bona fide kiwis. Martin Edmond, with whose work I have always felt a deep affinity, wrote a review of my book, Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes (2012) that begins by invoking James Joyce’s poignant line––“A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her payable on their return.”4 For whatever reason––age, prolonged absence, or mediocre talent––publishing in New Zealand became increasingly difficult; one editor even describing me as “effectively dead”. Despite diligent efforts to publicize my books in radio and magazine interviews, my profile faded and I became a footnote to local literary history. Yet I see a fascinating progression from Dead Reckoning (2006) and Being of Two Minds (2011), where the poet seems torn “between seemingly irreconcilable affections, identifications, and places of personal anchorage”, to a poetic voice that no longer construes selfhood in either-or terms, but accepts and celebrates its multiplicity and instability. In passing beyond the pale of a purely regional identity, or seeking to define or defend this identity against all others, I seem to have followed the Cynics’ example of living according to nature (kata phusis) rather than conforming to any particular social law or custom (nomos.) Even as a child, I was aware of an antinomian streak in me, but it has taken me a lifetime to be able to say, as Diogenes did when asked the name of his home-town, it is both nowhere and everywhere. I like to think that this notion of cosmopolites provides one answer to the self-serving parochialism and blind fundamentalism that are the curses of our times. But few writers are ever fortunate enough to publish internationally, and in pursuing my ambition to remain a New Zealand writer, I am grateful for the unstinting support of Vincent O’Sullivan over many years and, more recently, the generosity of Roger Hickin at Cold Hub Press.





1 Letter from James K. Baxter to Michael Jackson, dated 22 November 1960.

2 ‘Blind Man.’ Outline, 1959: 13.  3 ‘To be hanged by the neck.’ Landfall 13(4): 323.

4 James Joyce, ‘Notes by the author’, in Exiles (New York: Viking, 1951).




Seamus Heaney 1939-2013


I dig deep for words

worthy of what you gave

delving into the peat and loam

of your own upbringing,

a country boy as you were

who in the end became

a countryman, versed

in the particular tools of your trade

honing language

to cut a swathe

through unbearable experience,

scything a space where we all could breathe,

a wedge of silage in the side of a hill

held down by tires on a black

tarpaulin, the ritual

of tying the harvest bow.


I cannot bear the thought

of you reduced to bone

smashed in a mortar,

shelved or scattered

across the plow,

though know the earth or sea

will gravely welcome you,

an ally at a time we spend

our time naming and numbering

our enemies,

walling ourselves in, wanting no contact,

and the only poetry

garish doggerel slashed on brick

in the small hours by a kid too young

to carry a gun.


I am ill at the idea

that you are gone, who wrote

about your wife with

unparalleled love, who sat

at a table so solidly, so filled

with confidence that

inspiration would always come,

unbidden in the gorse-

scented wind or brine-soaked

oyster-catching sea,

an unexpected gift, a good turn,

a phrase for something

we did not quite believe.


The stacked lumber

of your seventy-four years

and our repining

is now pared down to a single

knot-holed plank of grief.

In a cobbled yard

we build your bier,

as plain and unpretentious

as celebrity allows,

acknowledging the simple fact

that your words were also ours

whether walking through a hail of stones

and hate-filled rhetoric on a Belfast street

or penning in our collective mind

obituaries for the blinding passions

that had brought us to our knees.


We will sing your praises

as if you were our lost Lycidas,

not drowned by history

but survived

to tell the tale,

to bind us close with the fraying twine

of your careful phrases.

You showed us what we had forgotten

about our common clay,

how we might bridge the gap

between history and hope,

a skunk in the garden

and your beloved wife

bending to take a plunge-line black

negligé from the bottom drawer.


If I go against the grain of your

tilled, harrowed fields,

furthering the line

of the glinting plow to take in

clamoring gulls and other scavengers,

if I migrate or deviate,

slam the tractor into reverse

at the thought of a cowering animal,

it is because of what I read

between your lines in Wintering Out

or on bog sacrifice in North

or on those antinomies that strike a spark

from the hooves of our hurrying harnessed pairs

and hint like fireflies

of a path through elephant grass

or a stream, still muddy after rain,

that will run clear.




Midwinter at Walden Pond


I am walking around a so-called Kettle Pond

on a sub-zero January morning, made more bitter

by the arctic wind that chafes and burns my face


when I turn into it. This is the only unpolluted lake

for miles around, the spring-fed pond where Thoreau

built his hut (desk, chair, pot-bellied stove and cot)


and daily wrote the thoughts and observations

that would make his name.  This morning, though,

my mind is on the ice-bound pond’s bizarre


sonority––squeaking, gulping, stomach-

rumbling groans, as if Thoreau’s ghost had been

disturbed, or Melville’s Leviathan were about to sound.


Through pitch pines, I glimpse a single skater

making tracks across the frozen

snow-dusted surface, as if he too


is seeking ‘to live deliberately’ and find

companionship in solitude. I take

the uphill path to where the great man lived


two years, two months, two days, the site

now marked by a random pile of stones,

some bearing the engraved or painted names


of those who made their pilgrimage to Walden Pond

and in the hornbeams’ shade shared

their favorite passages from his book,


blessed by the down-turned gestures of the pines,

hearing the anomalous whistle of a train.

I am not one of them, I know. I only take


this path for exercise or the possibility of

a poem, suffering only snow from a low bough,

the groan of pack ice pressed in upon itself,


as I try to decipher the skater’s

random signature, or ask why visitors would hurl

big stones out on the ice unless it was to see


if it could take their weight. In Central Australia

those who take stones from a sacred site

are cursed. To bring them here is to be blessed.


Surely I am not the first nor will be last to find

that a frozen lake can free the mind.


©Michael Jackson 2016