The Strong Mothers
Where are the mothers who held power
and children, preserved peaches
in season, understood about
greens and two classes of protein
who drove cars or did not have a licence
who laughed, raged and were there?
Take Mrs Russell who rode her irate bike,
an upright fly that buzzed
with a small engine on its back wheel
up South Road past the school football field
on her way to the hospital. Consider
the other Mrs Russell, drama judge, teacher of
speech and elocution in a small front room,
part-time reporter on The Hawera Star.
And Mrs Ellingham who had an MA in French,
ah, the university. Or Mrs Smith, one knee stiff
with TB, her tennis parties on Saturdays, adults
on banks and we smoked their cigarettes in the bamboo.
Her legs shone, their skin in diamonds like a lizard’s.
Then Mrs Chapman who sang in the church choir,
formed brooches from fresh white bread,
made you look for a needle till you found it,
heated records and shaped them into vases for presents
who did a spring display in the window of Gamages Hats.
They have left the vowels uncorrected, the stories unproofed.
They have rested their bicycles inside their garages,
looked up the last word, la dernière mot, in Harraps Dictionary,
let needles lie in the narrow dust between verandah boards.
They have tested the last jam on a saucer by a window
comforted the last crying child they will ever see,
and left. How we miss them and their great strength.
Wait for us, we say, wait for me.
And they will.
Listen to the poem on Best New Zealand Poems 2002 here
I was sorry to miss the launch of Chris Price and Lynley Edmeades new books at Unity, Wellington, last week. It was the same day as the celebration of poet Rachel Bush’s life at Old St Johns in Nelson. The event was part celebration, part concert. I’ve never been to an occasion like this where spontaneous applause followed the many performances. Rachel would have enjoyed every moment.
I met Rachel in 1996 when we were on a writing course run by Bill Manhire. I loved her the moment we met. When Bill set the group the task of writing a pantoum—a verse form that by its nature leans toward the serious and contemplative—Rachel’s first line was an accusatory “You offered to make the lasagne” which had us all laughing.
Another member of the group of ’96 was at her farewell too; Ingrid Horrocks, whose mother, Ginny, led the order of service. It’s usual to learn more about a friend’s past on occasions such as this and it was enlightening. Ginny traced her early relationship with Rachel at Canterbury University when they were junior lecturers, their planned trip to visit Tierra del Fuego (which didn’t happen because Rachel met Richard Nunns and fell in love), their shared ‘earth mother’ time bringing up children and their abiding friendship.
Rachel’s recorder group—she favoured the bass recorder—played a few of the same 16th century pieces they had performed for her while she was in the Nelson hospice.
Mary Ayre played ‘Songs without Words’ (Mendlessohn) on the piano and later accompanied Jo Hodgson when she sang ‘Ave Maria’ (Bach/Gounod) and ‘Sleep My Little Prince’ (Mozart).
Late last December I spent a week with Rachel and we went to her singing group run by the talented Pam Sims. Rachel liked German lieder and sang them beautifully in her husky voice. Her voice will always stay with me. It comes through the poems in her three Victoria University Press books: The Hungry Woman (1997), The Unfortunate Singer (2002) and Nice Pretty Things (2011).
Her fourth book, which Rachel saw before she died, thanks to VUP, will be launched at Vic Books in Wellington, 19 April, 5.30pm and at Page and Blackmore in Nelson later in the month.
There were many compliments about Rachel, the person, the writer, the singer, and musician. Peter Speers spoke about how she made ordinary things spring into life and how perceptive and gentle a critic she was. Other speakers mentioned her courage and loyalty to family and friends.
Rachel was a contained, thoughtful, loving friend. Underneath her considered surface I sensed a constant hum as she interpreted what was happening around her. She was wired for observation. This private alert woman was generous with her concern for the well being of her friends and family when they rang or called in to Napoli Way to check her health and lift her spirits. They bought all manner of delicious food and flowers. I remember a huge rich Christmas cake, pale blue eggs, shortbread, sweet peas, date loaves, crispy biscuits, orange roses, frittatas and cheese scones. If food and love could have beaten her cancer Rachel would be with us now. The phone rang often with friends calling from all over New Zealand.
Rachel’s poems featured at the service; her friend Robin Riley read ‘The Strong Mothers’, her lovely grand-daughter Jessica Moser read ‘The Song of Miss Gotto”, one of Rachel’s two daughters, Lucy, read ‘Birthday’. Molly read a poem called ‘Our Mother’ that the sisters had written together. It will appear in a Penguin book called ‘Thanks Mum’ which will be published this Mother’s Day.
Rachel had been cremated before we gathered to farewell her. As Pachelbel’s Canon played, her husband, Richard, carried the box that held her ashes out of the church followed by her family, including her five grandchildren. Rachel has gone and we have lost a wonderful woman and a lively poet. It’s a great comfort that she knew how very much she was loved. And it’s a bonus that we’ll have another opportunity to enjoy Rachel’s whimsy, gentle backslaps and interesting spin on life when her new book, Thought Horses, is released by VUP mid-April.
Louise Wrightson, April 2016
Fergus Barrowman has kindly granted Poetry Shelf permission to post two poems from the new collection (thanks to the latest issue of Sport online).
‘All my feelings would have been of common things’
All my feelings are of common things
of the clock going on, of the next
meal or the last one, of the washing
on the line and if there’s enough heat
to dry it, of how to clean a lawnmower
just enough to make the Salvation Army
man want to take it away, with old grey
grass stuck to the blades, the tyres that hold
dirt, like cleats in walking shoes. Also
a dryer I bought forty years ago,
I stick the manual and the expired
guarantee inside the metal drum.
All those clothes it turned and churned, the lint
that it trapped in its door. I once thought
many things would make my life happier
and now one by one I will let them go.
If you would open your curtains,
if you could just go outside.
But you don’t
If you could step out
of your own house
your own skin,
lay your accumulated habits
and personality on the floor,
say of a hotel foyer,
for someone else to find
after you have gone,
light and lithe, into what
ever’s there, perhaps a spring
morning, pink trees surprised
by blossom. The best spring
is in your own high
For the rest of the Sport selection go here.
I got to meet Rachel for the first time when she read at the Nelson leg of my Hot Spot Poetry Tour a couple of years ago. Having been attracted to the warmth and detail of her poetry, I was instantly drawn to the warmth and detail of Rachel Bush in person. Her voice. Her smile. Her engagement with the children on the carpet. She was a special person. I wanted to hug her. To read Louise’s moving account of the memorial service is a way to take stock, to sit quietly, to say goodbye. I won’t get to have that coffee on my next visit to Nelson, but I will get to have ‘afternoon tea’ with Rachel’s poems for many years to come. I treasure that one meeting. Thank you Louise for drawing us closer.