Michele Leggott: 2 poems

  Michele Leggott

  Two poems:

  [»»] The Looking Glass
  [»»] Figures in the Distance

  The Looking Glass

poetry lands ‘in its summer boat’ (Fernando Rendon)
in this country too.
Author’s note

The movement between darkness and light which is central to these poems may be further embodied in book form as a reader’s hands turn alternating pages of black and white. The white pages will carry text; the black pages will carry perforated representations of the Southern constellations named in the titles of the poems. Light will pass back and forth between moving surfaces. It is my hope that the presentation of the poems in this manner will extend for readers the sense of a journey that mirrors lived experience and our constant conversation with the visible and invisible worlds that surround us.

  carina / the keel

Macoute slips off the wall and rests
a moment on one of the leather chairs below
the flag    he’s got swallows on the wire
KERERU AEROBATICS above the cliff
and his own white noise to insert
between the London planes    he is the tree
in the view he holds up one arm
against the falling sun he is the child
you caught on the print the plan scribbled
once on the back of an envelope    TUI WINGBEAT
over the house where Macoute sits thinking
in a leather chair and above him
a white space    sand in the footbath
whisky under the stars
Macoute has long ears but he cannot
always see where he is going and tonight
will bring the Geminids overhead
in a dark sky without a trace of light
twenty two steps to the door    six between
door and throughway    nine from the bed
to the back door   count them and be sure
use your hands and your feet    Macoute
down from the wall and moving silently
among the sleepers in the house

  horologium / the clock

raining in my heart ever since we’ve been
apart    the parabola of his hands above his
open mouth and the shout of something that could be
joy or another outburst of pain    his legs folded
the long arms reaching for visible perfection    his brother
contemplative a few feet away    the alarm goes off at 2 AM
she walks up the white path to the point
meteors a thousand petals deep spread
their blanket up there    nobody
connects his wooden fingers with the parabolic
flight of the wood pigeons    the silent witness
RURU IN THE LIGHT    bright events
in every part of the sky except the radiant
music in my heart my fingers apart    the one
you won’t see because it’s heading straight for   you

  columba / the dove

when the holes in the card line up
with constellations drawn by an unnamed lady
starlight falls precisely on human eyes
looking into Urania’s mirror

feet walk over seagrass    smooth
to the sole    a square mat
that marks thresholds    to be useful here
you must hold the cards upside down

the lady is praised
for the beauty of her designs
but she remains anonymous    her View
of the Heavens stands on its head    trembling

  apis / the bird of paradise

Macoute is a gunny sack    sitting
out front on a plastic chair
with a cup of tea    the chicks are fledging
he watches their unsteady flight    square tails
upending on the wire but safe this time
did he pick up the one in the box
and throw it into the air     or did the ruru
get there first    expect
MAJOR DELAY    attached to the outside
wall    mirrored on another inside behind
glass    in the throughway a line of coats
and jackets on their pegs    Macoute puts his hands
in pockets and through sleeves to feel the warmth
that lingers in out of season clothing    he is visible
everywhere tonight    settles for a single locus
when morning comes and takes his smoky tea
outside to watch the swallows and the islands

  vela / the sails

M: How about a sail?
L: Not yet. I don’t want to leave.
M: You know they can’t see you.
L: I dreamed your eight fingers.
M: But who stitched the front and the back?
L: Sailmakers.

  grus / the crane

the chain corroded and bit
into her neck
which became swollen and infected    we removed
the collar and threw it away
then took her to KAMO with the windows down
everyone struggling for air

a chick in the house
on our return    shrilled in his hand
at the touch of finger to sleek head
he stepped outside and threw it into the air
upraised arm    SCATTER OF PRINT
words on the evening sky

she is ahead of us    plunging
into the shallows of the estuary
to chase ducks and a heron
that lifts off with a noise like an old book
being opened    she stops short ASTOUNDED
by waves carrying the barking of a dog
from cliffs across the river screened with trees

  sculptor / the sculptor

from a plan perfectly original
AROMATIC in its courting of bees sightlines
and the echo from the wall of trees
they face each other they turn away
there is the view from here
and the view from there    they are not the same
so you will need to keep on moving
stepping in and out of frame    watching
for ligatures    the black wall
the white fireplace    the raked path
the perimeter walk    Cassiopeia
and Virgo whirling up the drive
CANIS leaping for the puriri moths
NOCTUA plucking them out of the air
the paepae bright with OWL LIGHTS
travellers returned to the house

  pyxis / the mariner’s compass

now we will listen
to the insistent call of the kingfisher
the pheasant tock-tocking in the undergrowth
the morepork’s hunting cry
riroriro sparkling in the trees
mynah dawdling on the lawn
wingbeat of tui
wingbeat of kereru
magpie removed from the house
motley ducks across the river
oystercatchers keening overhead
the heron’s breaking spine
the endless disputation of swallows
a zodiac a zodiac a zodiac

  circinus / the compass

Macoute and the lady follow each other
around the circle    I sent a letter to my love
and on the way I dropped it    except it’s a handkerchief
and the children sitting cross-legged    someone must have picked it up
and put it in their pocket    are watching the thief
could have been you could have been you could have been you
as he stoops behind each of them    they must not look
as he passes    only eyes from the other side
can give the alarm    could have been you could have been you
he’s gone before she finds it and the circle erupts as she
tries to catch him    Lucy Locket
lost her pocket    he’s almost there    Kitty Fisher
found it    slides into her empty place just as she
touches his shoulder    I sent a letter
to my love    she starts around the ecliptic as they chant
in a ring on the field waiting for three o’clock

  norma / the square

M: How did we know when to look?
L: I’ve forgotten.
M: What was it teaching us?
L: Poetics.
M: Are you sure about that?
L: It could have been 2.30.

  pictor / the painter

peihana the pheasant warou the swallow
rakiraki introduced ducks    we are in the Primers
listening for the fall of a handkerchief
over chanting voices    maina the mynah makipai the magpie
matuku-moana the white-faced heron
from this side the left arm upraised
from that side the right    and the words running
BACKWARDS    there she is a W
here looking north a starry M
birds in the trees    bathtub on its platform
above the raised beds    lovers embracing
among the nikau on the side of the hill
olives lemons the passionfruit vine
green grapes tamarillo the artist with his palette
stepping out from the sycamore planes    the SIGHTLINES
the hoist and the fly    a starry circle    a portent

  chamaeleon / the chameleon

lizard fingers enter the house    saying
you drew me out of darkness    you set me against
the evening sky    I flutter I tremble
my tail is the lost curve of the kiore moana
the little horse in flight    the tin fish by the window
and clearest of all    mirror image of my hand
in silhouette    dreamed out of darkness
and the voices of children a long way off    singing
the river the estuary the mudflats
lizard and seahorse    you drew me out of darkness

  telescopium / the telescope

a notebook carried through the forest
a notebook kept in a saddle bag
a notebook close to a candle flame
a notebook taken over the river
a notebook looked at from the other side
a notebook humming
a notebook consulted a notebook put aside
a notebook set down in a clearing
a notebook taken up with praise
a notebook counting in twelves
constitutive of bush honey and the lunar rainbow
a notebook translated a notebook compared
a notebook carried to the library

  cailum / the chisel

he builds a small fire and they boil the Thermette
for tea while we swim in the river beside
the road in the Waioeka Gorge    perhaps
a hundred years and still no answers
he is at the edge of the river sand    dipping
the empty can or washing it out
smiles into the barrel of the camera
from behind dark glasses    he is forty one perhaps
beginning to think in oils after experiments
on the lid of a chocolate box    he has brought us
hundreds of miles looking always
for the campground at the end of the road
beyond Kaitaia beyond Port Jackson beyond
Hicks Bay    he is restless with myth
and the sense of a future that will not hold him long
what is the distance between us    what
is the distance covered    shade in the heat of the day

  volans / the flying fish

L: There was a game, less quarrelsome than I Spy.
M: It was hers, it came from her.
L: About watching for a white horse?
M: Then keeping quiet until you saw a black dog.
L: Then what?
M: You got a wish of course. They were long trips.
antlia / the air pump

STATE OF PLAY    a wreath for the ragged bees
almond apple BLUE AGAVE    in their fight
that have brought Colony Collapse Disorder
to the yards and hives on a scale
unprecedented in the memory of beekeepers
the bees cannot recover when the Horsemen
sweep through colonies weakened
by multiple pathogens    foragers die
and the citadels are lost    it is BEE APOCALYPSE
Deformed Wing Virus    queenlessness    pounds
of dead bees on the landing boards    APIS MELLIFERA
VS. VARROA DESTRUCTA    feral bees
defenceless wiped out no more WILD HONEY
HERE IN THE NATIVE BUSH    rewarewa manuka
kamahi tawari    sweet endemic flow

  ara / the altar

the pleasure of finding them    MAJUSCULES
in the flow of words / the nectar flow / the nectar flow of words
each one a pollen grain    SHIFTED
and language looking out between
the forage the brood the cluster

WHAKAARI is an island smoking on the horizon
WHAKAARI INTERNATIONAL sells manuka honey from the East Cape
KUPU WHAKAARI are prophetic words spoken at Waioeka

  corvis / the crow

OK he’s an archangel    summoned
or sent to make a path through flames    a wind angel
whose sword has flown out of his upraised hand
to lodge among the words that stream
through his aerial geometry    black on white
each letter stitched at its edges    each finger
outlined in red    eerie other on the reverse
to which the needleworkers now apply
mirror words    how else GLOSSOLALIA
in the slipstream of a renovated god    STILL
there is the matter of the orange wall
morning sun upon it    and the magpies
corona australis / the southern crown

she lifts each card from the box and holds it up
to the light    in that small penumbra she wears
a veil of stars their magnitudes exact and covering
a minute or two of her face    she is Urania
laying out the circle in her studio    sixteen
to the east sixteen to the west    punching holes
in the sky as she moves from card to card
with compass and dividers    she outlines
each aperture in delicate watercolour
cadmium cobalt vermilion    giving them
the same colours as in the night sky
above    bright stones for whom we make
exceptions such as her anonymity    her grace
and her unswerving appetite for difficulty

  fornax / the furnace

L: First thing their voices, irreducible.
M: So we’re archaeologists?
L: It’s possible. Where do you want to go?
M: Offshore. Canopy. Vault.
L: Your beauty is that of the magpie.
M: But who will show me how to sing?
puppis / the poop
clip winged insects from the air
above the cat hunting with her hopeless cry
on the top rail of the deck

stay in the house of the trees
safe from the mistress of imagination
and particolour dancing

intensify the evening
over chairs of duck egg blue
close to an open door
reticulum / the net
the looking glass dropped in the bush
as well find it again
face up to the smiling sky
behind a canopy breaking open
like an old book    thick leaved
on its way to the library
as well find it
beside the track or hanging
in the supplejack a hundred years
or more   as well
comb hundreds of pages for one glint
of the looking glass among trees
unmatched in its capacity
for speech at the edge of darkness

  argo / the ship

this was the day we found them
three stories in the belly of a paper boat
the first is a buddhist text
the second introduces a gem in her own words
the third is the story of a dead bird
this is the order in which they were found
walking east into the morning sun
looking west at the sun going down
a theatre of consequences
the boat sails towards on a dark sea
from the wings a voice like fiction
squares the circle
I am alone with myself    riding
on the horse of my own breath

  centaurus / the centaur

a flag of light appears in the stairwell
on a wall facing the west window    morning sun
almost at the autumn equinox has passed
through the east window and through the west
catching in its path the little horse
rearing on the sill and throwing that shadow
to the weatherboards next door    the houses
are so close and the image of the window sharp
already a marvel of registration    but it is only
when we turn from this trick of the light
to descend the spiral of the stair and looking up
suddenly aware of luminance
find the flag above our heads on the half wall
the little black horse from the art shop
in Lisbon who carries the weight of the hippocampus
see horse the flowers in their salty pool
katabatic    anabatic    light going everywhere
coming back through the glass of the west window
lighting up the dark side of the little horse
taking the new silhouette and applying it faithfully
articulated joints the curved neck four hooves askew
on a ground of light that is the wall above our heads
I flageolet for you    as the sun passes into the equinox
easy in its gimbals for a moment
and performing each morning on the wall above the stairs
the flag of light on which a black horse rears

  indus / the indian

M: She saw your face as the words hung in the air.
L: I was a thief in her ear.
M: Your voice was there under the trees.
L: Flickering.
M: I saw you put your hand in her pocket.
L: An old signal. Let me show you.

  tucana / the toucan

Adige. A-OK. Alleyway. All Fools’ Day. All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. All the way. Anyway. Appliqué. Arbor Day. Arrivé. Atelier. Attaché.

Yes, I picked them off the wall of sound.

Paraguay. Passageway. Pass away. Passion Play. Pepper spray. Petare. Photoplay. Pikake. Pis aller. Play-by-play. Plug-and-play. Popinjay. Potter’s clay. Pourparler. Pousse-café. Power play. Present-day. Protégé. Pull away. Put away. Put-in-Bay
One by one. Knifepoint to hinge, and twist.
Table Bay. Taboret. Tarsier. Taxiway. Tearaway. Tear away. Teleplay. Tenebrae. Thataway. Throwaway. Throw away. Thunder Bay. Triple play. Turn away.
Sweet mollusc meat from the black rocks.

  crux / the cross

let me show you
how she walked into the arms of a tau cross
following the bird’s call    it was simple
dark blocks to left and right    the hallway
filled with light from the front door    the bird
in a bedroom the cat arriving the dog
excited and best shut away    the bird
calling from behind the door with the dog
released and now in the other room    the front door
open the cat shut away the bird quiet and perhaps
gone    wings against light streaming into the house
aerialist in a tight corner    cursor
against the light a moment
let me show you the walking the rooms
the bird’s call in the house    the open door
the rooms full of sunlight    a tau cross
against which the bird rises and falls
a moment in her arms    calling
depth and height and exit
a gate a journey a tau cross
fan of tailfeathers quick prayer
in the week of the olive harvest    let them be safe
whom she sees in the hallway    disappearing
into one or other of the rooms    small again
in the house of their growing up
gates and journeys surround her
walking into the arms of a tau cross
where the bird makes its simple call    a tau cross
with its arms full of sunlight

  canis major / the big dog

Macoute keeping an eye on them
watches her off the five o’clock boat
high viz jacket between umbrellas going up
the crowd debouching shoulder to shoulder
so he loses sight of her and they’ve reached
the end of the concourse turning
along the waterfront into the wind and rain
all footing is darkness all darkness
pierced by light that steadies her
over the crossing and under the Moreton Bays knee deep
in clivias the gutters running the dog
aware of him a shadow under the parrot tree
headlights pick up her eyes doing the work
for both of them Mays St Church St Duders Ave
gales rising in exposed places    straight on
straight to the kerb    the 270 turn
Macoute laughing on the other side of the road watches
them swing for home up the rise and past dark gates dripping
on the porch with no gutters imagining
the light cord the fire going on wet clothes
stripped off the dryer rumbling
the towel that makes the dog
stand on her head    the oven on 150
the rain outside the dark that holds
Macoute angelic in boots and parka

  microscopium / the microscope

Macoute looking over her shoulder
comes to rest on Pyxis Nautica
the mariner’s compass the nautical box    circling
the Pole with Octans norma circinus
the jewel box and other fantasies picked out
among the fainter stars    what is this box what does it hold
that has drawn them both his finger pointing her eyes
drifting to Aphrodite’s boat
the navigator so dazed / that at Antikythera
he dropped his clockwork fangle / into the transparent sea
and all positions were lost    sun gear and moon train broken
the five planets vanishing into love’s external drive
ghost guest leading her along    silk threads in the mouths of doves
making for Pluralia    one fragment among many
glinting on the sea floor now    the mirror gone to pieces
two hands above the keyboard CHIRAL and forever one

  parvo / the peacock

M: What do you mean?
L: My hands were in the picking.
M: I understand. Koroneiki from the trees.
L: So big I will need clappers next year.
M: Your two hands.
L: Mirror images of each other, and not.

  mensa / the table

lay me on the table and remove
the child whose feet walked up my belly
under northern stars    to kiss the fish
at new year    lay me on the table
and remove the child
born under southern stars    the summer bird
arrowing between green waves    lay me on the table
take out the lens of one eye
and unfold the polymer wing
of another    so that light bounces in
to the dark camera    even underwater
or walking out to the point    lay me on the table
but save the little house where my children kicked
unless there is no other way    lay me on the table
take out the other lens and land another wing
where it will show me fish in the window
of a translucent wave    the swallow diving
to kiss the surface of the water
half river and half incoming sea
for I have need of all these    the dark and the light
their eyes and mine    waiting in rooms close by
and far away    lay me on the table
I am not afraid and wish to see the stars again

  octans / the octant

Urania standing on her head    or cartwheeling
through a long gallery    and out
around the return veranda in the rain    she holds
the last card    a compass rose    pierced
with thirty two points of light    each one
a footstep or a handspring on the perimeter
of a great circle    the winds blow    Tramontana Greco
Levante Scirocco Ostro Libeccio Ponente Maestro

a girl walking on her hands    her mother says
you spend all your time upside down    feet
against the sky    or the scrim hung wallpaper
above the dado in the hall of the old house
catch her by the ankles    watch her
fly between the sawhorses set up
under the rotary clothesline    watch her fall
and break her arm at the left shoulder

Urania on the high beam    catches
her breath and somersaults neatly to the mat
it’s still raining and she will go up in the roof
walking on rafters to check the pots she placed
under the holes in the corrugated iron    she hears them
in the room below leaping from the wardrobe
onto the double bed    a trampoline
she can do nothing about and they know it    listening

a girl whirling up the drive    her mother says
I am here for you    whether or not you see me
she lets them up in the roof with torches    to locate
new pinpricks of light dripping rusty tears
on their upturned faces    there will be better days
the winds will blow the flags fly    the breath
HAU    of angels    ANAHERA    walking
and walking around the words the swallows and the islands

Go back to the start of [»»] The Looking Glass

  Figures in the Distance


It is so dark I am certain the sun has gone. Canyons, archaic, abyssal, open in front of me and the flutter of leaves is lost in the roar of traffic overhead. I take my way, start out walking, thread the path that passes a trickle of water underground and then a spiral ascending. Present tense, imperative mood, no light. Doves resume their conversation in the trees outside the window. The scent of star jasmine creeps over the sill and is gone in a moment that is not quite memory, not quite now. Scent of a frangipani tree backloads into my nose at this spot each morning, not quite now, not quite then or even there. Start out walking, count and measure, find the letter and lift a finger from the glassy surface. These are the steps, this is the footwork, thread and clue near walls of stone and overhanging trees. All present, all sure. And the sudden reticules of light. Imperative. Urgent. Sol going down in flames.


But it is different each time. Eyes of a woman, your oceanic eyes, marine eyes leaning into afternoons of wind. The white shell path crunches underfoot. Location. The wind is face on, then slant. Location. There is no image but the lightfield is immense, at once cerulean and granular. Waves dash, spray wets the path ahead and behind us. Wind plays in the trees. How much pohutukawa bloom is falling? Will I feel its touch against my face if it is? The finger lifts, the letter appears. One more touch. Location. Acoustic shadows slap hands, drink milk, roll into the wind and become lost in its rough and tumble. The words appear from nowhere. Who are you beside me?


Every day you play. Metrosideros excelsa. With the light of the universe. Plumeria, a temple ghost. Wind falls away and railings gleam in the shadow showing me where I am, later and darker along the waterfront. I lose my footing one evening on the simplest of steps and go down in a heap, crying out loud. Bruised in strange places, not all of them available to reason, going down, getting up, stepping along. Rosemary brushes my face, an overhanging feijoa takes off my hat, the odd scent of pohutukawa drifts at the edges of the shell path. Every day it is different. In soft damp air someone is searing beef or making a sauce. Garlic in hot oil shimmies into the frangipani coming over the road at this spot each morning. A temple ghost, I said some days ago but found another name by asking, casually. Do you remember that tree, the one that flowers in spring and is not a real frangipani?


The ear hears clearly. The fan belt behind us that is not a bird, passing now and gone on up the road. What the eye no longer sees. The orchestra from a front porch that is not quite a snatch of Summer Wind. And makes of it what never was. The patter of rain on leaves that means we have reached open ground, the bounce of footsteps against glass or concrete that is the bus shelter or a high wall. And makes of it. Whiff of red blossom, curl of smoke from behind a back fence. What never was. I lie flat and listen, double dove, tree to tree then they fall out of time and become call and response. Where are you? Where are you? The old float plane goes overhead. Marine engines from the harbour, and the thrash of spinnakers. All radio except the orange flash that careens off the jacket I draped over one shoulder when sun and not rain followed us home. A Viewmaster image coming apart in its brightly lit cave, snow tractors and flags vibrating against the ice field. Our heroes at Scott Base. Click. Click. Click. The Aswan Dam. The Highlands of New Guinea. The Moon Landing. So many circles to be there. Walk indoors and the jasmine floods through another window.


A white rose. See. A white rose stencil. There. A white rose stencilled there. Signalling. A white rose stencilled on asphalt. Marking. A white rose stencilled on the footpath. Dividing. A white rose stencilled on the footpath to show juncture. Or continuation. A white rose showing juncture. Here is one. Go on. Here is one. Go on. Here is one. Now turn and pass the coffee drinkers, their laughter and their dogs. Their open doorways. Their cry of gulls and clatter. Their arches. Their caves. Go on. Another rose, to show. Another, to go on. To show where, (a rose) to show what (a rose), to show how (a rose). A white rose bringing juncture, bringing continuation. Long shadows walk beside us, four legs and two. Two legs and four. Gulls cry. Last white rose. End of the line. I will throw my eyes up to heaven and bring back the blue bowl of the sky.


So it is still possible to step ashore on the islands of vision and say I remember. It was like this. To find the planetary contrejour of lightshades and low sun against the western window. To make a glissade of light from the ripples spreading across flat water. To catch light and to make it sing. Here is a cat sitting on a rock by the sea, a marine cat who crosses the road each morning. Here is a man on a bike who calls out my name as he passes. Here is a runner who calls her small dog to order. Max, come along. Here are two people frying tomatoes on the beach. Here is a song chalked along the pavement beside the flowering trees. LOOK IN THE NOOK OF THE CROOK OF THE BRANCH OLIVE AND GREEN, POHUTUKAWA PLAYS THE BLUES. A pack of ocean swimmers disappears around North Head. The pool is underwater. Now hear how the cruise ships play, coming and going from the harbour, the channel, the five notes that warn small craft to get out of the way. Eggs and bacon and tomatoes in the pan. A man with a fan on his back hangs from the cords of a parachute, drifting out to sea. His sanguinary lady takes the old cat home.


From the waterline, masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity float on their poles against the sky. Day by day, hoist and fly, the flag of France (Charlie Hebdo), the flag of Colombia (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos), the flag of Cuba (island revolution). Who knows what they will fly tomorrow, or the next day or the one after that. Kite surfers full of hot air sweep to and fro on the harbour. The same breeze drops totara into our noses and karaka berries under our feet. Rise up singing. Rise up dancing. Rise up and make carnival. There is the flag of interlocking spirals on black and white. Hoist and fly. There is the flag of a spiral as long and lazy as a green wave rolling or fern above the sea. Day by day. There is the flag of the new year, smoky totara and sweet karaka lifting the small bird, a tern with a silver fish in its beak flying home at sunset. Oral and intangible. Day by day. Hoist and fly. The arrival of the cavalcade, the voices on the wind or against the sky. Flags for the new year, a game of football on the beach that might go on forever, hoots and cackles and the exhibition of ferocity, stamping and pawing and falling flat on its face in the waves to thunderous applause. Rise up singing. Rise up dancing. Rise up and play every day for the oral and intangible masterpieces of humanity.


The herons at Matakohe, where yellow irises grew wild on the road leading down to the harbour. There was a fig tree loaded with small fruit, a peach tree, and an apple and several others all running wild in the overgrown garden. Queen Anne’s Lace and millefoil yarrow. Biddy-bids cling to the dog’s glossy coat and work their way into the tender skin between her toes. No sound but the cicadas and crickets for miles around, then behind them the snap of the shrimp claw over mud and mangroves. Snapping shrimp, tickle of paspalum, scent of an orange peeled and divided among travellers. The schluck schluck schluck of the dog taking on water from the bowl set down in the dust. The flatland vegetables sing and dance. Kiwis sign themselves over the road. Es ist fantastik, he says. Flax bush changing, rope swing splashing, river swimming and a little video. Deep scent of the big trees, their epiphytes and astelias. The window cut in the bush to frame the circumference no longer to be traversed with open mouths and upturned faces. Keep it going, out to the south head, sound of the surf two hundred feet below, 499 coffins coming ashore, bones buried by those who found them. Stand in the ocean to cool, remember the new moon and just below it the evening star. Summer music from the cars. Harbour, swoops, flight, other times. One stop for icecream and a leg stretch, the mosaics, the tiles, the grass on the roof. Theme time radio. Fish swim. Birds fly. Daddies yell, mamas cry. Old men. Sit and think. // I drink.


Katydids in the star jasmine. Clink clink. Honeysuckle afternoon. Plovers cry in the dark, alarm, alarm, alarm. A house stretches recumbent arms. The Hundertwasser flag, the Colombian flag. The water limpid and full of cnidaria. The water choppy and slapping my face. The pavements dug up for fibre optic cables and voices to follow through barriers and cones. She stops dead if the way is barred. She goes on when it’s not. The house has been lifted and moved forward. The roof has been removed and replaced. The builders are gutting and taking apart, the better to rebuild. But what? Water blasters play along quiet streets. What next? Karaka berries knobbly underfoot. The cheery walkers. Morning squawks and clucks. The Segway leader rings her bell and brings her posse through. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Business is humming today.


Magpies and figs, plovers and oystercatchers. A man in an orange jumpsuit burning alive in a cage. His name is on the lips of the world. We are prisoners of the language that passes those lips.


When I ask why the magpie is calling high up on my right where there are no trees, he looks and is startled to see it on top of the hotel flagpole against a clear blue sky. Black and white and blue. What is a blazon? Pica pica pica, bad, mad and always a step ahead. Stone the crows we used to say. But not this irrepressible joker. What else does the winter light bring? The tail of a dogfish slapping slapping slapping on the deck of the wharf as a man tries to remove the hook in its mouth. The girl whose rod bent almost double as she brought in the struggling fish, maybe two and a half feet long. She watches. They get the hook out. Sound of a body hitting the water.


Shaking hands. She gives me her paw, and when I stroke its smooth surface I feel her toes flex and the nails close over the hand that is holding hers. I do this again and again, to feel her hand close on mine. This is as good as listening to her one-two-three one-two-three lapping at the water bowl, threes and fives, fives and threes, before I remember Gertrude Stein’s little dog and what listening to the rhythm of his water drinking taught her about the difference between sentences and paragraphs. That paragraphs are emotional and that sentences are not. The dog wins a soluble fish for her demonstration of emotion in front of the Modern Poetry class. She is more interested in the microphone than the water but we loop her lapping and amplify it for close listening anyway. Yes, paragraphs. No doubt about it.


A little butter is a bouncing thing. At least I think it was. How will we get back to that now? By going the long way round and hauling on the ropes that promise transformation. Transforming consciousness, transforming art, transforming the image. The apparition of these faces in the crowd. Transforming language, transforming the self, transforming the city. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. Transforming myth, transforming imagism, transforming genre. How the dragonfly kept circling round us. Transforming history, transforming america, transforming modernism. Beyond is anything. That’s a lot of transformation. That’s a syllabus. It will deliver boots stamping on the top of a table and handmade confections repurposing the dragonfly above its bright red flower. It will cause a young man to walk midnight streets inviting those he meets to draw black pigeons on the inner and outer surfaces of his Salvation Army raiment. It will provoke a young woman with one leg / over the rail of a balcony to flag down the gawking doctor and make him show her how to drive the car.


Acqua alta. Here’s Ezra Pound walking past the Trattoria Uccellini in gumboots. He carries an umbrella and wears one of his famous hats. He is 78 and has not yet made his appearance at the Spoleto festival, but the voice is there and its reach carries him forward into the ears of the unborn and back under the gaze of the dead. He does not mind the water sloshing around his boots, as he no longer minds who photographs the Avedon face or the picturesque hat. The sound of a violin accompanies him always now, sometimes with a silvery piano joining the two of them on their walks around the calli. He talks to Genghis Poor, whose cream jugs the size and shape of quail chicks line the top of the coffee machine and are gifts of love for the barista whom Genghis intends to marry. Her name is Adriana and the cream jugs are one-offs from the studio Genghis and his mother own in Campo Santa Margherita. Gods float in the azure air, says Genghis looking out through the door of the trattoria. Your ceramic birds will fly the distance, Pound replies. But how much longer than a poem they will need to be.


She stops dead so I know there’s something in the way. Perhaps it is a truck parked across the footpath and connected with what sounds like someone chopping wood. I call out but nobody answers. She won’t go on and she won’t go around, so we cross the road. But I want to find out what has spooked her here at the corner of the domain. We retrace our steps with a helpful young man who can see no obstacle and nobody chopping, just the swift brush of olive trees in need of a street-side trim. She takes us through the problem stretch, clearly no longer a problem. I thank the young man, who was on his way to meet friends kayaking around North Head, and tell him we’ll be fine from here. And so we should be, but at the next crossing she takes us on what turns out to be a diagonal, and suddenly I realise the street and the fall of afternoon light is all wrong. We get out of this by going back to the corner and reconnecting with familiar patterns. Later I realise that a car parked too close to the corner has confused her, turning ‘straight across’ into something longer and less useful. Later still I realise that the sound of chopping wood is the bowling machine at the edge of the domain firing out cricket balls that someone is hitting into the nets. She’s been trained to look for hazards. Good girl.


Two kingfishers are drilling a hole in the trunk of a phoenix palm to make a nest. They take turns flying straight at one spot on the fibrous boll below the crown. Over and over, bang, bang, bang. Beak-punching sorties from the chimney top of the old villa all afternoon and most of the next day too. The clutch will be safe from predators but the work is surely more arduous than burrowing into a soft clay bank. Today we can see no sign of them so perhaps nesting has started among the stubs of cut-off fronds. I pass my hand across light coming in through the window. There it is, my hand, a moving shape against the light. The cat jumps on me and I see the outline of a happy tail as she begins to purr and tread. I did not see the sharp white edge of the wall I walked into a week ago or the dramatic eyeshadow produced by the bump it made on my brow bone. Ouch. Note to self: move more carefully around the house. I do not see the white sand I swim towards or fallen jacaranda blossom under my feet. Note the second: say these things anyway. Words bring them back. The flash of reflected light in the hallway that shows me the top edge of the oval mirror we laid on its side so long ago. The walls sponged yellow and stencilled with seahorses and flying fish. A kingfisher calls from the power lines.


A homage to Tessa Laird’s Rainbow Reader, liking very much the saturations of thought her six pack renders, colour by colour, art and memory, each essay printed on the colour it talks about, all six bound in a single volume. I turn back the years. Visual purple is rhodopsin. Rhodopsin is rose sight. Or Odette de Crécy in the Bois de Boulogne, painting the retinas of her admirers lilac reflected from every detail of her incarnation as Madame Swann. Look. A narrow headband of violets with long floating veils and a lilac parasol. Look. Letting trail behind her the long train of her lilac skirt. Look. Those great sad eyes. Look. Crowned with a close-fitting lilac bonnet, or with a tiny hat from which rose stiffly above her head a single iris.


In he comes, bouncing and sweaty, to borrow a towel and go swimming at Duders. Voice out front, key in the lock, just passing through. A voice on the phone from an airport far away, saying early morning is the time to go and see the ruins outside the city when there’s no one else around. One heading for the beach each morning with a thermos of coffee and that same ragged towel. Breakfast. The other drinking something from a coconut on a beach in Mexico. One in this city, one in that city, two brothers crossing the sea. Camper vans gather down at the bay. Two people sit with their feet in the waves, looking out to sea and drinking wine from glasses they fill from the bottle hung off the side of their aluminium deckchairs. The house at the corner has been flying a tricoleur since the Paris attacks. The house next to it is flying a flag that says Happy New Year. Here’s a man walking up the street dripping wet and asking if he can stick his nose into the buzzing magnolia flowers at the gate.


It looks as though the kingfishers have abandoned their plan to nest in the phoenix palm. No sign of them after the storm. But the float planes resume their flights, busy as ever. This one has black floats and comes from Vancouver. That one has white floats and comes from Oregon. Those were trips to fishing lodges or mountain lakes. These are trips to bays and islands. Here’s Christian Bök performing Seahorses and Flying fish. Here he is performing The Extremophile. And here is the sub-foveal implant that asks the brain to decode lines and greyscale images at 1500 pixels. Beautiful thinking. The violet ray gun of her eyes. In galleries or in window displays. Two Equal Texts.


Daylight hours. All this time the disattend track persists. Beating on the door of the next world. Out of reach out of mind. Like a hammer on a stone. Morse code. Rattles in the trees. He ran outside and held up a tuning fork, driven to distraction by the monotony of the backing alarm. Sing better, call better, he told them. Sounds like someone knocking a spoon on a glass eighty five years ago. Twenty minutes past nine and they have sung their last cantata. Spoon on a glass. Those pure notes in the dark. Or ninety six years. Salve domina.


The dream. I am on the ship again. We are leaving, the white cliffs falling astern and if I had known how to swim I would have jumped overboard right there and then. To get back, to not leave. This is the dream that will not let me go. I am in the water, swimming back, swimming home. Right there and then. Here, now, always. Between two waves of the sea. Who are these like stars appearing? They are my cliffs and I am going home. Who are these of dazzling brightness? They are my people and I bring them with me.


Here is a woman on the sand in her deckchair, morning coffee in hand and reading a book. Not a breath of wind. Here is a truck called Agamemnon. Are you sure about that? And the gold domes of the Sikh temple. Black Dog Furniture ( ‘in Dog we trust’). The tea garden and memorial arbour (u or no u?). Bessie Smith singing ‘Send Me to the Lectric Chair’. Joe Simon singing ‘Nine Pound Steel’. Merle Haggard, ‘Sing Me Back Home’. The hills, the gorge, the coast. Works on paper. A glass case full of birds. Racks full of mountains. The painting in its gilt frame so big I can barely measure it with outstretched arms. People in the river, water going uphill, sunlit foliage touched with gold, cone mountain right up the back. Where it stays all night behind low cloud. Where we took them back to the bush walk and left them there so long ago. Better than a memorial, sweeter than a bellbird in the morning sun. Sometimes the sounds are so loud everyone must surely hear them and say. Will he be home for lunch? Is she out on the path? The movie camera whirrs. The phone clicks. Somewhere between here and Alpha Centauri. Two parrots courting in the magnolia. Sweet Ban Jo. The reader has packed up her chair and gone. Light airs.


He stopped to say he was releasing a bee trapped by a web in the magnolia yesterday. Happy bee. Not so happy spider. Lavender trimmings giving up their last gasp. Those clucks from behind the fence again. That dog running the fence-line. Some chance concatenation, where I’m deleting lines with character spaces to hear the lines clearly. Space space space return. But we will protect the sac of spiderlings. Time pips for the top of the hour. The radio goes off. No news to speak of. Hibiscus flower juice, white peach. Sweet William next door learning to catch a ball, good boy, good boy. The float planes come and go. Patti Smith stands outside the great blue walls of Frida Kahlo’s house.


Blind swimming. Let your hands find each doorway, let your fingers trail the edges of furniture, the tops of balustrades and the walls of hallways with their punctuating spaces. Where there is space you may pass, taking care not to move too swiftly or beyond the compass of your hands swinging from that moment to this. You will be fine but don’t daydream and lose the sense of where you are. Everything is very close. This is useful but now you must find ways to extend your reach. One of these could be swimming. After all there are fewer obstacles and no steps to fall down in the water. There is however the problem of too much space and no punctuation. You set a course and push off, swimming in a more or less straight line. Except that it’s not straight and a second swimmer is needed, someone to tail you and call out course corrections. Eleven o’clock, he says. One o’clock, he says. One o’clock, meaning the left arm isn’t holding its own. Eleven o’clock, meaning put more into the right arm. And keep kicking. Keep counting. There is nothing better in the world than a body slipping through water. Eleven o’clock, eleven o’clock, he says. We are nearly at the buoy. Why is it never twelve o’clock except in the silence of a straight line. Keep kicking. Keep counting. Every surface is a space to pass through.


I saw my hand against a sunlit wall. Just for a moment.


Something brushes against the side of my head. Perturbation. I don’t know what it is until someone calls. Some outside force. They are taking down Christmas lights outside the Victoria Theatre. In magenta. Yes, voices up ladders and the scrape of metal on pavement. Should also sculpt. No problem for the dog who threads her way through the maze, unconcerned by the string of lights descending in a gentle loop. The orbits of objects. Brushing the side of my face. That swoop. Look out. Into the solar system. Swinging arcs of light. From above and below. A voice that soothes the terrified child, bringing him back from the bee sting, the bump on the head, the fall from his mother’s arms. Nearly orthogonal. A cold caller and his utility broom whisking around the veranda, the doorframe where I am standing, the mat, the step, the path. To the ecliptic. Not today I say but he has more luck next door. Their perihelia. Voices and laughter, the study of happiness, the most planety planet of all on its 20,000 year loop around the sun. Physically clustered in space. Something brushes the side of my head. Imagenta.

Imagenta. Something brushes the side of my head. Physically clustered in space. Voices and laughter, the study of happiness, the most planety planet of all on its 20,000 year loop around the sun. Their perihelia. Not today I say but he has more luck next door. To the ecliptic. A cold caller and his utility broom whisking around the veranda, the doorframe where I am standing, the mat, the step, the path. Nearly orthogonal. A voice that soothes the terrified child, bringing him back from the bee sting, the bump on the head, the fall from his mother’s arms. From above and below. Swinging arcs of light. Into the solar system. Look out. That swoop. Brushing the side of my face. The orbits of objects. No problem for the dog who threads her way through the maze, unconcerned by the string of lights descending in a gentle loop. Should also sculpt. Yes, voices up ladders and the scrape of metal on pavement. In magenta. They are taking down Christmas lights outside the Victoria Theatre. Some outside force. I don’t know what it is until someone calls. Perturbation. Something brushes against the side of my head.


Rose a single iris. Stiffly above her head. Halo is. A single iris. As halo does. Rose above her head. Sounds of another roof coming off. Hammers wrenching old iron. A man runs by singing at the top of his voice. A beam of light shoots from an old volcano, the whole city watching beside its beach fires. Halo is as halo does but sometimes truly orthogonal to the ecliptic. Where are your irises now? Where is the single rose? On the beach with everyone else and the kids on the raft trying to sink it under their combined weight. The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. A man in a boat with a fan hangs in the air below a wing that is taking him out to sea. A goatherd pipes his flock along the early morning streets of Paris. A man in faded orange overalls walks out on the wharf for a swim. Small fish are running and the wharf is crowded with fishermen throwing piper into their buckets. What is truly orthogonal and how do you hold it there? A woman comes out of her door with an iron pot and the piper milks one of his goats for her. All that’s missing from the flying boat are oars to row the air and flags at bow and stern.


They are out on the point having a quiet beer in the dark, the young men who grew up here and like to revisit old haunts. The moon is up, the evening is calm and free. Boats row out of the harbour with wings of fire. A door opens and a crowd of old people pours across the road down the steps and into the sea whooping and hollering. How old? I ask. Very old, he says, the young man who is telling the story. They were ocean swimmers on a midnight training run following the path of the moon towards North Head. He swears they were every one of them naked. Not that you could see much. But it makes a change from the parrot man and his two companions in their large hats. Or the woman in her sackcloth rummaging the bins at night with old Charlie. Or Walkie Talkie striding the pavements ceaselessly, once in a hoodie they were too scared to reclaim. Or the woman in tulle pushing her pram about the streets when they were little, her daughters dressed as fairies. The stencilled monarch butterflies that appeared in bus shelters and on walls one night when nobody was looking. The pink and purple house. The salt devils. The wooden toys and the palm tree mugs sitting on the kitchen hatch. This evening a pack of Sea Scouts is rafting up in the waves, shrill voices of children scrambling from one kayak to the next then it all falls apart as someone goes into the water. Shrieks of delight from the other side. This morning one of the float planes is taxiing across the harbour beside us, then the pilot opens the throttle and it takes off into the light breeze from the south.


I saw the Maori Jesus walking on Wellington harbour but his pool in the shadow of the museum was drained for repairs and the words were no longer lapped in fishscale light. I saw John Baxter in the pool ecstatic in arcs of water he was splashing over his father’s words on the day the writers’ walk opened. I heard the mihi that was sending Wellington harbour over the father’s words. I heard the camera catch water light and send it to the eyes of beholders who were a great crowd on the waterfront that day. We took the train as far as Woburn, crossed the platform and came back along the side of the harbour. We took the ferry to Day’s Bay and back riding on the top deck and talking about other excursions. We had a dance at the mardi gras and kept walking along the waterfront to Roseneath. When we turned back there was the young woman walking towards us with bags full of produce from the market. Look, holes, she said.


We know what the dog of tears will do next, he who has been trailing the woman standing on the balcony looking up at the sky. She is the woman who wept, he is the dog who licked away her tears. They have gone on like this for some time, the only woman who can see and the dog who is now more human than he wants to be. His nails scratch the wooden floor. His belly is as empty as everyone else’s but he does not mind. He is walking towards the woman on the balcony. When he reaches her she will bring her eyes down to look at the ruined city and become blind. Everyone else will have their eyes back. She will have the dog of tears. The dog will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. There they are, the dog of tears and the woman who wept. His nails click on the rough stones. She who can no longer see begins to tell a story. They pass the street of crocodiles, the pool of tears, the hill of forty days and the hill of forty nights. They pass the little seahorse in its salty pool. They pass a white rose, a black swan, a blue biddy. The dog kills another hen and they roast it over a small fire. They can hear the sea, its fronding on smooth sand, its talking against rocks, its clapotis bouncing off stone walls. What might we not do with the hot bones dripping fat, she says. Two birds rise into the air on wings the colour of ash. Did you hear that she asks the dog licking away the salt on her cheeks.


Meadows and Lila, a romance. He builds bridges and harbours. She crosses them, one and all, the cantilevers, the lucid surfaces. Chatwell Basin, Connaught Tunnel, Howrah Bridge. Trains cross the Indus on his narrow gauge tracks. She comes home around the moon and tells him of the whales she saw in the southern ocean and the leopard seal stretched out just now on the deck of a swimming pontoon. When we got there artists were already preparing to put the harbour on paper, she says. Here is the bay where the Frenchmen came in with their astrolabe, a secret history. Here is the cliff where pohutukawa walked into the water. And here is the point of no return, when everything began to run backwards and could not be saved at all. Enchanted Lila, and the bridges Meadows builds across such chasms as she can bear to describe to him. The bay of tears. The house of cards. A view northwest, a view northeast. Mama’s album and the sagacity of bees. Mr Ashworth saying draw what is there in front of you. A mantis has snatched a wasp from the air and is chewing off its head. A mantis, all wings and outstretched claws, is fending off a blackbird. Meadows has seen her sketchbook and knows what he must do. Another seal is lounging on the groynes across the river mouth. I will build the bridges, he tells her. I will construct the harbour works. He is a man of vision. She is a body of water.


The boy in his green turban the girl in her purple tunic dancing around each other under the old clock on the waterfront. Voices float in the morning air. One says, I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. The other replies, It is a bowl that one fills and fills.

Note: Here is the compass rose with its 32 points of wind and some constellating figures going round in circles. Someone walks towards a blackout that seems perpetually delayed by voices on every side refusing to let up or let go. Perhaps this is a future. Borrowings and influences occur throughout. Thanks Rita Angus, Hugo Ball, Christian Bök, Jorge Luis Borges, Pam Brown, Alan Brunton, TS Eliot, James and Robin Fryer, Ida Gaskin, Mary Gauthier, Ernest Hemingway, Lila Hobson and Meadows Rendel, James Joyce, Tessa Laird, David Lees, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ern Malley, Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, José Saramago, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, and anyone else I might have missed inadvertently.

Go back to the start of [»»] Figures in the Distance

Go back to the start of [»»] The Looking Glass


Michele Leggott was the inaugural New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007-09 and received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. Her collections include Heartland (2014) and Mirabile Dictu (2009), both from Auckland University Press. She coordinates the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) with Brian Flaherty at the University of Auckland, and has co-edited Alan Brunton’s selected poems, Beyond the Ohlala Mountains (Titus Books 2013) with Martin Edmond.


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