Michele Leggott: Telling Detail

  Michele Leggott

  Telling Detail

  Four prose poems
robin doing his drawing

On the table in front of him stand three jars of plum and apple jelly. Transparent, weightless, luminous. They glow like rubies, their cellophane tops curved and immaculate. Around him flows the conversation that has brought them from the top of the fridge to the old wooden table, but he is not listening. Marbles, japonicas, pearls. Winter light pours into the small room with large windows on all sides, making it a ship’s cabin complete with ladder, sleeping loft and a kitchen hatch. He cannot draw the hot sweetness of the scones coming out of the oven or how they warm the teatowel they are wrapped in. But he has the palm tree mugs on the hatch, their handles to the left, waiting to be picked up and brought over with the teapot, the milk, the butter and the knives. Then they will ask him to choose a jar and he will pick the first one, uncurling its stuck down frill and pinging off the soft rubber band. Who will bring the plates from the cupboard over the bench? Who has left the back door open, letting in the cold, though perhaps it isn’t very cold yet. One key swings from the other in the new brass lock. Two black cats swirl through the house. The girl on the fridge throws herself into the sea of magnetic letters one more time. She is the word slinger, the one who might tell, the one who went into the sea.

The jelly makers, all women, were given a recipe and the seasonal fruit they would need to fill the 623 jars, each one inscribed with a single word. Plum. Guava. Crabapple. Pomegranate. Currant. Quince. They dated and named their jars, giving them back to the artist whose grandmother had written down the recipe they were using. Each red word illuminated its neighbour. On purpose-built shelves they made lines of words and none were dispensable or even interchangeable. They were locked into a grid called Spectacular Blossom to register the imprint of a red-flowering tree, Metrosideros excelsa, on its human co-dependents. They were on show. Each human eye found its saturation point, a line, a phrase or a single word. Each human hand indicated the red words it might reasonably expect to acquire and take away once looking was done. People paid for their selections and the blossom was dispersed, leaving a text full of holes on the gallery wall. We hummed. lucent ruins? scarlet spray? Can anyone choose? Then a cartel of six, intent on an interrogative project, swooped in and scooped the pool. They chose their words carefully, making up one line apiece in the manner of a composing stick, and the words went out the door to sit on other shelves. The artist was left with a sprezzatura of articles, definite and indefinite, and a few stray pronouns. She took them around to her grandmother, whose name was Mary Pohutukawa Redmond.

six voices answer some questions

My name is Iphigenia. I was led to an altar when the ships were becalmed at Aulis. My mother dressed me as a bride but my father wanted to marry me to death. He stood at the altar with a knife and would have used it except that Artemis the huntress took me from the sight of men and left in my place a white hind. Wind must have filled the sails of the thousand ships because they set out soon afterwards for Troy.

I am Jeptha’s daughter. I was given two months to roam the hills and weep with girls I would not see again. After that I came to the place of sacrifice where my father was waiting. Why does an old man require a girl’s blood? why does a god require holocaust? there are so many questions that I cannot begin to answer them. I am small. I am frightened. I am in the hands of my translators.

I am Sappho, of course. I asked my girls to paint themselves with flowers on the wall of a courtyard overlooking the sea. Milky waves, polished sand, dancing feet. They were my confidantes, a string of girls I called thiasos, meaning ten thousand things in the world if the string should break, each carrying a part of the whole. I did not throw myself off the white cliff at Leukadia. Trees bent down to the water there, and sometimes they dropped bright petals in the pools among the rocks.

My name is Iris Wilkinson. I jumped off Queen’s Wharf into the early winter water and was hauled out with boathooks. I looked at my friend’s drawing and saw my hair made over as pohutukawa stamens. I looked at rata blossom and saw red semen burning out littleness and shame. But what have I to do with such things? I can only laugh at all men and all gods, and blow by, light as a leaf, with my hair another echo of that ancient hidden flame.

My name is Jenifer Tole. I am the daughter of an architect, the niece of artists and musicians and I fell in love with a poet. My father pursued my mother across oceans to bring me home when I was a child. Our house above the breathless bay was full of aunts and uncles, paintings and singing, and I did not miss my mother very much. I walked into the sea each day in summer and saw nothing to make me afraid. When he wrote the poem I was amused and curious. I am not a victim.

I am the girl who died on the beach. I have many names but all of them end in water or blood. I am difficult to see except in slant words or the sad clothes returned to my family by a hospital. These you may burn.

the sooty altars

A pohutukawa in bloom is a girl walking into shallows that kiss like knives. A pohutukawa in bloom is an old man on his knees, shooting out semen or blood. Summer burns and mocks simple (single, singular) perception. Quick, she’ll be dead on time. Now she is going / For ever and astray. These dying ejaculate their bloom. So we must be in two places at once, or three, to make out what slips between one view and another. Three times voices cut in, dividing the poem, call and response or one voice answering itself. Are the victims always so beautiful? | always for this / They are chosen for their beauty. | Can anyone choose / And call it — beauty? — The victims are always beautiful. As a tree is beautiful, and we cut it down. As the three sections of the poem are aggregates of nine lines (three sets of three), except where The shallows kiss like knives, cutting away a line, letting the other voice answer the question of beauty. Count up the lines and see how one pattern works against the other: 9 + 1 + 8 + 2 + 9 + 3. They slide into each other, they fit perfectly. They tell us what to do and how to do it. A humid wind begins to blow the bloom from the trees. It is an ageless wind / / That loves with knives, it knows our need, it flows / Justly, simply as water greets the blood. What need is this, and who are we? Lovers? Killers? Readers? All three?

It is this poem, full of cuts and slides and recombination, that the artist found forty years later and has reconstituted in the name of her grandmother. The poet, now an old man, comes down from Tohunga Crescent to see for himself. The artist has not asked for the use of the words and he is fairly sure he would not have given permission if she had. His first intimation of trouble is a full colour picture in the newspaper showing a young woman bending close to read the lines of glowing red words on their shelves. Nearby are two other texts, also on shelves and bringing a pohutukawa into view, word by carefully preserved word. Quince. Currant. Pomegranate. Crabapple. Guava. Plum. She did not ask him. He did not control her. He could have had the show taken down. It was going out the door anyway, Spectacular Blossom dispersed, discussed, resited.

The back door is open, one key swinging from the other in the new brass lock. Down the old steps and along the path they go, past lemon trees, a tangelo and a mandarin. The drawing is done and they have come to the bottom of the garden to look at the old brick incinerator with pieces of broken cups and plates pressed into its cement. Pink and blue and green and a bit of willow pattern. A vernacular mosaic, a sooty altar. The words slip and rearrange themselves one more time. Metrosideros excelsa, she murmurs. Mother starry sublime.

eating detail

In this house by the sea we are eating the detail. It sits on top of the fridge waiting for a shelf that was dropped by to be put up. Too late though for the which lasted a week then (by election) the knives went in as the scones came out and a story about a girl who killed herself on Takapuna beach came floating down the road. Art is war. Metrosideros excelsa, you stand-out, what does detail do but cut out, it eats connection. Plum and apple jelly made 11 April 1996 by Juliet Collins. Emma writing girls on her own am jar. The girl on the fridge throwing herself into the magnetic letters again. Not that time but this one. Robin doing the drawing in pencil and feeling hungry when he finishes. What does detail eat, it eats connection. Now how hard would you push an excellent bloom? There were two drawings and she was given the second. If you have meant the flesh-locked fires burning out of those upward strokes. The Greek for heart and iron will get us to the beach, that one not this one. I thought I’d get the details as they came to light.



Transparent, weightless : Madeleine Peyroux, perf., ‘Half the Perfect World,’ Half the Perfect World. Rounder / Universal, 2006. Track 9. Lyrics Leonard Cohen, music Anjani Thomas, 2006.

Marbles, japonicas : Herman Melville, Moby Dick. London: Oxford UP, 1923. 226.

The jelly makers : See Elizabeth Eastman, ‘Still Room for Breaking Rules,’ Art NZ 84 (Sept 1997): 42-45. Rev. Of ‘Spectacular Blossom,’ an installation by Monique Redmond at ASA Gallery, Auckland, 14-30 May 1996.

lucent ruins : Allen Curnow, ‘Spectacular Blossom,’ NZ Listener (4 Feb 1955): 14. Rpt. Poems 1949-1957. Wellington: Mermaid, 1957. 22-23.

I looked at my friend’s drawing : See Robin Hyde, ‘To Sarin, who Drew a Tree and a Woman,’ Houses by the Sea. Ed. Gloria Rawlinson. Christchurch: Caxton, 1952. 82.

I looked at rata blossom : See Hyde, ‘Prometheus,’ Houses by the Sea, 106.

But what have I to do : Hyde, prose fragment. Iris Wilkinson Papers, MSS & Archives 1997/1/491. Special Collections, University of Auckland.

My father pursued : See ‘Mother and Child. Father in pursuit. Habeas Corpus proceedings,’ Sydney Morning Herald (19 Oct 1933): 11. Web. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1149758?zoomLevel=3

His first intimation : See Curnow, Letter to the editor, NZ Herald. (27 May 1996): 1.6.

In this house by the sea : Michele Leggott, ‘The Details We Love,’ Monica (Aug-Sept 1996): 16. Drawing by Robin Fryer, aged 7.

If you have meant : Hyde, ‘To Sarin,’ Houses by the Sea, 82.

Michele Leggott by Joanna Forsberg
Michele Leggott by Joanna Forsberg

Michele Joy Leggott MNZM (born 1956) is a New Zealand poet, and Professor of English at the University of Auckland. She was born in Stratford, New Zealand, and received her secondary education at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, before attending the University of Canterbury where she completed an MA in English in 1979. She then moved to Canada to do a PhD at the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation was on the American poet Louis Zukofsky and was published in America as Reading Zukovsky’s “80 Flowers” (1989). She was made Poet Laureate of New Zealand in 2007.

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