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Beside the Laughing Kitchen

I’ve been past the unbelievable planet:
Slabs of nostalgia, the soft skin of memory

Disruptive days, now swiftly approaching
For a stolen second I was myself again

I’ve been squeezing out the careful old songs
Eyes up looking, lights down dancing

Irregular obsession, beside the laughing kitchen
Tell me again, in empty eyelid sleep

Just how you got here: overgrown and delicate
Anxiously correct in curtained ballrooms


‘Beside the Laughing Kitchen’ is the poem I contributed to Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, which was edited by Mark Pirie and Tim Jones and published by Australian Publisher ‘Interactive Press’.

I am posting a science fiction poem because this weekend, it’s ‘Au Contraire’ – the 2010 New Zealand Science Fiction Convention, and on Sunday at 3pm, I will be joining Tim Jones and Harvey Molloy there for a panel discussion on science fiction poetry.   The Convention takes place at the Quality Hotel in Wellington over 27-29 August 2010 and costs $60 for the full three days or $40 for a single day ($30 & $20 if you’re unwaged).  You can read the programme (which includes a number of writing workshops) here

A while ago, I blogged about the benefits of constraints in poetry – using specific poetic forms.  The challenge, of course, is to make it look as though the poem is something that just occurred to you and quite naturally happened to come out as a villanelle or a sestina, rather than looking as though you’ve just spent the last 14 hours struggling with the third line.  Or worse, looking like you’ve chosen the words to suit the form, forcing them into places they don’t naturally fit, like glass slippers on Cinderella’s ugly sisters.

(For a fine example of something that looks like the poet just thought of it, read Sam Hunt’s “My Father Scything” which starts:

“My father was sixty when I was born,
twice my mother’s age, but he’s never been
around very much…”

I’d read this poem dozens of times before I noticed it’s a proper sonnet with 14 lines (8 + 6) and a subtle rhyme scheme (often half rhymes, like born/been above).  I can only marvel. (And by the way, I saw Sam Hunt: Purple Balloon at the Film Festival recently and it was great!)

There are three books I’ve found particularly helpful with respect to “formal” poetry – poetry that follows a particular form (like a sonnet): The Making of A Poem by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, and The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco.

Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s book is a wonderful in-depth look at several different forms, generously sprinkled with excellent examples of each.  Lewis Turco’s is a great reference book – he’s gone for breadth more than depth (but still includes some examples) and covers all manner of poetic terminology I’d never come across before…

…like Sapphic stanzas, where each stanza (verse) in the poem has 4 lines with a particular mix of stressed and unstressed syllables.  The first three lines go:

dum-ty dum-ty dum-ditty dum-ty dum-ty

and the fourth line goes:

dum-ditty dum-ty

(or in technical terms:

trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
dactyl, trochee)

An English example of this is ‘Sapphics’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
Saw the reluctant. . .

and so forth.

I’ve been struggling for days now to write a poem in Sapphic stanzas and have just about managed to get the first verse into a decent-ish sort of shape (though when I look at it again tomorrow, I may feel differently).  Quite a challenge getting the stresses right, but at least it doesn’t have to rhyme. 

So, if you’re looking for inspiration or just want a good poetic work-out, or your poem isn’t working in its current incarnation – may I recommend Sapphic stanzas!

Le Dormeur du Val

C’est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme.
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

                                    Arthur Rimbaud 1870

English Translation – The Valley’s Sleeper

It’s a hollow of green, where a river sings
Crazily hanging its silvery rags on the foliage
Where the sun from the proud mountain
Shines: it’s a little valley, frothing with sunshine.

A young soldier sleeps, open-mouthed, bare-headed
And the nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress;
He is stretched out on the grass, under the sky,
Pale in his green bed, where the light rains upon him

His feet amongst the gladioli, he sleeps.  Smiling
The way a poorly child would smile; he is napping:
Nature, hold him warmly: he is cold.

Perfumes no longer make his nose quiver;
He sleeps in the sunshine, his hand on his chest,
Tranquil.  He has two red holes in his right side.

Arthur Rimbaud 1872

This is one of two French poems I learnt at school (for the Alliance Française competition, I think).  Apparently Rimbaud was only sixteen when he wrote it.   It paints a lovely, peaceful picture of a young soldier sleeping – until we get to the last line and find out about the two red wounds.

As is often the case, a lot is lost in the translation (like the rhyme scheme and the fact that the word ‘trou’ is used both at the start and the end of the poem, each time with a different meaning – the hole or hollow of the valley versus the hole a bullet makes). 

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) was born in Charleville, in the Ardennes in France.  He was known as a libertine and part of the “decadent movement”, producing his best known works while still in his late teens.   He travelled extensively, had a scandalous love affair with Paul Verlaine (who at one point shot him in the wrist), hung around with other poets on the boulevard Saint-Michel, and indulged in absinthe and hashish.  By the age of 21, he had given up writing poetry and later spent some time as a gun runner in Africa.  He died from cancer at only 37.

Trichotillomania  by Janis Freegard

she plucks out
each eyebrow hair
one by one
with platinum tweezers

and stands them up
on the black lacquer dressing table:
her row of soldiers
first line of defence

above them, framed
in the oblong mirror:
her deforested forehead
wondering eyes
inconsequential nose
the fleshy lips protected
by a layer of down
(now that would have to go)
her smooth neck
her far too animal body

Another of mine this time – this one was first published in Blackmail Press 13 and reprinted in AUP New Poets 3.



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