Poetry by Michael Harlow

"In the company of map makers you are one"

It seems to me that one of the best things to do with a Laureate blog is to give air time to a fellow poet one admires – as I do now with Michael Harlow. And what better time to do it, with his taking part in Writers and Readers Week next month in Wellington, and the publication shortly of Sweeping the Courtyard, his selected poems, due from Cold Hub Press. A collection of his love poems, Heart absolutely I can, will also shortly appear from the recently established Makaro Press in Wellington.

My own regard for his work is put in a jacket note for that volume, where I recall first reading him soon after he settled here back in the 1970s, when 'his impact had much to do with the distance between what anyone else here was interested in doing, and his going about his own poetry in a way that seemed both singular and confident.' That, even more so, is my view when I now read him at length in his Selected Poems, and recall his own credo – 'the rich delight' as he calls it, of a poet's 'looking out and listening-in for a language to say something about how mysterious we are to ourselves and to the world.'

Black and white portrait of poet Michael Harlow, who is bearded and wearing his watch around the wrong way.
Photo by the Otago Daily Times.

As well as his own poems, I’ve asked him to choose three of his favourite poems by other writers – one is by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who died in 1549, another by Wallace Stevens, published over ninety years ago, and the third by Emma Neale, from her 2012 collection, The Truth Garden.


The company of map makers

In the company of map makers you are one.
   When you lay out the world there are no
straight lines. There is only clamouring for it
   in occluded offices where high words plump
for the 'straight and narrow', and are bluster.

   The only rule that's truly to itself is clear:
turn, and follow the stories. And the stories inside
   them is what map makers do. To know how
mind’s thought feels its way through dark,
   and the light of the dark. To see what it feels like

to follow earth's curve the shape of what you
   imagine, and are imagined by. An art to make
any surprise a wonder. There is laughter buried
   here. To follow the song of hurrying water,
to recall the 'river of rivers' rushing to the sea
   to lose its name, then returning to take another.

In word-struck lines of optic infatuation you are
   mapping the territory to make the invisible, visible.
To know how the imposing impossible is possible,
   when it is like this: 'the air is full of flying children';
and trees are so musical they are always scoring
   'harmonies of a heaven'. And to know the turbulence

of women, and then their quietude – is to find a place
   to be, and being what is in us to attain. When you say
there is no one thing naturally alone on either side
   of the great divide – to map that, is no sophistical aside.
That finally you would like to 'die with life'. And to know
   today’s map is tomorrow the same, but always different.

– Michael Harlow


They Flee From Me

Read "They Flee From Me"

– Thomas Wyatt


All about the world

Last week
my friend’s daughter Cassandra
asked me in a small voice of wonder,
if I wouldn’t mind could I tell her
all about the world?

Today she
telephoned and said I’m going to tell you
about yesterday and about poetry, too,
since they had been hearing poetry at school

Uh huh, I said
because I couldn’t think of anything else
to say, and besides it had been hard work
not telling her all about the world

She said then
lowering her voice, letting me in on a big
one, Poetry is when words sing. And then she
added since she was in that kind of hurry
to catch up with tomorrow

About one hundred years
from now trees will be called very important
people. I could hear that already she knew enough
of all about the world to keep her singing.

– Michael Harlow


The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Read "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

– Wallace Stephens, read by Tom O'Bedlam


Today is the piano’s birthday

        Today is the piano’s birthday. Yesterday it was found weeping
in the garden. Mother was not there, father was gone. But today
is the piano’s birthday...

        Under the balalaika tree the children touch it. The piano’s
foot-pedals hum.

        Hurrah! shout the children. The piano is on holiday! They sing
the birthday song. They bound up and down. They strike the exact
note without looking, without looking the piano writes a song for
the children...

        Plinking, planking, plonk – the piano conducts the children through
a small wood of ivory. The children sing with their feet. They call
to mother who is dreaming on the lawn, to father who is at the office
polishing his machines...

        The piano falls into a dream. The children listen. From far off,
birds with the faces of women enter the garden. They lie down.
They call to the children. The children listen. They lean into
the darkness. They decide. They curl inside the piano’s birthday.
The children are the size of a crotchet. The piano grows around them.

        The piano is being dreamed. The children are the stories.
They are listening... to mother wake on the lawn and touch the space
around her... to father close the office door...

        And today is the piano’s birthday.

        If we listen – we can hear mother call them, we can hear father
enter the house, carefully. If we listen – we can hear the very first
song the children sing, the very first dream the piano dreams...
we can hear... mother and father touch each other with wonder...

– Michael Harlow


On the death of a daughter

Nowadays often he finds himself down at the river
with fishing rods and home-made lures
that dance as colour-drenched and flamboyant
as an opera diva’s earrings
though the gear, and the catch (if any) aren’t the point.

He goes because he has to.
Because sometimes a twig floats by,
or a bird jags past,
or a dragonfly balances
on thin air.

And it’s -
            he cannot finish what it is.

Yet in this still room
we feel the river move on and on
as if there were comfort
in something pushing forward from its source,
always forward,
light gleaming on its surface instant after instant,
each sudden vision – leaf, water-beetle, seed-pod -
a match that is struck against a deep-running dark.

– Emma Neale

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great to hear Wyatt, a poet new to me.

Fluffygeorge.co.nz aka Sue Heggie

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