Poetry by Michael Jackson

Local poet

Several decades ago, Howard McNaughton described Michael Jackson’s Latitudes of Exile as 'recording the development of one of the most meticulous poets' in New Zealand writing. Jackson has written another thirty books of widely different kinds since then, and among them several that carry his particular style of essay, personal and learned and fearlessly direct. These, along with his collections of poetry, make him, to my mind, the most challenging and interesting of any New Zealander I think of as more or less my contemporary. Last year Martin Edmond wrote of his 'audacious intuition', reading him as 'one of our most astute, humane, idiosyncratic, neglected and perdurable writers.' What that claims for his prose, I would go along with for his poetry as well.


Photo by Brady Wagoner

Michael Jackson has spent most of his life as a professional anthropologist, and currently holds a distinguished Chair at Harvard. The curious and local penalty that he pays for this, and for a lifetime living and working in different cultures in a number of countries, is the judgment of one eminent New Zealand publisher that somehow this is at the cost of Jackson's being a New Zealander. What exemplary insular wank. I can't think of any New Zealand writer who strikes me as being more one of our own, or who has quarried so long and attentively at what it actually means to come from a particular place, to define its borders and its convictions, or to speak the mind it has shaped. When I wrote a note for the selection of his poems recorded for the UK Poetry Archive, what first struck me was how 'the notion of 'home', with its stir of resonances, is at the core of all he writes... It is what experience impresses and myth confirms.'

The poems you can now read here are from those most recently written, as his Selected Poems is soon to go to press. What I wrote about his earlier poems could as well for these:

Without ever submitting either to bland fashion or to clique, Jackson for almost fifty years has written poetry which is that of a man confronting 'the things happening' in his time, poems probing at that recurrent query, where does one take one’s place in 'the terrible parades of history'? What you hear in Jackson is a modest, confident, international voice. It is the conversing of a man who, as ever, takes one road to find another. I can't think of a more interesting thing for a writer to do, or more usefully to do as a New Zealander.

– Vincent O'Sullivan

The Patagonia Hare

All forms of hunting are forbidden
at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Claude Lanzmann sits by a barbed wire fence near Birkenau
as a man called Rudolf Vrba, who escaped the death camp,
talks to him.

As Vrba speaks, a hare, the color of the earth
burrows under the fence, then stops and sniffs the air
seeming to sense the menace of being there.

Later, Lanzmann says, ‘No one keeps count of them,
though they are many, and I have come to think of them
as the revenants of those who were murdered here.’

Now that the hares at Auschwitz are protected,
do they see us as their last best chance of an afterlife,
and return to this fence that marks the old perimeter
as we in turn imagine the dead returned to life in them
in this quiet field
where the summer breeze
barely disturbs the unmown grass
and a cortege of cloud moves slowly overhead
without casting a shadow?

Phoenix Palm

This morning I was thinking of that Phoenix palm
that kept the morning sun from our living room;

its inedible fruit snagged the motor mower blades;
it sucked the moisture from our lawn. I could have paid

to have it felled rather than become accustomed
to the gloom, but cut and lugged its dead fronds

to the dump, my arms spiked by its quills. We grew
used to it, like the clay soil in which you tried

and failed to grow a garden. Only now
does it occur to me how much we took on trust –

that country town in which we did not choose to live,
the kids you taught, my own professional loneliness,

but most of all each other, as if the days would not
draw in, and we would travel that moonlit valley road

and always find the river, strip, plunge in
to the tepid water, the flush of love on our bare skin

or light a fire in winter, brew a billy of black tea,
drink from chipped enamel mugs, and climb together

above the leatherwood and come upon a solitary
deer nuzzling the snow-smothered tussock.

Stories Happen

How many stories begin like this: 'At 5.30
he set off from home to the corner store
saying he would be back by 6.00...'?

You know immediately
that he never reached his destination
did not come back,
and that, between the poles
of home and world,
in a wilderness or city block
a story will be told and we will say, 'If only'
or 'Can you believe his luck?'

Yet everyone gets sidetracked
or overtaken, or disappears. There’s
always a traumatic or miraculous
encounter, waylaid by God
on a desert road or by someone
with whom you feel such kinship
you cannot tear yourself away.

When we recount the episode
we will say our life was changed
forever, that this was the worst
or best thing that ever happened to us,
as if we can divine
the difference between profit and loss,
can add up the interest, the dividend
that accrued from taking one road instead of another,
our arbitrary decision now deemed fortuitous
as we with the wisdom of hindsight congratulate ourselves
for seeing our way clear, for not allowing
distractions to interfere
with our well-laid plans, authors
of our own destinies, who carefully plot
the life of our own character
as if one of the dramatis personae
that a playwright might bring together or force
to go their separate ways, knowing
what’s good for them or best for us
who like to guess what unfolded between x and y
or was on our hero’s mind
when he turned at Lincoln instead of Dunne
answered a stranger’s request for directions,
or crossed the street against the lights.

(from Three Key West Poems)
2: The Idea of Wallace Stevens at Key West

I am walking beside the sea that fluttered its
empty sleeves and whose dark voice spoke
to one who made it an image of inconstancy.

On a coral key you cannot dig a grave,
therefore these whitewashed, stacked
sarcophagi. A tour bus passes as I try to read

the names through black iron railings, urns
with artificial flowers, decaying foliage;
a breath of wind in the bedraggled palms

like incessant rumor-mongering. Most
are Cuban names, names of those who
never made it back, but sat on wooden porches

in Olivia Street as roosters crowed,
chickens scratched, and the click and clack of dominoes
presaged their sepulchers,

bookending birth and death with a woman's name –
Mary Louise Baez ("the sunshine of our home")
or Angelina P Oropeza ("No greater mother ever lived"),

sentiments echoing in my head when I stop
at the Dollar Store on Truman Street for water,
glimpse the strip club opposite

called Bare Assets, and push on
to Reynolds Street where Wallace Stevens
wintered.

Only the sea remains the same,
its answering yet unavailing constancy
at the end of a nondescript suburban street,

no hint of money as "a kind of poetry,"
and the Casa Marina across from the tennis courts
like a prison for white collar criminals.

The same black wrought iron railing
that surrounds the cemetery encloses a white sand
private beach, but there's no Pale Ramon,

accompanying a business man in a Panama,
finding order in the ocean's ambiguity,
only a freshening wind

and a shrimp boat on the Gulf
as full throttle, jet skis buck the broken waves
and thunderclouds like anvils

build toward evening when they may
or may not break, and the man in espadrilles
and his ghostly companion pad back to their hotel

with an image in mind that will
in another generation overwhelm
a poet in the antipodes

inhaling the smell of kelp
and facing the same reality
of which direct knowledge is impossible.

Fieldwork

Even now they file at first light
through the elephant grass, along
the red path to their farms, leaving
me behind. I used to follow them
and ask if I could hoe or weed,
stack unburned branches beyond
the outer fence. They would
laugh outright, though some said I
could try my hand, knowing it would
provide for more amusement later
when I tried to keep in line.
At last I gave up going. I passed
the day learning new words from
women. At dusk the men returned
and granted me an hour or two of
conversation. 'Ask what you want
and we will tell you what we know,'
they said. And so I queried them
on this and that, and learned about
their farms that way, and what they did
among the trees along the ridge
at harvesting (a sacrifice to keep
the spirits off), and for a year
my work went well. But then I found
myself describing them with words
they would not use, and could not tell
the way the drummers held the line
that moved, hoeing and chanting,
down the further slope, or how
the pitch of women's voices flowed
across the valley as they closed
the earth. These gestures are
like rain. The crops will grow
out of these acts. There is no
book in it, no facts, no line
that leads to some result;
but it holds good like any truth
and I have learned to write as
they might sow, scything the grain
against the downhill wind. We
do not make it grow, we point the way.
In this I go along with them.

4 comments:

Juliet Batten said...

Well said. These are fine poems. I especially like Fieldwork. No-one tried to say that Katherine Mansfield was not a New Zealander. (Or did they?)

Anonymous said...

At last someone puts pen to paper to remind us all of the weight and worth and wonder of Michael Jackson's poetry and prose. Take his hugely prolific anthropological writings on board as well and we have surely a Nobel Prize winner here.
Who makes those submissions? Vincent?
Many thanks
Jennifer Shennan

Harvey Molloy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harvey Molloy said...

He is one of our finest poets. I have only recently started to read his work and I'm delighted by the richness of the poems, their keen intelligence and precision.