Always Saying Sorry
(an email from Kate)
Well, sorry anyway I was a grump
this morning. All the time in fact. You know
I really love you. You’re no rubbish dump.
It’s just at home when I am really low
it's suffocating, and I feel like
you make more mess for me to have to clean.
I know I get to hang out with the tyke.
I'm grateful that I can. But does that mean
the rest of my existence has to be
discounted? I'm exhausted all the time,
and tired of never having money. We
are wasting our potential. Still. So I'm
depressed, stuck here while time just disappears.
I realise it's been like this for years.
Listen to Nick Ascroft read ‘Always Saying Sorry’
Nick Ascroft was born in Oamaru in the 1970s and now lives in Wellington, still in the 1970s. He has five collections of poetry available through Te Herenga Waka University Press, the most recent of which, The Stupefying (2022), was named best New Zealand poetry book of the year by Steve Braunias for Newsroom.
Nick comments: 'This is not the easiest poem to talk about. I'll deal with the facts first. In February of 2019, when our son was one and a half, Kate (my wife—at the time) sent me an email after dropping the kid at day care. He had wailed and wept when she left. The email wasn't entirely full of despair, but the despair was well articulated. She had been angry at me in the morning, and part of the email was an apology. I replied with my usual upbeat pep talk but ended my email: "PS I would actually like to turn your email into a poem ... but is it too revealing to be public?" Kate excitedly agreed, and I squelched one paragraph into a sonnet, editing, abridging and paraphrasing so that it was rhyming iambic pentameter. She liked the result ("Oh it’s like you didn’t even change my words and I’m a genius"), but it was agreed I wouldn't publish it, or wouldn't yet. A year later, still fond of this odd little sonnet, I asked Kate if the embargo could be lifted. She agreed. I am very grateful that she remains supportive of the poem.
What did I change? The email said "Anyways, sorry I was grump this morning. Well, all the time actually." To make the rhythm go b'DAH b'DAH b'DAH, etc (that is, all in iambs) this line became: "Well, sorry anyway I was a grump / this morning. All the time in fact." Another example. Kate: "It’s like I know I should be grateful I get to hang out with Ames while he is little but just because I am truly grateful for that, does that mean that the rest of my existence has to be shit and discounted?" Poem: "I know I get to hang out with the tyke. / I'm grateful that I can. But does that mean / the rest of my existence has to be / discounted?" We always called him ‘the tyke’—odd word as that is—so this particular paraphrase still felt to me like Kate’s voice. The title itself came from this line: ‘It’s like I’m a husband beater upper-er … always saying sorry and repeating the behaviour.’
There's definitely something obnoxious in rewriting someone else's email. It's perhaps not an appropriate impulse, but I've tried a few times since then as well. To my mind by engaging with someone else's text in this way I am really reading what they are saying. I'm not necessarily having a response to it, but I'm enjoying their expression or story.
I get that it sounds a little cold-blooded. And that's part of the reason I like this poem. I am too phlegmatic to express my feelings with anything like the emotional articulation that Kate has. So instead I have bottled it, "commodified" the emotional expression as I said to her when I first sent it.
Since being published in The Stupefying last year, "Always Saying Sorry" has been commented on by a few. Kim Hill asked me directly about it live on air: "How did you feel when you received that email?" I replied with some evasion. But what did I feel? I still can’t articulate it with any satisfactory shape. I wanted things to be better.
One thing in the poem is the mention of money. The first couple of years of having a kid make most people very poor. We had gotten into credit card debt, then folded the debt onto a loan and cut the cards up. There was a hard adjustment to living within our means. Counting the price of every apple is miserable. People often say, I can’t afford to have a kid yet. Then they think, ah well. We’ll make it work. The first impulse is right. With the cost of living rising steeply, I feel a panic at the thought of what seems to be an unavoidable return to that level of restriction. I am also preparing myself to send an upbeat pep talk to (now my co-parent) Kate on this.'