Cremation Blues

You were always good at shaking hands
with goodbye; and now you’ve done it.
That smoke-curl signature of your body on air,
not to put too fine a word on it; soul’s code
you once said: those ‘cremation blues’,
how you were always writing a long life
for the quickly dead.

Your ex-wife a late arrival; staring
down at her empty hands, small pips
of breath teasing her veil, she says
ghosting the air, she’ll ask now
for no more than the simple
justice of eating.

On leaving, I swear I can hear
on the bronze bell of the air
how all these long years your
words were strangers to yourself.
And so you learned to spy
on the waking dreams of others.

Long night palavers, we were hoping
for a clue or more – how death itself
makes life so liveable, incurably so,
and loveable you said, tossing your hat
into the air. Like kissing the widow’s
spoon that again and again caressed
her generous mouth. And you did that.

Michael Harlow has published six books of poetry, most recently Giotto’s Elephant, which was a finalist in the national Book Awards in 1991. He has also published short prose in various literary periodicals and anthologies. The Katherine Mansfield Fellow to Menton, France in 1986, he was in 1991 the New Zealand-Australia Literary Exchange Fellow. He has written a short film, Heavy Traffic in the Dark, in collaboration with film-maker Stephanie Donald. Most recently, working with the NZ-Suisse composer Kit Powell, he wrote the libretto for a Performance work, The Tower of Babel, which was presented at the International Arts Festival in St Petersburg, Russia in 1995. He was an editor at Landfall magazine for some 10 years, and edited the Caxton Press New Poetry series. At present, he lives and works in Central Otago as a writer and Jungian Analytical Psychotherapist. He has just completed a new book of poems and short prose texts, Cassandra’s Daughter.

Harlow comments: ‘From where . . . does the poem spring? Such a mysterious question; any answer seems almost always just as mysterious. It’s “okay not to know”, but sometimes there are traces, tracks of a poem’s beginnings, usually for me a place called “inside the alphabet” – that is, inside the language: a word (or words) – once you get it down – that wants other words to sidle up, or fly to it; a phrase that sits in the ear, a line-of-thought you’ve read or heard somewhere that sometimes clamours for attention. There’s a great, rich word-hoard out there in the world, and in our inner-world, of course, that we’ve been collecting ever since whenever; and keeping close (you could even say “intimate”) company with it is, I think, one way of being inside the alphabet. And so it was with “Cremation Blues” that began with “Creation” Blues: I’d been listening to some Blues music, and around the same time reading a book about the early death of one of Darwin’s daughters, and so began to think more about a friend’s death some years ago and the cremation ceremony (lots of musical helloes and goodbyes). And in thinking about my friend’s death, and Darwin’s loss, and the inevitable process of life and death – and naturally enough my own place in the queue – the words/phrase (or something like it to begin with) took shape and sound – uh huh, “it’s death of course that makes life so liveable” (thank you, Darwin, and my friend). And when I jotted it down in my notebook, the word “loveable” wanted to get in there alongside “liveable”. And since I don’t mind trusting the language (and of course the unconscious), it did; and not so curiously, I guess, so did “Creation”. And that was the beginning notebook entry that eventually gave shape and sound to the poem, which probably went through a dozen or so rewrites.

Note: the “widow’s spoon” emigrated from quite another notebook jotting when my friend’s “ex-wife”/widow appeared in the poem at graveside and said what she said (or so I imagined) about the “simple justice of eating”. Sometimes (if you give them an opportunity) words do fly to each other with, almost, astonishing ease.’

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New Zealand Book Council writer file
Poetry New Zealand