From the Notebook with the Paua Shell Swan

hullo death
is that you
with the hole in the head
or just another Picasso?



the letters are jumping
watch the words jump
as in McCahon




the leaves next door
are raging

how I love the world
and will be sad
to see it go



words have given me access
to the inside
of the inside
of the mind

whose mind?

the mine of the mind



god is dying in the desert of the mind
no god            no god

god is dying in the desert of the mind

no good           no god

god is dying in the desert of the mind
no god             no god




ward 81
late beyond any o’clock
‘what’s your name, nurse?’
and winnie: ‘sorry
not to have told you.’



on the white rose
in the green garden

the rose
should not mean
but be

the rain also



in Xanadu did Karlson Stead
a stately pleasure dome decree


thank god for the wound
you are stripped



remember the world
when it was new?

it’s old now

but full of reminders



I think
therefore I am

I think
therefore I think
I am

therefore I am
(I think)

and a voice
out of the nowhere
of your head:
‘oh darling
your dark days
are only beginning’



go walking
down cool green corridors

nurses are numbers /

is pain
is pen



you have become
the unencumbered
of the noun
and the verb



the train in the night
the rain on the roof


the train in the night
the rain on the roof





since the little river
in the dark interior
blocked or broke —
8 daze
and clearing



to make a note of
my best friend Shakespeare
met in a dream
carrying his
and ‘a vagabond
flag upon
a stream’



mort lock
mort lock
mort lock




choices     discriminations
this word  /  that word
meanings and their song

the mind as
source and sieve
the heart
hearing itself —

you’re alive, Karlson
you’re writing!



of men and of angels
sounding brass
and a tinkling cymbal

of men and of angels
sounding brass
and a tinkling symbol

but the JUMP
will move mountains



then I saw clearly
through a glass darkly
will be not-at-all

but the lordship of the word
is for ever



every man is an island

do not therefore ask
for whom the head aches

it aches for thee



the lore
long ago learned
is the loam


is the loom


and the lordship of the word
is for ever



no wish
to be part of the past
fuck history
give me the now
give me it



on the drenched day)
and the bro in the next ward
‘nurse —
any chance of a smoke?’



and mid-may’s eldest child
the tui
full of chips of sound

(and full of remainders)



when it comes to
Menton     Uzes     Rapallo
is future tense
and may deceive

we call it hope



hullo Mum

yes it is
it’s me
couldn’t you tell?

I know but I’m old
you see
and not very well



to walk out on
the comfort
of my own body



a clean sheet?
life’s rough on the sheets

and would I want to be dying
(if I were dying)
regretting anything
but the things not done?



faith    hope    the JUMP
these three abide
and the greatest of these
is the JUMP

C. K. Stead's novel My Name was Judas was published late last year, here (Random House, Vintage) and in the UK (Random House, Harvill Secker), and his new book of poems, The Black River, is published this month from Auckland University Press. He has just been made a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

The following essay by Stead was first published as ‘S  —  T  —  R  —  0  —  K  —  E’ with ‘From the Notebook with the Paua Shell Swan’ in Sport 34:

‘My migraines would not even rate on the Didion (or A.S.Byatt) scale. There was visual distortion, usually a black hole in the middle of whatever I looked at, sometimes accompanied by bright zig-zags at the edges. It wasn’t possible to do anything at all. I would lie down and close my eyes until it passed, which usually took half an hour. The headache followed, unpleasant but not usually severe, never lasting very long and not disabling.

‘On May 11 this year I had the first half of the sequence and lay down waiting for it to pass. The afternoon passed but it didn’t. It was still there in the evening, and I’d begun to notice that I couldn’t remember the names of the streets in our neighbourhood. Kay prompted me. The names came back, but I couldn’t remember how they related one to another. I had lost the map.

‘Next morning I think the black hole was gone from my vision but the sense that my brain wasn’t working properly remained. Our GP sent me at once to the Auckland City hospital, where I was questioned by doctors in the Stroke Unit. I was lucid. Memory seemed unaffected, including for names, dates, facts, poems; even arithmetical things learned by rote as a child. Seven nines were still instantly sixty-three. Eight and seven were fifteen. But asked what was 100 minus 7, I didn’t have the remotest idea.

‘I was shown a card and invited to read. It probably said things like THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT. I could see they were words but I couldn’t read them — couldn’t even guess what they meant. That was a very bad moment. Later, when I’d been assigned to a ward, I had my first dyslexic experience. I used the lavatory and then looked to see what I should do to flush it. There seemed to be a lot of words on the wall, and quite an array of taps, switches and buttons, which I couldn’t “read” any more than I could make sense of the words. I took my chance and pressed what I thought would activate the flush. Bells rang and nurses came running, hammering on the door. I suppose the sign must have said PRESS IN THE EVENT OF AN EMERGENCY.

‘On the second day the enquiry went on. It was found I could still write even though I couldn’t read. It was like writing in the dark. I did it very fast — “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, and “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” The doctors found the script hard to read, but it made sense.

‘I lay an hour or more inside a metal tube having my brain scanned, while noises of varying kinds — all painfully loud, and often shudderingly vibrant — were blasted through my ear-plugged head. I passed the time inside my head reciting poems by Donne, Marvel, Coleridge, Keats, Yeats…

‘Next morning the senior stroke Registrar brought a team with him. I had to describe, recount, repeat, suggest. Invited to read, I found I could just make sense of some of the words, taking them one at a time and very slowly. To me it didn’t seem a great improvement, but the senior man’s relief was immense — and touching. He knew I was a writer and told me he’d worried in the night and tried to think what technology could be found to help me. He was confident that if I could read anything at all so soon after the event, I would recover relatively quickly. The brain, he said, would not have to create “new pathways”, which might take a year, or might not happen at all. He showed me the area of damage on a screen — a small patch of pale grey in the dark mass of brain at the back of the skull.

‘I shared a four-bed ward with only one other person, a young Pacific Island woman of extraordinary beauty, who I think was dying. I listened for her in the night when she seemed to be in great pain. Everything, as I look back on it, seemed strange. It was not fear I was feeling so much as alienation.

‘I was allowed to go home that weekend and come back on the Monday for further tests. On the Saturday morning I woke and looked at the radio beside my bed. I was astonished it was so small. How could I have been so mistaken about something I’d owned for years? I went to the window and looked out. The registration plates of the two cars in the carport appeared huge. On my way to the bathroom my eye was caught by the clothes-dryer — so small (like a little white cake tin) I couldn’t believe that sheets could be made to fit into it.

‘These distortions faded and everything became normal, but precarious. We went for a walk along the waterfront at Kohimarama. It was a clear bright day. Auckland, straddling its coast-to-coast isthmus, has what I’ve sometimes called “shipboard weather”. Every kind of weather blows, or sails, in, across, and out to sea again on the other side, and there’s very little dust in the air. Plenty of showers, but when it clears, the light, and the colours, are exceptionally bright. It was “that kind of a day”, the sea, out to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, vivid blue — the Mediterranean colour without its characteristic haze. But what I was seeing was not a flat plane. It was a vertical blue wall.

‘I forced it to lie down, and it stayed. I could see the yellow buoy I’d swum out to almost every day during the summer — 400 metres offshore. I thought with real sadness that I would probably never do that again, and at the same time resolved that I would if I could.

‘There was another test to be done. I had none of the “indicators” for stroke. I didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, wasn’t overweight, didn’t smoke. So they went looking for “patent foramen ovali”. In the womb we all have a hole between the upper chambers of the heart, which (like the fontanelle) is supposed to close after birth. In a significant percentage of people it doesn’t, and this appears to be associated with stroke and migraine, possibly because the hole is a potential source of “debris” or emboli that may travel straight to the brain and cause a blockage.

‘I lay on an operating table with monitors attached to my chest and a screen behind me on which doctor and technician could watch my heart working. A tube was attached to a vein in my arm. The doctor said she would now push saline into the bloodstream. Immediately both she and the technician gasped — with satisfaction, it seemed, though my reaction to theirs was horror. They had seen a white cloud (aotea-aorta?) indicating a hole. Next I was given the “rape drug” — the one that leaves you conscious but without memory. I know, but have no recollection of it, that a camera was then pushed down into my oesophagus and the heart photographed from inside the breastbone. I was glad I’d lived an athletic 72 years before discovering my heart was imperfectly “closed”.

‘For the next week or ten days I spent many hours in bed listening to the radio, rediscovering how good radio can be, and at the same time how much more time we spend reading than we recognize, because so much of it is “in passing”, insignificant, unregistered and forgotten. When you can’t read there are a great many hours to be filled.

‘There was a small black notebook beside the bed with a swan symbol in paua shell and the word NOTES in white. In there I began to write “poems” — to prove to myself that I still could. Soon I could not only write them, I could read as well. I dreamed more than once of a McCahon painting I think Allen Curnow may have had on his wall, in which McCahon had represented a downward trajectory and added the word JUMP in that writing which became so much a part of his iconography. The poems seemed to gather around the idea of the necessary JUMP.

‘I had to forgo appearances at the Auckland Writers and Readers festival, just then about to begin, and word got out that I’d had a stroke. A reporter rang to say he’d heard I was dead, and to ask Kay whether this was so. She said, “You’d better ask him,” and handed me the phone.

‘Reading came back gradually. I persisted with the daily paper. To begin with I couldn’t easily pick up the edge of a column, and would often be half way across the page before I noticed the words were not making sense. I was slow; but I was reading again.

‘After a month or six weeks all effects of the stroke were gone. I went back to the novel I was writing, finished and revised it. By September I was swimming in the Gardon in France and reading the 1400 odd pages of Durrell’s Avignon Quintet. Home again in November I began swimming again at Kohimarama. On December 18, two days after the birth of our seventh grandchild in London, I reached the yellow buoy (25 minutes and 3 seconds there and back). Resting out there, hanging on to the buoy and looking back at Auckland city, was a wonderful moment.

‘As medical matters go it was an insignificant event, but it left me with a notebook of “debris”, or emboli, that seemed worth revising (“Images,” Kay said, “of the mind re-constituting itself after trauma”), and a sharpened sense of impermanence. If there was any sense in which I had ever felt “safe”, I never would again. I’ve been offered a procedure that would close the hole in my heart — one of those repairs done by pushing a catheter through, from a vein in the groin, all the way into the heart. A sort of double umbrella is then opened to block the hole, and the catheter is withdrawn. At first I was keen. Later, as I learned of the things that could go wrong (“Death” was listed as one possible outcome, and it wasn’t the worst) I changed my mind. I could find no medical person who would unequivocally say I should have it done. I decided it was a balancing of risks, and that I preferred to die of natural causes.’

Poem source details >



Sport 34
New Zealand Book Council writer file
Auckland University Press author page
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre: online work