for Jonathan Besser
The sadness of bells sitting silent
shelved like a library of hearts
old salts in their retirement.
Tap one on the lip and a ship
comes ghosting out of the fog
everything passing and human
held in a resonant vessel.
The submarine cathedral
of its ribs still echoes though the ship
is long since flensed and rendered
down – this spare music
the last thing that lingers
the songs of our youth
always the last to go.
Chris Price was born in 1962 and lived in Auckland, where she worked in publishing, until 1992. After moving to Wellington she became editor of the journal Landfall (1993–2000), and coordinated Writers and Readers Week for the New Zealand International Arts Festival (1992–2004). Chris currently co-convenes the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters.
Her first book of poems, Husk (Auckland University Press), won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and her second, Brief Lives (AUP), was shortlisted in the biography category of the 2007 Montana Awards. Many of the other poems in The Blind Singer (AUP, 2009), in which the poem selected here was published, are interested in music, sound and vision.
Price comments: ' "Stowage" was written for Ringing in the Watches, an installation featuring original music and poems inspired by 22 ships' bells from the collection of the Museum of Wellington City and Sea (as it was then called), and mounted as part of the 2004 New Zealand International Arts Festival. I'd seen the exhibition proposal the year before, and immediately wanted to write something about the bells. I suppose that initial impulse is present in the first three lines of the poem, namely that all these bells had been separated from their context, their working lives, and were literally "on the shelf" in a warehouse just round the corner from where I live. I visited them there, and their situation seemed a very melancholy thing to me, like that of musical instruments left to gather dust instead of being played. Jonathan Besser, who instigated the project and composed music using the bells themselves, later told me he had a very similar feeling.
While the poem contains nothing that should require explanation, there are a few images washing about below its waterline. Somewhere behind the ‘library of hearts’ is a story that had been in the news some time before about a local hospital that had collected and stored the hearts of infants who had died – without the knowledge or consent of the parents. I was also thinking of a photograph I’d seen of poverty-stricken ship-breakers living on a beach in India (I think it was) amongst the rusting hulks of ships that looked like giant carcasses. Then there were the Celtic and Russian folk stories of sunken churches whose bells can sometimes be heard tolling. And lastly there’s the curious aspect of human memory experienced by some Alzheimer’s patients, that while they may be unable to remember what happened yesterday or even minutes ago, music can sometimes unlock the complete recall of the words to tunes they knew when they were young.
‘Five poets — Peter Bland, Ian Wedde, Geoff Cochrane, Kate Camp and myself — read their responses to the bells on the exhibition floor at the Museum. Designer Andrew Thomas had lit each bell individually, so that they shone softly in an otherwise darkened room, and the audience sat or stood amongst them. I vividly remember their faces looming out of the darkness between the bells, like ghostly seamen or passengers summoned by our voices. .
In 2009 I had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Besser in person when performing the poem "Four Photographs of a Piano" to his live accompaniment at the launch of The Blind Singer. A recording of his "Ringing in the Watches" composition, along with readings of the five poems, is available in some public libraries.'
New Zealand Book Council writer file
Auckland University Press
Beattie's Book Blog: The Blind Singer launch
Best New Zealand Poems 2001, 2003 and 2006
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre: online work
Snorkel 6: Harriet and the Matches
Trout 14: Four photographs of a piano