Emphysema For Aunty Gwen
Gwen wasn’t one of those glam smokers
who swirled smoke back up her nose
tapped ash with varnished nails,
no, she smoked fast and hard.
Miff, she used to call Dad.
By hell, he could smoke—
he could light a cigarette on his horse
one handed, in the wind.
It looked like Holy Communion
the way they smoked.
At 17 I lit up in the lounge
he said, it’s no good for you
snapped the lighter like a gentleman.
My father’s war album
shows the brothers
nonchalant, cigarettes dangling
as they squint into the sun.
One of them was a war hero
more famous for his fling
with Ginger Rogers
than his medal.
My father’s shrapnel went in behind his ear
and out through his forehead.
In a coma: no meat tags, no uniform
and since he couldn’t speak, no Kiwi accent,
he was sent on the wrong hospital ship
to the wrong country
lost in the long carbolic corridors
of England in black-out blinds,
Was he simply unconscious
or was he pulling silence around himself like a skin?
He lay for months in the dark, smoking.
No wonder he was left for dead on the battlefield
said Uncle Charlie, You couldn’t survive a wound like that.
Aw, hell no, says Gwen, sucking in smoke—
off her feet after night duty
Dad at her dinner table, hatless, taps his ash.
Charlie’s always on at her.
Why should I? she says, He’s got all the bloody money,
he can go wherever he likes.
I’m fairly confined, I’ll smoke if I bloody well want to.
Scowling, they drag till the ends glow.
Kept alive by tubes, tap—
at the mercy of strangers. Tap.
Better to use a gunand to hell with it.
I was, as usual, listening.
Mercy was the word I was turning over
sounding so close to
put the bloody thing out of its misery
Shrapnel working its way through
his brain all his life.
what brain-thoughts digging through
the tracks, what sticking
An aneurysm overnight
like an empty plastic bag.
I rode with him in the ambulance,
its silent siren slipping us
through the gorge.
The doctors were sure
we should call him out of his coma.
Dad, I shouted into the silence, Dad
and he startled from some sunken place
fingers plucking the sheets
Don’t, said Gwennie, it’s cruel
little sister, fingering her holster
the pistol wrapped in oilcloth in the bottom
of the oak chest all these years
the one we’re not supposed
to know he didn’t hand back in
Gwen flicked the lighter yellow blue flame
cut her lungs
He had a hell of a fiery temper.
He could be just as loving and nice
as quick-tempered, you know.
Yeah. He was always like that.
Yeah, she said quietly again, on a small sigh.
He was lovely with babies.
Morepork was coming with silent wings.
The night he died we littered her table
glasses whiskey ashtrays
chain-smoked through the night.
The beautiful days have names.
Today is Gloria.
Gloria, under trees’ skin
rich pulp and viscous seams
shine like sugar and tui sings
Emphysema for Aunty Gwen. She’s in a rest home
and she’s going to stay there for a long, long time.
If she’s lucky, she says, she’ll get pneumonia.
I know I shouldn’t, she says, but I’ve got very few pleasures left.
She wishes someone would shoot her.
Can’t growl, she says, tube up her nose
I just get sick of myself, that’s all.
She’s the last one left, and I hate to fly home.
Oh, well, she cries, her grin flaring up,
See you in Springtime!
Marty Smith teaches English and Creative Writing at Taradale High School in Hawkes Bay, as Marty Schofield. Her poems have been published in literary journals such as Sport, Landfall and Turbine; on the international website The Page: Poetry, Essays and Ideas, in Best New Zealand Poems 2009 and Best of Best New Zealand Poems. The manuscript for her debut collection Horse with hat was short-listed for the 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award.
Marty grew up on a fairly steep and wild farm in the North Wairarapa, which was hacked from the bush by her great-grandfather. There are still hundred-year old fallen trees in all the paddocks, too difficult to be logged out by bullock train. The farm was big enough and the weather terrible enough to make tough going for one man and his kids.
She grew up in a time when smoking was communal and companionable, and the people she loved floated through a blue haze like mirages. ‘Emphysema for Aunty Gwen’ is her smoking poem.
Smith says: ‘In the Smith family the war was always humming under the surface—not visible, but known. Fusses weren’t tolerated, and we kids and cousins were not to complain. I wanted to bring them back, my father, my aunt and my uncles, for the next round of kids—not just the way they talked, but their values: their independence, their loyalty and their bravery in the way they took whatever came.’