On Reading Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'
The morning air smells of leaves.
I see the paper in its plastic bag
the path overlaid with fine green moss
houses’ windows white with curtains.
Beyond the neighbours’ yard the hills
the white sphere of the spy station
and above, the white circle of the moon
about the same size.
I saw my father on film the other day.
He was whatever age I am now.
He raised his eyebrows, clasped his hands
behind his back. He bent his body from the waist
as a crane might, or one of those novelty birds
that sips like a metronome from the side of a glass.
He smiled and moved his eyes around,
showing this side of the whites, and the other side.
In the morning, on lovely mornings
when I step into that air
I expect to see a corpse
to be the one who discovers the body.
I can see it, face down on the neighbours’ lawn
one arm above its head
its knee bent
as if climbing a wall of grass.
I look up to the hills
over where the dead body is not
to the spy base, the spider’s egg
with the moon above it.
I don’t want to leave this world.
Kate Camp is the author of five collections of poetry from Victoria University Press: Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars (winner of Best First Book of Poetry in the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards), Realia, Beauty Sleep, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (winner of the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry 2011), and Snow White's Coffin.
Snow White's Coffin was written while Camp held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency in 2011/2012, and was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry in 2013.
Camp comments: ‘This is one of a handful of poems in Snow White's Coffin that was written before I left for Berlin. It’s loosely based on a writing exercise that I first read in Mutes and Earthquakes. The exercise involves describing a scene you know very well, then writing about a family member, then combining the two. An earlier poem, “Another indecipherable postcard from my father”, from Beauty Sleep was written using the same exercise.
‘On reflection they have quite a bit in common. Both feature my father (who, incidentally, is still very much alive, despite the elegiac tone here). Both take as their scene the environs outside my front door―the first poem set in Hamilton where I was writer in residence, the second in Wellington. And both occur in the stillness of early morning.
‘This poem also owes a debt to The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand. This is a wonderful source book for poets. Each chapter discusses a form, and includes close readings of examples from the form. I had read the chapter on elegy, which features Gray’s elegy, the morning I wrote this poem.’