Modern Mary and the Angel of Failure

A tiny angel enters the room
in a halo of sungold dust motes.
In Mary’s ear: a high-pitched annunciation
she doesn’t at first quite catch.

It tries to tell her she’s a sweet-hot stunner,
drives life itself crazy with her
scent of coconut and maple,
mango body-butter, coffee,
beach salt, beach towel, sunscreen,
last night’s sauvignon, and see,
the succulent curve and bend of her …

The angel’s touch brushes her
with a faint stirring wind,
the hairs on the back of her neck
quiver like harp strings.

Troubled at these sayings
Mary looks over her shoulder,
asks, who’s there?
Swift as a night nurse
the angel plunges the syringe;
its small prick enters,
the quick sting lifts,
flustered Mary is left
with a visible white swelling
that comes to nothing
but this minor, red-capped
princeling of disappointment,
an itch that irritates:
incarnation of her own
and the world’s
deep imperfections.

Emma Neale is a writer, editor and creative writing tutor. She has held the Todd/Creative New Zealand New Writer’s Bursary, the inaugural Janet Frame/NZSA Memorial Prize for Literature, the University of Otago Robert Burns Fellowship and the University of Otago/Sir James Wallace Pah Homestead Residency. Her novel Fosterling was short-listed for the youth category of the Sir Julius Vogel Award, and her collection of poems The Truth Garden won the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2011. A selection of her poetry was one of three finalists for the inaugural Sarah Broom Poetry Award in 2014. A new collection of poems, Tender Machines, is due out from Otago University Press this year. She currently holds the Philip and Dianne Beatson/New Zealand Society of Authors Fellowship. She lives in Dunedin with her husband and two sons.

Neale comments: ‘The poem’s immediate trigger was the high, begging note of a mosquito in a hot Auckland summer. I wrote the first draft while sitting in a borrowed car, parked outside the Avondale market, feeling like a kid who’s finally got the hang of riding a bike, because I’d negotiated heinous traffic and navigated there myself. A small triumph, but this was a period of rediscovering self-reliance. I was living alone for three months, for the first time in 20 years, thanks to the generosity of the University of Otago/Sir James Wallace Pah Homestead residency. The solitude tipped me into an almost unrelieved state of euphoria: in that mood, even mosquitos become tiny angels, albeit angels of failure.

‘Other than that context of a daily sense of transcendence, I’m not quite sure why the Biblical references arose here. Although I had deeply Anglican maternal grandparents, and an (at the time) agnostic mother, I had an atheist father, and after two fervently faithful years, I broke up with God when I was about 6 or 7, when a number of scriptural inconsistencies and real world injustices collided. Even then, the story of the annunciation used to seem terrifying, rather than one of blessed selection. Mary had no choice. There are some Biblical stories that do still seem to glow with embers of wonder. Yet now that I’m a mother, the story of the Virgin Birth seems even more bizarre, its misogyny not even thinly veiled. Hence one reason for the irreligious angle.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre writer file
Random House author page
The Truth Garden at Otago University Press
Emma Neale’s website
‘Emma Neale’ at the New Zealand Poet Laureate blog