'Sacred Days'

How I stalled,
hiding inside my head,
liking it there, cushioned.
Being in the world
as it was unfolding,

with the sun shining neat
on to footpaths, the rain's
dribble on to hedges
and patient mail-boxes,
the smell of cooped-up budgies,

the deep, warm bath
nine o'clock at night,
the creak of the passage;
all things that cluster
to form a town were bearable

if the edges were woolly
with fabrications. Rhododendrons
and marigolds to soften front yards.
The high school's highly-polished corridors,
shadowed bike-sheds,

lagged pipes in the pre-fabs.
The sound of clocks, of wooden walls
relaxing behind wallpaper.
The smell of coal.
All framework for dreams.

Oh and let's not forget
the heartbreak, the heartbreak
of newly-mown grass,
of any and every awful beauty.
Yes, and that ache

of double-hung windows,
of looking out at a world where hills
meet sky; the outside world,
its whole big, blue bluster,
its yodel and strut.

Note: The title of this poem, comes from a line in the song ‘Days’ written by Ray Davies and sung by The Kinks, 1969

Kay McKenzie Cooke was born in Southland and raised there in the 1950s and ’60s. For the past thirty years she has lived and worked in Dunedin. Recently, she retired from an extensive career in the early childhood education sector. Her first book of poetry, Feeding the Dogs, was published by Otago University Press and won the Jessie McKay Prize for Best First Book of Poetry, 2003. Her second book, Made For Weather (2007), and her third book, Born To A Red-Headed Woman (2014), were also published by Otago University Press.

Over the years her poetry has been published in a number of anthologies, including Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing The Empty Page, and in many literary magazines, both in New Zealand and overseas. She continues to be engaged in both participating and helping to organise Dunedin poetry readings, as well as hinterland poetry readings in the rural areas of Otago and Southland. Increasingly, an affinity with the quirky interstices of time—the juxtapositions that occur between past, present and future—is informing her work.

Cooke comments: ‘In what is a rare occurrence for me, this poem emerged fully-formed. Apart from a couple of small and wise suggestions during the editing for the book where the poem is now housed, it has remained as it arrived.

‘The poem came replete with remembered images of my life as a high-school student. I gratefully accepted the poem's existence (for I rather liked it) even if I didn't fully understand where it had come from. From what part of my psyche did it spring? The more I read it, the more I have come to understand it to be a poem that probably echoes a Louise Bogan quote, which I am rather fond of: “I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering; surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy.”

‘I wrote the poem as a sixty-year old looking back into my own adolescence and its callow bewilderment. My very normal teenage confusion was compounded by the recent loss of my father who had died very suddenly of a heart attack when I was fifteen. His sudden disappearance from our lives had necessitated, for my mother, my six siblings and myself, an immediate removal from the freedom and familiarity of a rural home to the weird constrictions of life in a small town, living in a wooden villa with a mailbox on a street next to a lot of other wooden villas with mailboxes.

‘Along with this understandable sense of grief and heartbreak, there existed a conflicting, guilty gratitude—for wasn't it every teenage girl's wish to be near shops, movie theatres, friends—to be more in the centre of a happening place?

‘Consequently, there was an inner battle between the desire to participate, to go out with friends, to be accepted as part of a popular social group (to be “with it” as we would say back then) and the opposing need to not be “with” anything, except in my room anaesthetising myself by listening to pop songs on my transistor radio and reading romance novels. I look back to see my teenaged self on the inside looking out.

‘Shake a few letters and the title of the poem could read “Scared Days”. Rather apt. To me at sixteen, the real world was scary. How could I contain the ache and hope of being fully present? And yet, there. The hesitant reaching out to open a wooden villa's double-hung windows on to a world that smells of coal and bruised, newly-mown grass; a world that is putting on the ritz and singing (even if it is country-and-western). By the end of the poem, perhaps my younger self was on the brink of becoming fully immersed in a world of marigolds. Or maybe she still needed just a bit more time.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Otago University Press author page
Kay McKenzie Cooke’s website