So Buttoned Up

after Stephen Bett 


First time in my god
damned life I forgot
my name and when
you said it, it went
sherbet-wise inside
the tiny wires
of each thought-capillary
every ringing filament
streamed like candy dazzle
lights in the rain
so how to maintain
equipoise on its leggy stems
without once thinking of how
the wine glasses we held were
modelled on a French queen’s
breasts and then nek minnit
as they didn’t say then
(we’re old-timers, baby)
you were asking me
and what do you do
for a living?
When the truth was
I’d been in some wise dead
until my name fled
and you chased it
while I feigned
not to know
certain facts such as
the very pulse of its note
had just been breath
warmed beneath where
those shirt buttons sat
obedient and still
as small bald monks

Emma Neale. (Photo by Jim Tannock)

Photo by Jim Tannock

Emma Neale has received the (inaugural) NZSA/Janet Frame Memorial Award, the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished poetry manuscript (The Truth Garden), the University of Otago Burns Fellowship and the NZSA/Beatson Fellowship. Her novel, Billy Bird, was short-listed for the Acorn Prize in the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. A new collection, To the Occupant, is due from Otago University Press in May 2019. She is the current editor of Landfall.

Neale comments: ‘This poem wouldn’t have existed without me stumbling across the Canadian Stephen Bett’s poem, “For Love of You” online in September 2016. When asked to write this note for BNZP, I had a vague memory that whatever else I was reading that September was verbose, tangled, quagmired and rebarbative, and that discovering Bett’s poem was like suddenly being released into open air. I went back through emails to see if I could track what I’d been immersed in then — assuming it must have been a nineteenth-century classic, or some recondite literary theory. It turns out that I was at crunch time teaching a student poetry workshop, so actually I was eye deep in marking portfolios. My memory of struggle probably comes from my own attempts to write critical feedback that was specific, constructive, truthful, yet also respectful of the novice writers I was teaching: getting the balance between nurturing and bullshit-scything, not always easy.

‘My recollection now is that Bett’s short lines, the direct, cussy slang, and then the abrupt turn into vulnerability, felt like a wake-up slap: the slap they supposedly used to give just-born babies to make them cry, check they were alive. I had an immediate urge to write something that learnt from this; that delved in to the kind of vivid emotional intensity he achieves despite (or is it through?) verbal minimalism. So I re-imagined one of my first encounters with desire — altering it here and there (sewing on a few buttons) to make it fit the poem's own occasion.’

​Poem source details >

Emma Neale’s Book Council writer file
Penguin author page
Otago University Press author page
Bath Flash Fiction Award 2018
Read more about Stephen Bett