My Mother is a Ghost Living in My Mind

The dead aren’t always buried.
Some live on in silence    separated
by their need to
                                     away. From me,
she is forever cold, as if lost
at sea or in undying snowstorm, body
seized by fog or mind disturbed
from collective memory. Who are you?
I ask, Where did you go?
One moment, a farewell;
the next refusing to speak.

She comes to me in crises:
her tearful rejection of me;
my tearful certainty she can’t love.
During lockdown, she’s free to haunt
my absent days and nights until
I call down the heavens to end it all.

The other life I might have known
with her is filament burned
into my mind. A movie
never released; a book
unpublished: these I inherit
as she ghosts me. The forgeries
and false antiques of reconciliation,
long lost phone calls stirring
in the still of night, I learn
to surrender everything in time.

When finally free, hope is broken-
winged and blunt-billed. Downed
by careful navigation and deceit,
I’m left to the emptiness
of another, to embalm and burden
myself, her silence and haunting
judgement born by me as eternal cut.

Siobhan Harvey is the author of eight books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award winning, Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as co-editor, the best selling, Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, Random House New Zealand, 2014). She was awarded the 2020 New Zealand Society of Authors Peter & Dianne Beatson Fellowship and in 2009 held ARC Writer in Residence at Awhitu Regional Park. She won 2020 Robert Burns Poetry Prize, 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems and 2016 Write Well Award for Fiction (US), and was runner-up in 2015 and 2014 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competitions, 2012 Dorothy Poetry Poetry Prize (Aus), 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Prize, 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and 2009 and 2008 Bernard Gadd Poetry Prizes. She was also longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Review Peter Porter Poetry Prize (Aus). Her fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have been published in numerous local and international anthologies, including Best of Auckland (Writers Cafe, 2020), Bonsai: best small fictions from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, 2018), Feminine Divine: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cyren, US, 2019), Leaving the Red Zone: poems for the Canterbury earthquake (Clerestory, 2016), Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 political poems (OUP, 2017) and Wild Honey: reading New Zealand women's poetry (Massey University Press, 2019). Her work has also been published in international and local journals such as Arc (Ca), Asian Literary Review (HK), Griffith Review (Aus), Shenandoah (US), Sobotka (US), Stand (UK)  and Structo (UK). She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at AUT. She holds a BA in Creative Writing (Manchester) and MA in Creative Writing (Sheffield), and is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing. A new collection of poetry and creative nonfiction, Ghosts (OUP, 2021) is forthcoming.

Harvey comments: 'We're a nation formed from indigenous and multicultural migrants. Our journeys, settlements, dislocations and assimilations are personal and collective.  Sometimes, these are new beginnings, ripened with hope; sometimes, they are exiles, physical ends to disturbing pasts. Irrespective of the reasons for our arrivals, we've always brought with us our ghosts: in our oral and printed narratives; in our memories; in the bloodlines of our whakapapa. "My Mother is a Ghost Living in My Mind" responds to this often unspoken, ethereal burden our peoples continue to bear. The mother in the poem is a confessional and collective symbol: a whānau member lost to the narrator because of their migration. The poem proposes a truth I know from experience:  that even those we're estranged from before exile, continue to conduct spectral relationships - emotionally, psychologically, memorially - with us after we become citizens elsewhere. Indeed the poem proposes that the geographical distance between the exile and their alienating relatives can add complexity to the relationship, particularly so during the lonely times of Lockdown when imagination has ample latitude to replay and reconsider the past and the extensive hinterland owhat might have been". Across all cultures in Aotearoa, there are innumerable stories of positive migrant experiences. This poem isn't a critic or denier of these. Rather it narrates the other truths exiles can experience when alienation by family, culture and country occurs.'

​Poem source details >


Tarot #1, December 2020

Siobhan Harvey, Poetry Archive

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura writer file

Academy of New Zealand Literature member page

Photographer credit: Liz March