Poetry

Johnathan by the water

It’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like a seagull’s shiver.

His eyes are honest, so honest
He’ll tell you how it is
Hit you between the yellow and the blue.

He’s got you leaning into the wall
Waiting for you to fall.

He’ll smile and lead you on
His eyes are honest, so honest.

He’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like a seagull’s shiver.

He’ll hang you in the elevator
You won’t reach for the button
Because it’s right
Because it’s right.

He’ll tell you not to cry
It’s America and it’s built to last.

He’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like seagull’s shiver.

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Uncategorized

Let’s keep trying to eliminate Covid from New Zealand

daily-cases-25aug20

Democracy is a flawed, frustrating and messy business, but in New Zealand, I’m pleased to say, it’s in fine form.  The Government’s handling of coronavirus has been under intense scrutiny from the media, opposition parties, unions, academics, lobby groups, and most importantly, an engaged citizen body. Journalists are doing their job and exposing the gaps between Government intentions and reality on the ground. Better systems and policy will result.

Democracy is also working because our political parties are so poll-driven. Both Labour and National will be regularly polling to find out what New Zealanders are thinking. That there’s consensus between the two main parties, on the surface at least, to continue an elimination strategy, should reflect the majority view. 

But it’s a fluid situation, events and circumstances will shift opinions. Time is a factor too. There are already growing calls for a more liberal border policy and a strategy of “living with Covid” for the sake of the economy. 

I’m still very much in favour of elimination, however. Here are my seven reasons why. 

Reason 1: We can hold out until a vaccine is available. Maybe a vaccine is a year away. Hope is alive when there’s a realistic timeframe. An elimination strategy can last this long. 

Reason 2: We don’t yet know enough. Will a vaccination be needed every year, like for the flu? Do people who get Covid-19 develop lasting immunity? Within a year we’ll have answers. Staying the elimination course until we know just what we’re dealing with would be sensible. 

Reason 3: Self-preservation. As I close in on 50, I don’t really want to take my chances with the disease. I’ve a history of chest-heaving coughs that last for months from just a simple cold. The black humour at our family dinner table consists of jibes pointing out I’ll never make it if I catch Covid. Thanks, family.  

Reason 4: Protecting the old people I know. More than my own chances up against Covid, I worry about my parents in their mid-seventies, who are full of life and looking forward to more good years. For my mother, who has an existing health condition, catching Covid would put her at extreme risk. I’d prefer they didn’t have to live in fear and isolation. 

Reason 5: I want freedom of movement. If we have to “live with Covid” I’m not going to be out in public much. My entertainment dollar won’t be spent at cafés, restaurants or sporting events. To maintain contact with my parents, I’ll have to limit contact with other people. That’s why the economic effects of Covid spreading through the community are severe. Many people will choose to isolate for a longer stretch than a lockdown lasting weeks. 

Reason 6: Our economy has to change. I’ve sympathy for people who’ve lost their jobs and livelihoods, but my perspective on the world tells me that Covid is just one of the “disruptors” the economy is going to face in coming years. Climate change, an inevitable financial crisis, increasing energy costs – these things were going to challenge the status quo anyway. By continuing to pursue an elimination strategy, we have an opportunity to reshape the national economy into one that’s more self-sufficient, sustainable and responsive to the needs of people. 

Reason 7: Common purpose is easily lost. Fighting coronavirus at the border, with occasional temporary lockdowns, coupled with mass-testing and tracing, is easier to unite around. Suppressing Covid or preventing the health system from being overwhelmed, is a less clear-cut goal. Evidence from overseas suggests that people start thinking more individually in those circumstances. If we give up on pursuing elimination, then I fear we’ll also kiss goodbye to the “team of 5 million.” 

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Northern Advocate Column

Some thoughts on Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

Taylor_Swift_-_FolkloreThe cover of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore is a black and white photo of the singer-songwriter in a long coat standing in a forest of tall, slender trees. Swift is small, barely recognisable, her head tilted slightly, looking up at the nearest tree.

Taylor Swift isn’t small though. She’s a global pop star, one of the biggest. Yet the conceit of the cover is that even Taylor Swift is tiny compared to the majesty of nature.

While there’s no back-to-nature roots music on the album, the songs are more humble, less ego-driven, not so much caught up in the swirl of celebrity culture. The pop glam, the brash put-downs, the revelling in self-mythology that were part of Swift’s recent catalogue is largely missing here. Most of the songs are about characters other than Swift herself. Whatever past experiences she’s drawing on from her own life, these are seamlessly woven into narratives and character sketches that we ordinary folk can identify with.

Many of the songs have the narrator recalling the past. As in the lost love of a woman’s “roaring twenties” in the opening track ‘The 1’; and the teenage love dramas in ‘Cardigan’, ‘Betty’ and ‘August.’ There are memories of being seven years old in the gorgeous ‘Seven’, with its aching poetry of nostalgia and never to be regained innocence and wonder. A bittersweet melody accompanies these opening lines: “Please picture me in the trees/ I hit my peak at seven/ Feet in the swing over the creek.” We can picture Swift as a child on a swing, but we also picture ourselves. We all have such moments from our childhood that we remember and cherish.

Swift develops the scene with the lines: “I was high in the sky/ With Pennsylvania under me.” Then switching registers, a sudden question: “Are there still beautiful things?” And it’s in this one line that we have a connection to the bigger picture of our lives amid a global pandemic and whatever is to come. Are there still beautiful things? Yes there are, and ‘Seven’ is one of them.

Most of us have a history of failed relationships with people. We look back with some regret and maybe a little maturity. Hoping we won’t repeat past mistakes. This is the key to the album’s title. The folklore here is not the rural tradition of folk music, but our own past lives and what we can learn from looking back on them.

There’s often a double-sided nature to our reminiscing though. We might hope we’ve grown and gained insight into ourselves, but there’s still the lingering sense that our youthful dramas were the best of times. Falling in and out of love with people and places (and even ideas or political creeds) had an emotional intensity that we can look back on with envy. There can be regret or sadness in recalling our past, but part of us wishes we were still there. Taylor Swift understands that contradiction, like when she sings in ‘August’: “Back when we were still changing for the better/ Back when I was living for the hope of it all.”

In ‘This is me trying’ she likens herself to a once flash new car or bike: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/ I had the shiniest wheels/ Now they’re rusting.” There is no going back. That’s accepted. Contentment, if not drama and adventure, can be found in the present. As in these poet-worthy lines: “Time, mystical time, cutting me open, then healing me fine.”

Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from slow piano ballads, with textured and subtle, mood-amplifying guitar. There are accompanying electronic effects, and the album sounds very produced, but it’s intimate in a way that past Taylor Swift albums are not. For all its layered production, the album still feels like musicians making music in a cabin somewhere in an untouched forest in a mythical place called America. To understand, perhaps, what this album feels like to listen to, go back to that cover photo. If the photo speaks to you at this time of coronavirus, then so might these 17 songs.

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Poetry

Our dog is like Frank O’Hara

our dog is like Frank O’Hara
aaaaaaalover of gregarious freedom!
we don’t want to train him—he’s untrainable
half wild, like a Coltrane solo
he takes free rein, takes it where it will go
he barks at everyone he sees        with no malice
he just wants to say hello
and tell everyone        he loves them
he can jump up in the air in crazy yelping pirouettes
he’s a bit of a show-off

he’s too quick footed for the big slow dogs
who can’t pin him down        there’s no easy walk
trotting along beside in regular rhythm
it’s all full tilt, nose down, tail up, pulling forward
choking against the collar—sudden stops
deviations         instant enthusiasms
abandoned for the next delicious scent        tiring
and exhilarating, like keeping up with Peter
when his brain’s exploding
T.S.Eliot mixed with obscenities

he sleeps close to us on the bed
any noise, 2am, 5am, and he’ll leap off
and run around barking in circles       it’s idiotic
and pisses us off
he wants to lick your ears in the morning
loves it when you scratch his head
he hardly eats, but likes to clean your plate
flies annoy him       (he’s mostly content)

he escapes often, being small and agile
always finding a new way to get out
we’re lucky he hasn’t been hit by a car
we would miss him a lot
aaaaaabecause he’s full of the genius of life
our dog
a destroyer of shallow boredom
like Frank O’Hara.

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Northern Advocate Column

My cricket heroes

richard_hadlee01jul1823 December 2017

I grew up in the 1980s, which meant, like many boys of that generation, cricket was a big deal. The eighties to cricket watches of my age is still the golden period, the best of times, the haloed era.

This had a lot to do, of course, with one man, Richard Hadlee. His skill, yes, but also his style: the thin moustache, the stutter step to start his run; his glide to the crease and seemingly effortless whip-smart action.

As a kid, I imagined him as a Robin Hood, played by Errol Flynn perhaps. A connection I made from watching the old movies that screened on TV in the weekends.

If I’m honest, cricket for me has always been about the television experience: listening to the commentary, seeing the ball swing or nip back off the wicket; the balletic elegance of a Martin Crowe pull shot, dissected in replays. It’s the close-ups of the batsman’s face in a pressure situation. Or the mannerisms you picked up, which distinguished, say, a John Wright from an Ian Smith. These guys were my action heroes, my equivalent of the Avengers.

Hero worship can be powerful stuff. So many young cricketers I remember playing with used to walk like Martin Crowe, stand as he stood at the crease.

Time is not always kind to your heroes, however; your estimation of them wears like a cricket ball on an Indian dustbowl pitch. And sport finds its place in the jumble of your life, somewhere over the boundary, no longer on the green of the field.

And yet, those eighties cricketers cannot be knocked entirely off their pedestal, because that time will always be when I was a kid growing up. Still imagining you’d play for your country and be able to bowl a ball that pitches on middle and swings enough to miss the bat and hit the top of off.

I can vividly remember Hadlee bowling Australian batsman Steve Waugh like this. It looked so aesthetically perfect on TV, with Hadlee celebrating with the cool air of someone who expected it to be so.

Today, international cricket returns to Whangarei after many years. There’ll be plenty of kids there to see their heroes, and there’ll be some older guys too, who perhaps grew up, like me, watching cricket on TV in the eighties.

And there’ll be people attending who’ve been involved in Northland cricket for decades, as players, coaches, club administrators. They’ll be at Cobham Oval to watch, hopefully, a full game, quietly satisfied to have the Black Caps playing the West Indies in Whangarei.

Cricket, like everything in the world, is changing. New stories are being written. But if Tim Southee bowls Chris Gayle I’m sure there’ll be a familiar sounding cheer go up from the crowd.

What does it mean in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just something that connects us to the kids we once were.

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Art, Poetry

I wish

I wish I was in Greenwich Village
reading Macbeth, legs crossed, a glass of wine at my ear.

Or in the Sistine Chapel
seeing Adam raise his dandy arm to bearded God.

Or in front of Socrates proclaiming
the revolution of reason, reaching for his cup.

Or in a Parisian café drinking absinthe
with poets, painters and philosopher junkies
in wrinkled collar shirts.

Or eating fruit with Manet and his companions by a lake.

Or crossing a bridge over the Sumida River in the rain.

Or shopping at Macy’s and seeing Adrian Piper
with WET PAINT on her top.

Or driving a bulldozer for the first time
through the Nevada Desert.

Or side-by-side with children flying their kites
through a hole in the prison wall.

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Poetry

As artists do

it’s the blankness
that

still appears
even

after you’ve filled

all the canvas

which becomes
again

a question
of what to do

which brush to use?

which colour to mix?

how again to fill
the canvas

to link
these next strokes

with the ones
before

to make the composition
work

painting over
and over

the blankness.

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Poetry

Kupe

Moana! It’s me…
I’ve run from Hine-nui-te-pō
to hear the waves break in the twilight morning
and see once more the waka pulled up high
on the beach, their tauihu standing
like warriors, proud amongst the gulls
and scuttling crabs.

I dig in the sand,
two lengths from the great pohutukawa,
until my lonely hands touch what we buried:
the waka huia I carved
with our bodies entwined on every side,
mouths open, tongues hungry.

The edges of the box
have softened over time, but the embers
we placed inside still glow, which we can use
to light again a fire in the dunes
that will burn like the one Ranginui
and Papatūānuku lit in the beginning.

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